The 1800s story of Jack Hodges is the subject of a talk planned at his church, First Congregational Church
CANANDAIGUA — As far as jailhouse reformations go, the one for Jacob Hodges worked, although not everyone was sold on his change from accused murderer to God-fearing man of the church.
Hodges, an African-American ex-convict who served jail time for his role in the murder of a man over a plot of land, when he died in 1842 was a member in good standing of the First Congregational Church of Canandaigua and “a converted and useful Christian,” as the plaque at his large monument in Old Pioneer Cemetery reads.
Michael J. Worden, author of the 2013 book, “The Murder of Richard Jennings: The True Story of New York’s First Murder for Hire,” is convinced of his path toward a more pious life, although he has an issue with Hodges’ likely motivation.
“Jack Hodges is, for me, the most fascinating person involved in this case,” said Worden, who is giving a talk Saturday at the First Congregational Church.
“I have wrestled with his role in the crime, as well as his later redemption. I believe that after all of my research, my opinion is that Jack did find redemption in prison,” Worden said via email. “The motivation behind that redemption has been my big issue — I suspect that he may have sought comfort in religion because he may have sent innocent men to the gallows.”
Worden, who is an Orange County resident and police detective, happened on this case while researching an 1827 murder in Albany for another book. As part of that trial, a judge referenced an 1818 murder in Orange County and the trial of four men and a woman and the eventual pardoning of Hodges.
“I have lived in Orange County my whole life and had never heard of the case,” Worden said. “So I started to research it and take a peek at it.”
As with many research projects, the more he looked into it, the more questions he had that needed answers. And he hopes his book provides answers.
James and Hannah Teed, David Dunning, David Conkling and Hodges were accused of conspiring to kill Richard Jennings in December 1818. Future President Martin Van Buren assisted in prosecuting the case.
James Teed and Dunning — found guilty largely on the testimony of Hodges — eventually were hanged. Conkling was sentenced to life in prison although he was pardoned. His sister, Hannah Teed, killed herself.
Hodges was sentenced to prison and eventually was transferred to a new prison in Auburn, where his life would turn around and he, too, would be pardoned. As Worden’s book reads, he was a “well-respected member of the congregation and community.” His redemption would become fodder — pro and con — for mid-1800s debates on abolishing the death penalty.
He died around the age of 80.
Donald Raw, a member of the church who also has conducted research into the case, finds Hodges a fascinating man, who was known for his powerful and emotional prayers and Bible readings that brought listeners to tears.
“He was truly, truly converted,” Raw said. “I’m convinced of that.”
Hodges lived and worked in the Gibson Street home owned by Mrs. Harriet Martin. His burial was said to be one of the largest turnouts in Canandaigua’s history, Raw said, and he’s buried near the people who helped make the city a “Chosen Spot,” including the likes of Granger, Phelps, Clark and others.
“It's a neat story,” Raw said. "Cool stuff."
Sifting through facts and legend to get to the nuts and bolts of what happened in this case was difficult to some extent, Worden said. One example he noted involved stakes being driven into the graves of the hanged murderers.
“So filtering out the legends from truth was a priority and I wanted to find out fact from fiction and determine how the legends may have begun,” Worden said.
Imagine the wall-to-wall attention this case — with elements of murder-for-hire, prominent people, pardons and more — may have received in today’s world.
“I think that the media coverage today would be sensational, as it has been on other high-profile crimes,” Worden said.