Trenton Corners

August 16, 2014

In recent weeks I have not written anything for this site (other than answering letters) because I have been working on my book.  This is a chapter from the book.


                When Bob Hensen visited the Van Lieu family on November 6, 1900, he brought them a chicken.   I am certain they didn’t ask where he got the chicken.   The Van Lieu family were honest, upstanding, hardworking people.   Hensen, on the other hand, was infamous, notorious.   Which is worse, infamous or notorious?   Whichever one was worse, that was what Hensen was.   The newspapers would say that he had a bad reputation.   He had a bad reputation in the same sense that Michael Jordan had a jump shot.  He was fine when he wasn’t drinking; he had a temper even then, but he was likeable, and he would take jobs and he would work hard—when he wasn’t drinking.

                On November 6 a dispute erupted between Hensen and Mary Elizabeth Van Lieu.   Hensen left clothes at the Van Lieu house, and he would often stay there; according to his own testimony he often stayed there even when George Van Lieu was away.  Mary told him that she was tired of taking care of his clothes, and he needed to get them out of her house.   In the subsequent argument Hensen may have threatened to kill her, although it is impossible to determine whether this crucial detail is fact or merely gossip.

                Van Lieu was a working weekend musician, a violin player, and on November 17, which was a Saturday night, he had a gig in Trenton (although the term "gig" is not known to have been used until the 1920s.)  In the early afternoon he met up with a friend and neighbor, Stephen Williamson, and the two of them walked to Trenton Junction, where they would catch the train into Trenton.   It was about a three-mile walk into Trenton Junction.  At the edge of Trenton Junction they ran into Bob Hensen, who had spent the morning drinking.

                The place where the Van Lieu family was murdered no longer exists.  The story of the Van Lieu family murders is rich with references to bars and road houses, to small settlements that hoped to grow into towns, and to roads which had names, before the roads had merely numbers, and to hills, when even the hills had names, and the creeks had names, but none of these things exists any more, not the bars, nor the small towns, nor the roads, not even the hills or the creeks.

                In 1900 the population of Trenton, New Jersey, was 73,000 people—actually not very different than the population of Trenton now, but whereas modern Trenton sits in the lap of a giant metropolis, in 1900 it was surrounded by farms and fields.    In 1900 the population of the rest of Mercer County was 22,000; now it is more than 300,000.  Seven miles northwest of Trenton was the settlement of Trenton Corners, which was unincorporated but platted with streets and lots of regular dimensions.   Trenton at that time was almost 100% white, whereas Trenton Corners was a mixed-race enclave, and every person mentioned by name in this story was black except Ellen Quinn.   Leaving Trenton Corners there was a lonely road called the Birmingham-Harbourton road.  The Van Lieu family lived along that road.

                Hensen said that after meeting Van Lieu and Williamson he visited a couple of taverns in Trenton Junction, and in the evening, at dusk and after, took a nap under a bridge.   He was awakened when a team of horses and a heavy cart rolled over the bridge, and about the same time some dogs started barking very loudly.  He wandered aimlessly around, heard a violin playing but didn’t know where it was coming from.  Hensen didn’t have any idea what time this was (he may not have been able to tell time), but the 11-year-old boy who was practicing his violin at that hour was one of the Williamson family.   He testified that he started playing the violin about 10:30, and that the dogs broke out in a ferocious barking spell shortly after that.   A little bit before 11:00 the Van Lieu house was discovered to be on fire.   By the time the neighbors got to the scene the house was entirely engulfed in flames.  The neighbors were able to pull out of the inferno a clock and a table, but otherwise the house and contents had burned to the ground within an hour.

At the time, it was assumed that Mary and her two-year-old son Willie were in Trenton with their father/husband, but when George Van Lieu got off the train about one AM, another man, also named Williamson, met him on the road and informed him of the fire.   Van Lieu asked where his wife and baby were.   Investigating further, the neighbors now found a large pool of blood at the back of the house and a bloody axe, taken from the coal shed, discarded in the back yard.   After that, they found the remains of the wife and child in the burned-out basement, charred beyond recognition.  There was a pump at a well in the yard.   The wooden handle of the pump was covered with bloody hand prints; it was obvious that the murderer had washed his hands before he fled the scene.

                Police were called.  When Van Lieu told the sheriff that he had met Robert Hensen near Trenton Junction and that he assumed Hensen was headed toward his house to pick up his clothes, that for all practical purposes was the end of the investigation.    It would be an understatement to say that Hensen was suspected of the crime.  He was immediately assumed to be guilty of the crime.   One of the first newspaper accounts contained the following rather memorable summary:

                Robert Hensen, a Trenton colored man with an unsavory reputation, is the one suspected of having done the shocking deed.  He is now confined in a cell in the county jail and the civil authorities are at work collecting evidence which, it is expected, will fasten on him, beyond a doubt, the monstrous crime, and send him to the gallows to expiate the lives that were sacrificed to a murderer’s lust.

Trenton Times, November 19, 1900

            We don’t have the evidence yet, but we know who did it.   Two days later:

                The fact that the evidence so far brought to light is entirely of a circumstantial nature is in favor of the prisoner.  . . .Hensen’s life of crime is so well known all over Mercer county that it will be difficult to secure an unbiased jury to try the case.   A close and careful watch is kept over the accused by the authorities because they know that he is dangerous and must be watched.

Trenton Times, November 21, 1900

                Hensen had been prosecuted for larceny or petty larceny in October, 1888, May, 1892, and October, 1898, and for assault or atrocious assault in January, 1885, October, 1898 and January, 1900.  "Atrocious assault" sounds as if it could mean "rape", and it could mean that, but usually didn’t; it was a term used in New Jersey law which meant "aggravated assault", which means assault leading to injury.   Atrocious assault meant that the skin was broken.   He had also been arrested in regard to the murder of a white woman, Ellen Quinn, in 1888.  Not blowing that off, but he was a black man suspected in the death of a white woman; if they had had any evidence against him at all, they’d have hung him for that.

                Hensen had no permanent address.   He slept under bridges and left clothes with several different friendly families.  He was arrested the next day, ten miles away, at the home of another friend—also named Williamson, the fourth Williamson we have encountered.  It is noted in the papers that the arrest occurred in the same house next to which another man had frozen to death the previous winter.

                Van Lieu told the police that when he met Hensen at Trenton Junction, he assumed that Hensen was headed to his house (the Van Lieu house) to pick up the clothes that he had left there.    Police surmised that this must have led to a renewal of the earlier dispute, and that Hensen must have erupted in anger and murdered the family.   Hensen insisted that he never went to the Van Lieu house on that day; he was never there.   There is no independent evidence that he was there; no one saw him at the house on the day in question or saw him leaving the house.   His presence there, and the resulting dispute, is conjecture.   Also, the prosecution timeline has a six-hour gap.   If Hensen had gone directly from meeting Van Lieu to Van Lieu’s house he would have been at the Van Lieu house about four o’clock PM; the house was found in flames more than six hours later.

                Hensen also left clothes at the house of Ann Smith, who lived in Trenton Junction.    At some time that evening Hensen went to Ann Smith’s house.  He knocked on the door and was admitted by a man named John Skillman.   Hensen thought this had happened about 9 o’clock; Skillman thought it was about midnight.    Since Hensen had testified to hearing the barking dogs and the violin playing—things that are known to have happened around 10:30—he must have arrived at Ann Smith’s more likely at around 11:00.  Asked if he was friends with Skillman, Hensen replied "He is not with me."   Hensen told Ann Smith that he was hungry, washed his hands, and was served a meal.

                In a mildly comic note, the Mercer County sheriff at the time took pride in treating his prisoners with dignity.  The grand jurors who were considering whether Hensen should be indicted visited the jail, and saw Hensen sitting in a clean, newly whitewashed jail cell with some furniture, apparently well fed, and remarked that "Well, I must say that the prisoners are made very comfortable."   Hensen jumped out of his chair, swore violently for several seconds and attempted to assault the man who had made the remark.  It was a futile gesture, as he was separated from the juryman by iron bars, but Hensen, exhausting his supply of profanities, suggested loudly that if the jury member thought this looked comfortable he should come stay with them for a few days.   Retreating across the cell, the "burly negro" turned and hurled a book at the bars.  The outburst probably didn’t help his cause.

                The other facts introduced into testimony against him were shoe tracks and bloody clothes.   There were 300 yards of foot tracks across a field, leaving the scene of the crime.   These were not bloody tracks; the implication was that because whoever left those tracks was cutting through the field, rather than using the road, he must have been fleeing the scene of the crime.   We were spared the bloodhounds this time; we were spared them, actually, because the sheriff had already decided it was Hensen, so. . .why bother with the hounds? The sheriff said that the footprints exactly fit Hensen’s shoes.   His lawyer said that there was nothing unique about the shoes, they were common shoes of a common size, with no broken sole or anything of that nature to identify them.

                There was blood on Hensen’s clothes; not a whole lot of blood, but some blood.   Hensen said that it might be muskrat blood; he had trapped and skinned a muskrat earlier in the month.  He also trapped and skinned rabbits and squirrels; it might be rabbit blood or squirrel blood, and also he had smashed his hand earlier in the week helping somebody move a piano, and his hand had bled.   And he had constant nosebleeds.  I know, that’s too many explanations; when somebody gives you four reasons he has blood on his clothes it looks hinky.   Two Princeton scientists testified that the blood was from a mammal, but muskrats and squirrels are mammals; rodents are mammals.   At that time it was extremely difficult to distinguish human blood from the blood of other mammals.   The pump handle was sawed off and introduced into evidence; it was covered with bloody prints, which would have been highly significant six years later, when people understood fingerprints, but in 1900 fingerprints hadn’t arrived yet.

                Hensen had a five-day trial with very good defense lawyers; the courtroom was full of spectators.   He chewed tobacco constantly, even on the witness stand, and chewed nervously on the ends of his little moustache.  He was convicted in early March, and filed an appeal asking for a new trial.  The appeal being rejected, he was executed by the state of New Jersey on December 27, 1901, a little more than a year after the trial.

The case against Hensen is not great, and it rather sets my teeth on edge when people decide who committed a crime in the first twenty minutes of the investigation.   At the same time, there is nowhere near enough evidence for us to conclude (or argue) that The Man from the Train had anything to do with these murders.   The indications that it could be the Man from the Train are:

                1)  That the crime did occur within walking distance of the intersection of two train lines,

                2)  That the small, isolated village near which the murders occurred is exactly the type of place favored by our criminal,

                3)  The "long, lonely road" is extremely similar to the scene of the next crime in our narrative, in which there are stronger indications that it could be that criminal,

                4)  That there was no robbery, and there is no apparent motive for the crime, other than the supposition that a dispute from eleven days earlier might have re-ignited,

                5)  That The Man from the Train’s previous (known) murders were in the northeast, in 1898, and his next suspected or possible murder is in the northeast, in 1901,

                6)  That of the very few known elements of the crime, some do appear to resemble our established patterns, such as taking an axe from the scene of the crime, leaving the axe at the scene of the crime, and washing his hands at the scene of the murders. 

                He may have been in the northeast at this time; he may have committed the murders.   We don’t know.   The absence of a young female at the scene is a point against the theory, and there is no convincing evidence that he was criminally active between 1898 and 1903. 

                Hensen’s alleged motive is pretty slight.  The Van Lieus were his friends, and he visited them regularly.  His story is that he was asleep at the time, a half-mile away.  Given his drinking and his normal habits it is not unreasonable to suggest that he might have laid down to sleep it off, and the rest of his story, about the dogs barking and the violin playing, is consistent with the accounts of others.  The day-of-the-crime quarrel is pure speculation.    But there’s a lot here we don’t know.

                What remains of Trenton Junction is now called West Trenton.     What is now the Trenton-Mercer County airport opened in 1929 as the Skillman Airport; the lonely road along which the Van Lieus lived was re-graded to serve as the first landing strip.  One of the witnesses to Hensen’s whereabouts near the time of the murders was John Skillman; it is unclear whether Skillman was black or white, but presumably black, since he was staying at the house of a black woman.

During World War II General Motors built bombers near the airport, which became such a hive of activity during the war that everything recognizable in the area was obliterated.  The Trenton-Mercer County Airport has two landing strips, which intersect almost at right angles.   As nearly as I can reconstruct, the house where the Van Lieus were murdered stood exactly at the point where the two landing strips intersect.



                1)  Did you notice the three references to music in the story:  Van Lieu was a professional musician, the neighbor boy playing the violin, and Hensen helping to move a piano?   These were people to whom music was important.

                2) Discovered on an old map, but never mentioned in the newspaper coverage of the crime:  the scene of the murders was within easy walking distance of the New Jersey state insane asylum.

                3)  Many of you probably know that there is a file that catalogues data on all known executions in America; it is called the Espy file.   The Espy file lists Hensen’s name as "Henson"; however, all or almost all newspaper articles that we found spell the name as "Hensen".

                4)  Asked under oath how old he was, Hensen said that he might be "43 or 45".

                5)  The witness who talked to Hensen shortly after Van Lieu and Williamson did was named "Stubbs".   During Hensen’s trial there occurred this exchange between Stubbs and the defense attorney:


How long have you known (Hensen)?

            About three years.

            What time did you say it was?

            Between 4 and 4:30.

            How do you know it was that time?

            I just left Jones.

            What time was it then?

            4 o’clock.

            How do you know?

            I looked at the clock.

            Can you tell the time?


            What time is it now, by the court clock?

            The witness walked down from the stand and after looking at the clock said "Nine o’clock."  At the time it was 10:45.   This raised a big laugh in which Hensen joined.    "Look again," said (the lawyer).   "It is half-past ten," said Stubbs, and again there was a big laugh at the witness’ expense.  This seemed to please Hensen immensely and he laughed immoderately.

                It doesn’t really matter what time the encounter on the road happened; it’s just color.   The relevant facts are:

                1)  That Stubbs couldn’t tell time, and

                2)  That the attorney and the spectators all felt that it was appropriate to laugh at him because he could not tell time, but had pretended that he could.

Van Lieu and the Williamsons were certainly literate, could tell time, and could read music, but it appears that most of the other people in the story, including Hensen, may not have been able to tell time.  But Hensen may have been literate, since we know that he kept books in his jail cell.


COMMENTS (14 Comments, most recent shown first)

Good article. This is the first I have heard of your new book. Is this an update of the Popular Crime book? My mom went to Trenton State. The Red Sox had a farm team in Trenton for a few years. My relatives live in Bergen County. Mercer County is probably a two to three hour drive away. Take Care, Tom Nahigian
7:20 PM Aug 21st
I found a reference about the NYC starting to catalogue criminals in 1902, but I wonder if that was more to re-identify guys that nabbed again who were under aliases? I'm not sure how far the art/science of "lifting" prints followed the cataloguing of them. I suspect there would have to be remarkably clear full prints. At any rate, I'm sure the last place it would be adopted would be for black-on-black crimes with fersure suspects in bo-hunk New Jersey. I had a family member murdered by a burglar in the 1960s, (Trenton area as well) and the guy was caught by a palm print in the soft dirt in the lawn where he flattened himself out to hide in his exit. Nice piece of policework.
10:44 AM Aug 19th
best guess on the book release date?
8:31 AM Aug 19th
Would be curious to know how you were able to access the trial transcript--amazing that it was preserved for so long. Also surprised that Hensen had five highly-qualified attorneys. Any indication of how he came by such a defense? Was it so high profile that all the local defense bar wanted to be a part of it for the publicity?

Another great chapter. Really looking forward to seeing it all put together in the book.
3:12 PM Aug 18th
Thanks: not only for this entertaining excerpt, but the interesting observation about the relation between fiction and crime fighting technique.
12:28 PM Aug 18th
1) Hensen wasn't being "teased" about the conditions. The man who made the remark didn't realize that Hensen could hear him. He was surprised to discover that Hensen could hear his conversation with the sheriff.

2) I'll read the Twain story for the reference about the fingerprints. The knowledge that fingerprints are unique dates back several hundred years before Christ; there were a couple of ancient cultures in which people would affix their fingerprint to a document as a way of signing it. However, the potential use of this information as a crime-fighting tool was just not "seen" until about 1900. There was a murder solved by the use of fingerprints in Argentina in 1892, but that was an isolated event. The organized study and regular, commonplace use of fingerprints arrived very suddenly about 1904, after Scotland Yard and the comparable French agency began collecting and studying them about 1900.

3) In a sense it would not be surprising if Twain WAS ahead of the real cops in this respect. In detective fiction, as in science fiction, the fiction writers have ALWAYS been ahead of the curve. The concept of a "detective" was originally a fictional concept; Edgar Allan Poe and others were writing detective stories before there were any real-life detectives. And many forensic techniques since then have popped up in fiction before they existed in fact.
3:59 PM Aug 17th
If the clock read 10:45, that would read as if it were almost nine o'clock - if Stubbs had just reversed the hour and minute hands. My guess is that he could sort of tell time if he focused on it, but just got confused when asked to do so in the courtroom.
10:25 AM Aug 17th
Thank you. Love this series and awaiting the book. One editorial comment. As a black man in 1900 accused (likely falsely) of murder, Hensen being teased about his plush jail conditions and responding angrily does not strike me as comic at all. His life is on the line, he should be upset.

8:38 AM Aug 17th
Love these articles. I have a little hobby of finding old, forgotten airports. My understanding is that the original Trenton-Mercer airport was a grass field and is now occupied by a golf course, just west of the newer Trenton-Mercer airport.
4:34 AM Aug 17th
Your mention that fingerprints didn't "arrive" until six years after 1900 surprised me, because fingerprints figure prominently in Mark Twain's book Pudd'nhead Wilson, published in 1894. Obviously he was no expert in crime detection, and it seems odd that Twain would know about the usefulness of fingerprints for such investigations twelve years before they came into general use -- assuming that's what you mean by "arrived."
7:08 PM Aug 16th
Oh, also, not a writing critique per se, but I think anyone reading this would expect it to work toward a climax of Derek Jeter's rehab assignment with the Trenton Thunder in 2011. Far be it from me to criticize, but it might flow better if you made that clear up front, and then maybe added Jeter's opinion on the case at the end, and maybe your remembrances of the first time you met him.
6:01 PM Aug 16th
Very interested in this book, Bill. This story takes place not far from where I live. The Trenton Times (now The Times) level of journalism remains about the same. I once had their editor tell me that if Philadephia was nuked, they wouldn't cover it unless the wind was blowing east. I must say, the accused's explosion in the jail cell is pretty damning, or at least I'm sure it was to the jury.
5:22 PM Aug 16th
Neat job--I'm putting in an advance order for the book. Question about your final line--I think they were the sheriff's books, not Hensen's from what you say. If he was itinerant, and stored his changes of clothes in other people's houses, would have have carried his books around with him? If the sheriff furnished the jail cell, he may have kept some reading material in there as well, don't you think?​
1:28 PM Aug 16th
Well written as usual. thanks.
1:03 PM Aug 16th
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