Through Golden Years chronicles the history of Centenary College from its inception to 1943, but omits one scandalous event that captivated the entire country: the 1886 murder of Tillie Smith. The circumstances of her death and the trial that followed have become Hackettstown lore.
April 8, 1886:
[Matilda ‘Tillie’ Smith was born in Waterloo, NJ, and settled in Hackettstown in 1885. She had recently been hired as a kitchen maid for Centenary Collegiate Institute.] The headstrong Smith left campus alone that night and walked to an entertainment hall on Main Street, where she met with friends and two new acquaintances, Harry Haring and Charles Munnich. After the performance, the group walked through town together.
After the crowd dispersed, Haring and Smith walked back to the Institute alone. They arrived at the school’s gate around 10:10 pm. The college had a strict curfew of 10:00 pm, and by then the doors were locked. Haring offered to pay for a room at his hotel if Tillie would accompany him back to town but she refused. They said good night and parted ways. As Haring turned to walk back to his accommodation at the American House, he heard Tillie’s footsteps walk around the side of the building. That was the last time anyone saw her alive.
April 9th, 1886:
John White discovered Tillie’s body at 8:40 am as he walked his dog around the campus perimeter. What followed next was a confusing and misguided witch-hunt for justice. Sensational coverage by major newspapers drove a fervent public to the belief that 29-year-old janitor James Titus had “brutally ravaged and murdered” Smith, even though there was no evidence to substantiate the claim. Titus was meek and respectable, an employee of C.C.I. for over 11 years, and had neither the strength nor the stomach to commit such violence. The public demanded justice for Tillie, a virtuous young woman who had been shamefully murdered and then even more shamefully committed to a pauper’s grave.
April 29th, 1886:
Pressured into solving the case, police arrested James Titus and charged him with rape and murder.
September 28th, 1886:
The trial against James Titus began. The prosecution disregarded several pieces of evidence that lent credence to Titus’ innocence, and painted a picture of a man of bad conduct, whose lewdness was concealed behind an unassuming demeanor. Titus professed his innocence, but the court (and the public) was already convinced of his guilt. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Titus avoided death by quickly confessing to the rape and murder, and instead was sentenced to life in prison. He served 19 years and returned to Hackettstown upon his release. For nearly 50 years, he lived peacefully among the very people who had condemned him to death.
After his death, James Titus was buried in Union Cemetery, the same cemetery where Tillie Smith also rests. The town had her body moved from her pauper’s grave to a prominent spot in the cemetery, beneath a monument that proclaims, “She Died in Defense of her Honor.”
The event was not included in our college history, Through Golden Years, but it is a part of our history, and a part we should not forget. The truth of Tillie’s rape and murder may never be known but we will all do our part to preserve her memory.