Sheriff’s murder 50 years ago today still haunts Wicomico

The Monday, Dec. 9, afternoon edition of the Salisbury Daily Times reported the Courthouse tragedy and its aftermath.

December 8, 1968

The Sunday evening routine in the Wicomico County Jail did not appear to differ from any other evening, except for a larceny suspect, recently arrested by the Salisbury Police for stealing a television from a Downtown store who was determined that he was not going to stick around to face trial for his crime.

At approximately 9:30 p.m., Deputy Albert Kelly was in the process of placing about a dozen or so inmates back into their cells for the evening when one of them, 21-year-old Joseph J. Bartholomey, suddenly brandished a handgun and placed it between the bars and took a stance that convinced Deputy Kelly to open the cell door at Batholomey’s command. Once freed from the confines of the cell, Bartholomey gunned down Deputy Kelly and attempted to further his escape from the county jail.

Alerted to the commotion in the cell block, Sheriff Samuel Graham (who resided in an adjacent apartment furnished as part of his compensation as county Sheriff) ran headlong into the armed and fleeing escapee.

On the immediate heels of slaying Deputy Kelly, Bartholomey gunned down Sheriff Graham before the Sheriff was able to even determine what was happening.

As the two lawmen lay mortally wounded in the third-floor jail of the County Courthouse, the newly freed Bartholomey made a hasty exit via a back stairwell onto a deserted Downtown Salisbury street on a cold Sunday evening.

What followed was the largest manhunt ever seen on Delmarva up to that time.

Law enforcement from all over the Peninsula collaborated to bring the killer to justice.

It was not long until information surfaced that drew law enforcement to a motel in the Dover area the next day, where Bartholomey was located and apprehended after his room was stormed by the Delaware State Police.

The .22-caliber revolver used in the slaying of the Wicomico County lawmen was found in Bartholomey’s possession.

During the ensuing investigation, two accomplices — 19-year-old Connie Beckner and 21-year-old Davis Hudson — were also identified.

Becker would be charged with for her role in smuggling the firearm to Bartholomey in a box of candy while Hudson was charged for his role with driving Bartholomey to Dover following the break out.

Because of the notoriety of the case, a change of venue was granted which moved the murder trial of Bartholomey to Charles County. There, a jury found him guilty in both slayings and he was sentenced to die in Maryland’s gas chamber, a death penalty that would never be carried out due to the Furman case that saw the suspension of the death penalty and many commutations to life in prison.

Bartholomey recently died in a Maryland penitentiary, never seeing the light of day following his arrest for these brutal murders. Both Beckner and Hudson served periods of incarceration following their convictions for being accessories in this heinous crime.

What added a sad irony to this case was a prominent article in the Dec. 8, 1968, edition of the Salisbury Daily Times, mere hours before the slayings.

The article scathed Sheriff Graham for running a jail that was described as outdated and improperly secured. In the article Sheriff Graham refuted those accusations and personally vouched for the security of the building for which he was responsible.

The third-floor jail remained in use until the building of a modern county jail in 1989 on the outskirts of the city.

Historian and law enforcement official Tim Robinson is a Lieutenant in the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office and an Adjunct Professor at Salisbury University.

 

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