Blood On His Conscience
On the evening of Monday October 25, 1954, a fight broke out in a house at Rochester, Pennsylvania. To the casual observer it was nothing out of the ordinary, just a commonplace domestic dispute between a young married ex-soldier and the family of his estranged wife. When the dust finally settled, Elijah Thompson, Jnr, 22, who'd been drinking heavily for more than 24 hours, staggered away from the argument, bruised and bleeding. He'd taken a bad beating and his clothes were heavily bloodstained. And he couldn't have been more delighted!
To explain Thompson's strange elation we need to fast forward five days, to October 30. On that morning a 20-strong search party was combing the woods around Hopewell Township, about 15 miles south of Rochester. They were looking for Helen Jean Bryant, a 16-year-old pretty blue-eyed, redheaded sophomore, who had left her nearby home at around 8 a.m. the previous Monday. The morning had been foggy and Helen Jean had to walk down a precipitous half mile path to a highway in the Ohio river valley, where she usually caught the school bus to Aliquippa High. Most mornings Helen Jean made the walk in the company of her 14-year-old sister, Dolores, but on this particular day Dolores was ill and stayed home. Helen Jean never caught the bus.
Suddenly one of the search party shouted out, making it obvious that their grim task had concluded in the worst possible way. Helen Jean's body was buried under mud and leaves, in a shallow grave off just off the lonely path and only 200 yards from her home. It had been well-hidden. Just days earlier a similar-sized search party had walked right past the body without suspecting a thing. Helen Jean had suffered a brutal attack. Her forehead had been crushed by a heavy blow, and she had been stabbed several times. A possible murder weapon, a five-inch paring knife was found nearby.
Also nearby – just 85 feet away – was the home of Elijah Thompson. He had served honorably for three and a half years in the army and had never fallen foul of the law. But just recently his life had taken a downward slide. He couldn't find any work and his wife had taken to running around. To blot out his problems, Thompson guzzled booze by the gallon, often disappearing on daylong benders.
Because Thompson was a close neighbor of the Bryants, he had been routinely interviewed after Helen Jean went missing. He disclaimed any knowledge of her whereabouts. His four brothers, who also lived close by, also came under heavy police scrutiny. That scrutiny became considerably more intense when detectives noticed Thompson's bloodstained clothing. He explained how it had happened, how his in-laws had beaten him so badly that he was hospitalized for two days. Still not wholly convinced by Thompson's story, officers decided to take the clothing away to see if any of the blood matched that from Helen Jean.
Blood Group Analysis
Blood analysis in 1954 was fairly rudimentary. Sophisticated blood grouping was still some way off, while the miracle of DNA typing was undreamt of. Using the technology of the time, all the police scientists could tell investigators was that the blood found on Thompson's clothing was type O – the same type as Helen Jean's. This looked significant, but the scientists counseled caution. They explained that type O is the commonest blood group, shared by approximately 40 percent of the population, and it just so happened that Elijah Thompson also fell within this group. Thompson had said all along that the blood on his clothing had come from the fight; now it looked as if there was no way of proving him wrong.
But Thompson had overplayed his hand. The scientists conducted some further tests on the blood and what they found sent detectives rushing to arrest the cocky suspect. On the same day that the body was found, Thompson was taken into custody and charged with murder. When confronted with the new evidence he confessed everything in the fullest, most graphic detail.
He told how he'd known Helen Jean for two or three years and regularly watched her as she made her way to school in the morning. On October 25, he had been drinking all night, and something snapped. He hid in the bushes and then, as she'd passed him, leapt out and began tearing at her clothes. When she screamed, he choked her into unconsciousness. As he dragged her into the bushes, she regained consciousness, and he again choked her. But she fought hard. He grabbed hold of the quart sized bottle that he was carrying and battered over the head. She fell back, dazed. Thompson followed up this attack by striking her with a large rock, before racing back to his home and grabbing a paring knife. When he returned, Helen Jean was conscious and sitting up. He now wrenched at her skirt and underwear. All the while she tried to fight him off. Eventually he clubbed her unconscious with the rock and plunged the paring knife into her eye and throat. Then he criminally assaulted her.
When Thompson levered himself upright he saw clear traces of Helen Jean's blood on his trousers. His first instinct was to panic, but then he remembered something. One time, he had overheard Helen Jean talking to a friend and she happened to mention that she was type O blood. A daring plan formed in Thompson's fevered mind. He knew that he was type O also, and he figured that if he got into a fight and his own blood was shed, it would explain the bloodstaining on his clothing. So that night he had traveled to Rochester and started a fight with his in-laws. They duly obliged him by beating him so hard that he was hospitalized for two days!
It was a fiendishly cunning plan and might well have worked had it not been for one crucial factor – the scientists had discovered that, although all the blood on Elijah Thompson's clothing was type O, some of it tested positive for a venereal disease, while others did not. This discrepancy could only be explained in one way – two sources of blood. When Thompson was examined and found to be suffering from an untreated venereal disease, his murderous scheme just fell apart. Thanks to this remarkable piece of forensic detection,Thompson was exposed as a pitiless killer and he went to the electric chair at Rockview State Penitentiary on the night of July 25, 1955.
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