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George Wheeler, ‘The Strangler,’ San Francisco, 1880

Story by Thomas Duke, 1910
Celebrated Criminal Cases of America
Part I: San Francisco Cases

At 11:55 p. m., October 20, 1880, a heavy-set, middle-aged man entered the Central Police Station at Washington and Kearny Streets, and addressing Sergeant John Shields, spoke as follows:

“My name is George Wheeler and I wish to surrender, as I have just strangled my sister-in-law, Della Tillson. Here is a key to a trunk in room 14 at 23 Kearny Street. Go there and you will find her body.”

As this statement was made with the greatest nonchalance, the officers were somewhat skeptical. The man was taken into custody, however, and officers were sent to the room, where they found the trunk as described, and on opening it they found that the body of a good-looking and well-proportioned young woman had been crowded into it. The body was fully dressed. Upon interrogating people who resided in the house, the officers learned that this woman was known as Wheeler’s wife instead of his sister-in-law, and that another woman, who was out at the time, was known as the sister-in-law.

The officers then returned to the station, where Wheeler voluntarily made an additional statement, as follows:

“Della Tillson, the girl whose body you found, is my sister-in-law, regardless of any statement made to the contrary, and she was 21 years old a few months ago. I married her sister Mary in Massachusetts eleven years ago.

“Six years later I became intimate with Della, who lived in the same house with us. About a year afterward Della confessed to my wife that she was in a delicate condition and that I was responsible for it. Their folks were highly respected, and to avoid a scandal Mary protected Della and the child was born in our house, but it died a few weeks afterward.

“Shortly after this, the three of us came to San Francisco, but failing to obtain employment, I took both women to Cisco, Placer County, where I was employed as an engineer. At this place, Della met a man named George Peckham, with whom she became intimate, according to her confessions to me. By this time I had grown to love Della as much as I did Mary, my wife, and the three of us occupied one room.

“When Della made this admission I became furious, but I forgave her with the understanding that she should cease her relations with Peckham and accompany me to San Francisco, where we engaged the rooms in which I strangled her tonight, and where we were known as man and wife. We came here about five months ago. About one month ago my wife located us and came to live with us, she posing as my sister-in-law.

“Tonight I went out to see Officer Moorehouse on business, and when I returned Della was in the rooms and had on her hat and gloves. I asked her where she had been. She sat on my knee and confessed that she had been in constant communication with Peckham ever since we left Cisco and that it was he who told my wife where we were located.

“Della furthermore told me that she and Peckham had met that night, and had agreed to go to Sacramento and live as man and wife. This admission crazed me, and as she sat on my knee I strangled her. I then crowded the body into the trunk. My wife was out at the time.”

Mrs. Wheeler was located, and she reluctantly admitted that her husband’s statements were substantially correct.

Notwithstanding his confession, Wheeler made a hard fight for his life, and it was only after four trials that he was found guilty. He was hanged on January 23, 1884.