Fridays From the Mortuary Reports – Petrie & the Tramps

Somewhere in what was considered the “poor grounds” of Danville’s Green Hill Cemetery, 36-year-old Benjamin Petrie is buried. According to the Mortuary Report he died from “wounds received from policeman.” Sometimes people will be remembered for the good deeds they’ve done and other times they’re remembered for something well…not so good. We may never know all the particulars of what led to Petrie’s actions on the night of October 30, 1893, but historical newspapers give us some insight into what happened afterwards.

Petrie was among a gang of “tramps” (transients) who were thought to be robbing people as they wandered from city to city. On October 30 the band of bad-doers drugged and robbed a native New Yorker named Joseph Trevellian, taking the $81 that he had on his person. Police were tipped off about the robbery and when they reached the scene of the crime a struggle ensued between the officers and the tramps.2 Petrie and James Taylor were arrested in the melee but the other members of the gang avoided arrest. En route to the jail Petrie attempted to pull out a pistol, which is when he was shot in the abdomen by officer R.S. Wynn.1 Petrie refused to divulge his name to the police. His loyal partner-in-crime also refused to reveal the tramp’s true identity. The Times described the mystery mugger as “very ugly, and swears vengeance against Danville and the police officer who shot him.”2 He would never get to follow through with that threat.

Petrie was taken to the almshouse to be treated for his wounds and later he was moved to the Home for the Sick. He remained in the hospital until December 15 when he died of blood poisoning. After his death Taylor reported to the coroner’s jury that his friend was Benjamin Petrie, a Freepoint, Illinois machinist who kept his identity a secret because he didn’t want anyone from his past to know to what “depths he had descended.” Further investigation confirmed his identity. 1

This could be a cautionary tale about leaving behind a criminal or unfavorable legacy, or just another true-crime story that played out in a small southern town over a century ago.

1 “Death Reveals His Name.” The Times 16 December 1893.
2 “Struggle With Robbers.” The Times 1 November 1893.

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