A blog about living in Aberdeen, New Jersey.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

History: Cliffwood Negro Executed at Trenton (1922)

The 19 Jan 1922 edition of The Matawan Journal told the story of the execution by electric chair of two African American men, one after the other in about fifteen minutes time, at the Trenton State Prison two nights earlier.

First to die was Louis Lively, of Moorestown, NJ, who was convicted of murdering 7-year-old Matilda Russo of that place. According to the 12 Jun 1921 edition of The New York Times, Lively and his wife attracted the attention of local officials based on certain suspicious statements and behaviors. The possible abduction soon became a murder case after the sheriff knocked down Lively's door and found the victim's mutilated and naked body buried in Lively's cellar and the murder weapon, a knife, hidden in his kitchen. Lively fled and steps were taken to avoid a lynching.

No sooner had Lively's corpse been removed from the electric chair than they brought in George Washington Knight, of Cliffwood, for his turn with the current, according to The Journal, which referred to him as "George Washington Knight, the Cliffwood negro." Knight had gotten drunk and murdered Edith Marshall Wilson, a church organist in Perth Amboy, on 12 March 1921. He stole her watch and then rode home on the trolley in a nervous state, attracting the attention of the operator, who reported him to the Keyport police. Knight gave the purloined watch as a gift, that becoming a key bit of evidence against him.

The Journal told of the Cliffwood man's final moments. "Knight, strong and powerful of build, entered the chamber with a stride almost akin to a swagger. He smiled right and left until a sudden turn brought him face to face with the chair from which the dead body of Lively had just been removed. The smile disappeared. For just an instant, Knight halted and then almost plunged into the chair, like one who has forced himself to withstand the shock of an icy bath."

"With firm, unshakable voice, carrying with the conviction of deep feeling, Knight invoked divine aid to save his soul. He continued until the tightening straps made further speech impossible. Almost at the same instant the deadly current, registering between eight and nine amperes with a flow of 1800 volts, was turned on. . . ."

Unlike today's capital crime sentencing and appeals process, which can go on and on forever, both Lively and Knight were executed less than a year after their crimes. Everyone surely agrees that punishment should follow quickly upon the occasion of a crime, but one can only wonder if justice was served here, especially in the Lively case. Both cases were solved in hours, or so it seems by the reports. Hopefully the court transcript, witness testimony and evidence against Lively were more convincing than the New York Times story about the Russo murder.

UPDATE 11 Oct 2012: The 15 Jun 1921 edition of The New Jersey Mirror contained a lengthy, detailed article on the Matilda Russo murder. Thanks to a reader for pointing this out. And thanks to Rootsweb for hosting such resources.


  1. There are numerous articles about Lively I have found over the years since I found out about my great-aunt's murder. This one speaks of his prior convictions and they did find her in his basement next door to her house. The only thing I couldn't find was any mention of his conviction and I did not know that he was executed.

  2. I am a local historian who has done research on this case. I have a magazine that included a sketch of Matilda. Not sure if you ever saw her. I can send a photo if you like.

  3. Hi. I am a local historian who has done research on the Russo-Lively case. Not sure if you ever saw what your great aunt Matilda looked like. I may have a photo or sketch of her. Mike

  4. Thanks, Mike. I am more interested in the Knight execution because of his association with Aberdeen Township. But I'd be willing to post a photo and a few additional facts if you're interested.