Category: Murder

Mollie and the Massacre: A Sad History of the Verbias Family

Trigger Warning: This post contains details of abuse and fatal injuries to a minor

A deadly shadow followed the Verbias family of Niles, Ohio for years, leaving horror, tragedy, and destruction in its path. Today, the family would be termed dysfunctional, the children neglected, abused, and allowed to run wild. The walls of their Belmont Avenue home could not contain their instability, their conflicts leaching outdoors for all the neighborhood to witness. When a daughter was discovered murdered, their darkness became exposed to the public and a son began a lifelong mission to take “a lot of people” with him to the grave.

Warren Daily Tribune, July 22, 1921 Headline

A Body In the Brush

Thursday, July 21, 1921
Niles, Trumbull County, Ohio

Two little boys entered a grassy area off of Russell Avenue on their way to pick berries when they stumbled across a decomposing body. Some five or six-hundred feet from the road, lying face-up in the tall grass was a teenaged girl wearing a simple blue sundress and lightweight slippers. A dark blue straw hat lay nearby. The body belonged to 14-year-old Molly Verbias who lived nearby with her family.

The Autopsy

Mollie’s body was discovered at 2:35 p.m. and she was presumed to have been dead for at least several hours, the summer heat hastening decomposition. The evidence suggested that Mollie had been killed elsewhere and moved to the location her body had been found. Investigators believed the sundress she wore had been placed on her body after she was killed as it had no drops of blood on its fabric and was not ripped during her death throes. The ground around her body was undisturbed, with no indication a struggle had taken place there. 

Holloway’s ambulance removed Mollie’s body from the scene and took her to their Niles morgue where Coroner Henshaw, attended by Doctors Thomas and Elder, conducted an autopsy. Her cause of death could not be immediately discerned, though slight markings were visible on her neck. On Mollie’s side, Henshaw found indents of teeth and believed she had been bitten. Her body showed no signs of having been sexually molested before or after death. 

Besides the impressions on her neck, the doctors theorized a rope could have been used to strangle her. They believed the markings on her throat were consistent with fibers wound tightly about her neck, but such a weapon could not be found near the crime scene. Henshaw was not quick to rule strangulation because he believed the impressions on Mollie’s throat were not deep enough to cause death and could be explained by postmortem insect activity.

Though a cause of death was not immediately released, the local papers pushed the notion that Mollie had been choked to death.

Marks upon the child’s throat are of a peculiar type. The fingerprints seem to be made by a hand, small but strong, such as a woman might possess. The windpipe seems to have been clutched by some powerful fingernails, inflicted when the child made a frantic death struggle and the victim’s death hold was tightened.

– The Niles Daily News, July 22, 1921, Page 1

Another theory besides murder, was the possibility that Mollie had ingested poison, either intentionally or accidentally. She could have accidentally ate poisonous berries in the woods without knowing the difference between them and the edible ones. A person who had swallowed poison could claw at their own throat in such a manner to cause comparable markings before succumbing to the toxic effects. Henshaw wanted to rule out such a possibility, so on Friday morning he sent Mollie’s stomach to a local pathologist, R.C. McBride, to study its contents. He then returned the girl’s body to her family’s home so they could prepare for her funeral.

A Troubled Family

Mollie, described as “pretty”, “attractive”, and appearing older than her years, was the daughter of Joseph Verbias and Elizabeth Botciti who lived at 602 Belmont Avenue, an address that no longer exists. She had two older siblings, Helen and Alex, and four little sisters. She attended the 5th grade at Bentley Avenue School.

The Verbias family immigrated from Barkasso, Hungary, departing from Fiume on the ship Franconia and processed through Ellis Island in New York City on December 26th, 1913. They settled in Niles, Ohio, the state that received the highest amount of Hungarian immigrants in all of the United States. Most made their homes around Cleveland and Youngstown where factories reigned the landscape and work could be obtained. 

The oldest daughter, Helen, married Steve Laboda in 1917 when she was fifteen years old. Prior to the marriage, she attempted suicide and when asked why she wanted to end her own life, she claimed her mother had treated her so cruelly that she could not bear to live any longer. Her marriage proved a welcome escape from the evil within their Belmont Avenue home, but her younger siblings were left behind to live in the chaos.

The neighbors claimed Mollie lived in a chaotic, abusive household and they often heard her cries as she was beaten frequently and with a brutality unacceptable to inflict on a child. Her screams could even be heard the afternoon prior to her body’s discovery as her mother whipped her fiercely.

One month before Mollie’s death, Mrs. Verbias pressed charges against 34-year-old Gasper Logar of Niles, alleging that he had held Mollie hostage overnight in his locked bedroom. The Hungarian-born Logar was crippled, his right leg having been amputated above the knee. He had left a wife and child in Hungary. Logar was acquitted due to lack of evidence against him. The weekend before her murder, Mollie again ran away and her parents went in search of her. She was missing for three days. On Sunday, a policeman found her wandering in Girard and brought her home. The wrath she suffered as a result was heard by the neighbors.

The Hunt For A Killer

Police Chief Rounds immediately put his officers on the task of searching for clues about the field and Mason’s woods. County Detective Gillen joined the men in the gathering of evidence, particularly searching for any bloodied clothing or indication of the kill site. The search fanned out for a mile in every direction from the location Mollie’s body had been discovered.

A group of civilians took to the woods in search for Mollie’s murderer in hopes he was hiding out beneath the cover of brush and foliage. They carried rifles, shot guns, and clubs. Mollie’s death had arrived at the heels of an attack on a Niles woman, 51-year-old Elizabeth Dellinger and assaults of two New Castle girls. The suspect of the Dellinger assault had been arrested, but that fact did nothing to calm the city’s frayed nerves. The entire community was on edge and prepared to capture the coward who had taken the life of a young girl.

When Chief Rounds questioned Mollie’s mother, he discovered she understood hardly a word of English and could speak very few words outside of her native language. Employing an interpreter, he was able to obtain a statement, though this method made it very difficult to accurately discern Mrs. Verbias’ state of mind. She claimed she had last seen Mollie alive when the pair took their cow to the pasture around five o’clock Wednesday evening. Mollie ran off to pick berries in the bushes and her mother returned home, leaving her daughter behind. She claimed Mollie did not show up at the house that night, but was not alarmed and did not go in search of the girl.  This fact puzzled police and when questioned of why she had no concern over her daughter’s disappearance, Mrs. Verbias stated Mollie had been in the habit of running off and not coming home for the night. Mrs. Verbias claimed Mollie had exhibited this “wanderlust” for three years, therefore was unconcerned for her daughter’s welfare.

When asked about the abuse witnessed by the neighbors, Mrs. Verbias declared Mollie to be a rebellious child and professed the beatings were the only method of keeping her daughter in line. According to her, the severe manner of punishment was justifiable. During the cross-examination, Mrs. Verbias fainted twice, and the police called a doctor to tend to the woman. Mrs. Verbias did not shed a single tear during the questioning, but she did moan and call out for Mollie. Finally, due to Mrs. Verbias’ unerring hysterics, the doctor ordered police to end the questioning and allow Mrs. Verbias to return home.

Chief Rounds brought Gasper Logar into the station and interrogated him forcefully.  However, due to lack of evidence and the near physical incapability for Logar to have carried her body into the pasture, Logar was released. 

At 2 o’clock on Friday the 23rd, investigators had formed no verdict and Chief Rounds released a statement.

We have no information to give out in connection with the case. The death of the girl is the most baffling and mysterious that has come under my notice for many years, but we mean to keep on the job until the mystery is solved.

-Chief Rounds, as quoted by the Warren Daily Tribune, July 22, 1921 1:7


As neighbor spoke to neighbor, passing the news of Mollie’s death and discussing the horror of the murder, they spun lurid tales involving the nature of the girl’s death. Someone began a rumor that Mollie’s head had been severed from her body. Another person suggested that in Mollie’s despair over her home life, she had committed suicide, possibly by drinking poison. Others, including some of authority, believed that Molly did not meet a violent end but rather died of shock or natural causes.

Police received the information that Mollie had been so out of control and impossible to parent, that Mr. and Mrs. Verbias were sending her to reform school. Whether the girl was truly scheduled to go is not known, but a rumor formed that Mollie went into a deep state of depression. Police formed the theory that perhaps in her unwillingness to go, the girl had taken her own life and the parents had placed Mollie’s body in the pasture out of fear they would be implicated. Investigators took this information seriously and Coroner Henshaw submitted Mollie’s stomach for chemical analysis. However, when speaking with Mollie’s school teachers, police found Mollie to be a very well-adjusted pupil, despite her troubled home-life. 

The town gossips pointed many fingers at Mrs. Verbias, convinced that the mother knew more than she was telling police. Many had heard Mollie’s cries of pain coming from inside the home on several occasions throughout the prior months and witnessed Mrs. Verbias’ strange, dry-eyed demeanor following her daughter’s death.

The town grocer, Thomas Mullican, told investigators that he had observed Mollie walking along the railroad tracks around 4 o’clock with an unidentified male on the day before her body was discovered. She was near Kane’s corners and walking towards the direction of her home. The vague description Mullican provided matched the description some of Mollie’s family gave concerning a strange man they had seen Mollie with on other occasions. Many residents shared the belief that Mollie’s death had been sexually motivated, but the assailant was frightened off before he could molest her body.

A Niles resident tipped off the police about the presence of a man driving a buggy past the field where Mollie’s body had been found around noontime on Wednesday. They conjectured that possibly he was somehow involved in the murder and had dumped her body off the road in the high grass. The man was brought in to the police station for questioning, but he had no knowledge of the girl and was released.

The day prior to Mollie’s funeral, police conducted a thorough search throughout the Verbias home, but did not uncover any incriminating evidence. They also found no vials or indication of fatal poison having been present in the house. Though the search turned up nothing, investigators were certain that Mollie was murdered, either by a member of her family or by an unknown assailant who saw her alone in the pasture and took the opportunity to attack her. Though they had yet to receive the results of the analysis on Mollie’s stomach, they could hardly further entertain the thought of suicide by poison when a container to carry it had not been present at the home or near Mollie’s body.

Investigators noted how laundry day took place at the Verbias home the day Mollie’s body had been discovered. Though it could mean nothing, it also meant Mrs. Verbias had a chance to clean any traces of blood from clothing. On the other hand, they speculated that the marks on Mollie’s neck may have not exuded a large enough quantity of blood to transfer to another surface. They were not deep by any means and the small amount of blood may have quickly congealed in the wounds.

The Funeral

Mollie’s body lay in state at the Verbias home before her funeral on Saturday, July 23rd. She was encased in a white casket, surrounded by a vast array of flowers. 

 Robes of virginal whiteness concealed the ugly black bruises inflicted by the assassin, and the calm sleep of death enhanced the childish innocence of the small white face.

– The Niles Daily News, July 22, 1921, Page 1

A Hungarian priest from Youngstown led the 3 o’clock services, chanting verse in the family’s native language. Mourners cried at the right of Molly’s body and her siblings took one last look at their beautiful sister, knowing she would not have the chance to grow up with them, forever fourteen.

Investigators were present at the simple funeral, watching the family’s every movement, particularly the actions of the parents. The police remained quiet fixtures in the background, searching for any suspicious word, act, or insincere weeping.

Chief Rounds stated to the Niles Daily News, “If we knew who the murderer was, we would not arrest him until after the funeral. We do not wish to make any arrests until we are sure of what we are doing, but it is possible that some arrests may be made after the services.” (Niles Daily News, July 23, 1921, Pg 1)

The community became incensed at Round’s words, claiming if he knew who the killer was, they should be arrested immediately. In a corrected statement, Rounds said, “We would have considered it inhuman to take any member of the family into custody on suspicion until after the services. If we had positive proof of the identity of the criminal, however, we should not hesitate a second before placing them under arrest.” (Niles Daily News, July 25, 1921, Pg 1)

Mollie was laid to rest in Niles Union Cemetery

Family Implicated

Warren Daily Tribune, July 27, 1921 Headline

Coroner Henshaw received the results from the analysis on Mollie’s stomach on the morning of July 26th. He had hoped an easy explanation of poison would be found within the contents, but the results were disappointing. The chemist had found only undigested cheese, blackberries, and a starchy substance he believed to be bread. He found no trace of poison, vegetable alkaloids, or phenol, leaving authorities to move onto their next plan of action. They could finally act on the clues they had collected throughout the week since Mollie’s murder.

That same day at 4 o’clock, Officers Whittaker, Gilbert, and Mears took Mollie’s father, mother, and older brother Alex into custody.  The three members of the family were locked in separate cells and were not allowed to communicate with one another. Mrs. Verbias raved constantly in her cell, shouting in her native language. She carried on all through the night, crying hysterically.

Since Mr. and Mrs. Verbias spoke very little English, all of the questioning was carried out through interpreters. Attorney Anthony A. Pessenieher of Youngstown represented the family. During examinations, the Verbias’ statements were inconsistent with one another as far as the time of day they last saw Mollie. However, each family member proved so overwrought with grief and confusion that Attorney Passenieher insisted police could not judge them on timing alone. The years of abuse by Mrs. Verbias were also brought up, not just the abuse of Mollie, but upon the other children as well. Investigators had spoken with the oldest daughter, Helen, and learned of her suicide attempt years earlier in attempt to escape the abuse at home. Yet the ill-treatment alone could not prove Mollie was murdered by Mrs. Verbias while carrying out punishment.

Investigators awaited the coroner’s verdict as to a cause of death, as it was difficult to move forward until such information was finalized. Police could not hold the family for very long as concrete evidence was lacking. However, with the arrival of a new crumb of information, the parents’ innocence and lack of involvement in Mollie’s death seemed to be clear. Chief Rounds received the statement by Niles resident Joe Kovak who claimed he saw Mollie at 6 or 6:30p.m. Wednesday as he was driving his cow to pasture. She was all alone and occupied picking berries. Because Kovach stated she had been wearing the blue sundress, the theory the dress had been placed on her after death was voided. Because this information of Mollie’s whereabouts was consistent with Mrs. Verbias’ account, Chief Rounds believed the woman was telling the truth. 

Chief Rounds received a letter from police in Athens, Ohio who were investigating a similar crime in their district. They were without a suspect and proposed that the assailant could be a serial killer going from city to city, making him difficult to capture. 

By July 30th, Mr. and Mrs. Verbias were released from jail, but Alex, remaining beneath the veil of suspicion, was detained longer.


Warren Daily Tribune, August 9, 1921 Headline

Coroner Henshaw scheduled the inquest for Wednesday, August 3rd. Many family members of the murdered girl and locals around the community were served notices, asking them to appear for questioning. They showed up and gave their testimonies, the interrogation lasting until the morning of the 4th, but the witnesses could provide no new information. Nothing was said to incriminate Mollie’s parents or brother and Henshaw set to work, drawing up a verdict. Unable to hold Alex any longer, he was released from jail.

On August 9th, Coroner Henshaw at last issued Mollie’s cause of death as manual strangulation. The faint finger markings proved the only evidence for her manner of death. Yet after the thorough inquest, investigators could not pin the murder on anyone and Mollie’s case went cold.

A Series Of Incidents

The Niles Daily News, Page 5
June 19th, 1916

Years previous to the murder, 12-year-old Alex Verbias had a brush with death. On the afternoon of June 19th, 1916, he was walking along North Main Street in a rain shower with his cap pulled low over his eyes. When he attempted to cross the street, he stepped directly in front of a slow-moving roadster driven by W.T. Bell of Youngstown and was hit. He fell to the road, suffering a fractured rib, lacerated scalp, and a bruised knee. A passerby helped pick the boy up and drove Alex to the Niles Dry Goods Store to seek help, followed by Mr. Bell and his wife. Niles police officer Whittaker came along by chance and placed the boy in Mr. Bell’s vehicle. He led the roadster to Dr. Smith’s office where Alex was treated. Mr. Bell could not be blamed for the accident, but he felt quite badly and paid the lad’s medical bill.

Six years following his daughter’s murder, Mr. Verbias succumbed to pneumonia and lagrippe at his home. He was only 51 and left an obscure mark on the world. Though the Verbias family received considerable attention from the local community, we know very little about the patriarch and his personality. One recorded incident in June of 1916 occurred when Mr. Verbias’ cow wandered into a neighbor’s garden, destroying it. After the neighbor, Sam Natole, confronted Mr. Verbias, he refused to pay for the damages. Natole sued Mr. Verbias for the $5 value of the lost crops. Besides his brushes with the law, Joseph was hardly mentioned in the local papers and was not even afforded an obituary. 

On May 17, 1929, Mollie’s 15-year-old sister Elizabeth “Lizzie” Verbias was injured in a car accident. She was riding in the backseat with her friend Minnie Shehedan in a vehicle driven by an older boy, Sam Maile. Sam lost control of the vehicle on Niles-Warren Road near Deforest. The car went off the road into the ditch and flipped over. All three suffered non-fatal injuries. Fortunately, a patrolman had been driving behind them and gave the girls a ride to Warren City Hospital. Sam refused the ride and never sought treatment. Lizzie was treated for lacerations about her face and Minnie for a broken nose and cuts around her eye.

An Unhappy Marriage

Alex Verbias was a troubled youth. The combined terrors of growing up in an abusive household and the murder of his little sister for which he was accused produced an erratic, depressed personality within him. Those closest to him noted how he became unhinged since Mollie’s death, recalling him as acting “queer”. Whenever he mentioned Mollie’s murder to family or friends, he repeated prophetically, “When I die I’m going to take a lot of people with me.”

He was eighteen when he wed Helen Krivac on May 26th, 1928 in a ceremony performed by Rev. S. Csepke at the Hungarian Presbyterian Church. The bride was dressed in an ornate white satin gown paired with satin slippers and held a bouquet bursting with roses and lilies of the valley. Her bridesmaids wore orange georgette dresses and held arrangements of roses and sweet peas. Following the nuptials, the German Hall hosted the bridal party as well as two hundred guests. Alex and Helen honeymooned in Michigan before returning to Niles to live with Alex’s mother at their home on Belmont Avenue. 

Helen’s joy would last only as long as the beautiful ceremony. It could not have been easy for her to live with a woman as formidable as Mrs. Verbias who made ends meet by doing the washing, ironing, and cleaning for the better-off households of Niles. Alex would drink to excess and his moods were often unbearable.

Niles Daily Times, Page 4
Friday, October 18th, 1929

A bright spot among the darkness arrived with the birth of a son, Edward Joseph, on October 17, 1929. Alex was smitten with his child from the start, showering Edward with affection. Alex was excited about bringing his son up, planning his future before the boy could even walk. It was as if Alex suppressed all his dark energy, allowing his tiny son to hold all of life’s hope and promise. 

Yet as Helen raised their beautiful baby boy in that gloomy Niles home, Alex failed to provide for his wife and the son he loved to extremes. Though employed as a cold roller for a Mahoning Valley steel plant for four years, he drank and gambled away his wages. Unable to raise her child in such conditions, Helen begged and pleaded with him to improve his character, but his intense devotion to his son was not enough to raise him from the demons’ clutches.

Finally, Helen said, “I can’t stand it any longer,” and left.

Just before Edward’s first birthday, she took the baby to the home of her parents, John and Anna Krivac, at 28 West Federal Street in Weathersfield. Three of Helen’s four brothers also lived at the house. Alex became incensed, often going to the Krivac home to argue with Helen, wishing to see his child. Helen and her parents ordered him to stay away, but he visited often and they allowed him entry every occasion so that he could see Edward. Mr. and Mrs. Krivac refused to get in the middle of Helen and Alex’s arguments, usually leaving the room while the pair quarreled.

Murderous Rampage

Alex’s coworkers and creditors held a very different opinion of the man who led a tumultuous home life. At work, he displayed a most respectable character. Foreman Jesse Lewis proclaimed Alex to be one of the hardest workers he had ever witnessed and that he was always punctual, never once hinting at having a problem with alcohol. The Niles Credit Bureau proclaimed Alex paid his loans on time, rating him “in the highest class”. With this information, we see Alex had two different sides and an ability to hide his melancholia and addictions behind the guise of normalcy.

Alex attempted reparations with his wife many times, beseeching Helen to come home. She rejected him, stating he would have to prove himself to her first by showing he could be a better husband and provider. However, his demons proved too raucous and he was unable to do as she asked.

In the late summer of 1930, Alex walked into the Krivac’s house, entering the kitchen and snatched Edward out of the crib kept on the floor. He ran off with his son and the Krivacs notified the police. Alex gave the boy up without issue but went into an intensely morose state. Ordered by the authorities to stay away from the Krivac’s house, he made threats that he would kill himself if Helen did not return home with their child.

On one occasion, Alex made several insults to one of Helen’s brothers and the pair came to fisticuffs. Alex often threatened that he would “get them all”. 

On Monday, October 13th, one of Alex’s acquaintances stated the depressed father purchased a revolver on the pretense it would be used to ward off chicken thieves. That afternoon, Alex entered a speakeasy lounge and between sips of alcohol raved to the other patrons that he was going to kill himself and take everyone with him.

At 8:15 p.m. Alex came to the Krivac home, banging on the door and demanded to see his wife and child. At the time, only Helen, Edward, and Helen’s parents were home. Helen let him in and she conversed with him for several minutes in the foyer while her parents remained in the other room. Alex raised his voice, speaking angrily to her, and as soon as he began to threaten Helen, Mr. Krivac intervened. Mr. Krivac walked into the foyer after hearing Alex tell Helen he would kill her if she and Edward did not accompany him home.

Alex turned to his father-in-law and declared ominously, “I’ll shoot every damn one of you!”

He pulled a revolver from his coat and fired at Mr. Krivac who abruptly fell to the floor, the bullet having pierced his face.

Helen ran from the front hall, shrieking, “My God! Save my baby! Save my baby!” 

Mrs. Krivac flew into the foyer, hands raised as if in surrender and said, “Alex you don’t know what you do! You don’t know what you do!”

Alex pointed the revolver at her and shot her through the eye. She staggered and fell dead just inside the front door. 

Helen fled to the porch, shouting, “Help, help, someone come! Alex is killing us all!”

When a neighbor, Paul Kearney, ran out of his house he witnessed Alex chase Helen down and shoot her in the face. Bleeding profusely, Helen managed to run back in the house and scoop up her child. She ran howling from room to room, so out of her mind with terror, before she finally collapsed in her neighbor’s arms. Kearney placed the screaming baby into his kitchen crib and began making several phone calls, summoning help. When the ambulance arrived, medics could hardly believe what they saw, the bodies lying about with blood splattered on the walls and smeared across the floor. They tended to the blood-soaked baby who cried inconsolably inside his crib. They initially believed the child had been wounded and they brought him to the hospital with his mother and grandfather. When they loaded up Mr. Krivac for transportation, he was semiconscious. Mrs. Krivac was clearly gone and her body left where it fell as medics rushed the survivors to the hospital.

“He’ll kill my baby,” Helen moaned as medics loaded her into the ambulance, her face covered with blood.

Helen thought Alex had escaped, but while surveying the home the first responders discovered his body at the foot of the stairs. He bore a self-inflicted bullet wound behind his right ear while a dead hand clutched the revolver. The gun still contained two useable cartridges and another round of ammunition was found in his pocket. It was believed he planned to find his brothers-in-law at home and take their lives in a plot to massacre the Krivac family. 

Page 1 of Niles Daily Times, published in Niles, Ohio on Tuesday, October 14th, 1930

Spectators crowded around the home, their number in the hundreds, craning their necks to obtain a view of the bodies inside. They gaped at the murderer, his blood pooling out beneath him, a life wrought with grief and pain ended in violence. The Krivac’s son Louis returned home that evening to the collection of neighbors at his doorstep. He witnessed the blood everywhere, forming a zig-zag pattern across the kitchen floor. He found his mother laying bereft of all life and fell to her side. Moaning in grief, he ran to the second floor of the house in frantic search for his father. After learning that his father had survived and was at the hospital, he gathered his faculties enough to sign his mother’s death certificate as informant.

The bodies of Alex Verbias and Mrs. Anna Krivac were transported next door to the Kearney Funeral Home, victim lying next to murderer while they awaited funeral arrangements. Mrs. Krivac’s remains were returned to her home for the services and the body of Alex was brought to his mother at their Belmont Avenue home. Mrs. Krivac’s services were held at St. Stephen’s Church at 9 o’clock on the morning of Thursday, October 16th and was buried in St. Stephen Cemetery, having celebrated her 53rd birthday two days prior to her death. It appears Alex was unceremoniously buried in Niles Union Cemetery, his family baffled by his murderous rampage and suicide.

Helen and her father both recovered at Warren City Hospital, having each been shot through the jaw. Their survival was miraculous, as Alex had aimed to kill, but ultimately failed in his endeavor to take many souls with him. Unfortunately, Mr. Krivac died six years later from a respiratory ailment.

Crushed Beneath Vehicle

Sunday, August 2, 1936
Bazetta, Trumbull County, Ohio

Page 1 of Niles Daily Times, published in Niles, Ohio on Monday, August 3rd, 1936

As if all the untimely death and violence proved not enough for one family, the tragedies continued. Helen Laboda, daughter of Helen Verbias and Steve Laboda, was fourteen when she was killed, the same age her aunt Mollie was at the time of her murder. Helen and her sister Margaret had come to Bazetta Township to fish along Mosquito Creek with a group of friends. As they picnicked, they realized they needed more bread for their sandwiches, so Helen and Margaret hopped into the car of William Berenics, another Niles youth. He drove them to the Klondike store where they made the necessary purchase around 6 p.m. and headed back towards the creek. Yet on the way, William’s car skidded on a patch of gravel between the Lee Scoville and Raymond Hudson farms. He lost control and the vehicle careened over a ditch before flipping. Helen was thrown from the car and crushed beneath it, pressed face-down into the ditch. Her head was pinned so firmly beneath the vehicle that it took a group of passing motorists twenty minutes to extricate her. When she was finally pulled free, it was too late. Margaret and William were not injured, but suffered extreme shock as a result of the accident and Helen’s violent death.

Helen’s body was first taken to the Cortland Funeral Home and then transferred to the Laboda’s home on North Road. There, Rev. Steve Csepke officiated her funeral and she was buried in St. Stephen’s Cemetery. She left behind her bereaved parents, sister Margaret, and brother Steve Jr.

Death of the Matriarch

Mrs. Elizabeth Verbias died at the home of her daughter Helen and son-in-law Steve Laboda, just after Christmas in 1944, after suffering for three years with an asthmatic condition. She passed away under the care of the daughter she had so tormented and abused in her youth, driving her to attempted suicide. Mrs. Verbias’ calling hours were at the Rossi Funeral Home and the funeral services were held at the Hungarian Presbyterian Church. She was buried in Niles Union Cemetery. If she ever admitted to anyone in her family that she or Alex had strangled her daughter Mollie to death, the secret died with them. It seems easy to pin Mollie’s murder on Alex because he went on to kill so ruthlessly nearly a decade later. The police must have had their reasons for holding him under suspicion. Perhaps he did kill her, but it is also quite possible that their mother choked Mollie to death, an instance of abuse gone too far. Then again, maybe she had the misfortune of tarrying in the pasture at the wrong time, attacked by an unknown predator. To this day, the young girl’s murder is unsolved.

Killed Getting Off Bus

Wednesday, March 7th, 1945
Girard, Trumbull County, Ohio

Page 1 of Niles Daily Times, published in Niles, Ohio on Thursday, March 8th, 1945

Elizabeth, Alex and Mollie’s younger sister who had been injured as a teen in a car accident, grew up to marry Pasquale (Patrick) Rinaldo Dinard and settled in Girard. Patrick, who was known by his nickname “Push”, worked for the Ohio Leather Co. in Girard. He was also a member of the FOE Lodge of Girard and was well-known and liked throughout the Niles community. After a day’s work one day, he descended the stairs of a Penn-Ohio coach at the corner of North State Street and Smithsonian Avenue. As he crossed the street in front of the bus, he did not see the oncoming truck before he walked right into it. A Blackstone-Reese Ambulance rushed him to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, but he was dead on arrival. Besides the grief imposed on his wife by his loss, he left a wide group of extended family in the area. He was buried in Niles Union Cemetery. Elizabeth remarried to Michael Niebauer who died in 1971. She had no children from either marriage.

Life Goes On

Niles Daily Times, Page 6
Friday, March 27th, 1953

Helen Krivac Verbias married Samuel Morrall on February 6, 1936 in Cuyahoga County, and settled in Weathersfield. The couple had a daughter, Joanne Marie, in 1937. Edward took on his step-father’s surname Morrall and attended McKinley school. He played trombone in the school band and graduated in 1948. Edward would grow up to become the music director for Central Baptist Church. Both Edward and his half-sister Joanne wed their spouses in 1955 with Edward marrying Rae Gwendolyn Monteith and Joanne marrying Charles Fanos George in a lavish ceremony. Helen enjoyed several grandchildren from these pairings. She was a member of the Cardettes Club and often hosted grand lunches for the group. The family lived wonderfully, were largely integrated into Niles society, and were well respected. For Helen to have endured such tragedy as a young woman, the bulk of her life was spent in happiness. She outlived her son Edward by five years, passing away in 2005 at the age of 94. 

Niles Daily Times, Page 4
August 10th, 1954

Helen and Edward were able to start over in a way, though the horror of that October night in 1930 remained with them until they died. No branch of the Verbias family seemed to exist untouched from violence and untimely death. One can only imagine the heartache the connected Verbias, Krivac, Laboda, and Dinard families endured from these senseless tragedies. My hope is that the dark shadow that cloaked their lives has dissipated and their souls are at peace.

Note: Conflicting reports give differing accounts of who actually discovered Mollie’s body. The Warren Tribune said it was a man coming home from work who segued into the pasture to pick berries in Mason’s Woods. The Niles Daily News claimed it was two little boys who entered the grassy area along the way to pick berries.


  • Immigration: New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924,
  • Young Lad Run Down By Auto: The Niles Daily News, Monday, June 19th, 1916, Pg 5
  • Gasper Logar WWI Draft Registration: World War I Selective Service System draft registration cards, 1917-1918,
  • Slays Child: The Niles Daily News 7-22-1921, Pgs 1 and 5
  • Posses Hunt Assailant of Niles School Girl; Finger Prints on Neck: The Sandusky Star-Journal (Sandusky, Ohio) · 22 Jul 1921, Fri · Page 1
  • Body of 14-Year-Old Mollie Verbias Is Found In Thicket: Warren Daily Tribune, 22 Jul 1921 Pgs 1:7 and 5:4
  • Mystery Is Unsolved As Police Work: Warren Daily Tribune, July 23, 1921 1:1
  • Girl’s Body Found In Woods: The Bucyrus Evening Telegraph, 23 Jul 1921, Sat Pg 6
  • Bury Girl As Police Trace Clues: Niles Daily Times, July 23, 1921, Pg 1
  • Death Mystery Still Unsolved: Niles Daily News, July 25, 1921, Pg 1
  • No Poison Was Found: Warren Daily Tribune, July 26, 1921 1:6
  • Parents of Mollie Verbias Are Under Arrest – Taken Into Custody By Police of Niles: Warren Daily Tribune: July 27, 1921 1:7
  • Coroner is Not Talking Verbias Case: Warren Daily Tribune, July 28, 1921 1:4
  • Probing Verbias Murder: The Niles Daily Times, July 28, 1921, Pg 1
  • Hold Brother Of Dead Girl: Warren Daily Tribune, July 30, 1921 1:2
  • Verbias Case Inquest Aug. 3: The Niles Daily News, July 22, 1921
  • No Decision In Verbias Inquest: The Niles Daily News, August 4, 1921
  • Niles Girl Was Choked Is Verdict: Warren Daily Tribune, August 9th, 1921 1:1
  • Krivac-Verbias Marriage: Niles Daily Times Monday May 28, 1928, Pg 4
  • Girls Injured in Accident: Niles Daily Times, Saturday, May 18, 1929
  • Alex Verbias Death Certificate: “Ohio Deaths, 1908-1953,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 21 May 2014), 1930 > 60501-63300 > image 2813 of 3129.
  • Death Threat Fulfilled: News-Journal, 14 Oct 1930, Tue, Page 1
  • Crazed Husband Injures Wife and Her Father: Niles Daily Times, Tuesday, October 14th, 1930, Pgs 1 and 5
  • Crazed Man Shoots 3, Takes Own Life: Warren Tribune Chronicle October 14, 1930 Pg 1
  • Niles Man Wounds Wife, Her Father: Warren Tribune Chronicle 14 Oct 1930 1:8
  • Last Rites For Killer, Victim: Niles Daily Times, 10-15-1930, Pg 1
  • Situations Wanted: Niles Daily Times, Thursday, August 24th, 1933, Pg 14
  • Elizabeth Verbias Obituary: Warren Tribune Chronicle 23 Dec 1944, Pg 7
  • Funeral Services: Niles Daily Times, Thursday, December 28th, 1944, Pg 3
  • Car Skids In Gravel, Hits Ditch: Warren Tribune Chronicle, August 3, 1936 1:1
  • Helen Laboda, North Road, Is Victim: Niles Daily Times, Monday August 3, 1936, Pg 1
  • Girard Man Leaves Bus, Killed By Passing Truck: Niles Daily Times, Thursday, March 8th, 1945, Pg 1
  • Samuel Morrall and Helen Krivac Marriage Record: Marriage records (Cuyahoga County, Ohio), 1810-1941; indexes, 1810-1952,
Thrown Down A Well: An Attempted Murder in Kingsville

Thrown Down A Well: An Attempted Murder in Kingsville

June 27, 1850
Kingsville, Ashtabula County, Ohio

Kingsville is a quaint town in northern Ashtabula County, having been established in 1810, but has a profound history for the macabre as well. Residents were scandalized in 1853 by the suicide of one of its own, Abel Brumbley, who wound a rope around his neck, attached a stone to the end of it, and jumped in a pond to his death. Kingsville was also the seat of the county infirmary which burned down in 1858. The fire was started accidentally by one inmate who survived but caused the death of six other inmates. 

Not only does Kingsville have its store of tragedies, but is also home to several ghosts, one a railway spirit made famous when the Marion Daily Star remarked on the phenomenon.

Kingsville has a ghost that promenades the railway track and swings a blue lantern in its ghostly hands. An express train was stopped one night by the light, and the ghost disappeared into the woods.

Marion Daily Star, January 22, 1885 

The Kingsville Library on Academy Street has a resident ghost wearing a suit and top hat who has been spotted by a few librarians over the years. Also, mysterious occurrences have been recorded at the Simak Welcome Center on School Street. The building was once the old brick schoolhouse, originally built in 1908. After visitors experienced the sounds of children’s voices and other unexplained occurrences, a team of ghost hunters, Lakeview Paranormal, went to investigate. They caught EVP’s, strange noises, and even witnessed a flashlight operated by an unseen hand.

Yet prior to these known stories of Kingsville, one such story exists that without one newspaper article, would be lost to time. 

Rollin Harlow Harmon was born in about 1823 in Kingsville, the son of Reuben Harmon and Harriet Sheldon. Both of his parents had died prior to his marriage to Anna Mohr on March 19, 1850 in Kingsville. Anna was 24, having been born in Canada on October 15, 1825 to Thomas Mohr and Anna Elizabeth Yeager.

With Rollin’s marriage to Anna, he obtained a fine piece of property. There they lived for three months before Rollin decided he was quite weary of his new wife. Within the first month of marriage, Anna conceived a child, but whether or not Rollin was aware of the delicate condition of his wife before hatching his evil plan is quite unknown. Perhaps the information aided his decision to murder Anna and keep the parcel of land she had brought to their union. 

On June 26th, Rollin began to behave very oddly and often lost himself in thought. He eventually told Anna he very much wished to be rid of her, a comment that put her on edge. He ordered the hired man away from the vicinity, busying him with far off tasks. Rollin attempted to draw Anna out of the house by pulling her from about the waist. He told her that the bucket to the well had fallen in and he required her help to retrieve it. She obeyed, albeit with much suspicion, and stood at the side of the well opposite him. When she peered down to see if the bucket was truly down the deep hole, Rollin dashed around and shoved his wife. Despite his determination to pitch her forward, she managed to keep her footing and did not fall in. Trembling in fear, she hastened to the safety of the house and he followed. When she asked him why he had pushed her, he told her he was simply acting in jest and asked her to come back outside. She adamantly refused and spent the remainder of the day perplexed and frightened. Perhaps Anna eventually came to accept the notion that Rollin had been fooling with her, because she told no one and continued with her daily activities.

The following day, Rollin sent the hired man into the woods to fetch the cattle. Anna was engaged in the household chores when Rollin approached her, once again asking her assistance at the well. She rebuffed him and he reacted by scooping her up. He stifled her screams beneath the firm clamp of his hand, his fingernails causing cuts on her cheek and eyelid. Rollin carried her outdoors while Anna attempted to kick herself free. He brought her to the well where a struggle ensued. He could not lift her over the well’s curb, so he kicked the stones away and held her over the chasm, releasing her to the darkness below. She dropped headfirst thirty feet downward, twisting in midair so that her feet landed in three feet of water.  Following a great splash, Anna found herself overall unharmed but in the predicament of being trapped down a well while her murderous husband loomed overhead.

Rollin looked down at Anna in disbelief, angry that all his scheming and effort had come to naught. He called down to her that he would help her climb out, but she fretted that as soon as she was above, he would attempt to throw her down again. Yet she had no choice, unless she wished to remain standing waist-deep in cold water, so she complied by attempting to hold onto a pole he thrust down towards her. She could not grip it, therefore they abandoned that idea. Thinking industriously, Rollin fetched the ropes used for tying the cows and by using them was able to pull Anna up and out of the well. He ordered his shivering wife to immediately return to the house and change her clothing. However, the hired man came along at that moment and witnessed the battered and drenched woman retreating from the well, trembling with cold and fright. Rollin told his man that Anna had fallen into the well on accident, but there was no cause for alarm as he had managed to pull her out on his own. 

Perhaps to collect his emotions, Rollin left at once for his brother’s and returned a short time later. He harnessed the horses and commenced harrowing his field. Anna took this opportunity to escape; crossing a field, climbing over a fence, and finally collapsing at the doorstep of her neighbor’s, the Parkers. They pulled her inside and attempted to discern what horror had befallen young Anna, but she proved to be in such a state of shock that much time passed before she could begin to murmur of her husband’s attempt on her life. Dark bruises formed across her skin and her face bled from the lacerations caused by Rollin’s fingernails. After she could alas tell her story to the Parker’s, Mr. Parker walked to the field Rollin was working. Parker felt out the situation by first engaging Rollin in conversation concerning the crops and found the farmer to be calm, lacking any appearance of agitation. Parker then approached the subject of Anna falling down the well and Rollin assured his neighbor that she had fallen in quite by accident.

The Parkers notified the local esquire, J. G. Thurber, of the attempted murder and Rollin was arrested. During the first night of his incarceration, Rollin managed to escape, fleeing into the cover of the woods. After an arduous manhunt, a Mr. Benson came upon Rollin in his hiding place and the rogue man brandished a knife at his pursuer, threatening to “rip him up”. However, Rollin was alas subdued and booked into the county jail on charges of assault with intent to kill.

What happened after is a mystery lost to time, however we have a vital clue that tells us Rollin was most likely acquitted. In 1850, it was the year of the census and Kingsville’s census was recorded on the 4th of September. In this record, Rollin was shown as living in the home of his brother Catlin with their younger brother Hollis. Anna was listed living with her parents Thomas and Anna Mohr and brother Samuel. It appears that Rollin and Anna were blessedly living separately lives at this point, but Rollin was living a life of freedom with his family. It is possible Rollin received a light sentence that did not involve incarceration or was set free altogether, though we cannot say for sure. Had he been incarcerated at this time, he would have been listed as an “inmate” in the city of his imprisonment, not listed at his usual place of residence.

In January of 1851, Anna gave birth to a daughter, Ella.

Seven years after the attempted murder of his wife, Rollin died. He was a young man of 33 or 34, and was buried in East Lake Cemetery in North Kingsville. His brother Martin named his infant son after Rollin in 1860, but the child died when he was a year old.

Anna and her parents relocated to Erie, Pennsylvania. There, she married Isaac Mosher and they had at least one child for certain according to records, a son Frank in 1867. Anna spent the remainder of her life in Erie, raising her children and stepchildren. She died in 1888 at the age of 63 in Millcreek Township and was buried in Erie Cemetery. Rollin and Anna’s daughter Ella lived a long life and died an old woman.

Though it is frustrating to find no reports of what occurred to Rollin after his arrest and details of his trial—if there was a trial—it is comforting to know that Anna went on to enjoy a relatively long life. The fact that she survived falling down a well is truly remarkable. If it were not for the painstaking efforts of Find A Grave volunteers, we would not know what happened to Anna after her husband in his viciousness and complete lack of empathy, attempted to take the life of her and their unborn child. His actions were premeditated and not performed in a heightened emotional state as his failed attempt one day was carried out in a second attempt on the next. He was truly a cowardly, cold-hearted man who can be placed in the ranks with Ira Gardner in regards to the criminals of Northeast Ohio history. 


  • History of Ashtabula County, Ohio; Large, Moina W.; Topeka; Historical Pub. Co. 1924
  • Ohio Ghost Hunter Guide VI by Jannette Rae Quackenbush, 2014, pages 37-41
  • Marriage Record: “Ohio, County Marriages, 1789-2016,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 15 July 2014), Ashtabula > Marriage records 1849-1872 vol D > image 16 of 150; county courthouses, Ohio.
  • United States Census,1850: Rollin Harmon in the house of Catlin Harmon,
  • United States Census, 1850: Anna Harmon in home of Thomas Mohr,
  • Assault with Intent to Kill: Portage Sentinel, July 8, 1850

The Five Wives of Reuben Sponsler: A Case of Uxorcide in Vernon Township

March 1868
Vernon, Trumbull County, Ohio

The old town hall at Vernon Center in 2020, ©Ashley Armstrong

As quiet and unassuming as Vernon Township is in present day, it is hard to believe that it was once a veritable mecca for gossip, rumors, and assumed murder. I wrote about Vernon in my recent post about the shooting death of William Holcomb and around the same time his friend James Sawyer went to trial for his murder, another local found himself accused of multiple uxorcide. 

Reuben Sponsler was born October 28, 1831 in Columbiana County, OH, the son of Henry and Susanna Fox Sponsler. On January 2, 1849, he married Rhoda Langley, who was three years his senior, in Vernon. Rhoda was the daughter of John Langley and Mary Waldorf. Rhoda birthed five children, Abigail, Mary, Elmer, Franklin, and Adda, the last passing in infancy.

1870 Map of eastern side of Vernon Twp.

In 1860, the Sponsler family resided in Vernon after living in Pennsylvania for a short time. Reuben worked as a farmer with his real estate valued at $4,300 and his personal estate valued at $1,000. He kept a live-in servant, Sarah Brown, aged nineteen. They lived on a farm on the north side of Rt 88 at the border of Vernon and Greenville, PA, next to the present-day State Line Bar and Gril. A crop field sits where the Sponslers once lived.

The field north of Rt 88 where the Sponslers once lived
Image via Google Maps

The same year the Sponslers buried their infant daughter, Adda, Reuben’s wife Rhoda suddenly fell ill, dying on July 4, 1864 and was buried nearby in Giddings Cemetery

Western Reserve Chronicle, March 28, 1866, Page 2

After a respectable mourning period, Reuben married Rhoda’s younger sister Lucinda in 1865. They had a daughter, Lucia, in February of 1866. Lucinda sickened and died in haste at 31 years old on March 10, 1866, with her burial in Giddings Cemetery. Lucia was taken in by Lucinda’s brother George and raised with his children as a foster child. 

Wasting no time, Reuben married Jane McMichael on September 25, 1866 in Jefferson, Ashtabula Co., OH. They seemingly had no children before Jane, too, fell ill and died on March 2, 1868. She was only twenty-seven years old. Buried in Giddings Cemetery, her plot among the stones of Rhoda and Lucinda served as a monument to the misfortune of Reuben Sponsler. 

Though some pitied Reuben’s poor luck, the three graves sounded alarm bells and brought scrutiny upon the widower. Family, friends, and neighbors became watchful, and began observing his behavior after burying his third wife in six years. Even while Jane lay on her deathbed, those caring for her noticed she suffered similar symptoms to those of Reuben’s second wife, Lucinda, before she passed. They perceived Reuben to act with incredible indifference before and after his wife’s death, leaving many to wonder if he played a role in her illness. Whispers of poison were heard around the township, the lethal dose administered by Reuben to free himself from another burdensome wife as soon as he tired of her. Once again the community became abuzz with gossip and speculation, inciting similar interest and activity betwixt neighbors as William Holcomb’s death two years prior. Not only was murder by poison a topic of conversation, but adultery too. It became common knowledge that Reuben had carried out several affairs during the course of his marriages.

Coroner Edmund Reed, Esq. decided to make an inquest into the suspicious deaths of the women. He put together a coroner’s jury. The inquest was held on March 18, 1868 after Jane had been buried about two weeks’ time. The men on the jury disinterred her body from the cemetery and Drs. Woodworth, Brackin, and Hamilton made an examination. 

Jane’s autopsy was thorough and lengthy, employing not only the three doctors, but other men in the medical field. They agreed that the symptoms prior to death aligned with those of poisoning and Dr. Woodworth collected a sample of Jane’s stomach contents. The jury waited while the doctor spent a week conducting a chemical analysis, aided by Professor J.C. Cutler of Cleveland. It was not until Thursday, March 26, that Woodworth came to the jury with his findings in hand. The result: no traces of poison could be found in the stomach contents of Jane Sponsler.

The medical team stated that despite having no trace of poison in the stomach, two known poisons existed that would not show up in a chemical analysis if a day or two had passed since the victim had swallowed them. In my limited knowledge of poisons, a handful could easily have been obtained by Reuben locally. For example, strychnine and arsenic—commonly used to kill vermin—are detectable poisons. Cyanide, on the other hand, kills almost instantly and is not always detectable. The presented symptoms of cyanide poisoning include nausea, vomiting, respiratory distress, and disorientation. Cyanide can rapidly diminish within the body after death and fail to show up in a chemical analysis. Therefore, in the case of Jane Sponsler, the doctors could not completely rule out poison as a cause of death. Yet, due to the lack of physical evidence, the jury could not accuse Reuben of murder by his behavior alone. According to them, being unfaithful and apathetic did not make him a murderer. 

The jury’s verdict stated, “that Jane Sponsler came to her death by reason of extreme debility, caused by trouble and anxiety, induced by improper intimacy of her husband, Ruben [sic] Sponsler, with other women coupled with indications of poison having here been administered, the nature of which and by whom was unknown to the jury.” 

Despite the probability that Jane met her end by poison, the jury could not say if it was Reuben who gave it to her. Who’s to say that she, brokenhearted over her husband’s unfaithfulness, did not take the poison herself? As for the two previous wives, they did not have thorough autopsies, therefore a concrete cause of death besides illness could not be provided. Thusly, the inquest reached its end and Reuben Sponsler walked away a free man, having dodged a trial and inevitable death sentence if convicted.

Western Reserve Chronicle, June 15, 1870, Page 3

His legal troubles were not over. Ralsa Clark, a prominent landowner in Vernon, took Reuben to court in 1868. Mark Goldrich, too, acted as plaintiff in a separate case against Reuben. Again, in 1870, Reuben had a court date with Ralsa Clark for an unspecified issue and lost, leaving Reuben to pay a hefty fine.

Mary Swartz, a local woman, was not swayed by the rumors surrounding Reuben and the reputation he had gained as a womanizer and presumed wife-killer. Perhaps she had reached a point of desperation, being around thirty years old at the time. No doubt Reuben could charm and manipulate his way into any woman’s heart, so she allowed him to take her hand in matrimony. Together, they had a son, Charles “Charley” in1871 in Vernon and a daughter, Artie, born in 1872. All the while, Reuben continued his illicit liaisons with other women and when Mary discovered the betrayal, she took action. On March 26,1873 Mary was granted a divorce from Reuben due to adultery.

Western Reserve Chronicle, March 26, 1873, Page 3

Mary died February 9, 1886 at the age of forty-seven. 

Reuben moved to Shenango Township, PA. At the age of 55, he married 42-year-old widow Mrs. Martha Iliff from West Middlesex at her town of residence on April 26, 1887. Her husband William had died on February 26, 1885.

In 1900, Reuben and Martha resided in Hickory Township, Mercer Co., Ohio. I suspect that they did not stay together for much longer, as she was not listed on his death certificate as either his spouse — he was noted as a widower — or informant.

On October 23, 1908 Reuben died in Wheatland after a week’s duration of pneumonia. He was seventy-nine years old, having enjoyed the long life not afforded to his unfortunate wives. He was buried in Haywood Cemetery in West Middlesex. Martha lived until the age of 85, passing away in 1930 and was also buried in Haywood Cemetery.

Reuben’s Children

This is possibly not a comprehensive list of Reuben’s children and I have only listed the children with records listing Reuben as their father.

Abigail (Born 1852), daughter of Rhoda, married Jacob Loutzenhizer on Nov 15, 1866 in Trumbull Co. They had a daughter, Ida, and Abigail died at the age of 25 in 1877. She is buried in Giddings Cemetery in Vernon. 

Franklin (born 1856), son of Rhoda, does not appear in records after he is 4.

Elmer (born June 27, 1862), son of Rhoda, married Emma Teresa Poteete on Jan 17, 1886 in Williamson, IL. Their children were Alvin, Bess, and Leo. He died February 3, 1948 in Carbondale, Jackson Co., IL. He is buried in Oakdale Cemetery in Carbondale. 

Adda (born July 3, 1864 in Vernon), daughter of Rhoda, died August 2, 1864 in Mercer Co., PA. She is buried in Giddings Cemetery in Vernon. 

Lucia (born 1866), daughter of Lucinda, first married Mr. Eckstein. After his death, she married William E. Morford, son of Andrew Morford, who had been Reuben’s neighbor in Vernon. She died Jan 11, 1954 in Sunnyside, Yakima, Washington. She is buried in Sunnyside Cemetery.

Charles “Charley” Carter (born November 20, 1871), son of Mary, worked as a brakeman. He married Martha “Mattie” Rice on May 30, 1891 in Mercer Co., PA. He died January 13, 1956 in Warren, OH.

Artie May (born 1872), daughter of Mary, married Alexander Wilson on July 4, 1893 in Mercer Co., PA. They had two sons, Walter Leroy and Charles Edward. She married Henry Keck on December 1, 1916 in Trumbull Co., Ohio. She also married Henry E. Yochum on May 22, 1922 in Erie, PA. She died Sept. 10, 1960 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Harmonsburg. 


  • The Vernon Poison Affair: Western Reserve Chronicle, April 01, 1868, Page 3
  • Reuben Sponsler and Rhoda Langly Marriage Record: “Ohio, County Marriages, 1789-2013,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 15 July 2014), Trumbull > Marriage records 1842-1849 vol 4 > image 168 of 210; county courthouses, Ohio.
  • Assignee’s Sale: Western Reserve Chronicle, January 23, 1867, Page 2
  • Court Proceedings: Western Reserve chronicle, June 08, 1870, Page 3
  • Reuben Sponsler and Jane McMichael Marriage Record: “Ohio, County Marriages, 1789-2013,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 15 July 2014), Ashtabula > Marriage records 1864-1873 vol F > image 97 of 292; county courthouses, Ohio.
  • Reuben Sponsler and Marsha Iliff Marriage Record: “Pennsylvania, County Marriages, 1885-1950,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 16 December 2016), Mercer > Marriage license applications, 1885-1887, vol 1, no 1-596 > image 321 of 338; county courthouses, Pennsylvania.
  • Reuben and Mary Sponsler divorce: Divorce Index, Warren Trumbull County Public Library
  • 1860 Census: “United States Census, 1860,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 24 March 2017), Ohio > Trumbull > Vernon Township > image 14 of 24; from “1860 U.S. Federal Census – Population,” database, ( : n.d.); citing NARA microfilm publication M653 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).
  • 1900 Census: “United States Census, 1900,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 5 August 2014), Pennsylvania > Mercer > ED 128 Hickory Township (excl. Sharon & Sharpsville Boroughs)) > image 36 of 51; citing NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).
  • Some Common Homicidal Poisons:
  • Abigail Sponsler and Jacob Loutzenhizer Marriage Record: Ohio, County Marriages, 1774-1993;
  • Artie Sponsler and Alex Wilson marriage record:, Marriage license docket v. 6-7 1892-1899
  • Henry Keck and Artie Wilson Marriage Record: Ohio, Trumbull County, marriage records, v. 20, 8 Jul 1916-19 Mar 1918;
  • Wilda May Duffy and Henry Yochum marriage record:, Marriages, v. 35 (no. 711-1200) – v. 36 (no. 1-305); 1922 (Mar 25-Oct 18)
  • Artie May Yochum death certificate: Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission; Pennsylvania, USA; Certificate Number Range: 081601-084300; Source Information; Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1944
  • Charles Sponsler and Mattie Rice Marriage Record: “Pennsylvania, County Marriages, 1885-1950,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 7 January 2020), > image 1 of 1; county courthouses, Pennsylvania.

Death On A Lonely Dirt Road: The Murder of 17-Year-Old Mildred Moore

October 28, 1953
Irish Ridge Road, Marshall County, W
est Virginia

Several years ago, I was reading through one of my great aunt Lulu Winters’ diaries when I came upon a startling entry that read:

“Friday, October 30, 1953 – Arnold McCardle’s niece got murdered on Irish Ridge by 68 year old Chas Ray who stayed there. She was 17. Mildred Virginia Moore. So Iva called for Ed about plot at cemetery. I hunted for him. Funeral Sunday 2:30 at our church. Alta, Lila, and I to sing.”

Mildred Moore in an undated school photo

I set about researching the story and with the help of fellow Find-A-Graver Charles Logston, we unearthed the details of what occurred that October day. Unfortunately, it is one of those events long forgotten through the decades and I want to make certain Mildred remains in Moundsville, West Virginia’s memory .

A Grim Discovery

While driving along an isolated dirt road known as Irish Ridge near Moundsville, West Virginia, a Soil Conservation Service employee came upon a dreadful scene. Harold Burke had been doing field work when he discovered a teenaged girl laying behind a pickup truck sitting beside the road.  The discovery was made at 2 o’clock on that fall afternoon, and after Burke parked his vehicle, he checked on the girl to see what distressed her. To his horror, he realized that she was deceased, having two bullet wounds in her head and two more in her back. He rushed to the nearest phone and called police.

State Troopers W.P. Dove and Joseph A. Shroutt arrived shortly after and discovered a second body in the pickup truck . Slumped in the driver’s seat was an elderly man with a single bullet hole to the head and .32 revolver found beneath him.

Investigators identified the body of the teenaged girl as that of seventeen-year-old Mildred Moore and the man in the truck as sixty-eight-year-old Charles Ray. Mildred lived with her parents on a farm in rural Sand Hill township. Charles Ray, a retired co-op worker, lived at 303 Baker Ave. and worked for the Moore family as a hired hand. According to my aunt, he was living with the Moore family at the time, which was more than likely a temporary situation.

The pair had last been seen around noon at the Moore home when they left for the main road to purchase groceries from a produce truck. Investigators determined that Mildred had been in the act of running away when Ray shot her four times before turning the revolver on herself. It was unclear what series of events led to the murder suicide. Family and friends could provide law enforcement with no clues towards a motive. Marshall County Coroner Ernest D. Conner determined that the theory of a suicide pact was not possible due to the position of Mildred’s body and the location of her wounds.

Family Background

Charles Grover Cleveland Ray was born on Nov 15, 1884 in West Virginia, the son of David Bruce and Ella Gray Ray. His mother died when he was nine years old and his father remarried to Rose Barnett. Charles married Mary Leta West and had a son, Charles Edward in 1919 and a daughter, Freda Vina in 1922. 

On Charles Rays’ 1918 WWI draft registration card, he described himself as having medium height, of medium build, with light brown hair and light blue eyes. He wrote that he was employed as a “sivel [civil] engineer” for Wheeling Terminal Railroad Company. At the time, he lived with his wife at 1311 North Street in Moundsville. 

Mary Leta died of a heart attack five years before Charles committed the murder.

Mildred Virginia Moore was born on April 7, 1936, the daughter of Everett and Elsie McCardle Moore. They lived on a farm in Elm Grove on Stull Run. A little known fact not published in the newspaper articles was that Mildred and Charles were related. Mildred’s maternal grandmother, Minnie, was Charles’ first cousin. Because my mom’s side of the family is from West Virginia, I understand some of the dynamics of family in West Virginia and many rural communities for that matter. I’ve found that even long after my mom and her relatives moved to Ohio, they treat second and third cousins as close family. Blood relation is blood relation, no matter the distance, so Mildred’s parents no doubt trusted Charles Ray with their daughter’s safety.

John Ray and Mary Ann Games children:
Leander Ray (married Sarah McWhorter), brother of David Bruce Ray (married Rose Barnett)
Minnie Ray, dau. of Leander Ray (married James McCardle), first cousin of Charles G.C. Ray, son of Bruce Ray
Elsie McCardle, dau. of James and Minnie McCardle (Married Everett Moore)
Mildred Moore
, dau. of Everett and Elsie Moore


What passed between them that day while driving on Irish Ridge is a mystery and one could theorize until they are red in the face on why Charles Ray committed such a terrible act.

Charles Ray was buried with his wife in Wood Hill Cemetery in Moundsville.

Mildred was laid to rest at Sand Hill Methodist Church Cemetery on Sunday, November 3. A considerable gathering of mourners filled the church, even crowding in the vestibule to hear the funeral service. My great-grandmother Alta, her sister Lulu, and two other women from the congregation sang during the service.

Mildred’s stone at Sand Hill Cemetery, photographed by my cousin Carla Tustin

After the horrific murder of their only child, we can only imagine how terrible life for the Moores became. No doubt they also carried the guilt of hiring a man, a relative they trusted, who turned a gun on their daughter. Everett, the father, suffered a brain aneurysm and passed away in 1957 at the age of 48. Elsie passed away in 1992 and shares a stone with her brother James in Sand Hill Cemetery.


The Slaying of 16-Year-Old Maria Buel by Her Stepfather Ira West Gardner

Trigger Warning: This post contains accounts of sexual abuse and fatal injuries to a minor

I tend to avoid such high profile topics, focusing instead on the tragedies that have been forgotten with time, however this case is very near and dear to my heart. Also, I have much I wish to say about this case. 

My interpretation of Maria

Maria’s Ballad

As a child, I had such a fondness for history and genealogy and this being before the internet age, my paternal grandmother supplied me with all the tools to sate my appetite for making great discoveries. She had a book from the 70’s entitled “Mecca”, a history of my hometown, that was written by Thomas Kachur, a local and acquaintance to my grandparents. I loved this book and spent hours soaking in its wealth of information on my township’s history. My grandma knew of my adoration for this book and eventually bequeathed it to me when I was a teenager. Today, it is one of my most treasured possessions. In one part of the book, Kachur included several poems written by Mecca locals in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He stated that though the poem I have transcribed below was written about the murder of a Gustavus girl that had occurred one township over in 1832, it was discovered among local papers. That poem, typed on paper, read:

Attend, my friends, whilst I relate
In rustic verse Maria’s fate.
A lovely girl of fifteen years,
In health and beauty she appears.

She was her mother’s fond delight,
She was charming, beauty bright,
Who would have thought she would so soon
Been sent to molder in the tomb.

The cloudless skies appeared serene,
And not a fear to intervene,
Her hopes were bright for happiness,
She hoped to live and die in peace.

But, oh, alas, her hopes soon fled,
A storm soon gathered round her head
And burst upon her in her bloom,
And sent her to her silent tomb.

Think, oh my soul, that dreadful night
Which filled her heart with dread afright
To think her father, here would be
And force her to act impiously.

In silent watches of the night,
Came to her bed with footsteps light,
“Maria, let me lie with thee
Of blood relation we are free.”

“Of blood relation we are none
You have adopted me your own,
How can you then my bed defile
Since I am your adopted child.

“O, cruel father,” she did say,
“Unto your bed return I pray,
Don’t let such thoughts as those arise
Your Maker’s laws thus to despise.”

Unto Maria then he said:
“I will return unto my bed,
If you will ever silent be
I’ll come no more to trouble thee.”

This solemn vow he soon forgot
His Maker’s law regarded not,
He plunged in sin beyond degree,
And ruined his own family.

She told her mother of her distress,
And of her father’s wickedness,
And that at home she could not stay
That she had better go away.

He hearing this flew in a rage
To murder her he did engage,
She fled for life to neighbors near,
Saying: “Protect me, my friends most dear.”

The neighbors they did her protect,
And kept him from that wicked act.
He, through persuasion, homeward went,
His wicked heart was not content.

In crime he was not satisfied,
He went and lay by the wayside
Thinking that she would pass that way
By morning light, or break of day.

He then in a deceitful mood
Feigned himself kind and good.
He wished her to come home again,
Her goods and clothing to obtain.

By the persuasion of her friends
She lamb-like went unto her end.
Alas it fills my heart with grief
To think that she had no relief.

Her mother went to bring her home,
With fear and trembling she did come,
Her father met her at the gate,
Where he deliberately did wait.

Maria, can’t you stay with me.”
“No, sir,” she said, “that cannot be.”
He from a pocket drew a knife
And pierced her heart and took her life.

He pierced her heart, the blood did flow,
And with sarcastic smile said: “Go
You, yesterday, outwitted me,
Today I have outwitted thee.”

“Oh, cruel father, how could you
Your hands in innocence imbue!
How could you set that fatal snare,
And take the life of one so fair!”

You guardian step-fathers beware
Of those entrusted to your care,
Treat them with tenderness and love
And merit blessings from above.

Ira West Gardner was the man
Who formed this base and wicked plan,
No fear of God before his eyes
Defied the ruler of the skies

Maria F. Buel was her name,
She was a girl deserving fame
Alas, she met a cruel end
By him who ought to have been her friend.

His counselors for him did plead
But in his case could not succeed,
So dark and bloody was the train,
That guilt on him did still remain.

Full testimony did appear
And when the jury came to hear
In verdict they were soon agreed
That he was guilty of the deed.

Your time is short on earth to stay,
Prepare for death without delay.
Though you no pity showed at all
May God have mercy on her soul.

– Author Unknown

This poem was written in 1843, over ten years after Maria Buel was murdered by her step-father, Ira West Gardner in Gustavus, Ohio. The author, so moved by Maria’s plight, took pen to paper to record a romanticized version of the events leading up to and after her death. This is the version passed from generation to generation of locals to who cannot hear the name of Gustavus without recalling Maria Buel, a name that has become synonymous with the town of her murder. 190 years after her death, she is still remembered, her innocence and the senseless manner of her death capturing hearts all around. 

Today, Gustavus is a bucolic farming community of less than 1,000 residents, mostly open with its pastures and crop fields. In Maria’s time, Gustavus was still heavily wooded in most parts with thick underbrush that settlers had begun clearing for farmland when the first white man arrived thirty years prior. The first settlers had built their homes at Gustavus center and fanned out from there.

On a stretch of lonely road lays a tiny cemetery, one of three in the township. The most popular grave sits closest to the roadside, set away from the rest, an intricately-carved stone marking the place of her eternal rest. It reads: 

In memory of the young, beautiful and innocent Frances Maria Buel who was butchered by her stepfather, Ira W. Gardner, on Aug. 8, 1832 in the 16th year of her age.

The poem on the bottom was written by the murdered girl’s friend, Phoebe Gilder. The complete poem that Phoebe wrote read, “Death chilled this fair fountain ere sorrow hath stained it; T’was frozen in all the pure light of its course; And she sleeps till the sunshine of heaven unchains it; to water that Eden where first was its source; When rising again with bright seraphs attended; May she join that blest throng forever on high; Where vile thieves and murderers must be ever excluded; And where pleasure abounds with never a sigh.”

The Gardner Family

Ira West Gardner was born on August 4, 1797 in Lee, Berkshire County, Massachusetts, the son of Varnum and Mehitable Tuttle Gardner. He came to Ohio and married Anna Logan on Oct 17, 1824 in Ellsworth (once part of Trumbull County but now lies inside the boundaries of Mahoning County). According to the research of Cleveland based author and historian, William G. Krejci, Anna was likely the daughter of William and Lucretia Logan of Ellsworth. William Logan was Ellsworth’s first Cooper—a maker and repairer of casks and barrels—and died during the war of 1812. Anna’s mother remarried to Isaac Allen in 1815. Anna told Gardner she was a widow before they married and she brought to the marriage her daughter, Frances Maria Buel, and a son of which nothing is known. Maria was born in 1816.

They came to Gustavus at some point, as Gardner appears in the tax records in the years 1828-1832. He did not own much property, renting a home from his neighbor, Riverius Bidwell, and had two horses worth $40 each and one cow worth $8 to his name.

Gardner is described as having a unique character, good-humored, but often finding himself in a depression. His depression was due to both family troubles and financial hardships. Bidwell gave him a series of loans to get him out of binds. Gardner was known to avoid labor and any hard work in particular, so no doubt he brought much of his financial trouble on himself.

In 1826, Gardner took his wagon loaded with wheat from home and when he returned later that day, he was bleeding profusely from a head wound. He said he had fallen from the wagon and hit his head. He refused a doctor, but he was restless during that night. Both his wife and his brother, Elisha Gardner, tended him and found him to be quite out of his mind. After this incident, he complained of having headaches.

In 1827, Elisha Gardner visited Gardner while he was recovering from jaundice. Gardner had a blind man living in his house and when he tried to introduce this man to Elisha Gardner, he did it in a manner quite bizarre that it stood out to his brother for years to come. 

When Gardner discovered that Maria and her sibling were illegitimate and not a product of a previous marriage, he argued with his wife and went outside where he sat under the cover of some hedges. Elisha Gardner came to him and found his brother in a terrible mood; sullen and brooding. Gardner told Elisha that he had only just discovered the illegitimacy, and because he and Anna had no children of their own, the shame was unbearable. He wanted to leave and go to Michigan, but Elisha told him that would not be a good idea. Gardner then said he would go to sea instead and travel far away from this place, but again Elisha talked him into reason. Gardner eventually made his way back into his house but refused to sleep with his wife for many nights afterward. Anna told Elisha that she was afraid of Gardner and asked him to stay, so he slept at the house a few nights until Gardner’s treacherous demeanor dissipated.

The Gardners apparently reconciled to a certain point, seeing as in following year, Anna gave birth to a daughter, Jane, born in 1828, and a son, Giles, born in 1830. 

Gardner should finally have felt at peace, now having two legitimate children, but he continued to have little respect for his wife and her first two children, especially Maria. He treated her like chattel; a possession to be used at his pleasure and not at all like a human being, a daughter to be loved and protected. 

It is said that Maria was very beautiful, of prepossessing countenance. Surely, she caught the glances of the neighborhood boys and men alike, but Gardner was jealous and possessive of his step-daughter. In June of 1832, she had fallen ill and Gardner refused to obtain medicine for her because he discovered she had gone to meeting with a Mr. Roberts. Gardner told her she was sick due to her going with this man. A neighbor calling in to see Maria at the time of her illness witnessed this exchange of words.

Either before or after this incident involving Maria’s illness, Gardner, Anna, and Maria attended a camp meeting with a friend, Mr. Wilson. On the drive home, Gardner urged the horses to a hasty gallop. Anna asked him to slow the horses, but he ignored her. Mr. Wilson then tried to speak with Gardner, but Gardner gave a half-hearted response, appearing as though his mind was elsewhere. When Anna later recalled this event, she said that he seemed so angry that “he drove off scorching the road.” 

These camp meetings, or revivals that the Gardners attended, were extremely popular on the American frontier before many churches were founded. As a wave of the Great Awakening swept the country to stir hearts and minds that had grown stale, people from all over came together in a central area to experience religion over a few day’s time. People who lived too far to commute each day lodged together at the dwelling of the host or camped outside during the night and it was a great way for people to meet others from different townships. One of the circuit preachers at these revivals was my great-uncle, Rev. Isaac Winans, who stood on the scaffold at the execution of Ira West Gardner the following year.

We do not know when Gardner’s sexual abuse of Maria began. It may have been that summer, perhaps even earlier. I wonder if Gardner observed Maria with Mr. Roberts at the camp meeting and did not like what he saw, which is why he drove home so recklessly. Largely in part of the poem that was mass-produced and read far and wide throughout the Mahoning Valley, many assume Gardner made only unwelcome advances to Maria that she rebuffed, though the text hints that more went on. We know by the account from their neighbor Bidwell that Gardner most likely raped Maria at least once. In Bidwell’s statement, Maria confided to him that Gardner “had criminal intercourse with her in a manner that would send him to the penitentiary”. When Bidwell confronted Gardner with these accusations, he told Bidwell that they were not true. This claim by sexual predators that their victim is lying is a tale as old as time and is not only the reason many criminals were never punished, but why many girls, boys, and women stayed quiet and lived with the abuse. Though this still goes on today, we know better, and have rape kits and DNA to assist with truth-finding. For Maria to have a voice and speak out against her abuser was unheard of for her time and though we think of her as a helpless victim, she had a certain strength about her too. 

Perhaps Gardner attempted to rationalize his behavior to Maria, as we know predators to do, in a way to break down his victim so that she will both succumb and stay quiet. I wonder if he reminded her constantly of her illegitimacy and told her she was worthless, having little opportunity to marry a man of good standing. He may have said she should be thankful for the attentions he gave her because that was all she deserved and nothing more. We see in the way that he withheld medicine from her, that she or her mother had little say in any matter. Gardner had to be in complete control of all situations and when Maria finally defied him, the loss of this control sent him spiraling into red-hot fury.

Darkness In August

On August 4th, a Saturday night, Gardner went out without a coat and stayed away from home the entire night. His wife considered this unusual behavior for him and she did not know where he had gone.

During the 6th and 7th of August, neighbors noticed Maria running from home, disheveled, barefoot, and without a handkerchief to cover her shoulders with. She would return home, only to be seen running away again as if Gardner was playing a game of cat and mouse with her. She finally took haven with a neighbor, Harlow Mills, telling him of the treatment she had received at the hands of her step-father. Maria’s mother went to Mills and implored him to talk to Gardner as she had apparently had no success or was too timid to talk sense into her husband. Mills went to Gardner to discuss the discord in the family and attempted to come to peaceable terms. Mills spoke with Gardner at long length and told him that perhaps it would be best for Maria to go off on her own. She was no longer considered to be a child and if she did not wish to stay at the Gardner home any longer, she should not be forced to live there.

Gardner agreed to these terms, yet as soon as he discovered Maria was hiding at Mills’, he told Mills to send her home at once and without the company of the farmer. Gardner wished to speak to Maria in private. However, some time after Mills left for home, he returned stating that Maria had denied Gardner’s request. Maria’s mother again pleaded with Mills and asked him to help restore the peace. Sometime later, Mills came back to the Gardner’s for a third time, this time bringing along his wife. Anna alerted Gardner to the visitors and told him that the Mills wished to speak with him.

“I do not want to talk,” Gardner replied. “If Maria comes home, things will go well; if not, they will go wrong.”

When the Mills went home and walked towards the barn, Maria ran out in a fright, telling them that Gardner was coming. They saw Maria’s step-father approaching from a distance and Mills told Maria to stay put. When Gardner walked up, Mills hindered him from coming through the barn door. Gardner asked Mills why he could not come in.

Mills replied, “If you intend to kill her as you threaten, you shall not do it here.”

Gardner said, “I do not wish to hurt her; merely to converse with her.” 

Feeling that Gardner indeed was not a harm after all, Mills finally allowed Gardner to come inside the barn and talk to his step-daughter. We do not know what passed between them, but Gardner left without incident after having the chance to speak with Maria. Awhile later, Gardner asked Mills to come to his house and though he did, they did not come to any sort of agreement. 

Another neighbor dropped in at Gardner’s requesting Maria’s shoes and handkerchief so that he could take them to her. Gardner was adamant that Maria could not have any of her belongings unless she returned home. 

Throughout that entire day of August 7th, Gardner was on a rampage, searching all over for Maria. She was forced to move her hiding place, perhaps multiple times to escape the threats he made on her life, lest she return home. The people of Gustavus took great pity on her, not only hearing the intimations of abuse and sexual impropriety on Gardner’s behalf, but also witnessed the manner in which he tried to track Maria down, promising to kill her when he found her.

“I will be revenged of her if I have to follow her to hell, “Ira said to one of his neighbors. “You outwitted me last night but I will outgeneral you yet.”

Another neighbor who was hiding Maria stopped him from approaching, and Gardner said to the woman, “I will see her if I have to wait this seven years. I sent word by my wife that you had outwitted me last night, but I will outmatch you yet, there is no mistake about it. I must see her and will have my revenge if it is not this eight years.”

Gardner asked this same neighbor if any men were at home and she told him that no, only a boy was there.

Gardner then said, “Maria has got to go home and live contented or I will be the death of her—I will have my revenge. You may think you can get her so far away that I cannot find her; but that will be of no use for I can find her—I will follow her to the end of the earth.”

I personally see not only Gardner’s possessiveness of Maria in his words, but his abject narcissism. We see how he constantly makes proclamation that he is able to outwit anyone who stands in his way of getting to her. 

He asked the neighbor if he could come inside to see Maria, saying, “I may as well see her first as last, for see her I will, one way or another. She has got to go home with me, or I will be the death of her.”

Maria alas drew up the gumption to return home for her belongings and ask permission to leave home permanently on the evening of August 7th. Following her were two young men who had come at the bidding of both her and her mother. Coming inside, they spoke bluntly with Gardner and told him his threats must desist and he must let Maria go, for she wished to leave and leave at once.

The young men having made their point, Maria turned to leave, but Gardner made her come back, insisting she was not allowed to go.

To the young men Gardner said, “I suppose I know what you came for and you may as well go home.”

Maria replied, “I hope they have come to help me. If not, I shall always feel hard towards them.”

“I suppose they have come to help you away,” said Gardner, “but it is of no use, for the first one that puts his hand on me is a dead man as quick as he does it.”

“You would not kill me,” countered one of the men.

Gardner said, “Try it and you will see. I don’t want you to interfere with my family concerns.”

Fearing her step-father had no mind to let her go, Maria knew she must escape and made for the nearest window. Before she could jump out, Gardner issued her back and forced her to sit down.

“You cannot go from here,” he told her, “and if you do, you will go a corpse.”

Realizing the situation was worse then they thought, the young men decided Gardner could not be persuaded by discussion alone. One of them went out and came back inside, having armed himself with a garden hoe. The threat to use it as a weapon was enough that Gardner finally stood down and allowed Maria to go, but that did not keep him from later attempting to seek her out. Gardner continued his rampage late into the evening, but was unsuccessful in finding her.

In the morning of August 8th, Gardner went to Bidwell’s house and asked if Maria was there. When Bidwell told him she was not there, Gardner went on searching at the house next door and Bidwell followed him there. Bidwell told Gardner Maria was old enough to leave home at her will and Gardner must stop harassing her. He also told Gardner, if he was worried about his responsibility for Maria’s financial future, Bidwell himself would post bond to the overseers (similar to our present-day welfare agents) to sustain the girl. Gardner declined Bidwell’s offer and asked him to speak to Maria and persuade her to come come.

Bidwell asked, “If she comes home, would you let her have her clothes, treat her well, and let her go in peace?”

Gardner convinced Bidwell that he had no intention of harming Maria, that he felt terrible of what occurred between him and his step-daughter, but his abuse of her was not true. He said he had been in such a passion when he spoke words of vengeance but he truly did not mean them. Gardner assured Bidwell that if Maria came home and stayed a few days to give the appearance that the situation was now peaceful, she could then leave on her own accord. 

Bidwell told Gardner that Maria would not consent to stay and doubted she would accept such an agreement. Finally, Gardner told Bidwell that if Maria came home that day, she could leave with her clothes before sundown. Bidwell made Gardner promise to cause no harm to Maria and when he did, Bidwell went and fetched Maria. He brought her home and Gardner greeted her at the fence, appearing calm and pleasant. Maria felt safe enough due to Gardner’s good humor and having Bidwell at her side, so she proceeded into the house with the men and went to be with her mother.

Gardner and Bidwell had work to do on the township roads, so went off where they worked until noon time. During this time, Gardner hardly labored, was quiet and brooding, and spent the majority of the time seated on a log as if deep in thought. The men returned to the Gardner home for dinner, most likely dining with Maria, Anna, Maria’s unknown brother (if still living), and the Gardners’ two small children, but Gardner ate nothing. I can imagine the tension felt at that table, especially between Maria and Gardner. No doubt Maria felt incredibly uncomfortable having to endure such a reunion with her step-father after all the ill he had wished her. The fact that Gardner refused to eat surely made the situation more unbearable and I wonder if he stared at Maria or off into space; perhaps a bit of both. In any case, it seems no words passed between them.

After the meal, Bidwell reposed on a bed, while Gardner and Anna went into the yard to discuss the great matter at hand. When they came back to the house, Anna bid her daughter to come outside and after they had their own conversation in the yard, Maria left to go to another neighbor’s. It appears that these conversations bore no resolution and appeased neither Maria or Anna on Maria’s safety. Maria did not take her clothes with her as presumably Gardner had not allowed her to do so. He wanted her to have a reason to return.

Gardner asked his wife what she and Maria had decided and Anna was adamant that Maria did not wish to stay. Gardner asked Anna to request Maria come home once more so that he could have a chance to speak with her.

“If she comes,” Anna asked, “you will let her have her clothes and go in peace?”

He replied, “It shall be done, but I cannot alter my feelings towards her.”

Anna seemed satisfied and went to the neighbor’s to fetch her daughter home, a mistake I am certain she lived to regret. Gardner remained inside the door of his home and Bidwell watched from the bed. Gardner turned and began to walk towards Bidwell, paused, turned back, and then went outside.

In the front yard, Maria and her mother approached the fence and Gardner came to meet them at the opening and exchanged some words. They began to walk towards the house with Anna in the lead, Gardner second, and Maria following. The Gardners turned the corner of the house, but suddenly Gardner turned back and ran to Maria. He grabbed her shoulder with his left hand and with his right plunged a large butcher knife into Maria’s chest. Maria cried out shrilly and Gardner withdrew the weapon. He then drove it in and out of her stomach, all within a matter of seconds. Maria ran. Bidwell rushed out of the house after hearing the scream and watching the horror unfold, immediately overtook Gardner, causing him to drop the knife. Maria had made it a distance of eight feet when she looked back at her step-father and fell to the ground, unconscious.

Gardner said, “I have done the work thoroughly, there can be no mistake about that and now I am satisfied. I deserve to die and shall have to and am willing to, but I will never be hung.”

Maria’s mother, surely going to her daughter, cried out, “Did I call her home to see her butchered? Lord Jesus, have mercy on her soul!”

Apparently it had happened so quickly that Maria’s mother was confused on how it occurred. She asked her husband why he did it and what he used to take Maria down.

He replied, “I did it with that knife, which I kept in my pantaloons pocket.”

Maria’s mother spoke to her daughter, perhaps holding her as she said, “Poor creature, you could not stay home, if you would!”

She then looked at Gardner and said, “I know what caused you to kill her, but should never have told you.”

Though it is merely intimated here, we know what Maria confided in her mother, the fact that she was sexually abused. We could blame Anna and ask why she did not better protect Maria and not immediately leave Gardner, taking the children with her. At the very least, could she have brought Maria her clothes, or smuggled them to her when Gardner was not around, so that Maria would not have to come for them? But Anna was most likely a victim of abuse herself, heavily controlled by her husband and living in constant fear of him. Now before her, revealed the great lengths he would go to to satisfy his pride.  

Maria’s breath lasted ten more minutes until she expired. It is not mentioned in the reference material whether or not a doctor was summoned. In any case, he would not have reached Maria before she died. By this time, neighbors had begun to congregate in the yard. A man passing by had watched the entire ordeal, leaving three witnesses to Gardner’s crime.

Gardner stood satisfied on his lawn and commented to a neighbor standing nearby, “I have killed her and my life must go for hers.”

She replied, “If you are willing it should go so.”

He said, “It must, willing or not willing, for I was determined to kill her since yesterday morning.”

One of the young men that had been guarding Maria at Gardner’s house the night of August 7th approached Gardner and Gardner said to him, “You ought to have kept her away for a day or two until I got over it, knowing as you did that I was in a passion.”

Gardner went on to say, “I told you you outwitted me last night, but that I would match you yet. I have done it and got my revenge. I have committed the crime and expect to be punished.”

When the other young man walked up to Gardner, Gardner said, “I have now outgeneraled you as I told you I would. I did the deed and did it effectually.”

When neighbors discovered he had been carrying the knife on his person the last two days, they asked him why, and he replied, “It was to scare her and make her think she had got to live at home and I had not a mind to kill her but a few minutes.”

Gardner said to Bidwell, “You have helped me out of a great many difficulties. Can you help me out of this?”

A few minutes later, it appeared Gardner displayed his first sign of remorse when he bellowed, “Oh, that she could again stand on her feet and breathe as she used to. I would give ten thousand worlds if I had them, if she could.”

Neighbors held Gardner at his home, but he did not put up a fight or try to escape. It was Mills who contacted the sheriff and Jedidiah Burnham, Bidwell’s brother in-law, wrote a warrant for Gardner’s arrest. Constable Anson Moore came to the house and arrested Gardner without issue.

While on his way to prison, Gardner told Bidwell—who accompanied him to jail in Kinsman—that the moment he had turned back when Bidwell had been lying on his bed was the moment Gardner had mind to put away the knife he carried in his pocket so he would not be tempted to use it. He said a voice whispered to him he should not kill her at that time, but his want of vengeance proved too great to heed this plea. 

The day following the murder, an axe and a pitchfork were discovered in the corner of Gardner’s fence near the road. When questioned, Gardner said he had placed them there on August 7th and would have killed Maria that night if had known where she was. 

Maria’s body was examined, perhaps by the one of the local doctors at the time. Her wounds were two inches wide and six inches deep. She was laid to rest in East Gustavus Cemetery, along Gardner Barclay Road, an ornate stone—likely paid by the township—erected in her honor.

The Trial

Gardner’s hearing was held before Justice of the Peace Abraham Griswold in Kinsman and he was taken to the jail in Warren.

During his initial examination before the magistrate, Gardner refused counsel, declaring, “I want no counsel. I have nothing for them to say. I have committed the deed. She was innocent and has done nothing to cause me to do the deed.”

Nevertheless, Gardner’s appointed defense attorneys were Joshua Giddings and Benjamin Wade. Prosecutor Roswell Stone was assisted by David Tod. The witnesses for the defense were Elisha Gardner, Chester Lewis, Buel Barnes, Dr. Asahel Jones, Dr. Peter F. Allen, Dr. F.T. Allen, Martin Meacham, Russell Hotchkiss, David Smith, Levi Smith, General Smith, Archibold Black, Jeduthan Farnam, Mrs. Farnam, and Charles Reed. The witnesses for the prosecution were Riverius Bidwell, Thaddius St. John, Willis Roberts, Joseph Wilson, Erastus Cone, Harlow Mills, Amos Mills, and Dr. Peter Allen.

On August 26, 1833 Gardner’s trial took place at the original courthouse in Warren, the county seat, overseen by Judge John C. Wright and lasted one day. His defense team tried to enter a plea of insanity as evidenced by his head injury eight years earlier as well as his odd behavior through the years. Witnesses said Gardner had acted deranged ever since his knock in the head. His head was examined by a number of physicians who found what appeared to be a depression in one area and a protuberance in another. They were inconclusive on whether the formations were caused from injuries or were congenital defects. 

Friends and neighbors backed up the notion Gardner was insane, believing his head to be much affected. A Mr. Lewis who had been walking along the road with Gardner the winter before the murder, stated that Gardner suddenly staggered off the side of the road, nearly into the ditch. He then appeared fine, returning to the roadway, telling Lewis he had been seized by a sudden pain in his head.

The same Mr. Wilson who had sat in the Gardner’s buggy when Gardner went tearing out of the camp meeting, said he had known Gardner to have two different sides. On one side he was good natured and “sociable” and on the other “he refused to answer questions and was more like a silly man than a wise one”.

When Gardner was observed walking along the road on the morning of the murder, neighbors said he turned his head from side to side, as if searching. When asked what was wrong, he responded that he had lost his horse, which was not true.

To counter the claim of insanity, many neighbors came forward, having known Gardner for several years, and stated that he had never exhibited any sign of derangement. He seemed to be a decent man for the most part, despite all of his troubles.

The Sentencing

The jurors were James Duncan, Tinus Brainard, Lucius Sackett, Philo Chedester, John Hall, Fred Moherman, Benjamin Robbins, John Northrup, Richard Osborn, Henry Winans (my great uncle), Horace Flower, and Henry Holley. The judge charged this group of twelve men with deciding whether Maria’s murder was premeditated and therefore first degree murder, or performed in the passion of anger to be labeled second-degree murder. The jury left to deliberate at 6:30 p.m. and returned at 8:45 with a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree. The defense argued for a new trial because the verdict was against the evidence of possible insanity on Gardner’s part. The judge overruled this motion. 

The Sandusky Clarion
Nov 13, 1833, Wed · Page 3

Judge Wright said, “Ira West Gardner, you have been accused by the grand jury of your county, on their oath, with having purposely, of deliberate and premeditated malice, murdered Maria Gardner, otherwise called Maria Buel, by stabbing her in the body with a knife…an offense which our law denominates murder in the first degree, and punishes with death…The facts proven, present a case of uncommon enormity. The object of your cruelty was a young woman, the daughter of your wife, who had been reared in your family, and looked up to you as a father, for support and protection. For some reason, not very satisfactorily shown in the proof, she, for a short time before her death, evinced a strong desire to leave your roof, under circumstances which induced her friends to believe she was in fear of you. You pursued her, avowing a determination to be revenged, if she did not return to your house, and continue to reside there. Finally, just before her death, you caused her mother to go to a neighbor’s, whither she had fled, to persuade her to return, and with a butcher-knife, met her on the way, at noon-day, and plunged it twice into her body, barbarously murdering her, and when your object was accomplished, you exulted in the deed, and rejoiced that you had obtained your revenge. The act was wholly unprovoked…it is necessary that you should suffer an ignominious death, that others, warned by your example, may be afraid to commit crime. Be persuaded, then, to employ the few moments remaining to you on earth, in making your peace with God…It now only remains for me to pronounce the judgment the law has provided for your crime. It is: That you be taken from hence to the common jail of the county, and that you be safely kept. That on Friday, the 4th day of October, in the year of our Lord 1833, you be taken to the place of execution, and between the hours of nine o’clock in the morning and 4 o’clock in the afternoon of that day, that you hung by the neck till you are dead. May God have mercy on you!”

Gardner returned to his jail cell where the sheriff’s mounted guard, Richard Sparks Holeton, stood watch over Gardner. While he waited for his execution day, friends and family came together on his behalf and submitted a petition to Governor Robert Lucas, asking that Gardner’s execution be delayed until the next legislature could commute his death sentence. The reasons they gave was that first, they did not believe Gardner to have premeditated Maria’s murder and instead had killed her in a fit of passion; the second being that they believed Gardner to be insane. Drs. Francis T. Allen and Ashel Jones had made considerable inquests into Gardner’s family and discovered therein a hereditary predisposition to insanity, though could not say that Gardner was truly himself insane. Governor Lucas, despite lacking faith in the evidence within the petition, delayed Gardner’s execution for nearly a month, until he could be satisfied whether the people of Trumbull County wished Gardner dead or alive. Alas in late October gallows were constructed near Red Run, just up the street from Oakwood Cemetery.

The Execution

Google aerial image of how the intersection of South and Chestnut Streets appears today

November 1, 1833 proved a fine day for an execution. An estimated twelve to fifteen thousand spectators swarmed the scene like a modern day sporting event. Throngs of people joined together at the intersection of South and Chesnut streets in Warren, parents bringing their children, absenting them from school, and vendors sold food as well as souvenirs to remember such a day. Warren’s first band played a dirge and a light infantry company led the carriage carrying the criminal as if they were in a parade.

“At 12:15 he was taken to the gallows in Sheriff George Mygatt’s carriage, and the procession was large.

The company was formed in the following order: Cavalry, three companies of riflemen, field music, Eolian and Euterpian music, light cavalry in a hollow square in which were the prisoner, sheriff, clergy and physicians (and his brother-in-law, Mr. Smith), followed by four companies of riflemen.

Gardner bowed to several acquaintances during the ride to the gallows, and on arriving mounted the steps “firmly and with composure” at one o’clock. With him on the gallows were the sheriff, brother-in-law, and Reverends Mack and Winans of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Bruce Stevens, The Niles Daily Times, 1976

Sheriff Mygatt, a man of 35 years, had led Gardner to the scaffold, having worked up the nerve to do so, knowing he was leading a condemned man to his certain death and would have to complete the task himself. Rev. Winans, one of the ministers standing behind Gardner, was my great uncle and the brother of Henry Winans who served on the jury. After the group reached the hanging place, the soldiers from the light infantry surrounded the scaffold as guards. Reverend Mack spoke a sermon before the large crowd. It is said that onlookers crammed elbow to elbow on a two-acre hillside and boys climbed trees to see above the masses. Ira joined the crowd in the singing of several hymns. Another sermon was preached, perhaps this time by Rev. Winans, followed by the final prayer. Gardner asked for another prayer be spoken for his soul and his wish was granted.

The entire procession having lasted well over an hour, everyone but Mygatt and Gardner vacated the platform. Gardner refused the overcap when Mygatt attempted to pull it over the condemned man’s head and requested to wear his beaver hat instead. Mygatt acquiesced. Mygatt placed the noose around Gardner’s neck; the rope being attached to a large overhanging tree branch, and stepped down off the platform.

Mygatt said, “Mr. Gardner, your time has come.”

At 2:25 p.m., Mygatt swung an axe down through the rope holding the trap door and when the rope severed, the door opened, sending Gardner plummeting downward. The long-drop method had yet to be invented, so the short-drop method was used for Gardner’s execution, and upon dropping, he slowly strangled to death. He was thirty-six years old. Alas, Maria received her justice from the grave, for all the turmoil, terror, and pain her step-father had caused her.

The crowd watched for half an hour as Gardner hung, putting up no struggle, his shoulders moving on occasion. Mygatt cut the rope holding Gardner’s body at 2:56 p.m. The men loaded the body into the wagon of Josiah Smith, Gardner’s brother-in-law. Smith planned on burying Gardner in Gustavus, but the locals forbid it and Smith interred him in Old Kinsman Cemetery. The Kinsman locals were outraged and over many day’s time threatened to dig up and destroy the body. By cover of night, Smith dug up the body, placed it in his wagon and drove it up to Ashtabula County to the farm he shared with his wife, Gardner’s sister Sabrina, in Williamsfield (the township directly northeast of Gustavus). There, between two fields, Smith buried Gardner’s body, and to this day, the exact location is not known. 

Riverius Bidwell

Photo from the History of Trumbull and Mahoning Counties,
Volumes 1-2 pg 292

The neighbor and friend who cared so much about the welfare of the Gardners left Gustavus in 1834 and relocated to Kinsman. Bidwell had been born in 1790 in Connecticut and came to Gustavus with his family in 1812, making them some of the first settlers in the township. Bidwell, who was said to be “of Herculean strength, clad in plain but cleanly homespun, a huge head of seven and seven-eighths dimension, with benign countenance under a straw or wool hat”, became a prominent and successful citizen. In the early to mid-1820’s, he was appointed treasurer of Trumbull County, which in that day included the top portion of Mahoning County. His duty proved a huge undertaking and two years in a row he spent weeks walking barefoot, collecting taxes from every resident in the county. Once he had made the collection from thirty-five townships, he walked all the way to Columbus, Ohio to deposit the funds with the Auditor of the State. Bidwell, a man of many trades, was also the Justice of the Peace and postmaster of Gustavus and in his absence, his wife Eunicia carried out his duties at the post office. Bidwell was also in charge of the construction of roads, turnpikes, and bridges. It is my inclination that when Gardner helped Bidwell in working on the road, either clearing it or making repairs, it was so Gardner could work off his debts to Bidwell. The morning before Maria’s murder when Gardner sat beside the road while Bidwell labored, Bidwell did not chide Gardner or order him to get back to work. We clearly see Bidwell’s unerring patience and strong Christian faith in the way he treated Gardner and his family. In a photo of Bidwell, we see a man with kind eyes who carries the appearance of worry in the furrow of his brows and the weight of the world on his shoulders. He died in Kinsman in 1871.

Who Was Maria?

We know plenty about Gardner, but it is his victim, Maria, whose voice has been lost. We know nothing to little about her; no anecdotes from Maria’s friends or mother exist on who Maria was. Was she shy, quiet and thoughtful, often lost in daydream? Was she outgoing and talkative? Was she moody and anxious? Was she helpful to her mother with household chores and caring for the Gardner’s small children? We know she led a difficult life, living in poverty, and her mother marrying an awful man when Maria was eight years old. Anna was in her teens when she gave birth to Maria and was unmarried and living with her mother in Ellsworth. We know for certain that Maria was a close relative to Lydia Buel Chidester of Canfield and Lucinda Buel Fitch of Ellsworth due to an article from the Mahoning Dispatch. Their brother, Jesse Buel, was constable of Ellsworth at the time Maria was born, so I strongly believe him to be Maria’s biological father, a theory that is backed up by other local researchers. It seems he had no interest in marrying Anna and by the time she married Gardner, Jesse Buel had moved to Michigan, married, and had other children.

We also have Anna, who was a victim too. Not only did she suffer the moods and control of her husband, Gardner, but was present when he drove a butcher knife twice in and out of her beloved daughter. She lived with the incredible turmoil and guilt for a short time until the toll on her body became too much. It is believed that she perished in the years following Gardner’s execution soon after moving to Kinsman, buried in an unknown grave. Her orphaned children were taken into separate homes by the locals. Giles was adopted by Reuban and Parintha Herrick and Jane by the Kinsman family. We do not know what became of Maria’s other brother, but it is possible he died young, perhaps in Ellsworth. Though Giles died before having children, Jane lived to give birth to one son before passing away. It is possible Anna and Gardner have descendants through him, making Maria a great aunt. 

The Crime of Sexual Assault

Earlier I mentioned that in Bidwell’s statement, Gardner “had criminal intercourse” with Maria. Besides this mention in the court documents, never is it brought up again. Gardner’s criminal behavior before the murder was not a subject of interest in the trial. Instead, it was Gardner’s murderous rage because Maria told her mother, who obviously told Gardner, perhaps confronting him over the accusations, that took center stage. When Gardner discovered that Maria had told the neighbors of his lasciviousness so that they would protect her, the information fueled the fire of his rage all the more. His threats of violence to Maria and those who sheltered her, guarded her, were the topic of the case, as the prosecution made their angle of premeditated murder. The court did not attempt to unveil information of Gardner’s illicit passions because molestation and rape, as long as it occurred within the same household, was not yet a crime. In fact, sexual assault did not become a punishable offense until later into the 20th century.

 “The complexity of sex crime laws derives from a historical background of bias against women. The legal history of rape is particularly ignominious. Under English common law―from which our laws developed―rape was a crime against property, not person. A woman’s reproductive capacity, in the form of her chastity, was considered property and was essential to establishing patriarchal inheritance rights. A woman’s sexuality was owned by her father and transferred to the man who became her husband. Rape laws protected the economic interests of men; therefore, rape was originally considered the theft of this property. The bodily integrity of the woman was irrelevant.”

Rape and Sexual Assault in the Legal System

We see here that Gardner felt he owned not only Anna, but Maria too. As her step-father, he legally owned Maria’s body, a sickening thought. We have thankfully come a long way since then, but too late for so many poor souls, including Maria. Her only escape from Gardner would have been to marry, and thus be owned by someone else. Women in that age were completely dependent on the men in their life and at the mercy of their moods.

I do not believe Gardner to have been insane when he murdered Maria. I do believe that he suffered from depression, but he knew exactly what he was doing when he sexually assaulted Maria and when he carried a butcher knife in his pocket for days before he finally found the opportunity to drive it into her tiny body. I believe the only mental illness he suffered from that skewed his sense of reality was narcissism. Towards the very end, he believed himself innocent and mourned the loss of his freedom and his life. He thought of himself as better than everyone else, and could “outmatch” anyone who stood in his way. He thought that pleading insanity could spare him the death penalty. The only remorse he ever felt was for himself, not for Maria, not for Anna, and not for the path of destruction he left in his wake. He deserved every second of the agony he experienced while dangling at the end of that noose. I am not the only local who feels this way. Many who grew up in and around Gustavus who knew the story feel an unbridled rage towards Gardner. We feel so close to Maria, having grown up on the same soil, and we remember what it feels like to be sixteen. At that age, you feel that you have your entire life ahead of you. We could not imagine enduring the fear, the anxiety, the stress that Gardner put her through. I imagine her little heart racing with terror and the agony that she felt as those heartbeats faded into stillness.


Either imaginations ran wild or residual emotions from the murder remained behind, because after the murder, locals claimed the Gardner house was haunted. Some people refused to cross by it after dark and the home fell into abandonment and dilapidation, leading to its eventual raze.

Every October, The Fine Arts Council of Trumbull puts on the Warren Ghost Walk, a walking tour of downtown Warren that begins at the First Presbyterian Church. Actors depicting the ghost local figures, both historical and tragic, tell their stories from various locations around downtown Warren. Though the characters and cast switch out from year to year, Maria and her mother Anna are constant figures, standing on the steps of Warren City Hall (once the Perkin’s mansion which was used after the original city hall burned in 1916), to tell the tale of Maria’s murder. Maria is often portrayed as timid and quiet while her mother does most of the talking, the anger apparent in her voice. 

East Gustavus Cemetery

A view of East Gustavus Cemetery from the road.
Maria’s stone is the first one at the far right of the photo, far away from the other markers.
Copyright Ashley Armstrong.

I received the inside information from my long-time friend Robin Hartman, whose father’s side of the family lived in Gustavus since the mid 1800’s, that someone placed a cenotaph stone in the rear of East Gustavus Cemetery for Gardner. Robin pointed out the general area where she remembered the stone to stand during our first visit to the cemetery together. She recalls believing Gardner to be buried there or just outside of the cemetery. Robin told me of how as a child, whenever she would visit Maria’s grave, she would notice Gardner’s grave marker in the small cemetery, and at each visit, more of his stone had been chipped away by vandals. She said that sometime in the 90’s, Gardner’s stone completely disappeared, either having been stolen or removed by the township, what was left of it anyways. 

The back of the cemetery in the general vicinity of where Gardner’s stone once sat.
Copyright Ashley Armstrong.

Maria’s stone fared no better. Visitors intent on taking a piece of Maria for themselves, chipped off hunks of her stone to keep as a talisman of sorts. By the 1890’s, the stone was in a pitiful state:

The grave of the beautiful Frances Maria Buel is sadly neglected. It is enclosed by a rude picket fence, fast falling into decay. The gate thereof is off its hinges and leans against the falling slab of stone which bears the inscription. Even from the grave itself grows a briery bush. But one monument to the departed which is indeed a grand monument is a great maple tree which stands just at the head of the grave and spreads its broad branches in all directions.

The Akron Beacon Journal, 1897

The township finally replaced Maria’s original stone with a fine replica and her vandalized marker was curated for display in Gustavus Town Hall. Today, you can still see small fragments of her original stone scattered around the base of the replica.

Gustavus Town Hall, copyright Ashley Armstrong

It seems Maria has had little opportunity to rest in peace in the nearly two hundred years since she departed for the afterlife. I cannot be certain of when it began, possibly in the 20th century, but local kids thought it fun to go to the cemetery and would swear at her in the hope that vexing her spirit would cause her to turn up and chase the offender away. Combined with the desecration of her stone, I am appalled that anyone would find any thrill in treating hallowed ground this way, ground where an innocent young body is interred. Maria and all who are buried there deserve to be treated with respect. No one should use her tragic death to seek their Saturday night entertainment. So far, Maria’s new stone is unmarred and I hope it remains as such.

A view of East Gustavus Cemetery from the back of the cemetery
Copyright Ashley Armstrong

A kinder legend declares that if you approach Maria’s grave and ask her how she is doing, she will answer you. Robin says that she once tried this as a child and the air turned frigid while an eerie feeling overcame her. She otherwise finds the cemetery very peaceful, as is my experience when I visit the place. I encourage anyone to visit Maria’s grave and ask her how she is doing. Do not be surprised if you receive an answer.

A pile of broken gravestones and debris behind the cemetery.
The large stone bears the name of Bidwell’s son, Caleb, who died at the age of 25.
Copyright Ashley Armstrong


  • A thousand thank you’s to local author and historian William Krejci for solving the mystery of who Anna’s parents were and to local historian and fellow researcher Gavin Esposito for providing the details on Anna and Gardner’s children, Jane and Giles and pointing out Gardner’s final resting place in Williamsfield.
  • Reports of Cases at Law and in Chancery: Decided by the Supreme Court —The State vs. Ira West Gardiner[sic] pages 392-406
  • History of the Western Reserve, Volume 1 (execution of Ira West Gardner), pages 197-198 by Harriet Taylor Upton
  • History of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley, Ohio, Volume 1 (History of Gustavus), page 421 by Joseph Green Butler
  • Historical Collections of the Mahoning Valley (Riverius Bidwell), pages 337-338, by the Mahoning Valley Historical Society
  • Atrocious Murder: Constitutional Whig. [Richmond VA], August 28, 1832
  • Trial of Ira West Gardner: Delaware State Journal, advertiser and star. (Wilmington, Del.), September 06, 1833
  • Old Poem, Historically Interesting, Made Public: Niles Evening Register, Page 4, 1923-10-08
  • Vienna Clock Factory Boomed Before Mines: The Daily Times, Page 5, 1963-06-27 
  • Dancing, Hanging Drew Large Crowds: The Daily Times, Pages 1-2, 1976-07-10
  • The First (and Last) Trumbull County Hanging: The Daily Times, Page1, 1976-07-10 
  • Light Infantry Organized: The Niles Time, Page 4, 1991-10-07
  • The Chidester Family: Mahoning Dispatch, Fri, 23 Apr 1897, Article No. 14, by Dr. Jackson Truesdale
  • Under a Maple – There Sleeps Beautiful Frances Maria Buel: The Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) · 21 Aug 1897, Sat · Page 8
  • Marriage Record of Ira Gardner and Anna Logan: Ohio, County Marriages, 1789-2013,
  • Ohio Tax Records, 1800-1850,
  • RAPE AND SEXUAL ASSAULT IN THE LEGAL SYSTEM: Presented to the National Research Council of the National Academies Panel on Measuring Rape and Sexual Assault in the Bureau of Justice Statistics Household Surveys Committee on National Statistics, June 5, 2012, By Carol E. Tracy, Terry L. Fromson, Women’s Law Project, Jennifer Gentile Long, Charlene Whitman, AEquitas

Sticks & Squirrels May Break My Bones – Scandal and Intrigue in the Shooting Death of William Holcomb

Vernon Township, Trumbull County, Ohio
May 27, 1867

My interpretation of James, Margaret, & William

“On her part she seemed to revel in daring and shamelessness. Not a single moment of hesitation or fear possessed her. She threw herself into adultery with a kind of furious honesty, flouting danger, and as it were, taking pride in doing so.” 

Émile Zola, Therese Raquin

Hunting Accident or Pre-meditated Murder?

The same year Therese Raquin—a French story of an adulterous romance between Therese and her lover Laurent who murdered Therese’s sickly husband Camille—premiered, a similar tale played out in real life, taking place in small-town Vernon, Ohio. William Holcomb died in an apparent hunting accident from a single shot discharged from his own rifle. His death occurred in the presence of his neighbor and friend, James Sawyer. Investigators at the scene were immediately suspicious because as neighbors of the two men, they were well aware of the rumors circulating. Rumors suggesting an affair between Sawyer and Holcomb’s wife Margaret. As a murder charge loomed and a trial disrupted their quiet lives, it was up to a jury, swayed by the testimonies of Vernon Township residents, to decide if Holcomb’s death was an accident or murder.

Vernon Town Hall at Vernon Center, ©Ashley Armstrong

Close Knit Neighbors

William Holcomb was born in February of 1829 in Granby, Connecticut, the son of Grove Catlin Holcomb and Sarah “Sally Ann” Dibble and had lived in Vernon for most of his life. His paternal grandmother, parents, and siblings had all traveled from the east when Holcomb was quite young. He resided just north of Vernon center on Route 7—also known as Youngstown Conneaut Road—with his wife, their children, and William’s father and sister Jane. He was thoughtful, sensitive, and observant, often weighing and measuring before he spoke. He stood at 5’11” and was quite thin with a wasted appearance, having suffered from a mysterious illness for ten to twelve years. He was thought to be consumptive, though different doctors gave him varying opinions. According to his neighbors, Holcomb was incredibly feeble and could not walk many steps without losing breath. He was a shoemaker by trade, keeping a shop near his home, and had owned his business for well over a decade at the time of his death. He kept up his books and cut out the leather pieces for shoes in his shop, but required help from his father, also a shoemaker, and his wife as he lacked the strength to complete all aspects of his business.

Holcomb’s married his wife Margaret on April 2, 1852. She was born in February of 1831 in Vernon, the daughter of Adam Wright and Rhoda Clark. Their children were Elizabeth, Clara Jane, Katherine, Nettie (who died young in 1858), William, and Benjamin Franklin Holcomb. Mrs. Holcomb was considered very attractive, gregarious, and full of life. She ran the business end of her husband’s shop, often traveling to trade in Gustavus and Burghill and purchase leather in Warren and New York where she went once a year to visit family. Holcomb’s father and sister helped care for their children while Holcomb rested or worked in his shop and Mrs. Holcomb traveled for supplies. In the spring of 1867, William and Margaret Holcomb were 38 and 37, respectively, and William was beginning to recover from his illness.

James Carlton Sawyer was a dark-haired, blue-eyed man of stocky build and medium height. He was known for his cheerful, good-natured personality. He had many friends and was quite popular with his neighbors who held him in high esteem. Born in Vermont, he was about ten years older than Holcomb. He married Eliza Ann McFarland on September 3, 1842, the union which brought them a daughter, Mary Jane. An adopted daughter, Lucinda Messenger, had married off in 1856. They haled from nearby Hartford Township and after moving to Vernon around 1865, became friends with the Holcombs.

Map I created of Vernon Center during the time of William Holcomb’s death.
© Ashley Armstrong
Google Maps aerial image of how Vernon center appears today.

Holcomb frequently convalesced at home, his illness keeping him abed. It appears this is where the trouble began. Holcomb sometimes went with his wife and older children to singing school, but due to his illness, he could not always attend. Perhaps it was Holcomb who first asked James Sawyer to take Mrs. Holcomb to singing school, seeing as she loved going and there was little else to do in the cold Ohio winters. Or maybe it was Sawyer that suggested he chaperone Mrs. Holcomb in Mr. Holcomb’s absence. Whatever way it began, in the year to year-and-a-half before the shooting, Mrs. Holcomb was observed gadding about the township with Sawyer.

According to Vernon resident Edmund Reed, Esq., he observed the pair together at lyceum and singing school. Lyceum was an infrequent but popular social gathering featuring lectures and performances for the purpose of education and entertainment, held at the town house in Vernon center. Reed stated that the pair seemed overly affectionate while at lyceum, with a manner of intimacy between them. They often drew away from others present, seeking to be alone in a corner, showing a great amount of fondness for one another. Reed said they behaved similarly while at singing school which took place nearly every week. However, they at least had the propriety to sing from their own songbook and did not share a book in the manner of a couple. They also both sang in the choir at Union Methodist church at Vernon center.

Vernon resident Sally Ann Sacket and her son Perry also watched the unusual behavior of Sawyer and Mrs. Holcomb while at singing school. Mrs. Sacket saw Sawyer drive Mrs. Holcomb in his buggy to and from singing school. Before the start of singing school, and during intermission, the two separated from the rest of the crowd and had no interest in conversing with anyone else besides each other, raising eyebrows all around.

Andrew Biggins and his father Thomas Biggins who lived on farms east of Vernon Center said they saw Sawyer and Mrs. Holcomb out riding in Sawyer’s buggy on a few different occasions. Andrew Biggins once witnessed Sawyer driving alone towards the corners and awhile later, driving back with Mrs. Holcomb in the buggy. They drove off for a length of time and when they returned, Sawyer stopped his buggy to let Mrs. Holcomb out and she continued west on foot while Sawyer’s buggy traveled south. In another instance, Thomas Biggins said that he noticed Sawyer driving alone, stopped the buggy near the Biggins’ farm, got out, and left the horses in the road as he went on foot to the corners where he looked around for a while. He eventually moved on, but when he drove by Thomas Biggins’ farm about ten minutes later, Mrs. Holcomb was in the buggy with Sawyer. These incidents occurred in the fall of 1866. Thomas Biggins said he felt great shame at seeing the two together this way and acting in such a clandestine manner. 

By Reed’s account, Sawyer and Mrs. Holcomb’s behavior evolved over eighteen months from formality to intimacy, becoming most noticeable in the winter prior to Holcomb’s death. Reed stated that on one occasion during the winter, he and his wife Eliza were driving their sleigh south on Rt. 7 over a foot of snow and approached a pair standing together by the roadside just north of Vernon center. It was nine o’clock in the evening, and as they drew closer, recognized the pair as Sawyer and Mrs. Holcomb. That is when Sawyer bolted, running in the road ahead of Reed’s buggy while Mrs. Holcomb began walking north in the direction of her home. Reed immediately became suspicious due to Sawyer’s flight that perhaps this meeting was improper.

Mrs. Sally Ann Sacket lived next door to the Holcomb’s, close enough that they could talk to one another across their yards; the property line marked by peach and cherry trees. Her home stood at Vernon center and next to the fence along the green, in view of the singing school, and therefore could see when Sawyer brought Mrs. Holcomb home. Mrs. Sackett frequently spotted Mrs. Holcomb sitting with Mr. Sawyer inside Holcomb’s woodhouse upon a bench or talking in the yard before both going into the house. These occurrences were often when Holcomb was not at home or in sight. In one instance, Mrs. Sacket observed some very odd behavior from Mrs. Holcomb. She noticed Mrs. Holcomb and Sawyer standing together near a grapevine before Sawyer headed over to the shoe shop. Suddenly, Mrs. Holcomb tore around her barn and ran through it at a harried pace, leaping over the bars within, and continued in the direction of the shoe shop. She never did learn what Mrs. Holcomb was up to, but that particular incident stood out to her as very odd. She stated that her family and the Holcombs were not on good terms, having little to do with one another.

In mid-May of 1867, Mrs. Sacket saw Holcomb picked up by the hackman—a hired driver—and go to the station. She was in her woodshed when she saw Sawyer come to the Holcomb’s house and put his ear up to the buttery window as if listening—the buttery being most likely the kitchen. He eventually went inside and stayed a long while. Mrs. Sacket believed he left about the time Holcomb returned home, though she did not witness him depart. 

A week later, Holcomb chatted with the mail carrier, Hiram Crittenden, who brought the post from Gustavus to Burghill, traveling through Vernon. Holcomb mentioned an incident that had occurred with his wife after she walked to Burghill one day. Sawyer happened upon her there and offered her a ride home. Stopping at the Sawyer’s home, Mrs. Holcomb came inside to greet Mrs. Sawyer.

“I had the chance to ride home with your man,” she told her.

I would like to think that Mrs. Holcomb said this in a manner jovial and grateful to have had a lift and wishing to tell Mrs. Sawyer of her husband’s good deed. It is unlikely that she said this in the manner of rubbing salt into a wound, though I cannot completely dismiss such an idea as the incident does seem peculiar. However, an irate Mrs. Sawyer turned her back to Mrs. Holcomb and the scorned woman left without another word. She went home and told her husband about Mrs. Sawyer’s behavior. 

Crittenden did not convey Holcomb’s mood as he related the incident with his wife, whether he retold the story as a humorous anecdote to share or in frustration over the behavior of Mrs. Sawyer. 

Crittenden asked Holcomb then, “What sort of fellow is that Sawyer?” as if probing to discover whether Sawyer was truly after Holcomb’s wife.

Holcomb replied as a man not at all concerned of being cuckolded. “He is as fine a fellow as we’ve got in Vernon.”

He went on to explain the resentment Mrs. Sawyer held for Mrs. Holcomb. He commented, “She is a jealous-pated woman.”

Neighbors Hear Shots

Monday, May 27, 1867, was a fine spring day and the people of Vernon were up and about planting their gardens and fields. Edmund Reed was at home, his house being south of Vernon center, planting corn when he noticed Sawyer walking south down Rt. 7 around noon. He also saw Holcomb walk in the same direction, but it is not recorded at what time this was or how long after he saw Sawyer. Sometime later he heard shots ring out from the direction the men had gone, from about 150-200 rods away, Reed speculated to his son about what type of gun Holcomb had. Judging by the sound of the shots, he suspected it was a double barrel. Between two and three o’clock, he watched Sawyer return, this time walking through Mattock’s barnyard. 

Sawyer approached Reed and said, “Mr. Holcomb has shot himself and I wish you to go tell his family.”

Reed asked Sawyer how the shooting occurred and Sawyer replied, “Accidentally.”

When Reed returned to his home at Vernon center, he found a group of neighbors gathered at the corners, speaking of the occurrence. 

Jesse Highland, had also been working in his garden when he heard the report of three or four shots with pauses between each shot, long enough for a man to reload his gun. Reed’s son stopped by and informed Highland that William Holcomb had been killed. He too joined the group at the corners where residents of Vernon congregated.

Mrs. Holcomb’s reaction to hearing the news of her husband’s death was not recorded. Perhaps she and the children also assembled at the corners to hear Sawyer’s statement. 

The Testimony of James Sawyer

With everyone crowded at Vernon center, asking questions, James Sawyer explained his version of events. He told his neighbors that he had planned to repair his brush fence between his property and the property owned by the heirs of Moses Beach. The fence was composed of cut branches stacked high and it washed out whenever the creek raised. Sawyer first stopped at Holcomb’s shoe shop where Holcomb told Sawyer he was in the mood to go squirrel hunting. Sawyer suggested going to Beach’s woods where he had noticed many squirrels. Around one o’clock, Sawyer went down to repair his fence and after working for about half an hour, he noticed Holcomb come along with his rifle. Sawyer greeted Holcomb and they talked briefly, but Sawyer quickly returned to his work while Holcomb shot into the trees at squirrels. Holcomb then stooped to the ground and peered up into the trees as if searching for his mark. Sawyer observed Holcomb holding the muzzle of the gun in his right hand and set the breech to the ground, continuing to look upward. Suddenly, according to Sawyer, the gun went off and Holcomb crumpled to the ground. Sawyer rushed over to his friend, crying out his name, and upon lifting him, found him deceased. He straightened the body and placed Holcomb’s hat over Holcomb’s face. 

The Body, the Gun, and a Stick

The present-day property looking south into
what was once Beach’s Woods from State Route 88

A group of eight men including James Sawyer, Edmund Reed, D.J. Mattocks, Jesse Highland, Jacob Swartz, Ralph Sullivan, Abraham Carmer, and Jasper Huff went down to Pymatuning Creek to fetch the body. Reed and Sullivan stayed behind along the road to hitch the horses while the other men went ahead before they too headed through the woods. They found Holcomb lying in the creek bottom with his black hat over the side of his face and blood coming from his head. His head faced southeast and his feet to the northwest and he lay on his right side. His right arm was splayed outward with the hand almost open. His legs were straight and his feet about six feet away from the base of an oak tree.

Carmer had been the first to reach the body and said that the gun was lying with the breech on the ground and muzzle toward the body but approximately twenty inches away. Carmer said the pole of the gun lay in the east and west direction and the body lay south of it. Swartz arrived second and recalled seeing the gun laying there, but did not take particular notice of it. The other men remember seeing the gun leaning against a nearby tree. Sawyer later said he believes he was the one that moved the gun. 

A great deal of excitement went through the group of men and they had many questions. There in the creek bed, Sawyer gave another account, explaining that Holcomb had been standing by the oak tree while looking up into a tree west of the oak. He had the gun against the side of the oak tree aiming at a squirrel. Sawyer said he looked up from his brush fence to see if the squirrel had fallen when he watched Holcomb set the breech of the gun on the ground. Sawyer said it was when he turned his eyes back to his work that he heard the report of the gun and the sound of Holcomb’s fall. He ran over, raised him up, and receiving no response, ran for help.

The men began to examine the body and rolled his head to the side to inspect the head wound. Brain matter spilled from a hole above his right ear, though the amount of blood was minimal and deposited on the leaves beneath his head. Swartz became so repulsed that he had to walk away. The men did not notice any gunpowder on the body which could have been present if the shot was made at close range. Holcomb also had no powder on his face or scorching of his hair or whiskers. His hat had a small round hole above the band with no visible gunpowder on the surface.

Reed said, “Let’s take him up.” and the men got to work.

Sullivan took the hat and the gun to Reed’s wagon. When they picked up Holcomb’s body, some of the men observed a beach or maple stick, five-inches thick in places, laying beneath and speculated that perhaps when Holcomb set down the gun the stick had set it off. They mentioned that this stick laid across another branch or log. Swartz said he first noticed the stick at his initial approach to the body. He says the gun was lying across the stick and the stick had been leaning against an iron tree with another stick beneath it. Carmer claimed he did not remember seeing such sticks and perceived only smooth ground where the body had lay.

Coroner’s Inquest

With no coroner within ten miles from Vernon, Edmund Reed, Esq. fulfilled the role. The coroner’s jury, formed from Vernon residents, included Dr. Joseph Knight, George Pelton, Lucius Holcomb, William Chapman, Chester Reed, and H.J. Bates. Dr. Knight performed the autopsy at Holcomb’s house that evening, peeling the skin back from the skull to better view the head wound. He did not probe into the bullet hole.

Loren Waters washed and dressed the body in preparation for Holcomb’s funeral. Waters and Henry Beach studied the hair on Holcomb’s head for signs of gunpowder scorches and residue and even sniffed for the odor of gunpowder, but found no sign of either. 

The day after the death, Reed brought Holcomb’s father, Mrs. Holcomb, and Holcomb’s sister Jane to the scene and showed them where Holcomb died. Grove Holcomb observed the impression in the ground circling the oak tree where it appeared Holcomb had been sighting. Reed said he believed when Holcomb had set his gun to the ground, the end of a stick pressed into the trigger, causing the rifle to fire.

The group saw a decayed log with a limb lying across it. Reed pointed to the limb and said, “If that stick could speak, it would say ‘I did it’.” 

The limb, or “stick” was found to be sunk into the ground at the far end with an accumulation of leaves over it, so they were certain it had not been disturbed anytime since Holcomb’s death. 

Reed said, “I measured [it] and the end of the stick exactly went into the guard of the gun.” 

The Holcombs agreed with Reed’s theory of the stick setting off the gun, believing it to be the cause of the deadly gunshot. 

George Pelton, a township trustee, disagreed and claimed the evidence he saw at the scene incriminated Sawyer. He asserted that he heard Holcomb had shot one squirrel, but there was no evidence of a dead squirrel at the scene. Though Pelton had not been there when the men retrieved the body, not one of the men recalled seeing a squirrel in the vicinity. Pelton investigated the scene the day after Holcomb was killed and found bullet holes in a tree several feet from where the body had been found. These bullets were embedded on the north-facing side of the tree and were later cut out by D.J. Mattocks and Richard Wellman, who said the tree was a beech tree. Pelton believed that the shots were fired from the direction of the fence line, judging from the angle the bullets went into the trunk. He studied the brush fence and found only two freshly cut branches, one from an iron tree and one from a thorn bush, possibly placed on the day of the shooting. The rest of the brush appeared to have been laid at an older date as it had withered substantially. 

Edmund Reed made the same observation about the brush fence. He also stated that he knew Sawyer to be an excellent marksman, having watched him shoot at targets on many occasions. His opinion that a branch had triggered the gun wavered and he appeared to wrestle against his initial instincts. As the neighbors talked and as he watched Sawyer and Mrs. Holcomb together, Reed’s suspicions of Sawyer grew over time and he lost confidence in his theory of a stick causing the rifle to fire. He was not sure that the sticks at the scene had not been disturbed when they took Holcomb’s body up, thus breaking their formation from the time Holcomb was killed.

Deputy Sheriff William Gilmer from Warren, along with a group of men with the investigation, ran tests on Holcomb’s hat. Gunsmith N.B. Tyler shot at the hat from varying distances and tried to replicate the appearance of the original bullet hole. They used Holcomb’s rifle and balanced the hat on a stick. The first shot at fifteen inches resulted in a jagged hole while the fourth shot from three feet away produced not only the roundest and smoothest hole but a hole most similar to the original. It was only when the shots were taken at two feet and under did gun powder become visibly present on the hat. The shot taken at three feet deposited no gunpowder on the hat. Despite this incriminating find, it could not be used to prove without a doubt that this was cold-blooded murder.

The verdict of the coroner’s inquest declared that the “deceased came to his death by the accidental discharge of a rifle gun in his own hands”. However, this determination did not satisfy many residents of Vernon, and through the upcoming months, the gossip and chatter continued, picking up speed as neighbors claimed a murderer walked free, living among them, attending their church, and passing by in his buggy. Though some backed Sawyer up and supported him, others could not rest until he was imprisoned for murdering his best friend.

A funeral was held for William Holcomb and he was buried in Pioneer Cemetery in Vernon, just south of the center. He was laid to rest alongside his little girl, Nettie, while his remaining children and wife said goodbye to their father and husband.

A few weeks after the inquest, Reed spoke again with Sawyer about what happened the day Holcomb was killed. In this conversation, Reed said Sawyer mentioned nothing of Sawyer first going to Holcomb’s shop with Holcomb saying he was in the mood for squirrel hunting. Sawyer said the pair were sitting on a log chatting by the brush fence when Holcomb stood up to leave.

“I believe I’ll go up to Bates’ woods and see what I can find there,” Holcomb said and began walking away. 

However, he suddenly spotted a squirrel and decided to pick up his rifle to begin shooting. Puzzled, Reed believed this change of story to be a sign Sawyer was guilty and had originally lied about what truly happened. In his retelling of the story, Sawyer was accused of failing to remember the exact story he had told the first time around. 

Continuing Rumors

According to neighbors, in the following months, Sawyer could be seen visiting the Holcomb residence with a frequency that surpassed his number of visits in the prior months. Edmund Reed observed Mrs. Holcomb going riding with Sawyer in his buggy, at all times, day and night. Sometimes, Sawyer would pick Mrs. Holcomb up in his buggy at nightfall and they could be seen riding about in all directions. At one point, Reed heard Sawyer say he was making his home at Holcomb’s house with Mrs. Holcomb, but this was not true. Though Sawyer and his wife separated at that time due to Mrs. Sawyer’s incredible jealousy of her husband’s relationship with Mrs. Holcomb, he continued to sleep at home. Sawyer took most of his meals except for breakfast at Mrs. Holcomb’s because his own wife refused to cook for him and wanted nothing to do with him. Reed spotted Sawyer continuously at Holcomb’s house for five weeks before Sawyer departed for a hunting trip. Reed said that at that time Mrs. Holcomb left Vernon and was gone one week, with her and Sawyer returning the same day, suggesting that the pair had gone away together for a private liaison. 

Sawyer fell upon troubled times, not only at home with his wife, but it became most likely difficult for Sawyer to find carpentry work due to the suspicions surrounding him. He also dealt with some matters of discord between the division of property, though it is not clear with who. A public vendue, or auction, was held at his home sometime in the late summer or fall of 1867, an event most likely forced by the Probate Court in order to collect fines Sawyer owed. His farm equipment and perhaps livestock would have been taken away by the highest bidders, causing great shame to fall upon Sawyer, his wife, and the daughter still living at home. After the auction, Sawyer spoke publicly of his desire to move away but had not decided on exactly where. Mrs. Sawyer sold her property to Ralsa Clark in the late fall of 1867 and moved to Burghill with the Sawyer’s daughter Mary Jane.

Edmund Reed believed Sawyer brought his troubles upon himself, saying to neighbor J. Smout that if Sawyer did not behave himself, Reed would have him put where the crows would not bother him. Despite Reed’s intent to remain a neutral party, it was clear he disdained Sawyer and perhaps Mrs. Holcomb too.

Holcomb’s sister Mrs. Eliza Clark lived in Vernon just north of the center. She said that Mrs. Holcomb had been with her in New York for two weeks, at the time Reed noted Sawyer to be gone for a week. They had departed on the 9th of September, 1867 and their original plan was to return in December. Mrs. Holcomb had a brother and a sister living in New York and visited about once a year, also taking the opportunity to purchase the leather and other supplies for the Holcomb’s shoe shop. But while she was away, the same nosy neighbors that had instigated the rumors, began meddling in her affairs. Grove Holcomb received notice from the Probate Court concerning Holcomb’s estate and so he wrote to Mrs. Holcomb, who rushed home. 

Upon their return from New York, Mrs. Clark came to the Holcomb’s home where she sat in the sitting room with Mrs. Holcomb and Sawyer. Sawyer and Mrs. Holcomb sat together on the lounge. They began discussing the fact that an administrator of Holcomb’s estate had been appointed in Mrs. Holcomb’s absence and she was infuriated by such audacity. Mrs. Clark remarked that Mrs. Holcomb would have to give up her bonds.

At that point in the conversation, Mrs. Clark watched Mrs. Holcomb reach over and lay her hand on Sawyer’s knee as she said, “Even you, Mr. Sawyer, don’t know what property we have.”

Perhaps at that moment, Mrs. Holcomb noticed her sister-in-law’s eyes watching her and Sawyer in a manner possibly suspicious or accusatory because she said to Sawyer that she wished to speak with him alone. Sawyer and Mrs. Holcomb walked into the adjoining parlor and closed the door. Mrs. Clark claimed they spent five to ten minutes in the parlor and at one point she noticed the doorknob begin to turn as if someone was opening the door, but then stopped. She was unable to hear their discussion through the closed door. Holcomb’s father, Grove, walked into the sitting room and sat down as Mrs. Holcomb and Sawyer stepped out of the parlor.

Mrs. Holcomb approached her father-in-law and insisted that Sawyer could no longer stay with them as it had raised too much suspicion about her relationship with him. She told him that she had just discussed the matter with Sawyer in the parlor and he was aware of it. Grove Holcomb responded that he wanted Sawyer there and was not going to allow meddling neighbors to ruin their perfectly acceptable arrangement. 

Legal Troubles

The evening of October 14, 1867, Deputy Gilmer sought Sawyer out to serve him papers for an injunction from the Probate Court in a civil suit and found him eating supper at Mrs. Holcomb’s home. Gilmer noticed Sawyer there with Mrs. Holcomb, Holcomb’s father, and some children. Two days later, Gilmer returned to Mrs. Holcomb’s where Sawyer was leaning against a wall and arrested him for disobedience to that injunction, taking him in a buggy to the jail in Warren. It is unknown what the details of the charges against him were, but it did not have anything to do with the rumors surrounding Holcomb’s death.

While Sawyer was in custody, Gilmer asked what happened the day Holcomb died. Sawyer told him that on May 27, he had stopped into Holcomb’s shoe shop around noon. He told Holcomb that he saw four or five young squirrels in Beach’s woods. He went home where he got his ax and went down to fix his fence line. Holcomb came along and the two sat on a log and talked a long while. Holcomb said that he was quite fatigued and was not feeling very well. He decided that he would go home and return to Beach’s woods some other day. According to James, Holcomb made it a distance of ten rods when he stopped and pointed his gun up into the trees. He held that position for some time as if sighting a squirrel before lowering his gun. Sawyer states that shortly after the breech met the ground, the gun went off and Holcomb fell. Sawyer ran to him, calling out his name, and lifting him up, found him to be dead. It was at that time he went to Reed’s to report the death. 

The detail that Holcomb had grown weak and decided to go home had not come up in Sawyer’s prior statements. In the version Sawyer had told Reed, Holcomb had not been ready to give up hunting and spoke of going to Bates’ woods where he may have more luck. This change in Sawyer’s story was enough to raise a red flag for Gilmer.

After Sawyer’s release, he returned to the Holcomb’s briefly and then disappeared. From the fall of 1867 to the spring of 1868, his neighbors saw no sign of Sawyer at all and believed he had gone away for the winter.

Discord & Assault Charges

Before Sawyer left Vernon, George Pelton—being one of the neighbors who spoke out the most concerning an improper relationship—claimed he saw Sawyer and Mrs. Holcomb together on a frequent basis. Even after Sawyer left, Pelton continued talking. As a township trustee and esquire, he no doubt had many dealings with residents of Vernon and they looked up to him as a respectable citizen. Yet Mrs. Holcomb did not appreciate how he went around talking about her and his persistence in calling out her indecent behavior. Pelton himself did not view Sawyer as innocent in the crime of murder just as much as he did not believe Sawyer to be innocent of the sin of adultery. Pelton’s vociferation became so out of hand that Mrs. Holcomb pressed charges against him for slander. 

This suit brought many neighbors to dislike Mrs. Holcomb and combined with those that already carried ill will against her, shifted the weight in her disfavor. Mrs. Holcomb was not treated as a figure to be pitied, a widow left to raise her children alone and somehow carry on without her husband. With Sawyer gone that winter, he was able to escape the gossip, but Mrs. Holcomb suffered through it all, but not quietly. It appears that going forward, some troubles she brought upon herself, her behavior rash and agitated.

On January 28, 1868, George Pelton held a donation party at his home to raise funds for Rev. Graham and his family. He invited all people to come and on the evening of the party found his house filled with many neighbors who proceeded in much merry-making. The party-goers were having a joyous time until Mrs. Holcomb walked into the party with her group of friends. Pelton was insulted that she dare show her face at his home, especially after she had filed a slander suit against him. Her arrival was viewed with irritation and the party-goers were puzzled as to why she had come in the first place, wondering if she had come in search of trouble.

Pelton and his supporters ordered her out and away from his property, making it clear she was not wanted. Mrs. Holcomb, showing much gumption and pluck, walked up to Rev. Graham’s wife and held out her hand to offer her a “widow’s mite”. Pelton directed her to the door, but she refused as she was not ready to depart. Perhaps he grabbed her in an attempt to lead her out and she cried out, claiming that he hurt her. Women and children fled from the room as a result of this altercation and the house filled with shouting and excitement. In the confusion, it was not clear if Pelton had intended harm to Mrs. Holcomb, if he had been more forceful than planned, or if Mrs. Holcomb had feigned the attack altogether. 

Mrs. Holcomb pressed charges and had Pelton arrested for assault and battery.  The matter was settled in the court of common pleas on November 27, 1868, with Pelton paying a fine but not before the two would see one another in a much higher profile trial.

Second Coroner’s Inquest

The persisting rumors swayed a large percentage of the populace to take another look at Holcomb’s death. The slander and assault and battery suits set into motion a second investigation that probed deeper and more thoroughly than the first. Relatives of Holcomb— who were certainly extended family and not Mrs. Holcomb or Grove Holcomb—believed that Holcomb met his death by foul play. At their bidding, the murder investigation reopened. Edmund Reed took up his position as coroner and neighbors stepped in to act as the coroner’s jury.  

On March 28, 1868, the men went to the cemetery and disinterred Holcomb’s corpse. Dr. Woodworth and Dr. Knight examined the body, looking particularly at the angle the bullet had traveled into the head. They detached a portion of the skull and removed the brain—which had since contracted—to see how the bullet had traveled through it. The bullet had stopped at the left side of the head and lodged in the base of the middle lobe of the the cerebrum. The belief that Holcomb shot himself became a high possibility, but that determination was unacceptable to the Prosecuting Attorney, who stood by at the autopsy. He said he had witness testimony to prove otherwise and cut the examination short.

The jury issued a statement proclaiming their verdict that said, “William Holcomb came to his death by reason of a rifle ball fired from his own gun; but in whose hands, whether his own, or those of James C. Sawyer, the jury could not determine.”

Instead, it would take a trial and a litany of witnesses on both sides of the prosecution and defense to reach a satisfactory verdict. By this time, a year had passed since Holcomb’s death, and James Sawyer was arrested and charged with the murder of William Holcomb. He pleaded not guilty and requested a speedy trial to have the entire ordeal over and done with.

The Trial

Defense Lawyer John Hutchins.
Image from Brady Handy Collection. Public Domain.

The trial began at 10 o’clock on July 7, 1868, in Warren with Judge Tuttle presiding. The prosecuting attorney was John M. Stull assisted by Henry McKinney, Esq. of Akron and Honorary John Hutchins led the defense. The appointed men of the jury were Martin Correll, David Carlisle, Manville Barber, Lyman Soule, William Herbert, Charles Kistler, J.W. Little, all of Newton, William Parker of Farmington, Jacob Hammond of Bristol, Albert VanGorder of Warren, Alden Brooks, and Michael Bailey, both of Lordstown. 

Mrs. Holcomb sat in attendance, wearing black, her beauty and composure not lost on the crowd. She was surrounded by her friends and two of her brothers, Eber and Benjamin Franklin Wright. Sawyer sat calmly, appearing as a man confident of his innocence. Grove Holcomb and his daughter Jane, who was now married and no longer living at the Holcomb house, were also present. A surprisingly small amount of spectators turned out, but that was most likely because the bulk of neighbors, family, and friends served as witnesses.

Statement from the Prosecution

Prosecutor Stull argued that there was little doubt James Sawyer murdered William Holcomb in cold blood. He said the bullet had pierced the hat and traveled into the head at a downward angle, therefore the rifle would have been shot from an angle higher than the head and not lower as Sawyer’s statement suggested. Also, the lack of gunpowder and singeing of hair made it clear that the rifle had not been close to Holcomb’s head when it went off. Stull went on to say that Sawyer’s guilt was apparent in his change of story. In one statement, Sawyer was sitting on a log with Holcomb and in another, he was on the other side of the fence working. He also said he did not witness Holcomb fall but heard the report of the gun, but in another instance, he stated he witnessed Holcomb accidentally shoot himself. Stull believed that Sawyer and Holcomb had been taking turns shooting at marks when Sawyer turned the rifle on his friend because the shots heard by neighbors came in quick succession, not like someone tracking and aiming at a squirrel. Stull went on to say that Sawyer had a clear motive to wish Holcomb dead. The manner of intimacy between Sawyer and Mrs. Holcomb had been observed by many neighbors, and Sawyer wanted Holcomb dead in order to have Mrs. Holcomb to himself. Stull said this motive became clear when Sawyer quarreled with his wife, walked out on her, and thusly moved into Mrs. Holcomb’s home where he was seen carrying his belongings inside. Stull said Sawyer murdered Holcomb and “…from the relations of the defendant with Mrs. Holcomb, his contradictory statements, his inconsistent conduct, and the extreme improbability, nay almost impossibility that the gun could have been in the hands of the deceased when fired…” it was apparent he was the guilty party.

Statement from the Defense

Honorable John Hutchins stood before the court as the defense and stated that Sawyer and his wife had been at odds long before they moved to Vernon and became friends with the Holcombs. He said the problems were “caused by the jealous and unhappy disposition of Mrs. Sawyer; that the proof would show that Sawyer had at all times treated her with the utmost kindness and consideration, doing for her what few husbands did for their wives, and yet, beyond his control, this trouble continued, ending in a separation.”

As far as impropriety between Sawyer and Mrs. Holcomb was concerned, Hutchins stated firmly that no concrete evidence existed that suggested such an affair had gone on. He said that Sawyer “had become acquainted with Mr. Holcomb and his family; that Holcomb, from his acquaintance with Sawyer, had conceived a very strong liking for him, which Sawyer reciprocated, each regarding the other as one of his best friends, and which continued until the day of Holcomb’s death; that Holcomb was then on the verge of the grave, having consumption, and his death might be expected at any time without any extraneous means, if such a consummation were desired by any one; that there would have been no thought of any improper intimacy, but for the meddling interference of a few busy-bodies, in Vernon, who started such a report for their own purposes; that Sawyer was a good-natured, easy going sort of a man, always looking on the bright side and always laughing and talking with all his friends and acquaintances; just the sort of man to be on friendly terms with everyone, but the very last man to be likely to murder from any motive; that Mrs. Holcomb was disposed to be lively, good-tempered, fond of company, and that with two such persons it was not strange that they should be on good terms, when they met at singing schools or parties, of which something would be heard in the progress of the case. But this was the extent of the intimacy…”

Witnesses Take the Stand

Neighbors, many of who were also on the coroner’s jury during the initial inquest, took turns testifying to all they had witnessed. Their version of events varied slightly from one another, especially when it came to recalling certain conversations and even how the sticks had lain in the woods at the crime scene. It was up to the jury to decipher these events and judge how they believed the circumstances to have progressed.

When Dr. Woodworth discussed his findings during the second autopsy, a piece of Holcomb’s skull was presented as evidence and many women in the crowd, including Mrs. Holcomb, recoiled in horror. The offending bullet was also produced, misshapen from its travels through Holcomb’s head. Woodworth told how he had been present when Tyler took test shots at the hat. He mentioned that the farther shots produced no gunpowder spray on the hat. Woodworth said that anytime during the war he viewed a wound that was blown with gunpowder he knew the person had shot himself. A person must be shot at a distance of two feet away or less for burns of gunpowder to be present around the wound. He also stated that the exact angle the bullet had entered the head was hard to say, but he estimated it to be a right angle to the surface of the temporal ridge. The prosecuting attorney presented the rifle to the courtroom and Woodworth was asked what he thought of Holcomb’s hand not gripping the rifle upon his death. Woodworth stated that there was no hard rule about muscle contraction when it came to holding an object, therefore he could not say whether Holcomb dropped the gun when it went off or if it had not been in Holcomb’s hand at all. Much of Woodworth’s testimony was gesticulated using the pieces of evidence at hand. He showed the courtroom a skull belonging to no known person that had several bullet holes which he used to describe both the direction the bullet came from when it pierced the bone and the chipping away of the skull around the hole on the inside. Despite his in-depth presentation, he could not claim to know exactly where the gun had been in relation to Holcomb’s head when it went off.

George Thompson said that he had shot foxes in their dens at close range which resulted in no spray of gunpowder or singeing of their fur. His opinion was that a clean gun packed loosely with high-quality powder, which is what he considered Holcomb to have, would cause no burning or blackening within one to two feet. He also stated that a rifle ball shot at long range would have accelerated and thusly exited through the back of the head, instead of stopping inside the head as Holcomb’s rifle ball had done. 

Several other testimonies went on to publicize the illicit behavior of Sawyer and Mrs. Holcomb who were called out for conduct bordering on adulterous. Hearing the accounts from Edmund Reed, Mrs. Sacket, and especially George Pelton, who clearly begrudged the crucified pair, heads in the courtroom shook in distaste and tongues wagged. Mrs. Holcomb herself had to sit in quiet, suffering the indignity of hearing her name dragged through the mud. When Thomas Biggins took the stand to tell of how he had observed Sawyer and Mrs. Holcomb out riding together, he had a most unique character and odd diction that thrilled the spectators. All who heard him believed his testimony to be far-fetched and nonsensical. The crowd roared and jeered to such an extent that Sheriff Laird urged them to be calm so they could continue the trial without disruption.

Vernon resident Charles Reed took the stand and said that he witnessed Sawyer driving Mrs. Holcomb home on many occasions and never thought ill of the arrangement. He stated that he himself had driven Mrs. Holcomb home from Burghill in a couple of instances and it was nothing to frown at. If a lady required a ride, it was a simple courtesy for any man to drive her. He, too, witnessed her and Sawyer together at lyceum and singing school and it had never crossed his mind that their behavior was unusual. To him, they acted just as two neighbors should, friendly and appropriate. Charles Reed’s testimony made it clear that the opinion of the townsfolk was not all the same. Grove Clark from Orangeville stated that he had once lived in Vernon for twenty years, and it was a good town for talking. Neighbor pitted against neighbor, some accused others of being nothing more than nosy gossips, and that it was this hysteria and desire for drama that took an innocent friendship and skewed it into adultery.

With all the testimonies given, a shift in perception did not truly occur until Holcomb’s father, Grove Holcomb, took the stand and gave his version of events. He stated that he first became aware of the rumors swirling about his daughter-in-law and Sawyer during a surprise party that was held at the Holcomb house in the winter of 1866-67. Though he did not take these rumors seriously, he began to take pains to be more watchful and observe Mrs. Holcomb’s interactions with Sawyer and found no fault. It was that same winter that William Holcomb himself became aware of what neighbors were saying and Grove Holcomb often overheard his son and Mrs. Holcomb discussing the rumors. 

Mrs. Holcomb expressed much anxiety about the way her neighbors slandered her. To this, her husband replied, “We will do right, and we must act as if persons in town were one hundred feet underground. They are meddling in our affairs, but we will do right, and it will come out right.”

Holcomb further instructed his wife to treat everyone the same and continue treating Sawyer as she always had, not changing her ways due to the talk of busybodies in the township. She replied that Sawyer being at their house was the cause of the rumors and she would not suffer the indignity of their idle chatter. Holcomb rebutted that unless Sawyer showed signs of ill intentions, he was to be treated as a gentleman. 

Grove Holcomb went on to say that his son considered Sawyer a close confidant, conversed openly with him, trusting him with all matters. Holcomb believed Sawyer to be one of the best joiners around, often hiring him to do work at the Holcomb residence in the manner of carpentry. Grove Holcomb stated that initially, Sawyer visited the home about once a fortnight, much less than what neighbors claimed, though Holcomb wished that he would visit more often. He insisted that Sawyer never showed up uninvited, as far as he was aware. 

Grove Holcomb recalled his son saying, “I regard Sawyer as the best neighbor I have got.”

When Holcomb’s illness struck him most severely during the late winter of 1867, it was Sawyer alone who could cheer Holcomb with his upbeat disposition and joviality. Holcomb was confined to his bed for two weeks and then to the house for another two weeks after that, so Sawyer came to the house much more frequently at Holcomb’s bidding. Holcomb preferred Sawyer’s company over anyone else’s, saying that other visitors “put on a long face” and told him he did not have long to live. Little did they know how right they were, though it was not the illness that would kill him.

Not at any point, even during Holcomb’s convalescence, did Grove Holcomb perceive his daughter-in-law and Sawyer to display any manner of affection or desire to be with one another. He went on to say that Holcomb recovered during the late spring of 1867 and had regained much of his strength. He enjoyed going hunting, being outdoors, and the exercise, though he had the habit of resting the breech of his gun to the ground whenever he could because his arms tired so easily. 

Grove Holcomb stated that on the evening prior to his death, a Sunday, Holcomb had spoken to Sawyer at singing school and asked him to come by his shop the next day and pick up some work. Holcomb was closing up his shop for the summer, so Sawyer obliged him by turning up after dinnertime—what we would refer to as lunchtime in present day—on Monday and took his work. Grove Holcomb was present and remembered exactly how Holcomb and Sawyer’s interaction went. Sawyer removed his pocketbook to pay Holcomb for the work, but Holcomb stopped him and asked Sawyer if he would be willing to do some projects around the property. He would like the shop to be reshingled and the barn partially shingled, and upon completion, they could then settle the bill. Sawyer accepted. Holcomb changed the subject and mentioned that he had been trying out a new rifle and thought about going hunting that afternoon, asking Sawyer if he knew when young squirrels reached maturity.

“About the middle of June,” Sawyer replied. “But I know where I’ve seen five. Down in my pasture where I’ve been for my cows. I’ve noticed them on an oak tree and they’re nearly grown. I’m going down to fix some fence that the last flood damaged, and if you’ll come down, I’ll show you where they are.”

Holcomb agreed to go down to the woods, seeing as it was such a pleasant day. He wore his hat, the one Mrs. Holcomb told him looked “slouchy”. He had removed the rattan from the rim so that the hat fell over his ears and guarded his face against the wind. Grove Holcomb said he often went hunting and explained Holcomb’s particular method, often leaning or standing against a tree when he sighted a squirrel in an attempt to stay hidden. He often rested, sitting down at times, but regularly lowered the gun with the breech to the ground while he grasped the muzzle in his hand. 

Grove Holcomb began working in the garden and did not see his son depart for an afternoon of hunting. A short time later, he was approached by Edmund Reed who announced, “William is killed.” 

Shaken, the only word Grove Holcomb could utter was, “How?”

“Shot himself,” Reed replied.

“Where?” Grove Holcomb asked.  

“In the head,” Reed said and no doubt after some departing remarks and an expression of sympathy, he departed.

Grove Holcomb stumbled into the house, which was strangely empty, and he immediately laid down. He was in such a state of shock that he could not get up and was incoherent as to what happened the remainder of that dark day.

Sawyer came to Grove Holcomb after the funeral, wanting to settle up for the work Holcomb had done, saying, “Perhaps I had better pay you the money.” He mentioned the shingling work Holcomb had asked of him, saying that “perhaps it wouldn’t be best under the circumstances” for him to proceed with it.

Grove Holcomb was adamant that his son’s wishes be carried out and said, “No. Unless you utterly refuse, I shall have you do the work.” They would decide the monetary difference when it was complete. 

Sawyer planned to complete the barn before July 4th, and he turned up at the Holcomb’s to work. Grove Holcomb took over the affairs of the shoe shop at Mrs. Holcomb’s request, having been a shoemaker himself before retiring when Holcomb took over the business. Grove Holcomb said Sawyer never did get around to the shingling work they agreed on, but instead filled in a cellar one day and on another day or so, worked on a well. He only worked at the Holcomb’s a couple of days the entire summer and unless Mrs. Holcomb was seeing Sawyer in secret, Grove Holcomb otherwise did not see him around.   

Despite this shirking of duty, Grove Holcomb thought highly of Sawyer, viewing him as a good, hardworking man. Perhaps when Sawyer told Grove Holcomb of the troubles he was having at home, he sympathized with Sawyer. When Mrs. Sawyer threw him out, Grove Holcomb invited him to take his meals at the Holcombs, though for a fee. Holcomb’s sister Jane, who still lived with the Holcomb’s, agreed to prepare extra at mealtimes and Sawyer would pay $5.00 a week.

This arrangement began while Mrs. Holcomb was in New York in September of 1867 and when she arrived home months before expected, she was shocked to find him supping at her home, fearful of what the gossips would think. She was not aware that Sawyer had in fact spent the night at the Holcomb’s a couple of times while she was away. Mrs. Holcomb’s worries were warranted for indeed the neighbors went so far as to say that Sawyer was living there with Holcomb’s widow and how sinful it was. 

While Grove Holcomb was at work in the shoe shop, Mrs. Holcomb came and pleaded with him to break the agreement, saying he had made a grievous mistake by taking Sawyer in. He in turn attempted to draw out her empathy for Sawyer’s plight, explaining Sawyer’s troubles, but he gained no purchase against her strong will. He insisted that they needed the income from Sawyer’s payments, but she stood firm. Grove Holcomb told his daughter-in-law that he wished to see Sawyer, so she returned to the house.

A short while later, Sawyer came up to the shoe shop, his coat over his arm, and Mrs. Holcomb trailing behind him.

“You are not going, are you?” Grove Holcomb asked him.

“Yes,” Sawyer replied as he and Mrs. Holcomb came into the shop.

Grove Holcomb told them he wanted Sawyer to stay on longer, but Sawyer and Mrs. Holcomb insisted it was not possible.  

Grove Holcomb said, “William has laid down this principle: ‘Let us do right, but do as we please’.”

Sawyer and Mrs. Holcomb again said it just would not do for Sawyer to stay, and Sawyer began walking away. 

Incensed and desperate, Grove Holcomb put his foot down and flew into a tirade, saying that Holcomb himself would have allowed Sawyer to stay and wished it so. He said, “If you do not stay, I will go myself!” 

After a stand-off lasting ten minutes or so, the pair finally gave in to their senior and Sawyer continued coming for meals. Mrs. Holcomb persisted in her distress and irritation at Sawyer’s presence and three days later was successful in having Grove Holcomb see her reasoning.  Sawyer discontinued his visits to the Holcomb’s, stopping in perhaps once more for a meal.

During the trial, Grove Holcomb confessed his true motive for insisting Sawyer continue coming was so he could watch him and Mrs. Holcomb together. He wanted to discover once and for all if a love affair was proceeding, but he found no evidence that would suggest such a relationship. Though he knew Sawyer to have had troubles with his wife for a year, he was not aware that the rumors of an affair had been the cause of their separation. 

As far as Mrs. Holcomb and Sawyer’s behavior while at lyceum and singing school, Grove Holcomb said his son regularly attended with Mrs. Holcomb and the older children while he looked after the younger children at home. Holcomb only stopped going when his illness kept him home. 

When asked why Mrs. Holcomb was so often observed riding in Sawyer’s buggy, Grove offered an adequate explanation. He stated that the Holcomb’s lacked a horse and Margaret had to take her chances and often depart on foot whenever she traveled to stock up on supplies. She was often fortunate to catch a ride with neighbors who picked her up along the route and either took her to her destination or carried her home. She went to Burghill—a small community with a station and post office situated in southern Vernon Township—every week and to Warren once a month. She did ride with Sawyer on occasion, but she rode with other neighbors far more often.

William Thompson, who lived across the street from the Sawyers, said he had driven Mrs. Holcomb home as much as fifty times. He said Holcomb himself often asked Thompson if he could take her as she often tried to make her way on foot. Thompson said he also watched Mrs. Holcomb with Sawyer at lyceum and singing school, bearing the rumors in mind, and never noticed anything hinting at an improper relationship. He said the manner that passed between them was no different than any other neighbor-to-neighbor interaction in the room. Though he did see the pair walking together, it did not appear out of the ordinary and sometimes Mrs. Holcomb’s children were with them. He said he heard Holcomb speak highly of Sawyer.

Many neighbors took the stand and swore to know Sawyer as an upright, honest, and good citizen. He maintained a reputation as a peacekeeping man and the thought that he would ever seek to destroy a marriage and murder an innocent human being was ludicrous. No doubt they chose not to mention Sawyer’s disobedience in his civil suit and the financial ruin he had brought on his family so as not to cast the defendant in an unfavorable light.

The defense pointed out that Sawyer did not tell different versions of his account because he was guilty, but because certain facts were not vital to the story and some details were either added or omitted depending on whom Sawyer was talking to. By Sawyer’s own statement that was backed up by Grove Holcomb, he had indeed come to Holcomb’s shop that day where Holcomb expressed his wish to squirrel hunt and Sawyer recommended Beach’s woods around where Sawyer planned on repairing his fence line. That afternoon, Sawyer saw Holcomb approaching through the woods and came to rest on a log near the fence line. It appears that Sawyer never left his work, but continued rebuilding his fence while it was Holcomb who sat as they shared a long conversation. 

The dissonance was that Sawyer had told Reed that Holcomb began to leave in order to hunt in Bates’ woods while he had told Deputy Gilmer that Holcomb decided he had reached his bodily limit and was in the act of walking home. Surely Sawyer, in witnessing such a traumatic event, had trouble remembering exactly how events played out immediately before Holcomb’s death. In any case, the important point in Sawyer’s statement was that wherever Holcomb was going, he was stopped short by the sight of a squirrel. 

Holcomb was several rods off in the distance, but Sawyer could hear him when he spoke. Though Holcomb did take some shots, none appeared to produce a dead squirrel. After the first shot, Holcomb scoffed that his shot had not been near enough to frighten the rodent. After his next shot, he remarked, “It was not a squirrel I shot at, but a knot.” This perhaps explained the presence of bullets lodged in the tree trunk and as for a dead squirrel, Sawyer himself never claimed that Holcomb was successful in shooting one. That part in the story came from George Pelton who—not being present when the men took up the body—perhaps had misheard as the information had come to him second-hand.

Final Verdict

Though the information given painted Sawyer and Mrs. Holcomb in an unfavorable light, it was not a basis to prove impropriety and therefore a clear motive on why Sawyer would want Holcomb dead. Also, despite the evidence of the original clean hole in the hat versus the test holes made at close distance, the lack of gunpowder and scorching on Mr. Holcomb, the bullets in the tree trunks, and the lack of a dead squirrel were all explained away by the testimonies provided by friends and family. 

The defense counsel took a moment to consult with the defendant, James Sawyer, and in that time decided that the defense would rest, leaving many witnesses that had yet to take the stand. The prosecution also rested and the case was submitted to the jury for review and judgment. The court and the spectators, having hung on every word during the proceedings, sat in a state of shock, surprised at the abrupt ending to the review of evidence and witnesses. Following a recess, Judge Tuttle spoke to the jury for about thirty minutes, after which time the jury left to deliberate for fifty-five minutes. Upon their return, they were ready to announce their verdict.

“Not guilty,” the spokesman for the jury declared. 

The entire courtroom filled with deafening noise, paradoxical cries of disgust, and jubilees of victory. Sawyer received many congratulations on his triumph in court, though it hardly felt as such. Despite winning his freedom, his best friend was dead and his reputation was forever in ruin. The decision had been unanimous, with only one juror casting his ballot as “guilty”.

After the trial, an affidavit was released to the public that cast little doubt on Sawyer’s innocence. Mrs. Frances Helvering, wife of Martin Helvering of Vernon whose 72-acre farm was situated south of Sawyer’s with Davis & Brown’s property between, entered a statement of what she witnessed the same afternoon of Holcomb’s death. She had been present at the trial, expecting to take the stand and explain the events she had witnessed, but the defense decided they had entered adequate evidence to prove Holcomb’s death as an accident. She was with her husband as he plowed their field and from Beach’s woods heard the sound of five or six shots from about 125 rods distance away. Her curiosity triggered, she stood up in the wagon as it crested a hill and she observed a man in his shirt sleeves working along the south side of a fence. When the final shot rang out, she watched the man leap over his fence and dash into the woods toward the direction of the gunshots. A few moments later, a man—assuming not to have been Sawyer—approached them in the field and told them that Holcomb had accidentally shot himself. Mrs. And Mr. Helvering continued working and noticed sometime later a group of men in and about that part of the woods. She learned later it was the recovery party.


In the wake of the trial, the Holcomb family scattered like leaves in the wind. A scandalized Margaret Holcomb moved to New York where it is thought she died within a few years, though no records of her can be found. Grove Holcomb went to Wisconsin where in 1871, he was reporting back to his hometown of the devastating fire that took place in Peshtigo. He died in Nebraska where he is buried. I could find but little on some of the Holcombs’ children; one for certain is buried in New York and another in Los Angeles. 

Like Margaret Holcomb, Sawyer also fell off the map as no further records can be found of him. He most likely left Vernon and attempted to live a life in anonymity. Sawyer can be viewed as a pitiable figure, though he may have brought some of his woes upon himself. Like Mrs. Holcomb, he did not always behave as a respectable citizen should, yet he had lost everything: his family, his best friend, his home and valuables, and his reputation. His wife and daughter continued living in Burghill until his daughter married in her late thirties and moved to California. Mrs. Sawyer, too, cannot be located in records after 1880. 

The key figures involved in the Sawyer trial seemed eager to escape the gossips that watched the doings of their neighbors from their windows and porches and reported to one another what they thought to be going on, making assumptions and maligning names. Mrs. Holcomb suffered this treatment more than any other neighbor, a fact that gave her constant anxiety. Holcomb had great confidence in his relationship with his wife and trusted her completely. He also trusted Sawyer and though he was aware of the gossip, he chose to shrug it off. He was level-headed and cool, not quick to anger, and unconcerned with what other people thought. If more people in Vernon had carried his attitude, suspicion may never have been cast upon Sawyer and a needless murder trial might not have occurred.

Was an adulterous affair going on after all? Were Sawyer and Mrs. Holcomb subtle enough to keep their secret from Holcomb and his father Grove, but unsuccessful in avoiding suspicion from Mrs. Sawyer and the locals? We may never know what truly went on between them—perhaps their friendly relationship was perfectly innocent as Grove Holcomb’s testimony suggests—but it is quite certain that Sawyer did not murder Holcomb. 

Yet we also have two instances on the record of Mrs. Holcomb possibly wishing to cause trouble and stir up chaos, the first being when she told Mrs. Sawyer she “rode home with her man” and the second time when she showed up at George Pelton’s home where she was not wanted. We may have some hint of her character as a reckless woman, a woman who wanted to stir the pot a little. We know that she was a beautiful, vivacious woman with a sick and feeble husband, a brood of children to raise with one in the ground, and each day as monotonous as the one before it. Singing school and buggy rides may well have been an escape for her and if Sawyer gave her the attention she so craved, we can see why she would take the risk to see him as often as possible, despite the wrong in it. On the other hand, we also have the reports of how she was fearful of the ruin of her reputation, so in that respect, she was cautious of how people perceived her. She had an issue with Sawyer being at her home because it caused the neighbors to talk, but she did not seem to mind being watched talking in the road, in the yard, or riding in his buggy. We can see that at the very least, the pair enjoyed one another’s company, whether their relationship was platonic or not. My theory, however, is that a truly adulterous relationship was not possible with all the eyes focused on the pair; they had no privacy to speak of. On the other hand, if they committed thought adultery, that would be viewed as a biblical sin, but we will never know the thoughts that crossed their minds.

We can imagine that as the rumor mill continuously churned out new gossip every day, people said Mrs. Holcomb and Sawyer had wished Holcomb dead. When his mysterious illness failed to kill him and he made a miraculous recovery, the couple had to take action and Sawyer lured Holcomb to the woods to dispatch him with his own rifle. This rumor transformed over time, turning into local lore that passed through generations of teenagers and circulated to nearby Hartford and Orangeville. After a century, the legend said the husband caught his wife buggy riding with another man whom she was carrying on an affair with. The two men entered into a duel, but the adulterous woman ended up slain when she came between them. The husband killed the man and the lovers’ ghosts are said to haunt the forest and creek bed between Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Vernon Center in 2020, ©Ashley Armstrong

These days, Vernon is a quiet little town and Vernon center is no longer a hub of activity and mindless chatter. It is much changed from how it appeared 150 years ago.  The town house that held lyceums is gone as well as the beautiful school house that sat at the southwest end of the corners. An abandoned Meloni’s market takes the place of Sawyer’s home and the wooded land behind it to the left that was once called Beach’s Woods lays largely untouched. Peden’s Freezer Meats sits on the property once owned by Edmund Reed. Vernon Volunteer Fire Station now takes up most of the center green, holding wedding receptions and banquets in its large upper hall. Vernon Methodist church sits on the southwest edge of the corners, but Vernon center is otherwise quiet and empty.  

Vernon Fire Station, ©Ashley Armstrong

Take a virtual walk around Vernon center and see how it appears today: Here. As you walk, see if you can picture children playing on the center green, their shouts ringing out among the quaint buildings, Mrs. Sacket watching from her window, her curtain drawn back with one hand, Grove Holcomb planting his garden, dropping seeds into harrowed soil, William Holcomb slowly walking down Route 7 with his rifle slung across his back, and finally, Margaret Holcomb and James Sawyer standing by the roadside, heads bowed together, their whispered secrets lost to time.


  • 1850 Census Record: “United States Census, 1850,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 9 April 2016), Ohio > Trumbull > Vernon > image 5 of 20; citing NARA microfilm publication M432 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).
  • 1860 Census Record: “United States Census, 1860,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 24 March 2017), Ohio > Trumbull > Vernon Township > image 21 of 24; from “1860 U.S. Federal Census – Population,” database, ( : n.d.); citing NARA microfilm publication M653 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).
  • William Holcomb and Margaret Wright marriage record: “Ohio, County Marriages, 1789-2013,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 15 July 2014), Trumbull > Marriage licenses 1850-1858 > image 100 of 386; county courthouses, Ohio.
  • Coroner’s Inquest In Vernon: Western Reserve Chronicle, June 12, 1867, Page 3
  • A Novel Lawsuit: Western Reserve Chronicle, February 12, 1868, Page 3
  • The Vernon Shooting: Western Reserve Chronicle, April 1, 1868, Page 3
  • Murder Charge: Western Reserve chronicle, May 20, 1868, Page 3
  • Trial of James Sawyer: Western Reserve Chronicle, July 15, 1868 Pages 2-3
  • Court Proceedings: Western Reserve Chronicle, November 11, 1868, Page 3

The Brutal Axe Murder of Katherine Babchak

Tuesday, February 15—Wednesday, February 16, 1949
Warren, Ohio

Katherine Babchak came home on a snowless winter night to the home she shared with her husband Steve and a boarder. The 64-year-old had been at her favorite retreat, the Slovak Club on Washington St. NW, helping out with a mock wedding. Once inside, she walked into her kitchen and before she had the chance to remove her coat, she was ambushed; the light in her eyes forever dimmed.

Steve and Katherine’s home on Youngstown Rd., SE.
The 2,480 square foot house was built in 1890.
This is a private residence.

Katherine, the daughter of Andrew Urbancik, had married Steve Babchak in 1902 in New York, both immigrants of Czechoslovakia. They had come to Warren seven years prior from Redstone Twp., Fayette County, Pennsylvania, where Steve worked as a farmer and they raised their six children, Mary, Emily, Joseph, Stephen Jr., John, and Frank. They had come to Pennsylvania from New York where their eldest child, Mary, had been born. While living in Warren, Steve was co-owner at the V.E. Gillette Farm on Warren-Meadville Rd. outside of the city. He spent most of his time away from home, working on the farm.

Charles Ferguson arrived at the house around 12:20 a.m., heading to the upstairs room he rented from the Babchaks. On his way in, he noticed 75-year-old Steve standing in the narrow first floor hallway and only five minutes after Charles walked into his room, he was called back downstairs. Despite the late hour, Charles obliged his landlord by meeting him in the kitchen. There, Steve presented the body of his wife splayed across the floor in a pool of blood. 

Charles immediately called Dr. Hyde Storey, a neighbor, who rushed to the gruesome scene in the hopes he could save her. He examined her and discovered that the blood had spilled from wounds on her head. Unfortunately, there was nothing he could do for her. After confirming she was deceased, Dr. Storey called police who arrived at 12:45 a.m. The serviceman on that call were Captain J. Sullivan, Sgt. Harry Thomas, and Patrolman Herbert Rising. They found Katherine with her head nestled on a large white pillow and her husband sitting quietly beside her on the floor. Steve had blood on his hands, slippers, socks, and arms and his pants were wet.

Police probed for answers, but could not immediately discern what had occurred. Charles told them what little he knew, but when police questioned Steve they discovered he spoke very little English. He was taken to police headquarters where Chief Johnson called in the Homicide Bureau of detectives: Sgt. John Lepola, Andrew Bokros, Walter Mackey, and John Stephens. 

Tribune, Feb 16, 1949 8:3

Detective Bokros spoke the Slovak language and was able to communicate with Steve. The questioning lasted five hours and Steve initially denied harming his wife. However, the interrogation ended with Steve signing a statement confessing to murder. Steve said that he and Katherine had quarreled before she left for the Slovak club because Steve was not happy about her leaving the house. She had told him she was going to church, but he became suspicious when she headed towards town and not in the direction of church. She instead went to the Slovak club to participate in a practice for an upcoming wedding. 

Meanwhile, Steve went out to a café and drank a glass of beer and wine. When he was finished, he returned home where he waited for Katherine, but provided little information after that point. As Steve related this account to Det. Bokros, he showed absolutely no remorse and said that he had killed his wife simply “because she came home late”.

Katherine’s body was taken to Southside Hospital in Youngstown where Trumbull County Coroner Michael Cristo performed the autopsy. She had been struck in the head three times by the blunt end of an axe. The blows had opened a two-inch-long ragged cut in the back of her head and she had died from traumatic shock due to a severe brain injury. Her body was then taken to Gillen’s Funeral Home for embalming. The coroner filed the charge of murder in the first degree on Feb. 16.

During an inventory of the home, the short-handled axe used in the murder was found tossed on a pile of newspapers in the basement, flesh and hair attached to its edge. The side of the axe used in the murder was not the sharp end, but the pounding edge on the opposite side. Katherine’s blood spattered glasses were on the kitchen table and her coat was in the bedroom. Her front door key was discovered on the kitchen floor, probably where she dropped them when the surprise attack had been made. All of the evidence was taken to the Cleveland Police Department to be analyzed.

At a hearing held the day following, State Patrolman John Mundrick served as interpreter for Steve who offered more details on the night of Katherine’s murder. He said that Katherine had left for the Slovak Club after 6 p.m. and returned after 10 p.m. Steve was in the bedroom when he heard her come in the front door. He put on a shirt and pants and followed his wife into the kitchen with the axe where he struck her once. She immediately fell to the floor where he removed her coat, taking it to their bedroom and picked up her glasses, placing them on the kitchen table. He then stood over her and issued two more blows to her head as she lay helpless.

This information shows a clear case of premeditation with intent to kill. Steve had not hit Katherine in a blind rage, but had waited for her return home with his axe handy. Not only did he hit her once, but he returned to the body after removing her coat and hit her twice more, perhaps because she was either noticeably still alive or he wanted to make doubly sure she was dead. For someone to do this to a person they had been married to for almost five decades and had six children with speaks of Steve’s cold, unfeeling manner. Did he even offer Katherine an explanation before taking her life? Reprimand her harshly before swinging the axe; a series of terse words on her evening whereabouts or did he creep up behind her silently like a serpent waiting to strike?

Katherine’s body was taken to the family residence where family and friends came to say goodbye. A private funeral service took place Saturday, February 19that Saints Cyril and Methodius Church where Katherine had been a member. At first, the question of whether Steve could attend the services was dubious, but he was ultimately contained behind bars during the rites. It was shockingly a member of the family that requested Steve receive allowance to attend, but Judge Lynn B. Griffith denied permission. Why give Steve the right to attend his wife’s funeral, when he had stolen her right to live?

“I felt that Babchak had no business at the funeral services for his wife,” Judge Griffith commented. 

Surely, Steve’s presence at the funeral would have been highly inappropriate and what, I wonder, was passing through the minds of their six grown children who came from New York and Los Angeles to grieve their mother? In the unspeakable horror, did their deepest fear come true? Had they constantly worried their father would someday hurt their mother to a degree beyond healing or were they instead caught off guard, thinking violence was out of character for their father? Perhaps they had tried to persuade their mother to leave their father, but her Catholic faith frowned on divorce.

This leads to my big question: Did Steve had a history of domestic violence? In most cases of one spouse murdering the other, we see a buildup of spousal abuse through the years, with each episode growing increasingly more violent. I could not find any record of Steve committing domestic violence against Katherine, but that doesn’t mean it never happened. 

Steve spent the following months at the Trumbull County Jail, a building of brick and stone so ancient and crumbling that the poor conditions were mentioned at Steve’s arraignment. Steve was represented by attorney M. Francis Connor and the Prosecutor was W.M. McLain. His arraignment before Common Pleas Judge G.H. Birrell occurred April 13thand he plead “not guilty”. Shortly after, Attorney Connor changed Steve’s plea to “guilty” on behalf of his client, waiving the right to a jury trial. The court decided a three judge trial was necessary. 

On April 23, 1949, Judge Arthur L. Cooper of Steubenville was appointed to sit with Judges Lynn B. Griffith and G.H. Birrell at Steve’s trial in Warren, Ohio. On April 29th, at the Trumbull County Court of Common Pleas in Warren, the judges observed the elderly man before them and recommended mercy. Without this proposal, Steve could face execution in the electric chair. At last, the judges announced their verdict and Steve was convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to life in the Ohio State Penitentiary. Steve’s face was void of emotion upon hearing his fate.

Just a few years later on September 19, 1953, Steve died at the Ohio State Penitentiary from stomach cancer. His autopsy also found cerebral arteriosclerosis with senile psychosis. Before the 1960s, senile dementia was thought to be caused by cerebral arteriosclerosis, but this was disproved during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Perhaps Steve exhibited signs of dementia during his incarceration that was not noticeable during the trial. If that was the case, perhaps it would explain why Steve would violently murder his wife simply because she missed her curfew.

Both Steve and Katherine are buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Warren, OH. You may pay your respects here and here.

Other notes of interest relating to the case:

  • Babchak’s crime was the first murder to take place in Warren in four years; on July 4, 1945 George Wheeler killed his son Clifford. In modern day, this length of time between murders would be unheard of in the city as Warren currently has one of the highest crime rates in America.
  • Steve’s defense attorney M. Francis Connor went on to be a municipal judge. 
  • The Trumbull County Jail where Steve was incarcerated while awaiting trial became infamous in the 1950’s and 60’s for the amount of prisoners who were able to break through the decrepit walls and escape.
  • The Slovak Club building on the corner of Washington St. NW and North Park Ave. is no longer standing.
  • Not only was Katherine member of the Slovak Club and Saints Cyril and Methodius Church, but she was also a member of the Altar and Rosary Society of the Jednota. She had a large circle of friends who mourned her passing.


“City Man Charged With Killing Wife” Katherine Babchak, Warren Tribune Chronicle Feb 16, 1949 Front Page Headline

“Admits He Struck Her With Axe” Warren Tribune Chronicle Feb 16, 1949 1:8

“Babchak is Held to Grand Jury” Warren Tribune Feb 17, 1949 1:3

“Funeral is Held for Slain Woman” Warren Tribune Chronicle Feb 18, 1949 6:2

“Babchak Denied Right to Attend Wife’s Rites” Warren Tribune Chronicle Feb 19, 1949 1:6

 “Man Indicted for Murder” Warren Tribune Chronicle Apr 9, 1949 1:5

“ ‘Not Guilty’ Babchak Says” Warren Tribune Chronicle Apr 13, 1949 1:1

“Babchak Will Go On Trial April 29th” Warren Tribune Chronicle Apr 15, 1949 1:1

“Babchak Pleads Guilty to Murder” Warren Tribune Chronicle Apr 19, 1949 8:3

 “Babchak to Face Judges Tomorrow” Warren Tribune Chronicle Apr 28, 1949 34:3

“Deputies at ‘Paper Bag’ Jail Cringe” Niles Daily Times Aug 27, 1960 p.1

Katherine Babchak Death Certificate: “Ohio Deaths, 1908-1953,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 21 May 2014), 1949 > 09201-12500 > image 3553 of 3598.

Steve Babchak Death Certificate: “Ohio Deaths, 1908-1953,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 21 May 2014), 1953 > 57401-59900 > image 2643 of 3145.