Month: September 2020

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.