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

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