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

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