Anecdotes of Hotel Conneaut & Exposition Park: Part 2, 1900-1909

In my ongoing series of anecdotes from Hotel Conneaut and Exposition Park, I found the first decade of the 20th century to be one of triumph and also devastation for the resort as a whole. The park had yet to become a prime destination for vacation goers and far off from being known as the largest resort in Pennsylvania, but was well on its way to success. As an interesting aside, Clark Gable, who was born in Ohio in 1901, lived on a farm along Conneaut Lake from the ages of seven months to five years. Republican candidate for the 1936 presidential election, Alfred Mossman Landon, also spent his childhood summers at Conneaut Lake during that same decade and accomplished a two-mile swim across the lake..

1909 Postcard showing Conneaut Lake


Mr. O. E. Gleason, owner of the Mansion House in Titusville and partner to Frank Lockwood, leased the Exposition Hotel to E.D. Comstock for the season. Fred G. Pardee of Titusville operated the hotel through the year of 1900 before departing to lease a hotel in Watertown, N.Y.

The park installed a huge, 60 foot diameter merry-go-round at the tune of $7,500, a price tag that would read about $232,000 in today’s dollars.


View from Hotel Conneaut Veranda, early 1900s

Henry O. Holcomb took over management of the hotel Conneaut.

Advertisement from 1902


On March 10, a crew of forty men commenced building the new Hotel Conneaut on the site of Exposition Hotel. The plan for the building sized it at 160 by 130 feet with a projected cost of $25,000. Whether newspaper error or a project going extremely overbudget, the hotel construction actually cost $35,000, or about one million in today’s value. 

Workers labored rapidly, their work made faster because they used a portion of the old Exposition Hotel in the construction of the new building. They used the three story section of the original structure, having moved the one story north wing near the auditorium to be used for another building, and built the new hotel in its place. By April, they set about wiring the hotel for electric lights.

Meadville house furnisher John J. Shryock provided all the new carpets and bedding for the new building. He won the contract in a bidding war against companies from Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Erie, and New York.

Also under construction was the largest gravity railroad on that side of the country.


Image from The Record-Argus (Greenville, Pennsylvania) Monday, June 15 1903, Page 1

When construction workers continued working on the new Conneaut hotel, tragedy struck. On February 9th, one of the laborers, Harry Hogan, fell and hit his head, but returned to work the following day. By evening, he felt poorly and returned to his parents’ home in Erie where he fell into a delirium and eventually died.

In mid-April, a group of carpenters employed by Constable Brothers, the company contracted for the hotel’s construction, quit the job and returned to Meadville, tools in hand. Because they had refused to name their union, they had been placed on the unfair list of the Erie Carpenter’s Union, thus causing the strike. Non-union laborers took over the work on the hotel while the matter was resolved.

Park guests would be arriving in a new terminal, as a new station was constructed farther south than the original. It could not be completed in time for season opening due to difficulties in finding material, but was still used and required every guest to pass through gates before boarding a train.

A new train, the Conneaut Lake Limited, was up and running and featured a day coach, chair car, and a private car. Along the lake, new, larger docks were built by the steamer company.

Circa 1910 Postcard showing the new docks

With the new hotel alas complete and improvements made all around the park, the new owners could label the grounds as a first class resort. Hotel Conneaut boasted a Spanish style entrance, built of stucco and large porches that wrapped around both sides of the hotel. Guests could walk up to the roof garden for a peaceful rest and view of the grounds. In the north wall of the large lobby was a fireplace and on the west side, a staircase leading to the upstairs guest rooms. Off of the lobby were separate writing rooms for men and women. Also on the ground floor was a barber shop, buffet, telephone booth, toilets, billiard room, ladies parlor and several guest rooms.

On Decoration Day, 700 diners filled the new dining room in Hotel Conneaut’s north wing. 

During the remainder of July, thousands visited the park on a daily basis, many coming during the day to picnic and enjoy a leisurely stay at the lake. The hotels ran at full capacity and were forced to turn many travelers away, some taking the train to Meadville where they found accommodations and returned on the morning route.


In April, the Conneaut Lake Company purchased the resort from the Conneaut Lake Exposition Company. The new officers were President Henry O. Holcomb of Erie who was the current proprietor of Hotel Conneaut, Secretary and Manager C. P. Kepler of Pittsburgh, and Treasurer F.W. Henninger of Pittsburgh.

1905 Postcard

They immediately set about making improvements to the resort, including building a new, modern bathhouse.

The park opened for the season on May 30, Decoration Day, with the year’s schedule already quite jampacked with reunions and picnics. The hotel rooms and cottages were booked well in advance by eager excursionists. Park Manager Kepler, the former Traveling Auditor of the Bessemer Road, was in charge of the bookings.

The Circle Swing, a new attraction installed, featuring a dazzling spectacle of light, made possible by doubling the capacity of the electric light plant.

Postcard showing the park’s large Circle Swing at left

On August 29-September 1st, the Conneaut Lake Agricultural Association hosted a fair and race meet on the new fair grounds adjacent to the resort.


On December 4, a large fire tore through three of the largest hotels in Conneaut Lake Park as well as the surrounding frame buildings. Hotels Arlington, Brunswick, and Thatcher were lost, amounting to about $30,000 in damages.

On April 2, another fire began in the basement of the Taylor Hotel inside Conneaut Lake Park and men from numerous surrounding towns rushed in to fight the blaze. The Taylor burned to the ground followed by the Chilcott Hotel and several barns before it was extinguished. The damage amounted to around $35,000.

On Friday, June 29th, Mrs. Holcomb, wife of Manager Holcomb served as hostess for one hundred women from Conneaut, Erie, Girard and other localities. With her incredible grace and class, she welcomed the women into Hotel Conneaut and spent the day giving them a grand tour of the resort.

The July 4th holiday week proved to be the busiest the resort had seen as 25,000 people visited the lake. 6,000 paid entry to see the horse races, the best ever seen in western Pennsylvania. Hotel Conneaut’s management handled the crowds with unwavering professionalism. Next door, Hotel Mantor burst at the seams as harried park employees ran about, tending to the many needs of excursionists. On the 4th, guests waited an hour to find a place within the bathhouse, which showed considerable traffic that week.

In November, laborers began constructing a substantial addition to Hotel Conneaut. It measured 30 by 100 feet with a wing of 30 by 60 feet. It stood four stories high.


Postcard featuring Hotel Virginia

Hotel Conneaut received a sister hotel upon the completion of Hotel Virginia, built to accommodate the overflow of guests. Hotel Mantor had a new third story with added guest rooms and its name was changed to the Lakeside Inn, which without argument, boasted the best view of the lake.

Postcard of Hotel Mantor after the name change to Lakeside Inn

Upon a cold and rainy season opening, visitors could not be discouraged by the poor weather and poured into the park, eager to see all the new improvements and amenities.

On the morning of Sunday, June 2, Hotel Conneaut guest Edward Hammond was taking a stroll along the hotel’s lawn when he came across the rain-soaked body of Dr. Cornelius Van Horne. A coroner’s jury theorized that Van Horne had fallen from his guest room’s balcony during the night, walked several feet, collapsed from a head injury and died from exposure.


Postcard showing guests on the porch of Hotel Conneaut, about 1908

Prior to the season opening, $50,000 (nearly one and a half million in today’s value) was spent in new attractions, including the scenic railway, managed by Piper & Skeen, a penny arcade, managed by Fred J. Spillman of Niles, OH, The Castle of Fun led by Meadville’s C.H. Clark, The Old MillThe Mystic CycloneThe Circle Swing managed by Scott Murphy, the Ocean Waveoperated by M.D. Fox, the Ferris Wheel conducted by Larry Palmer, and the Avenue Theatorium—Conneaut’s first movie theater, and especially for the children, Erhart’s merry-go-round and the pony track with saddle and carriage horses. 

The park buildings and pavilions received a fresh coat of paint, and all the benches painted vermilion red. A new half-mile-long racetrack, the Conneaut Lake Oval, was constructed and spectators soon claimed it was the fastest half-mile track in Pennsylvania. Its grandstand could hold 5,000 people.

1908 Postcard Showing the Boat Landing

Seven steamboats owned by the Conneaut Lake Navigation Company were repaired and improved in preparation for summer passengers.

Early 1900’s Postcard showing steamboats

The partial list of 1908 park employees is as follows: 

  • Park Manager: Mr. Kepler
  • Park Superintendent/Hotels Conneaut and Virginia Manager: Henry Holcomb
  • Hotel Conneaut Chief Clerk: Frank Garber, Greenville PA
  • Hotel Conneaut Assistant Clerk: Joe Longmore, Pittsburgh PA
  • Park Office Manager: Mrs. J.O. Jones, Greenville PA
  • Post Office Manager: Mary Moulthrop 
  • Bessemer Station Agent: F.H. Wheeler, Mercer PA
  • Bessemer Superintendent of Motive Power: E.B. Gilbert, Greenville PA
  • Baggage Handler: C.W. Cubbison
  • Yard Master: C.M. Kamerer, Butler, PA
  • Bathing Pavilion Manager: A.W. Robertson
  • Rowboat Manager: Mark Lynce
  • A.K. Tower Operator: C.A. Rood 
  • Bowling Alley Manager: C.W. McCullough
  • Park Contractor: Mr. Piper of Moundsville, WV with crew of forty men
  • Cottage Contractor: Martin Dennis
  • Park Photographer: W.W. Wilt
  • Lakeside Inn (former Mantor House) Proprietor: James Reany
  • Hotel Bismark Manager: Julius Fuhrman
  • Check Stand Attendants: Phoebe Irons, Linesville PA and Mildred Powers, Grand Rapids MI
  • Cashiers: Flora Moulthrop and Lillian Schaaf

Friday, May 29th, the day before opening day, a storm blew through, toppling thirty trees, removing the roofs of two cottages, damaging the bathhouse roof, and sinking all the rowboats. Undeterred, thousands entered the park on Saturday May 30th, Decoration Day, welcomed by the boisterous music of the Greenville based Boyd’s Band. 900 people arrived on two trains from Pittsburgh alone. Park superintendent Henry Holcomb welcomed guests into Hotel Conneaut, entertaining 400 from Pittsburgh and countless others from other districts. In the dining room, Henry Wiesbauer’s orchestra delighted diners with a musical program. They also played in the dancing pavilion for the entire season.

A College Field Day was put on the Saturday after Memorial Day with many sports and activities for athletes from all around.

On June 12-13th, the park hosted an Italian festival, featuring food, games, music, excursion trains, and fireworks put on by P. Rozzi.

In July, Imogene DeTier opened a manicuring parlor in Hotel Conneaut.

In the early morning hours of December 2,  a fire of unknown origin began in the Bismark Hotel. The fire rapidly spread with devastating results to more than half the park. A detailed account by the Crawford County Historical Society can be read here.  An investigation into the fire was made but with no natural explanation found, the people of Conneaut assumed an arsonist set fire to the Bismark Hotel. The National Board of Fire Underwriters offered a $500 reward for anyone who had information leading to an arrest. Fingers pointed to the hotel’s owner for beginning the fire for insurance purposes, but with no evidence, no one was ever brought to justice.


Park management set about making many improvements during the quick rebuild prior to the upcoming summer season. A large, fireproof cement midway was constructed with entirely new buildings.

They purchased one-hundred new rowboats to replace the ones that had been in storage inside the dance pavilion when it burned to the ground. 

1909 postcard showing docks in front of the new boat pavilion

At the end of May, the finishing touches were put on the brand new cement and steel dance pavilion. The impressive structure that would eventually be called Dreamland Ballroom featured a beautifully laid maple floor and 17,000 square feet of floor space. Its outdoor promenade boasted a 14 foot width by 412 feet length. The first floor was used for picnics when the weather proved too inclement for an outdoor affair. In its first summer, dances were held every night but Sundays, led by a twelve-piece orchestra.

Postcard featuring the dance pavilion

The park’s grand opening was held on Decoration Day, May 30th.

On July 8th, Exposition Park hosted the seventeenth annual picnic of the Merchant’s Association of Niles (from Trumbull County, OH), the largest ever held. 

During the hot summer days, swimmers enjoyed the bathing pavilion with 150 dressing rooms. It had a large collection of brand new, modern swimsuits for men, women, and children. Along the lake, visitors sped down the toboggan slide, and jumped from springboards and diving platforms.

Within the Arcade, guests bowled in the eight lane bowling alley or played pool or billiards. Those up for more vigorous sports could play a game of ball on the regulation baseball diamond or on the tennis courts just south of Hotel Conneaut.

By this time, the Conneaut Lake Fair, held on August 30-September 3 that season, proved to be the most popular fair in the state.

1909 Postcard featuring the post office

On Friday, October 15, around 11 a.m., a fire of unknown origin broke out at the resort, starting in Phelp’s grocery across from the trolley station. The frame structure quickly went up in flames and spread to the adjoining frame buildings, though was stopped from spreading further by the new fireproof cement structures on the Midway. Park employees battled the blaze to no avail and the Meadville fire department arrived with a steam fire engine and hoses. The men of Conneaut Lake came over by steamboat to assist and by the time all help arrived, the fire had consumed the grocery, the back of the Old Mill, Penny Arcade, Bonheyo Bakery, and the park lock-up. The men put out the fire as it reached the Log Cabin Restaurant, Miller souvenir store, and Jackson’s restaurant, all of which received mild damage. The front section of the Old Mill was spared. The initial rumor was that the hotel’s Conneaut and Virginia were both up in flames, but in truth they were nowhere in danger and it’s interesting to note how word of mouth can quickly twist information. The buildings destroyed were not owned by the park and the losses for the self-employed businessmen who owned them were great.


  • Mr. Comstock: The Conneautville Courier,1 Mar 1900, Thu. Pg 1
  • Fred Pardee: The Conneautville Courier,10 Jan 1901, Thu. Pg 1
  • New Owner: The Record-Argus, 31 May 1901, Fri. Pg 3
  • New Hotel: The Conneautville Courier, 13 Mar 1902, Thu. Pg 1
  • New Hotel Work: The Conneautville Courier, 3 Apr 1902, Thu. Pg 1
  • Hotel Progress: The News-Herald, 24 Apr 1902, Thu. Pg 8
  • Furnishing Contract: The Conneautville Courier, 29 May 1902, Thu. Pg 5
  • Harry Hogan Death: The Conneautville Courier,18 Feb 1903, Wed. Pg 1
  • Carpenter Strike: The Evening Republican, 16 Apr 1903, Thu. Pg 4
  • Conneaut Lake’s Prospects Bright: The Record-Argus,15 Jun 1903, Mon. Pg 1
  • Conneaut Lake Pleasure Resort Changes Hands: Butler Citizen, April 13, 1905, Pg 3
  • Two Hotels Destroyed At Conneaut Lake PA: The Evening World, December 5, 1906, Evening Edition, Final Results Edition, Pg 13
  • July 4th at Conneaut Lake: The Pittsburgh Press, 8 Jul 1906, Sun. Pg 33
  • Plan for Addition: The Conneautville Courier, 19 Sep 1906, Wed. Pg 5
  • Annex: The Conneautville Courier, 7 Nov 1906, Wed. Pg 1
  • Three Hotels Destroyed: The Daily Morning Journal and Courier, December 5, 1906
  • Cold Weather Doesn’t Interfere With Arrival of Guests: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,16 Jun 1907, Sun. Pg 14
  • Sudden Death At Expo: The Record-Argus, 3 Jun 1907, Mon. Pg 2
  • Exposition Park Season Opened: The Evening Republican, 1 Jun 1908, Mon. Pg 1
  • Summer Season At Exposition Park: The Evening Republican, 23 Mar 1908, Mon. Pg 1
  • Manicuring Parlor: The Conneautville Courier, 8 Jul 1908, Wed. Pg 1
  • Reward for Arsonist: The Forest Republican, March 17, 1909
  • Beautiful Conneaut: Page  1 of The Niles Daily News, published in Niles, Ohio on Wednesday, July 7th, 1909
  • Merchants to Picnic Here: Page 3 of The Niles Daily News, published in Niles, Ohio on Thursday, May 27th, 1909
  • Fire at Exposition Park: The Conneautville Courier, 20 Oct 1909, Wed. Pg 1

Anecdotes of Hotel Conneaut & Exposition Park: Part 1, 1892-1899

On November 21st, for my third year in a row, I will once again be visiting Hotel Conneaut for a ghost hunt put on by Ghosts n’at Paranormal Research Team. In preparation for this annual ghost hunt, I want to explore Hotel Conneaut even further by digging into its history through the decades. I already wrote about the deaths and other strange occurrences that have been recorded to have happened there, so today I wish to make a study of the changes that were made to the hotel and surrounding grounds in the last century. Along the way, I wish to add certain accounts of the workers and guests, some humorous and some sad. This will be an ongoing study, leading up to next month’s ghost hunt.

Exposition Hotel, Crawford County Historical Society


Conneaut is a Native American word that means “plenty of fish” and indeed Conneaut Lake had a bounty of fish which drew in sportsmen from all around. An interesting fact about Lake Conneaut is that conditions allow the tuberin water lily, an extremely rare flower, to grow on its surface. Nowhere else in the country does this type of lily grow so large or pure white than on the lake. They grow five to eight inches in diameter and prove a spectacular sight for anyone coming to roam among Conneaut’s shores. The lake proved to be a large draw for boating, fishing, and picnicking throughout its history and towards the end of the 1800’s, a businessman wished to capitalize on its popularity.

“Conneaut Lake, the largest and most picturesque inland body of water in Pennsylvania, rests on the apex of what is known as the “Divide,” whence the waters flow northward to Lake Erie, and southward to the Ohio and Gulf of Mexico. Conneaut is 400 feet above Lake Erie and 700 feet higher than Pittsburgh, assuring the pure, balmy air and delightful climate so necessary to health and perfect enjoyment. The wooded shores surrounding the six square miles of water conceal from the unobservant the many delightful walks and drives; the twelve mile drive around the lake being especially charming.”

Beautiful Conneaut: Page  1 of The Niles Daily News, published in Niles, Ohio on Wednesday, July 7th, 1909

The idea struck Col. Frank Mantor, owner of the Conneaut Lake Exposition Company to establish a high-class resort, luring the wealthy to Conneaut Lake with open pocketbooks. In 1892, Mantor’s company and a number of investors purchased seven acres of land from Aaron Lynce who had used the parcel for a boat landing, known as Lynce’s Landing, since 1877.  They also purchased one hundred more acres to be used with the initial seven as a fairground and exposition for livestock and machinery. Thus, Mantor founded Exposition Park, the original name of Conneaut Lake Park.

The summer, locals witnessed a lavish resort form rapidly along the lake. Wide roads and several large buildings were immediately constructed within the first few months. Exposition Hotel promptly sprouted up as the resort’s projected opening for August 15th loomed. By July, the auditorium was framed, the office building nearly complete, and the hotel right on schedule. Lack of correct timbers delayed the building of the pavilion upon the wharf, but the issue was soon amended. Management proceeded in sending out many invitations to prominent speakers for opening day as well as ordering hundreds of tents for visitors who wished to spend the night. 

At the close of the season, The Select Knights’ Band escorted resort goers on the train from Allegheny to Exposition park, playing music during the ride. Upon the 11:30 a.m. arrival at the Exposition Hotel, the band played a concert. The train departed at 6 p.m. and the round trip cost each guest $1.50. 

In the first years, Mantor’s company continuously added and improved, even building a telegraph office to allow rapid communication to the outside world. A two story dance pavilion with open sides was built just north of the office, set to be the social center of the entire park. North of the dance hall was a long, two-story building with glass sides named Floral Hall. It was filled with floral exhibits during Exposition week and held other functions during the remainder of the season. North of Floral Hall was the auditorium, an enormous domed structure that could accommodate hundreds of people and boasted a stairway to the top where a spectacular view of the entire park could be seen. The result of these improvements was a high class destination which drew the rich and prominent from all over, particularly Pittsburgh, Allegheny, Meadville, Erie, Beaver Falls, Greenville, Youngstown, and Cleveland.


Exposition Hotel in 1893, Crawford County Historical Society

Frank M. Lockwood of Titusville took over as proprietor of the hotel, leasing it from Mrs. Hill. Lockwood was born on Oct. 5, 1836 in Penn Yan, Yates Co., NY, the son of Bradford Lockwood and Sophia Cole and was a veteran of the Civil War. He had married and divorced Emma Heath, after having a son, Frank. For many years Lockwood ran the Mansion House in Titusville, his hometown, and operated a hotel in Virginia during the winters when Exposition Park was closed. He was a charming figure who carried himself with great dignity and class. 

When young, Lockwood’s family had moved to Michigan and he trained as a barber at the age of twelve, went into the hotel profession at age thirteen with his father, and at fourteen was handed the business from his father.  During the nationwide financial hardship of 1850, Lockwood returned to New York and learned the telegraph trade, but went into the bakery business. While serving in the war, General Wadsworth put Lockwood in charge of baking bread not only for the troops, but for President Lincoln himself. He operated the very first field ovens. At the end of the war, Lockwood went to Corry, PA where he became police chief and ever the man of many trades, worked in grocery, baking, and confectionery. Following this time he became steward of the New Kent House in Lakewood and learned how to run a first class hotel. He went on to run a few other hotels before investing in the Mansion House in Titusville with O. Gleason in 1891. His experience in the hotel business landed him the management of Exposition Hotel and under his guidance, the investors of the resort hoped it would elevate in popularity and status. 

A post office was established at the resort named “Exposition” and mail brought in by steamer from the Conneaut post office. Soon, the resort functioned like a town and under competent leadership, ran like a well-oiled machine. 

The season brought hordes of visitors to the park, so much that the railroad struggled to accommodate them. More and more tents sprang up on the grounds with camping visitors. State Insurance Commissioner, George B. Luper of Harrisburg, spent his summer at Exposition Hotel with his wife, daughter Blanche, and son, Daniel Bert. He consumed the bulk of his stay fishing, having grown up in nearby Harmonsburg, and caught the most fish of anyone else in the sport. 

A Pittsburgh gentleman who was staying at the hotel took his lady for an evening boat ride and it was quite dark when he helped her into the boat. He pumped the oars for some time but did not seem to be getting anywhere. With great amusement, they discovered the boat still roped to the dock.

As the summer season came to a close, many guests from Pittsburgh and Allegheny stayed on to experience hunting season and some of the hotels stayed open until late fall. The Evening Republican reported that Exposition Hotel closed for the season on September 3rd, but the Pittsburgh Press mentioned the hotel keeping guests until later in the month, so perhaps though the hotel closed to the public, they remained open for select guests. September was the best for fishing and guests spent their days lingering in and about the waters, catching pike and bass. T.P. Garber of Greenville caught a 14 lb. pike, much to the delight of all who witnessed it. Squirrel shooting commenced in the beginning of the month and ducks felled later on. Brilliant goldenrod burst colorful about the grounds and park employees set about creating bouquets to adorn the tables in the hotel and cottages. Many guests enjoyed the ten mile drive around the lake, admiring the breathtaking sights of nature. 

Two sisters who were spending their fall at an old farmhouse met up with gentlemen friends who were guests of the hotel. The men took the ladies for a boat ride in the evening and docked within a half mile’s distance of the farmhouse. It was about ten o’clock at night and quite dark, so it did not take long before the group became hopelessly lost in the swamplands. Their skirts and trousers became quite soaked through as they slogged through the swamp and found themselves inhibited by high fences. Several hours later, the men at last delivered the ladies to the farmhouse, found their way back to the boat and by the time they reached the hotel, dawn was breaking on the water.


Frank Lockwood became postmaster of Exposition Park and the park office moved to the hotel. 

The Elks Investment company planned to build a grand first class resort hotel on the lake called the Elks Hotel on the site of the Cornell House. The new hotel would feature a casino, amusement hall, a steamboat launch, and its own fleet of boats for guests to roam Conneaut Lake. The company and park as a whole hoped the new hotel would draw even more people to the grounds to seek their summer amusements. 

Visitors to Exposition Park often arrived by train, the great machine haven taken them through woods and fields before riding along the edge of the lake, greeted by the rippling water. The train pulled into the park and the passengers disembarked, walking along the main thoroughfare between confection booths, newsstands, and various buildings. Near the office, stood a sea shell store and the large Miller Bros. shop selling fruit and sweets, the most popular place to seek refreshments on a hot summer day. Next-door was a graphophone parlor followed by George P. Ryan’s Rocky Mountain museum, featuring the treasures obtained through his travels through the Rockies. Continuing northward, stood the Echo Hotel near the beach and bath houses, a large draw being the toboggan slide.

Across the railroad was the “upper park” where guests picnicked and played ball. Also there was the merry-go-round, booths selling sweets and refreshments, and photograph cars, among other entertainments. At the west side of the park were the stables where hands cared for countless horses during the day.

At Exposition Hotel, guests could sit in the dining room and eat a large, delicious dinner. The hotel featured the park office, parlor, wash room, and barber shop and sixty rooms to accommodate staying guests. The ever-busy Frank Lockwood readily greeted visitors, welcoming them warmly.

Exposition hotel closed for the season on September 15, after a successful year under the management of Lockwood and courtesy of the hotel’s landlady, Mrs. Hill. 


The 1896 season employed Professor H.L. Braun’s orchestra. The Pittsburgh Post called vacationers to come enjoy the amusements, which included dancing, tennis, swimming, and fishing. The Exposition and Mantor hotels could accommodate 250 guests between them, but due to the popularity, the resort burst at the seams with visitors and the resort called for constant expansion.


In preparation for the 1897 season, extensive improvements were made to the park that included the installation of an electric light plant at the end of the railroad track. Hundreds of incandescent lamps were placed around the grounds and buildings and three rental cottages were built south of the hotel. 

On June 1, Frank Lockwood, proprietor of Exposition Hotel, married Mary Conroy of Jamestown, NY, at the Commercial Hotel in Meadville, PA.


Visitors poured into Exposition Park, some to enjoy a day-long picnic while others stayed several weeks or more at one of the hotels or cottages. The late train from Meadville began to run three nights a week in July, coming back after the weekly dance at the resort. 

Butler Citizen, June 23, 1898

Fishing parties covered Lake Conneaut, some staying out on the water the entire day. Guests fishing from the docks were able to catch a number of sunfish with a cut pole, string, and bent pin. Guests also kept the steamboats in constant employ, the most popular being the Iroquois, controlled by Captain Quigley.

A group of eighty boys from the Swift Mission Brigade camped on the grounds below the hotel. The other guests watched in awe at 5:30 every evening when the boys performed their dress parade in front of the hotel. They sported white duck pants with patent leather boots, similar to the uniform of the national guard and each carried a sword.


Tuesday, July 4th,1899 drew the largest crowds the park had ever seen with numbers between 6-10,000 people. Huge throngs of people gathered at every attraction around the lake. The steamships regularly departed and arrived at the pier, taking people to and from Oakland Beach and the fine hotels along the eastern shore. Meadville’s famous Northwestern band arrived on the early train, playing to fellow passengers, a large body of around 1,000 people. W.H. Whiteside of Youngstown won the bicycle race and George Long of Pittsburgh won the swimming competition.

Despite it being such a successful holiday, the fog of tragedy laid over Lockwood’s triumph when on July 3, he lost his infant son to cholera. I wonder if Lockwood remained at his post tending to guests while his wife mourned back in their home of Titusville. The little body was buried in Jamestown, NY, his mother’s birthplace. I do not see how the park could have replaced Lockwood in the event he left to bury his son, but perhaps the employees stepped up and were successfully able to carry out the large celebration without their manager. Perhaps, somewhere, it has been recorded, but it is more likely these details have been lost to time.

The season closed as the most successful in the resort’s short history. Park manager E.D. Comstock sought to renew the lease for the next twenty years with many plans for improvements drawn up. They wished to double the size of the dance hall as well as construct a bandstand, fountain, and fifteen cottages upon the green around the hotel. The most exciting news was the plan to build a new hotel on the site of Exposition Hotel, the building that would become Hotel Conneaut as we know it. 


  • Founding of Exposition Park: Futrell, Jim (2002). Amusement Parks of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books. pp. 79–92. ISBN 0-8117-2671-1.
  • The Conneautville Courier, 14 Jul 1892, Thu. Pg 5
  • New Owner: The Conneautville Courier, 4 May 1893, Thu. Pg 1
  • The Lilies of Conneaut: The Pittsburgh Press, 23 Jul 1893, Sun. Pg 16
  • Lost in the Swamp: The Pittsburgh Press, 26 Aug 1893, Sat. Pg 4
  • Lockwood Appointed Postmaster: The Conneautville Courier, 7 Jun 1894, Thu. Pg 5
    Romantic Conneaut: The Evening Republican, 2 Jul 1894, Mon. Pg 3
  • Exposition Hotel Closed for Season: The Evening Republican, 15 Sep 1894, Sat. Pg 4
  • Spend Your Vacation at Conneaut Lake: Pittsburgh Daily Post, 5 Jul 1896, Sun. Pg 5
  • Resort Improvements: The Conneautville Courier, 22 Apr 1897, Thu. Pg 1
  • F.M. Lockwood Marriage: The Conneautville Courier,10 Jun 1897, Thu. Pg 1
  • July 4th At Conneaut Lake: The Evening Republican, 5 Jul 1899, Wed. Pg 3
  • Most Successful Season: The Conneautville Courier, 31 Aug 1899, Thu. Pg 1

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

March 1868
Vernon, Trumbull County, Ohio

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

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

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

1870 Map of eastern side of Vernon Twp.

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

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

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

Western Reserve Chronicle, March 28, 1866, Page 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Western Reserve Chronicle, June 15, 1870, Page 3

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

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

Western Reserve Chronicle, March 26, 1873, Page 3

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

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

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

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

Reuben’s Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Mildred Moore in an undated school photo

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

A Grim Discovery

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

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

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

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

Family Background

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

My interpretation of Maria

Maria’s Ballad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Author Unknown

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

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

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

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

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

The Gardner Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darkness In August

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sentencing

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

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

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

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

The Execution

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

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

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

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

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

Bruce Stevens, The Niles Daily Times, 1976

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

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

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

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

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

Riverius Bidwell

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

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

Who Was Maria?

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

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

The Crime of Sexual Assault

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

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

Rape and Sexual Assault in the Legal System

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

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


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

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

East Gustavus Cemetery

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

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

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

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

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

The Akron Beacon Journal, 1897

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

Gustavus Town Hall, copyright Ashley Armstrong

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

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

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

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


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

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

Vernon Township, Trumbull County, Ohio
May 27, 1867

My interpretation of James, Margaret, & William

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

Émile Zola, Therese Raquin

Hunting Accident or Pre-meditated Murder?

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

Vernon Town Hall at Vernon Center, ©Ashley Armstrong

Close Knit Neighbors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neighbors Hear Shots

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Testimony of James Sawyer

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

The Body, the Gun, and a Stick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coroner’s Inquest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continuing Rumors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legal Troubles

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

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

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

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

Discord & Assault Charges

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

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

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

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

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

Second Coroner’s Inquest

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

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

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

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

The Trial

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

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

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

Statement from the Prosecution

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

Statement from the Defense

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

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

Witnesses Take the Stand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shot himself,” Reed replied.

“Where?” Grove Holcomb asked.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Verdict

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Vernon Center in 2020, ©Ashley Armstrong

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

Vernon Fire Station, ©Ashley Armstrong

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


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

Ghost Hunt at Hotel Conneaut with Ghosts n’at Paranormal Adventures Team

Hotel Conneaut
Conneaut Lake, Crawford County, Pennsylvania
Saturday, October 18, 2019

During the Halloween season while Conneaut Lake Park hosted its Ghost Lake 13 Levels of Fear, Hotel Conneaut hosted a real haunted tour of its own. For the second time, I returned to Hotel Conneaut for a ghost hunt with Ghosts n’at Paranormal Adventures. 

The lobby
The stairwell with vintage park photos on the walls
Gauger family photo album

My husband Mark came with me, despite being one of the biggest skeptics and ridiculer of all things paranormal, but I was grateful for his company. We checked into the lobby around 5:30 p.m. where professional ghost hunter Patty assigned us to our room. After walking up two floors to the third level, we found our room along the same horizontal hallway as I stayed before. This time, the room was on the opposite side of the hall than last year and on the same wing and side as the most haunted room: suite 321-323. Our room was #305 and had been adopted by the Gauger family who took great care in remodeling it with a fresh coat of paint, new furniture, and all the knick-knacks to pull off a golf theme. A photo album on the dresser showed the progress of the remodel and noted the great memories this family has had at Hotel Conneaut. 

The view from our room

The doors to the ballroom opened at 6:30 for the dinner buffet and everything was set up quite differently than last year. Last year the ballroom had rows of chairs set up in the style of a wedding ceremony and this year the room read more like a wedding reception. Round tables draped with white tablecloths and surrounded by chairs filled the room. A buffet was set up along the wall right of the entrance past the Ghosts n’at booth and equipment at the head of the room. Last year the buffet had been in the basement, or the ballroom’s lower level. 

At 7:30, the event began after all the amateur ghost hunters filled the chairs and focused on the front of the room where Ghosts n’at began their presentation. Owner Brett McGinnis talked a bit about their group and how they started out by going to people’s homes to investigate. When they saw a desire for regular people to be able to investigate real haunted locations, they started Ghosts n’at Paranormal Adventures to make that idea possible. Over the past few years, they have hosted ghost hunting events at several haunted locations around Pennsylvania and New York such as Castle Blood, Hull Family Home and Farmstead, Hill View Manor, and Nemocolin Castle. Brett stated that Hotel Conneaut is by far their favorite location to investigate and they always find great evidence, though most of it is subtle. He did talk about the various ghosts and the legends behind them, stating that nothing to explain these ghosts has been recorded. Though these events cannot be substantiated, he said that did not mean they never happened. He introduced the team which was much the same as last year and included Tim, Patty, and Joshua. The older Tim that headed up the investigation in the basement last year had retired and now the other Tim’s son Ricky took his place. They divided us into groups and our group was sent off with Joshua for our first location.

Location #1 – Ballroom Lower Level

The stairs leading down to the ballroom’s lower level (doors at the left) and to the rear parking lot outside

Joshua led us out of the ballroom to the left and down the staircase leading to the lower level. The lower level ballroom was actually the dining room that I had described in the last ghost hunt. The windowed walls at the far end of the room looked out into the garden and beyond that, Lake Conneaut. Double swinging doors at the left of the entrance led to the kitchen and the room had a bar with a large screen television behind it. No doubt this location bore witness to countless weddings. 

Lower ballroom

I was disappointed with how the lower ballroom hunt went this year. Last year was very interactive and we had the chance to walk around and take photos, even explore the kitchen. This time, workers were going in and out of the kitchen and the screams from the Ghost Lake haunted amusement could regularly be heard from outside, so all of this was very disruptive.

I think we had a fairly bashful group, for though Josh encouraged us to ask questions to the Spirit Box, even providing us with a pile of folded papers containing pre-written questions, no one really spoke up. No one besides a fellow ghost hunter, Brent, who proved to be quite a distraction the entire night. It was initially Brent’s girlfriend who piped up, saying that she could feel someone stroking her hair. I inwardly rolled my eyes because I immediately took note that she was sitting directly under an air vent, something everyone else either failed to notice or did not mention. I did not speak up and break the bad news because I did not want to be subjected to nasty glares. Brent then decided that the spirits liked his girlfriend and were continuously flirting with her, thus setting the theme for the entire ghost hunt. At every single location he never failed to ask if the spirit liked his girlfriend or something of that nature. 

Location #2 – Ballroom Upper Level

Next, we returned to the Crystal Ballroom, or Elizabeth’s Ballroom where we sat facing the front of the room where Tim’s son Ricky led the second session. 

Ricky had the PhasmaBox app running on the computer. He also had a prop dog on the floor, a Vortex Trigger Basset Hound to be exact, of which when touched by a spirit, is supposed to trigger lights on its collar. Ricky said that this light had gone off during the last session. However, we sat there in awkwardness as nothing happened with the dog or the PhasmaBox. The only interesting tidbit about this session occurred when Ricky mentioned that the bodies of two men killed in a nearby fire were brought into the ballroom before they were picked up by the authorities or funeral home. They are said to haunt the ballroom. This is the first time I had ever heard of this. My mind immediately went to Arthur Bigelow and William Kleeb, the park employees killed in the 1936 cottage fire, and so badly I wanted to shout their names out, but I was far too shy to do so. I was feeling especially self conscious because I was there with my husband and I think if my friend Robin had been there instead, I would have piped up. Ricky invited us to ask questions for the spirits and I longed to ask Arthur and William by name if they were present. However, I did not want my husband to scoff at me and so I remained silent. Of this I regret and hope to gain some bravery before the next ghost hunt.

Location #3 – 2nd Floor Hallway and Room 182

We met Tim in the second floor hallway where he led an EVP session attempting to contact the little boy Nick who fell down the stairs on his tricycle. A toy tricycle was placed in the stairwell just outside the second floor hallway to see if it would move, but it never did. We each had the opportunity to ask a question. My husband Mark asked Nick if he missed his parents. I asked my tried and true, “Are you happy?” On playback, I did receive a couple syllable response, but it was unfortunately too garbled to make anything of it. Last year, I received a very clear “Of course!” in reply.

We had a boy in our group named Derek, about pre-teen age, who had come with his parents and they lived in our neighboring town of Warren. Derek asked Nick if he wanted to play with him and a voice on the recorder responded with a definitive, “Yes!”

We then filed into room 182 where we sat on the two beds. A grumpy old man ghost is said to haunt the room. Tim led another EVP session and we each had a turn of asking a question to the voice recorder. I asked, “Do you like it here?”. Brent asked, “Do you want to touch my girlfriend?” to which we all laughed uneasily. Mark asked “Were you married?” and on playback, the voice recorder had picked up a very slow, sardonic laugh that did not come from anyone in the room. We all thought that was amazing evidence and translated the laugh as being from someone who either had been unhappily married or never married because he thought of marriage as pointless. Someone asked where the spirit was in the room and an EVP was caught. I heard it as “By the window” but Tim was adamant that it said “In the bathroom right now.” With that information, Tim brought out the spirit box and asked the ghost if he was still in the bathroom which it replied, “Yes”. Tim asked jokingly, “Are you going #1 or #2?” The spirit box replied very distinctly, “Number one.” We considered this location to be quite the success despite it being one of the more lackluster spots on last year’s hunt.

Location #4 – Room 321-323

Our group headed to the third floor and into the most haunted room: suite 321-323. We spread out in the room, sitting on two beds and some chairs. Mark and I sat on the bed farthest from everyone else by ourselves. Brett McGinnis led the session and he talked a bit about the activity in the room. He said that on many occasions, people sleeping on the other bed across the room from where I was sitting had been touched in their sleep. One girl had woken up to her leg being tugged and the feeling that someone was attempting to pull her out of the bed. As Brett talked, his K2 meter and a ghost prop ball sitting on the dresser lit up at the same time. He laughed at that and said it was strange because the vibrations of him pacing in the floor would not be enough to set those off and something would have had to touch them. He went on to say that during a session in the February ghost hunt, a couple had been present where the girlfriend had dragged her boyfriend there despite him being a skeptic and he had come simply to appease her. The boyfriend had been standing against the partition separating the two doors that led out of the room. During that session, a white filmy humanoid creature rushed out from under the bed Mark and I were presently sitting on and shot out across the floor, disappearing through the door leading to the hallway. The boyfriend was so terrified that he spent the remainder of the session pressed against the door. I wish I had been there for that because our session turned out to be fairly stagnate and though Brett caught some EVPs, they were not anything noteworthy.  

Location #5 – 3rd Floor Employee Hallway

For our final location, we were directed around the corner and down the hall past the stairway to my favorite location from last year: the employee hallway. As Patty met us and invited us to walk down the long, dark hall, I realized how different it appeared from last time. A little nook had been opened up off of the left hand side that contained a seating area. We passed a glass door that revealed a large stairwell leading down to the bar that was for employees only. After that, to the left was a room we went into that had a couch at the opposite end. Patty had her laptop with the PhasmaBox app running within the small room that we all squeezed into. Patty said we were welcome to go in and explore any of the open rooms in the employee hall except for the ones that were locked and occupied by employees. However, no one accepted her invitation to do so and I felt trapped in the room and unable to explore. Instead, we chatted with the PhasmaBox but the voices coming through were very difficult to understand and when they could be understood, were speaking nonsense. Brent had reached the apex of his shenanigans and was continuously taunting the PhasmaBox. Derek and I held the two K2 meters while Derek and Brent sat on the couch where Derek’s K2 meter continuously lit all the way up. Whenever his meter lit all the way up, mine would light up partially and only once lit fully up. Brent decided that the spirit did not like him sitting on the couch because the spirit liked Derek and was trying to sit next to the boy. I could not decide if he really believed this or was just making a joke of it at this point. His girlfriend seemed quite embarrassed and disconnected at this point. This combined with the screams clearly heard directly below us from the Ghost Lake haunted tour that erupted every few minutes was extremely distracting and made for a very unproductive ghost hunt. I could not figure out where exactly in the hotel the Ghost Lake was set up, but I will never again pay all that money to do a ghost hunt in October while Ghost Lake is running. 

After Hours

After the session ended, we regrouped in the ballroom for closing remarks. The winner for the raffle was announced and the lucky person received a key to stay in the most haunted room in the hotel. It was 11 o’clock and time for the mingle in the Spirit Lounge but the Ghosts n’at crew separated off and there was no mingling at that point. The lounge and lobby were filled with locals and the atmosphere did not seem as welcoming as it had earlier. Tim and Patty came down the stairs with a large and gorgeous dog, no doubt leading it out the front doors for a bathroom break and exercise. They told us it was a Chow-Chow when Mark asked what kind of dog they had. Tim had told us earlier that Patty has to travel with her pets and they even had a rabbit in their room. I admired them all the more. We did not hang out for very long and did not ghost hunt on our own. I would have liked to but Mark was not interested and we needed to get some sleep in order to pick up our two young children from my parents’ house in the morning.

I was fairly disappointed with the entire experience, though Ghosts n’at did a wonderful job as they always do. In the future, I will avoid going to a ghost hunt at the hotel around Halloween because the Ghost Lake feature was so disruptive. However, seeing the hotel again and having an opportunity to explore its historical halls made me so happy. In the morning, as we headed down to the lower ballroom/dining room for breakfast, the sun could be seen shining through thick fog rolling off of Lake Conneaut. The image was simply breathtaking and I wish I could wake up every morning with such a view. I picture summer visitors of yesterday enjoying a hot beverage on the porch while watching nature’s spectacular morning show. 

After breakfast, Mark and I walked along the boardwalk on that chilly morning and soaked in our beautiful surroundings. As the fog dissipated the lake took shape and the gentle waters lolled in the breeze. Several boats in the harbor bobbed upon the meager waves and the atmosphere felt calm and embracing. I was greatly reluctant to leave my favorite hotel but I am so grateful for each opportunity to visit. Hopefully next time I will have my partner in crime, Robin, with me and our experience will be more eventful than this one!

Bench in memory of Courtney Shook, Hotel Conneaut’s bar manager who died tragically earlier this year.

Mishap at Hotel Conneaut: Deaths, Accidents and Incidents Through the Decades

The front entrance of Hotel Conneaut in 1911.
Postcard from my personal collection.

Hotel Conneaut in Conneaut Lake Park was once the premier destination for the wealthy of Pittsburgh and surrounding areas to visit during the summer months. 

Built on the site and using remnants of Exposition Hotel that first opened in 1893, it eventually boasted 300 rooms to accommodate the large crowds that flocked to the shores of Conneaut Lake. But even then the hotel quickly sold out rooms and as demand for lodgings increased, several hotels sprouted up in the park. Hotel Virginia was built adjacent to Hotel Conneaut to accommodate the overflow, joined by a dining room between the twin structures. North of Hotel Conneaut was the beautiful structure of Dreamland Ballroom which burned to the ground in the horrific fire of 1908 that devastated the park. Fires proved to be a constant threat to the park and the resort suffered many losses as a result, even as recent as 2013. 

Deaths and accidents were par for the course with the huge throng of visitors that came and went through the decades. Legends surround the hotel that attempt to explain the ghosts haunting the hotel to this day, but instead of finding the origin behind these legends, my research unearthed several different accounts. Bride Elizabeth never perished in the 1943 fire, a chef never murdered a butcher, and the small child never fell down a flight of stairs on a tricycle to their death; at least there are no record of such incidents. It’s possible that there were accidents and deaths that the owners covered up, paying off the local papers so they would not report such incidents and thus soil the hotel’s reputation as a premier summer resort. This is just a theory with no foundation to stand on, an idea taken from the fictional account of the Stanley Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining where the wealthy owner paid off reporters to keep quiet concerning the brutalities committed there. 

While on the subject, I do wonder if the legend of the ghost child riding through the halls of Hotel Conneaut upon a tricycle began after the release of the 1980 movie The Shining. Though in the film little Danny spends his endless winter hours pedaling his tricycle through the maze of hallways of Stanley Hotel, this tidbit was never in the book. In the Conneaut legend, it is a child—some accounts say a little boy named Michael while others say a little girl named Angeline—who rode too close to the stairs, toppling downward and now haunts the halls by colliding into guests. 

Hotel Conneaut did have its fair share of stories that were reported which are listed below. It is my hope that these may help explain some of the paranormal activity at the hotel. I have included stories that took place around the hotel as well as within because I believe them to be of historical significance and are part of the hotel’s story too. The many losses that were suffered in view of the hotel while the hotel remains standing—though only partially—nearly 130 years later are a testament to the hotel’s survivor status. The hotel may seem like an inanimate object to some, but to many others like myself, it is a living, breathing structure, full of the energy of all the people living and dead who have walked her halls, rich with history, and loved and adored by so many who call it home away from home.

Death of Owner’s Infant Son
July 3, 1899

Frank M. Lockwood, aged sixty-two, was the owner of Exposition Hotel when his nine-month old son, Earl Vincent, died of cholera. The summer season was in full swing at Exposition Park at the time with festivities planned for the 4th of July holiday. It is unknown if the child died in Conneaut or in Titusville, where Lockwood lived, but it appears Lockwood and his wife Mary were living at the hotel during the time. What a devastating loss for the owners to endure, especially while running one of the most prominent resorts in the Midwest. The 1899 season was the most successful since the grand opening of the hotel. The baby was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Jamestown, NY.

Fire At Exposition Hotel
Winter 1900

In January of 1901, repairs were completed from a fire that had damaged the hotel. I could unearth no other details, including the cause of the fire and extent of the damage.

The Falling Death of a Hotel Laborer
February 14, 1903

In the winter of 1903, construction workers were hard at work building the new Hotel Conneaut, made from remnants of the original Exposition Hotel. The new hotel was built on the north end of the old structure. The three story portion of Exposition Hotel was used to form part of the new Hotel Conneaut. On Monday, February 9, a young laborer named Harry Hogan, 22, fell and struck his head. He returned to work Tuesday, but by nightfall was feeling very poor from the injuries he had suffered the day prior. He took leave from work and went home to recover in Erie where he lived with his parents. Unfortunately, by the next day he was confused and delirious. He remained in this condition until he passed away on Saturday, February 14. Harry Lester Hogan was buried in Lakeside Cemetery in Erie, PA.

Elizabeth: A Heartbroken Bride
July 27, 1904

Though this story did not happen at Hotel Conneaut, it does relate to the park, and remains the only account I could uncover about a bride named Elizabeth. Elizabeth “Bessie” Rainey, 26, lived with her mother, Elizabeth Frame Rainey, at Hotel Mantor during the summer of 1904 while her father, Jesse, remained in their hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, no doubt to work. Hotel Mantor was a lakeside hotel within view of Hotel Conneaut. Bessie soon found herself wooed and won by Dr. Arthur Henry, 38, and they were married in Youngstown on July 27. The following day, Arthur was arrested in Warren after another woman went to the authorities claiming Dr. Henry had taken money from her. It was revealed that the woman was none other than Dr. Henry’s other wife, Nellie Butler. They had married the previous year and she had given him all her savings when he tearfully told her he was in trouble for passing a forged check and would be arrested if he did not pay the fine.  This proved to be a falsehood, and as soon as he obtained her savings and her stock shares he abandoned her, leaving her destitute. Nellie was not the only one; Dr. Henry had four wives before her who were all living. It was also revealed that Dr. Henry was no doctor at all and had never passed the required examinations, operating as an unlicensed physician. 

After hearing the terrible truth about her new husband, Bessie fled home to her mother at Exposition Park, no doubt inconsolable and ashamed. She waited until April 15 of the following year before seeking an annulment in Youngstown. Her husband had been sent to the Columbus Penitentiary on charges of bigamy. Theirs had been his sixth marriage and his inflated ego made him unremorseful and full of self-aggrandizement and pity. I do not know what became of Bessie after her separation from Dr. Henry, but I hope she was able to move on. Even if she did or did not move on, perhaps the incredible anguish she suffered imprinted her essence upon Conneaut Lake Park and the ghostly bride wanders the grounds, hopeless and heartbroken.

Fire Destroys Three Nearby Hotels
December 4, 1906

A large fire tore through three of the largest hotels in Conneaut Lake Park as well as the surrounding frame buildings. Hotels Arlington, Brunswick, and Thatcher were lost, amounting to about $30,000 in damages.

Large Fire Devastates Half of Park 
December 2, 1908

Around one o’clock in the morning, guests sleeping in Hotel Bismark were awoken when they were alerted that the hotel was on fire. A heavy winter wind blew the fire towards the lake, destroying restaurants, places of business, and amusements, including the bowling alley, the Beach House, and the dance pavilion. Hotel Conneaut and Hotel Virginia became under extreme threat as the fire ripped through the park and burned within a street’s distance from them. However, with the exertions of firemen from Greenville and Meadville, the hotels were spared and though half of the park was destroyed, no one perished. For a beautifully written detailed account of this historical fire, please visit:

The dance pavilion that was destroyed in the 1908 fire

The Falling Death of Dr. Cornelius Van Horne
June 2, 1907

Dr. Cornelius Edward Van Horne, 39, one of the most prominent physicians on the east side of Pittsburgh, stayed at Hotel Conneaut in the summer of 1907 and was noticed retiring to his room on June 1. On Sunday, June 2, at about 9:20 in the morning an Edward Hammond discovered the doctor’s rain-soaked body laying on the ground south of the hotel near cottage #3. Dr. Van Horne was wrapped in his robe but was otherwise naked. A postmortem found ruptured blood vessels in his head, most likely from a fall. It was presumed he fell over the low railing of his suite’s balcony—a 12-foot drop—and wandered a hundred feet in his dazed condition, ultimately dropping to die of exposure where he was found. Another theory that did not hold up so well due to lack of evidence was that Dr. Van Horne had been attacked. He was known to suffer from heart issues, so it is possible his early death was sped along by that factor. Dr. Van Horne was buried in Denny Cemetery in Crawford County, Pennsylvania.

Prohibition Raid
July 12, 1928

A group of sheriffs were having their annual convention in Parlour B of the hotel when their festivities were raided by dry officers. They had significant amounts of ale and most of the men were staggering about drunk. A skirmish broke out among both parties; the District Attorney pushed two sheriffs over a table and the inebriated sheriffs punched at anything and everything, including the chandelier. In the end, only the bellboy was arrested for violation of prohibition law which left onlookers shaking their heads. The dry officers’ reasoning was that they could not arrest everyone in that room, so the poor bellboy remained the lone whipping boy for an entire group’s offense. The raid was conducted by District Attorney Stuart Culbertson and Detective John Laley who were lambasted for their “rude” intrusion of the peace officers’ gaieties. The general attitude was that the raid had a purely political agenda and incensed the community. Prohibition would not end for another five years. 

The Fiery Death of Two Park Employees
May 1, 1936

Each winter, while the hotel was closed for the season, a few employees and caretakers remained in Conneaut and usually stayed in the bungalows that were rented out to the public during the summer months. These summer cottages surrounded the hotel and provided more private and roomier accommodations for wealthy park guests. On February 18, 1930 a small cottage adjoining the hotel went up in flames but no injuries were reported. Nearby farmers and park residents worked together to squelch the conflagration before the fire department arrived, saving the hotel from harm. Over a year later on August 1, 1931, two cottages burned and resulted in $2500 worth of damage. On December 2, 1935, a cottage caught fire from an oil stove, causing $500 worth of damage. The cottage had been occupied by William Kleeb, vice president and general manager of the Conneaut Lake Company. Fortunately, William had left the cottage prior to the discovery of the fire and was unharmed.

Shortly before the opening of the park on May 1, Maurice Bigelow, Manager of Hotel Conneaut, awoke to see the cottage adjoining his engulfed in flames. His father, Arthur Bigelow, 62, park manager, William Kleeb, 52, who had avoided the fire from the year previous, and Donald Macdonald, 30, park auditor, were sleeping inside the burning 9-room cottage. The men had been staying there from the beginning of the year in order to do repairs around the park and make the necessary preparations for the season’s opening. Fearing for the lives of his father and the other men inside, Maurice approached the burning bungalow and broke through a door but the flames were too high. He then attempted to enter the cottage by breaking a window, but again the heat was far too unbearable to cross. Donald Macdonald awoke as smoke filled his room on the second floor of the cottage. Shouting frantically for the other two men, he first ran towards Arthur Bigelow’s room but was held back by flames, so dashed downstairs, falling most of the way, to find the downstairs nearly obliterated by fire. He was unsuccessful in entering William Kleeb’s room due to the immense heat. He was able to escape the cottage by jumping through a wall of flames but was terribly burned in the process. He assisted Maurice Bigelow in the attempt to gain access to the cottage in order to save the other men, but they finally sought help from the fire department. 

The Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) · 1 May 1936, Fri · Page 1

Maurice Bigelow held out hope that his father had been able to escape before fire entirely consumed the structure, but after a search of the surrounding property, the dreadful truth became clear. Once the fire department had snuffed out the blaze an hour later, the bodies of the two men were discovered. The newspapers reported that William Kleeb was found on the floor of his downstairs bedroom and Arthur Bigelow’s body was seen slumped against a second-floor window that he had tried to escape from. However, from Maurice Bigelow’s own testimony, he found his father and William Kleeb dead in their beds, apparently never waking to notice the horror around them. Their burns were minor, leading the declaration that the cause of death was asphyxiation. Maurice Bigelow surmised the cause of the fire was an overheated water heater that had been burning in the kitchen before the men retired at 11:30 p.m. The loss of the cottage, one of the oldest on the grounds, was estimated at $5,000.

Arthur Bigelow was buried in Union Dale Cemetery in Pittsburgh, PA and William Kleeb was buried in Allegheny County Memorial Park in Allison Park, PA.

Robbery of the Hotel Safe
July 13, 1936

The hotel safe was robbed of $4500 during the hours of 1 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. Monday morning. The thief failed to notice another $1,000 in bills that was tucked in a corner of the safe and did not take valuable silver. When staff entered the room Monday morning, the safe was locked as usual and the combination used to open it. The thief must have been someone with access to the combination and there is no record they were ever caught. It proved to be an enormous loss, as the value of the $4500 at that time was worth over $69,000 when compared with the inflation rate of present day. 

Sudden Death of a Guest
Sept 7, 1936

It was written that a guest of the resort, Zedoc Gray, an 80-yr-old farmer from Richmond, suddenly dropped dead within the hotel. No details or cause of death were provided in the article reporting his demise, though one could assume a heart attack was the likely culprit. Zedoc Gray was buried in North Richmond Cemetery in Crawford County, PA.

Fire of 1943 Devastates Hotel Conneaut
April 28, 1943

In April of 1943, workmen began preparing the hotel for the season opening set for May 1. On April 27, a fire resulted from crossed wires and though quickly extinguished, the damage from smoke and water in the lobby and a few rooms amounted to $3,000 worth of damages. It was presumed the season opening would have to be delayed a week to clean up the water, fallen plaster, and other debris. Unfortunately, after firemen departed the scene, the fire rekindled itself and burned unnoticed for hours before being rediscovered at 4 a.m. on April 28 by a police chief making his rounds.  The embers had reignited and flames built up within, disguised between the partitions of the walls and tore through the hotel in such a clandestine manner. Firefighters from five communities rushed to the scene and set fourteen hoses upon the inferno, drawing water from hydrants and the lake. 

By the time the blaze was extinguished at 9:30 a.m., flames had destroyed 150 of the 300 rooms and the dining hall, amounting to $150,000 worth of damage which today would be worth about two and a quarter million dollars. Initially, hopes of saving the hotel were dismal and beautiful Hotel Conneaut was thought to be a total loss. However, the new south wing was spared. The second and third floors of the hotel’s original portion were ruined and the first floor suffered major water damage. Many rooms had been completely gutted and were a total loss. Half of the roof was compromised and because of war rationing, no lumber could be purchased to mend it, so she sat for years with her gaping wounds open for all to see. The exposure of these rooms over time caused irreversible weather damage and the original section of the hotel was eventually razed. A war was going on, so repairing the hotel could simply not take priority.

The new south wing of Hotel Conneaut in 1920 that survived the fire of 1943. The original north section at far right of photo was destroyed.
Postcard from my personal collection.

Ever since that dark day, the hotel has maintained the number of 150 rooms, never replacing the 150 that were lost and never having the need for them as a steady decline of business marked the beginning of the end. No doubt the rumors of ghosts have kept many away while drawing others in. Because the hotel was still closed for the season at the time of the fire, no one perished in the catastrophe. One news article in the Record-Argus did state that a lone laborer had been asleep in the hotel as fire traveled through the rooms, but was able to escape when the police chief sounded the alarm. Though evidence makes the truth clear, the legend of bride Elizabeth dying in that fire subsists, despite the efforts of historians like myself to squelch it. In any case, though the glory days of Hotel Conneaut are in the past, she bears her scars beautifully, standing solid and regal like an old grand dame cloaked in the furs and jewels of her youth.


Baby Lockwood Death Notice – The Conneautville Courier (Conneautville, Pennsylvania) · 6 Jul 1899, Thu · Page 1

New Hotel at Exposition Park – The Conneautville Courier (Conneautville, Pennsylvania) · 3 Apr 1902, Thu · Page 1

Henry [sic] Hogan Death Notice – The Conneautville Courier (Conneautville, Pennsylvania) · 18 Feb 1903, Wed · Page 1

A.W. Henry and Bessie Raney Marriage Certificate – “Ohio, County Marriages, 1789-2013,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 15 July 2014), Mahoning > Marriage records 1904 vol 18 > image 143 of 300; county courthouses, Ohio.

An Interrupted Bridal Tour – The Conneautville Courier (Conneautville, Pennsylvania) · 3 Aug 1904, Wed · Page 1

Dr. Henry Arrest – The Conneautville Courier (Conneautville, Pennsylvania) · 10 Aug 1904, Wed · Page 1

10 Annul Marriage – The Record-Argus (Greenville, Pennsylvania) · 15 Apr 1905, Sat · Page 4

Debate Rises Over Rundown McClure House – The Meadville Tribune Dec 5, 2005

Three Hotels Burned – The Daily Morning Journal and Courier, 5 Dec 1906

Sudden Death At Expo – The Record-Argus (Greenville, Pennsylvania) · 3 Jun 1907, Mon · Page 2

Dr. Van Horn Obituary – The Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) · 3 Jun 1907, Mon · Page 4

Death From A Fall  –  The Conneautville Courier (Conneautville, Pennsylvania) · 5 Jun 1907, Wed · Page 1

Exposition Park Fire Swept – The Conneautville Courier (Conneautville, Pennsylvania) · 2 Dec 1908, Wed · Page 1

Saw Tub of Ale at Sheriff’s Jamboree – The Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) · 12 Jul 1928, Thu · Page 1

Two Burned To Death In Resort Lake Fire – The Charleston Daily Mail (Charleston, West Virginia) · 1 May 1936, Fri · Page 55

Pittsburghers Die in Flames At Lake Park – The Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) · 1 May 1936, Fri · Page 1

Two Men Die In Fire Destroying Cottage – The Evening Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) · 1 May 1936, Fri · Page 3

Two Men Die As Fire Sweeps Home –  The Gazette and Daily (York, Pennsylvania) · 2 May 1936, Sat · Page 1

Conneaut Lake Hotel Looted of $4,000 – The News-Herald (Franklin, Pennsylvania) · 15 Jul 1936, Wed · Page 2

Zedoc Grey Death Notice – The Conneautville Courier (Conneautville, Pennsylvania) · 12 Sep 1936, Thu · Page 6.jpg

Hotel Conneaut Partly Gutted By Blaze Today – The Record-Argus (Greenville, Pennsylvania) · 28 Apr 1943, Wed · Page 1

Conneaut Lake Hotel Damage $150,000 – The Gazette and Daily (York, Pennsylvania) · 29 Apr 1943, Thu · Page 25

Mesopotamia Walking Tour

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Mesopotamia is one of the most picturesque and quaint townships in Northeast Ohio. Its rich history is held up with pride by the locals and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It has one of the oldest and largest Amish communities in the country. The End of the Commons General Store is a historical landmark. Established in 1840, it is the oldest general store in Ohio and walking through its door is like stepping back in time. Traveling to the general store for old fashioned candy or a malted milkshake proves a novelty for children that live in the area. I myself once looked forward to an annual visit to the store on a hot summer day. A popular tourist destination, visitors from all over come to experience the nostalgia that the general store evokes. The surrounding homes in the town square, or Commons as it is thusly called, have historic significance as well and the center green is the site of many annual festivities including the Maple Syrup Festival and Ox Roast.

When Robin and I hear about a historic walking tour of Mesopotamia, or “Mespo” as the locals call it, we leap at the opportunity for a little adventure in the vicinity of our hometown. We meet with a group of other historians at the Old Stone House for the event that was organized by the Trumbull County Historical Society. The tour is hosted by Darcy Miller, owner and operator of the Old Stone House Bed and Breakfast just south of Mesopotamia Commons on Rt 534. She serves coffee and cinnamon buns and is as warm and friendly as the atmosphere of the bed and breakfast.

Virgin Earth

When our tour group assembles in the kitchen of the house at 10 a.m., Darcy provides us with a brief history of Mesopotamia and the Old Stone House. She relates how Pierpont Edwards acquired the acreage that eventually became Mesopotamia when the Connecticut Land Company distributed land. He appointed his son John Stark Edwards, a lawyer, to settle the unbroken wilderness. Soon after clearing away some of the trees and dense underbrush, settlers came to roost, if not temporarily then for good with their descendants walking the same rich earth decades later.

Darcy speaks of a tribe of Indians that remained in the area well after the settlers rooted themselves in Mesopotamia. They were of possible Chippewa descent, but were known by their totem, the Massasauga black rattlesnake. The white settlers did not care to be neighbors with the Indians, criticizing their ways of dress and customs. Attempts to Christianize them failed and their old chief Papua was known for bothering the settlers for food and drink. Before the war of 1812, the Indians vacated the area but following the war, they returned to camp just north of where the Commons sits today along the Grand River. One day, some of the settlers came to the camp and discovered the Indians gone temporarily. They took it upon themselves to send a message by vandalizing the camp, carving the silhouette of an Indian in the bark of a tree and shooting it in the head. When the Indians returned, saddened by the destruction and threats of violence, they proclaimed their desire to live in peace. They carved the figure of a white man in another tree trunk and let it be, but this proclamation was for naught as they soon gathered up their belongings and moved on, never to be seen in Mesopotamia again. 

The Old Stone House

Darcy estimates that the Old Stone House was built around 1823 because the 1824 tax records listed a dwelling on the property. She tracked down as many historic documents as she could to discern information on the prior owners of the home. It had been built by Jesse Holcomb, grandson of Hezekiah Holcomb, original owner of the property. George Arnold was also an owner before Mark and Aysley Ford acquired the property. Two of their sons, Hiram and George, continued living there after they reached maturity and inherited the property upon their parents’ deaths. Subsequent to the brothers’ deaths, the house was passed down to their nephew Jesse Ford while their other nephew Elsworth inherited the surrounding land. Eventually, the home was taken into possession by the Webbs and most likely passed through many hands in the decades before the Millers took on the establishment.

Google aerial map of Old Stone House

Darcy purchased the Old Stone House in 1985. She came here from Ontario, married an ex Amish man, Sam Miller, and together, they renovated the building that would become their home and later a bed and breakfast. Her mother teased her about moving far away into the middle of one of the biggest Amish communities in America, but Darcy was smitten with the property from the start. The structure is two stories tall with three bedrooms, one on the first floor with a king size bed and two bedrooms on the second floor with queen sized beds. The walls of the home are nearly two feet thick, but the stones are porous, leaving one to feel the chill breeze through the house on blustery winter days. Built in the Greek Revival style, circa 1815, the home is not only a thing of beauty for those passing by, but a historical landmark. An apt description of the house was written by historian Chris Klingemier from Hartford Township, Ohio, who specializes in architecture:

 “The stone house sited atop a rise south of Mesopotamia center is a 1-1/2 storey, two room deep center hall house, a common type found in both Pennsylvania and New York. What is uncommon is the quality of the stone and stonework. The facade of the building used stones carefully selected from one strata of the quarry, all exhibiting purple & blue mineral bands. The doorways are exceptional, with dressed stone used for the elements normally rendered in wood. The layout and scale of the interior, as well as the selection of strap and pintle hinges for doors, suggest a Germanic influence. Stone houses were rare in the Western Reserve and few survive, making this one of the most important early structures in the region.” 

Chris Klingemier

While performing renovations, the Millers preserved as much of the original woodwork as possible and today the home is full of charm and warmth. They have added a large addition onto the back of the house to accommodate a large living area. I am unable to snap photos while inside the home because there are so many bodies crammed into the space. We tour the home and go upstairs where we crowd on the landing, peering into the quaint rooms that Darcy has decorated so lovingly. 

Hiram & George Ford and Legends of Ghosts

Darcy regales us with the tale of the Ford brothers who lived here over a century ago. Hiram and George Ford lived alone for many years, operating the successful farm they inherited from their parents. Neither of them married or had children. They got along so well, that upon Hiram’s death in 1871, George could no longer bear to live there alone and walked away from the home and all his belongings in it. From then on, locals avoided the Old Ford Place as stories it was haunted took on a life of their own. Another rumor indicated money was left hidden in the house, but no thief or curiosity seeker had been brave enough to find out for themselves for fear Hiram’s ghost would chase them away. 

Due to rumors and legends, word of mouth as well as publications have misidentified these brothers as John and Jerry Ford, including a Plain Dealer article on the subject and in the book Legends and Lost Treasure of Northern Ohio. However, this inaccuracy most likely originated from an oral history passed down through the decades and like a game of telephone, the brothers’ names transformed. So in these publications’ defense, it is understandable that they would repeat these legends as told. In any case, the story continues on to say that decades after George, or “Jerry” abandoned the house, his niece asked him if she could take a look inside and he gave her the key. The year was 1900, or so it goes.

“Once inside, the niece experienced a sort of time warp. Entering the house, everything —all the way down to the dirty pots on the stove was left exactly as it had been thirty years prior. Lavish furnishings, clothes, and newspapers were virtually untouched.

“As the niece and her mom rummaged around the house, they stumbled upon a dark wooden chest. Inside, the pair found numerous faded legal documents, including deeds, bank records and medical records. Most interesting, they found a tin can with gold and silver coins totaling to $500.”

Legends and Lost Treasure of Northern Ohio, page 59

The niece and mother left without the coins and on a return trip, discovered that someone had broke in and stolen them.  To this day, locals continue to believe money is buried or hidden somewhere on the property. Rumors the home is haunted abound, though as Darcy tells her tale, she does not reveal if she has lived in the presence of ghosts through the past decades. A member of the press is on our walking tour taking notes as Darcy speaks and no doubt interviews Darcy at the close of the tour. This evening, an article will be published in the Tribune Chronicle that states Darcy has not seen any ghosts.

William G. Krejci reveals differently in his book, Ghosts and Legends of Northern Ohio. He begins by setting the record straight, not only to correct the brothers’ names, but to say that George had no niece by blood. Instead, he believes the women in the story to be his nephew’s wife Grace Ford and her mother Julia Brigden. Also, George died in 1896, so the year could not have been 1900 when the house was reopened, but an earlier date.

Krejci visited the Old Stone House and personally interviewed Darcy for the story in his book that was published in September of 2019, a month after our history walk. Darcy told him that initially the house had no activity to speak of, but things became noisy, most likely during renovations. Darcy sometimes hears noises of an unexplained origin and guests have even witnessed the ghost of a young boy in the house. Krejci states that paranormal investigators have stayed the night in the house, capturing EVPs (electronic voice phenomenon) and photo anomalies. With this information in hand, it makes sense why Darcy told the Tribune writer that she has not seen any ghosts on the property. Though she has heard noises, it has only been guests that witnessed the apparitions, not Darcy herself.

Google aerial map of the center of Mesopotamia

The Town Hall

As soon as we tour the house, Darcy directs us to our cars and we drive north to the old Town Hall that sits on the southeast corner of Routes 87 and 534. We park in the gravel parking lot behind the tall, red-bricked building. Stepping over the threshold into the two-story structure, we are taken to a period where neighbors come together for fellowship and entertainment. We take the stairway to the left of the interior entryway that leads upstairs into a large auditorium. A stage occupies the north end of the room while the floor slopes upward toward the south end of the room, an intentional construction detail to allow people sitting in the back to see over the heads of those in front. The seats have been pulled off to the sides of the auditorium as pieces of the ceiling fall away to scatter the floor with debris. The grand stage, once the center of excitement, is empty and coated in dust. I begin to imagine the political debates and Christmas programs that once took the stage, among all manner of community events and festivities.

A Walk around the Commons

We begin our walk around the commons of Mesopotamia village, starting with a stop at the Mesopotamia Historical Museum & Meeting House. Built in 1846, it was originally a Spiritualist Church. Nowadays, the Historical Society conducts their meetings in this building. Today during our tour, it hosts a rummage sale. Darcy explains that the upstairs of the meeting house holds boxes of historical documents that have been unfortunately water-damaged from a leaky roof. An upcoming project of hers will be to rummage through these boxes and salvage anything she can. 

Methodist Church, built in 1830. Interior restored in 1960.

From here, we walk next door to the Methodist Church built in 1818 and take a peek inside. The pastor explains that the pews are not original and that initially the church had the box type pews where men and women were separated. He also points out the antique chandelier that that forms a focal point towards the front of the church.

Fairview Cemetery & Artist Howard Brigden

The Western Reserve Chronicle,
June 2, 1869

Behind the Methodist Church lays Fairview Cemetery. With the first burial in 1818, most of the stones are made from white marble with their inscriptions worn away with time. However, many unusually shaped stones carved from sturdy granite stand out among the rows.

Born on November 29, 1841, Howard Bridgen was a local carver, political cartoonist, and satirist. He was the son of Charles Brigden and Mary Ann Sperry and enlisted in the Union Army where he served as a spy. He suffered a broken arm and upon discharge, he returned to Mespo where he made his living as an artist. Though he had guidance from his mentor, Walter Supple, Brigden had natural talent that many considered even genius.

Front and back of stone carved for Ira & Charlotte Sperry and their two-year-old son Ira

One of his first carvings was the eagle atop the Soldier’s Monument that stands on the Mespo Commons green. He also carved many of the ornate stones in Fairview Cemetery, including his own, a towering monument depicting a bear climbing a rock precipice. Shell–shaped stones mark the graves of family and friends, a trademark theme of Brigden’s. He even carved a trough that once sat on the village green but now rests against the outside wall of the meeting house. The front of the trough reads, “The Devils Own Hogs: John. D., Mark A., J. Pierpont” which expressed his disdain for tycoons with fortunes amassed by predatory means. The two names on the ends are John D. Rockefeller and John Pierpont Morgan Sr. (J.P. Morgan), but for the life of me, I have no idea who Mark A. could be. If anyone help me out with this one, I would be most grateful.

Brigden married Elsie Belden on February 18, 1865 and they had two sons, Earl and George. He died September 24, 1913 at the age of 71 after a long and memorable career. 

Howard & Effie’s stunning monument
The Western Reserve Chronicle, November 7, 1866
The Western Reserve Chronicle,
May 13, 1868
The Western Reserve Chronicle,
July 20, 1870

Dio Reynolds & Scarlet Fever

One of the most popular of Brigden’s sculptures in Fairview Cemetery is “The Dog Who Waits for His Master”, a black stone dog sitting vigil by the grave of its owner, Dio Lewis Reynolds, a six-year-old boy. It is said that when Dio died on March 12, 1875 and was buried in the cemetery, his dog often came to lay on the grave. Brigden later carved the sculpture in the loyal dog’s memory. Legend says that Dio died falling out of an apple tree and many publications have perpetuated this myth. For example, a Star Beacon article from 2012, reads:

“Nearby, in the Fairview Cemetery, many examples of Brigden’s stone carving skills mark the graves of cherished citizens. The most poignant of these stands as a memorial to Dio L. Reynolds. Dio was 6 when he died from a fall out of an apple tree. His dog was inconsolable, and for weeks lay under the tree, his paws holding fast to Dio’s hat. Brigden’s carving captures in stone that heart-breaking love between a dog and his master.”

“Sir Henry’s Last Ride” by Carl Feather of the Star Beacon, Feb 19, 2012

A romantic tale to be sure, but historical documents prove otherwise. When I track down Dio’s death certificate on, it names his cause of death as scarlet fever. 

Effie, Mearle, and Dio lined up in a row

Scarlet fever is a disease causing sore throat, fever, throat abscesses, and in children it can progress very quickly to the point where they succumb in 48 hours from the initial symptoms. It can be highly contagious. In the historical epidemics, infected dairy workers handling unpasteurized milk were found to be the cause of many outbreaks. Cemeteries from far and wide show the evidence from scarlet fever epidemics throughout history. Fairview Cemetery is one of them. Just months before Dio’s death, Howard Brigden lost a niece, Mina Tay Brigden, from the disease and two-year-old Bertie Easton perished from the illness in the same month as Dio. 

On December 28, 1874, the newspapers in nearby Hiram, Ohio reported an unusually malignant epidemic of scarlet fever sweeping through their town in the months prior, taking children of all ages, even multiples from a single household. A scarlet fever epidemic killed at least twelve young children in Jackson County in southern Ohio and several children in Ashtabula County just north of Mespo in the same month that Dio died. Cincinnati lost hordes of children to the disease throughout the year of 1875. These being just a few examples of how the epidemic devastated communities and destroyed families.

Unfortunately, Dio’s family suffered many tragedies. Dio’s parents, Job Reynolds and Altha Lewis, married on July 16, 1864 and lost Dio eleven years later. Dio’s brother Mearle died at age 2 months, 27 days in 1880 and his sister Effie died from pneumonia on April 28, 1885.

Clark Cemetery

After circling the commons and noting the nostalgia brought on by the rows of historic homes, including the Lyman House, we pass the general store and turn the corner to walk around route 87. We turn into the driveway of a private home where Darcy notifies the owner of our arrival. The man is not feeling up to coming out to chat, but allows us to stroll through his backyard and up a hill into a wooded area. There, covered in underbrush is an old burial ground. Clark Cemetery had once been a family cemetery and only a handful of stones remain, some inscribed with the manner of death. Isaac Clark, aged 22 years, died from an explosion of a cannon in 1844. Ruben Clark, aged 39 years, was struck by lightening in 1850. Bearing an unusual name, little Almond Clark died at the age of 2. The first known burial is Ephraim Clark who died in 1830, so Fairview Cemetery predates Clark Cemetery. Find A Grave lists twenty-four graves in all, though I suspect there are more.

With our final stop at Clark Cemetery, our tour is over and our group disbands, many returning to the End of the Commons General Store. Robin and I spend a great deal of time in the cemetery before heading back to the commons. The general store holds a feast for the eyes, and the stomach too. Besides unique toys and other novelties, the general store boasts the best fry pies around, jams and jellies, natural peanut and almond butters, a large candy and soda collection, maple sugar sweets, and ice cream and deli sandwiches that are served at the café. Adjoining rooms hold shelves of kitchenware, soaps, liniments and other remedies, beauty items, and home décor. I encourage anyone to visit Ohio’s oldest general store as you will not be disappointed with their selection and atmosphere. Be sure to take a walk across the commons and view Howard Brigden’s amazing sculptures at Fairview Cemetery as photos simply do not do them justice. Also, if you need a place to stay, I highly recommend the Old Stone House Bed and Breakfast. The Old Stone House is located at 8505 State Route 534, Mesopotamia, Ohio 44439.

The Trumbull County Historical Society began their second Saturday history tours in the summer of 2019 and I hope that they continue them in 2020. If so, I will visit as many as I can, if not all of them, and share my experiences with you.  


  • History of Trumbull and Mahoning Counties, Ohio by Williams (H.Z.) & Bro, p. 497
  • History of the Western Reserve, Volume 1by Harriet Taylor Upton
  • Ghosts and Legends of Northern Ohio by William G. Krejci, p. 79
  • Legends and Lost Treasure of Northern Ohio: Brother Bonds by Wendy Koile, p. 57-58
  • “Sir Henry’s Last Ride” by Carl Feather of the Star Beacon, Feb 19, 2012
  • Howard Brigden Find A Grave:
  • Dio Lewis Reynolds find a grave:
  • Dio Reynolds, Mina Tay Brigden, & Bertie Easton Death Records: “Ohio, County Death Records, 1840-2001.” Database with images. FamilySearch. : 18 April 2017. County courthouses, Ohio
  • Scarlet Fever Epidemics of the 19th Century by Alan Swedlund and Alison Donta
  • Jackson County Deaths In March: The Jackson Standard. (Jackson C.H., Ohio), June 17, 1875
  • Hiram Correspondence: The Democratic press. [volume], January 07, 1875
  • Ashtabula Deaths: Ashtabula telegraph. (Ashtabula, Ohio), March 26, 1875
  • Walking Tour of Mespo Engages History Buffs by Beth Shiller, The Tribune Chronicle, August 11, 2019

Ghost Hunt at Hotel Conneaut in Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The first time I visited Hotel Conneaut was in a dream, but I did not know it until months later. My good friend Robin and I have shared an interest in the paranormal since we were in elementary school when I eagerly listened to the stories of her haunted house. One day in September of 2018, she had an encounter with a psychic who read her palm and told her things about herself and her children that were quite accurate. 

That night, I dreamt that my husband took me to a psychic fair inside a large, open room with many windows. Though it was nighttime outside, I could see a long porch running around the perimeter of the outside of this room. Countless booths were set up inside this room and I chose a booth where a male psychic read my palm.  As he examined my open hand, he told me that I had a bad spirit attached to me that I had to get rid of or I would never be happy. I remember feeling cheated in the dream as if I had not got my money’s worth. Not only had he not offered any other insights about my life, but he gave me no advice on how to rid myself of this “bad spirit”. When I awoke from the dream, I felt perplexed and intrigued. I immediately contacted Robin and described the palm reader to her. She replied that I had described her palm-reader exactly and said, “he works the psychic fairs at Hotel Conneaut!” I could hardly believe it and pressed for more details, telling her I believed he was somewhere in his middle age. She said that was correct and showed me a photo of him. I nearly fell off my chair. “That’s the psychic from my dream!” I said excitedly. 

As an aside, the real palm-reader is much more thorough and less vague in his palm readings, providing specific details he picks up about one’s life. It’s just so interesting that I dreamed about someone I had not only never met, but had only heard about in passing and received no description of his appearance.

But the story of the dream doesn’t end there. That same month, with the hotel on my mind, I discovered an upcoming event at Hotel Conneaut led by the Pittsburgh based ghost hunting group Ghosts n’at Paranormal Adventures; a ghost hunt led by this team of professional ghost hunters using an array of the best equipment. I excitedly showed the event to Robin and she agreed to go with me. 

The rear of the hotel with the entrance to the Spirit Lounge.

The Hauntings in Brief

Because I knew next to nothing about the hotel other than it was haunted, I immediately began researching the ghosts of Hotel Conneaut. First and foremost is the bride Elizabeth who supposedly died in a fire on her wedding night. She can be seen in the Crystal Ballroom and other areas of the hotel leaving the scent of her perfume and fresh flowers. In the kitchen, there is said to be the ghost of a chef who murdered a butcher. A child named Angelina apparently roams the halls and the front porch riding the tricycle she perished on when she fell down the stairs. These are the most prominent spirits in the ghost lore of the hotel, and several other low key spirits have been spotted through the years including a long departed employee named John and a soldier. As I researched these stories, I came to understand that absolutely none of these legends could be verified as factual. The story of Elizabeth was false because the 1943 fire that she purportedly died in—that also destroyed half of the hotel—occurred during off season when no one was in the building. The only death I could find was from a commentator on a blog who stated that their mother had been a maid at the hotel when she died from a heart attack in the 80’s while cleaning a room. I immediately wondered if I had wasted my money, questioning if the place was haunted at all and if the hauntings had been overhyped simply because the hotel was so old.

Old photograph of Hotel Conneaut hanging on the hallway wall of the hotel

Paranormal State’s Visit to Hotel Conneaut

In my ponderings, I vaguely remembered watching the Paranormal State episode “Dead Legends” years back where Ryan Buell and his team investigated the hotel. I rewatched the episode and became thoroughly disappointed. Paranormal State could also find no evidence that anyone had ever died in the hotel and believed that the hauntings had been conjured by the public to such an extent that the energy of the living manifested as actual spirits. I was fairly upset at this point and mentioned my disappointment to Robin. Not long after, she told me that she had spoken to the palm-reader and he was adamant we would find activity there. He had become aware of many spirits living there during his time working at the psychic fairs held within the hotel. With my doubts assuaged, I again became excited about the upcoming ghost hunt.

Enlarged postcard image of Hotel Conneaut hanging on the hallway wall of the hotel

Day of the Ghost Hunt

On November 10, 2018, I picked up Robin and drove the 45-minute drive to Conneaut. The Pennsylvania border was only five minutes from our hometown and the instant we crossed the state line, the mostly flat farmland transformed into rolling hills and valleys. We enjoyed the curving route through the countryside, stopping once to obtain caffeine for a long night of ghost hunting. No Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts could be found in that area of Pennsylvania, so we settled for gas station coffee which did the job well enough. As it turned out, I would not need help staying awake.

Google Maps aerial view of the hotel

When we arrived in Conneaut, we entered through the amusement park and back through the empty paved lots where we finally saw the lake to our left and the hotel to our right. As we approached by way of the curving drive at the hotel’s entrance, we were stunned by the sight of the modestly large and friendly-looking white building before us. The storied hostel appeared well-maintained and so charming with its picturesque front porch that wrapped around to the left side of the building. I felt an immediate connection to the place like I could stay there forever; it could be described as the happiness one feels when arriving home. For so many living people through the decades, this hotel served as a home of sorts through the summer season; a welcome reprieve from the drudgery and monotony of day to day life. Is it any wonder that their spirits would wish to stay on long after their earthly bodies had checked out? 

With the parking lot full despite our early arrival, I parked on the street and we carried our bags inside, all the while trembling with anticipation. The lobby was quite full of living bodies, so it was difficult to take in the vestibule when we first pushed through the door. Ghosts n’at’s booth was set up in the entryway and we checked in with the energetic and beautiful ghost hunter Patty. She gave us our room key and we walked towards the stairwell at the right rear of the lobby and climbed up all the way to the third floor. We took in the pine green carpet and ivory walls and stumbled on the slanting, sloping floors which made the entire experience disorienting. The hotel is shaped almost like a horizontal H, so after reaching the top floor, we walked a long vertical hallway that met a horizontal hallway.  Our room was at the end of the right hallway. 

Our small bedroom on the third floor. The third floor bedrooms had not been renovated as much as the lower floors. Not all the rooms look like this either as some are quite larger with other furnishings.

I was surprised at the sight of our tiny room because it had a cheap motel room vibe from the 80’s while the bathroom appeared ancient. Two twin beds took up most of the room as a stand alone sink and leaky claw foot bathtub resided in the bathroom. We had an analog TV, a small dresser, and a chair in the room. The entire dwelling, especially the bathroom, looked in need of remodeling but I wouldn’t dare change its unique appearance. These rooms had a personality all their own. 

The bathroom with the clawfoot tub that leaked constantly and loudly.

We made our way down to the lowest level of the hotel by returning to the lobby and veering right down a long corridor. To the left was a lounging room with a fireplace and after that was the entrance to the Crystal Ballroom. To the right were two original phone booths set into the wall, followed by the restrooms, and another long hallway with guest rooms. Before us loomed a wide and steep set of stairs that led to the lower level. I could imagine people falling down those stairs to their death or serious injury, especially in the day women wore long, flowing dresses easy to trip over. Those stairs added to my unease. 

Lounge area at the left of the back hallway before the Crystal Ballroom
Me in the phone booth that I have no idea how to use
The dining room in the lowest level looking out toward the lake. Its entrance is at the right of the photo.

At the bottom of the stairs were doors that led outside, facing the parking lot behind the hotel. To the left to the doorway was the entrance to the dining room, an open modern-looking room with ivory walls and windows at the far side. It was full of round tables and white tablecloths and had an open area for dancing. No doubt, numerous weddings took place here over the years. It was here that some of the amateur ghost hunters enjoyed a buffet supper.

Entrance of the dining room

At 7 p.m. the doors to the Crystal Ballroom finally opened and the large assembly of amateur ghost hunters sat down on rows of white chairs. The room was very large with a high ceiling and almost completely surrounded by large windows that looked out onto the wrap around porch. Robin told me that this room was where the psychic fairs were held and that’s when it all clicked. This was the room I had dreamed about!

Robin and me before the event began

Ghosts n’at’s tables took up the front of the ballroom where they sold their merchandise and soon the founder Brett McGinnis introduced himself and the rest of the team. They had been holding ghost hunts at the hotel since 2016 and Brett gave us some information on the legends and hauntings of the hotel. I had been so worried that the team would perpetuate the myths, but Brett immediately stated that the story behind bride Elizabeth was completely made up as well as the story of the dismembered butcher. Brett did say that Elizabeth has been spotted in the ballroom as well as elsewhere in the hotel and the ghost of a little boy named Michael has also been seen. He said that one day a maid was cleaning the floor in the ballroom and as she focused her gaze downward, her eyes came upon a pair of child’s shoes. She followed the shoes upward to see a little boy standing there as clear as if it had been a human child, but he quickly disappeared. Brett also told us about room 321-323 which is reported to be the most haunted room in the hotel and is the residence of an angry old man ghost. He said during an EVP session in the room that the spirit must have took a liking to a woman in the room because Brett caught an EVP that clearly said, “I like her.”

Session 1: Employee Hall

With the introduction over, the team divided us into groups of 15 and sent me and Robin’s group with Patty. At first I thought we would be following her through the hotel the entire night but seeing as I had never been on a professional ghost hunt before and only had television to reference, my expectations weren’t accurate. Instead, we would relocate throughout the night to different haunted spots around the hotel and each time would have a different ghost hunter in charge. Each session lasted 45 minutes long and we would be investigating five locations. Patty took us all the way up the lobby staircase to the third floor where we turned left towards the front of the hotel and left again through a doorway into a dark and narrow long hall.

Patty explained that this corridor was the original employee hallway where the workers lodged during the busy open season (which was usually Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, sometimes staying open until October in the more successful years). Rows of closed doors dotted the hall and Patty explained that we could not go into the rooms and they were in the process of being renovated. Upon a small table in the middle of the corridor perched an open laptop and she explained that she had a ghost app running called Phasma Box. The app creates enough white noise that spirits are said to be able to form words. Our group lined up against each side of the hall with our back to the wall as Patty asked questions and waited for answers from the app. She said that on the ghost hunt from the previous night, she had been called many names from the app including the “B” word. 

Me sitting at the end of the employee hall. This hallway sits above the Spirit Lounge.

As we commenced our ghost hunt in the third floor employee hallway, activity began immediately. Not only was the Phasma Box outputting a stream of varied voices, most saying nonsensical words, but hunters that had been leaning against the wall on the far ends could hear knocks, grunts, and noises coming from the inside of the rooms farthest from the central point of our group. When Patty attempted to ask specific questions to the Phasma Box, voices distinctively and forcefully replied “Working!”as if they were too busy to be bothered.

Robin whispered to me that she felt uneasy near a door toward the end of the hall and when I stood in front of it, I was shocked by a burst of cold in the warm hallway. At the very end of the hall sat a wicker chair which was said to be one of the most haunted areas in the hotel and whoever sat in the chair would feel extreme unease. Patty directed us to take turns sitting in the chair and to take photos of the area. Robin and I each sat in the chair but neither of us felt anything odd and I thought that area of the hall felt more friendly and calm than anywhere else.

Session 2: Basement

The dining room in the basement.

Our second location had us go from the third floor all the way down to the lowest level to the banquet hall and kitchen. We met Tim, a tall and thin bearded ghost hunter, who would be leading the session in this basement area. He said that he had motion detectors setup all through the dining room and with the previous group, they had continuously gone off and several shadow people could be seen as well. He mentioned a prominent ghost in this area was a little boy named Michael and he gave us all an opportunity to ask questions to the child ghost. Tim brought forth an Ovilus and we stood around him in a half circle as he went up to each one of us.

Robin went first and asked, “Michael, how old are you?”

From the Ovilus in a child’s voice came the clear response, “Five!” Everyone gasped in shock.

I went next and asked, “Michael, are you happy?” 

In the same child’s voice erupted a quick answer. “Of course!” My hand flew to my chest and I had to take a step back, I was so stunned.

Tim was impressed. “Wow, you girls asked good questions. He must like you,” he said.

As he continued down the line, everyone else asked Michael questions like “How did you die?”, “Are there others here with you?”, “Why do you stay here?” Unfortunately, the Ovilus spewed out garbled nonsense that sounded like radio static or nothing at all.

The dining room during our ghost hunt. That’s Mike on the left. He had instructed us to start taking pictures because the motion detectors were going off and we may capture photos of shadow people.

The motion detectors were set up in the rear where the windows looked out onto the garden. As we moved away from that area, the alarms began to go off at different intervals. If we drew closer to them, they ceased to alarm, so it was an unnerving feeling as if a child was playing games with us. 

The windows looking out into the garden. The motion detectors were set up around the support poles.
Dance floor of the dining room. The yellow balloon was there for Michael to play with. An earlier group had witnessed it moving.

Tim led us into the kitchen where a ghostly chef has been seen. He laid several pieces of ghost hunting equipment down on the counter ranging from an EMF reader to a digital voice recorder to a thermal device. We watched the equipment begin to pick up “ghostly” signals and light up, but that was the extent of my experience in the kitchen. As we walked through the kitchen area which was composed of a few large rooms for food prep and a laundry area, Robin was certain she saw something peek out from behind a row of stacked chairs. Taking photos of this area produced nothing visible.

Laundry room off of the kitchen. Just a glimpse of all the hard work it takes to keep a hotel running smoothly!

Session 3: The Crystal Ballroom

Crystal Ballroom in the daytime

When the 45 minutes were up, we were directed up the tall flight of stairs and back into the Crystal Ballroom where we met our next pair of paranormal professionals, Josh and his mother. They also had a laptop setup on the table at the front of the room with the PhasmaBox app running. Josh’s mom explained that with the previous groups as well as the hunt from the night prior, that the spirits had seemed angry and were calling Josh and his mom all kinds of nasty words. This time, as our group sat in the rows of chairs we had sat in at the earlier assembly, the app remained in relative silence. If it said anything at all, it was senseless. We sat there the entire 45 minutes mostly disappointed because though we were in the domain of bride Elizabeth, she made no appearance. Some of the people in our group thought they could see shadow people moving along the back wall, far away from where we sat, but I had no experiences whatsoever. 

Session 4: Second Floor Hall

For our second to last session, we met with Patty’s husband who was also named Tim and were led up the stairwell in the back of the ballroom. This stairwell was for employees only, so had a simple, industrial feel. Years ago, a man had captured footage of a ghost child as he filmed himself going up this stairwell. This is said to be the stairwell where a young child fell when riding their tricycle. Some stories say that it was a little girl named Angelina and other stories say it was a little boy named Michael or Nick. In this instance, Tim stuck to the story that it was a little boy named Nick and we were in the stairwell only briefly before huddling in the second-floor hallway near the door to the stairs. He attempted an EVP session by asking the child a series of questions but playback of his recorder revealed only silence. 

He then directed us into Room 182 where a maid had been scratched and an angry spirit was said to haunt. We sat on the two beds while Tim sat in a chair near the dresser where he had a laptop setup with a ghost app running. He had a flashlight sitting on the dresser, the kind with a button on the tip on the handle for turning it on and off. The ghost app threw words at us every so often that were supposedly from spirits but it did not give us anything significant. Tim also attempted an EVP session and had each of us ask a question meant for the ghost. Upon playback, once again there was no response to our questions. 

As we sat there awkwardly, one of the girls from our group said, “The flashlight keeps turning on.”

Sure enough, the flashlight had turned on and Tim barely glanced at it, unimpressed.

“That happens,” he said.

He must have seen it all to shrug off a flashlight turning on on its own. Tim: the ghoul-hardened ghost hunter.

Session 5: Room 321-323

At last, we were led to our final location: the most haunted room in the hotel. A double room with two doors having placards of “321” and “323” is on the third floor was said to be occupied by a curmudgeonly old man ghost who liked the ladies. Other ghost hunters have given him the name Clint and said him to be a very aggressive spirit. Brett was our ghost hunter for that session and he sat on the floor while he explained the unusual activity in that room. Besides the EVP caught in the room which distinctly said, “I like her”, car keys had gone missing to be discovered in the bathroom sink. Also, one night when Tim and Patty stayed in that room, Tim had been drinking quite a bit and had to continuously get up to use the bathroom throughout the night. Every time he plodded to the bathroom, he felt and heard footsteps directly behind him as if someone was following his every movement.

Brett attempted an EVP session and allowed others to ask questions if they wanted to. Playback was mostly silence, but there were a few surprising responses on the recorder. The responses were either hard to decipher or seemed to repeat back the questions as if the ghost was mocking us. This concluded the ghost hunt and Robin and I decided that the first two spots were the only interesting locations and the last three had been disappointing.

After Hours

The professional ghost hunters joined the amateur ghost hunters in the Spirit Lounge for an after hunt mingle, however we were not alone as the bar was filled with dozens of locals. At that hour past 11:00, it was impossible to walk through the lounge or hear anything above the loud blend of boisterous voices. Robin and I stayed in the lobby for a spell and overheard a local woman telling one of the ghost hunters about her nearby historical home.

“My house used to be a brothel,” said the tall blonde. “We can hear footsteps walking up and down our stairs and smell perfume.”

We did not stick around very long and were eager to commence a ghost hunt of our own. For the next few hours, we wandered the halls, stairwells, and exterior of the hotel with cameras in hand. We were allowed free reign of all the public areas of the hotel, but much to our disappointment, the ballroom and the employee hallway had been closed off. We spent a considerable amount of time in the basement area, trying to speak to Michael but nothing developed from our efforts.

3rd Floor facing towards the front of the hotel
3rd Floor facing towards the front of the hotel

One of our more exciting experiences was a confrontation with the tall blonde who had become quite intoxicated by the early morning hours and had lost her phone. She was belligerent as she wandered into the dining room where we were exploring and we quickly made our escape. Soon her husband arrived to take her home, though in her drunken stupor she was fairly unwilling.  

The garden
3rd floor lounge area

After awhile, most of the locals dwindled away and the other ghost hunters retired. By 2 a.m. Robin and I wandered the halls alone, spending time sitting in the lounge areas at each end of the hallways. By 2:30 a.m., Robin was getting very tired and was ready to go to sleep. We were sitting in the 2ndfloor lounge area just outside the suites in the front of the hotel. Earlier in the night, we had noticed that the residents of room 132 had left their key in the door but it didn’t appear that anyone was in the room. The key had been hanging from the door all evening as we remarked on its presence every time we passed the area. 

Our view from the lounge area. The door with the key in the latch is behind the white hutch at the left.

As we sat chatting, we began hearing a light tapping noise that stopped and started a few times and sounded like it was picking up speed. At first, we thought nothing of it, but because it grew so loud and persistent, we finally got up to investigate. We immediately discovered that the tapping was coming from the other side of the door to suite 132 and the tag on the key was shaking.

We watched the door for about ten minutes until two very drunk women came up the nearby stairwell and saw us staring at the door to the room. They looked at us in offense and I asked if that was their room. When they affirmed that it was, I told them about the tapping noise. They confirmed that no one was in the room. One of the ladies was too drunk to care and pushed open the door without retrieving the key before disappearing inside the dark suite. The other lady stayed to talk to us. She explained that it was her third stay at the hotel and that she’s stayed in the same suite each time. She asked me if I had a chance to meet the owner and thinking she was talking about the current owner, I said I had not. 

She went on to say that every night she has stayed in that suite, around 3 a.m. she has been visited by the owner. 

“And the owner’s son. He always shows up expecting to get something,” she said, laughing maniacally. 

That’s when I realized she wasn’t talking about living people, but dead ones. She asked what floor our room was on and we told her the 3rd floor. 

She said, “That’s the most haunted floor of the hotel!” 

She bid goodnight and as she went to retire was so drunk she walked into her doorframe. She did remember to take the key at least. Robin and I were both amused and creeped out at the same time. 

Robin was more than ready to retire herself, but I was fully wired, however not brave enough to wander the halls alone. I decided I had better try to rest because I had to return to my two young children in the morning. We went to our room and sunk into our separate beds which were so pleasant and comfortable. However, sleep eluded me as I could not get that tap-tap-tapping sound out of my head and though the room was warm and the heat was running, I continuously felt bursts of cold air pass over my face. I remained awake till dawn.

In the morning, we had breakfast in the dining room and on our way back to the room, we saw the Ghosts n’at team in the lobby. Patty’s husband Tim that had led our 4thsession asked us how our night went and when I told him we had ghost hunted until 3 a.m., he was impressed with our endurance. I told him about the tapping on the door and it did seem to interest him, though mildly. It would take more than that to wow Tim, that much I could gage from the night before. 

We checked out and roamed along the beach near the hotel, nostalgia enveloping us as we imagined all those vacationers over the century relaxing and swimming. I could almost see the wealthy on holiday from their home in Pittsburgh promenading along the boardwalk and dressed in their absolute best as they made their way to Dreamland Ballroom. The ballroom was gone, having burned down in the great fire from 1909, but the energy from those magical days remained and we could feel it in our bones. I was sorrowful to leave Hotel Conneaut, having become so attached in less than a day and I knew I had to return whenever I could.

The west side of the hotel
Robin had a creepy vibe from this tree the night previous
A beautiful view from the promenade deck of Hotel Conneaut

On our drive home, we stopped at Gustavus Cemetery and paid our respects to the murdered young girl Maria Buell, who had been slain by her stepfather, Ira West Gardner. Stay tuned for a future post on the tragic account.

Robin and I did not get the opportunity to return to the hotel in April of 2019 for the psychic fair because it was the same weekend as Robin’s wedding, but I will be returning to the hotel on October 18 for another ghost hunt with Ghosts n’at. Please watch for a new post about the ghost hunt after that date.

This is the first of many posts to come about Hotel Conneaut. I have much to say about this hotel and I’m eager to share all the research I have uncovered, including documented deaths in and around the hostelry. Please subscribe to be notified whenever I post a new article!