“MURDERED! A DARK AND BLOODY DEED, John Fox of Bellville, Shot by an Assassin.” This was the headline in the March 14, 1883 edition of The Ohio Liberal. While riding home from Mansfield on March 8, 1883, John Fox was shot in the back twice and killed. His brother, Daniel, escaped with a wound to the leg and made it to the home of a neighbor. The event caused much excitement in the little village of Bellville, Ohio and the nearby city of Mansfield. The murder remained unsolved, but many had their suspicions about who committed the crime. Stories were fueled by John Fox’s checkered past; he was reported as an abusive husband and suspected of making an assassination attempt on a well-known doctor from Mansfield. This, combined with lawsuits and rumors of disunion within the Fox family, make for an fascinating story.
Susan L. (Tinkey) Fox
In early December of 1880, a marriage license was issued for John Fox and Susan Tinkey. Their marriage was far from ideal and in less than a year, Susan petitioned for divorce. In the petition, Susan alleged extreme cruelty with John “beating her with his fist and with a whip.” She also claimed he attempted to place a snake on her and that he would hide her shoes to prevent her from going to church. The divorce proceeding dragged on as John Fox had become a wealthy man and did not want to get a divorce.
Dr. A. J. Erwin
On the night of January 27, 1882, Dr. A. J. Erwin attended a dance, which ended around midnight. He then checked on a patient at the St. James before heading to his residence on West Market Street, now Park Avenue West. Upon opening his gate, her heard a loud explosion and was hit in the side by bird shot from a double barrel shotgun. He clung to the gate and called for help. Henry C. & Josiah Hedges came to his rescue and summoned Dr. R. Harvey Reed. Dr. Erwin said he did not see the assailant, but it’s likely that his heavy winter clothes saved his life that night. Later Henry C. & Josiah Hedges returned to the scene and found that the shotgun had been rigged to fire when Dr. Erwin opened the gate by a series of strings and levers attached to both triggers. In addition to this, a note was found saying “Dr. Erwin: You have ruined my daughter and I will have my revenge.” The crime stirred great interest in the community, but no arrests were made for months.
In late May of 1882, John Fox was arrested for the attempted murder and put on trial a few weeks later. Many witnesses came to the stand saying a man that looked like Fox was seen buying the same type of gun in Newark, Ohio and William Ritter of Bellville said he rode back from Newark with John Fox on the 16th of January. Another witness said he saw an individual with a gun on a train the night of the incident and Abner Oldfield said he talked to Fox the following morning at Mrs. Hull’s boarding house, where Fox remarked how very tired he was because he had not slept the night before. The handwriting of the note was also compared to other documents written by Fox and multiple witnesses were sure the writing was the same and that Fox was the author of the note.
Dr. Erwin himself then testified, saying that the reason Fox wanted him dead was that he was going to be an important witness in the divorce case that was still pending. Fox’s wife, Susan, worked for Dr. Erwin before her marriage and, it was claimed by Dr. Erwin, she often told her husband that the she would tell Dr. Erwin about their marital troubles. In addition to this, Fox had accumulated a substantial fortune with an estimated worth of between $40,000 and $50,000 and did not want the divorce to proceed. Dr. Erwin claims this was the reason and attempt was made on his life that night. The case was eventually declared nolle prose as there was not enough evidence for a conviction.
The Murder of John Fox
John Fox was already on edge the night of March 8, 1883 when his life ended. Six weeks prior, there was another attempt on his life. As he was entering his home, an assailant shot at him from beneath the balustrade of the porch. The bullet grazed Fox’s cheek and the attacker fled and was never found, though some suspected Monroe Tinkey, John’s brother-in-law. Fox’s mother claimed John suspect one of two parties but refused to say who. Around 8 o’clock on the night of March 8th, the brothers were attacked. Daniel was the primary suspect and early reports indicated that the shot was fired at close range and the hair on the back of John’s head was singed. This later could not be verified and it was determined that Daniel’s injury to his leg could not have been self-inflicted.
There were also reports of disunion in the family; some saying that John had received a larger portion of his father inheritance then was deserved. There were reports that this and some disagreement about business transactions caused John and Daniel to not speak to each other for a period of time, but were once again on good terms at the time of the incident. It is also interesting to note that John Fox had changed his will after the first attempt on his life and left the bulk of his estate to his brother Daniel. Judge May later decided that Mrs. Susan Fox was entitled to dower in the estate of her deceased husband after she filed a petition against Daniel Fox.
Who Killed John Fox
Even though a reward of $2,000 was offered, John Fox’s killer was never found. It is clear Fox made some enemies. Whether it was the Tinkey family for the abuses endured by John’s wife Susan, Dr. Erwin for the believed attempt on his life, or simply the greed of a brother, someone took the life of 40 year-old John Fox that night outside of Bellville.