The snow had just begun to fall the night of November 22, 1926, when Captain John Miller and Detective Edgar Robinson of the Mansfield Police Department entered the home of Benjamin and Nettie Greenawald at 571 South Main Street, Mansfield, Ohio. They had just received a call from Arthur Zerby, the Greenawald’s neighbor. Mrs. Bonnie Sherman, the adopted daughter of the Greenawalds, had just entered the Zerby home frantic saying George W. Thoma had killed her mother. When Detective Robinson entered the home through the basement door, he scanned the room with his flashlight. On the floor was a trail of blood leading to a closet door. Cautiously Robinson opened the door, unsure if anyone was still in the home. Benjamin Greenawald’s head lay on the threshold, his body in a heap on the floor and covered with a carpet. Robinson next went upstairs to and found the body of Nettie Greenawald in a pool of blood on the floor next to her bed. Both victims had been savagely beaten about the head almost beyond recognition. Robinson made a call to the police station to be on the lookout for Thoma, but, unknown to him, Thoma had just walked into police headquarters and calmly given himself up.
George W. Thoma’s life wasn’t easy growing up. Many of the family members, including his uncles William and Philip Thoma and his brother, Samuel Thoma Jr., were well known by Mansfield Police. They were often picked up for intoxication. On May 18, 1917, George’s brother, Wilbert, was killed when lightning hit the telephone wires entering the house. The bolt, following the wires into the home, struck Wilbert in the head. George, the only other person in the house at the time, discovered his brother’s body and ran for help. The family settled with the Mansfield Telephone Company for $500. Later that year, on the morning of September 28, George was walking on the railroad tracks and saw someone lying under a tree in a nearby field. When George went to investigate, he saw it was his uncle Philip who had apparently died the night before. George would later enter the U.S. Navy, only serving for a year before being honorably discharged. A police report in the Mansfield News on June 13, 1919 is the first indication that George Thoma and Bonnie Sherman knew each other, or at least ran in the same circles.
Little is known about Bonnie Sherman. Later testimony indicates that the Greenawald’s adopted Bonnie when she was approximately 2-years-old. On January 3, 1918, Bonnie married Ernest T. Sherman. The marriage license says Bonnie was 17 years old on October 19, 1917, though the 1920 U.S. Census shows an 18-year-old Bonnie living at South Main Street with Benjamin, Nettie, and Nettie’s mother, Mary Byers. Later testimony would also indicate that Bonnie was younger than 17 at the time of her marriage. Ernest had been drafted into the service a few months earlier and the two may have been determined to get married before Ernest left. Ernest Thomas Sherman would end up dying at Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio on November 24, 1918, due to bronchial pneumonia following an attack of influenza, making the young Bonnie a widow. Bonnie worked as an assembler at an electric company and later as a waitress and laundress. Newspaper reports also show Bonnie was arrested in August of 1920, along with Myrtle Keeler, who was accused of running a “disorderly house.” Myrtle said that Lawrence McVicker had asked if he could “call on” Bonnie Sherman. The McVicker brothers, Lawrence, Leroy, John, and Clyde, were also well known by police at the time. At least three of them had spent time in the state penitentiary for forgery. After the arrest, Bonnie was sent to the Girls Industrial School in Delaware, Ohio for 13 months.
George and Bonnie began “keeping company” after her return from the industrial school and, on August 10, 1922, the first reports began to surface of a troubled relationship. Bonnie reported to the Mansfield police that she was afraid for her life, saying George was hanging around outside her home with a gun. She claimed George had threatened to shoot her if she came home with another man. The police handed the case over to the Sheriff’s department and Sheriff Kaufman investigated and found George asleep in his bed. No charges were filed. Nothing else is heard of George and Bonnie until the night of November 22, 1926.
Thoma did not have the means to pay for an attorney, but the court allowed him to choose his representation. He chose George Biddle and T. R. Robison. Thoma continued his calm demeanor. The Mansfield News noted you could “not indicate whether he had been indicted for first-degree murder or for the theft of a dilapidated Ford car.” A week after the murders were committed, Thoma pleaded not guilty before Judge Galbraith, surprising many. His attorney, T.R. Robison, requested a physical and mental examination of Thoma. Robison said if Thomas is found competent, his client should plead guilty, adding: “there is no question that Thoma killed Benjamin Greenawald, and his wife, Nettie Greenawald.” Galbraith denied the request unless Thoma changed his plea to guilty. The week before the trial on December 15, 1926, Thoma did change his plea and a Dr. Morgan from Akron was called to examine both him and Bonnie Sherman. The doctor determined that both were “subnormal but that Bonnie was of higher mentality than Thoma.” The trial for the killing of Nettie Greenawald would begin on December 20, 1926, with the fate of Thoma in Judge Galbraith’s hands.
On the morning of December 20, a packed courtroom heard the testimony given by local law enforcement and medical examiners. Testimony indicated that Thoma had gone to the Greenawald home to confront Bonnie’s adopted parents. They had felt that Thoma was unfit for Bonnie. While confronting Nettie, Thoma claimed she called him a vile name and he saw a ball of fire appear. When he came to he was standing over Nettie’s body with the 13-inch piece of wood in his hand. He then went to the basement to wait for Mr. Greenawald, clubbing him in the head as well. Bloodstains were also found on a small tack hammer. Medical examiners said anyone of the many blows would have killed the victims. Bonnie Sherman was next to take the stand.
Bonnie, giving her age as 24, said she was supposed to meet Thoma on the night of the murder after she got off work at the New Method Laundry. Thoma didn’t show up and she decided to get a car to take her halfway home. She then walked the rest of the way. When she entered the home, Bonnie said Thoma grabbed her and put his hand over her mouth. Later she asked where her parents were and Thoma said they were downtown. Thoma suggested she to go into the bedroom to calm down. He came in and made a request of her, which she refused. Thoma then said if she consented this time he would be out of her life forever. She then consented. She didn’t want Thoma to leave afterward because she was afraid to be in the house alone. She soon discovered the body of her mother and ran to the Zerby home and told Mrs. Zerby George had killed her mother. Judge Galbraith asked how she knew Thoma was the killer. Bonnie said George had told her if she ever found her mother dead, she would know he had done it. The final witness on the first day of testimony was Dr. Brown of Mansfield. Brown stated that Thoma had the mentality of an 11-year-old boy.
The second and final day of testimony was filled with witnesses speaking about the mental capacity of Thoma. Witnesses agreed Thoma suffered from mental issues. A former neighbor said when Thoma was twelve he enjoyed playing games with younger children. A school truant officer inspected the house on various occasions since the children only went to school about half the time. Most said he seemed like a good person but eccentric. All evidence indicated a guilty verdict with no more surprises to come, but the next day, as Judge Galbraith sentenced Thoma, he was given the opportunity to explain his actions on the night of November 22. What he said left more questions than answers.
When asked why he killed the Greenawalds, Thoma rose, looking majestic, from his seat and said dramatically, “it is written on a card. The card is turned face down. I’ll never reveal it, except that it was love for that woman. My father and sister may turn against me, but I will never tell.” Judge Galbraith then had no option but to sentence Thoma to death in the electric chair, setting the date for April 8, 1927. After the sentence, Thoma was given one final chance to speak. He rose a dramatically as the first time and said, “I have only a few words to say. Keep your eye on that woman. Then you may find what I am holding back.” After the trial, Thoma was sent to Columbus to await his sentence, and Bonnie, who had inherited the Greenawald property, left the city and moved to Springfield, Ohio, where an old acquaintance, Myrtle Keeler, also lived. She began going by May B. Sherman and spent the rest of her life in Springfield until her death on April 6, 1965.
When Thoma was left at the Ohio penitentiary in Columbus by Sheriff Sells and Deputy Sheriff Valentine, he was in good spirits saying “I am going to the chair laughing, if I can.” Robison and Biddle submitted an appeal, but it was denied. On March 5, 1927, a report came out of Columbus saying that Thoma had denied the murders and said a woman who he would not name was the true culprit. He also claimed this woman had threatened to kill another Mansfield girl if Thoma did not stop seeing her. A few days later, Thoma denied this. George William Thoma gave his life, at least in his mind, for the woman he loved on April 8, 1927. He was the second man put to death that day. The first to die was Jim Lyon, who was convicted of killing Frank E. McGrath, an American Railway Express company detective. Lyon cursed and damned everyone he could on his way to the chair, anger seething from him until his life was extinguished. Thoma’s death could not have been more different. He kept his calm demeanor throughout. Thoma walked in, “immaculately dressed,” with his head slightly inclined, lifting it slightly to the crowd while the hood was placed over his head, a trace of a smile on his face.
In a letter to be read after his death, Thoma thanked everyone involved, and apologized to his attorneys for not allowing them to properly defend him. He expressed sympathy for the boys incarcerated at the prison and thanked the warden and Chaplin for their kindness. He found God in his final days and urged all to “dig in and hunt those bibles that are lying in a vacant room or on some shelf.” Thoma’s body was returned to Mansfield to be buried in Mansfield Cemetery along with his secret.
- The Mansfield News. 23 NOV 1926, p1
- The Mansfield News. 14 JUL 1919, p4
- The Mansfield News. 10 AUG 1922, p3
- The Mansfield News. 26 NOV 1926, p1
- The Mansfield News. 29 NOV 1926, p1
- The Mansfield News. 15 DEC 1926, p1
- The Mansfield News. 20 DEC 1926, p1
- The Mansfield News. 21 DEC 1926, p1
- The Mansfield News. 22 DEC 1926, p1
- 1927 Springfield, Ohio City Directory, p. 594
- Ohio Department of Health; Columbus, Ohio; Ohio Deaths, 1908-1932, 1938-1944, and 1958-2007
- The Mansfield News. 24 DEC 1926, p17
- The Mansfield News. 27 FEB 1927, p1
- The Mansfield News. 06 MAR 1927, p1
- The Mansfield News. 09 MAR 1927, p2
- The Mansfield News. 10 APR 1927, p3