William Harmon: The short term of the first paid fire chief

According to his obituary, William Harmon was born in Hayesville, Ohio around 1851 and arrived in Mansfield shortly after his marriage.  But other records indicate the family may have been in Mansfield as early as 1859.  The 1860 U.S. Census places the family in Mansfield’s 3rd ward and John Harmon, William’s father, is listed in the 1858-59 Mansfield city directory.  Regardless of when the family arrived in Mansfield, William would follow in his father’s footsteps becoming a carpenter and a respected citizen of Mansfield.  On April 10, 1872, William married Laura J. Crider, the daughter of Tobias and Mary Crider, a Mifflin Township farmer.   William continued to work as a carpenter throughout the 1870s and 1880s and, on June 3, 1884, was elected by the Mansfield City Council to the position of fire engineer,[1] receiving a salary of $60 a month.[2]

William Harmon became the first paid fire chief for the city of Mansfield and was one of the main proponents for the creation of a paid fire department around 1881, but his time as chief was short.  In May of 1886, Harmon resigned from the department and stated he was moving to Kansas City.  The following week, reports came out that the mayor was going to charge Harmon with malfeasance in office and gross official misconduct.  The mayor argued that Harmon had violated the trust of Mansfield citizens and had conspired with others to set fire to and burn many buildings in the city.  The buildings included homes and businesses owned by many prominent citizens, including a warehouse owned by Peter Ott, a barn owned by Manuel May, a barn owned by Dr. William Bushnell, and the Covenanter’s Church on West Market St. (today Park Ave West), just to name a few.  Most citizens felt Harmon could not be guilty of the charges, but felt an investigation was necessary to get to the bottom of the matter.

In early June, the city council held the Harmon Investigation in which a number of men who had worked under Harmon were questioned.  First was George Stevens, who stated Harmon had suggested burning a number of buildings in order to “show the citizens how we can fight fire.”  He also stated that Harmon had asked him to set fire to Blymyer’s barn after Blymyer refuse to vote to increase his pay to $75 a month.  The next witnesses, James Nash and George Englehart, confirmed the testimony of Stevens.  Two other witnesses, Louis Schissler and Fred Longsdorf, stated they had heard Harmon make comments like this, but felt he was “too sensible a man to do anything of the kind.[3]”  A few days later Harmon was acquitted of all charges by a vote of 8-2.  The council stated that charges were a result of ill feelings between the chief and other members of the department and that the chief and other members had often joked about burning old buildings.  This was the basis for the charges against the former chief.[4]

William Harmon made his way out to Kansas City and built a name for himself in that city as a contractor and builder, as well as chief of the Kansas City Fire Department.  He was responsible for the erection of many buildings in the city, including the Altman Building, the Askew Building, and the Loose building.  He was remodeling the Union Depot at the time of his death on February 19, 1899.[5]


Sources:

  1. Richland Shield and Banner (Mansfield, Ohio). 07 June 1884, p. 5.
  2. Mansfield Herald (Mansfield, Ohio). 03 July 1884, p. 6.
  3. Mansfield Herald (Mansfield, Ohio). 03 June 1886, p. 6.
  4. Richland Shield and Banner (Mansfield, Ohio). 05 June 1886, p. 4.
  5. Mansfield News Journal (Mansfield, Ohio). 26 Feb 1899, p. 5.

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The Christmas Murder of John Payne

On December 26, 1923, John Payne eagerly awaited the return of his foster daughter, Bertha, who had spent Christmas at her grandfather’s with her father, Willard Pettit, and Uncle Wilbur.  John was a tenant on the Huron Valley farm 6 miles north of Shelby, OH, which was owned by A. C. Morse, head of the Shelby Seamless Tube Company.  As John walked from the barn to the tenant house, where he and some friends, Lester VanOsdol, John Field and Ollie Cline who were assisting with butchering, a car pulled up the drive.  Willard and Wilbur Pettit got out of the car and confronted John Payne.  Moments later Payne lay on the ground dead and the Petit twins where racing toward Plymouth with VanOsdol following.  Wilbur fired a shot at the pursuing Vanosdol and struck him in the left ankle.  When the brothers arrived in Plymouth, Wilbur left the car and Willard continued to the Pettit farm where he was arrested a short time later by Sherriff Fred D. Sells.  The search for Wilbur began immediately.

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The Daughter

Bertha was born December 28, 1913 to Willard, one of the twins, and Oma (Akers) Pettit.  Shortly after her birth, her mother died and she became a ward of the state.  She spent a short time with family in Akron and later came to live with John and Amy (Pettit) Payne.  Amy was the sister of Willard and Wilbur.  Amy testified that on November 7, 1921, Willard had come to the Payne home and wanted to see Bertha.  They said she was in school and both Willard and the Paynes went after her.  According to Amy Payne, the next day they were awarded custody by the courts.  Willard felt that John Payne and stolen his daughter’s affection and made negative comments about him in her presence.  Amy confirmed this to some degree in her testimony.  This enraged Willard and many other testified of how he often said he would like to or would one day kill John Payne.

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The Murder

On the day after Christmas the Pettit twins first stopped at the home of Clarence Ehret.  Wilbur was the husband of his daughter, but the couple was separated.  According to Wilbur’s wife, he insisted on seeing their daughter, but the baby was asleep.  Mrs. Pettit believed that had she been alone that day, Wilbur would have killed her.

After they left the Ehret farm, the brothers went to see John Payne.  According to Bertha, the brothers talked about killing Payne on the way to the farm.  When they arrived, Willard began an argument with Payne.  He enraged Payne to the point where he struck Willard.  Wilbur pulled a revolver form his coat and Bertha ran up to her uncle and pleaded with him not to do it.  Wilbur pushed Bertha to the ground and fired shot at John Payne causing him to fall to the ground.  According to testimony, Willard held Payne to the ground and told his brother to “give him another one.”  Wilbur fired another shot into the temple of Payne.  In all, three shots entered Payne, one in the left temple, one in the throat, which embedded in the spinal cord, and one through the left ear.  The brothers then jumped in the car and made their escape.

The trial for Willard Pettit began on Monday, March 10, 1924, while the search for his brother continued.  The defense for Willard consisted of the proving that there was no premeditation for the murder of John Payne and therefor, Wilbur was the sole murderer, coming to the defense of his brother who had been attacked by Payne.  The prosecutor attempted to show otherwise.  Witnesses, including Bertha, took the stand and claimed Willard had, multiple times, talked about getting his revenge on Payne.  According to the prosecutor, if the jury was to return a verdict of not guilty it would mean they would have to believe everyone, except Willard, was lying.  It took the jury 3 hours and 25 minutes to come back with a guilty verdict.  Willard would spend a minimum of 19 years with a maximum of 20 years in prison.  The days of December 24, 25 and 26 of those years were to be spent in solitary confinement

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The search for Wilbur

The search continued to bring Wilbur to justice.  Many tips came in from people trying to collect the $1,000 reward.  In late January, it was believed he was in a hospital in Madison, Wisconsin.  This turned out to be false.  Many in Plymouth felt that Wilbur had committed suicide by jumping into an old stone quarry a mile southeast of Plymouth.  They believed that once spring came the body of Wilbur Pettit would be found.  On March 29, a body was found in Toledo and believed to be that of Wilbur and, a day or two later, a man arrested in Elyria was thought to be the wanted man.  Not much was heard of Wilbur until March 6, 1925 when a man fitting his description was spotting in Kansas City.  Glenn Greenwood, who at one time lived in Sharon Township and was employed at the Winbigler Farm north of Mansfield, recognized Pettit while both were employed at a meat packing plant in Kansas City.  A short time later, he was arrested in Wichita, Kansas.  At first he denied being Wilbur and gave the name of Sam Beads, but later admitted his identity and returned to Mansfield.

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Pettit plead not guilty and his trial was set for April 20, 1925.  It was becoming difficult to secure a jury for the case and, on April 20, only one juror had been secured, a Mrs. Olive Walker.  The following day, Wilbur Pettit changed his plea to guilty to second degree murder and was given a life sentence in the Ohio State Penitentiary and, like his brother, was required to spend December 24, 25 and 26 in solitary confinement.

14 years later the brothers were up for parole.  They had been model prisoners and parole was granted.   Willard was released on July 1, 1939 and his brother, Wilbur, was set free September 1, 1939.  In the 1951 city directory, both men were listed as living in Mansfield and working at Westinghouse.  Wilbur Pettit died June 30, 1981 and Willard died on December 16, 1985.  Both are buried in Greenlawn Cemetery in Plymouth.   Bertha died in 2012 at the age of 98 in Shelby.