A Murder in Independence


Map of Independence (now Butler), 1873 Atlas

On the night of Monday, April 1, 1878, Marshall Lemon received word of a murder committed at the village of Independence (now Butler), Richland County, Ohio.  Lemon, accompanied by policeman McKinley, immediately caught a freight train to the village to investigate, arriving about 1 a.m.  When they arrived in the village, Samuel Bowersox had been arrested and was being held in the saloon he owned, being guarded by Deputy Daugherty and his assistants.  Marshall Lemon and Officer McKinley took Bowersox to a small building by the depot and kept him there until morning.  This was not Bowersox’s first run-in with the law, according to the Mansfield Herald.  He had created disturbances “in Worthington Township since he has been there.  Scarcely a term of the Probate Court has passed for several years that he has not been up on the charge of violating the liquor law.”  Bowersox was about 40 years of age, 180-200 pounds, dressed well and had black hair, a long moustache and goatee.  He had married Elizabeth Statler about three years prior to the incident and was in the shoe making business and had been operating the saloon about two years.

bowersox marriage

Bowersox/Statler Marriage Affidavit

Many residents didn’t take kindly to Bowersox or his chosen profession, especially since a temperance revival had prevailed in the village.  At about 5 o’clock in the morning, while he was being held near the depot, his saloon was set on fire and in a short time was consumed by the flames.  There were also threats of lynching Bowersox and some thought he would not have the benefit of a trial.  The preliminary trial was held Tuesday, April 2, and Mayor McLaughlin read the charges: “Before Me, J. M. McLaughlin, Mayor of the incorporated village of Independence, Richland County, State of Ohio, personally came James Traxler, who being duly sworn according to law deposes and says that on or about the 1st day of April, 1878, at the County of Richland, Samuel P. Bowersox did maliciously and willfully, with malice aforethought shoot, wound and kill Alfred M. Palm.”


Headline from Richland Shield and Banner, 06 APR 1878 p. 2

The Victim

Alfred M. Palm was about 27 years of age.  His father had passed away many years ago and his mother was buried 3 weeks before Alfred was killed.  Alfred had also lost a brother about six month prior.  He still had three sisters and four brothers living.  It had been reported that Palm had developed a habit of visiting saloons and taverns.  He had an inoffensive disposition, but, according too many, had become addicted to drinking.

The Murder

Lester Traxler described the incident from inside the saloon.  Traxler arrived at Bowersox’s Saloon about 9 o’clock, meeting Thomas Simmons, Frank Mix, William Pierce, James Aungst, young Brumbaugh, Alfred Palm, Samuel Bowersox and his wife.  About 9:30, Bowersox asked everyone to leave saying it was time to close.  Bowersox asked Trexler to remain.  A short time later, stones were thrown against the saloon and Bowersox became enraged.  Bowersox pulled a revolver from his pocket and went to the door.  Someone said “don’t Shoot, you might hit someone,“ Bowersox replied, “I will, God Damned if I don’t” and fired two shots.  He then got a dozen cartridges and reloaded his revolver.  Soon someone came to the saloon door saying to come out with a light that someone had been shot.  When they went outside, Palm was on his back on the walk about 30 feet from the saloon.  They heard more shots fired near the depot and took Palm to a nearby barn which was under construction.

John Coffee also testified and was with Palm on the walkway when he got shot.  They were talking out on the platform east of the saloon when they heard shots fired.  According to Coffee, Palm said “I’m shot, I’m Shot” and fell over against him.  Coffee testified he saw Bowersox open the door to the saloon.  Coffee then went to the saloon and reported Palm had been shot.  Dr. J. J. Worley examined Palm as he was dying.  When he first approached Bowersox, he said that he heard Palm had been shot.  Bowersox replied he guessed not and that Palm had been playing around with a revolver and may have shot himself.  According to Worley, Palm had been shot in the back, “about one inch on the right side of the spine, three inches above the small of the back.”


The Mansfield Herald, 30 JAN 1879

The Trial

The jury found two indictments against Bowersox.  One charge was for murder in the first degree, and one of two counts, viz: Shooting at with intent to kill and shooting at with intent to wound.  For 9 months Bowersox set in jail awaiting trial and, on January 13, 1879, the trail began in Mansfield, Ohio.  Bowersox’s attorneys argued he held no malice in his heart against Palm and it would have been impossible for the bullet fired from Bowersox’s revolver to hit Palm.   Family and friends testified that Palm was not in the habit of carrying a gun and the one he had received from his brother, after his death, was locked in a chest unless he was travelling long distances.  Bowersox also claimed he had shot into the platform to scare off Coffee, who he claimed was the source of stone throwing.  Bowersox also testified he heard two additional shot before Coffee came to the door to report Palm was shot.  Bowersox claimed Palm was shot by one of his companions.  On January 24, 1879, a verdict was reached and Bowersox was found not guilty.  According to the Richland Shield and Banner, this was the expected outcome, but many had hoped for a different result.

Samuel P. Bowersox later moved, with his wife, to a farm south of Loudonville, OH.  The incident left a sour taste in the mouths of Butler and Richland County residents.  In Grahams History of Richland County from 1880, he states that Butler will not allow “any saloon to exist in the place” and, according to Bowersox’s obituary, “the scales which were held by the statue on top of the court dropped” an hour after the verdict was reached.  On May 30, 1915, Bowersox died in Loudonville.  Six month later in December, his wife Elizabeth passed away.


The Mansfield Herald, 16 JAN 1879, pp. 2
The Mansfield Herald, 23 JAN 1879, pp. 1
The Mansfield News. 03 JUN 1915, pp. 4.
Richland Shield and Banner. 06 APR 1878, pp. 2
Richland Shield and Banner, 18 JAN 1879, pp. 3
Richland Shield and Banner, 25 JAN 1879, pp. 3


What happened to Jacob Garver?

On March 2, 1908, Jacob Messmore Garver went missing after leaving a bar in Bellville, Ohio.  The town was in shock and it was one of the most mysterious disappearances in the village to date.  Garver was a respected man, had no known enemies, and his only known flaw was indulging in the drink.   On August 24, 1890, he married Huldah Ellen Bibler in Marion County, Ohio and the couple had 5 children with one on the way.  Garver worked on the farm of Ernest E. Niman about 2 ½ miles from Bellville.  The newspapers during the time of his disappearance say he had a harmonious marriage, provided for his family, and there was no reason he would want to leave.  There was a report from a railroad man that a man fitting Garver’s description had boarded a train that night, but nothing came of the story.

garver marriage

Jacob Garver and Huldah Bibler marriage from Marion County, Ohio

1900 garver census

1900 Census from Cardington, Morrow County, Ohio showing Jacob, Huldah and Children Clifton, Albert and Orpha.

Most residents believed Garver had drunkenly fallen into the Clear Fork River and that the mystery would be solved when the water receded.  That was until March 12 when a day book belonging to Garver was found by Glenn Maglott and Harvey Vaughn in a gulley one-half mile northeast of Bellville.  This brought with it suspicions of foul play, since the book did not appear to have set in the gulley for almost two weeks but was dry and still in good condition.  It was at this point the citizens of Bellville signed a petition in order to ask the county commissioners to assist in the search and offer a reward.  A $400 reward was offered for information leading to the arrest of the individual responsible for the murder of Jacob Garver.

Nothing was found for almost two months.  Huldah Garver, convinced her husband was dead, had sold everything in Bellville and moved back with her parents in Marion.  A woman in the village had a dream of a man being murdered and his body being thrown in a cistern.  The cisterns in the village were checked, but nothing was found.  No new evidence came to light until 62 days later when a body was found in the Clear Fork River “50 yards east of the main street bridge” by James Howard.  The body was found about 18 inches below the surface.  Many residents rushed to see the body as it was hauled to the bank by Dick Wills and Frank Patterson for Coroner Goodman to examine.  Ernest Niman identified the man as Garver.  Garver was buried that night in Bellville Cemetery.

The coroner ruled Garver’s death an accident, but residents of Bellville were not convinced.  Many rumors developed about the incident, including that Garver was found with his skull crushed in and a wire around his leg.  Coroner Goodman denied all of them and no evidence was found to support the idea of murder.  Residents asked the that the body be exhumed and another autopsy be performed, but Goodman denied the request.  Nothing else was discovered, other than a story in early 1909 out of Mt. Gilead where a boy said he was told of Garver’s murder and threatened with death if he repeated it.  The boy claimed the body was hidden under the floorboards of a saloon in the neighborhood before it was deposited in the creek.  The boy had 3 names and it was reported a grand jury would take up the case.  This was believed to be gossip and not collaborated by Richland County officials.

1910 garver census

1910 Census from Grand Prairie, Marion County, Ohio showing Huldah and children Clifton, Albert, Orpha, Blanche, Clarence and Ida.

The true story of Garver’s death was never discovered.  Huldah Garver never remarried and died on April 15, 1919 at the age of 52 and is buried in Grand Prairie Cemetery in Marion County, Ohio.

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.


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.


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


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.

07MAR1925p1 headline

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.

The Murder of Constable Smith

On November 27, 1899, Ezra Moore shot and killed Constable William Smith of Chicago Junction, now Willard, Ohio, and wounded Marshal Conklin of Plymouth about a mile past the Richland County line into Huron County.  The trouble started with $25, which Myron, Ezra’s son, owed to J.W. Webb for a buggy.  Webb sued and received judgement for the $25.  A week before the killing, Marshal Conklin went to Moore’s farm and placed an attachment on the buggy.  Moore had a week to pay or the buggy would be transferred to Webb or sold to pay the debt.  During this meeting, Moore had threatened to kill Conklin and told his son, Myron, to retrieve his shotgun from the house.  Myron refused and Conklin escaped with his life and told Moore he would one day end up in penitentiary for threatening to shoot people.

A week later, Moore and his son failed to show up to Squire Smith’s court in Plymouth at 9 o’clock on the morning of November 27, 1899.  Squire Smith proceeded to call up Constable Smith to have him accompany Conklin to the Moore farm.  According to the Mansfield News, Conklin and Smith arrived about 3 o’clock.  It was foggy and visibility was limited to barely 20 feet.  It was clear Ezra expected them and when Conklin remarked it was foggier than the last time they meet, Ezra replied, “Yes, somewhat.”  Smith next read Moore the warrant for his arrest and said: “Now, I want you to come along without any trouble.” Moore replied “I guess not” and started for the rear of his house.

Moore came around his house with a double barrel shotgun, took aim at Smith, who was no more than 20 feet away, and pulled the trigger.  The shot hit Smith in the left temple and killed him instantly.  He next took aim at Conklin and pulled the trigger, but the noise from the first shot frightened Conklin’s horse and altered Moore’s shot, which only grazed Conklin.  Conklin went to New Haven, Ohio, the closest location with a telephone station, and called up Sheriff Ronk at Chicago Junction to report what had happened.  Dr. Buckingham, who was in the area to see another patient, was first to see Constable Smith and pronounce him dead.

Sheriff Ronk quickly arrived and the search for Moore began.  The house was searched and the shotgun used in the killing was found, along with a large horse-pistol, three other large-caliber pistols and two additional shotguns, all loaded.  They also took a pair of Moore’s trousers in hope they could acquire the bloodhounds from the reformatory, but they were unable to contact them in time and reformatory officials missed the train.  When news reached Chicago Junction, the citizens became excited and grabbed weapons and began searching for Moore.  It was reported if he had been found he would have been “hanged to the nearest telegraph pole.”  The last place Moore was seen that night was in New Washington around 7 o’clock, where he and his son were supposed to have stopped and bought a lantern.  It was suspected Ezra was on his way to Chicago, Illinois where his daughter lived.

It was also reported that Moore was once in a gang with James Fockler, who was previously arrested for counterfeiting.  Most believed Moore just as guilty as Fockler, but he had somehow managed to cover up his connection to the gang.  In addition to Myron and a daughter in Chicago, Ezra Moore had at least one another son, Robert, who was serving time in the reformatory for attempted rape.  Moore’s wife and children refused to say anything about the shooting and said they did not know where he was.

The following day, more than 50 “excited” men were brought together to search for Moore.  They met at his home and began searching.  Progress was slow with the marsh land and weed’s “higher than a man’s head.”  Officials believed Moore escaped through the marsh, hopped a train on the B&O and headed west.  Bloodhounds were brought in, but no scent was found.  A $300 reward had been offered for the capture of Moore and, on December 2, Henry Sells stated he saw Moore near Delaware, Ohio, but two hours passed before word was received by local police and the man was not located.  On Monday, December 4, the reward was increased to $1000.

Numerous sightings were reported to officers, often within feet of apprehending Moore.  December 9 he was spotted in Shelby, Ohio, but he again escaped into the darkness.   On December 18 it was reported Moore was in Wood County, where a former neighbor of Moore’s saw him walking down the street in Bowling Green, Ohio.  He was spotted in Richmond, Indiana in 1901and numerous false reports came in of his capture.  Sherriff C. D. Trimmer even made a trip to Jonesboro, Arkansas in July of 1913 when officials in that area insisted they had arrested Moore.  Moore was never found and, in June of 1925, the reward for his capture was cancelled.


The Mansfield News, 28 NOV 1899, 29 NOV 1899 P. 6, 02 DEC 1899 P. 5, 03 DEC 1899 P. 8, 05 DEC 1899 P. 6,  08 DEC 1899 P. 4,  09 DEC 1899 P. 3, 18 DEC 1899 P. 4, 08 JAN 1900 P. 4, 11 JAN 1900 P. 6, 14 JAN 1900 P. 8, 02 APR 1901 P. 6, 11 NOV 1901 P. 2, 08 JUL 1913 P. 1, 04 JAN 1925 P. 15, 08 JUN 1925 P. 5.