“No history of Hamilton can be complete without reference to the darker side of its annals, and to events which, for a time, cast a sinister shadow over the fair fame of the city…” wrote Stephen D. Cone in the second volume of his 1901 “A Concise History of Hamilton,” the definitive history of the Ohio river city’s first century.
Our city’s history since then, however, shatters the veracity of the rest of Cone’s opening sentence, which reads “…but from which it emerged purified and it has ever since been orderly and law abiding.”
Ridiculous though it may seem now, a quick glimpse into Hamilton’s history can quickly illustrate the sense behind that sentence, so we’ll give Mr. Cone the benefit of a doubt. When he wrote those words, the last indictment for first degree murder in Butler County was in 1884 when George Schneider killed his mother with a rock (the subject of A Two-Dollar Terror #3, “Where’s Your Mother, George?”) so it had been nearly two decades since Hamilton had a good scandalous murder trial.
Cone could not have known, however, that just a year or two after his book would be released, the city would be intently focused on two, count-’em, two wife murders (Sam Keelor, as detailed in #1, “The Sleepwalking Slasher” and Alfred Knapp, book forthcoming*), and that before his new century was out, Hamilton would be the site of three family massacres with 24 victims among them (Lloyd Russell in 1925, Charlie King–A Two Dollar Terror #3: “The Gas Fume Fugitive”, and James Urban Ruppert, whose 1975 Easter Massacre is still fresh in many Hamilton memories, book forthcoming*).
The city of Hamilton, Ohio, the county seat of Butler County, was founded as one of a chain of forts strung along the Great Miami River in the late 18th century as outposts for the Indian Wars and the protection of the Symmes Purchase. So in a way, it started out as a place ripe for murder.
There weren’t any major battles fought around Ft. Hamilton, completed in September, 1791. Indeed, the major function of the fort was the making of hay for an army that ran on horses. Being situated deep in Indian country, however, there was always a threat of danger, and from September, 1791, to December, 1794, at least 31 persons lost their lives in guerilla style attacks on wagon trains and riders coming to and from the outpost. The favor was returned, to be sure, and for a time there was a generous reward for an Indian scalp.
“Murders were frequent and they scarcely obtained a passing remark,” Cone wrote, “unless the victim was someone of note.”
The first recorded bit of depravity among the settlers of Hamilton not related to the Indian Wars was a suicide that happened in June, 1815.
The previous year, a shoemaker named Jacob Foreman, around 50 years old, moved to Hamilton from Canada. Hamilton (population around 500) was then not yet a city, but little more than a collection of cabins, mills and shops clustered around what had once been the fort, and a few farms further out. Foreman was a quiet man, and no one knew much about him, but he seemed a little on the melancholy side. One Saturday his landlord, a Major Murray, hired a farmer named Oliver to bring him a load of wood and asked Foreman to go out to where he was cutting and help load the wagon, which he willingly did. After they loaded the wagon, Oliver started back thinking that Foreman was close behind. But when it came time to unload the wood back at the Murray house, Foreman was nowhere to be found. Murray and Oliver got worried after a while, they then began a search that lasted late into the night. The next morning, every man and boy in the village resumed the search, forming a long line along the river and sweeping east for a mile before reaching the base of what is now called “Poor House Hill”. Searchers found Foreman hidden in the top of an old oak. He was alive and uninjured, but said he had tried at various times during the night to hang himself with a grape vine. Failing in that endeavor, he went to sleep in the tree.
He went home with Murray, washed and shaved himself, and dressed in his best clothes. By supper time he seemed to be in better spirits than he had been for a while. After a night’s rest he was up early the next morning and ate a hearty breakfast.
Shortly after breakfast, he went upstairs, and standing on the landing, deliberately cut his throat from ear to ear, almost severing his head from his shoulders.
With his head apparently dangling by his spinal column, he attempted to walk down stairs and put his hand on the latch to open the door leading to the dining-room. He fell at that moment, rattling the latch then thumping dead upon the floor. The other boarders of the house heard the noise and opened the door to find the horrifying sight.
By the time of his funeral, word had spread throughout the countryside and there was an immense assembly to see him off as he was interred in the Sycamore Grove.
The city’s physicians, however, soon exhumed the body and prepared its skeleton for educational purposes. The skeleton of Jacob Foreman, Hamilton’s first suicide victim, hung for many years in the residence of one of Hamilton’s early physicians.
The first murder indictment issued in Hamilton went to William Summers, who was charged with murdering Isaac Wells on January 6, 1831. There’s not much existing information about the trial, but it must have resulted in a death sentence as Sheriff William Sheely, a gigantic but well-loved fellow, was given the task of building a scaffold for Summers’s execution, but after building the thing, the sentence was commuted to life and his gallows went unused.
The next indictment came in 1834, also resulting in a death sentence, when John Sponsler shot and killed his son-in-law, P. McGlochlan, in a quarrel.
When he was brought to trial, John Woods, a skillful attorney and one of Hamilton’s most prominent early citizens, was assigned to defend him. Despite Woods’ skills as a jurist, Sponsler was found guilty of murder in the first degree, and sentenced to be hung on Friday, June 10, 1836.
Woods having had no luck in securing a new trial for his client, Sheely went about preparing the scaffold again. Woods fought for his client to the bitter end, however, and at the last moment procured a commutation to life imprisonment. Word had already gotten out to the public, however, so on the scheduled day the town was full of men from all around come to see a hanging.
When they found that there would be no hanging, things got ugly and the crowd, full of whiskey and ready to fight, proposed to tear down the jail. Sheely wouldn’t stand for it, however, and organized his allies and placed himself at their head to disperse the mob.
Sponsler’s life sentence didn’t last long, however. Before Sheely was able to transport him to the state penitentiary in Columbus, the discouraged prisoner managed to commit suicide by cutting his throat in his cell.
Our first spouse murderer seems to be John Yargus, who in July, 1849, was in the county jail as the result of a peace warrant sworn out by his wife, Sarah. He was a minor nuisance, so the jailers gave him a certain amount of freedom, allowing him to do chores around the jail and permitting him to sleep in an unlocked room.
Sarah lived in a house near Trenton, about eight miles from Hamilton in the upstairs room of a house owned by a Mr. and Mrs. Miller. In the hot summer night the Millers heard the cry of “Murder!” and a heavy fall upon the floor.
Miller was at first too frightened to go to the rescue, but he summoned up enough courage to go to the window and saw whom he thought was Yargus coming down the outside stairs and go out of the gate.
Sarah Yargus’ body had been badly mutilated with a razor, but the next morning, Yargus was in his bed as usual. Still, the evidence against him was significant, though it seemed a puzzlement as to how he could leave the jail, travel eight miles to his wife’s house, murder her, then travel the eight miles back without being missed or noticed.
He was indicted and found guilty of second degree murder.
The day before he was supposed to be transported to Columbus to begin his life sentence, however, he was found dead in his cell, his throat cut from ear to ear and a razor covered with blood lying by his side, apparently the same razor found in his possession the morning after his wife’s murder, though none of the existing sources explain how he had gotten his hands on the weapon.
When found his head was protruded over the bed side, and a bucket beneath, apparently placed there for the purpose of catching the blood. Although there were two persons in the adjoining cell they didn’t hear a thing night, and knew nothing of it until they saw him dead the next morning.
The Hamilton Telegraph noted that Yargus had previously made a visit of two years to the penitentiary, “and it seems he did not fancy it as a permanent residence; or it may have been that remorse for his wife’s murder was praying upon him, and that he deemed death less terrible than the never ceasing torments inflicted upon him by that worm which never dies.”
There never would be a public hanging in Hamilton, which some press and historians attribute to a vow by John Woods during his fight to save Sponsler to make sure that no man was ever hanged in Butler County, and under his influence a moderate judicial hand prevailed for many years.
There were, however, two invitation-only hangings.
Before George Schneider was the sad, strange case of John Griffin, the proverbial innocent man, wrongly accused.
Griffin was an Irishman by birth, and was 22 years old when was arrested for murder. When he was a small child, he emigrated to the United States with his parents, settling in New Jersey. Shortly after they arrived, however, his mother died and his father Patrick Griffin moved to Hamilton. His father placed the boy with a German family where he could work on their farm and go to school, but eventually rejoined his father on another Hamilton farm owned by John M. Millikin. At 17, Griffin apprenticed himself with the blacksmith Fred Fist, and followed the trade until his execution, opening his own shop on Basin Street (now Court Street) a block or so from the Courthouse.
Although he was “pugnaciously inclined” as befit his prodigious size–“fully six feet in height… a frame of knit iron, like a Hercules,” the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote–people did not think of him as a depraved or vicious person, and Griffin was a popular fellow around town. He was swarthy and boyish, with jet black hair, “straight as an Indian’s”, that he wore long. And he liked to drink, which would get him in trouble from time to time. He was once indicted for second degree murder in the stabbing death of Henry Winkler during a bar brawl, but he was able to enlist as a private in the 74th Ohio Regiment and avoid prosecution. Wounded three times at Jonesboro, John Griffin redeemed himself as a good soldier. He was politically vocal and active when he returned, and was often called upon when a little bit of brute force was necessary to make a point. Consequently, he was not popular with the opposition.
The story of Griffin’s fall begins with a wrestling match, though he was not a contestant.
In the years following the Civil War, Hamilton had already earned a reputation as one of the roughest towns east of the frontier. Hamilton was the stronghold of the “whiskey ring” by virtue of having two distilleries owned by some enterprising fellows who controlled the production and distribution of whiskey throughout the state, consequently drawing a lot of criminal types to town to interact with that wealth.
One of the toughest of the tough guys was Tom McGeahan, a political boss who had a finger in just about everybody’s business in town.
McGehean and his chums in the local liquor industry hired New Jersey wrestler Uzile Prickett, 28, to come to Hamilton in June, 1868, to participate in a match with a local favorite, Tim Waller, believed to be the best in Montgomery and Butler counties. Waller had the backing of the tobacco growers, who thought he was invincible and were ready to back him with their last dollars, of which they had plenty.
Prickett, “a swaggering, hectoring, powerful fellow,” was about 28 years of age and about 5 foot 9 inches tall and of rather light build for a man with a national reputation as a wrestler, but he made himself look bigger by wearing a number of shirts. The coroner took five shirts off him in the postmortem examination.
When Prickett got to town, McGehean’s crew discovered that a professional like Prickett was not averse to throwing a fight if the price was right. So they paid him off and bet heavily on Waller.
The match was had on a Friday afternoon and Waller proved to be an easy victor. Prickett was supposed to have thrown the match, but he was drunk enough, having spent a few days drinking for free in the saloons of the city rather than training, so he would have been an easy win for Waller in any case. A smarter man would have left town right away, but Uzile Prickett stuck around, a big wad of money in his pocket, perhaps hoping to double it by double-crossing the men who had bet against him and robbing them of their winnings. Or maybe he was just having too much fun drinking for free.
At 8 p.m. Friday evening, Prickett entered the Hole in the Wall saloon, already nice and drunk. At 8 a.m. Saturday morning, he was carried out a corpse, a bullet in his head.
Prickett sat in the Hole in the Wall all night while the other men came and went, including the blacksmith John Griffin, a young raconteur named Tom Connaughton, a fellow named Shedd and the banjo player Joe Kelly. Shedd had just left, so Connaughton, Kelly and Griffin were in the only ones in the bar with Prickett when the saloon keeper Galloway and his wife went into the back room. They were there when they heard the pistol shot a few moments later. When they came out, Griffin was alone with the dying Prickett, but he did not have a gun. At least, that’s what the Galloway’s testified.
Witnesses saw Griffin walk into the American Saloon around 2 a.m., drunk out of his mind and wiping blood from a cut in his hand. When called upon to explain himself, he said, “I’ve just had a fight with Prickett and I believe I hit him a little too hard.” Griffin was one of Prickett’s drinking buddies ever since the wrestler came to town, and Griffin was upset that his new friend did not put up a better fight, but they still had been drinking together.
The following morning, Griffin was arrested as he worked in his Basin Street blacksmith’s shop. Connaughton, Shedd and Kelly were arrested as well, but released one by one in subsequent days.
After a number of delays in seating a Grand Jury, Griffin was indicted in October and tried for murder the week of Feb. 22, 1869.
The trial generated great interest and the courtroom was crowded to capacity every day. There was no evidence against Griffin except for his own drunken recollections corroborated by an equally drunk Joe Kelly.
Joe Kelly had tried to run off to avoid testifying at the trial, but was arrested and taken to the trial by the sheriff.
In his testimony, Kelly said that between 11 p.m. and midnight, he left the Globe Saloon and went down to the Hole in the Wall accompanied by George Shedd. When they got there, it was occupied only by Prickett and the bar-keeper. Shortly after Griffin and Connaughton came in. Griffin treated the crowd and then Connaughton did, Prickett drinking both times. Both Griffin and Connaughton then left the saloon. They returned soon and again departed. Shedd left a short time after. Griffin returned for the third time to the saloon, this time alone.
That put Prickett, Griffin and Kelley in the bar alone. Prickett was sitting with his back to the rear part of the saloon, leaning back in his chair between two tables. Kelley was playing the banjo.
“All at once,” said Kelley, “Griffin came up to Prickett hit him first with his left hand and then with the right, then pushed out his right fist against Prickett. Then I heard a pistol shot. Prickett’s head fell back on the table. Griffin went out about a minute after the shooting and remained out some moments. When he came back he took hold of my banjo. I had gone back to speak to the bar-keeper’s wife. I came back into the room, took the banjo, and went upstairs into the street Griffin following me. I said to Griffin at the head of the stairs, ‘This is a bad night’s work.’ He said, ‘If you do not think he is dead I will go and give him another.’ I then went after Dr. [Cyrus] Falconer. Griffin went with me, and was standing back of me when I spoke to the doctor. I then went to my room, put away my banjo, and returned to the saloon… At the time the shot was fired no one was in the room save Prickett, Griffin, and myself. I am confident I saw the butt of a pistol in Griffin’s hand.”
The defense introduced an abundance of witnesses who declared Kelly was a man of the most disreputable character and they would not believe him under oath.
The jury took five hours to reach a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree.
Defense made a motion for a new trial, which was denied, so on Friday, March 5, 1869, John Griffin was brought into court to hear his sentence. After the obligatory question “Do you have anything to say?” Griffin proclaimed his innocence.
The judge sentenced him to be hanged between the hours of 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Thursday, May 27.
The Ohio Supreme Court granted him a reprieve, however, until it would meet again on June 30, which it did and sustained the judgment of the Common Pleas Court, setting July 29 as the new day for the execution of Griffin.
Petitions to the governor went for naught, although he said he gave the case a close study, and as the day grew near, Griffin still proclaimed his innocence and plotted a desperate move. His allies couldn’t save him from the outside, so he made a move to gain his freedom from within.
At 4 p.m. Wednesday, July 21, the Rev. Charles Hone, pastor of St. Mary’s Church, visited the prisoner in his cell on the left hand side of the main entrance. Griffin was always kept securely locked up, while the other 14 prisoners had the liberty of the connecting hall.
Father Hone was a frequent visitor to the jail and the turnkey, a man named Bayless, let him in without ado. After Griffin and Hone spoke for a short time, Bayless let him out, putting the key in his pants pocket. A deputy’s wife opened the door to the outside for them, Hone a step ahead of the turnkey. As they approached the door, Griffin made a motion with his hand, which caught the Bayless’ attention. As he turned around, all 14 prisoners rushed for him, knocking him to the ground and reaching into his pockets to get the key.
The deputy’s wife had the presence of mind to slam the door shut and sound an alarm bell, trapping Griffin inside.
The prisoners failing to get possession of the key then made a rush to the door, four of them–a horse thief, a brawler and two thieves–making their escape.
The alarm woke up the entire city, and hundreds of men came running to join in the pursuit. Within 15 minutes, the prisoners were captured and returned to their cells.
They kept a closer eye on Griffin after that. While the prisoner was getting a shave and a haircut on the day before his scheduled execution, a search of his cell turned up a razor blade.
Around dusk before his final day, workers began building a gallows in the southeast corner of the jail, the corner diagonally opposite Griffin’s cell.
The sound of their hammering grated on Griffin’s nerves, who was seeing a visitor at the time.
“You see they are fixing my machine,” he said.
Accounts called it “a very rude piece of workmanship,” an 8-foot by 5-foot platform five feet — eight stairs — from the floor.
Although the execution was a ticketed event, people started gathering around the jail as early as 8 a.m. on the assigned day.
Extra guards were placed at each gate and patrolmen stayed close to the jail to assuage the surges that took place anytime anyone exited the building.
The jail was closed to everyone except friends of the prisoner, the city officials, clergy and the press, who were each given a card for admission.
At 10:30 a.m., three Catholic priests, including the Rev. Hone, joined the prisoner in earnest conversation and prayer. At 11:40, the undertaker brought a coffin draped in black velvet and mounted with a silver crucifix into the jail room, and at the same time, two deputies brought Griffin from his cell and escorted him to the gallows. The prisoner’s hands were tied in front and he held a black walnut crucifix during his long walk. The deputy’s voice broke as he read the death warrant, but Griffin stood quietly gazing down at the coffin which had been cruelly placed directly in front of the scaffold.
Immediately after a reading of the death warrant, the sheriff asked the dying man if he had anything to say.
Griffin turned directly toward the spectators and said, in part, “Gentlemen, I am here in a place I never expected to be. I am not able to make a speech, and not very willing. I never had an idea that I would come to the scaffold. It is by such cowardly testimony as Kelly’s, a man who was in jail at the time, and Shedd and Galloway, if they had kept them in also, they would have told on themselves. Kelly came to me in jail and said he was as much to blame as I. I am not guilty.”
When he finished, the Rev. Hone gave the prisoner a final blessing and raised the crucifix hanging around his neck for him to kiss.
After a deputy adjusted the noose, Griffin said, “I bid you all goodbye. I hope to meet you in a better world. Farewell.”
The deputy put the white cap upon Griffin’s head. Standing on the trapdoor Griffin shouted, “Sheriff, I am ready,” and as if that were the cue, the sheriff sprung the trapdoor without hesitation.
As the rope stretched under Griffin’s bulky weight, his feet nearly touched the pavement. Still, the drop broke his neck and killed him instantly, with barely a twitch of the muscles. His body spun around a moment, his hands still clutching the crucifix, then slowly went still as the room stayed silent for 10 minutes before a team of doctors checked to be certain of his death, and they let him down.
The rope would not see service again in Butler County again for 17 years when it would be tied around the neck of George Schneider for killing his mother.
This would have ended the case, but there was much doubt as to Griffin’s guilt and the possible political motivations behind a frame-up, and a group of attorneys and private citizens continued the investigation, which uncovered enough evidence to safely say in retrospect that Griffin did not kill Uzile Prickett, but was set up for the fall.
According to testimony and other information collected too late for Griffin’s redemption, Prickett had over $800 in his pocket after the wrestling match was over, a considerable take for a lost fight, but had not a cent on him when the body left the Hole in the Wall the next morning.
Those who had lost on their bets were determined to get their money back, and shot Prickett, taking his roll and placing him in a posture where his head was resting on a table as if he were passed out drunk–not an unlikely scenario.
Griffin came in “inflamed by drink,” and at the instigation of others to wake up the wrestler, struck Prickett a tremendous blow on his head with his fist without realizing the man was already an hour or more dead. Afterwards he went away in a drunken stupor with the impression that he had really killed his man, and his counsel could not prove otherwise.
I have two full-length books nearing completion and looking for a publisher: “The Strangler Knapp: Ohio’s Confessed Serial Killer” and “The Easter Massacre: The Murder of the Ruppert Family”.
Blount, Jim, “The Road to Fort Hamilton,” privately published; Hamilton, Ohio, 1976.
Cone, Stephen D., “A Concise History of Hamilton, Ohio,” Volume II, Press of George Mitchell, 1901.
Cincinnati Enquirer: The mystery of Uzile Prickett, June 18, 1868; The gallows in Butler County, July 30, 1869.
Fort Wayne (Indiana) Daily Gazette: Execution of John Griffin for the murder of Uriel Prickett, July 31, 1859.
Hamilton Telegraph: A woman by the name of Sarah Yargus, July 12, 1849; The way of the transgressor is hard, Oct. 18, 1849; A strange story of crime, May 28, 1869.
A History and Biographical Cyclopaedia of Butler County Ohio, With Illustrations and Sketches of its Representative Men and Pioneers, Cincinnati Ohio. Western Biographical Publishing Company, 1882.
New York Herald: Execution of John Griffin at Hamilton Ohio, July 30, 1859.