Murder in the Family

I have always had an attraction to the literature and culture of murder, fascinated by a good whodunit and morbidly curious about tales of psychotic mayhem.

1787 indictment grab02

Cover page of the 1787 prosecutor’s indictment against Stephen Jones, possibly my great-great-great-great-grandfather, for murder in Harford County, Maryland.

I’ve never murdered anyone. (At least, not yet). And I’ve never known anyone murdered, though I did go to high school with a couple of convicted and/or executed murderers. But I’ve been fascinated by murder mysteries and true crime stories about the psychology of the murderer since elementary school. In fact, some of my first inklings as a writer were to writing murder mysteries. In about the third grade, I thought I would grow up and write stories like the Hardy Boys, and I once paid for a subscription to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine by selling TV Guides door-to-door. Edgar Alan Poe was also an early inspiration, and I relished the opportunity to memorize “The Raven” in the seventh grade (I can still recite it, with some prompting).

I later turned to poetry and theater and songwriting for artistry, and eventually to journalism to earn a living. There aren’t that many jobs out there for poets, and the upside to writing for a hometown newspaper is the opportunity to write the stories of my people, the citizens of Hamilton, Ohio, and for 25 years I was immersed in the history and culture of my city as a writer and editor (at various times) for the JournalNews. I never had a desire to cover a courts-and-cops beat, however, preferring to cover the arts and culture, and I frequently wrote about local history.

But in recent years, that interest in murder revived itself in my psyche in the context of history, and an exploration into my family tree last summer seemed to put it in focus, leading me to my current work once my term in local journalism suddenly expired that fall.

Until that summer of 2013, pretty much the only thing I knew about my ancestry was that three of my four grandparents were born in Kentucky, the other in Indiana. All of them moved to Hamilton with their respective families when they were children. There was a lot of that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, families from all parts of Kentucky migrating to work in Hamilton’s factories. Peter Thomson, the founder of Champion Paper (also known as the Champion Coated Paper Company and Champion International at various times, and later Smart Paper before it shut down altogether, but to the people who worked there and their families it was simply “the Champion”) made concerted efforts to recruit farmers and tradesmen from the Appalachian hills of Kentucky because he believed they were hard workers and clever with machines.

The “briarhoppers” knew that working in a paper mill was a damn sight better than working in the coal mines or the uncertainty of having regularly good crops, so they came by the thousands, not only at Thomson’s mill but at the many tool and die companies and foundries in Hamilton. Thomson built neighborhoods for them, including Prospect Hill, where in 1925 Champion employee Francis Lloyd Russell murdered eight members of his family in their sleep.  One of Hamilton’s nicknames–one which some find offensive and some embrace–is “Hamiltucky,” referring to that part of the population. Stanley Dezarn, a local elementary school principal who hated the Hamiltucky nickname, started a club he called “The O’Tucks” about 30 years ago as a social group. They took chartered bus tours to the Kentucky counties and organized an annual Appalachian festival in town. The club still exists, though not as active. Since Dezarn died, it mostly became an annual banquet that raises money for scholarships to the Hamilton campus of Miami University (sort of a stepchild of the “public Ivy League” school 10 miles up the road in Oxford) and naming the “O’Tuck of the Year.” The O’Tucks were mostly the more up-scale folk of Kentucky heritage–the businessmen, educators and politicians.

My family wasn’t quite O’Tucks material, though, but certainly Hamiltuckians. Our group had no formal structure, no meetings, but did have a bad reputation. “Hillbilly” is generally not acceptable in either group, except perhaps when talking about music. Personally, I’m okay with all of it. There are those who want to turn their heads to the unsavory side of our culture, but (obviously, since I’m now writing about our murders) not me. At various times in my career, the O’Tucks have accepted me as an honorary member because of the ink I’ve wielded, but I’m still Hamiltucky at heart.

Another common pejorative term used a lot around here, “briarhopper” (pronounced BRAHR-hopper), referred to anyone actually born in Kentucky, and it was a playful insult to call someone not from Kentucky a briarhopper, a synonym for “ignorant rube,” as long as you smiled when you said it. When I was in elementary school and they told us that Kentucky’s nickname was the Bluegrass State, I said, “Nuh-uh, it’s the Briarhopper State.” That’s what I’d been told.

Having the last name “Jones,” however, I was never much inclined to search my Kentucky heritage, to venture into the brambles of Jones genealogy, as it were. So many Joneses, so many men with same the first names could be treacherous. In fact, there are no fewer than three prominent Richard or Rick Joneses in Hamilton today: The very popular elected sheriff, the director of the local arts center and myself. I also hear of but do not personally know a well-regarded arborist with the same name.

Our lives today are well-documented, but not so much back in the counties of Kentucky. A few years ago, while working on a story for the Hamilton Journal-News with the local Church of the Latter Day Saints, I got into a conversation with my source about the Mormon interest in genealogy. And he more or less confirmed what I suspected: With a last name like Jones, you could take a wrong turn somewhere and spend a lot of time chasing a line that doesn’t really belong to you.

That was before the Internet, however.

Last summer–and only because I could log on to my girlfriend’s premium account on a popular genealogy website–I started plugging in some family names, just to see where it would take me.

It took me to colonial Harford County, Maryland.



I knew that my Grandpa Forrest McClellan Jones–a bartender and a driver for a local florist and therefore fairly well-known around Hamilton as “Frosty”–was born in 1908 in Maysville, Mason County, Kentucky, but grew up in Hamilton. I knew his father was Bert, but not much more than that. He died when my father was a toddler. As I dug into the available on-line archives, I learned that his name was William Bert, and found record of his birth in 1878, in Fleming County, Kentucky, the county just south of Mason County. Bert, his wife Alice Boling Jones (who may be a descendant of Robert Bolling, the man who married the granddaughter of Pocahontas back in colonial Virginia) moved to Hamilton with baby Frosty sometime between 1908 when he was born and the 1910 census.

That line of the Jones family, as far as I can ascertain, was in Fleming County for three or four generations. Bert’s great-grandfather was most likely a fellow named Stephen Jones, but his lineage is a bit questionable. There’s one story that Stephen was born in York, Pennsylvania, and came to Fleming County, Ky. “on the back of his father,” who supposedly killed a man by hitting him on the head with a rock. He took Stephen, leaving a wife and another son in Peach Bottom, Pennsylvania (just across the Susquehanna River from Harford County, Maryland) and fled to Kentucky.

I have found no verification of this story, although a deposition left by his grandson, a transcript of which can be found in the Fleming County Library, said Stephen Jones was born in York, Pennsylvania, just across the Pennsylvania border from Harford County. The better-documented story is that Stephen Jones of Fleming County was married to Sarah Bennington, who was born in Harford County, Maryland, and Stephen shows up in Harford County in 1776 in Bush River Lower Hundred, and in the 1778 census of Deer Creek Middle Hundred in Harford County.

There are, however, a pair of dated indictments issued by the prosecutor and a Grand Jury of Harford County, Maryland in September and August, 1787, charging Stephen Jones with second degree murder. I received copies of these from Harford County Genealogist Christopher T. Smithson as the result of poking around genealogy message boards.

1787 Indictment of Stephen Jones, Harford County, Maryland

1787 Grand Jury Indictment of Stephen Jones, Harford County, Maryland

According to the Grand Jury indictment, Stephen Jones “violently feloniously and of malice aforethought did assault beat murder kill & slay a certain Daniel Buckley by throwing stones in upon the said Daniel Buckley.” The indictment signed by the prosecutor went even further in its condemnation of my great-great-great-great-grandfather: “Stephen Jones late of the county aforesaid (which I take to mean they knew he was on the lam and were indicting a fugitive from justice) not having the fear of God before his eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil on the twenty third day of  April in the year of our Lord seventeen hundred and eighty seven with force and arms at Harford County aforesaid in and upon one Daniel Buckley … then and there being feloniously willfully and of his malice aforethought did make an assault and that the aforesaid Stephen Jones with his fists and with his feet by kicking and striking … the head back sides breast and belly of him the said Daniel  Buckley divers mortal wounds and bruises that each wound and bruise being of the length of four inches and of the breadth of three inches of which said mortal wounds  and bruises the said Daniel Buckley instantly died.”

(I have to wonder what Mr. Buckley did to make Grandpa Steve turn so violent–and how much alcohol was involved.)

So it seems that Stephen Jones, having killed this Daniel Buckley with his fists, feet and a big rock, took his family–which at that time would have included four or five sons–and fled to the part of Bourbon County that would in 1798 become Fleming County, where a family of Benningtons, perhaps some cousins of Sarah, were already residing.

So it would seem that I owe my Kentucky heritage to a man fleeing a murder charge, a rather seedy bit of family history. Now that I know this, I would like to think some DNA memory of that event is what sparked my interest in historical murder.

But it could be even seedier than that.

At this point, I am going to make an extrapolation that may not be a good historical practice, but would make this a better story, as there is a probable connection between Stephen Jones and a Jacob Jones, traced by others to his 1654 birth in Harford County. That seems a little early to me, but there is plenty of documentation of people named Jones arriving in that part of Maryland as early as 1630, and many of them came there on prison ships or as indentured servants. So there’s pretty good chance that my Jones family, perhaps some 12 or 13 generations back, were kicked out of England for crimes unknown. But that’s just a perverse kind of wishful thinking on my part, I suppose.

At any rate, we seem to have settled down some. Now some of us just write about murder.


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