EXCERPT: “The Gas Fume Fugitive”

The amnesiac barber

On October 23, 1930, the Lake County Sheriff’s Department in Northern Ohio received a tip regarding the whereabouts of Charles King, a man wanted for the murder of his family.

Charles King

Charles King

The anonymous man, who said he was from Celina, Ohio, near King’s hometown of Coldwater, spotted Charles King on the streets of Fairport Harbor, a small Lake Erie village not far from Painesville.

While visiting Lake Erie College in Painesville, the man was making a side trip to Freeport Harbor when saw the barber walking along a street wearing dark colored glasses. Fearing that King would recognize him if he approached, the man talked a friend into trailing King to find out where he lived. King led him to George Paul’s Barber Shop, where he was apparently working as second chair.

The Lake County Sheriff telephoned the police in Hamilton, Ohio, where King had allegedly gassed his family, to inform them of the tip. Hamilton Police Department Detectives Robert Leonard and Oscar Decker and Officer Herschel Haines made a trip to Celina on Sunday to speak to the man who said he saw King. They could not find him, however, and their automobile broke down on the way home, so they were forced to take a train. Leo and Rosie King, Charlie King’s brother and sister-in-law, were also on the train, returning from visiting his mother in Lima. They all regarded it as a peculiar coincidence.

Hamilton Daily News October 28, 1930

Hamilton Daily News
October 28, 1930

Early Monday morning, Hamilton Police Chief John C. Calhoun wired Fairport authorities and description of King and ordered that the man be held for questioning.

To make positive that no odd twist of fate would allow King to escape the dragnet that had been built over the last year, Calhoun stationed officers in barber shops in Hamilton in the event the fugitive planned to surprise authorities by taking leave of Fairmont Harbor and dive into the very heart of the investigation on the theory he would escape unnoticed.

At 3 p.m. that afternoon, Lake County Sheriff deputies arrested a barber whose union card bore the name “J.W. Thomas” while he was shaving a local undertaker in a two-chair barber shop in the lakeside village. Thomas firmly denied that his name was King or that he ever lived in Hamilton, but did not resist arrest. He spoke in a rambling, incoherent way, but the deputies pieced together that he had lost his memory and some motion in his right side from a stroke several months earlier. He said he could not remember his past life nor any deaths of his family.

“If I am the one whose wife and children were gassed, I am glad to find out who I am,” he said.

Arresting officers told him he had one boy living.

“What do you think of that!” he replied as if astonished. “A boy living!”

Leonard, Decker and Haines–the trio of officers who worked untiringly on the case over the weekend without sleep–left Hamilton at 4 p.m. and arrived in Fairport at 1 a.m. Tuesday morning.

The King Family

The King Family

The Hamilton police were certain they had the right man this time. His image matched the photos and the complete description that the Hamilton officers brought with them. King had “exceptionally bad teeth,” a flat nose, dark hair and dark eyes. This man was the right weight, height and complexion. And he had a cyst near the top of his forehead, about two inches long and visible when his hair was not combed over it.

The barber continued to deny he was Charlie King. He told the Hamilton officers the same as he told the deputies: He was not married, had no children, did not remember if he had a mother living and had never been in Hamilton but could remember something about Coldwater.

Officer Haines showed him photographs of his family, but he said he didn’t recognize them. He said he’d been wandering the country when he had a lapse of memory. He said he remembered being in Elkhart, Indiana, where he met a family named Thomas. The man was out of work, but wore fine clothes. King lived with them for four or five weeks and they took him to Pittsburgh. They told him he could use their name, so when he applied for a union card in Geneva, New York, he did.

The barber said came to Fairport on Oct. 17, 1930. He obtained work in the shop and had been living in a room above.

He said he was not sure but thought he had a son living because that’s what the deputies told him.

Click here to read the rest of “The Gas Fume Fugitive” and see how a wily chief of police got “Thomas” to change his story….


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