BLADENSBURG -- Digging recently into the history of the tiny southeastern Knox County town of Bladensburg, I came across an intriguing murder case, completely forgotten today.
Like so many cases, it was opened and shut quickly, only to fall apart on closer inspection.
Sarah Jane Hess, 67, lived on the edges of Bladensburg in the house that she had shared with her husband Jeremiah, who made a living as a jeweler in the late 1800s, when Bladensburg was active enough to support such a business.
Jeremiah was a veteran of the Civil War, so when he passed in 1897, not only did he leave a little money and property to his wife, she also received a widow's pension. This meant that she had the reputation in Bladensburg of being comfortably well-off.
Late on Sunday, March 11, 1901, Hess attended a service at the Disciple Church and chatted with friends before and after the service. Afterward, she and her neighbor Elizabeth Fowls walked home together, parted, and went into their houses.
Early Monday morning, Fowls looked out the window and noticed that there wasn't any smoke coming out of Sarah Hess' chimney. If she hadn't started a fire that cool morning, it could only mean that she was ill.
Fowls bundled herself up and stepped to the house next door. She knocked. There was no answer.
Fowls called out for her friend, but heard only silence. She tried the kitchen door and found it unlocked. She opened the door and stepped into the room. For several seconds, she stood there, not making a sound, because she was having trouble processing what her eyes were seeing.
Sarah Jane Hess lay on the floor, her legs curled up behind her, her arm raised up in a futile attempt to protect herself from a blow so vicious, it had caved in her skull. Blood was everywhere.
As soon as she could process the reality, Fowls screamed and ran to get her husband. Within moments, most of the residents of the small town were gathering to see what the matter was. As the crowd heard the details and talked, they were surprised that one person, the proprietor of the barbershop on the bottom floor of the house on the other side of Sarah Hess' house, was not among them.
That man, John W. Houck, popularly known as George, was Hess' nephew by marriage. Even once people went into his barbershop and told him what had happened, he declined to go view the scene.
Sheriff Hoy Lynde was summoned from the Knox County Jail. He and his detectives determined that Hess had been struck with a piece of wood grabbed from the Fowls' woodpile next door. Though robbery was assumed to be the motive, nothing seemed to be missing from Hess' residence, and she was still carrying $245.75, a considerable amount of money in those days, on her person.
If the motive had been robbery, the robber lost his nerve.
One thing the sheriff did before leaving Mount Vernon was to place a call to the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, which had its own set of bloodhounds. By 11 a.m. Monday morning, the bloodhounds were in Bladensburg, and were immediately put to work. The hounds picked up a trail and followed it to the river, then returned to the Hess house. Three times after that, they tried to follow a trail and lost it. Finally, they picked up a trail.
It lead to George Houck's house next door. Houck, unlike most of his neighbors, had not been out following the commotion, but instead had stayed inside his barbershop, closing down around noon because he said he had a headache. At one point, one of the investigators came over and asked to examine Houck's boots, which they took with them.
Nothing happened immediately, as the sheriff and his detectives, including Thomas Foster, brought up from Columbus for assistance, conferred Monday evening to build their case.
First thing Tuesday morning, George Houck was arrested and taken to the Knox County Jail in Mount Vernon.
The trial began in June, and it went quickly. The state's witnesses testified that the usually sociable Houck avoided the crowds during the investigation into his aunt's murder and that he seemed nervous.
His boot print was cited as fitting perfectly into tracks around the Sarah Hess house, and it was also noted that Houck had some spots of blood on his clothes. The testimony about the bloodhounds leading to Houck's back stairs made the strongest impact.
In defense of Houck, the attorneys produced witnesses who testified to Houck having had a nosebleed a day or two before the murder, which could account for the blood. Houck's wife Dora testified that her husband had been at home all evening, except for the brief time when he went down the street with their daughter Dempsey to Donahay's store to buy some oysters for a late dinner.
Ten-year old Dempsey testified that her father accompanied her as far as the corner to buy the oysters, but gave her money and pointed her to the store, returning home while she ran the errand.
This left a brief window of opportunity, and the jury decided that the circumstantial evidence, combined with Houck's generally stony indifference to what was being said in the trial, made a convincing case against him.
Interestingly, though, while the state was pushing for a first-degree murder conviction, and the judge instructed the jury to deliberate just that, when they returned after three hours of deliberation, they jury brought back a verdict of guilty of murder in the second degree.
While the defense appealed the verdict, the conviction stood and Houck was sent off to the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, ostensibly for life. Houck's brother Lewis B. Houck refused to give up, though.
He was an attorney, who was soon hired to be a personal assistant to Ohio Governor John Pattison. Pattison died in office in 1906, and was succeeded by Andrew Harris. Houck made Harris aware of the case and asked the state parole board to review the case.
The parole board reviewed that case in December of 1907, dismissing the blood evidence as inconclusive, and Houck's supposed indifference as irrelevant, as others had pointed out that Houck actually broke down and sobbed when his 10-year old daughter Dempsey took the stand.
The bloodhounds were demonstrated only to be one year old at the time of the trial and very possibly insufficiently trained. Even the Ohio State Reformatory seemed dubious about the bloodhounds, having sold them to the Dayton Police Department just a year after the Hess case.
The board voted unanimously to recommend George Houck to Governor Harris for pardon (though the conviction was never overturned). Harris issued the pardon immediately.
“I am going to Denver, Colorado,” Houck said as a reporter spoke to him as he left the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus on Dec. 30, 1907. “There I can start anew.”
To another reporter, Houck was said to have mused about going to Oklahoma. In the end, the only records I was able to find showed Houck and his wife living for a time in Illinois before returning to Ohio, where George Houck died in Van Wert in 1916 at the age of 52.
No one else was ever brought to justice for the murder of Sarah Jane Hess. Was Houck truly innocent?
It's hard to say. The bloodhound tracking was not good evidence, because as Hess' nephew, it would hardly have been rare for him to have walked between the two adjacent houses. And even if his boots did match the tracks outside her house, again, he had reason to be there regularly.
His unemotional demeanor throughout the trial also proves nothing, as people have strange and various ways to respond to such situations. His outburst of emotion when seeing his daughter testify could be a moment of true emotion. It could also be guilt, if Houck was of a reasonably standard mindset — in that scenario, the lack of robbery could be a result of a pang of conscience hitting him after committing the act.
On the other hand, if Houck was what today would be described as a borderline personality — popularly known as a sociopath — the emotion during his daughter's testimony could have been a carefully planned show. In this scenario, perhaps the likelihood is not that he wished to rob his aunt, but rather for some unknown reason nursed a grudge against her and killed her for that reason.
A murder scenario leaves a surprisingly narrow window of opportunity, if Dora and Dempsey Houck's testimonies are to be believed. That opens the possibility that George Houck himself did not actually commit the murder. Perhaps he hired someone to do the deed for him, and merely went to check that
the deed was done while his daughter was buying oysters. This might explain the track to the river which the dogs initially followed. A perpetrator could have waded into the river to lose his scent, emerging elsewhere along its banks. Not a strong likelihood, considering the cold of the season, but not impossible.
What today would either convict or exonerate Houck was the blood evidence, because today it could be tested with forensic tools, which could confirm whether the blood on his clothes was hers or his.
Lacking that key information, it is impossible to say for sure whether or not George Houck was guilty of the murder of Sarah Jane Hess.