The last time I did a talk for the amazing 'Elixir Presents' Chautauqua Series in Mount Vernon, members of the audience specifically requested me to look into the infamous murder that happened on the grounds of the Maplehurst mansion in 1905.
To fulfill my promise, I'll be returning to the Chautauqua Series on on Halloween night (Thursday) at 7 p.m., to present my findings.
As a prelude to that, I thought I'd do a column looking at the earlier history of the Maplehurst mansion, which has some amazing tie-ins to national as well as local history.
The story starts with the wide-ranging career of Catherinus Putnam Buckingham, who had the grand house built for his family around 1860, according to research by historian Lorle Porter. Buckingham, born in Zanesville in 1808, was the grandson of famed Revolutionary War general (and Ohio pioneer) Rufus Putnam.
Following his grandfather's example of military service, Buckingham went to the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, where one of his best friends was classmate Robert E. Lee. They both did well, Lee graduating second in the class, and Buckingham sixth. Buckingham stayed on, first doing topographical work for the Army, then serving as in instructor himself at West Point, teaching “Natural and Experimental Philosophy” in 1830 and 1831.
Buckingham then returned to Ohio and struck out on his own, securing a job at Kenyon College as professor of both mathematics and natural philosophy, continuing that until 1836. In the following decade, he served briefly as mayor of Mount Vernon before turning his attention to the creation of the Kokosing Ironworks, a successful business he ran for over a decade.
In 1861, Buckingham must have been deeply troubled by his former classmate Robert E. Lee's decision to become a general for the seceding Confederate States of America, for Buckingham joined the fight on the Union side, entering as an Assistant Adjutant General for the Ohio Commissary.
He was soon upgraded to Adjutant General, then later moved to the U. S. Army as a Brigadier General. In that position, he was given the unpleasant job of delivering the order to Major General George B. McClellan relieving him of command in November of 1862 after McClellan failed to pursue Lee's army after the tactically inconclusive northern victory at the Battle of Antietam.
Perhaps that experience with power politics (McClellan being an outspoken critic of President Abraham Lincoln) soured Buckingham on the war, for he resigned his position and returned to private business, moving to Chicago in 1864 and selling Maplehurst to Mount Vernon businessman George B. Potwin. Buckingham continued to be busy in Chicago the rest of his life, rebuilding the Illinois Central grain elevators after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.
George B. Potwin's family traces back to Boston silversmith John Potwine. George was his great-great-grandson, born in Vermont in 1827. Some time in the 1830s, George's parents David and Emily moved the family to frontier Ohio, where David set up a store in Mount Vernon. By the 1850 census, David Potwin's property is valued at $15,000, a handsome sum in those days.
Our resident economics maven here at History Knox, Mount Vernon Nazarene University professor Timothy G. Chesnut advises that this figure doesn't necessarily tell the whole story.
“I calculate that his 1850 property would be valued today slightly under $500,000,” Tim said. “One important point is that you are talking about his property. That is not the same as his net worth.
"Property is an asset. What we do not know is the value in 1850 of his debts. Assets less debts equals a person's net worth.”
So, we don't know David Potwin's net worth, but this figure is large enough to suggest that he was a major businessman in Mount Vernon at the time.
David Potwin's store was on the corner of South Main and Gambier Streets, in a building that had previously been known as the Golden Swan Inn. That building in its early years had served as a temporary home for the Knox County courts before a permanent courthouse was built. It also served as the meeting site for the Thespian Society, proving that the arts came quickly to the frontier.
Interestingly, though he's only 23 in 1850, George B. Potwin has already established his own store at One Main Street, on the square in a large building the county legend dubbed “The Kremlin” because of its supposed resemblance to the fortress in Russia. By 1870, David has passed on, and George is the undisputed king of produce sellers in Mount Vernon with real estate valued at $70,000 and personal estate at $30,000. By this time, he had multiple stores in the area, including one in Danville, which he later sold to one of his assistants. Many of the following generation of Mount Vernon's shopkeepers got their start in Potwin's stores.
By 1870, Potwin and his much younger wife Nannie — he was 44, she only 22 — were living at Maplehurst with four servants, a retired physician named George Bennett (possibly Nannie's father?) and a woman named Luticia Ogilvie with a three-year old named Nannie (likely a sister and niece) living there, too.
Because of his produce businesses, Potwin was one of the largest railroad shippers from Mount Vernon.
N. N. Hill's history says, “It was not unusual for him to ship in this way at one time fifty barrels of eggs and a hundred firkins of butter to the New York market.” A firkin is equal to about 11 gallons.
George Potwin was the president of the Knox County Agricultural Society, which put on the county fairs, from 1866 to 1870. It was noted that 1866's fair wasn't very good because of the “almost incessant rain” that year, which made many crops fail.
The following year was a grand success, thanks to vigorous new organization and promotion led by Potwin. Weather ruined the oat and barley crop in 1868, while 1869 roared back with displays featuring Spanish Merino sheep and long-haired sheep, both new to Knox County, one of the U. S. centers for sheep production at the time.
The 1870 fair was pronounced the best Knox County Fair up to that time. Potwin's health must have begun faltering at this time, for he leaves the society and fills out his will in 1871. The Caldwell & Starr Atlas published that year labels Maplehurst at Potwin's residence, showing the numerous paths through the grounds, as well as numerous trees, presumably the maples that gave the place its name.
George B. Potwin died in 1872. Nannie outlived him for many years, later remarrying. She may have found Maplehurst expensive to maintain on her own, for she sells it to businessman Frank L. Fairchild some time in the 1880s or 90s.
Frank L. Fairchild was born in Brownhelm, in Lorain County, in 1843. Though he grew up on a farm, his family was very involved with education, three of his uncles being college presidents. Frank himself went to Oberlin College. After the war, he married Sarah Thatcher from Litchfield, Ohio, and moved to Mount Vernon to work at the C. & G. Cooper Company.
Within three years, he had been made a partner. From 1869 to 1878, he was in Chicago overseeing the company's operations there, but he returned after that and was eventually made president of the company.
Fairchild was also heavily involved in community projects, serving as trustee of the Water Works, becoming one of the founders of the public library and president of it, too.
“...[N]o man has a cleaner record or is more highly respected than he,” said The Biographical Record of Knox County, Ohio, published in 1902. He lived happily at Maplehurst with his wife and several children, and a handful of servants.
Their idyllic life was to come to an abrupt and bloody end on the evening of Saturday, April 22, 1905, when the Fairchilds' servant Miranda Bricker was attacked and murdered on the front lawn of Maplehurst while the family and other servants slept inside, unawares. Frank L. Fairchild himself lived another seven years before he passed away at the age of 69.
The family home passed on to other family members. In later years, the building declined and sat empty for a time before it was torn down around 1970, a grand part of Mount Vernon history, forever lost.
I will talk about the murder and its aftermath at the Elixir Presents Chautauqua Series on Thursday, Oct. 31, at 7 pm, in the conference room on the lower level of the Grand Hotel on the square in Mount Vernon. See you there!