DANVILLE -- The landlady of the boarding house at 502 Market Street in Lima, Ohio, said that Joe Butler had been arguing fiercely with the woman who showed up, claiming to be his wife, on Dec. 10, 1910.
A little after 11 p.m, a gunshot rang out.
Police were summoned, and they called the corner. At 11:30 p.m., Allen County Coroner Pfeiffer pronounced Joseph Butler dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, as witnessed by his wife Mary, or “Mollie,” as she was popularly known.
Mollie's story was interesting.
She said that as the argument with her husband escalated, he grabbed his pistol and shot at her. She fell to the ground and rolled under the bed, “playing dead.”
“I have killed her,” Joe said, “and nobody will ever get me for it.”
He turned the gun on himself and fired. Or at least that's how Mollie told the story.
The coroner accepted it at face value, for the moment, and filled out the paperwork. The Lima chief of police wasn't so sure. After all, the landlady had mentioned one shot, not two. And when the cops examined Butler's pistol, they could only find evidence of one shot being fired. And the one with powder burns was not Joseph, but Mollie, according to the police.
The following morning, Mollie Butler was arrested for the murder of her husband.
Before they became the stars of lurid headlines, Joe and Mollie Butler lived in Buckeye City, now part of Danville in Knox County. By 1910, they seemed an average enough couple in their early 40s, living in their own house, though without children. Joe worked as a machinist, and Mollie worked as a housekeeper.
But what was seething beneath the surface?
The quote in the headline to this story is attributed to Mollie Butler by her friends in Buckeye City, and, frankly, they weren't all that surprised to hear that she had been charged with murder. Mollie E. Butler was notorious in the Danville area for always carrying a revolver on her person, using her stocking as its holster.
We may think of a gun-toting woman threatening to pump people full of lead as a Great Depression-era gangster's moll, maybe even a Bonnie-and-Clyde type scenario. But Mollie Butler was cutting that sort of figure well before World War I in Knox County. Once again, the idea of “simpler, more innocent days” in the past goes out the window on closer examination.
That there was tension in the Butlers' marriage seems obvious. A volatile relationship was further strained by the stress of the disappearance of Mollie's brother, Abner Phillips. Things came to a head in the fall of 1910, when Joe abruptly sold the house they lived in and most of his belongings, and left for parts unknown.
In December, Mollie started receiving letters from Lima, Ohio, that purported to be from her long-lost brother, Abner. He told his sister that he'd had to have his arm amputated and that he needed her to come to Lima and help him. Mollie went, but she did not go unprepared.
From the Allen County jail, she wrote to one of her friends: “I drop you a few lines to let you know what has happened since I left Buckeye. You remember that letter I got from Abner Phillips that he had to have his arm amputated? That man was Joe Butler, who decoyed me here to kill me, but instead of killing me, he killed himself at 11:30 Saturday night. His body is at the morgue. I do not know what disposition will be made of it. Will be home as soon as this is over. God being my judge, He stayed his hand and saved me from his murderous intentions.”
Well, she tells a good story. It's a changing one, though. Now, she was saying that there was only one shot, the one which Butler gave himself after God “stayed his hand.” And though she had talked about these “mysterious letters” from Lima, no one was able to produce one to back up her story.
Did Joe Butler really try to lure his wife to Lima, or did she go there on a hell-bent mission?
Mary Elizabeth “Mollie” Phillips was born in Athens County, Ohio, in 1868. She had been married previously, to a man whose last name was James, but they divorced in an era when divorce was rare and socially shunned.
She had six children in that marriage, four of whom were still living in 1900, when they are listed on the census residing with Joseph and Mary.
Joseph Butler and Mary E. James (nee Phillips) were married on July 27, 1899, in Chillicothe. Joe worked there for the Chillicothe Bottling Works. A few years later, they moved to Knox County, where Joe was employed at the railroad shop in Buckeye City as a machinist. On the 1910 census, the children are no longer living with them, all having reached adulthood. This suggests that Mary was married and having her first children by her mid teens, certainly a hard life.
But what about that “long-lost” brother, Abner? The only Abner Phillips I could find in southeast Ohio was one born to Edmund and Harriet Phillips who had a year-older sister named Maria. If that is him, he lived until the 1930s. If he was lost, it was clearly by choice.
But while “Harriet” does match Mary's mother's name on the marriage certificate, her father's name appears to be “Jno. P.” Phillips. Yet no Jonathan P. Phillips emerges in records as a likely candidate for Mary's father. The paper trail turns cold.
Just four days after Butler's death, the Lima police chief announced that Mary Butler was being discharged while the police investigated new evidence that a third person had possibly been in the room at the time of the shooting, suggesting that perhaps Mollie's motive was jealousy.
And then? The case fizzled and the players dissolved back into the murky depths of obscurity. Butler's death certificate was never changed from the coroner's original ruling of suicide, and if there was a murder, and if Mary “Mollie” Butler pulled the trigger, she got away with it.
Her later whereabouts are unknown.
The house where the death occurred is long gone. A Rite Aid pharmacy sits there today. Joseph Butler is buried, alone, in the Zion Cemetery in Lima.