MOUNT VERNON -- No period of Knox County's history was more volatile than the extraordinary period of seven months in 1905 where the county saw five murders, two assaults, a suicide, and an accidental death that made international news.
One of the murders was especially disturbing because it took the life of Knox County Sheriff James C. Shellenbarger, the only holder of that office to die in the line of duty. Also troubling was the sheer futility of the situation which took his life.
A perennial issue in our society is how best to deal with people who suffer from the inability to behave rationally due to mental illness. When people are institutionalized and forgotten, their lives can become nightmares of virtual imprisonment.
But there are certainly situations where people who are dangerously volatile can be harmful to those around them.
Frank Hildreth was one such person. Or perhaps we should say “Frank Coile,” the alias he sometimes used. He shows up in the 1870 census report living with John and Caroline Hildreth, who were nearing 50 years in age — in those days, an advanced age for childbirth.
In fact, it appears that they were foster parents or perhaps only temporarily housing the boy, because Graham's 1881 history of Knox County talks about the Hildreth family as pioneers of Miller Township and lists Frank E. Hildreth has having been born April 19, 1868, to Albert and Jennie Hildreth, their only child.
Graham even makes a statement about the 13-year old Frank: “...(He) is an intellectual, promising boy.”
Yet, in addition to his later troubles, we also know that a much later newspaper report describes Frank visiting his foster mother, Jennie Hildreth, after he is released from prison. Whatever intellect and promise he may have had, it was seriously cracked by an underlying instability, which seems to go all the way back to his earliest foundation. Perhaps Coile was his biological parents' name and the Hildreth family took the unwanted boy in by adoption.
Whatever his parentage, Frank Hildreth explosively re-enters the pages of history at age 21, on April 22, 1891, by shooting a police constable. Hildreth was said to have had a romantic interest in a 17-year-old girl named Dora Ann Clements who lived in Bangs. When Dora's grandmother, Eliza Clements, refused to let the young man visit her granddaughter, Hildreth attacked the 80-year old woman and began choking her.
In response to the situation, Dora attempted suicide by swallowing a dose of iodine. A newspaper report states that Dora swore she'd do it again if she recovered. While this does not appear to have immediately happened, the unhappy young woman died just four years later, in 1895, and is buried in Bird Cemetery.
Hildreth evidently fled the scene of the assault on Eliza Clements, but was reported. Constable George W. Walter went to the Hildreth home in northwest Miller Township with a warrant to arrest young Frank. Hildreth responded by shooting the constable and fleeing. Constable Walter's wound was not serious, but when Hildreth was captured, he was placed under an $1,800 bond.
It seems likely that Hildreth would have served some time, but if he was tried and convicted of the crime, no trace has survived from period newspaper reports.
The next time his name crops up is in 1893, when Frank is listed on the bill for a public boxing match to take place at Dean's Gymnasium Room on Main Street in Mount Vernon on Christmas night. He and George Botkins were scheduled to fight for four rounds. Admission was 50 cents per ticket.
The situation which would escalate Hildreth's name to infamy began on May 30, 1905, when, according to news reports, Hildreth was “bested” by a relative named May Hildreth. No further information is given about what this term means. Perhaps it means she beat him in some sort of game, or perhaps she verbally bested him in an argument.
What we do know is that Frank's response was out of proportion: He said that if May told anyone about her besting him, he'd shoot her.
May Hildreth went into Mount Vernon on May 31 and filed a complaint with Mayor S. R. Gotshall, who called in the sheriff. Judging by the fact that the sheriff decided to arrest Frank on a charge of assault, it is implied that Frank's behavior toward his relative included more than just words.
The sheriff headed south out of Mount Vernon, accompanied by Deputy Graham, and attempted to arrest Frank at the Hildreth farm northwest of Brandon.
One wonders if Sheriff Shellenbarger was aware of Hildreth's earlier incident resisting arrest.
In any case, events played out similarly this time, only now Hildreth had a more powerful gun (.44 caliber), and better aim than 14 years earlier. The attempted arrest quickly turned into a gun battle between Hildreth and the lawmen.
Shellenbarger was hit in the shoulder and side as Hildreth emptied his gun at the lawmen. As he slumped to the ground, Shellenbarger took several return shots at Hildreth, as did Deputy Graham. But both men were thrown off by the sheriff's collapse, and couldn't land any shots.
Hildreth ran into the nearby woods and started making his way south. Bloodhounds were brought in to track the fugitive. Over the next two days, the hounds followed a track all the way down into Licking County before they lost the trail. Hildreth had doubled back into Knox County, and on the morning of the third day, he turned himself in to a neighbor, who drove him up to Mount Vernon to surrender to the police.
Sheriff Shellenbarger had been badly wounded by the bullet in his side, which hit vital organs before becoming deeply wedged inside his body.
Dr. John H. Nichols of Mansfield was called in to consult. Dr. Nichols brought his newfangled x-ray machine down to Mount Vernon and used it to locate the bullet. The patient, unfortunately, was too weak for the doctors to do surgery to remove the bullet, so they waited to see if he could recover. For the next four months, Shellenbarger lingered.
When his condition began to deteriorate further in October of 1905, the doctors decided they had no choice but to operate. They found the bullet. But they also found that Shellenbarger was riddled with infection. The sheriff died on Oct. 3, aged only 41 years. He left behind a wife and two children.
Hildreth's charge was upgraded from assault of a law officer to murder in the first degree. In an astonishing twist that happened before the trial, a fuse and a box of dynamite was found one morning outside the home of Shellenbarger's brother Jarvis, who was expected to testify in the trial.
Someone had clearly planned to blow Jarvis and his family sky-high, but their plot had failed because of rainy weather that night. The perpetrator was never discovered. The trial went on, as planned, and Frank Hildreth was found guilty of manslaughter by a jury, who delivered their verdict exactly one year after the shooting.
He was sentenced to 18 years of hard labor in the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus. By 1912, members of Hildreth's family had begun trying to get him released. Interestingly, in 1917, Hildreth was not paroled, but outright pardoned. Perhaps it had been recognized by this point that Hildreth was not a stable individual, and not entirely responsible for his own actions because of his mental condition.
That became more clear in 1921, when Hildreth was committed to the Lima State Hospital on grounds of insanity. After a few months of treatment, the asylum released him, but he moved to Dayton instead of returning to Mount Vernon, where the local prosecutor had threatened to go after Hildreth on outstanding warrants if he ever showed his face in Knox County again.
Hildreth died in Dayton in 1926.
Perhaps if Frank Hildreth's instability had been better dealt with, James C. Shellenbarger would have lived a long, satisfying life. Instead, he died at the age of 41, and his wife, Eliza, outlived him by almost 50 years. They are buried together in Mound View Cemetery.