George Copeland.jpg

This was the drawing of George Copeland that appeared in local media when he was wrongly accused of the murder of Miranda Bricker in 1905. At the time, he was 18, a former high school football player.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series. Part I can be found here.

MOUNT VERNON -- Less than 30 hours after the April 22, 1905 rape and murder of Miranda Bricker, Knox County Sheriff James Shellenbarger had identified a prime suspect with the help of bloodhounds.

The dogs coursed for miles across the town before ending up at the house of the Copelands, a black family that lived on the corner of McKenzie and Ann Streets.

Lynch mob threatens

As the officers removed 18-year old George Copeland, they had to hold a strong defensive line to stop members of the crowd, who surged forward in anger, throwing rocks at the house. One of them was brandishing a rope. The would-be lynch mob was held back, and Copeland was pushed into the automobile and driven down to the Knox County Jail, which at that time was on High Street.

There, in the jail's lower level, questioning began. Sheriff Shellenbarger was not impressed with the young man's nervous answers.

At 9 a.m. Monday morning, Copeland was taken next door to the Knox County Courthouse for further questioning by County Prosecutor Lot Stillwell. George Copeland denied any involvement with the crime. He said that he worked downtown until 8 pm Saturday night, then went to the Turner Pool Room under Dever's Drug Store and played pool and chatted with friends until about 11 p.m.

Copeland recalled meeting Ray Grimwood as he walked up North Main that night, but when brought in for questioning, Grimwood said that their passing encounter had been Friday night, not Saturday.

Copeland agreed, but insisted that he hadn't even been on the east end of Mount Vernon lately. The manager of the pool hall, Jesse Turner, vouched for Copeland being there Saturday, though he didn't notice the specific time. He knew the suspect well, as Copeland also worked part-time at the billiard room and regularly visited when he wasn't working.

In fact, he had worked all day Sunday at Turner's waiting tables, and several witnesses said that Copeland seemed relaxed and normal, “not the least bit excited.”

Just 30 minutes into the questioning, the officials noticed the formation of a sizable mob outside the courthouse and jail. Sheriff Shellenbarger and Prosecutor Stillwell conferred with Judge Coyner and decided that there was an imminent danger of a mob breaking in and lynching Copeland. They brought a horse and buggy around to the back side of the buildings and bundled Copeland in, accompanied by Deputy Graham.

The buggy drove to Centerburg, where the afternoon train to Columbus was boarded. Copeland was safely ensconced in the Columbus City Jail by the end of the afternoon.

No positive evidence

At this point, Prosecutor Stillwell advised the citizens of Mount Vernon to remain calm, pointing out that as of yet, the investigators had no positive evidence. Aside from Copeland's bobbled answers to the initial questioning and the bloodhound trail, the only other things they had were the blue hat, and the fact that Copeland's shoe size matched the footprints found in the kitchen garden at Maplehurst.

A number of people said that, yes, Copeland had been seen in the past in a blue hat. And a detective noticed that the tracks at Maplehurst showed that half of one of the perpetrator's shoe soles had been replaced, something that Copeland's shoes had as well.

“Copeland is an exceedingly black negro,” noted a local newspaper, “and was until he quit school a star football player.” When interviewed by the paper early Monday morning, Copeland said that he was not frightened because he knew he was innocent.

Once Copeland had been whisked away for safekeeping in Columbus, Sheriff Shellenbarger returned to Elizabeth Copeland's house to ask her further questions and search for clues. Rifling through Copeland's clothes, he found a pair of underwear with a faint stain that Shellenbarger thought might be blood that had later been washed.

He seized the underwear and sent them off to be tested at the Ohio State University, along with Miranda Bricker's blood-stained purse.

Also Monday afternoon, Coroner Scarbrough, assisted by Dr. John E. Russell, held a more detailed post mortem examination of Miranda Bricker's body, apparently at Jane Bricker's residence, where the body had been sent for preparation for burial. The examination noted that Bricker's broken nose was her only head wound, other than her false teeth being knocked out. The funeral was scheduled for Tuesday.

An alternate suspect

Hearing about the arrest of a black man in the murder case, Motorman Smith told the newspaper that there might be another suspect. As he had told the law enforcement officers, Smith let off a woman matching Miranda Bricker's description from the trolley at 9:12 pm, at the intersection of High Street and Division Street.

But he added that a “smooth-faced man” who had boarded the car on the north side of Public Square, also left the trolley at Division Street, and followed the woman south. Smith described the man as being about 30 years of age, wearing a brown suit and a slouch hat.

In Columbus, the Ohio State Journal interviewed Copeland, quoting him at some length.

“Yes, I was pretty bad scared,” Copeland said. “Them people just went crazy an' I reckon they'd have killed me if they'd a got me. But I'm innocent. I never killed nobody.”

He also pointed out that the bloodhounds came to the back door of the family home, not the front door, which he always used. He also noted that Sheriff Shellenbarger never brought the dogs inside to identify him.

Tuesday, Miranda Bricker's funeral was held at the St. Vincent de Paul Church. Although the service was private, a large crowd gathered to watch proceedings. Bricker was buried in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery, the Catholic burial ground that adjoins Mount Vernon's Mound View Cemetery, less than a quarter of a mile from the Copeland family's home.

Further questioning

Copeland was returned to Mount Vernon for another round of questioning early Wednesday. He had retained attorney W.M. Koons to represent him, but the lawyer was not in his office at 9 a.m., so an intense interrogation of the young man began without him.

Koons was furious when he found that this “sweating” had been performed without him being present to defend his client. But the county prosecutor said that he needn't worry.

“What the young man has said this morning has been more favorable to him than anything he has said since his arrest,” Stillwell said.

Later that day, the officials did another round of questioning with the Copelands' 62-year old boarder, Jerome Newman, but found he had several witnesses who could vouch for his whereabouts Saturday evening.

It further became known around this time that Miranda Bricker had actually had a number of silver dollars in her purse, which were now missing. This suggested that she had not thrown the purse over the shrub. Instead, it seemed more likely that after the assault and murder, the killer had calmly rifled through Bricker's purse, throwing the handkerchief on the ground, pocketing the silver dollars, and missing the folded-up five dollar bill in the dark.

One of the things that came out during the questioning of Newman was that the household knew about the murder. Newman knew because his grandson had told him about it on the telephone Sunday afternoon.

Attorney Koons said that George Copeland knew about the murder because a friend of his who had been in the crowd that gathered at Maplehurst Sunday morning had come up to the house and told him about it.

Not on the trolley

Also Wednesday, a witness who knew Miranda Bricker came forward and said that although he was not a close friend, he knew Miranda, and knew with absolute certainty that he had seen her walking on

South Main Street Saturday evening, just after 9 p.m., headed north toward Gambier Street. This raised a strong possibility that Bricker was never even on the trolley, and that the woman Motorman Smith saw was not her at all.

That possibility had already been considered, because Motorman Smith was confident that he had dropped off the woman “around 9:12.” Across from Maplehurst, Mrs. Lemuel Swigart had said that she heard a woman scream “Oh my God!” around 9:30 p.m. Maplehurst was only a block and a half from High Street. It doesn't take 18 minutes to walk a block and a half, even in the dark.

The woman Smith saw, and the “smooth-faced man” who disembarked after her, were in all likelihood bypassers who walked near the scene of the crime just moments before it happened.

Thursday, the case against George Copeland unraveled further when Mrs. A.B. Stevens identified the blue knit hat. She said that she had given the hat to her niece at her sister's home on East Vine Street on Saturday. The family loaded into the buggy for a drive and realized at some point that the hat was missing.

For days, she had assumed it got lost somewhere at her sister's house, until she heard about the hat involved in the murder case. She confirmed that the family buggy had driven down Division Street past Maplehurst on Saturday afternoon, and she positively identified the hat.

The footprints were not holding up against sheer statistics. Not having at that time the forensic sophistication of modern investigations, the authorities conceded that Copeland having the same shoe size as the murderer was not substantial evidence, as it was a normal size. And the shoe repair wasn't much more specific when it is considered that in those days, shoes were not considered disposable goods.

When the soles of shoes wore out, it was customary to get the sole, or part of it, replaced. Most of the people walking around Mount Vernon had repaired soles. Many of them had the same shoe size as the killer.

The other logistical problem with Copeland as a suspect was the size issue. Granted, Miranda Bricker was fighting for her life, and would no doubt have fought as tenaciously as she could. But the fact remains that Bricker was tall and slight, weighing only 120 pounds.

George Copeland, though shorter than Bricker, was a former high school football player. It seems hard to believe that such a powerful young man could have been dragged 400 feet by Miranda Bricker.

The final nail in the coffin in the case against George Copeland came Friday, when Professor Bliele of the Ohio State University reported his lab test results: the spot on George Copeland's underwear did not match Miranda Bricker's blood. George Copeland was released Friday afternoon. No other suspect was ever publicly identified, though Prosecutor Stillwell muttered about having someone in mind.

Who got away with murder?

Who did Stillwell suspect? The smooth-faced man? A hobo? The stable hand? And what about those bloodhounds? They led to the Copeland house, but not to the right door. And the Sheriff made the error of not taking the dogs inside to make a positive ID on the suspect.

There is one curious figure here that fits startlingly into the picture: George Copeland's unnamed friend, the one who told him about the murder Sunday. It is a cliché of murder mysteries that the killer returns to the scene of the crime to watch the aftermath, but the cliché arose because it does at times happen that the perpetrator is curious to see what effect his or her actions have had.

The unnamed friend was reported as being in the crowd that clustered around the crime scene at Maplehurst on Sunday, April 23. The crowd pushed in close to look, causing the law officers to force them back. Some of the people from the crowd were pressed into service helping out with the crime scene as well, something modern investigators would avoid at all costs.

If the perpetrator of the crime left the scene, spent the night down by the quarry, then came back to Maplehurst to see what he had wrought, and then walked up to the Copeland house, a trail would have been laid that matches what the bloodhounds tracked. It may have been human error that jumped to the wrong conclusion at the end of the trail.

The friend's name was never revealed. If he was, indeed, the killer, he got away with it. If George Copeland suspected his friend, would that have something to do with his nervous answers during his initial questioning? At any rate, Copeland was cleared, and he resumed his life in Mount Vernon, later working as a server at the Curtis House hotel restaurant.

His father, David Copeland, had died during George's childhood. David had been a veteran of the Civil War, serving as a private in Company E of the 45th U.S. Colored Troops. George's mother, Elizabeth, passed away in 1915. Both are buried in the family plot in Mound View Cemetery, though only David has a headstone.

A new life

His mother gone, George must have decided he no longer had anything to keep him in Mount Vernon. For a long it was hard to locate his later whereabouts. I finally tracked him to Los Angeles, California, where George Henry Copeland filled out a draft card on June 5, 1917. The 30-year old gave his birth date and place as April 11, 1887, Danville, Ohio.

He was living at 1218 East Adams street in L.A. with his wife and child. He was employed as a porter at the Commercial Barber Shop on 535 South Spring Street — part of L.A.'s infamous Skid Row. His race was described as “Ethiopian.” For past military service, he cited being a cadet for three years in Ohio.

By 1920, the true nature of George's ambition is revealed. In the 1920 U.S. census for Precinct 103 of Los Angeles, George H. Copeland is identified as a singer who works in a theater. His wife is named Frances, and their 3-year old boy is named George E. Copeland.

So what happened after that? This is where the trail turns strange and then goes cold. By 1930, when they should have appeared as a happy middle-aged couple with a teenage boy, George and Frances disappear from the census.

George E. Copeland is found on the census when he was 13, living with his uncle Charles H. Copeland in San Francisco. Charles was working at the time as a waiter, though he later became a cabin watchman for the railroad. His census reports identify him as being born in Ohio.

Perhaps he was an older brother to George H. I have thus far been unable to locate George E. on the 1940 census. Did the boy die young?

What became of George H. Copeland and his new life in California? Thus far, the old documents have not yielded their secrets.

Jane Bricker lived until 1922 and arranged to have herself buried in Mt. Calvary Cemetery with a small headstone. Her sister's grave remains unmarked.

Prosecutor Lot Stillwell had two more major cases yet to hit in the year 1905. The second was the internationally-covered Stuart Lathrop Pierson hazing death at Kenyon College late that fall.

But before that, another case hit even closer to home.

Sheriff Shellenbarger could not have known how short his time was while working on the Maplehurst murder case. As it wound down, in May of 1905, he received a warrant for the arrest of a fugitive. The arrest turned into a gun battle, and Shellenbarger was shot. He lingered until October, but finally succumbed to his wounds, becoming the only Knox County sheriff to die in the line of duty. I'll dig into that story in a future column.

The Maplehurst murder remains unsolved to this day.

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