Mount Vernon resident Frank B. Hanger went gray young. Aged only 42 at the time of his death, a photograph that appeared in local media showed him sporting white hair over brightly attentive eyes.
During World War I, when Frank was working as a ranch hand at Summer Lake, Oregon, his draft card described him as medium in build, medium in height, with blue eyes and brown/gray hair. He was only 27 then, just a few years past his youth in Logan County, Ohio.
The first of two major tragedies in his life was to overtake him soon. By 1918, he had returned to Ohio, where his parents were by then living in Champaign County. There he married Eva Dorth Smith. Their happiness was brief, though, for by the end of the following year, Eva would die.
When Frank remarried in 1922, his new wife was a music teacher named M. Fidelia Punches, and together they arrived in Mount Vernon, moving into a house at 722 N. Main St. At some point during the 1920s, they had two sons, Otho — named after Fidelia's brother — and Jack, who attended the Mount Vernon Academy.
By 1930, Frank got hired as a guard at the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, and is listed in a city directory as living there, presumably in the guard bunk rooms on the third floor of the administrative half of the building. Perhaps he returned to Mount Vernon to see his wife on the weekends, a long distance commute in those days, but one made possible by modern automobiles.
While neither glorious nor high-paying, it was a solid job, and solid jobs were hard to come by in the economic climate of the early 1930s, when the country was roiling in the depths of the Great Depression. Little did Frank Hanger know it, though, his job would be the death of him.
In September of 1932, a woman named Ella Florenz Thomson, a former beauty shop operator from Cincinnati, showed up at the Reformatory to visit her son, inmate Charles Williams. Only thing is, Charles Williams wasn't her son. Exactly how they were acquainted isn't clear, but what is clear is that guards inspecting the magazines Thomson brought for her “son” found that she had attempted to conceal saw blades in their pages.
Thomson was seized by the guards and arrested as she left the prison. When she was searched, they discovered she had two guns hidden on her person. She was turned over to Mansfield Police. Williams was interrogated, but he pled ignorance. In light of later events, it's probable that Williams lied.
Assistant Warden O. F. Garver was not impressed by the denial, and sent him to spend some time in the correction tier. This was the back half of what is today described as the solitary confinement tiers in the West Diagonal of the Ohio State Reformatory. There he devised a new escape plot.
According to later newspaper reports, Williams talked up his idea of escape with his adjacent cellmates on the correction tier. Though inmates here were confined 24 hours a day, the cells had open bars, allowing inmates to talk when guards were not around. The outward-facing cells prevented them from seeing each other face-to-face, but it was easy to hear from adjacent cells.
Just outside the correction tier was the prison barber shop. Two locked doors led into the complex. On the evening of Sunday, Oct. 2, Williams enlisted the support of three fellow inmates.
Merrill Elza Chandler was a 22-year old from Columbus in the Reformatory on an auto theft charge. Chandler had only been in the prison two-and-a-half years, but had already spent 300 days of that time in the correction tier for various offenses. This time he was in the tier because he had refused to go to mandatory school classes.
Chester Probaski, a 25-year old Clevelander had entered O.S.R. in 1925 for burglary and larceny, but had been paroled in 1927. Parole violations returned him in 1932.
James Allen, a 20-year old from Cincinnati, was also in for stealing a car.
As the inmates plotted, Chandler pointed out that he had been working on the latch locking his cell door. It was worn and loose and could potentially be opened if he only had a way to pry it. Charles Williams managed to tear out a loose metal support plank from under his bed and slid it out the door and over toward Chandler's cell. Chandler used it to pry the loose latch open.
His first act after breaking out of the cell was to open a locker and liberate some smoking tobacco for himself and the other 12 inmates in his section of the correction tier. He took the bed brace and used it to prop open a window to vent their smoke. Then, searching a supply cabinet, Chandler found a heavy, two-foot long, two-and-a-half-inch wide piece of angled iron. It looked like it had been a leg to a sleeping cot that had broken.
“This will take care of him!” Chandler shouted as he struck the concrete floor with the piece of iron, according to testimony from the trial. He began pacing back and forth and did so for approximately an hour, until midnight.
A rattling of keys came from outside the West Diagonal. That meant the guard on duty was about to make his rounds through the correction tier. The guard was Frank Hanger.
Chandler gripped his iron bludgeon tighter and climbed up onto the top of a clothing cabinet two feet away from the door into the correction tier. He heard Hanger open the first door, entering the complex through the prison barber shop. Only one set of footsteps could be heard.
The keys rattled as the door into the tier was unlocked. Hanger entered and stepped over to flip on the light switch, putting him directly under Chandler's perch. Chandler brought down the iron with great force onto the back side of Hanger's head. The guard shouted and whirled around to try and defend himself, but the blow had fractured his skull, so his movement quickly became an attempt to stay upright as he grabbed at the cabinet for support. Chandler hit Hanger a second time as he jumped down from the top of the cabinet, dropping the guard to the ground.
Chandler grabbed the bleeding guard's keys and began opening cells in the correction tier. He opened all of the cells in his section except one where the inmate swore off having anything to do with the escape attempt. Most of the other inmates remained in their cells, waiting to see what would happen.
Charles Probaski came out of his cell and collected Hanger's gun. James Allen joined him and searched Hanger's pockets.
The inmates might have been in a position to escape into the prison yard, where they would still have to find a way over the 25-feet-tall prison wall. But they were not alone. As the attack unfolded, inmate trustee Ralph Cauthorn, originally from Cleveland, was walking by in the prison yard just northeast of the West Diagonal. The propped-open smoking window had caught his attention as an anomaly, and his senses went on full alert.
Cauthorn heard Hanger's shout and the following scuffle as Chandler attacked him. Cauthorn ran to the nearest door and hit the emergency call button which rang up to the Central Guard Room where Captain J. W. Martin was on duty. Martin immediately called for backup and headed down toward the correction tier while Cauthorn entered the West Diagonal to see what happened.
The inmates cast the gun aside and rushed either to their cells or to the back corridor of the tier as they heard the trustee approaching. Cauthorn at first tried to pick up Hanger, but the guard was unconscious. He went for help.
Assistant Warden O. F. Garver was awakened. Garver led the assembled response team into the correction tier, holding his service revolver in his left hand. Entering the West Diagonal, Garver saw that the door to his left was locked. The door to his right, from which inmate trustee Ralph Cauthorn had entered, was ajar.
The door into the prison barbershop, which led to the correction tier, was wide open.
Not knowing if any inmates had escaped into the prison yard and might be just outside the door, Garver began to raise his gun toward the slightly ajar door. However, he was gripping the gun a little too tightly, and the gun went off, sending a bullet into the flesh of his own right leg. Embarrassed but not seriously wounded, Garver refused assistance and walked down to the prison hospital in the East Wing for treatment.
The remaining guards entered the correction tier and found Frank Hanger on the ground. A detail of guards was assigned to carry him over to the hospital, at the far end of the East Cell Block. Because of the open side door, it was thought that inmates might have gotten out of the tier, so Mansfield city police were called to help search.
The guards, now bolstered with city police, continued into the correction tier, finding most of the prisoners inside their cells. Williams, Probaski, and Allen were found in the back corridor. A pair of the searchers flashed a light into Chandler's cell, but saw nothing and moved on.
Mansfield City Police Lieutenant Bruce Friday decided to give the cell a second look, and shone his flashlight inside. He, too, thought the cell was empty at first. Then he realized that Chandler was actually standing on the end of the cot, flattened against the wall, with his fist raised, ready to strike anyone who stepped all the way into the cell. Friday whirled around with his wooden billy club and struck the inmate on the head. Chandler fell to the bed and surrendered without further resistance.
The four ringleaders were placed in solitary confinement.
Frank Hanger's wife and other family members gathered at the prison hospital, but he did not regain consciousness. He passed away on Thursday, Oct. 6, 1932. After services at the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church on Saturday, Oct. 8, Hanger was buried in Mound View Cemetery.
Warden T. C. Jenkins announced to the press that he would be talking to parole officials on Ralph Cauthorn's behalf.
“We will do the only thing we can do,” Jenkins said, “and that is to urge the Ohio board of parole to give early consideration to Cauthorn's case as a reward for his excellent conduct.”
Indictments came down quickly. Chandler had confessed to the crime at the scene but later recanted. He, Probaski, and Allen all pled not guilty to charges of murder in the first degree. Williams agreed to plead guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter for his part as the mastermind of the plot. Ella Florenz Thomson was released after she posted bail, then she promptly disappeared.
Williams was sentenced to five to 20 years in the state penitentiary, to be served after his current sentence. As his mental state later deteriorated, he was finally transferred to the Lima State Hospital.
Chandler, Probaski, and Allen all received the death sentence, initially, but Allen was granted a retrial and found not guilty of aiding and abetting the murder. After reprieves and further legal maneuvers, Chandler and Probaski were executed on Nov. 24, 1933.
The chair in which they were executed today sits in the Ohio State Corrections Department Museum at the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield.