MANSFIELD -- For people who love to read hard-boiled murder mysteries, or go to the movies and watch dark plots of crime and suspense, the decade following World War II was a golden era of cliffhangers.
Just in time to embody that national fascination with its own courtroom mystery drama, the people of Mansfield had a homegrown tale of suspense — replete with 87 witnesses, a slippery trail of circumstantial evidence, and a bona fide love triangle.
The infamous Sternbaum case was — at that time — the longest murder trial in Ohio history. It took place during the weeks of February in 1954 when every day the headlines came dark and large with the latest courtroom developments and, like turning the pages of a detective pulp magazine, the city puzzled over the mysterious murder trial of Max Sternbaum.
It was a sensational tiral that could only have happened in the 1950s … today the rules of engagement in court proceedings are so different there could never be the 'Perry Mason Moment' when a surprise witness walks through the courtroom door and everyone turns and gasps.
That’s exactly what happened in 1954 when the “mystery woman” was unveiled during the last week of the trial.
And with the advanced forensics of today, we take it for granted that everybody’s molecules will leave a trail of who did what. But in 1954, Max had blood on his clothes and no one could even say whose it was.
The crowds in attendance at the production continually grew throughout the month, and because there were only 67 seats in the courtroom, competition for them was fierce among the women of Mansfield. On Feb. 17, they literally tore one of the doors off its hinges in the hallway.
The defendant became something like a literary character in print, and iconic in Mansfield, as the headlines daily referred to him simply as 'MAX.' Even months after the trial when the front page said MAX, everybody knew exactly who it was talking about.
The crime was easy enough to picture in the gritty black and white of those '50s detective movies — a dark alley after midnight, neighbors waking to a cry in the street and footsteps running on the pavement. And then flames and smoke, a knot of uniforms acting alarmed … and soon the quiet little homey neighborhood isn’t Vale Avenue anymore, it is 'the scene of the crime.'
It will be at least a generation before anyone can see it any other way.
It was the night spanning Dec. 4 and 5, 1952, when the fire alarm went off — but there was a train blocking the B&O tracks that kept the Fire Department from getting there, so witnesses watched helplessly while evidence burned. And Max Sternbaum, lying in the street nursing his bloody head, kept pleading for someone to go into the wall of smoke to rescue his wife.
Mrs. Sternbaum wasn’t recovered from the building until later, and there was plenty to show that she hadn’t died from the fire, but from a wrench.
Max’s story was that he was working late, sitting at his desk when a voice said "don’t turn around." The robber got Max’s wallet, his watch, and whacked him on the head with a wrench. When Max came to there was smoke everywhere and the neighbors had to drag him out of the house.
After the fire was out there wasn’t much for the cops to go on, so the community suffered an uneasy hiatus while the file sat on an 'Unsolved' pile for most of a year.
The name was certainly familiar around town. There were four 'Sternbaum’s Footmarts' in Mansfield, and the office that burned in the crime was located behind the store on Springmill Street. That house, on Vale Avenue, had once been the home of Carl Sternbaum, an immigrant from Poland, who originated the grocery business with a small family store on the first floor of his house.
It was his sons who expanded the small grocery business into supermarkets after World War II. It was in memory of his lost son that Carl donated the land down the street where they built the Friendly House. He was a well-loved man in the neighborhood, which only magnified the horror of what was to follow.
It was the State Fire Marshall who kept doggedly following clues and casting a wider and wider net until he came up with a secret girlfriend in Columbus. She came to be known in the papers as the “mystery woman.”
The Mystery Woman thought Max was going to marry her, but when that didn’t work out she agreed to spill the beans and testify that they had been talking divorce just a few days before the murder.
Max was arrested a year and a day after the fire, and went to trial two months later.
If you didn’t happen to attend the show, there was plenty of great '50s hyperbole describing it every day in the news … like when the Richland County Prosecutor ‘dropped a bombshell’ in court. On Feb. 19, the news report was written like a True Detective article: “A steel-edged tenseness hung over the courtroom yesterday as the State’s case began building up to its climax.”
The Mansfield News-Journal carried pages and pages of actual testimony so the whole county could follow the witnesses like reading a pulp crime magazine or a Hollywood script.
In the end it was all the loose ends that created so much suspicion … Why wasn’t there a light on when he said he was working? How did Max know his wife was in the building? How did the stolen money end up in his wife’s purse?
Those were the questions that convicted him in the town’s eyes … those and the excruciatingly documented gifts, dinners, and motel rooms that Max paid for that didn’t go to his wife.
To the city it sure looked like Max did it. But none of that is hard evidence, and on March 5 the jury acquitted Max Sternbaum.
The Last Chapter
On May 4, just shy of two months later, Max married the mystery woman’s best friend. It was a bold move and it was announced on the front page in bold headlines.
That summer the attention of the entire nation was riveted to a similar murder case in Cleveland when Dr. Sam Sheppard was on trial for the murder of his wife. Afterward it was commonly assumed in Ohio Bar circles that Sheppard was convicted because Sternbaum was not.
A good murder mystery always has a sigh of relief at the end through its resolution, and perhaps that is why this particular story persists in the common memory and imagination of Mansfield — because in the end no one could really say who did it, least of all the law.
Generations have passed since the trial. If time hasn’t provided justice for the crime, it has clearly demonstrated how it is that the horror and distress of one family can be magnified through public sensation to involve the entire community in a shared trauma so great it becomes no longer pathology, but rather history.