Mount Vernon, like any place, has seen its share of violent crimes over the years. But if there's one crime that looms larger than all the rest, it is the 1905 murder that isn't even known by the name of its victim.
It's known by the name of the place where it happened: The Maplehurst Murder.
I first heard of the case when I worked in town at the Mount Vernon News, though I didn't explore it further at the time. Last year, when I gave a talk about unsolved murders from Ohio history for the Elixir Chautauqua Series, audience members asked if I would study the case and do a presentation about it in the future.
The two columns to follow this week and next are, in essence, a dress rehearsal for that talk, which I will do in October 2019.
A Quiet Evening
According to the coverage in the Mount Vernon Republican News and other regional media, on Saturday, April 22, 1905, Miranda Bricker spent the evening visiting with her sister Jane, who lived on Walnut Street (today South Sandusky Street), three blocks west of Main Street in Mount Vernon.
The sisters had grown up near Danville and lived there for years. Around 1885, they decided in middle age that they needed a change of pace and moved into Mount Vernon. Jane lived for many years at 107 West Walnut, while Miranda changed residence depending on her jobs, which included a decade working as a cook for the Kenyon Military Academy in Gambier.
Since October 1904, Miranda had been working as a maid at the Maplehurst mansion, the grand home on the corner of Division Street and East Gambier Street owned by Mr. and Mrs. F. L. Fairchild. It was a good job, providing Miranda with a room of her own as part of her employment. But as the next day was Easter Sunday, Miranda made sure to call it a night and head home around 9 p.m.
Miranda left her sister's house and headed east, though there remains some uncertainty about her exact path. According to later testimony, the streetcar operator identified in newspaper reports as Motorman Smith picked up a woman matching Bricker's description in the square and proceeded east on High Street. At “about 9:12,” the streetcar operator said that the woman got off the trolley at Division Street and headed south.
The evening was cool and heavy with the dew that had fallen. Though skies were mostly clear, the moon wouldn't be rising until 10:30, so outside of streetlights and lights from the windows of houses, the night was pitch black.
The Scene of the Crime
Maplehurst faced Division Street right where Gambier Street angles to the south. This meant that the mansion was impressively visible from both roads, the grounds covered with trees and walking paths.
Different maps from over the years suggest that those walking paths were reconfigured at times, but in 1905, there was a prominent gravel path at the center of the property leading from Division Street to the front door. Miranda Bricker had just reached the bottom of that path when something happened.
Later police theories changed frequently in detail as the authorities tried to unravel events, but all versions agreed that the physical assault on Miranda Bricker began near the bottom of the footpath. An assailant or assailants struck the 55-year-old woman in the face with great force, knocking the false teeth out of her lower jaw, bloodying her nose to the extent that it left a noticeable splash of blood on the grass immediately north of the gravel path, and knocking her hat some 20 feet away.
Catercorner to Maplehurst on the other side of Gambier Street, Mrs. Lemuel Swigert was giving her daughter her 9:30 dose of medicine when she heard a female voice cry out, “Oh my God!” Mrs. Swigert told her son to take a look outside and see what was going on. Moments later, he reported that he thought he saw some people over at Maplehurst, but it was hard to tell because it was so dark and some buggies passing on Gambier Street had obscured his view even further.
Mrs. Swigert decided to go take a look herself. She stepped out into the darkness and walked the short distance down to her front gate. Something was going on over there, but there were no more shouts nor any screams. Mrs. Swigert thought it looked like one of the people had fallen down, and another person got the fallen one back on their feet. The figures were so distant, she couldn't make out of they were male or female nor whether it was two or three people.
After seeing the falling, Mrs. Swigert heard a gurgling sound. She began to dismiss the whole affair as a bunch of drunks fumbling around in the darkness. As fancy as Maplehurst was, the town had also been overrun in recent weeks with tramps hitching trains from town to town in the bad economy. If someone had given tramps money, they might very well have gotten drunk with it.
Mrs. Swigert went back inside. She found out the following day that she was the only witness to the murder of Miranda Bricker.
A Ferocious Battle
From the initial point of assault, Bricker and her attacker struggled northeastward, leaving a disturbed path in the dew-laden grass. Bricker must have fallen repeatedly as she fought back, for her clothes were covered with mud and grass stains. About 200 feet northeast of the bottom of the gravel path, the assailant's intentions became clear.
He ripped off Bricker's skirt and underwear, throwing them to the ground. The woman fought for her life, lurching further northeast, toward the hedge on the northern border of the Maplehurst lawn. Despite the fact that she was a tall, thin woman only weighing 120 pounds, she was able to prolong the fight a further 200 feet before her assailant was able to bring her down and complete his monstrous goal.
The coroner was later to say that it wasn't clear whether Miranda Bricker died from an arm crushing her trachea or from the extensive bleeding due to violent sexual assault.
A little after 10 p.m., another Maplehurst employee, Anna McCrystal, who worked there as a cook, arrived home from downtown. As she walked up the central gravel path toward the front door, she noticed a hat in the grass. She stopped and picked up the hat, but didn't recognize it.
She looked around, but could not see anyone in the shadowy expanse of the yard. Reasoning that if someone had dropped it, perhaps they'd return and look for it, McCrystal put the hat back down and went on inside Maplehurst. She noticed that Miranda's door was closed and the light was off, so she assumed that her co-worker had already turned in for the evening in anticipation of a busy Easter Sunday in the morning.
A Gruesome Discovery
Around 9 a.m. Sunday morning, another maid entered the north room of the house, tidying things.
Glancing out the window, she froze. What looked like a woman's body was sprawled out on the grass near the hedge at the north edge of the property — a woman naked from the waist down. She alerted her employer who immediately telephoned the police. Within minutes, Sheriff James Shellenbarger and his deputies were on the scene. The county coroner, W.W. Scarbrough, and county prosecutor, Lot Stillwell, weren't far behind.
Coworkers immediately identified the body as Miranda Bricker. Sheriff's deputies discovered the woman's purse some distance down the hedge, closer to the road, with handkerchief nearby.
Inspection of the grounds yielded a dozen footprints in the kitchen garden behind the mansion, suggesting that the killer had crossed through the backyard of Maplehurst, but in the darkness had briefly blundered off the gravel path into the freshly plowed garden tract. Regaining the path, he then struck off eastward, cutting across the yard to Gambier Street.
By 9:30 a.m. crowds were becoming problematic and guards had to be set up to control the mass of people gathering to gawk. The first person to be questioned was Maplehurst's black stable hand, but witnesses vouched for the fact that he was wearing the same clothes he had been wearing the previous day.
The officials reasoned that the killer could not have commissioned the crime without becoming covered in Bricker's blood. He was dismissed.
No reason was given in initial comments as to why the sheriff's department immediately sought to question a black man. Later in the case, one of the officials said to the local press that they had evidence which “shows conclusively” that the crime was committed “by a negro.” That statement was never explained.
Lacking strong leads, Sheriff Shellenbarger decided to call for the dogs. Bloodhounds are remarkable animals, able to detect and track the scent of a person with astonishing accuracy. Studies have shown that well-trained, veteran bloodhounds can track a scent for over 100 miles days after the track was laid, even after an intervening rain.
But no such dogs were available locally, so Shellenbarger called Detective Woodward, an expert in Dayton, to have him come as soon as possible with his dogs.
Meanwhile, Bricker's purse was examined. It was found to contain a $5 bill. A theory was developed that perhaps Bricker had been walking south on Division Street and found herself being followed. Thinking that perhaps her assailant was aiming to rob her, she may have thrown her purse over the shrubbery on the corner of the property as she ran for the gravel path up to the front door. They surmised that the purse may have been unlatched, allowing the handkerchief to fall out.
While inspecting the shrubbery, deputies noticed a blue, knit cap on the ground in the street. It was conjectured that the cap may have belonged to the murderer. Prosecutor Stillwell demonstrated that if the murderer had run between the hedge and large shrubbery at the corner of the property, the branches could well have knocked off a person's hat.
Indeed, Stillwell was unable to get through the spot without losing his own hat. His theory became that an assailant had began chasing Bricker south on Division Street, then veered behind the shrubbery to cut her off at the front path, where he struck her in the face.
This would suggest that the attacker knew the layout of the property and knew where Bricker would be going.
Motorman Smith's report of a woman matching Bricker's description leaving the streetcar and heading south on Division Street seemed to support Stillwell's theory. But still no viable suspect had emerged.
Some people in the hovering crowd suggested it could be the work of tramps. A transient could easily commit a heinous crime, then hitch a train and be gone before the crime was even discovered. The officials urged people to wait until they could see if the bloodhounds could track anything.
Coroner Scarbrough had a local undertaker assist him in removing Bricker's body for postmortem examination. It was decided that after the autopsy, the victim's body would be released to her sister Jane, who arranged for a private funeral to take place Tuesday at the St. Vincent de Paul Church.
On the Trail
Detective Woodward and his dogs missed the afternoon train that would have brought them into Mount Vernon. The law enforcement officials went into a holding pattern until the bloodhounds finally arrived at midnight. Despite the wait, there was still a small crowd holding out to see what might happen, including a reporter for the Mount Vernon Republican News, who noted that the three dogs were named Jesse James, Benefice III, and Vigilant.
Woodward said that one of the dogs had investigated 57 cases.
The hounds immediately picked up a scent around the bottom of the front path to Maplehurst and quickly followed it to the spot where Bricker's body had been found. They quickly followed the killer's scent to the kitchen garden and beyond, across the east lawn of Maplehurst and onto East Gambier Street. They followed an alley south, down the hill to the railroad.
Many accompanying spectators nodded wisely, noting, “Tramp.” But after following the railroad east almost to the quarry, the dogs suddenly veered back up the hill, returning to Gambier Street. Here the trail cut across lots to Front Street, then went west to McArthur, north to Chestnut, across a field to Hamtramck Street.
It turned and headed north on McKenzie Street, proceeding up the hill past Round Hill, the grand home of Mount Vernon founding father Henry Curtis. At the top of the hill, the dogs turned and went to the back of a house on the corner of McKenzie and Ann Streets.
Sheriff Shellenbarger went to the front door of the house and pounded. A middle-aged black woman by the name of Elizabeth Copeland opened the door. Shellenbarger asked who all lived there. Mrs. Copeland said that she was widowed and lived there with her son and daughter, and they also had a boarder, Mr. Jerome Newman.
Shellenbarger asked to see the boarder. An elderly man entered the room. Shellenbarger took one look at the man and dismissed him as a suspect.
“And your son?” Shellenbarger said. Mrs. Copeland's 18-year old son George stepped into the room. After a few questions, Shellenbarger directed the young man to get dressed and prepare to accompany him downtown, for the sheriff was placing him under arrest for the assault and murder of Miranda Bricker.
An automobile was summoned to whisk Copeland away in the night.
The story of how this open-and-shut case unraveled will be continued in next week's History Knox.