Saturday, March 16, 2019

Lewis Wolf Webster.

Perry Harrington and his wife, Maria, were spending a quiet evening at their farmhouse in Geneva, Ohio, on December 18, 1884, when the door burst open, and a masked man boldly entered the house. He pointed a cocked revolver at Mr. Harrington and demanded his money or his life. Seeing that he and his wife were at the mercy of the intruder, Harrington went into an adjoining bedroom to get his money. 

After hearing the man speak, Mrs. Harrington said, “I think I know you.”

“You do, do you?” he responded and fired the pistol hitting her in the left arm. As he did so, the handkerchief fell from his face and she saw to was Lewis Webster, the man she suspected. Mrs. Harrington ran to the kitchen, and he fired again hitting the same arm. She rushed out to the street and with blood streaming from her wounds ran to a schoolhouse some 40 yards away from where an entertainment was in progress. 

She gave the alarm and neighbors and friends hurried back to the house where they found Perry Harrington lying unconscious in a pool of blood, with a bullet hole in his forehead. He died soon after without gaining consciousness. A broken chair and general disorder of the room showed that a struggle had taken place before the shot was fired. The intruder was nowhere to be found.

Lewis Wolf Webster, 24-years-old, had formerly worked on the Harrington farm. The day of the murder, Mr. Harrington had sold a large quantity of wheat. Webster had witnessed the transaction and knew that there was money in the house. Marshal Carter and Night Watchman Baker arrested Webster at his Geneva boardinghouse the following morning. The officers found a revolver in his overcoat pocket. A handkerchief recently washed and not yet dry, with spots of blood was also found. They found none of the missing money.

Webster denied any connection to the crime, saying he was with his girl until 10 o’clock. His girl was a pretty, blonde dressmaker named Sophia Hall. The two were to be married on Christmas Day. 

News of the murder spread quickly through the town that morning, and the people were outraged. There was the talk of lynching Webster, but tempers cooled when Sheriff Baldwin arrived. There was no demonstration as he quietly took Webster by sleigh to jail in Jefferson, Ohio.

Lewis Webster was tried for murder in March 1885. The chief witness for the prosecution was Maria Harrington who gave eye-witness testimony of events the night of the murder and identified Lewis Webster as the killer. Webster’s attorney was eloquent but offered little evidence but a parade of character witnesses and an attack on the credibility of Mrs. Webster’s testimony. The trial lasted a month and ended with the easy conviction of Webster. He was sentenced to be hanged on October 1.

Webster’s attorneys filed an appeal on the grounds that several members of the jury had stated that they had already made up their minds before the trial began. Webster was granted a new trial and a change of venue to Warren, Ohio.

The new trial began on September 1, 1895. By this time public sentiment had begun to swing in Webster’s direction. A group of young female admirers greeted him in court each day with a bouquet of flowers and the ever-faithful Sophia Hall gave the defendant a kiss each morning before the session started.

A new defense witness, Mr. S. R. Parks, testified that he spoke with a man he believed was Lewis Webster in Geneva that night, five miles from the scene of the crime. Another witness had seen a tramp around the Harrington house who could have been the killer. But it was not enough to counter Maria Harrington’s testimony. Once again, Lewis Webster was convicted of first-degree murder.

At his sentencing, Webster gave a long diatribe condemning those who had lied about him and who had treated him poorly in jail. He ended by saying:
"I suppose I ought not to complain of the jury, but their verdict was false, and I am left to suffer the consequences of their terrible mistake. I can only trust that a just and merciful God will not permit such a cruel injustice. But if I am doomed to disappointment in this, I shall cling to the hope that the truth will sometime become known and that my name and memory be vindicated, though my body may be consigned to a felon's grave.”
Webster was sentenced to hang on February 5, 1896.

His attorneys continued to appeal and on December 29, 1895, Governor Hoadly granted Webster a reprieve to give them time to file a writ of error in the state supreme court. On May 29, the supreme court granted Webster another new trial due to technical errors in the previous trial. 

Webster’s third trial began on August 2, 1896, and this time Sheriff McKinley vowed to prevent a repetition of the “sickly sentimentalism” of the previous trial—no more bouquets and no more morning kisses. The trial followed the same course as the previous ones, but this time the defense had another witness who saw two men, one of whom was Webster, conversing in Geneva that night. But it was probably the impassioned pleas of Webster’s father and mother on the witness stand that swayed the jury. This time the verdict was not guilty.

Lewis Webster was released from custody on October 4, 1886. He had been in jail for a year and nine months, but he had not been idle. Reportedly, in that time he had become an expert banjo player. Lewis Webster and Sophia Hall were married in May 1887. The residents of Geneva were still bitter over the acquittal and still believed Webster was the killer. The newlyweds set up housekeeping in Warren, Ohio.


Sources:
“All Ready For The Trial,” Plain Dealer, September 14, 1886.
“Bad For Webster,” Plain Dealer, September 18, 1885.
“Condemned To Die,” Plain Dealer, October 15, 1885.
“The Criminal World,” Cleveland Leader, January 1, 1885.
“Gets a New Trial,” Cleveland Leader, July 4, 1885.
“Granted A New Trial,” Plain Dealer, May 21, 1886.
“Horrible Crime,” Cleveland Leader, December 19, 1884.
“Lew Webster's Third Trial,” Plain Dealer, July 7, 1886.
“Lewis Webster Granted a Reprieve,” Plain Dealer, December 30, 1885.
“Lewis Webster In Luck,” Plain Dealer, May 19, 1887.
“Lewis Webster's Second Trial,” Plain Dealer, September 1, 1885.
“Lewis W. Webster and Miss Hall,” The National Police Gazette, October 16, 1886.
“News Article,” Cleveland Leader, April 3, 1885.
“New Testimony Introduced by the Defense in the Webster Trial,” Plain Dealer, October 5, 1886.
“Plain Dealings,” Plain Dealer, May 6, 1885.
“Record of Crime,” Cleveland Leader, April 23, 1885.
“To Hang,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 29, 1885.
“Twice Sentenced to Death,” New York Herald, October 15, 1886.
“Webster in Jail,” Cleveland Leader, December 28, 1884.
“The Webster Murder Trial,” Plain Dealer, September 15, 1885.
“The Webster Murder Trial,” Plain Dealer, September 17, 1885.
“Webster to Have a New Trial,” Plain Dealer, May 15, 1885.

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