Saturday, October 30, 2010

Murder In Sylvania, Ohio

Book Review:

Murder In Sylvania, Ohio: As Told in 1857
by Gaye E. Gindy

By the mid 1800s, murder reporting had become a staple of American journalism. Beginning with the “penny press” of the East Coast, graphic crime reporting rapidly spread west and publishers knew that nothing sold papers like a good murder story. In Murder in Sylvania, Ohio: As Told in 1857, Gaye E. Gindy tells the story of the 1857 murder of Olive Ward using nothing but verbatim newspaper accounts and other documents available to the reader of the day. The story that emerges is so complete and detailed that no further commentary is necessary.

An early story in the Daily Toledo Blade compares the murder of Mrs. Ward to that of Dr. George Parkman in Boston eight years earlier, one of the first American murders to receive national attention. As in the Parkman case, the killer, Mrs. Ward’s husband Return J. M. Ward, attempts to dispose of the body by dismembering it and burning it in a stove. Olive Ward had unexpectedly disappeared earlier in the week. She had left her husband before; he did not get along with her children. Mr. Ward said she had left him again, this time for good. But Ward’s story did not remain consistent and neighbors’ suspicions led to a search of his house. When investigators found blood stains in his floor and what appeared to be human bones in the ashes of his stove, Return Ward was arrested for the murder of his wife.

As was common in the 19th century, the newspapers reported Ward’s trial in great detail, sometimes including word-for-word testimony. The case was problematic for both sides—the prosecution was faced with the challenge of proving murder without an identifiable corpse, and the defense was up against overwhelming circumstantial evidence. A series of medical experts gave testimony on the blood and bones, but forensic science was limited in 1857 and the doctors could not prove the blood was human and some were unwilling to say with certainty that the bones were human. In the end it was probably the testimony of neighbors about thick, strange smelling smoke coming from Ward’s house and their impressions Ward’s behavior before and after the murder that convinced the jury of his guilt.

After Ward’s conviction he issued a confession, published in the newspapers, saying he had killed his wife in self-defense after she attacked him and hit his head with a lamp. He had hoped this would help with his appeal and lessen the charge to manslaughter. It did not have the desired effect and Ward was sentenced to hang. Two months later, in June 1857, just prior to his execution, Ward confessed again, this time to first degree murder, not just to the murder of his wife Olive but to two other murders he committed in Ohio.

Accounts of the hanging of Return Ward are presented from several different sources and though the descriptions are very close, his dying speech was so incoherent –“the raving of an over excited and broken down mind.” said the Toledo Daily Blade –that there were some discrepancies. Return Ward’s last words were either “Oh my God, I am thine! Thou art mine!”; “Oh God, take me home, I am ready”; or “You might all shut your eyes when I go down—don’t laugh.”

Murder in Sylvania, Ohio also includes the complete text of a 32-page pamphlet published in 1857, entitled: The Triple Murderer – The Life and Confession of Return J. M. Ward. This, together with the newspaper accounts of the investigation and trial, and Ms. Gindy’s research notes, provides a comprehensive and unadorned collection of the facts surrounding this very old murder. It also provides the reader a rare opportunity to experience a murder story exactly “as told in 1857.”


Anonymous says:
November 2, 2010 at 9:32 AM

just received my copy in the mail.... what did you think of it? impressed with Ms. Gindy's research...

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