Fayette County History & Genealogy

History of Fayette County


From R. S. Dills' History of Fayette County

EXECUTION OF WM. G. W. SMITH,
FOR THE MURDER OF JOHN GRAY.

Tlirough the courtesy of William Millikin and his son, William, Jr., editors and proprietors of the Herald, we have been permitted to make the following extracts from that paper, regarding this crime and the execution of one of the perpetrators. From the issue of November 3, 1864:

" Murder.—On Saturday night last, a man by the name of John Gray was murdered by some unknown person or persons. He resided near Trimble's gravel bank, in Concord Township, in this county, and on the night of the murder he was left alone in the house. It is supposed, from the marks upon his person, that he was beaten with the poll of an ax, near the door of his house, and then dragged off and thrown in the brush. He was murdered, as is supposed, for a few hundred dollars in gold and paper money, which he had, as the money and some other articles belonging to him were missing. No clew has as yet been had as to who the guilty perpetrators of the deed were. Coroner Carr held an inquest over the body, and the jury gave their verdict that the deceased came to his death by violence of some unknown person or persons."

From the issue of November 10, 1864:

"Murderer Arrested.—Through the vigilence of constable Matthew Blackmore, of this village, two men, one named Washington Smith, and the other John Adams, have been arrested on a charge of having murdered John Gray, in this county, on the night of the 29th ult., and are now in our county jail. Adams has confessed to being accessary to the murder, but says that Smith committed the deed. As the case will undergo legal investigation, we deem it prudent not to say more at present."

The following particulars concerning the murder of John Gray, are the result of an interview with James Straley, Esq., at that time sheriff of Fayette County:

Gray lived in a cabin near the Roberts' farm, at the crossing, and at the time of the murder hved alone, a widow and her daughter, the other occupants, having been induced by the participants in the crime to visit relatives at a distance. The murder was committed by John Adams, and William G. W. Smith, who lived near Petersburg, and was a brother-in-law of Gray's, they having married sisters.

It appears that an old feud, which was engendered between the families when they resided in Virginia, still existed. This, and a sum of money (perhaps four hundred dollars), was undoubtedly the incentive to the bloody deed.

On Saturday evening, October 30, 1864, they left Petersburg, ostensibly to attend a meeting of the "Knights of the Golden Circle," but in reality to take the life of a fellow creature. They proceeded to Gray's cabin, twenty miles distant, on horseback, and upon nearing the scene, cut a huge club from a thicket, with which they felled Gray to the ground.

The evidence, so far as the actual deed is concerned, was circumstantial, consequently we have no means of knowing the full particulars as to the manner in which the poor victim's life was taken. However, it is surmised that his body was put on one of the horses, carried to a gravel-pit, one-half mile further on, and dumped into the same. They then departed for Petersburg, their home, stopping at Monroe for a whisky, and to exchange horses.

According to our informant, a cloud of mystery surrounded the murder for several days, it being a difficult matter to discover the perpetrators of the vile deed. Dave Brown, who kept a blacksmith shop near by, was the first person suspected. He was at the scene of the murder on the morning following the same, and had been seen in the neighborhood on the preceding day with a gun. At the coroner's inquest at Washington, no evidence was given against him, and, if arrested at all, he was discharged from custody. A detective and deputy sheriff investigated the premises surrounding Gray's cabin, and finally struck a trail which led to Petersburg. Here it was ascertained that Mrs. Hemeline and daughter, the occupants of the Gray cabin, were visiting Smith's family, at the request of the latter. The deputy then proceeded to Smith's residence, and inquired of Mrs. Smith as to the probable whereabouts of her husband on the preceding night. She replied that he had gone to Monroe, accompanied by Adams, and had returned before daylight on the following morning. He then made inquiries as to how they were dressed, and was informed that they wore blue army overcoats, which were hanging in an adjoining apartment. The detective looked in the room, but saw no coats. Finally his keen eye discovered the garments concealed under ladies' dresses. Investigation disclosed the fact that spots of blood marked the coats. Mr. B's next step was to search for Smith, who was soon found; and upon being questioned as to his whereabouts on the night of the murder, contradicted and could give no satisfactory account of himself. He and his accomplice were arrested and taken to Washington. A chain of circumstances was developed, which showed conclusively that they were guilty, and at the preliminary examination they were committed to jail to await the action of the grand jury.

Probably because of the supposed insecurity of our jail, Smith was sent to the Pickaway County prison, at Circleville. But even this place could not hold him, for we learn that he dug a passage under the prison walls, and made good his escape.

At the trial of Adams, it was developed that both parties were intoxicated on the night the terrible crime was committed. Adams testified that he was unacquainted with the true object of their visit to Gray until they neared the house. He revolted when informed by Smith that Gray was to be murdered. Smith replied, "You hold the horses, and I will fix him." Much sympathy was expressed for Adams, and as the absence of Smith made it impossible to ascertain some of the most important facts in the case, he was convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary.

We append the following extracts from the official records of the trial, in which the State of Ohio was plaintifif, and William G. W. Smith and John Adams defendants:

April 1, 1865, the grand jury presented an indictment against William G. W. Smith and John Adams for murder in the first degree. On the third of the same month, the court ordered that the defendants be brought forthwith from the Pickaway County jail into this court, for arraignment. A copy of the indictment was, on the following day, delivered to each of the defendants, and they were remanded to the jail to await further order of court. On the succeeding day the defendants were arraigned separately for plea. They plead not guilty. The court, not satisfied with the safety of the Fayette County jail, ordered' prisoners returned to the jail of Pickaway County.

On the 29tli of June, 1865, court ordered prisoners returned to the jail of this county.

July 1, 1865, leave was given to Smith by court to withdraw plea of not guilty, and offer plea in abatement, to which the prosecuting attorney filed demurrer. Court sustained the demurrer, and ordered that said Smith answer forthwith to said indictment. Smith's counsel took exceptions to the action of the court in sustaining the demurrer, and leave was granted them to file motion to quash indictment; but motion, after argument by counsel, and exceptions again taken to action in overruling motion. Prisoner, upon being re-arraigned for plea, plead "Not guilty." The case was continued till next term of court, and the prisoner ordered returned to the Pickaway County jail.

October 30, 1865, F. M. Gray, attorney for the defendant John Adams, moved that his client be removed from the Pickaway to the Fayette County jail, which was so ordered by the court.

March 9, 1866, H. B. Maynard was appointed by court to assist in the prosecution of the case. The defense was conducted by F. M. Gray and Mills Gardner. The following named gentlemen were selected a jury to try the case: Jacob Harper, Robert Gilmore, William P. Snider, William Chaifin, Robert House, Joseph Hidy, Jackson Popejoy, Jesse Heagler, Edward Taylor, George Fullerton, William McCafterty, and Samuel R. Morris. The taking of testimony was commenced on the 12th of March, and continued till the evening of the 15th. The case was argued on the following day. On the 16th day of March, 1866, Adams was convicted of manslaughter, as set forth in the third count of the indictment. A motion for a new trial was overruled, and the prisoner sentenced to ten years in the Ohio penitentiary. Judge Alfred S. Dickey occupied the bench during the entire trial.

THE TRIAL OF WILLIAM. G. W. SMITH

The court, on the 5th of June. 1866, appointed R. M. Briggs and R. A. Harrison counsel for defendant, and on the 8th, H. B. Maynard was appointed to assist in the prosecution.

At a special term of court, held August 28, 1866, motion was made by defendant's counsel for a change of venue from Fayette to some adjoining county. Motion overruled. A motion to continue the case to the next term of court. On the succeeding day the case was tried before the following jury: William James, David Lysinger, John L. Myers, J. R. Venausdal, Jacob Eyman, Joel Wood, John F. Gregg, H. W. Hull, William Kearney, Anthony Coaler, L. E. Tinimons, and Thomas Braden.

On the 31st of August, testimony was introduced. Court issued habeas corpus for the return of Adams in the penitentiary, to testify in the case. Adams gave in his evidence on September 3, 1866. The taking of testimony continued till Thursday, September 6th, when the case was argued by counsel. On the next day Mills Gardner was appointed to assist the prosecution, on account of the illness of H. B. Maynard. The case was given to the jury, who retired.

At 6 A. M,, on Saturday, September 8, 1866, the jury, after having consulted all night, returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree. Monday, September 10th, a motion by defendant for a new trial was overruled. "Whereupon the court does hereby adjudge and sentence that you, said defendant, William G. W. Smith, be taken hence to the common jail of said county, from whence you came, there to remain in safe and close custody until Friday, the 30th day of November, 1866, and that on said lastnamed day you be taken to the place of execution, and between the hours of ten o'clock in the forenoon and three o'clock in the afternoon of Friday, the 30th day of November, 1866, you be hanged by the neck until you are dead; and may God have mercy on you."

After having received his sentence, and shortly before the execution. Smith acknowledged the killing to Sheriff Straley. Upon being furnished with stationery by the sheriff, he proceeded to write a history of his life. On the morning of the execution, a large crowd pressed to the door of his cell. He became very indignant at what he called their insolence, and remarked that he had written "a lot of stuff," which would be eagerly sought after, but the people should not be satisfied. He then destroyed the sketch, which he had written with great care. He said, "I didn't kill John Gray, but could throw some light on the subject." While on his way to the scaffold he stopped to say "good-by " to the sheriff's family. He ascended with a firm step, and was brave to the last, seemingly ready and willing to die. While the noose was being adjusted, he made a few remarks, saying that this was a solemn occasion, but that he was innocent.

A new scaffold was erected for the execution. It has never been used since, but can be seen among the old relics of the jail.

Smith was reared in Hardy County, Virginia. It is said that prior to his removal to this state, he was, on one occasion, pursued by a constable with an execution for debt. Smith was found in a mill, which the constable entered. The former was in a desperate mood, and threatened to turn the water into the mill if the officer of the law did not acknowledge that the account was paid. The request was promptly complied with.

SKETCH OF W. G. W. SMITH's LIFE

The following brief sketch of the life of Smith was furnished by him the day before his execution, and appeared in the Herald, December 20, 1866

"I was born in Hardy County, Virginia, on the waters of the south branch of the Potomac, April 15, 1817. My parents were not religious—very seldom went to meeting—but yet were of a moral character. Did not allow their children to use profane language. Had very few religious influences thrown around me. Sometimes went to Sabbath-school, but as I had five miles to walk I did not attend regularly. When quite young committed a considerable part of the Gospel of Matthew to memory. I never attended meeting much; never heard but one whole sermon, and two parts of sermons.

"I grew up a reckless young man. At the age of eighteen was married to my present wife. My principal occupation was trading in and driving stock. My home after marriage was in Hardy County, Virginia, near my parents. From about twenty years of age I used liquor pretty freely. I also gambled a good deal; was generally successful. It would have been better for me if I had lost. I cared little for it; it was spent as freely as though it had no value.

"After coming to Ohio, which was some ten years ago, I did not gamble much, as the mode here was different from that to which I had been accustomed. Still, my companions were of the loose, drinking class. Sometimes got into quarrels, but not often. Never misused my family by harsh abuse, but did much neglect them; spent too much of my time from home. If I had been more attentive to the claims of my family, and the advice of my wife, it would be better with me now.

"In all my wanderings and wickedness I did not entirely forget the future world. I believed in the existence of a God, in a future state of rewards and punishments, and, in my thoughtful moments, felt I was not doing right—felt condemned. At such times I resolved to reform and lead a different life, but was led off by my besetting sins.

"I was never arrested for any crime until in 1864. I was arrested for the murder of John Gray, with which I now solemnly protest before God, before whom I must soon stand, that I had no connection, and knew nothing of it until after it was committed. To-morrow I suppose I must hang for a crime for which I am not guilty. I am innocent of it, and the world will some day know it. But I feel prepared for death—it has no terrors—only I feel that it is hard to suffer innocently. But I believe I have Christ for my friend, and that my sins, though many, are all forgiven; and I can die rejoicing in His pardoning mercy, and in hope of heaven.

"Could I be permitted to address young men, I would urge them to avoid intemperance, profanity, and the gambling table—all lead to present and eternal ruin—shun them as you would the deadly viper. Do not violate God's day—seek the company of the good, and avoid all associations with the reckless and the vile, and above all to love and revere God.

I can forgive all those who have in any way injured me—yes, even those who swore my life away. The time with me is short, but I trust to meet you in a better world. Farewell."

THE EXECUTION.

We extract from the Herald the following account of the execution, which took place on Friday, December 14, 1866

"Although the execution was conducted privately, crowds of people began to assemble early in the morning, and long before noon the town was full, and the jail-yard completely surrounded by the curious, anxious to obtain, if possible, a last look at the prisoner, and to see whatever there was to be seen. Sheriff Straley had issued a proclamation requesting that the day be observed in a quiet, orderly manner, and that no liquor be sold, and Captain Henkle with part of his company, were called out to act as guards around the jail-yard, and preserve order during the day.

" On Thursday night, the last night of Smith's life, he slept very little, and arose early Friday morning, and engaged for a short time in prayer and reading of the Bible. He dressed himself with a great deal of care, and sat down to his breakfast eating very little. During the day few visitors were admitted, "except the prisoner's family and religious advisers, who remained with him up to the moment of his execution. At about twelve o'clock, his last meal was brought to him, but he scarcely touched it, and being informed by Sheriff Straley that his last hour was near at hand, he expressed his readiness for the sacrifice at any time. At ten minutes past one o'clock, he entered the enclosure about the gallows, accompanied by his spiritual adviser, his counsel, Sheriff Straley and deputy, ascending the platform at the request of the sheriff, seated himself in a chair upon the drop. A short prayer was then offered by Rev. C. T. Emerson, during which the prisoner was kneeling with his face covered, and when he arose his face showed no sign of agitation, though during the prayer his face could be seen to tremble as if in some emotion. After the prayer, the death warrant was read to him by the sheriff, and he was asked if he had anything to say before taking his departure. He arose, and stepping to the front of the platform, began :

"'Gentlemen, I have little to say. It is a solemn occasion, and I hope I may be the last man who will have to suffer death in this way. But I am innocent of the murder of Old John Gray, for which I must die. The confession I have given to my advisers is strictly true. Death has no terrors for me—none whatever. We must all die; it is only a matter of time. I do not fear death; but it is the manner in which it comes, and the disgrace it leaves upon my family. For fifty years I have lived in rebellion against God; but now, thank God, I have a hope in him.'

"Smith then took farewell of those on the platform, and if at any time there could be detected the least trembling in his voice, it was when he parted with Mr. Emerson, who had been with him much of the time during his confinement, and to whom he expressed a wish of meeting him in heaven. Stepping forward on the platform, he said, 'Gentlemen, adieu to you all,' then turning to the sheriff, motioned him to proceed, and the noose was adjusted, the black cup pulled down over his face. At just twenty-eight minutes past one o'clock the drop fell, and the prisoner was launched into eternity. During about five minutes he continued to struggle, and then all was quiet. After hanging nineteen minutes, the physicians in attendance pronounced that life was extinct, but the body was not taken down until it had hung nearly twentyfive minutes. It was then taken down and placed in a common varnished coffin, and given into the care of his family.

"Smith met his fate with the stubborn firmness of one who had nerved himself for the trial. From the time he stepped upon the platform until the moment the drop fell, there was little or nothing in his countenance, or the tone of his voice, to betray any emotion he might have felt, and it seemed as if indeed death had no terrors for him. He protested his innocence to the last, although there can scarcely be a doubt of his guilt.

"Thus ended the Gray tragedy. The law has been enforced, and William G. W. Smith has suffered the extreme penalty of the law for his crime, and his soul has gone to meet the judgment of a just God, who knows of his innocence or guilt."