This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on January 19, 1936
A Poison Mystery That Didn’t Pan Out
By Howard Burba
Just 36 years ago this week Dayton was deep in the throes of a sensational “poison mystery,” and while it was settled in the eyes of the law, in the minds of many older residents, scores of whom will instantly recall the case, it still remains a mystery.
For several long weeks following the 6th day of January, 1900, The Evening News was screaming through black-type headlines to know “Who Poisoned Old Phillip Class!” That he was a victim of a queer and unusual poison was generally understood, since a chemical analysis of his stomach following his death on his big farm up near Little York established that fact conclusively. But who might have administered it, why it was administered and who might profit as an ultimate result of his death were questions disturbing the minds of Daytonians.
Phillip Class was one of the county’s wealthiest farmers. He was a substantial citizen, and a member of one of the finest families this county has ever produced. He was well-liked by everyone. Neighbors who knew him best said he never had an enemy in the world. His relatives were kind and considerate of him, and held him in the greatest endearment. Who, then, Dayton was asking following ugly rumors and the finding of poison traces in his stomach, could have been guilty of placing a subtle poison—the leaf of a belladonna plant—in the whisky old Phillip Class had been drinking for several weeks prior to his demise?
So it is not difficult to imagine the sensation created locally when, on Jan 6, 1900, there appeared in bold headlines in The News this point-blank statement:
“Old Phillip Class Died at the Hands of a Remorseless Murderer!”
“Suspicion That All Was Not Right Leads To Examination of the Stomach!”
“A Jug of Whisky Which Made Sisters Sick. Family Will Endeavor To Secure Facts In The Case.”
Those screaming headlines interested Dayton 36 years ago. The story, in all likelihood, will interest you now. So here it is as it appeared that evening in Dayton’s favorite newspaper.
“When Phillip Class, an aged farmer, who resides about seven miles north of Dayton, died Thursday, Dec. 7, at his home, it was thought that his demise was due to natural causes, but it has since been learned that it was caused by the deadly workings of a subtle poison. The whole countryside has been startled by the facts recently ferreted out and the developments will be of a very startling nature.
“The deceased has a brother, Ferdinand Class, who resides in Riverdale and who has been making quiet investigations in regard to the death of his brother. Phillip had been ill nearly all summer. A nephew had been in constant attendance upon him. His illness was of a very peculiar nature, many claiming that his mind had been disordered for years. This fact was not generally known, but it is stated as a positive truth by relatives. His condition was such that it was necessary for stimulants to be administered to him. With this end in view, whisky was always kept in the house in medium quantities.
“A jug of extra fine whisky was secured some time ago by a friend of the family. On the day the farmer died he had taken an unusually large quantity of this whisky and it seemed to affect him in a strange manner. His two aged sisters, who reside with him, had also taken a dose of the stimulant and were made deathly sick. They vomited, however, and threw the contents from their stomachs. The old man died shortly after he had drank his apportionment, but no thought had been given the matter by the attendants, as he had been near to death for a number of weeks.
“The Riverdale brother had his own independent convictions about the matter and just before the death of his brother he had called at the house and secured a quantity of the whisky, which he brought to this city and experts analyzed it. They found that the concoction had heavy traces of belladonna, a deadly vegetable poison.
“After the death, which occurred on Thursday, the brother consulted with medical men with the result that he secured the services of Dr. C. H. Breidenbach, of this city, and Dr. House, of Salem, who had waited on the patient, for the purpose of opening the body of the dead man and diagnosing the contents of the stomach. The following Friday morning these doctors opened the body and found perceptible but delicate, vestiges of the same poignant poison, which they had discovered in the whisky. This terrible testimony confirmed the suspicious of the brother and he at once instituted an investigation.
“This was a mammoth puzzle, as all who had attended the sick man during his illness were trusty friends of the family and of the deceased. As yet no traces have been found of the man who assuredly drugged the life away from the old tiller of the soil. The work had been done so quietly and so gradually that in the opinion of physicians it had been the work of months. This made the solution of the enigma sill more difficult, but the brother is determined to hunt the criminal down. He was seen last evening at his home by a representative of The Daily News and said:
“ ‘I will find the murderer of my brother if it takes the rest of my life and the last $5 bill I possess.’
“He was grief stricken at the discoveries his investigation had uncovered, but vowed that he would never rest until he had hounded the guilty persons to the hole.
“He has had a detective on the case ever since the poison was first discovered and is making every effort to get on the trail of the guilty one. In this he is assisted by his attorney and the doctors who made the startling discovery.
“The drug used is considered one of the most formidable on the market. Unlike a mineral compound, it is gradually worked off by the exertion of the system and its presence is harder to discover. The dead man’s stomach had been so permeated with it, however, that it was more than usually discernible.
“Old Phillip Class was known and respected the country over. He had many misfortunes in his long career. A number of years ago, when about 40 years of age, he was shot in the head by a young college man named Benson Stubbs, who lived on an adjoining farm. Money is thought to have been the reason that prevailed upon young Stubbs to have attempted the murder. It will be remembered that he crept upon the old man while he was stooping over feeding the cows and carefully fired the ball which the would be assassin thought would end the man’s life. The bullet missed its mark and entered the head at the ear, coming out near the nose on the right cheek.
“Stubbs heart then failed him and he threw away his gun and came to the assistance of his victim. He hastily went to Little York, a town a short distance away, and procured medical aid. A number of residents of the village returned with the doctor. They for some reason, suspected the young fellow of the crime and trailed backward on his footsteps through the snow. In a place in a bridge they found the weapon he had used to shoot the old man. He had thrust it down the aperture, thinking it was out of sight. The proof against Stubbs was overwhelming, as he had borrowed the revolver from a neighbor boy. He was tried and worked out a sentence of several years in the Ohio penitentiary at Columbus.
“It was thought this shot was material in dethroning the old man’s reason in later years. That he was actually crazy at the time of his death is known only from the statements of his brother, though country folk were said to be well acquainted with the condition of the man’s intellect and information comes from that quarter to the same effect.
“If his reasoning powers were really unbalanced at the time of his death, then the awful deed assumes a more horrible form.
“The fact remains that his death was caused by the potions which contained the poison and the whole proceeding is wrapped in a horrible skein of mystery.
“His two sisters, who lived with him, are horrified at the disclosures made. The brother’s intelligence was the first enlightenment they had on the subject and their grief was pitiable. But they, like Ferdinand, the brother, will not rest easy in their home until the guilty person or persons shall be brought to a court of justice to answer to the charges.
“The deceased had been a thrifty main in his day and had accumulated quite a snug fortune. His will was probated just recently. He was probably worth $100,000.”
Throughout the following day, Sunday, local citizens forgot all else in a discussion of the new and puzzling mystery. It formed their chief topic of conversation and the basis for innumerable arguments, out of which grew the usual division of opinion. Being a day of rest and leisure, it also afforded an opportunity for the more curious to travel over winter clad roads to the Class farm near Little York, where they could, merely to satisfy that curiosity, gaze upon the house in which the fine old citizen had breathed his last.
Then on the following day, Monday, came The News again with its “follow up” story so framed as to add new angles to the mystery.
“The effort to unravel the mystery in the death of old Phillip Class, who died Dec. 7 as a result of alleged gradual belladonna poisoning, is continued,” wrote the reporter assigned to “cover” the story. “In all probability,” he wrote, “the body will be exhumed and a post-mortem again held. It is the opinion of physicians that the brain and spine of the deceased should have been examined more closely than the stomach, which had been given a keen diagnosis the day after death. With this end in view, and to fully satisfy themselves that the man’s death was due to the deadly poison, the body will probably be disinterred. He was buried in Concord cemetery, where the man rests who was once implicated in an assault upon the old man.
“The man’s actions after he had taken a dose of the whisky which is said to have contained the vegetable poison were very peculiar, the result this ingredient invariably brings about. He would puff his cheeks out, fight madly with his hands and moan constantly for water. This peculiar condition prevailed at times for a number of weeks before there was the slightest suspicion that there was anything wrong.
“On the day of the old man’s death the sister and Miss Ella Class, a sister of John Class, the nurse, each took a small dose of the whisky, having been in the habit, it is said, of drinking a small stimulant occasionally. The effect upon the women was the same as took probably half a wineglass full, had been noticed upon the old man. His sister, Rickey, who is silenced by sorrow at the recent disclosures, she said, and did not recover until in the evening. She was compelled to drink water all the time. The sister of the nurse was also affected in the same way.
“Just prior to the old man’s death he is said to have moaned for water constantly. Those who were present at the time of death were John Class, the nurse and a nephew of the deceased, Miss Ella Class, Mrs. John Class, Tenia Nuts and Rickey Class, the dead man’s sister, and Bill Pariah, a farm hand employed at the home.
“The death was not an agonized one. The old man said, ‘John, I’m a dying’ and expired quietly.
“The story that the man was insane at the time of his death seems to have been a little far-reached, although the brother said that such was the case. The two immediate neighbors of the deceased, John Eby and John Olt, say that Class was not insane. They had talked to him and had business dealings with him for the past year and were willing to vouch that the old man was perfectly sane. The nephew, who waited upon him for about six weeks, also said he was perfectly rational up to the time of his death.
“A large number of physicians at different times attended the man. These medical advisers had many different opinions in regard to the source of the old man’s illness. They could not settle positively whether it was caused by lungs or stomach trouble or general debility. But ‘Old Rickey,’ as she is commonly called by the country folk, said ‘the doctor told her that he had gone dead long before his time.’ The doctors who have attended the man are Dr. J. W. Dean of Vandalia, Dr. House of Salem and Dr. Goodhue and Dr. Conklin of this city. Dr. C. H. Breidenbach, the expert chemist, made an analysis.
“Last Friday Coroner H. H. Hatcher and Prosecuting Attorney U. S. Martin called at the house and instituted a number of inquiries. These gentlemen say they have not fully investigated the case as yet, but will know later in the week as to what their line of action shall be. It is positively known from an outside source, however, that the evidence secured has been considered of a sufficiently strong enough nature to persuade them to carry the investigation still farther.
“The story is all over the country and Butler tp., in which the Classes live. The neighbors have heard vague tales about a deed of poisoning, but are too much frightened to repeat them positively. Old Phillip owned 1200 acres of land in Butler tp. He and his sister, Rickey, worked as partners on the farm for 50 years. She is a little withered woman of 78 years, but seems to have had a deep love for her dead brother.”
Within a short time after that second article appeared the “mystery” began to wane in public interest. There were many bold enough to suggest that some enterprising reporter had “made a mountain out of a mole hill,” while there appeared to be an inclination on the part of those investigating the case to feel that the deceased had innocently poisoned himself, while attempting to add to the medicinal properties of his liquor jug by the insertion of belladonna leaves there in. It was not until the following Saturday, or Jan. 13, that the reporter added another chapter to the case and then he did so in these words:
“The law is silently investigating the case of old Farmer Phillip Class who it is thought died as a result of belladonna poison administered in whisky.
“Since the time the prosecutor and coroner got on the track of the story they have been giving the entire premises careful scrutiny. The fact that an inquest was held this morning by the prosecutor and the coroner in a little room in the courthouse is sufficient proof that these two shrewd officials are pushing the case right to the wall.
“The only thing of importance that developed this morning was that the leaf of the belladonna had been found in the whisky. Dr. H. C. Breidenbach, the chemist, testified to the fact that the poison had been found in the whisky. This fact is fully established and it is thought that it will open the pathway to a larger comprehension of the case.
“The inquest will not be completed until next week. There is a large number of witnesses in the case. The principal ones are W. L. Martindale, the administrator of the estate and the decease’s lawyer; John Class, the nephew and nurse of the deceased; Mrs. Nuts and Rickey Class, the aged sisters, and a number of other relatives and neighbors.
“Coroner Hatcher was seen this morning. He says he cannot tell yet how the case will result. He said the most important witness would not be examined until the early part of the coming week. Who this individual is the coroner did not vouchsafe. He was very reticent and deplored that the affair had been given publicity. But the coroner and the prosecutor have fully decided to sift the matter to the bottom and see if there is any foundation to the many reports.
“The body of Class, which was buried in Concord, has not yet been disinterred, but will be if the result of the inquest warrants such proceedings.”
Still another week passed with no action on the part of county officials looking to an arrest and with interest in the event fast disappearing. And then came this brief statement on an inside page of the edition of Jan. 20:
“Owing to fresh developments in the Class poison case, the coroner’s verdict was not given out today. The past week has been a busy one for the prosecutor and the coroner, who have been peering into the case carefully. The officials are agreed on the fact that the old man died shortly after he had been drinking whisky which contained poison, but they have not fully decided whether his death was the direct result of the poison or of a cancer which had been eating out the deceased’s stomach.
“Some interesting facts developed at the inquest and led both the officials to believe that the farmer had been meditatively murdered. To ascertain this positively it will no doubt be necessary to exhume the body and examine it once again. The coroner said today that he would announce his decision the first of next week.”
That was next to the last chapter written in the class “poisoning mystery.” Public interest in it already had slumped to the decimal point, and apparently even the reporter who had worked diligently to keep it alive had abandoned hoping of doing so.
The coroner returned a belated verdict. But it placed no blame and suggested no criminal investigation farther than that already made. The Class poison mystery thus passed into history only to be recalled now through a reading of newspaper files of 36 years ago.