This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, October 30, 1932
Greene County’s Queerest Crime
By Howard Burba
It is doubtful if in the criminal annals of the entire state of Ohio there has been recorded a crime as unusual in its varying angles as the one I’m going to tell you about. If there has been anything to approach it in dramatic climaxes, then it certainly is not a part of the criminal record of this section of the country.
Over in Greene co. it is referred to, by those older citizens who delight in living in the past, as “the Douthett case.” Among the younger generation there is no reference to it whatever, since few of them are aware that so strange a criminal story was ever enacted in their own community. They would be justified, too, in questioning the truthfulness of the details I am about to set down but for the fact that every detail is backed by actual names and dates, and those names and dates are open to inspection in the courthouse at Xenia.
The tragedy of which I write came first to the attention of Xenia residents on the morning of April 16, 1886, when neighbors of Jonathan and Eliza Douthett, residing on the Cincinnati pike just beyond the city limits, saw their house ablaze. The fire was discovered about 1 o’clock in the morning when Mrs. George W. Stark, residing with her husband on an adjoining farm, was awakened by screams. She aroused her husband, told him of hearing the screams, which had not been repeated, and urged that he dress and investigate.
On arriving at the Douthett home Mr. Stark found that the flames had made such headway that it was impossible to cope with them. The bodies of the aged couple were lying in the two front rooms of the structure. Life was evidently extinct as they were making no struggle to escape the flames which already had enveloped them. Within a short time a large crowd assembled, but nothing could be done toward saving the house, its contents, or its occupants, and all was soon in ashes.
The body of Douthett was removed from the room in which he met death, but it was in such a burned condition that it could not be determined whether or not he had reached his death by violence. His head was almost completely destroyed, his arms and legs gone, the body itself being so terribly burned as to leave little semblance of its original state. The body of Mrs. Douthett, in an adjoining bedroom, was in almost the same condition, except that the head was better preserved.
The coroner was called, and upon arrival found that Mrs. Douthett had been murdered. He extracted about 20 small pieces of metal from her head. They resembled jagged bits of solder, that might have been used as a substitute for shot. Confident, following this discovery, that Mrs. Douthett had been slain before the house was fired, the coroner at once began his investigation along that line.
Charles Morris, colored, who had resided with the Douthetts for four years, and who had occupied a room upstairs in the story-and-a-half dwelling, was located and given a chance to tell what he knew of the tragedy. He declared he was awakened by Mr. Douthett calling him, and thinking it was time to get up, he dressed and went to the door leading out of the stairway, which he found locked. He stated that he saw the house was filling with smoke, and not being able to break in the door he climbed through a window, out to the limb of a pear tree and let himself to the ground. Without looking to see about Mr. and Mrs. Douthett, he claimed to have hurried away to summon assistance.
According to his original story he first went to the house of Carrol Winslow, a colored man, where his cries aroused Henry Eichman, and man named Smith, and others. All of these hurried to the scene of the fire.
The moment Morris arrived at the scene he made an outcry for the Douthetts and manifested so much grief that it was feared he would jump into the flames. He called the names of the old people in a frantic manner, and was about to enter the house when the roof collapsed.
In discussing the origin of the fire Morris said Mrs. Douthett had gathered a lot of dry leaves the previous evening, and putting them in a willow basket had set them near the hearth. There had been a fire in the fireplace, and he thought it highly probable that sparks had popped from the fireplace into the basket. He declared Douthett was in poor health, and subject to fainting spells, and that he believed his efforts to save his wife cost him his life.
Morris’ conduct was so strange and his statements so contradictory, however, that he was later arrested on suspicion. When searched, his pockets revealed a lady’s gold watch and $71 in money, among the latter being a $20 gold piece. He declared to the chief of police at Xenia that the money was his, and had been saved over a considerable period of time. He also declared he owned one on the horses and two of the calves on the Douthett farm, asserting he had bought them from Douthett.
Morris, about 26 years of age, appeared to have had considerable to say about the running of the farm, Douthett and his wife trusted him implicitly. Citizens of the town, however, were divided in their opinion as to his guilt. This doubt is reflected in an article appearing in The Xenia Gazette following the arrest of Morris. The Gazette said:
“The statements of Morris were made while he kept his eyes constantly on the floor. Persons acquainted with the Douthetts say he never owned the livestock he claims, and it seems strange he should go away without looking for the old people when he discovered the flames. Stranger still is it that he should have had so much money in his every-day breeches. He claims Mr. Douthett gave him the $20 in gold for a Christmas present two years ago. Why should he be carrying it in his old pants pocket? And how is it possible for two people to burn up on the ground floor? They evidently knew of the fire, as Mrs. Douthett got to another room from the one in which she had been asleep.
“The tree Morris claimed to have jumped to from the house shows no marks and is too small to have borne his weight and the box he claims to have jumped onto would not have held him. On searching Morris a large gold watch was found, but that he bought of George Charters. The road leading to the scene of the disaster has been crowded all day, and the town is literally torn up with excitement.”
Not wholly satisfied with Morris’ statement, he was held by the chief of police. Among the better-class residents of the town there was a strong sentiment against him, and it was deemed best to have the grand jury probe the case. The Douthetts were held in high esteem, and had during their residence in Greene co. for more than 40 years been among its most substantial citizens. While engaged in farming for a number of years previous to his death, Douthett was a teacher by profession, and at one time attended lectures in the medical department of the Dental College of Michigan.
When evidence in the case was sifted by the grand jury an indictment charging the murder of Jonathan Douthett was returned against Morris. This evidence was not sufficient to convict him, however, when his trial was held at the following term of court, and he was liberated.
That he was scarcely to be classed as an exemplary citizen developed some months following his acquittal when the police of Xenia, running down clews in a burglary case, picked Morris up on suspicion. It developed that he not only knew all about the burglary, but that he was actually guilty of it. He was sentenced to 12 years in the penitentiary, and shortly after found himself an inmate of that institution.
The Douthett case was written into the records of Greene co. as another unsolved mystery, and it probably would have forever remained as such had not fate stepped into play a strange and unusual card. Morris, while at work one day about the penitentiary, eight years following the Douthett tragedy, suffered an injury to one of his hands. He became dangerously ill, and was ordered to the prison hospital. Physicians in attendance expressed the belief that it would be necessary to amputate an arm.
Alarmed by the seriousness of his condition, fearful of losing the arm, and also strong in the belief that he would not survive the operation, Morris called attendants of the hospital to his bedside and made a complete confession of the Douthett murder.
He told the entire story of the crime, giving robbery as his motive. He told how he shot Mrs. Douthett with a gun loaded with soft bird shot, used in clay pigeon shooting; how he had then knotted a strong rope about her neck and strangled her to death. He also stated that after he had thrown her body on the floor, he went out in search of Douthett and found him working about the barn. The aged man was garrotted in the same manner as his wife, and his head beaten almost to a pulp. With the rope about his victim’s neck, Morris dragged him to the house and into the room in which it was found during the fire. He then set fire to the house and, waiting until the flames had gained headway, he rushed to the home of neighbors and sounded the alarm.
Instead of growing worse following the confession, Morris showed signs of improving. He was given every possible attention, and medical skill and careful nursing restored him to health. On the basis of the confession he had made when death stared him in the face, he was returned to Xenia and indicted for the murder of Mrs. Eliza Douthett.
Never in the history of Greene co. had there been such a bitterly contested trial from a legal standpoint. Freed of the same charge eight years before, his attorneys, T. E. Scroggy and R. W. Douglas, both prominent Xenia lawyers, attempted to show that Morris’ confession in the penitentiary hospital was merely an hallucination, that his mind was impaired as the result of illness and the fear of death, and that his utterance was nothing more than the rambling statement of a brain that had ceased its proper functioning.
Judge H. L. Smith, still living and a highly-respected citizen of Xenia, was on the bench at the time, and Marcus Shoup, now dead, was county prosecutor. Of the grand jurors that indicted Morris the second time, Towne Carlisle and J. P. Maxwell, the latter a Negro, are believed to be still alive. None of the petit jurors who tried him are now known to Xenia residents.
It was a long trial and a bitter one, but Prosecutor Shoup succeeded in making the penitentiary confession stand. So on April 9, 1896, within one week of the tenth anniversary of the crime, Morris was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. The date for the hanging was fixed by the judge for July 24 of the same year.
It is necessary to digress a moment here to explain that up to 1896 the state of Ohio had been using the gallows for the execution of its condemned. Originally the hangings were staged in the county in which the condemned was convicted. Later, however, the law was changed to provide for all hangings at the state penitentiary, and it was necessary for the sheriff in the county in which a man had been sentenced to hang to deliver his prisoner at the penitentiary in Columbus for that purpose.
Shortly before 1896 this law was changed, the legislature providing that capital punishment in Ohio should be by electrocution. The electric chair was installed in the same year in which Morris was convicted, but the court held that inasmuch as the man had been sentenced before the chair was installed and the new method of capital punishment was in force and effect, that the usual method of execution should be followed. So Morris was taken to the county jail in Xenia until such time as the sheriff, the late R. R. Grieve, should see fit to deliver him to the officials of the state prison.
It was a queer murder case up to this time. But the final chapter was not yet written when this man, once tried and acquitted of a murder and later arrested, retried and sentenced to hang for the same crime, was locked in a cell of the Greene co. jail. Newspapers of that day made much of it. It really was a strange freak of fate that had caused Morris to be confronted with his crime while he lay on a sick bed facing, as he thought, the final judgment. Few cases of a similar nature had been recorded up to that time; few have been recorded since. So papers allover the country called attention to it, and as a result the Douthett case attracted more widespread attention than the occasional double-murder in those days was accustomed to receiving. The trial had been a fair and a just one, however. The judge had seen to that. And when he sentenced Morris to hang on the 24th day of July following, it was so inscribed in the records, and the public naturally supposed that justice would be meted out as per legal schedule.
But here again fate tossed down another strange and unusual card. Sheriff Grieve had decided that he would take Morris to the penitentiary, for confinement in the death chamber, on April 16, just one week following the passing of sentence. So on the night of April 15 he served the condemned man his supper and instructed him that he was to rise early the following morning, dress himself in his best clothes and make ready for the trip to the penitentiary. There was no demurrer on the part of the prisoner.
After breakfast and attention to minor details in connection with the trip, Sheriff Grieve went to Morris’ cell on the morning of April 16, on the tenth anniversary of the crime, with key in hand, prepared to lead him forth on the first step of his last earthy journey. When he reached the cell he was able to dimly distinguish the form of his prisoner prostrate on the floor. Quickly unlocking the cell door, he entered, and found Morris lying in a pool of blood. By his side was a razor. The condemned man had cut his throat from ear to ear, his death following within a few minutes, and before he could be lifted to his cot.
How and when and from whom Morris had secured the razor he used in committing suicide remains a mystery to this day, though Sheriff Grieve and his deputies made every possible attempt to solve it. Morris had cheated the gallows, and again it appeared that the final chapter had been written into this strange and unusual tragedy. But there was more to come to keep it on the tongues of the populace and in the newspapers of the country.
Ohio laws at that time held that the state was to pay all county costs and fees in “hanging cases” upon the delivery of the prisoner at the penitentiary door. Greene co. had incurred an expense of about $1900 in prosecuting the Morris case, and now the question arose: “How is the county going to collect that $1900 when the prisoner had killed himself before he could be taken to the pen?”
Sheriff Grieve and J. F. Haverstick, clerk of courts in Greene co., were puzzled. The county couldn’t afford to lose all that money; it was not fair to the taxpayers, they argued, that it should be lost when the Douthett case ended under circumstances over which they had no control and for which they were not responsible. The state insisted that it came under the classification of “an act of providence.”
But the officials of the pen were adamant. They refused to certify that a prisoner had arrived at the prison when the fact of the matter was he had not been presented there. Goaded to desperation, and determined to save their constituents the loss of the $1900, Grieve and Haverstick hit upon a plan as unusual as the murder case itself. They had Morris’ body prepared for burial, and they were ready, and preparing, to take the body to the doors of the prison and claim their $1900 court costs when Attorney General Monnett stepped in. He held that such procedure was a bit too gruesome. It didn’t speak very highly for the humanitarian side of this great commonwealth, either, the attorney general said. So he accepted the coroner’s verdict and proof of death, and ordered the court costs paid out of the state treasury.
It had been a case of many angles. Nothing in criminal annals had ever approached it. And as far as Greene co. is concerned, she hopes nothing ever will.