September 1896


This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News
on September 14, 1991

 

SEPTEMBER 1896

BESSIE LITTLE MURDER, CITY CENTENNIAL MADE FOR A BUSY MONTH IN DAYTON

            Firefighter William T. Sayer, doing research for a history of the Dayton Fire Department, chanced upon a Sept. 5, 1905, newspaper report that ties a nice ribbon around the Bessie Little story.

            You may recall reading here last September how 1,000 people crowded the riverbank along the Stillwater on another September day in 1896 to watch Police Chief Thomas J. Farrell direct the search for the gun that Albert Frantz used to kill Bessie Little.

            Farrell reasoned that Frantz probably tossed the gun off the bridge when he threw Bessie's body over the railing into the brown waters. Farrell stood on the bridge and heaved a plank over the side. Ed Phillips, waiting in a boat, rowed to the spot where the plank hit the water and lowered his anchor overboard. "Water's 10 feet deep here," he called up to Farrell.

            "All right. See if you can find the gun."

            Phillips slipped overboard and began diving. Every time his head broke the surface of the water, the crowd cheered. The water was so dark that he could only grope with his hands in the muddy bottom. After Phillips made 50 unsuccessful dives, Farrell called off the search until another day. On the second day of diving an even larger crowd came to watch, but although Phillips this time had a heavy magnet and brought up many small metal articles from the river bottom, the gun was not among them. Farrell canceled further search; he had enough evidence as it was to convict Albert Frantz.

            According to the 1905 newspaper story found by Sayer, Washington Smith, who owned the farm northeast of the Bessie Little bridge and adjoining Idylwild (now Triangle Park), in clearing his woods found a rusty revolver that looked as if it had been buried in the ground for a long time. The gun was loaded, but two chambers were empty. He recalled that during the trial witnesses who were near the Smith farm had testified they heard two shots, and that two bullets had been found in Bessie's head; she had been shot through the ear.

            Smith took the revolver to Chief Farrell, who determined that it was indeed the one sold to Albert Frantz a few days before the murder. The finding of the gun, wrote the 1905 reporter, "proves that Bessie Little was murdered on the road which leads through a strip of woodland, and that Frantz, with the dead body of his sweetheart drove to the bridge where he threw it into the river. It proves, too, the correctness of the evidence of one witness who recalled seeing a man and woman in the buggy and the unnatural position of the woman, who sat up unusually straight with her head thrown back and whose face was ghastly white."

            Chief Farrell gave the gun to Smith, who told the reporter he would preserve it as a relic of one of the foulest crimes ever committed in the history of Montgomery County.

            This is likely the last we will know about the Bessie Little murder unless a relative or descendant of Washington Smith turns up the rusty gun. It would make a popular exhibit for the historical society along with a model of the Bessie Little bridge and portraits of the chief players in this grisly chapter of Dayton history.

            Incidental note: September 1896, was a busy month in Dayton. On Sept. 2, the body of Bessie Little was fished from the river. The story of the arrest of Albert Frantz, the coroner's inquest, the preliminary hearing and the findings of the grand jury were headline news the rest of the month.

            The Florien Gass family, who ran the American Stream Laundry, arrived early in September 1896, and the city celebrated its centennial for three days and nights beginning Sept. 14 and running through the 16th. No wonder the doors of those 64 saloons downtown kept swinging.