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Darke County's Most Cruel Crime

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, December 4, 1932

Darke County’s Most Cruel Crime
By Howard Burba

     If there is one member of the little sisterhood of counties lying within what we have come to know as the Miami Valley area that has kept its records singularly clear of violent acts, it is Darke Co.

     The very mention of Darke co. brings visions of happy homes, contented people and broad acres of fertile farmlands, abounding with the finest livestock and the choicest natural products to be found in any section of the middle west.  Certainly one’s thoughts do not connect this veritable garden spot with acts of violence when its history is bared.  Here is the original “peace county” of the great commonwealth of Ohio.  Herein was signed the final and lasting pact where by the red man and the white shook hands through the smoke of a council fire and laid down their tomahawks and flintlocks forever.  It was in Darke co. that peace came to the whole of the Northwest Territory, a peace that gave to America a new frontier. 

     One does not go to counties like Darke when seeking a story of man’s baser nature.  And yet Darke co. has not been wholly free of such acts of violence as have gone into the making of the Miami Valley’s long and interesting history.  There have been clouds along with the sunshine, tears along with the smiles in Darke co. the same as in her sister counties of this fairest of midwest valleys.

     Travel with me for a moment to that delightful part of Darke co. lying just north of Greenville, two miles out on the broad stretch of concrete highway leading toward Celina and Van Wert.  No greater proof of the value of this section from an agricultural standpoint need be offered than the fact that away back before the turn of the century the first German settlers to reach this part of the new world claimed it as their own.  If there is one race that is superior to all others in the ability to choose fine farming land, and the ability to make it produce, that is the German race.  So when these early settlers from the Vaterland reached Darke co. and reared their crude but substantial homes near Beamsville the reputation of that locality as a prosperous agricultural district was assured.

     Among the first of these German settlers to arrive was a sturdy, forward-looking homesteader by the name of Louis Leis.  With him came his devoted wife, Charlotte, typical example of the strong-hearted women of their time.  Their hearts were in the new homesite, their dreams of future peace and happiness complete from the moment the first rough logs for their home fell beneath the ax.

     Here for long years they realized the wisdom of their choice of a homesite.  Here they battled the elements and natural hazards, and won.  Here they reared a family of 13 stalwart children, each a living reflection of the strong qualities that had endeared their father and mother to the entire countryside.

     All went well with this good German family until the dawn of the year 1891.  Then a shadow fell across the threshold.  An unkind fate had decreed that the lifeblood of the lovable old mother and faithful wife should be shed in what probably always will be recorded as Darke county’s most cruel crime.

     Several of the Leis children had married and were living about the neighborhood in which their parents originally settled.  Among them was a daughter who had been married along about 1882 to Christian Oelchlager.  For a time their married life ran smoothly.  A girl baby came to bless the union in 1885, and the sunshine of happiness beamed brightly in the Oelchlager home.  But Christian Oelchlager was not endowed by nature with traits that made for peace and happiness.  He developed a quarrelsome disposition, and with it a tendency to mistreat his little family.  Apparently realizing that he was fast losing the respect of his wife and relatives, as well as the good people of the neighborhood, he turned to drink.  His downfall came quickly, yet not until his hands had been stained with the blood of the aged Charlotte Leis, not until he had shocked the entire Miami Valley with the crime of which I write.

     Unable to longer tolerate her husband’s abuse, Mrs. Oelchlager sought shelter in the home of her parents taking with her the little daughter, then six years of age.  For four months the two found a safe harbor there.  It was here that they were living when on Jan. 8, 1891, Oelchlager approached the house from the direction of Greenville, where he had spent the previous night and the entire day.  He had been drinking, as usual, but on this occasion had apparently reached the peak of his debauchery.

     Reaching the Leis home about 6 o’clock in the evening, he encountered his father-in-law, Louis Leis, then 75 years of age, sitting on the front doorsteps cleaning a pair of boots.  Sensing no danger, and supposing that Oelchlager had merely visited the house for the purpose of again trying to persuade his wife to resume living with him, the aged Leis greeted him in his customary civil manner and invited him into the house.  Once inside, Mrs. Leis, then in her seventy-first year, asked her son-in-law to have a seat, and to stay for the evening meal with them.

     All of these friendly overtures Oelchlager scorned.  Flying into a violent rage he seized each of the aged people and struggled to shove them into a nearby pantry, just off of the dining room.  While this was taking place his wife and child, frightened and hysterical and fearing for their own lives, fled from the house, the child running to the home of a neighboring family and the wife concealing herself among some shrubbery near the front fence.

     While struggling with the aged couple Oelchlager attempted to extinguish a kerosene lamp sitting on a nearby table.  To accomplish this he found it necessary to release his grip upon them for the moment, and at that instant they hurried through the door and into the yard.  Mrs. Leis ran to the farm bell, erected on a post near the kitchen door, and seizing the rope suspended from it began to ring an alarm. Unfortunately, it was just at the supper hour, and residents of adjoining farms, hearing the bell, naturally supposed that it was merely being rung to call members of the Leis family to their evening meal.  Certainly none dreamed that within the sound of that bell was being enacted the most bloodthirsty and revolting crime ever to occur in the erstwhile peaceful and law-abiding settlement.  Leis made his way to the home of Gottlieb Derr, a neighbor and in excited, half-hysterical works, begged him to return with him to the scene of the disturbance.

     In the meantime, Oelchlager, hearing the dinner bell, rushed into the yard and seized Mrs. Leis by the arms, half-dragging, half-carrying her back into the house.  From her hiding place in the yard, frightened into a state of inactivity, the terrified daughter heard the struggle that ensued within the house.  Then it suddenly ceased, and peering from her hiding place she saw Oelchlager run from the back door and across the fields toward the road, about a mile away.  Scarcely had he departed until Gottlieb Derr and the aged Leis reached the scene.  The daughter joined them, as did several neighbors who had been aroused by the screams of the little girl as she fled along the highway.

     The site that met their eyes within the walls of what had for so many years been a peaceful, happy home, baffled description.  The carpet was literally soaked in blood, while splashings upon the wall and the cloth from the table, which had been overturned in the struggle, carried an added message of gruesomeness.  On the floor, bleeding from many wounds, lay the unfortunate victim of the madman’s wrath.

     A neighbor quickly summoned a son of the murdered victim, who lived about a mile away, and upon his arrival he made a careful investigation of his mother’s wounds.  Then Coroner A. W. Rush arrived and, following his brief examination, it was announced that her body bore 30 stab wounds, any one of a half-dozen or more of them alone having been sufficient to cause death.

     Later it was possible to trace the progress of the murderer after leaving the scene of his crime.  He crossed the fields back of the Leis home to the road, walking along it in the darkness in the direction of Greenville, where a sister resided.  Arriving at her home in a state of excitement bordering on hysteria, he refused to answer her questions as to where he had been, and what had caused the bloodstains plainly apparent on his clothing.  Laughing and crying at intervals, and apparently bordering on collapse, his sister succeeded in getting him into bed.  It was then the discovery was made that he had torn the cuffs from his shirt though even this had failed to totally remove the stains upon that garment.  He quickly fell asleep and his sister, suspecting he had been guilty of violence, searched his trousers pocket and later beneath his pillow for his knife.  The weapon, apparently having but recently been used, but still bearing bloodstains, was found beneath his pillow.

     News of the crime soon spread to Greenville, and no time was lost in locating Oelchlager.  He was taken to the county jail, where he asked permission to wash his hands.  Still apparently but partially conscious of his terrible deed, he offered evasive answers to the questions asked him, or else gave such rambling replies as to throw no light on his motive for the crime.  Out in the town horror-stricken citizens were eagerly seeking every detail.  There was not to be found in all Darke co. a more highly-esteemed and respected family than that of Louis and Charlotte Leis.  It was inconceivable that anyone could have attacked them. Such a thing as one of them being murdered was almost beyond belief.  The son, who had been summoned to the home of his parents following the crime, hurried into Greenville, and became at once the center of a sympathetic crowd of citizens.

     There was the making of a mob in Greenville that night.  Blinded by rage and a tumult of sorrow burdening his heart, the younger Leis heard the threats against his brother-in-law.  But the law-abiding traits of his father and mother were strongly inbred into his being, and fighting down the human desire for vengeance, he counseled his friends and sympathizers to let the law take its course.  But it was a sleepless night for the sheriff of Darke co. and officials at the jail.  Their uneasiness soon impressed Oelchlager with the danger which threatened him at the hands of the infuriated citizens on the outside, and as each succeeding hour found his brain clearing from the effects of his debauch it also found him growing more and more fearful that he was to meet death at the hands of a mob.

     The murderer was arraigned on Saturday, Jan. 10 and a charge of first degree murder preferred against him.  He was remanded to jail under a $10,000 bond.  At the same time he made an assignment of his property, consisting of a farm in Missinawaw tp., to his attorney.  And on the same day the aged Louis Leis, all his dreams of a peaceful sunset at the end of life’s road shattered, made his will.  He was prostrated over the terrible shadow that had fallen across his home.  The family physician expressed the belief that he would not survive the shock.

     The funeral of the aged victim was held on Sunday morning at the Wakefield Lutheran church, where the entire Leis family had worshipped.  Never before had there been such an outpouring of sympathizing friends at a funeral in that neighborhood.  News of the crime had covered all that section like the dew, and no heart was left untouched by the details connected with it.  Unable to attend the funeral at the little church, Leis requested that the casket be brought to his bedside that he might take a last farewell of the one who had so faithfully and loyally shared his joys and sorrows over the long years of their married life.  This request was granted.

     At the preliminary hearing on Monday following the crime the story of the tragedy was told by the wife of the accused and neighbors who had hurried to the scene.  At the conclusion of this evidence, Oelchlager was returned to jail, without bail, on the charge of murder in the first degree.  The formal trial was set for April, and after being out but a few minutes the jury returned a verdict of guilty.  The murderer was sentenced to be hung, the date of the execution being fixed for Aug. 7, 1891.

     Possessed of the property which the prisoner had signed over in his will, it was but natural that the condemned man’s attorney should make a determined effort to save his life, so a new trial was asked for on the ground that the prisoner was not present on the day on which the jury had been escorted to the scene of the crime.  It was a technical objection, yet one apparently of sufficient importance to warrant recognition.  So a new trial was granted by the circuit court.

     The prisoner languished in jail until October, and then one morning the report was circulated that he had apparently cheated the gallows.  He had escaped from the county jail.  Instantly a thorough search was instituted with the result that he was found two days later sleeping in a hay mow on a farm in the northern part of the county.

     At the new trial Oelchlagel’s attorney entered a plea of insanity for the accused, and the old sentence was nolled.  The insanity plea had the effect desired by the defendant’s attorney, and the case was closed when the court invoked a sentence of from seven to 20 years in the state penitentiary.  Oelchlagel served 12 years in prison and then, largely by reason of the fact that he had an unblemished Civil War record, he was paroled.  He returned to Darke co. penitent, broken in spirit and in health, a shadow of his former self.  He died near the scene of his crime less than a dozen years ago.

     Looking over those rich black acres up around the little settlement of Beamsville, talking with the descendants of the sturdy old German folk who settled those acres when this part of the nation was young, one would never suspect that a tragedy so pathetic in its details, or so gruesome, could have been possible here. Some there are who recall it, and even now, 41 years later, they cannot do so without a feeling of mingled pity and horror.

     At the scene of the crime and on the same fertile acres originally settled by Louis Leis, though not in the same house as it was replaced by a more modern structure some 15 years ago, live the direct descendants of the victim of this historic crime.  Here today reside the grandchildren of Louis and Charlotte Leis—lovable, highly respected young women, sturdy, thrifty, esteemed young men.  There is no visible reminder of the great shadow which once fell across the home that stood on this selfsame site.  Nor is there malice in the hearts of these splendid young men and women.  They are carrying on with the same high purpose in their hearts that served to make their grandparents admired and respected.  And they, too, enjoy a like measure of respect and admiration in the settlement their forbears snatched from the wilderness and wrought into a garden spot.