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Did Mary Knight Murder Her Mother


This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on November 22, 1931
By Howard Burba
            You probably recall that somewhere in scriptures there is a statement to the effect that next to a serpent’s tooth the most troublesome thing in the world is a thankless child.
            As a general rule, that, thanklessness doesn’t develop criminal tendencies. But it has been known to, and to prove that it can I’m going to tell you how Mary Knight’s thanklessness, which is just another name for waywardness, developed one of the bloodiest chapters in Dayton’s criminal history.
            Thirty-six years ago, when Dayton was still writing her population in five figures, there was a section away up in the extreme northeast corner known as “Bitmore Commons”.  There abided those who saw only the seamy side of life. The poorest of Dayton families resided there, poor but in many instances honest and law-abiding. The sunshine of prosperity seemed to have a hard time penetrating that particular section, as a result it gave up trying and squalor selected “Bitmore Commons” as its permanent place of residence.
            Living in one of the smallest of a settlement of small cottages was a harmless old lady known to all and sundry as “Grandmother Hark.” She had married happily in her youth, and about the neighborhood there was a whispered bit of gossip to the effect that she had seen better days than those which marked her residence in the “commons.” Some said she had been the wife of a prosperous business man until he had lost his fortune in the Civil War. Others had stories of a day when “Grandmother Hark” was the belle of a considerable circle of well-to-do Daytonians. But we needn’t go into that. It’s speculation anyhow, and this story is to be as nearly as possible, based upon facts.
            Mrs. Catherine Hark was a widow when she took up her residence in “Bitmore Commons,” and 65 years of age. Her husband had served in the Civil War, and it was on her pension of $12 a month, procured for her by a local attorney shortly after her husband’s death, that she subsisted. That sum and what money she could earn by doing washings for the more prosperous residents living in more favorable sections of the city.
            Her daughter, and only child, had married some years before the event of which I write, and for a time she lived happily with her husband, a man named Knight, whose labor at the old Brownell boiler plant brought him a substantial weekly wage. Even before her marriage, however, Mary Knight had shown a disregard for her mother’s teachings. She had demonstrated her thanklessness through an association with questionable companions and this, quite naturally, led to the frequenting of the numerous notorious dives with which that section of the city was inflicted. Mary Knight lost the respect of her neighbors, then of her husband. Her appetite for strong drink had reached the stage where will-power was shattered. Her days and nights were given over to debauchery.
            Environment had a part in the shaping of human life then as now. And it is to environment, coupled with the thanklessness of an only child, that “Grandmother Hark’s” latter years were made more miserable. Neighbors noticed that she, too, had formed a liking for strong drink, and soon it became common knowledge that the aged lady was investing a generous part of her pension and washing money for liquor. She was a periodical drinker, however, and unlike her daughter she had her sober moments, moments when she actually strove to throw temptation from her path.
            Who knows but “Grandmother Hark” would have succeeded in doing so had not her daughter, following a violent quarrel with husband, moved back under the parental roof? She continued her wild debauches, and apparently her mother reached the conclusion that the only way to live with her was to live like her.
            For four weeks following the day Mark Knight left her husband she and her mother lived in a continuous round of belligerency. More than once neighbors, accustomed as they were to boisterousness yet realizing that there must be a limit to everything, took it upon themselves to interfere. More than once they felt themselves called upon to carry an olive branch to the Hark cottage. The mother and daughter were engaged in a never-ending brawl.
            On Thursday, the 10th day of October, 1895, neighbors heard the usual morning disturbance in the cottage. Toward the middle of the day those living on the block saw Mary Knight emerge from the house and proceed down the street toward the nearest grocery. She was gone but a short time until their attention was attracted by her screams. Passing the house at the time was a man named Andrew Probst, and he hurried to her side to learn what occasioned her outcries. She pointed toward the window.
            Peeping through, Probst discovered the body of “Grandmother Hark” lying in the center of the barren floor, in a great pool of blood. He started for the door, but Mary Knight screamed to him to break in the window, declaring that the door was locked from the inside. The window was knocked in and Probst crawled through, assisting Mary Knight to climb through after him. He noticed that she was under the influence of liquor. One glance was sufficient to convince Probst that the aged woman was dead, so he departed by the same way he had entered and hurried to the Valley st. fire house to call police.
            Chief Farrell and Sergeant Haley drove out to the place. It was surrounded by neighbors when they arrived, each ready with his or her own version of the last brawl they had heard or witnessed between mother and daughter. Pushing their way into the house a sickening sight met their eyes. Barren walls, poverty, filth and blood detracted attention from the wrinkled corpse, but not from the stupefied form of the daughter as she sat in the same pool of blood in which her mother lay, her brain apparently so clouded with intoxicants that she was oblivious to her surroundings.
            Near the body of the aged woman Chief Farrell found the instrument of death. It consisted of the cross-piece of a stove top, which had held and supported the two lids of the stove. Its sharp pointed edge bore traces of hair and blood. Confronted with it, Mary Knight, apparently sobering sufficiently to realize the enormity of the tragedy, screamed her innocence of any knowledge of the crime. She was led from the house, the crowd on the outside falling back to form a passageway through which the officers led her.
            “I’m all right now. I’m with Chief Farrell and you can’t do me any harm!” Mary Knight shouted at the assembled group as the officials lifter her bodily into their buggy. Chief Farrell drove her to the station house where she was locked up until she should become composed.
            Out at “Bitmore Commons,” where everyone had dropped their work to discuss the tragedy, there was a unanimous belief that Mary Knight had killed her mother during one of their drunken brawls. The police called in to work on the case began their investigation in the same belief. Down in the station house, where Mary Knight was sobering up and commencing to realize the enormity of the charge she was about to face, the turnkey expected the charge of “suspicion” to be changed to one of murder at any moment.
            When brought to headquarters late in the day for questioning, she was calm. When Chief Farrell pointed to blood spots on her bonnet and dress, she declared that they came from a cut on the arm which she had suffered the day before while washing clothes. She bared an arm to show a considerable abrasure. When it was pointed out that there was no blood upon the covering of the bed in which she and her mother had slept the night before, and that if her arm had bled enough to stain her bonnet and dress it would have shown on the bed, she explained that she had kept it bandaged during the night, but removed the bandage when she arose as the blood had apparently ceased to flow. She also stated that her nose had bled profusely the day before, and that some of the blood from this source may have fallen upon her garments. A physician was called in and after an examination declared that there was no indication that the woman had suffered with nose-bleed within the past several days.
            At the little cottage in “Bitmore Commons” Coroner Corbin conducted an investigation, assisted by Drs. Barrere and Shepherd. They found a number of abrasions at the base of the aged woman’s skull, the sharp, pointed edge of the stove casting had cut deeply into the scalp. From this the blood had flown profusely. There was no indication of a fracture of the skull, the physicians holding that either of the many blows being sufficient in itself to have caused death.
            There was blood on the knob of the door on the interior of the house. And the door was not locked, as Mary Knight contended it was when she screamed to Andrew Probst to “kick in the window; she locked the door on me while I was away.” Was Mary Knight, though stupefied by liquor, still capable of reasoning in that brief moment that she was building an alibi for herself by declaring that the door was locked from the inside?
            While she stoutly maintained her innocence, Mary Knight did admit that she had quarreled with her mother at frequent intervals of their four weeks’ residence together. She asserted that they had engaged in one of these quarrels an hour or so before she left the house, but that no blows had been struck by either party. Her mission down the street, she explained, was to secure some meat from a corner store. There was no one in the house to her knowledge when she left, aside from her mother. The door was locked on her return.
            On the day following her questioning she was taken to the undertaking establishment from which her mother was to be buried. Her lamentation at the casket was touching. She was visibly affected, yet the scene had not the slightest effect as far as a confession was concerned. Funeral services for the victim of the tragedy were held at the undertaking parlors the same afternoon by Rev. J. R. Hughes, and the body was laid to rest in Woodland.
            At the coroner’s inquiry, started the day before the funeral, Mary Knight continued to maintain her innocence. Standing before her Coroner Corbin said:
            “It is the impression that you killed your mother!”
            In a voice choked with tears the daughter relied:
            “True as I live, so help me God, I am as innocent as a babe unborn. Why should I have killed my mother when she was my only friend?”
            She stated, in denying the testimony of several neighbors, that in all of her quarrels with her mother she had never struck her and that the nearest approach to it was on one occasion when she slapped her. Let us snatch a page from the coroner’s records of that day:
            “The first witness called to the stand was Mrs. Laura E. Wolf, who lives near the scene of the murder and who said that both the murdered woman and the daughter drank considerably. She saw Mrs. Knight at noon on the day of the crime, going toward town. She walked as though drunk. Did not see her come back. After the murder, witness saw Mrs. Knight sitting by the corpse, whose face was bloody. There was a gash in the neck. Mrs. Knight seemed to be under the influence of liquor, but talked coherently. She kept insisting her mother was still alive. Witness saw the iron cross-piece of the stove, with blood on it. The body had been turned over when witness arrived.
            “Mrs. Drapp, Mrs. Weinsteger, Mrs. Burdunder, Mrs. Seamon and Mrs. Myers were in the house when witness arrived. There were no men there at the time. Mrs. Burgunder, Mrs. Seamon and notifying Mrs. Drapp, I saw the panes of the power sash all broken. The house was wide open by that time. I saw at a glance that Mrs. Hark was dead. I remained during the evening. It was generally believed that Mrs. Knight had committed the murder. My impression is that Mrs. Knight went out of the door and did not lock it. I never saw Mrs. Hark drunk. I have heard that she drank considerably. There was much feeling against Mrs. Knight in the neighborhood. Her cruelty to her mother was notorious. She had frequently slapped the old lady.”
            That is the general trend of all the testimony introduced at the coroner’s inquest. And yet there was none to say that Mary Knight had killed her mother. No one saw the blow which felled the aged woman. No one heard the daughter threaten her mother’s life. Mary Knight’s contention that the door was locked against her when she returned was disputed by Andrew Probst, who declared he remembered, on second thought, that he had not helped her through the window but had climbed through himself and then opened the door through which she entered. The door, he said was not locked.
            There was but one witness for the defense, and that was the defendant herself. Now look at this page from the coroner’s record book:
            “My name is Mary Knight. Am 43 years old. Was born in North Dayton. Have lived three years in my present home. My husband lives at 2124 E. Fifth st. We have been separated four weeks. I have been living with mother ever since. Thursday afternoon I went to the grocery after meat. I stopped at Mrs. Weinsteger’s. I was not at Glaser’s before that day. I was out in the forenoon to a neighbor’s. When I got back from the grocery I found the house locked up. I suppose mother locked it up.
            “Mother and I had breakfast together at 6:30. We had no dinner. We have only two meals a day -- supper from 4 to 6. I only got meat at Glaser’s. I got no whiskey from him. I got 20 cents worth at 8:30 from Mrs. Gastney’s on the Valley pike. Was not near Glaser’s at 11:30. I went to the door after Probst had unlocked it. The key was on the inside of the lock. When I left the house to get the meat mother was sitting in the doorway. “
            Mary Knight was remanded to jail without bond. There she remained until the first week in December, 1895, when she was led into the court of Common Pleas Judge Dennis Dwyer to answer a charge of murder. The revolting scenes and circumstances of the case as they had been developed at the coroner’s inquest were again brought forth in detail. But Mary Knight had at no time between the inquest and the formal trial shown a tendency to change her story. She had made nothing resembling a confession.
            On the testimony and it was circumstantial evidence alone, since there was no eye-witness to the crime, the jury found Mary Knight guilty.
            December 9 she was arraigned for sentence. In the meantime a motion for a new trial had been filed by her attorney, Hon. John M. Sprigg. This motion was overruled by Judge Dwyer.
            When asked by the judge if she had any statement to make before sentence was passed the woman burst into tears and sobbing violently she said:
            “Judge, indeed I’m not guilty -- I did not take my mother’s life.”
            Her attorney made an address, relating in a forcible way the extenuating circumstances connected with the affair, and at the conclusion a sentence of one year in the penitentiary was administered.
            “Your conviction has been on circumstantial evidence,” said the judge, whose heart was touched by the prisoner before him. “Let this sentence serve as an atonement for the dreadful crime of which you have been pronounced guilty.”