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The Day They Hung John McAfee

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, November 23, 1930

Red Letter Dates in Dayton History
The Day They Hung John McAfee
By Howard Burba

            They tell us that human nature is the same the world over.  That being the case, we take it that such always has been the rule, and that it hasn’t changed to any appreciable extent since Cain found himself recorded in Holy Writ as the first transgressor of a law now violated with impunity. 

            Insofar as human nature in Dayton is concerned, we can’t go back much farther than 105 years ago.  If we go beyond that we go beyond the time when there was a Dayton.  But even in this fast age, the fastest recorded since the beginning of time, 105 years must be rated as quite a spell.

            So let’s be content to go back to 1825, when Dayton represented little more than a clearing in a vast wilderness, and seek proof of the assertion that human nature hasn’t changed, and that the same loves and hates that enter into its makeup were the same then as they are today.  Men had their love affairs in those days, and likewise the habit of over-indulgence in the cup that cheers.  In those days, as in the days that have followed, and doubtless in all the days to come, a combination of the two made for transgression of the same old law that throughout the centuries has carried the brand of Cain. 

            No better evidence of this can be found than in turning back the criminal records of Montgomery Co. to the page whereon is written the final chapter in the life of John McAfee, a young and misguided resident of the then sparsely settled town of Dayton.   

            John McAfee was born in Huntington Co., PA., in 1803.  His parents died when he was quite young, and an uncle took him to rear, giving him every opportunity possessed by the youth of that early day.  But there was in young McAfee’s makeup an inclination to brood over his surroundings.  He wanted to be moving around, to seek out strange people and rest his eyes on strange scenes.  This desire reached its climax when he was about 18 years of age, and running away from home he made for the recently opened territory then known as “the Northwest.”  His wanderings brought him to Dayton. 

            About a year later, and when he was only 19, he married a daughter of a pioneer Dayton citizen, and for several months they lived happily.  Then McAfee began seeking the companionship of village roisterers and tipplers.  He drank to excess, and quickly lost his standing in the community.  Into his life, however, came a new love.  A girl by the name of Hetty Shoup who, as we read between the lines, must have been all things to all men.  She proved an attraction beyond McAfee’s powers to resist. 

            Hetty Shoup resided in the home of a family living next door to the McAfee’s.  She encouraged the young man’s attentions; in fact, it is written in the criminal records of the county that she even suggested to McAfee that he dispose of his wife that they might go about their amours undisturbed.  And then we are afforded positive proof that human nature hasn’t changed much through the ages- McAfee harkened to her appeals.

            On the evening of June 20, 1824, McAfee went home from town to find his wife unable to leave her bed.  She had been ill for several weeks and it was, therefore, an easy matter for McAfee to persuade her to drink a drug which he had carried home, presumably through a sincere desire for her recovery.  But the drug, a poison as later developments revealed, failed to accomplish the purpose intended as quickly as McAfee had hoped for.  In desperation he seized his wife by the throat, strangling her to death.

            Placing the body beneath the bed, and apparently suffering from a remorse that brought an instant abhorrence of Hetty Shoup sweeping over him, he dashed from the house and disappeared.  Some hours later a neighbor, entering to inquire as to Mrs. McAfee’s condition, discovered her body, cold in death. 

            The little settlement of Dayton had not been accustomed to acts of violence of this nature, and when news of the dark deed reached their ears excitement reached a fevered pitch.  Posses were organized and throughout the night and well into the following day the woods for miles about were searched for a trace of the murderer.  The crime became the one topic of conversation; nothing to compare with it in fiendishness had ever occurred in the community; each day found the cry for vengeance growing stronger.

            But months rolled on without a trace of McAfee.  Then one day in early fall, prompted by that mysterious attraction declared by police experts to lead a criminal back to the scene of the crime, McAfee returned.  He was recognized, and a few hours later was in the hands of the law.  He was immediately arraigned on a charge of murder, and while he admitted his guilt, he blamed his downfall on Hetty Shoup.  He stated, also, that he had hidden in an old building for three days following the crime, and then had made his way into West Virginia afoot.  There he worked in a coal mine until the desire to return to the scene of his crime overwhelmed him.

            A grand jury was impaneled, and brought in an indictment charging murder in the first degree.  That first indictment carried the signatures of Edmund Munger, David Henderson, Nathaniel Wilson, Fred Slifer, Jacob Foutz, Joseph Henry, Enos Mills, John Huffman, Jacob Olinger, John T. Kinman, Joshua Izer, Jacob Pretzinger, Joseph Ewing, and John House.  The criminal jury, which heard the case following the indictment, and which returned a verdict of guilty after a brief deliberation, was composed of: James Ensley, Isaac Cooper, Jacob Lodge, Andrew Yount, Robert Lamine, Daniel Gilbert, Abijah Taylor, William Reeder, Jesse Lane, Sol Miller, Goldsmith Chandler and John Shroyer.  George C. Davis was sheriff at the time, and Henry Bacon was prosecuting attorney. 

            McAfee was sentenced to die, and since public feeling was bitter and feeling against him was running high, it was decided not to encourage mob violence by delaying his execution.  So a crude scaffold was erected in what was at that time the edge of town- today Third and Charter Sts.  Never before had there been an event of this kind in this neighborhood, and never before had there been anything, of any nature, that so thoroughly aroused the populace.  Since it was the last of March the few roads that led into the town were heavy with mud, yet on the day set for the execution, March 23, 1825, whole families labored through this mud in heavy vehicles.  Some came from as far as 20 miles away, the journey necessitating an all-night drive.

            At the time there was one bridge across Mad River near the present head of Taylor St. and one across the Miami River on the site of the present Dayton View structure.  Those who came to town on the roads south of Wolf Creek could not get across that stream to the Dayton View bridge, and were ferried over the river at the foot of Third St. by a couple of young men who owned a skiff.  Such enterprise had its financial reward in those days, much as any other monopoly is rewarded in these. 

            The execution occurred shortly after 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and was held in the open air, within view of the multitude that had assembled.  Hetty Shoup was among those present, but manifested no feeling whatever.  McAfee met death stoically.  He made no confession on the scaffold.  In jail awaiting the execution, and his stay there was of brief duration since he was hung within nine months from the day he committed the crime, he is said to have written one- in rhyme.  Later it was denied that he was the author of the article, and yet history hands it down to us as possibly the rarest gem of its kind.  History likewise refused to accept as the author any other than the condemned McAfee.  And here is the poem, copies of which were for long years cherished as were souvenirs by those able to secure them: 

Draw near young man and hear from me

My sad and mournful history,

And may you ne’er forgetful be

Of all this day I fell to thee.


Before I reached my fifth year

My father and my mother dear

Were both laid in their silent grave

By Him who their being gave.


No more a mother’s love I shared,

No more a mother’s voice I heard,

No more was I a father’s joy—

I was a helpless orphan boy.


But Providence, the orphan’s friend,

A kind relief did quickly send,

And snatched from want and perjury

Poor little orphan McAfee.


Beneath my uncle’s friendly roof,

From want and danger far aloof,

Nine years was I most kindly reared

And oftimes his advice I heard.


But I was thoughtless, young and gay,

Oftimes I broke the Sabbath day.

In wickedness I took delight,

And oftimes did what was not right.


When my uncle would chide me,

I’d turn from him dissatisfied

And join again in wickedness,

And Satan serve with eagerness.


At length arrived the fatal day

When from my home I ran away,

And to my sorrowing in life

I took to me myself a wife.


And she was kind and good to me

As any woman need to be,

And would have been alive no doubt

Had I not met Miss Hetty Shoup.


Full well  I mind that very day

When Hetty stole my heart away.

It was love for her controlled my will

And caused me my wife to kill.

It was one pleasant summer night,

When all was still; the stars shone bright,

My wife was lying in the bed

When I approached her and said:


“Dear wife, here’s a medicine I’ve brought

Which for you this day I brought.

My dear I know it will cure you

Of the wild fits—pray take it, do.”


She gave me a tender look

And in her mouth the poison took,

And down by her babe upon the bed

To her last, long sleep she laid.


But fearing that she was not dead,

My hands upon her throat I laid,

And then such deep impression made

Her soul from her body fled.


Then was my heard filled full of sorrow,

I cried as whither shall I go.

How shall I leave this mournful place?

The world again how shall I face?


I freely gave up my store,

If I’d a thousand pounds or more,

If I could bring again to life

My dear, my darling murdered wife.


Her body now beneath the sod,

Her soul, I hope, is with her God,

And soon into eternity

My guilty soul shall also be.


Young man, be warned by me—

Pray shun all evil company!

Walk in the ways of righteousness

And God your soul will surely bless.


The minute now is drawing night

When from this world my soul will fly

To meet Jehovah at His bar

And there my final sentence hear.


Dear friends, I bid you all adieu,

If on earth I no more see you.

On heaven’s bright and flowery plane

I hope we all shall meet again.






Other Executions



            The second hanging in Montgomery Co. was that in which Francis Dick was executed for the murder of his mother-in-law, Mrs. Elizabeth Young and her 16-year-old son, James.

            Dick’s wife lived with her mother in the once notorious section of Dayton at the south end of Brown St. known as “Slidertown.”  Unable to dwell peacefully with his mother-in-law, Dick was engaged in frequent quarrels with her.  It was while in a fit of rage, following one of these periodical outbursts that he notified his wife he proposed to wipe out her entire family.

            Mrs. Dick, unable to pacify her husband, threatened to seek a legal dissolution of their marriage.  Resenting this, he went to the house one day in August, 1853, and committed the crime for which he was executed on the second Friday in September 1854. 

            In connection with this execution there is recorded the most gruesome incident to feature a similar event before or since in Montgomery Co.  When the trap was sprung the rope broke, and Dick’s body, bound securely at waist and ankles, catapulted through the trap door.  Strong men fainted, while several, unable to longer gaze upon the scaffold from which the fragment of rope quivered, turned their backs.  The officiating sheriff and his aides were forced to crawl beneath the scaffold, drag forth the man’s body, readjust the noose about his neck and spring the trap for a second time.

            The third hanging in the county claimed John W. Dobbins as its victim.  Dobbins was executed on April 15, 1864, for the murder of an old farmer named George Lindemuth on the river bank at the head of Jefferson St.  He used a pocketknife to carry out his crime.  The murder occurred at midnight on Feb. 14, 1863.   Dobbins escaped, but was captured in Cincinnati and returned to Dayton.  While incarcerated here awaiting execution he secured a bottle of chloroform which he attempted to take with suicidal intent.  His life was saved on that occasion when he dropped the bottle as he raised it to his lips, the contents spilling on the floor of his cell.

            In a second attempt to kill himself Dobbins severed an artery with a fragment of a hand mirror.  It is recorded that on the day of his execution he was in nigh glee, and danced en route to the scaffold, attempting a buck-and-wing step while the sheriff and turnkey were engaged in preparing the death machine.  Nearby sat a pail of water.  Seizing this, Dobbins dashed the contents upon the scaffold and, turning the bucket upside down, proceeded to beat a tattoo upon it with his fingers as the noose was being adjusted about his neck.

            The fourth execution, and next to the last one carried out in this county, the hanging of Harry Adams, detailed on this page last Sunday, was that of James Murphy.  It occurred on Aug. 25, 1876.

            Murphy, but 19 years of age, was brought to this city by his parents from Kentucky when he was but a babe.  His mother died when he was 16, and his father, an honored and respected citizen employed at the old Mead and Nixon paper mill, had no means of giving the lad the attention necessary to guide him in the way he should go.  He became a member of an underworld clan known to the police as the “Chain Gang.”  For several years they figured in petty crimes, their depredations being broken up only by the escapade in which Murphy figured, and which cost him his life.

            On the evening of Jan. 31, 1875, a wedding party was held at Barlow hall, Fifth and Pearl Sts., celebrating the marriage of August Scheckelhoff, a popular employee of The Champion Plow Work, and Miss Agnes Neehaber.  Col. William Dawson, high-respected citizen and among the best-known residents of the Soldiers’ Home, was master of ceremonies.  Approaching the hall Murphy and two members of his gang sought admission.  All had been drinking.  None had invitations, and when ejected by Col Dawson they threatened him, but made their way to the street below.  A little later Murphy sent a messenger upstairs to notify Col. Dawson that a friend wanted to see him at the foot of the stairs.  He answered the message, hurried to the street and was set upon by Murphy and his companions.  Shots were fired, and Col. Dawson fell to the street mortally wounded.  He died from loss of blood before medical attention could be secured. 

            Police, quickly on the scene, found a cap lying near where Col. Dawson had fallen.  It was their one and only clue, but a few hours later it had let to Murphy’s home, where he was found in bed with his clothes on, a pistol with three empty chambers clasped in his hand.  So great was public wrath against Murphy at the time that it was necessary to call out the Harries Guards to prevent a lynching. 

            He was tried before Judge Elliott, with David Houk and John Sprigg, representing the state, and Warren Munger and Elihu Thompson the accused.  Murphy was convicted, and hung on the morning of Aug. 25, 1876, Sheriff William Patton and Deputy Charles Freeman officiating.