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Matriarch Murder


These articles appeared in the Dayton Daily News on May 8 and May 15, 1993



Roz Young


Part 1
            Catherine Hark, the 65-year-old widow of Civil War veteran Adam Hart, was living in a cottage on N. Urbana St., in a section on the northeast corner of Dayton known in 1895 as Biltmore Commons. She received $12 a month widows' pension, and she added to her income by taking in washing.

            Her only daughter Mary had, in the purple words of a newspaper reporter of the day, "for a time lived happily with her husband, a man named Knight, whose labor at the old Brownell boiler works 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 association with questionable companions and this, quite naturally, led to the frequenting of numerous notorious dives with which that section of the city was inflicted. Her days and nights were given over to debauchery."

            After a violent quarrel with her husband, Mary Knight moved in with her mother. Because she continued her drinking, the two women quarreled so frequently and loudly that several times neighbors went to the house to try to make peace between them.

            On Thursday morning, May 10, 1895, loud, screaming voices from the cottage brought neighbors out into their yards, debating whether they ought to call the police. After a while the screaming stopped, and then they saw Mary Knight come out of the house and walk down the street, her steps wavering from one side of the road to the other. "Drunk again," they said and went back into their houses.

            A little while later as Andrew Probst, 635 East Elm St., walked past the house, he saw Mary standing on the porch, screaming and looking in the window. He hurried to her."What is wrong?"

            She pointed to the front window. "Horrible! Horrible! Look!"

            Peering through the glass, he saw Catharine Hark lying on her back on the bare floor with puddles of blood around her.

            He started toward the door. "You can't get in that way," said Mary. "It's locked. She locked it on me after I left. You'll have to break the window."

            He broke the window and crawled inside and helped Mary through the window. Catherine Hark's pale face, the blood and, most of all, her open but unseeing eyes convinced him she was dead. "I'll call the police," Probst said.

            Shortly afterwards Police Chief Thomas J. Farrell and Deputy Haley arrived by horse and buggy and pushed through the crowd of neighbors that had gathered in the front yard of the Hark cottage. They found Mary Knight sitting in the blood by her mother's side, moaning and wailing. She smelled strongly of whiskey.

            Farrell picked up the cross piece of a stove top lying on the floor, covered with blood and hair. "This is what killed her," he said.

            "I didn't do it!" she shouted. "Don't you try to blame this on me!"

            "I must ask you to come to the police station to make a statement," said Farrell, and together he and Haley led her out the door and down through the crowd. She fought and screamed all the way. They took her to the jail to sober up before they questioned her.

            Later in the day when she had become calm and sober, Farrell pointed out spots of blood her dress and bonnet." How do you explain these?" he asked.

            "Oh, those spots? I cut my arm yesterday when I was doing some washing," she explained. She showed him an abrasion on her arm.

            "We have examined everything in the house," Farrell said. "If you cut your arm yesterday, as you say, there would have been blood on the sheets of your bed. But there was none."

            "I bandaged my arm before I went to bed," she said. "This morning it had stopped bleeding, so I took the bandage off. But evidently it started again and got on my dress and bonnet. Oh, and I had a nosebleed yesterday, too, and maybe some of it got on my dress."

            Farrell called a physician to examine her; he said in his opinion she had not had a nosebleed.

            "How did you and your mother get along?"

            "We do bicker a lot and sometimes yell at each other, but we always make up."

            "Did you and your mother have a quarrel this morning?"

            "Yes. She was peeved because I was drinking. That's what all our fights are about."

            "Did you hit your mother with the stove piece?"

            "I didn't touch my mother. I would never do such a thing."

            "Why did you leave the house this morning?"

            "I went to the corner grocery to get some meat for our lunch."

            "Was you mother all right when you left?"

            "Of course."

            "Was there anyone else in the house?"


            Chief Farrell asked Deputy Haley to hold her in a cell for further questioning.

            The following day Chief Farrell took Mary to the undertaker's parlor to view her mother's body. She bent over the casket and embraced her mother, lamenting loudly. "Who could have done this dreadful deed?" she asked.

            "Did you kill your mother?"

            "How could you even ask such a question? I loved my mother!" Mary Knight screamed and demanded to be set free. But Chief Farrell took her back to jail.

            Mrs. Hark's funeral took place the following day. James R. Hughes, pastor of the Memorial Presbyterian Church, conducted the services.

            In the meantime Coroner Lee Corbin, M.D., assisted by physicians D.M. Barrere, 1019 W. Fifth St., and C.P. Shepherd, 629 Washington St., investigated the murder scene and questioned the neighbors. The coroner's inquest was set for the day after the funeral.

            NEXT WEEK: What the coroner found.




Roz Young


Part Two

            Dr. Lee Corbin, Montgomery County coroner, held an inquest Oct 12, 1895, the day following the funeral of the murdered Mrs. Catherine Hark. The first witness called was Mrs. Laura E. Wolf, who lived on the northeast corner of Brandt and Bickmore streets.

            "Mrs. Wolf," began Dr. Corbin after the swearing, "please tell us what you saw on the day of the murder."

            Mrs. Wolf, a short, portly woman, licked her lips. "About noon I saw Mrs. Knight walking down the street past my place, walking toward town."

            "Was there anything unusual about her walking?"

            "Yes, she sort of wove from side to side as if drunk."

            "Did you see her come back to Mrs. Hark's home?"

            "No, I did not.?"

            "Then what happened?"

            "A while later I saw some of the neighbors heading for Mrs. Hark's cottage and I went, too."

            "Did you go inside?"

            "Yes. The front door was open."

            "What did you see?"

            "Well, Mrs. Hark's body was on the floor with blood on her face. Mrs. Knight was sitting on the floor beside her mother. She was crying and saying her mother was not dead. She seemed very drunk."

            "Was anyone else there at the time?"

            "Yes, Mrs. Drapp, Mrs. Weinsteger, Mrs. Burdunder, Mrs. Seamon and Mrs. Myers. We are all neighbors."

            "Anything else?"

            Mrs. Wolf considered. "The bottom pane of the front window was broken and there was glass on the floor. A piece of the stove was on the floor - all bloody. Then Police Chief Farrell arrived."

            Corbin then called Andrew Probst. He related how he had been walking past the house and Mrs. Knight called to him. Through the porch window he could see Mrs. Hark on the floor. "I want to correct something I told Chief Farrell," he said. "On second thought, I realize that I did not help Mrs. Knight through the window. I broke the window because she said the door was locked. I climbed through and found the body of Mrs. Hark in the floor. I saw at once that she was dead. Then I opened the front door and let Mrs. Knight into the house."

            "Was the front door locked?"

            "It was not locked. I simply put my hand on the doorknob and turned it."

            Mary Knight was the only defense witness. "My name is Mary Knight," she testified. "I am 43 years old. I was born in North Dayton. I have been married for three years, and have been separated from my husband for four weeks. I have been living with my mother since then.

            "About 8:30 that morning I got 20 cents worth of whiskey from Mrs. Gantney on Valley Street. Thursday afternoon I went to Glaser's for meat and stopped in at Mrs. Weinsteger's. When I got back, I found the house locked. I supposed my mother had locked it.

            "I went to the door after Probst opened it. The key was on the inside of the door. When I left the house Mother was sitting in the doorway. I did not kill my mother. I love my mother. She is the only friend I have. I had no reason to kill her."

            In spite of the lack of motive or any direct evidence, she was remanded to jail to await trial.

            The trial was held the first week in December 1895. Judge Dennis Dwyer presided; John H. Sprigg represented Mrs. Knight. The testimony was essentially the same as at the inquest.

            The jury found her guilty.

            Judge Dwyer denied Sprigg's appeal.

            "Have you anything to say before sentence is passed?" asked Dwyer.

            "I am not guilty," said Mary Knight. "I did not kill my mother."

            "Your conviction has been on circumstantial evidence," stated Judge Dwyer. "Let the sentence serve as atonement for the dreadful crime of which you have been found guilty."

            He sentenced her to one year in the penitentiary.

            Many townsfolk felt that the state had no proof that Mary had killed her mother, and whether she was really guilty was a topic of discussion for many months until the murder of Bessie Little in September 1896, erased Mary Knight's guilt or innocence from their minds.

            After she served her term, Mary's name disappeared from the city directory. She died March 1, 1903. Records at Woodland say that she was 77 years old.

            She is buried in the same section of Woodland as her mother and in the same row as Bessie Little. Both her grave and that of her mother are unmarked.