Editor’s note: This article was written with information compiled from the Whitley County Historical Museum and a story written by local resident Don Sexton. See Sexton’s story here: https://inwhitleycounty.com/2018/10/25/sheriff-tells-haunting-memory-a-perspective-on-the-1884-hanging-of-charles-butler/
COLUMBIA CITY — Today, a ticket to the Haunted Jail in Columbia City can get you up close and personal with some of the spookiest sights in northeast Indiana.
In 1884, a ticket to the Whitley County Jail, in the same location, got 200 people a front-row seat to the only public hanging in Whitley County history.
Charles Butler was convicted by jury for the 1883 murder of his wife, Abbigail, and sentenced to death by hanging.
Charles and Abbigail Butler lived in Columbus, Ohio. After Butler had been arrested on 27 occasions between 1877 and 1883 and was violent toward his wife, threatening to kill her, Abbigail fled to Pierceton with their 4-year-old son, Henry, to live with Charles’ aunt and uncle.
Charles heard the news while incarcerated and professed to his cellmate that he would seek vengeance on his wife. When he was released from jail in Ohio, he took a train to Pierceton, joining Abbigail at his relatives’ home.
When he arrived, he was upset his wife was acting cold to him. He later asked if he could see their son, and she told him, “no,” because the boy was sleeping. This set him off, and when he pulled a gun, Abbigail attempted to flee. But it was too late.
Butler fired two shots, one striking Abbigail’s spine between her shoulder blades, and the other lodging in the base of her brain. She died hours later.
Butler didn’t attempt to escape. Instead, he walked to her body and acted like he was going to turn the gun on himself. Butler sat on the front porch of the home and waited for the constable to arrive, and told a neighbor:
“My wife and I have been having trouble for some time, and I concluded the best thing for me to do was to get her out of the way.”
Feeling above the law, he later stated that he wasn’t worried about being hanged, that “a lot of good lawyers and a pile of my old father’s money” would save him. But he was wrong.
Butler was arrested and taken to the Kosciusko County Jail, where he attempted to escape. He fashioned hacksaws and knives and attempted to saw the bars off his cell.
His attorney later fought for a change of venue, and Butler was transferred to the 9-year-old Whitley County Jail, located at the corner of Market and Washington streets, in February 1884 for prosecution. The jail was hailed as one of the best in northern Indiana, but it, too, had its flaws, and Butler followed through with escaping with the help of a fellow inmate.
Prisoner Ed Carter, who was incarcerated for counterfeiting, was a carpenter and part of the crew that built the jail in 1875, and informed Butler of a soft stone in the ceiling of their cell.
Masked by the sound of a harmonica, loud singing and stomping of feet, Butler chipped away at the stone in the ceiling and hid the plaster under his mattress.
At 8 p.m. on March 15, 1884, Butler finished his excavation and escaped along with four other inmates. They traveled north on S.R. 9 and hid in a haymow during the first day, looking on as officers searched for him.
The inmates continued north on S.R. 9 to Burr Oak in Noble County, breaking into the Burr Oak schoolhouse and taking the B&O Railroad to Columbus, where Carter found Butler’s father, a doctor, who gave the men a “considerable” amount of money.
Sheriff Frank Allwein (1880-1884) offered a $200 reward for Butler’s return and sought the assistance of the Columbus Police Department, but his hometown was of no help.
Allwein and Constable Sam Britton took the manhunt upon themselves, traveling to Columbus where they later found Butler — drunk and passed out on a set of railroad tracks with $190 in his pocket.
Due to the damage at the Whitley County Jail, Butler was placed under the care of the Allen County Jail, where he once again attempted an escape. His plans were spoiled by an inmate who informed a jailer.
Butler’s monthlong trial began May 12, 1884 and continued through June 12, 1884, under Judge E. Van Long.
The trial put Columbia City on the map, with visitors coming from all over to see the case unfold. Restaurants, rooming houses and hotels were full, and Wright Lancaster’s City Cigar Store could hardly keep the lawyers in cigars.
Butler employed the help of five attorneys, but they weren’t enough to save him from his demise.
A jury of 12 men was chosen, and for 28 days and nights, they listened to the story of Charles Butler and why he murdered his wife.
Defense attorneys attempted to argue insanity, putting several neighbors on the stand to testify on Butler’s behalf, and said he received a severe blow to the head by a Columbus police officer, which may have caused brain damage.
The jury heard the story of the shooting in great detail, and Butler never denied shooting his wife.
During the trial, life went on in Whitley County — 30-year-old Thomas Marshall gave the high school commencement address at the Lutheran Church, the circus was coming to town and the Daniel Brothers’ Opera House had its grand opening — and, softening the blow of Butler’s escape from the Whitley County Jail, Albion’s jail also had a jail break, losing five inmates of its own.
In the final days of the trial, William McNagny spoke for the prosecution, drawing a large crowd due to his reputation as an excellent orator. He gave a resounding, three and a half-hour speech. The Whitley County Courthouse was so full of people, the stairs began to give way.
The defense compared Butler to Charles Guiteau, the man who assassinated President James Garfield in 1881.
By the time the attorneys reached their final arguments on June 11, 1884, the trial had drawn so much publicity that there were more than 300 people on the courthouse lawn, which included several eager boys who climbed the trees to listen for themselves.
After seven hours of deliberations, the jury gave its guilty verdict at 4 a.m. on June 12, 1884.
Four months later, on Oct. 15, 1884, Butler was hanged.
On the day of the hanging, the sheriff’s son-in-law, Henry Nuxall, shaved and cut Butler’s hair, describing him as the calmest customer in his shop that day.
An enclosure was erected on the east side of the jail, and Butler lost his bravado in the final hours before his death. Reports said he cried out during the night, not wanting his son to know that he died a murderer, and believing his attorneys would halt the execution. But, the Indiana Supreme Court and Governor Albert Porter would not overturn the verdict. Butler’s son, Harry, would be under the care of his grandfather in Columbus.
That morning, Butler was baptized in the Catholic faith. The only family member present was his sister, Hattie Havens, of Cincinnati.
Butler ate little breakfast, and was described as a restless tiger in a cage. He made a will to give everything to his son, then played “Mocking Bird” and “Home Sweet Home” on an accordion.
The perfect fall day, full of sunshine, blue skies and trees in colors of red and gold, would soon turn dark as all prepared for the event.
Shortly after 9 a.m., Butler was given brandy to help calm his nerves.
At 11:50 a.m., the sheriff took Butler out of the jail and walked him onto the scaffold in front of only those who received a ticket — those on the jury, family members and law enforcement officers. However, an audience of about 200 people gathered around the lawn.
Only one of those tickets went unused. It was given to deputy Fred Binder, who had to help with crowd control rather than viewing the hanging. The ticket was last in possession of his great-great-granddaughter, Viola Binder Ramp. The fire department also staged at the scene to assist with crowd control — some armed with muskets.
Upon the scaffold, Butler gave this speech: “I never premeditated this murder. I want you all to know that. There is too much manhood in me for that. I want to say to these newspaper men setting around here, they all abused me. … All the money in this country could not hire me to sit down there to see a man hang. I am going to be hung. I am going to die like a man. God will forgive all.”
Butler kneeled in front of a Catholic priest and was read the Lord’s Prayer. When he stood, straps were placed on his arms and legs.
Also on the scaffold were Deputy Jim Goodfellow, Jacob Ruch and Jacob Platner.
The rope made was placed around Butler’s neck, then the black cap was put over his head. The light of day was forever shut out from Charles Butler’s eyes.
He shouted, “This is awful. Take it off. I want to see again. It’s too tight. Please loosen it. Honest, Jim, it’s too tight.”
In the midst of Butler’s pleas, the sheriff sprang the trap door at 12:08 p.m. The sound could be heard from two blocks away. Reports said Butler intentionally stood too close to the hinges of the drop, and as the trap fell, he slid off, having an imperfect fall and preventing the breaking of his neck.
The perceptible convulsion sent a pall over the audience. At the end of the second minute, Butler finally raised his legs and dropped them with heavy force, ending the life of the only person who received the death penalty in Whitley County. In the eighth minute after the trap was sprung, a Coroner Dr. C.S. Williams pronounced him dead. Butler’s body was returned to Columbus where he was buried.
Not long after the Butler hanging, the law was changed — hangings would only take place at state prisons.
After his term as sheriff, Allwein began a career in the restaurant business in the Meyer and Schaper rooms in Columbia City, and eventually moved to Findlay, Ohio. It was said that springing the trap on Butler had such an effect on Allwein that the matter weighed on his mind until his death in 1919 at age 75. The former sheriff is buried in Greenhill Cemetery in Columbia City.
The former Whitley County Jail is now the site of the Haunted Jail. If any true spirits haunt the jail, it is likely the spirit of Charles Butler.