Editor’s note: The following was written by local resident Don Sexton and published in The Bulletin, a publication by the Whitley County Historical Society, in June 1987. This was written from the perspective of Sheriff Frank Allwein, after careful research by Sexton. The reader must keep in mind that the sheriff is speaking throughout the tale.
My name is Frank Allwein, sheriff of Whitley County. When I took this job, the county was still in its infancy. In the 1880s, the Civil War was only 20 years in our past. There were 38 states in the Union. The western section of the U.S. was frontier and many drifters came through Whitley County seeking their fortune. Columbia City had only been incorporated for 31 years.
During my lifetime, I saw Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan turn our frontier country into an industrial giant. I saw the inventions of Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison change people’s lives in remarkable ways.
I took part in the Civil War with regiments from Pennsylvania and I worked in Washington, D.C. in 1866, the year after Lincoln’s assassination. I came to Indiana when it was still frontier and a man’s future was limitless.
I also saw the growth and prosperity of Columbia City during my life. By the time I became Whitley County Sheriff in 1880, I was fortunate to have had many experiences and many memories.
The one sad memory I could never forget was the short, tragic life of Charles Butler. His trial and execution were discussed often for many years after 1884. When I became sheriff, I knew there would be scalawags and robbers to deal with, but I never thought I would have a murderer in my jail.
People always asked me how I felt being the executioner. Charlie Butler was a fellow human being and I have always been haunted by the events of 1884. I believed then, and I still firmly believe now, that the task was the responsibility of the sheriff and I was accepting the responsibility my office thrust upon me. This was the first and only execution in Whitley County. The sensational trial of Charles Butler made 1884 a very busy year for me.
The trial was a turning point in our rough and tumble town that proved the legal system in our county was strong. We proved that our court would and could function under tremendous pressures and that a legal solution would take place and not a solution outside the law. The jury in this sensational trial was made up of 12 honest, hard-working farmers. Columbia City boasts citizens who make an honest wage for an honest day’s work.
We citizens of Whitley County didn’t know it then, but the Butler trial quickly brought our community out of infancy and into young adulthood with the resolve to accept the responsibilities of the 20th century.
The Crime is Committed
Charlie Butler shot his wife, Abbie, at his uncle’s home in Pierceton on Sept. 29, 1883. He was arrested and Sheriff Reid had him in the Warsaw jail. But Charles Butler was not content to stay in jail. Butler tried to escape by sawing the bars. Reid caught Butler before he could escape. Escape would prove to be a pattern with Butler.
Lawyers have various techniques to defend their clients and Butler had good lawyers. Butler’s lawyers got a change of venue on his murder trial and he was transferred to the Whitley County Jail in December 1883.
You can see by his picture that Butler was a handsome young man. Butler’s father was a very wealthy medical man in Columbus, Ohio. As a result, Charlie always had spending money. Maybe the money and his good looks are what attracted Abbigail Sheehan.
Abbigail and Charlie Butler were married for eight years. Charlie already had a reputation as a wild boy when they were married. He drank too much and picked fights with weaker men. He was first arrested when he was 13 years old. After their marriage, Charlie continued to be in trouble with the law. Finally, after he was arrested for assault in August 1883, Abbigail had enough and fled to Pierceton.
Charlie had an aunt and uncle in Pierceton and Butler’s family suggested that Abbigail would be better off living in Indiana. Abbigail wrote Charlie a letter, telling him of her plans to leave him. When Butler received the letter in jail, he vowed to follow his wife to Indiana. During their marriage, the Butlers had a son, Harry. Charlie Butler told fellow inmates that when he was released he would go to Indiana, kill his wife, and bring his son back to Ohio.
In the 1880s, the trains ran often and regularly. As soon as Charlie Butler was out of jail, he sold his wife’s piano for $35, bought a train ticket, got drunk and came to Pierceton. Our young people regularly took the train to Pierceton to roller skate. I often wondered which of our citizens rode the Pierceton train with a murderer.
Butler got to his uncle Ira Ryerson’s house the night of Sept. 28, 1883. At breakfast the next morning, Charlie and Abbie did not speak. Ira and Charlie then went into Pierceton and drank beer. On the way back, Charlie brandished a revolver and fired it in the air. Charlie laughed, saying he had the revolver just for sport.
Ryerson and Butler got home from their drinking at 4 p.m. Charlie found Abbigail sitting in the parlor and said, “Where is my kid?”
Mrs. Butler, unaware of pending trouble, answered, “He is upstairs asleep.”
Charlie answered, “Damn you! Go and bring him down here!”
Abbigail answered, “No, I don’t do it.”
Ira Ryerson, sensing a problem, got involved by saying, “Charlie, don’t talk so to Abbie; be good to her and all will be right.”
This last statement set Butler off. He jumped to his feet, drew the revolver from his pocket and pointed it at Ryerson. Mrs. Butler screamed and starts to run from the room. Turning as quick as a flash, Charlie pointed the weapon at his frenzied, fleeing wife, and fired. She was just passing out the door when the ball struck her, and in falling, her feet rested on the door sill, while the trunk of her body lay upon the porch outside.
Mrs. Butler was completely paralyzed from the shoulders down, in which condition she remained until death relieved her the following Tuesday.
Butler Shouts “Murder”
Immediately after the shooting, Butler stepped over the fallen body and shouted “murder” at the top of his voice. A neighbor, William Deviancy, was the first on the scene. When he asked what happened, Butler said, “I’ve shot my wife; I’m crazy.” Butler made no effort to escape. He sat on the front porch and waited for the constable. Another neighbor, Mr. Strunk, was told by Butler, “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.” Struck asked Butler if he wasn’t afraid of being hanged for murder. Butler responded, “No, a lot of good lawyers and a pile of my old father’s money, I think, will save that.”
The murder was a sensational story and there was much talk of lynching the wife murderer. Feelings against Charles Butler ran so high that his trial was venues from Warsaw to Columbia City. That is when Jim Goodfellow, my deputy, and I, became involved. Charles Butler was a very slick man to keep in custody. Sheriff Reid of Kosciusko County caught hacksaws from knives brought to the Warsaw jail. Throughout the Butler incarceration, there were powerful confederates of Butler’s operating for his freedom. We never found who got tools and knives to Butler.
The prisoner was transferred to the Whitley County Jail in February 1884. Our jail was only nine years old. It was proudly hailed as the finest jail, costing over $34,000 in northern Indiana. But as you shall see, even a modern jail has a weakness. In March, Butler escaped from our jail.
Butler Organizes Escape
Now, before you ask how we got surprised by this, let me tell you how Butler organized the escape. Tools, whiskey and money were handed in to him. Lanta Cassel, a fellow prisoner, heard two men talk from the outside but could not see them. The tools were hidden in mattresses. Another prisoner, Ed Carter, a Columbia City resident, was in jail for counterfeiting. Carter was a carpenter and was part of the crew that built the jail in 1875.
Carter told Butler of a soft stone in the ceiling to their cell.
Every evening, Butler played his harmonica and the inmates would sing along, stamping their feet and making a general racket. After the music got started, Butler would dig at the stone in the ceiling, putting the plaster in his mattress. Lanta Cassel held a mattress at the cell door to deaden the sound. At 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 15, 1884, Butler finished his excavation and made good his escape. The other inmates who escaped with Charles Butler were Cassel, Carter, William Butler and Mr. Chambers.
The escapees went north on State Road 9 and hid in a haymow during the first day. Ed Carter told me later they watched my deputies searching for them. When the night came, the escaped prisoners went north to Burr Oak in Noble County. They broke into the Burr Oak schoolhouse and hid all day. That night, they made it to the B&O Railroad at Albion and jumped on an eastbound freight. When they got near Columbus, Ohio, they went to a wooded plot and established a camp.
Ed Carter was elected to go into Columbus, contact Dr. Butler, Charlie’s father, and get some money for them to live on. Carter called upon the doctor and the doctor gave him a considerable amount of currency. The fugitive spent part of the money for groceries and a great deal of it on whiskey. The escapees decided to split up. Butler was left alone in the wooden plot.
Charles Butler had been seen in the Columbus area. I sent wanted posters to the local authorities and they did nothing. Because of the lack of cooperation from the Columbus police, I traveled to Columbus to bring Butler back to Columbia City.
Butler was only 25 years old, but already had a violent history. In order to bring him to trial, it would behoove me to be very cautious. After asking questions in Columbus, I learned that Butler was west of town near the village of Hilliards.
My Civil War service taught me the importance o vigilance. Since I did not know the local geography, I enlisted Sam Britton, the local constable, to assist me. Mr. Britton was sympathetic with my plight and was of great help.
We tracked Butler to a heavily wooded area. We did not know what to expect when we cornered him. The railroad tracks went through the woods and we followed these into the center of the forest. The undergrowth was thick and the night sky was heavy with clouds. We extinguished our lanterns so Butler could not detect our path. As we felt our way along the railroad tracks, all was silent. Then, suddenly we literally stumbled over Butler. He was in a drunken sleep on the tracks! Another surprise, Butler had $190 in his pocket.
Not knowing how Butler’s local friends would take to my arresting Charles, we left that night on the first train to Fort Wayne. Butler was placed in the Fort Wayne jail while our jail underwent repairs. Butler almost escaped from Fort Wayne. He was stopped by a fellow inmate telling the jailer of the escape attempt.
The Trial Begins
The trial of the State of Indiana vs. Charles Butler began May 12, 1884, and would continue until June 12, 1884. I took the sheriff’s job as a Democrat, following Adam McGinley, a good man. Adam and all preceding sheriffs had been vigilant and responsible. But no Whitley County sheriff had to handle a situation like the Butler trial.
From the beginning, there were rumors of lynchings, jailbreaks and conspiracies to either find Butler innocent or to invite him to a necktie party. There was even wild talk that I had been bribed. Thanks to the law abiding citizens of Whitley County and the excellent coverage of the trial by both J.W. Adams’ Columbia City Post, which printed a ‘daily’ during the trial, and The Columbia City Commercial, J.W. Baker editor, the hot feelings were held in check and never came to a boil.
The judge for the trial as E. Van Long. The attorneys for the defense were Joseph Adair, of Columbia City, Lee Haymond, of Warsaw, H.J. Booth, of Columbus, Ohio, Thomas Powell, of Delaware, Ohio, and James Ermston, of Cincinnati, Ohio. Attorneys for the prosecution consisted of Michael Sickafoose and William McNagny of Columbia City and Lemuel Royse and John Wideman of Warsaw.
This trial brought more activity to Columbia City than had ever been seen. The restaurants, rooming houses and hotels did a booming business in the spring of 1884. Wright Lancaster’s “City Cigar Store,” opposite the Courthouse square on Van Buren Street, kept busy just keeping the lawyers in cigars.
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, Abbie Butler. The reason the trial took so long was the tactics used by the defense. The main argument presented by the defense was that Charles Butler was insane. The defense lawyers put many of Butler’s Ohio neighbors on the stand to testify that Butler had a long history of insanity in the family and as a result, Charlie was not responsible for his actions.
I will not bore you with all the details of the trial, but will summarize the important episodes during the trial.
Charles Butler was the only son of a very successful Columbus MD. The parents gave little Charlie anything money could buy, including the best education available. Charlie spent part of a semester at Notre Dame. But Charlie had no interest in the classroom. He preferred the saloon. Charles Butler soon got quite a reputation as a wild young man. He took sport in throwing rocks through windows, starting fights with weaker opponents, stealing, drunkenness and just plain cussedness.
Because of Butler’s terrible reputation, Abbie’s parents refused to allow their daughter to associate with such a scoundrel. But, as you can imagine, Butler succeeded in marrying Abbie against her parents’ wishes. Abbie was then in for a very sad married life. On numerous occasions, Abbie Butler had her husband arrested because she feared for her life. Finally, when Charles was again in prison, Abbie left with their four-year-old son, Harry, and traveled to Pierceton to live with Charles Butler’s aunt and until Ira Ryerson.
Jury Hears Story of Shooting
The jury heard the story of the shooting in great detail. The defense attorneys never denied that Butler killed his wife. They did argue that Charles Butler was incapable of knowing right from wrong. One incident presented by the defense was that Butler received a very severe blow to his skull in 1876 by a Columbus policeman. The defense argued that the severe brain injury, a family history of insanity and Butler’s overindulgence with alcohol were the reasons why Charles Butler was not responsible for his actions.
During the Butler trial, my main responsibility as sheriff was to keep order in the court. But even with all eyes glued to newspaper accounts of the trial, other activities continue in our community. The young people were still roller skating in Princeton. The Daniel Brothers’ Opera House had its grand opening. Thirty-year-old Thomas Marshall gave the high school commencement address at the Lutheran Church. The circus was coming to town the middle of June.
The routine of the sheriff’s office also continued during the eventful trial. Fred Huffman’s home was burglarized on Wednesday evening. The thief made off with Fred’s gold watch and $3. That same day, hoboes were spotted getting off the freight train from Warsaw. Jim Goodfellow and I immediately began the search for Mr. Huffman’s gold watch, but we were unable to catch the thief. Jim and I concluded that one of the hoboes broke into Mr. Huffman’s house and then left town.
On Friday, May 30, the Decoration Day celebration took place. This brought even more people to town. The came to see the trial and to view the George Stough Post of the Grand Army. The veterans appeared in fine military style. There were 1,313 attending the memorial services at the cemetery.
As if there wasn’t enough excitement, Albion had a jailbreak. Five prisoners escaped from the new Albion jail. This jailbreak made our Charles Butler jailbreak a little easier to swallow.
The Butler trial began to conclude the first week of June. And I think the jury had been sequestered long enough. A few days before the end of the trial, the jurors put a sign in the window of their hotel rooms, which read, “City Prison.”
On Tuesday, June 10, 1884, William McNagny spoke for the prosecution. Because Mr. McNagny had a reputation as an excellent orator, the courthouse was filled to overflowing. By the end of the day, the courthouse was so filled with people, the stairs leading to the courtroom began giving away.
Mr. McNagny gave a resounding speech that lasted from 2:30 p.m. until 6 p.m. General Thomas Powell then followed for the defense. Powell compared Butler to Charles Guiteau. Guiteau assassinated President James Garfield in 1881 and it was generally believed that Guiteau was not in his right mind.
The following day, Prosecutor Sickafoose made a vehement speech which captivated the audience. Many in the courtroom believed Mr. Sickafoose made the best summation of all the attorneys.
The final speech was made for the defense by Mr. Booth. By this time, there was so much interested generated by the trial that 300 people were at the south end of the courthouse to hear the summations. The scene was made complete with the trees full of small boys also eager to hear the orations.
Verdict is Death Penalty
On June 11, 1884, at 9 p.m., the jury was given its final instructions and adjourned to decide a verdict. On June 12, 1884, at 9 p.m. at 4 a.m., the verdict was decided. Butler was told, near dawn, the verdict was the death penalty. He said, “I don’t care. But I do pity my poor old father. It will send him to a lunatic asylum, and I pity my poor little boy. As for myself, I’m a thoroughbred, I’ve always been a thoroughbred and I’ll die a thoroughbred.”
The verdict was handed down on June 12 and Charles Butler waited until Oct. 15 to hang. During that wait of almost four months, Butler had few visitors. He celebrated his 27th birthday alone in his cell. It wasn’t until the day before the hanging that Charles Butler showed any signs of remorse. On that day, my son-in-law, Henry Nuxall, shaved and cut Butler’s hair. Henry said Butler was as calm as any customer he had in his shop that day.
The hanging took place in a special enclosure built east of the jail. Dr. Linvill’s residence was the only building that overlooked the enclosure. The same scaffold that executed Sam McDonald the previous year in Fort Wayne was used for Charlie Butler.
Butler Loses Bravado
At 6 p.m., Butler ate supper and smoked a cigar. At 10:30 p.m., he broke down and cried bitterly. Butler would exclaim, “Great God, Harry, didn’t papa always buy you little wagons and toys? I don’t care for myself, but I hate the disgrace on you. For God’s sakes, don’t tell him that his father died a murderer! God knows I’m innocent. I didn’t commit no murder.”
Butler slept soundly from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. At 3 a.m., he had horrible dreams but what he said in his sleep was not audible. Up to the last, he believed his lawyers would get an appeal to halt the execution. I told Butler just before dawn the day of his hanging that the state Supreme Court had affirmed the decision of the Whitley County Court and that Governor Porter would not overturn the verdict. At that moment, Butler began to lose his bravado.
That morning, Butler was baptized in the Catholic faith by Father Hallhake. The only relative present at the baptism was Butler’s sister, Mrs. Hattie Havens, of Cincinnati. She was heartbroken.
Will Adams of “The Post” visited Butler. Butler said to him, “You and all the rest of your tribe will have many sins to answer for; get out of here, I don’t want to see you. Get out or I’ll smash a cup in your face!” Adams made a fast retreat. Butler ate very little breakfast and was as restless as a tiger in a cage.
As the time grew nearer, I deployed the fire department to keep the peace outside the jailyard and the enclosure. There were no incidents that day.
Butler made a will at 9:10 a.m. He willed everything to his son, Harry, and appointed his father as guardian. At 9:25 p.m., he played, “Mocking Bird” and “Home Sweet Home” on his harmonica. He sat quietly in his cell for the rest of the morning. It was about an hour before the hanging. October 15, 1884, was a crisp day. The sun was shining and the sky was a brilliant blue with a few high clouds. The trees around town were already the reds and golds of autumn. I wondered if Charles Butler would be happy or sad to die on such a day.
At 11:30 a.m., he played “Mocking Bird” and danced a little. Soon after this, I read the death warrant to him. He just looked straight ahead and we never had eye contact. At 11:50 a.m., Butler was brought out and marched upon the scaffold. There were approximately 200 people in the audience.
Upon reaching the scaffold, Butler made 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, especially The Warsaw Times. There is Dr. Webber setting there. How do you do, doctor? There is too much man in me to kill a woman. I am no coward. There is Mr. Jellison. He has the same clothes he had on when he was setting on the jury. He ought to get right up and say he did wrong. This is Mr. Green, how do you do Mr. Green? 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.” After Butler’s speech, Father Hallhake conducted a religious service and prayed for Butler.
Also on the scaffold were Deputy Goodfellow, Jacob Ruch and Jacob Platner. Good fellow placed the rope around Butler’s neck. Then, my deputy placed the black cap over Butler’s head and the light of day was forever shut out. After this had been finished, Butler began to shout, “This is awful. Take it off. I want to see again. It’s too tight. Please loosen it. Honest, Jim, it’s too tight.”
I sprang the trap door at 12:08 p.m. Butler intentionally stood too close to the hinges of the drop and as the trap fell, he slid off, making the fall an imperfect one. This prevented the breaking of his neck, which was his desire to have the fall and the rope perform. The perceptible convulsion sent a chill over the audience. At the end of the second minute, Butler raised his legs up and let them fall with heavy force. He died minutes later.
The body was shipped on Number 6 to Columbus, Ohio, where Charles Butler was buried.
We all have experiences in our lives that we can never forget. The only hanging in Whitley County is something I never could blot from my mind.