My Town Monday: Guilty or Innocent, 115-year old case – could you decide?

Dayton, Ohio is no stranger to murder – just watch the news, and it seems there’s one almost every day. But a hundred years ago, murder was a novelty, and a trial for such, a spectacle people came to see from miles away. Yesterday afternoon, Dayton History reenacted such a case in the original Old Courthouse, that still stands at Third and Main today, giving us a chance to see what it might have been like, and even participate in the trial, over a hundred years later.

Dayton's Old Courthouse in the early 20th century

Dayton's Old Courthouse in the early 20th century

Upon entering the courthouse, Dayton History staffers gave the audience a sheet of the text of actual newspaper articles printed at the time. They were printed on yellow photocopy paper, which was amusing considering some of the yellow journalism within. 🙂

In September of 1896, 20-year-old Albert Frantz was accused of murdering Bessie Little, the 23-year-old woman he’d been seeing, whose body was found in the Stillwater River. There were a lot of suspicious circumstances leading up to the verdict of whether Miss Little had committed suicide, as was initially thought, or if she died by another’s hand. Witnesses described how Bessie was caught “in a compromising position” with Mr. Frantz in her parents’ barn, which led to him putting her up in a hotel soon after (there were few living options for single women in those days). It also came to light that she’d seen a doctor, and had been declared pregnant, and Mr. Frantz supposedly wanted to marry her, but was unable due to being underage – and his parents refused to give consent.

At the hotel, they found a letter from Bessie, addressed to Mr. Frantz’s parents, begging them to let their son marry her. But the most telling evidence was found on a newly-constructed bridge, that crossed the Stillwater into what was then a lightly-populated part of town: blood on the bridge itself, and a track mark from it that looked like a buggy had been driven through it.

Reenactment of murder trial in Dayton

Last weekend's reenactment

Mr. Frantz had been planning to take his sweetheart for a ride the last evening she was seen alive.

Other evidence was produced throughout the trial, which in reality, reconvened throughout the next three months. One item was the woman’s skull! It had been kept in a jar of alcohol at the police office, after her body had been exhumed from her resting place in the potter’s field in Woodland Cemetery, when her manner of death was first called into question. When the skull was brought in, the “bailiff” opened the courtroom’s windows, due to the undoubtedly-horrendous smell! The reason the skull was unearthed was probably the biggest factor in the ultimate determination of the court: Miss Little had been shot in the head through the ear, twice.

The prosecution and defense both presented their closing statements – both waxing rather melodramatic at times – then the jury (which were picked from the audience) went to deliberate. As in a modern, Ohio court proceeding, the jury was instructed to issue a guilty verdict only if the prosecution was able to “remove all reasonable doubt.” I was guessing they’d say “Not Guilty,” because despite the evidence, the state hadn’t removed all doubt. When they issued their verdict, the jury agreed, and the “judge” told the defendant he was free to leave.

The Dayton History staffers handed us another sheet of newspaper articles on the way out, containing the results of the trial: Guilty of First Degree Murder! It turns out that, after a series of failed appeals, Mr. Frantz became the fourth person in Ohio to die by electric chair, almost a year later.

Can you imagine that quick of an appeals process now? Or presenting the actual corpse as evidence in a trial? (Thank goodness for modern photography and videography!) And interestingly enough, do you think the modern-day jury was more compassionate, more discerning of the evidence, or maybe just more hard of hearing? (There was a lot of echo in the courtroom, and yes, it was hard to hear sometimes.) Anything fun like this reenactment in your home town? Please share!

Note: This program will be presented three times next weekend, August 5, 6, and 7 –  Details at DaytonHistory.org.
Want to learn more about this case? Check out Spilt Blood, by Curt Dalton (one of the researchers for the reenactment)

More at the My Town Monday blog

Historic photo via Dayton History

9 Responses to \

  1. This was a cool read. If we have anything like this around here, I don’t know about it. The murder itself sounds similar to the one in An American Tragedy and the movie based on it, A Place in the Sun.

    We have come a long way in how we try cases and how we present evidence. I find the process truly fascinating.

  2. Catie, I think this is the first year we’ve had a program like this. Dayton History is great – we’re lucky to have them. And thanks for the tip on the book and movie – I’ll have to check them out!

  3. Poor Albert! I don’t think he was guilty. Why would he kill her when he couldn’t even marry her? Now, if he was being forced to marry, that might be another story.

    And I never would have thought 20 was too young to get married! They got married younger than that in the south, didn’t they? Unreal!

  4. When I married in 1970 I was only 20 and my mother had to sign for me to get married. Back then you also had to take blood tests before marrying. Probably a good idea to reinstate blood testing with young people today having multiple sex partners and having children with multiple girls. The next generation could end up marrying siblings and not know it.

  5. Michael, it makes you wonder, doesn’t it? I know they stopped requiring the blood tests a good while ago. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. I got Time’s Enemy from itunes and downloaded it to my phone. I’ve been surreptitiously reading it at work. : ) I love it! So intringuing! I went to Chichen Itza on my honeymoon 20 years ago. It was such a cool place!

  7. Thanks so much, Diane! I kept your business card so I remember to check out Death, Taxes and a French Manicure when it comes out!

  8. Pingback: My Town Monday: Dayton’s Haunted Courthouse | Jennette Marie Powell