A Hamilton Whodunit
Stephen Cone, a Hamilton journalist, wrote two volumes of Hamilton history, the first in 1896. His second volume, “Concise History of Hamilton,” published in 1901 or 1903, included a section titled “An Era of Crime and Bloodshed”:
No history of Hamilton can be complete without reference to the darker side of its annals, and to event which, for a time, cast a fair shadow over the fair fame of the city, but from which it emerged, purified and it has ever since been law-abiding. This was the period just preceding and during the Civil War, and for the several years following the close of the rebellion and the restoration of national peace. It extended from 1858 to 1871, and in eleven years of that time and the next preceding the assassination of Thomas Myers, crime ran rampant and no less than nineteen murders marked this blood era. Counterfeiting, murder burglaries, highway robbery arson and other crimes wer of such frequent occurrence that the name of Hamilton came into such bad repute as to make it a synonym for crime and notorious both at home and abroad.
On December 6, 1870, the Cincinnati Enquirer began an article about a Hamilton murder with this assessment:
It may not be a pleasant thing to reflect upon, but the little city of Hamilton has no reason to be proud of her record of crime. There is blood upon her historic pages from the day of Mad Anthony Wayne down to the last one reeled from the calendar. It may have been the warlike spirit which filled the veins of those veterans who marked the site of the town with that ancient fort, was never fully eradicated. We don’t say it disparagingly, because Hamilton is a good town, and the elements which compose it will compare favorably with those of any other Ohio city, but the town has had a streak of bad luck. It has had the misfortune to entertain, in its time, quite a number of gentlemen who lacked that thorough appreciation of human life which goes far toward making up the model citizen. In fact, this want of appreciation was of that negative character which would have better adorned the resident of Cheyenne or Virginia City in their palmy days, than the burgher of a lymphatic, phlegmatic, half-German Ohio City, it has been a standing reproach in Hamilton in the fact that the town was losing its grip if it couldn’t point to at least ONE MURDER A YEAR.
The murder in question is the death of Thomas Myers.
Christmas Eve, 1870, was on a blustery, snowy Saturday night, and the many saloons of downtown Hamilton were bustling with activity.
But it was quiet upstairs in the gambling rom of the American Saloon on High Street, next to the Hamilton Hotel and across the street from the Butler County Courthouse.
Cone described the American as “a favorite resort for politicians who congregated there to fix the slates for congressional, city and county officers. In more than one case, plans for murder were mapped out in the American Saloon. The citizens of Hamilton were long-suffering, intimidated and awed into silence by desperados who regarded neither property nor life, and who would not hesitate to sacrifice either to gratify their infernal malice if they presented obstacles in in the way of accomplishment of their diabolical designs.”
The Cincinnati Commercial said that two classes of people frequented the American: “Professional gamblers who deal and deal with faro and important gentlemen who like a whiskey punch and a game of cards of an evening, where all is quiet and pleasant and a little money may be staked without fear of the police.”
To get to the gambling room, you had to walk along the downstairs bar to a set of folding doors that led to a narrow flight of stairs. Only select people were admitted to the faro room, which was fourteen feet wide and thirty-six feet deep.
The two windows of the gambling room looked south to High Street and the courthouse. Between the windows was a sideboard which contained an ample supply of Tom & Jerry, a warm holiday punch similar to egg nog that was popular at the time.
Between 8 and 9 p.m., here were about 14 or 15 men sitting around the three tables in the room: two round card tables and one rectangular table—six feet by three feet—used to play faro, a gambling game so complicated that in addition to the dealer, it required a “look-out” to keep track of the bets on the table.
At one of the round tables, local brewer and political boss Peter Schwab sat playing a friendly instructive game of casino with Dr. William Huber. A young man named Ed Harrington sat watching them.
Alexander Sands, David Brown, George Clark and William Grimes sat at the other round table playing seven-up, a game very much like the card game pitch that I grew up playing.
George Johnson, proprietor of the American, served as the lookout at the faro table in a swivel chair, his customary spot beside the dealer, Shertz. Across from them were Pogue Brewer, owner of one of Hamilton’s distilleries, sat next to him Tom Myers, president of the local building association, who had come straight there from the group’s annual meeting. A man named Bannister sat at one end of the faro table, the end closest to the windows.
Some reports said there were thirty people in the faro room.
Around 8:30 p.m., a group of five men walked with purpose through the saloon and went through the folding doors and up the stairs without waiting to be let in. Among them was Tom McGehan, a local political boss and entrepreneur, who either led the group of men up the stairs or took up the rear. Testimonies varied.
Witnesses who saw them said that it wasn’t but a few seconds later that they could hear the crash of furniture and the eruption of general pandemonium as more than a dozen men scrambled back down the stairs.
One of the men threw a large stone that flew past Thomas Myers’s head and landed in the middle of the faro lay-out. A second rock hit him in the head. Myers rose from his chair and the four men surrounded Myers and started pummeling him with more rocks and leather slungshots.
Then the gunfire started, Myers screamed “Murder!” or something to that effect, and the card players and kibitzers all rushed door, falling over each other as they scrambled down the narrow stairs. There were at least four shots. Some witnesses said five. The first one was muffled. The confusion was so sudden and so intense that the men in the room would later testify that they could not tell who was beating Myers and who was trying to come to his aid.
As it would turn out, no one was coming to his aid, but the confusion may have been because one of the alleged attackers—Wilkins “Ich” Sheeley—was a deputy city marshal. The city marshal at the time was Johnson McGehan, the brother of Tom McGehan.
Myers fell to the ground, his face cut, bruised and bloody, a bullet wound in his abdomen.
When the room cleared, Peter Schwab was alone in the room with Myers. He saw the wounds and went to seek a doctor. At the foot of the stairs, he ran into James Leffler, who had been sitting in the first floor bar of the American and was just getting ready to leave through the back door when the thunder of escaping men rattled the staircase.
After all of the men had dispersed, Schwab came down and asked him to fetch a physician, and found Dr. Huber, with whom Schwab had been playing casino just moments before, just outside the door.
Someone was asking him to go to the Phoenix Bar at the Hotel Hamilton next door to tend to a wounded man, but at Schwab’s urgent request, the three of them—Schwab, Leffler and Dr. Huber—went back up to the gambling room where Myers lay dying. They were soon joined by Joseph Myers, the wounded man’s brother, who owned a shop in the 200 block of High Street and happened to be on the street when the commotion started.
Dr. Huber testified that Tom Myers was lying on the floor, the room a total wreck with all of the tables and chairs overturned, some broken. There were three slungshots on the floor and several boulders. The only gun was the one that belonged to Tom Myers, a .32 caliber Smith and Wesson, with four spent shells and two bullets in the chambers. They righted the faro table and the four men lifted Myers onto it. Myers was alive at this point, but fading fast, and never spoke another word before he died, about 15 minutes later.
The coroner’s inquest was held the next day, Christmas, with the examination of a dozen witnesses that lasted well into the night.
Of course, nobody saw nothing, a Hamilton tradition. Except for Peter Schwab and the men involved in the melee, everyone headed for the door as soon as the fracas started. Some said they saw the flash of the powder, and there was general agreement that the first shot was different from the rest, more muffled.
Witnesses in the gambling room were so intent on escaping that they could not identify the late-comers, the men who walked into the room just before the boulders and bullets started flying. But on the testimony of others, those who saw the line of men coming through the front door of the saloon to the stairs in the back, five men were arrested, and after a grand jury met the first week of January, were indicted for first degree murder.
They were Myers’s former friend and political rival Thomas McGehan and his close associates Jackson Garver; Dan McGlynn (born in Ireland but came to Hamilton as a child, knew McGehan ever since) Wilkins “Ich” Sheeley (the deputy marshal, who was shot in the cheek during the fray, the wounded man in the Phoenix Cafe), and James McGehan, Tom McGehan’s nephew and son of Johnson McGehan, Hamilton’s town marshall.
Tom Myers was about 30 years of age. He was six feet tall. McGehan’s book (which I will talk about later) said he weighed 200 pounds, though other reports described him as a “corpulent” 300 pounds, and the indictment against McGehan said the bullet wound was 14 inches deep.
Myers, who was said to have been a carpenter by trade, had been in several infamous scuffles, including one in 1862 at the Fairgrounds with a fellow named Edward Smith. Smith shot at Myers and wounded him before the gun was taken away, and the two continued with fisticuffs. According to McGehean, even though Smith was a mere 135 pounds, he was a skilled pugilist and got the better of Myers. Not willing to let it lie, Myers bought a butcher knife at the fair and rushed at Smith with it, but was taken down by bystanders.
Two years later, he got in a fight with a man and hit him with a stone at a ball. The brothers Patrick and John Ryan, hosts of the event, ordered him to leave. A general brawl ensued, and in the end John Ryan was killed and Patrick Ryan wounded. Myers and Tom McGehan were both arrested for the crime, Myers tried for first degree murder, but acquitted on self-defense, and so McGehan was never tried but claimed that public opinion held him accountable for Ryan’s death.
Although he had twice been indicted for murder but never convicted of any crime, Thomas McGehan was “the most noted desperado of the crowd … long been the leader of the roughs in Hamilton,” the Cincinnati Commercial said.
“Besides being a bold man,” the Commercial said, “and remarkable for audacity under all circumstances, McGehan is reported to be extremely cunning and sharp-witted.”
McGehan was born in Clermont county, April 10, 1835, the second youngest of seven children and eight years old when his father died. He was sent to live with an uncle for a while, then went to live with his mother and new stepfather in Hamilton, where he learned the trade of the shoemaker.
When he came of age, he left shoemaking for horse dealing, real estate speculation, the saloon business and general wheeling and dealing. He claims to have built over 50 houses in Hamilton, served as a federal tax agent, and was elected city marshal in the late 1860s.
His first brush with the law came as a young man when he and another fellow were arrested for assaulting a town constable, throwing a boulder at his head from behind and inflicting a serious, though not mortal wound. Without counsel, McGehan demanded that he and his associate be tried separately and he went first. Without any direct evidence, he was acquitted. When his companion came to trial, knowing that he could not be tried again for the crime, McGehan testified that he was the sole perpetrator and his friend thus acquitted.
He had been implicated in a number of “ugly affairs”, including counterfeiting and bank robbery, but nothing would stick. Investigations into his activities uncovered an organized clan of thieves and burglars extending to several states. They called themselves “the McGeekins,” a name so well-known that many people in Hamilton came to mispronounce McGehan as McGeekin.
Myers and McGehan were reported to be as thick as thieves themselves when they were very young men, both involved in politics, mostly Republican. Both were also involved in the infamous “whiskey ring” that was centered in Hamilton but spread out over several states as well, and one theory about the attack on Myers was because he had been noticed by Cincinnati federal agents as a member of the whiskey ring and it was feared he was cooperating.
The Myers and McGehans were family as well. One of McGehan girls was married to one of the Myers boys.
Their falling out came in 1867, when Myers’s brother William was shot in a brawl on the first floor of the American Saloon and died the following day. McGehan was tried for that one, but it came out in the trial that William was likely accidentally shot by a bullet fired from the sidewalk through the front door into the saloon from the gun of his brother Tom.
In 1868, Myers ran for the office of Marshal of Hamilton as an independent but was defeated by Johnson McGehan, Tom’s brother. In the same election, Tom McGehan worked on the campaign of Clement Vallandigham—remember that name—the democratic candidate for congress, while Myers worked for his republican opponent, Robert Schenk. Schenk won that election.
Some of the newspapers tried to present the McGehan/Myers conflict as a partisan affair, Myers a Republican and McGehan a Democrat, but each had worked for both parties at various times.
Others testified that the two still seemed to be amicable and that while McGehan ran the Phoenix Saloon through much of 1870, he often dealt faro while Myers played.
It’s unclear what, if anything, specifically spawned the Christmas Eve attack on Thomas Myers. Witnesses reported that at various times during the night, one or another of the McGeekins, including Ich Sheeley, the deputy Marshal, popped into the American, the Phoenix and other local saloons to see if Myers had been there.
They were all seen together just prior to the incident in the American gambling room, in the Lingler Saloon on Basin Street, which is now Court Street, on the site of the historic Journal-News building. McGehan kept a stable behind the Lingler establishment and owned the building next door, so he was a frequent patron.
Several people—including the historian Cone, who was a newspaperman at the time—saw McGehan, Sheeley, McGlynn, Garver and James McGehan talking in low, conspiratorial tones.
While at Lingler’s, McGehan sent a boy to his house to get a coat. He was wearing a heavy mink riding coat and wanted to trade to something lighter. A chinchilla box coat with a velvet collar.
Some would testify that as the posse left Lingler’s a little after eight o’clock that they heard Sheeley say to McGehan, “Myers is over at the American without a friend,” with McGehan replying, “Well, let’s go kill the s.o.b.” That testimony proved to be highly suspect, as the details changed from one hearing to the next. One of the witnesses, for instance, said that he knew who the men were because they saw them in the moonlight, but it was an overcast night and the moon had already set at 7:15 in any case.
From Lingler’s, McGehan and his posse went across Riley Street, now the plaza at Journal Square, and crossed High Street to the American. They walked through the lower level in single file in whatever order, and went up the stairs. Almost immediately, the melee started.
Peter Schwab, the only man to not run for the stairs, said at the inquest he did not see who threw the boulders, but in the instant after that he saw Garver grab Myers by the coat and lift him from the table. At the same time, Myers pulled his gun out from his belt and started shooting, crying “Murder!” In addition to the bullet that took Myers down, they later found a bullet in the ceiling, a bullet in the east wall, a bullet in the west wall. One of them had bounced off of Ich Sheeley’s face. There was also a rip in the wallpaper where Myers’s gun scraped the wall as he fell.
At the inquest, the doctor who performed the post mortem said that the bullet he took from Myers’s body was the same type as the others, but of course that was in the days before ballistic testing, so there was no way for sure of telling that they came from the same gun. At the first trial, there was an elaborate demonstration of weighing the bullets that proved inconclusive.
Myers’s head was also badly wounded, the doctor telling the coroner that he might have died from those wounds if not for the gunshot, though other doctors would say differently at the trial, that the blows were enough to bring a man down, but not kill him.
Joseph Myers, brother of the victim, would say at the preliminary examination, but not at the prior coroner’s inquest, that he met McGehan coming out of the American as he was going in. He he told McGehan, “I didn’t come here for a fuss,” and McGehan replied, “Tom’s my meat, and he’s upstairs dead.” This exchange was later disputed by David Brown. Witnesses saw them shake hands. The bartender, Billy Reynolds, said that when McGehan came down from the gambling room, he had him search him to show that he was not carrying a gun or any other weapons, but Reynolds did not search the coat. Then McGehan ordered a Tom and Jerry and Reynolds gave him a light one because they were almost out.
Another witness, a distiller and Butler County Treasurer John Lindley who was under indictment at the time for embezzling $115,000, for which he was later acquitted, said he had a drink with McGehan at that bar, and asked him who shot Tom Myers.
“I don’t know,” McGehan told him, “but the supposition on the street is that I did it.”
Even though Myers was not a particularly well-regarded citizen, McGehan was in even more disfavor, and the threat of a lynching hovered in the air.
The newspapers noted that Hamilton’s “vigilance committee,” a self-appointed group of individuals dedicated to cleaning up the corruption and rampant crime in Hamilton, were keeping a close eye on the preliminary hearing that was held the day after the coroner’s inquest, and all five men were held without bond to await the action of the grand jury.
McGehan employed as part of his defense team Clement Vallandigham, who plays an important role in the drama of this case, so a few words about his history…
At the beginning of the Civil War, first elected in 1858, Clement Vallandigham represented Ohio’s third district, which included Hamilton and Dayton, in the House of Representatives. He was an outspoken critic of the Civil War, an advocate for state’s rights, and a leader of the Copperhead movement. The Copperheads were vocal critics of Abraham Lincoln, so named by the Republicans after the poisonous snake. Although it was meant to be derogatory, the Peace Democrats embraced the term because the penny, which featured the image of Lady Liberty on one side, was also called a copperhead.
Vallandigham was effectively gerrymandered out of office in the 1862 election, and he was arrested for speaking out against the war, given a military trial. Calling him a “wily agitator,” Lincoln himself ordered that Vallandigham be exiled to the Confederacy, and he surrendered himself as a prisoner of war.
The Confederacy didn’t particularly want him and treated him like a guest and helped him make his way to Canada by ship. From his exile, he ran for the democratic nomination to be governor of Ohio in 1864, and made a surprise appearance in Hamilton to accept the nomination, traveling with a fake mustache and a pillow in his coat.
Lincoln seems to have lost interest in him by this time and told his people in Ohio to watch him closely and arrest him if necessary, but otherwise leave him alone.
He lost that election, and lost the bid to return to congress in 1868, the election that was supported by McGehan, who according to the McGehan book, made the introduction to Hamilton’s brewer Peter Schwab to finance the campaign. He then set up his law practice in Dayton.
His exile, by the way, inspired Edward Everett Hale to write the short story “The Man Without a Country.”
Altogether, there would be seven trials in the case and McGehan got three of them. The most spectacular was the first of the lot, when McGehan faced a Warren County jury in Lebanon on a change of venue.
It was quite the circus. An early biography of Valandigham listed seven attorneys on each side.
His defense was that Myers shot himself as he tried to draw his pistol from his belt and the witness reports that the first shot was muffled, not as clear and ringing as the rest of them.
The trial was a jumbled mess of contradictions and changed stories. Witnesses on both sides testified to different things than they had at the coroner’s inquest and the grand jury. A doctor says at one hearing that he saw gunpowder near Myers’s wound, but at the trial said he meant he saw something that looked like gunpowder, but wasn’t.
By the fifth day of the nine-day trial, it had been well-established that on the night of Tom Myers’s death, Tom McGehan was wearing a light-colored chinchilla overcoat with a dark velvet collar, but many of the witnesses could not or would not say he was in the gambling room of the American at the time of the fray. And no one put him any closer to the action than the door from the stairs. The defense tried hard to keep Jackson Garver from testifying since he was a co-defendant, but the court allowed it, and because of the legal wrangling, the public knew that he was to appear on Saturday, June 10, so the courtroom was packed.
Garver was a fireman, and testified that he left the station at 7 p.m., stopped at Heintz’s saloon at took a drink before going to Lingler’s saloon, where he was greeted by McGehan: “You were the man I wanted to see.”
“What do you want me for?”
“We have some business.”
Garver replied that he was away from the station house without a substitute and would be fired if he got caught. McGehan told him not to worry about that and summoned Ich Sheeley, the deputy marshal, to their conversation. “Ich, we are going to give it to that big loafer tonight. He has been putting on too many airs. Go and tell Peter Schwab.”
Sheeley left Lingler’s and returned in fifteen or twenty minutes and had a private conversation with McGehan, who then asked Garver if he had any weapons. He had nothing but a bowie knife. McGehan told him to go borrow something and he borrowed a slungshot. McGehan said to him and McGlynn, “Now boys, if you get into trouble, I’ll spend my last dollar to get you out.”
After three or four drinks, they went from Lingler’s to the Phoenix at the Hotel Hamilton, and picked up some stones on the way. McGehan sent Garver in to see if Myers was there. He was not, so McGehan said, “He’s at the American.”
As they went into the saloon, McGehan said to him, “You go ask Myers whey he has been working to get you discharged from the fire company, and then hit him.”
Garver said when they went in, he saw Myers sitting next to Brewer, then whispered to either McGlynn or James McGehan, “Are you ready?” Receiving an affirmative, they both unloaded their stones, and one of them hit Myers, but he wasn’t sure which.
Garver testified that he was watching Tom McGehan the whole time and when he heard a smothered pistol report, he saw McGehan about three or four feet away with smoke coming out of his right coat pocket.
Myers then fell forward and exclaimed, “Oh dear” or “Oh my god” and tried to get his pistol out, then waved it in his hand but could not shoot it.
Myers staggered backward and another stone hit him on the forehead. He fell with his feet toward the stove. By this time, Garver testified, the room cleared except for Peter Schwab and McGehan. They were speaking, but he could not hear what they said.
Garver then said he went downstairs and saw McGehan, Sheeley and Reynolds, the bartender. McGehan told him to help Ich get attention.
He met up with McGehan again at Lingler’s, who told him, “Now be silent as the grave, for if this gets out they’ll hang every damned one of us.”
They hung out together until three or four in the morning, going to a couple of different bars and to Sheeley’s house to check on him. McGehan gave Sheeley some money and on their way out fell down. As Garver helped him up, Tom said, “I did not think I was as full as that.”
Outside, McGehan showed Garver the hole in his coat. This testimony was corroborated by Samuel Van Camp, who was by then carousing with them. They soon parted, McGehan to his room on Basin Street, Garver to his house on the west side. On the way, he threw the borrowed slungshot into the Great Miami River.
During his testimony, some—perhaps not all—of Garver’s criminal history was revealed, including an 18-month stint in the penitentiary for stealing a jug of whiskey at the county fair when he was 16 years old, as well as “eight or ten” indictments for assault and had once been dismissed from the fire department for assaulting a fellow firefighter. During the war, he left the Army without a discharge, taking some military mules with him.
McGlynn basically took the fifth, would only testify that he came into the bar with Ich Sheeley and who he saw in the room that night, but would not say whether he saw the fight or even that he saw any of the other co-defendants there except that he came into the bar with Ich Sheeley. The testimonies of James McGehan and Ich Sheeley were filled with contradictions and confusion, but both consistently said that they did not go in together and that they never saw Tom McGehan any closer to whatever transpired in the gambling room than the doorway if he was in the room at all. Sheeley said he was trying to break up a scuffle between Garver and Myers when Myers started waving his gun around but he didn’t remember much after that because he got shot in the face.
On the ninth day of the trial, the defense produced the infamous coat. The Cincinnati Enquirer described it as “light drab, made of chinchilla cloth. It is cut after the sack pattern, is double-breasted with a velvet collar somewhat darker than the material itself, and is lined with some dark material. It seems well-worn, but we should say honestly worn—that is, its wear has been from actual everyday usage rather than any attempt at ‘doctoring’ it up.”
McGehan put it on a couple of times, and it was baggy on him because he had lost 30 to 40 pounds in jail, they reported. A Cincinnati tailor took the stand to confirm that he made it for McGehan and several witnesses testified, including McGehan’s 14 year old daughter Charlotte, that it was the coat he was wearing the night in question. Several others said it was not the same coat.
It did not have a hole in the pocket or anywhere else.
The prosecution began making its closing statements on Friday, June 16, the tenth day of the trial. By most accounts, it was looking pretty good for McGehan. Only the testimony of Garver put him close to the action that night, only the testimony of Garver painted the picture of the smoking coat pocket.
Defense attorney Clement Vallindigham was in good spirits, although he was saddened about getting a telegram that afternoon from his wife saying she had been summoned to Cumberland, Maryland, to be at the death bed of her brother.
After taking his dinner at the Lebanon House, now the Golden Lamb, Vallandigham procured some muslin cloth from his host, and he went with three other lawyers to a house at the south edge of town with a .32 caliber revolver he had just purchased a few days before the trial.
They fired two or three shots into the cloth as an experiment. They were satisfied with the result, and Millikin told him he should shoot the other bullets or unload the gun, a matter of safety. Vallandigham assured him he knew what he was doing.
When they got back to Vallandigham’s room, a package was waiting for him: the revolver that had been exhibited in court. It was unloaded and the chambers removed. He unwrapped the parcel and laid the two guns side by side on a table.
A few minutes later, he and some of the other lawyers were discussing their closing arguments, and Vallandigham went to practice a demonstration he was planning to make, to show the jury exactly how Thomas Myers accidentally shot himself while trying to extricate the revolver from his pocket.
But instead of picking up the gun with the chambers removed, he picked up his own loaded pistol, and in doing the demonstration, shot himself in almost exactly the same spot Thomas Myers shot himself, just below the ribs almost directly below the left nipple.
“My God, I’ve shot myself,” he said, according to one of the lawyers present.
Vallandigham survived the night, and the next morning the sheriff delivered a shackled Tom McGehan to his bedside. In spite of his reputation as a cold-hearted killer and unrepentant thug, McGehan wept profusely at the site of his stricken friend.
Vallandigham died moments after McGehan was returned to his cell.
His untimely death was mentioned several times during the course of the defense closing, and the jury was given its instructions on Wednesday, June 21.
The newspaper speculated that the tragic accident would serve in McGehan’s favor, giving him some sympathy from the community if not from the jury. They later said just the opposite, that it worked against him because people blamed him for the death of the beloved Vallandigham.
After taking 50 ballots, the jury split three ways: Four for second degree murder, four for manslaughter, four for acquittal. So it’s tough to say that the death of the defense lawyer helped his case much there, but it certainly didn’t help back in Hamilton.
The second and third trials took place in Dayton, and McGehan was kept in jail the entire time.
The second trial ended with a guilty of second degree murder verdict, but that was overturned on appeal due to juror misconduct.
At the third trial, several witnesses for the prosecution, those who said they heard McGehan’s posse saying they were going to get Myers and a man who said he saw the hole in the overcoat, did not appear at the last trial.
The judge in the case later told the press that he was sure of McGehan’s guilt, the state did not make its case as well as in the previous trials and that the defense got better at impugning their witnesses. The Cincinnati Enquirer said that Garver’s story of seeing McGehan shoot Myers “California-style” was “exploded.”
After one hour of deliberation by the jury, McGehan was acquitted on December 23, 1872, just one day short of the one year anniversary of the shooting at the American Saloon. The McGehan book makes a point of noting that the jury consisted of seven Republicans and five Democrats.
Trouble back at the ranch was not unexpected. In the short article announcing the verdict, the Cincinnati Commercial said, if “McGehan returns to Hamilton and makes any demonstration among those inimical toward him, he will be lynched or he will make away with somebody.”
McGehan went straight home to his residence on Canal Street near 11th Street on Christmas day and locked himself in. “He appeared like one relieved of a heavy burden,” the Commercial reported. “His step was elastic and his face was aglow with the hues of health renewed.”
The house saw a parade of “personal friends, adherents and sycophants” calling to congratulate him.
But that afternoon, a handbill began circulating around town calling for an indignation meeting at 7 p.m. that evening, declaring “When the law and the courts fail, society must protect itself.”
When McGehan got word of the meeting at 4 p.m., he started out in a buggy behind a quick-stepping nag, heading south.
The Commercial called it “an orderly meeting of sober men”. Clark Lane, founder of the local library, was unanimously selected to be chairman of the group, but he declined to serve, so Ezra Potter took the gavel. He selected a group of eight men to form a committee on resolutions.
In 20 minutes, the committee returned with a resolution, unanimously adopted with a ringing “aye” that “as a community we consider that we have the right to demand that the man who is regarded almost unanimously as the leader in the startling murder committed one year ago in our midst should no longer remain among us and that we… demand that he shall seek a residence elsewhere.”
One of the speakers said, “We have met not to threaten, but to advise… but if this warning is not respected by Thomas McGehan, let it be known here tonight that the citizens of Hamilton will not be responsible for the consequences.”
Despite the civilized veneer, the Commercial reporter hinted that a secret committee had been formed to collect McGehan until they learned he had already fled.
He went to Cincinnati and opened a saloon on Vine Street in downtown, between Fourth and Fifth.
In May, 1872, McGehan returned to Hamilton and there was a second indignation meeting. This time, the resolution committee consisted of several dozen prominent men, many of whom had participated in the trials against McGehan. This resolution was much more strongly worded, calling McGehan a monster and declaring Garver, Sheeley, McGlynn and James McGehan outlaws and demanded they leave the county. Again that was no problem. By this time, charges had been dropped against Sheeley and Garver—both already left town—and James McGehan and McGlynn were in Preble County awaiting trial.
Daniel McGlynn was found guilty of manslaughter in Preble County and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
On the same day McGlynn was sentenced, January 16, 1873, James McGehan pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received a one year sentence.
Tom McGehan saw a little bit of trouble in June, 1872, and spent 30 days in the workhouse for carrying a weapon. He told the judge he had to because of the threats made against him in Hamilton.
In handing down the sentence, the judge said, “Mr. McGehan is not a man who ought to carry a deadly weapon. It is the object of the statue to prevent just such people from carrying deadly weapons.” He told McGehan that if he is being threatened, he should take the parties to court. I don’t think he was joking.
He was back in Hamilton in April, 1874, when it was reported in the Hamilton Telegraph that McGehan took a bullet in the neck and a bullet in the thigh. He blamed it on a barber John Koehler, who “indignantly denied” it. The paper wrote that he should be sent to prison anyway, for bungling the job.
In the fall of 1874, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported on a trip that McGehan made back to Hamilton. Someone asked him, “Did you go in disguise?” McGehan replied, “Yes, I did. I went sober.”
The year 1874 also saw the publication of “A History of the Life and Trials of Thomas McGehan Who Was Charged with the Shooting and Killing of Thomas S. Myers In the City of Hamilton, Butler County, Ohio, on the Evening of the 24th of December, 1870” and so on.
Although the book bears the name of no author, it is clearly written with the purpose of vindicating Thomas McGehan. Some have suggested that McGehan wrote it himself and misspelled his name—McGehean—to hide his identity. Other historians, anecdotally, agree with me that McGehan obviously had a big hand in the book, but the writing seems a bit too sophisticated for a Hamilton thug.
Part of the way the author does it is by naming names and accusing the people who organized and conspired against of a number of crimes, as summarized on the last page of narrative.
There are many unanswered questions in this story, but the one that bugs me the most is, “Why in the world did Tom McGehan move back to Hamilton?”
Having already been exiled and then being a part of if not the author of a book accusing prominent Hamilton citizens of flagrant crimes and surreptitious immorality, Tom McGehan purchased a bowling alley and saloon at 330 Basin Street (about where the loading dock of the Government Services Center is now) and moved back to Hamilton.
The bar had been known as Patsey’s Dive, a place with an unenviable reputation.
“Here, Tom gathered around him what few choice spirits were left, but they were indeed few, and his reputation as a ringleader gone, his patronage small and the business of a meagre character.”
In the summer of 1875, he and his wife quarreled and he drew a gun on her. He shot, but didn’t hit anybody. His wife and children left him and went to his in-laws to live.
The vigilance committee put out a $1,000 bounty on the head of Tom McGehan. Cone said that there were three or four men on constant patrol who color-coded the buckshot in their shotgun loads so that they would know who to give the reward to.
At 11 p.m., Sunday, June 13, 1875, McGehan was out drinking with one of his few remaining friends and met two men, one of them an official of the local Democratic party, at the corner of Third and Basin Streets, who were leaving a concert. They first went to Lingler’s Saloon, where the trouble might have started on that fateful Christmas Eve, and had a drink. McGehan’s original companion left them, and Tom asked one of the other fellows to buy a round, but no one had any money.
“Well, I’ve got my own saloon,” McGehan said, and invited the other two to a night-cap at his saloon, a block and a half away.
It was closed, but Tom had the key in his pocket. The two men sat at the bar and McGehan turned the gas lamps up and went behind the bar to get drinks.
McGehan did not know that a member of the vigilance committee had pulled a spring wagon up to window in the alley on the west side of the building, behind the bar, and was lying in wait. The shutters were drawn, but there was a loop hole that allowed the assassin to look in.
McGehan set two glasses on the bar, then turned around to get a bottle of whiskey. The window shattered in a thousand pieces and McGehan took eleven balls of buckshot in his right temple and side of his face from a double-barreled shotgun. One pierced his jugular vein.
The two men heard the shot, but thought that McGehan was shooting at them, so they left in a hurry and ran all the way to the hydraulic before realizing that McGehan was not chasing them.
The Commercial said the shot was delivered “fair and square” and the report heard all over downtown. The Constable John Johnson heard it, and was trying to figure out where it had come from when he met James Vallandigham, the Butler County prosecutor and nephew of Clement Vallandigham, coming out of his office.
Together, they figured it came from the direction of McGehan’s saloon, and shortly after midnight arrived to find the man lying in a pool of his own blood.
“He died game,” Cone said, “as he pulled his revolver and attempted to reach the front door of the saloon, but he had not strength enough and he sank to the floor near the end of the counter and expired.”
Although it’s said to have been widely known at the time, the name of the assassin was never reported and is lost to history.
No one was ever charged with McGehan’s death, but it’s pretty clear that McGehan, unlike Myers, did not shoot himself.
“These were dark and bloody days in our history and gave Hamilton an odious reputation. Strangers spoke of it with a thrill of horror as a place where assassins and villains could revel in blood of murdered men with absolute immunity from punishment and find protection even against the demands of violated and outraged law.”