The Initial Report
On Friday December 23, 1881, Mrs. Gibbons and her youngest child went on a trip to Ironton to stay with her daughter and son in law. Mr. John Gibbons had moved out of the house five weeks earlier. Teenagers Robbie (17) and Fanny (14) stayed in the family’s one and half story house along with another 14 year old girl who lived nearby, Emma Thomas. Emma arrived at the Gibson house at 6 pm. Fanny was already there and Robbie got home between 9 and 10 pm. None of the three were seen alive again. It was also noted that Robbie only had one foot, having lost the other seven years earlier.
On the morning of Christmas Eve at 5 am, Emma’s mother saw a light burning at the Gibbons house. Assuming it was a fire in the grate, she went back inside. She had a squirrely feeling so a few minutes later she came out to look at the house again and saw the curtains in the window were on fire. She began yelling for help, but the only water in the vicinity was in a nearby ditch that was frozen. A neighbor, J. W. House, broke through a window and pulled the body of one of the girls out. They eventually got all the bodies out, but all were dead. Believing the youngest child was at home neighbors searched for him rather than trying to put out the blaze. It’s unclear if the house could have been saved if the focus had been on extinguishing the fire, but it wasn’t.
The main house was two rooms that were about 12×13 each. It’s noted that the house was only worth $300. At the back of the house was a one story addition. The three teenagers were sleeping in the back room. The girls were on a bed in the corner near the window, while Robby slept on a lounge against the wall. Emma Thomas was found on the end of the bed in what was described as a “supplicating position”. It seems like a stretch to realize that while trying to save someone from a fire so i call that a potential newspaper embellishment. The remains of a chemise were all that was found on the body, which was badly burned. A chemise is a shift that was worn underneath clothes to protect them from becoming soiled by body oils and odor.
Fannie was found on the edge of the bed next to the window. She is described as “literally roasted to a crisp”. Her head was nearly burned off as was one of her arms. Robbie was found shoved into a closet under the stairway in the same room. The small room protected his body and he wasn’t hardly burned.
At first it wasn’t suspected that this was anything but a tragic accident. The three bodies were not examined overly closely and it was assumed they died in the fire. Being December and 6 AM, it was still dark outside when the bodies were pulled from the fire. When daylight came it was found that each person had been hit on the head hard enough to crack the skull. Coal oil was found on the bodies, especially the two girls, which would have accelerated their burning. That led to closer inspection. The burning of the house likely destroyed evidence, but a few key things were still found. Blood was found on the sheets on the lounge. The mattress the girls slept on was saturated with the coal oil. The bed was pushed away from the wall and one of the rails was broken. There was also a bed in the front room. When Mrs. Thomas ran into the burning house looking for Fanny she searched the bed which looked recently slept in. She said it was warm and could not have been empty long, but the house was on fire so the warmth of the bed seems like a spurious observation.
A crowbar which was known to be kept at the back of the house was found on the front porch with hair and blood on both ends. There was an ax in the back room with the bodies that had hair and blood on the handle. A hatchet was also found but did not have blood on it. Blood splotches were found on the windows of the front room and bloody fingerprints were found on the victims. Judging by the wounds it looked like Robbie had been struck by the ax and Emma and Fanny by the crowbar.
It was claimed by neighbors that the crowbar hadn’t been used in a long time and was always under the back porch. They thought it would have been unlikely that a stranger would have found it. Leading the town to believe the murder was committed by someone who knew the family.
A post-mortem showed that both girls had been sexually assaulted. The victims had been hit so hard in the head that their brains were oozing out of their skulls. In fact, the top of Robbie’s head was dislodged completely. The girls clothing was found on the floor of the front room which led to the conclusion that the murder was committed after they went to bed. Mud was found on Robbie’s feet, leading investigators to consider that he had been killed outdoors and then dragged back in the house. By the time the fire was lit at about 5 AM the ground would have been frozen solid, meaning that Robbie had been outside earlier in the night. It was unknown how long the fire burned, but it was thought it couldn’t have been very long or Mrs. Thomas would have seen it more clearly when she looked at the house that morning.
That’s it. A horror movie of a scene with a sum total of useable evidence which mostly amounted to bodies and weapons. Today the DNA that could be pulled from the various tools used would have likely made it an open and shut case. Back then, they had what appeared to be the work of an absolute monster and no witnesses.
The theory was posed that the crime was committed by some number of men who lived in the local area. Maybe Robbie caught them having sex and rather than being exposed the men killed him and then the girls to protect their secret. It was supposed that Robby was not the original object of murder(s) because of the sexual elements of the crime.
“Fanny Gibbons was a pretty girl, with coal black eyes, black hair, lovely complexion, a petit, but comely form, and she was unusually matured for her age. She was attractive, and it is alleged that an attempt was made three years ago to commit a rape upon her. Emma Thomas..was a large girl for her age, shy and verdant.”Cincinnati Enquirer Dec 26, 1881
The Detective on the case said he wouldn’t make an arrest until he was certain he had the right person, but the town was unsettled and there was talk of lynching whoever was deemed responsible.
The local townspeople of Ashland and the surrounding area set up a fund for an investigation into the murders. Three leading citizens were placed in charge of the money and given leave to allow it’s use. They hired a detective by the name of Norris, who lived in Springfield, OH.
Suspicion fell quickly on Mr. Gibbons, who’d abandoned the family. He’d moved out of the house five weeks earlier and was thought to be living in Ironton. He visited home two weeks before the murder and his wife chose to sleep in the home of a neighbor because she was so afraid of him. At the time, she told the neighbor that he had threatened to kill her and the children. It was thought, because of the use of the crowbar, that whoever committed the murder was familiar with the house. He hadn’t been seen in the area since he’d left two weeks prior. He was known to the read the papers and it was considered unlikely that he wouldn’t have been aware of what happened. His failure to show up had some people convinced that he committed to the crime.
Several potential avenues were investigated. One was that the initial cause of the crime was robbery. Mrs. Gibbons had received a money order the week before and Fanny was known to gossip. The money order was only for ten dollars but it was thought that Fanny may not have known that when talking about the money order.
It was considered odd that no neighbors heard anything the night of the murder. Five houses all sat within fifty feet of the Gibson house and all but one of the surrounding neighbors said they hadn’t heard a sound until Mrs. Thomas yelled for the fire. The exception was the Arthur family. Mrs. Arthur, who was up with a sick kid said she heard fighting, but didn’t know what time. They had no clock. She tried to send her husband to figure out what the problem was but he refused. Not overly courageous of Mr. Arthur but he survived the night so maybe not a bad call. O
The First Suspect
On December 26th, it was announced that the guilty party had been discovered. Mrs. Gibbons was convinced that her husband committed the crime. Detective Norris believed her and said he was ready to arrest but suspected that the man had already committed suicide.
Mrs. Gibbons related that she’d been avoiding her husband since he left the house. Refusing to see him either at their daughter’s home in Ironton or at their home in Ashland. She also said that her husband had asked her to kill herself and then committed to killing himself. She told him that she didn’t want to leave the children alone in the world. She claimed that he frequently abused her. He taunted her with a large butcher knife, spit in her face, and would threaten to kill her. As further proof Mrs. Gibbons provided a letter that her husband had written to her ten years before.
“When old men outlived all their friends it is then time for them to die. I have no idea of ever committing the rash act of self destruction. If I do, it will be where you and the children will never see me. I feel as if I had not a friend on earth and is it reasonable that I should want to live any longer? Others have put an end to their existence; how, then, can you expect me to live and my own shame. I have struggled fifty seven years alone in the world, and I find my life has been a blank. All my efforts have been a failure. My whole life has been spent in running after baubles that always burst when I touched them.”Cincinnati Enquirer Dec 1881
Added to this was the decision by the physician on the case that the girls had not, in fact, been raped. Without the rape as a motive it seemed unlikely that anyone but Mr. Gibbons would have a reason to commit the crimes.
A Brief History of John Gibbons
John Gibbons was about 68 years old in 1881 and born about 1813. He was of medium height and weight with a ruddy complexion, grey hair, and “sore” eyes. He moved to Kanawha County, West Virginia in about 1856. He had a bit of money and liked to flash it around. He began courting miss Martha Rhodes and they eventually ran away and married. Before the marriage, John borrowed money from Martha’s brother, which he never paid back. This would become a pattern throughout his documented life. After the marriage the residents of Point Pleasant, West Virgiinia made him the Town Marshal, presumably because they were bad judges of character. He was allocated money to build a jail, and when it was nearly completed, it burned to the ground. John was out of town at the time and wasn’t suspected of involvement. He’d taken out an insurance policy on the building and when he was given the money to buy new supplies he ran off with it. He’d left his wife behind and sometime later sent for her. Martha’s brother accompanied her out west to meet up with him. When they found him he confessed to orchestrating the fire. The couple settled in Missouri where John acquired a farm, sawmill, and other property with that sweet sweet fraud money that no one took away from him.
The civil war started and John joined Confederate forces. He claimed to have been an officer under Sterling Price and saw fighting at Pea Ridge and Mission Ridge with General Mulligan. A relative claimed that he admitted to having dodged the fighting and returned to Missouri rather than join the fight. When he got home it was to find that all of his property had been confiscated, because, obviously. Impoverished, he moved his family back to West Virginia and opened a boarding house. When that stopped prospering he moved the family to Ashland to open a boarding house there.
After moving to Ashland, he was known to make “frequent excursions on wild-goose chases”. More than once he left his family with a note that he would never return. In an unexpected plot twist, he was nearly elected Mayor of Ashland after taking up with a “rabble element” and making all sorts of promises to gain a following.
This all paints a picture of a likable and charismatic man who was also lazy, potentially violent, and prone to dramatics. His family agreed, calling him a deadbeat with a violent temper.
“He is a smooth-tongued fellow and tried to impress strangers with his importance, but does not look a man in the eye when talking with him.”Cincinnati Enquirer Dec 1881
Back to the Arrest
A young man Came forward and claimed to have seen John Gibbons in the Ashland area a short time before the murder. It was supposed that John hadn’t been seen or heard from since the murder, because he was the murderer. The newspaper claimed that “nobody but old Gibbons could have found the crowbar used in the murder.” It was thought that he hadn’t realized his wife was away and mistook Emma Thomas for her in the dark.
That bugs me. Why is it so impossible that someone else could have either found the crowbar or moved it to a storage place that was more visible?
An Alternative Theory
Emma and Fanny were at the house by 6 PM. It was December so it already would have been dark. Someone, drifter or local guy, had his eye on Fanny. Maybe he was even the man who had previously tried to rape her. Either by watching the house or knowing the town gossip, he knew the girls would be home alone. He entered with a hatchet or ax and was in the process of accosting the girls when Robbie came home. The ground wasn’t frozen yet so his feet were muddied when he went behind the house to fetch the crowbar. He was planning to protect his sister. The man inside got the better of him, because he only had one foot, and ended up cutting off the top of his head. Did I forget to mention the foot earlier? He’d lost it seven years earlier in a railroad accident. Now that there was one dead body in the house, everyone else had to die. The man picked up the crowbar that was now laying on the floor and used it to beat the girls to death.
That was entirely made up, though it does fit the facts as presented. All the sudden it’s not so crazy that the crowbar is on the scene. Since I was not consulted at the time and whatever old timey genius also had this same idea was ignored. John Gibbons was charged with the crime. As of December 31, he had still not been found and it was thought he committed suicide.
Watch out for Part 2 to see how this case unfolded.
The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Courier-Journal, The 1880 U.S. Census