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The Roosa Murder


Transcription contributed by Martie Callihan 2 May 2005


The History of Warren County Ohio
Part IV Township Histories
Union Township
(Chicago, IL: W. H. Beers Co, 1882; reprint, Mt. Vernon, IN: Windmill Publications, 1992)

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On December 26, 1864, near the hour of midnight, at the residence of John W. Roosa, one mile from Deerfield, was committed one of the most horrible murders in the annals of crime. It was followed with the only case of capital punishment in the history of Warren County. The occupants of the Roosa house on the fatal night were Mrs. Roosa, three young daughters, an infant at the breast, and an old man hired upon the farm, named Jesse Couzens. Alice Belle, aged fifteen; Francis, a younger sister; the infant by its mother's side, and Jesse Couzens, were all killed with the same hatchet, and Mrs. Roosa, with her head horribly gashed, was left as dead by the murderer. Little Jeannette, aged about seven years, was the only person in the house unhurt, and she remained with the dead and dying until daylight, when she went to a neighbors for assistance. John W. Roosa, the father, was at this time an inmate of the Lunatic Asylum at Dayton, where he had voluntarily gone on account of monthly attacks of lunacy, in the intervals of which he was sane. He was a respected farmer, and was Treasurer of Union Township. He had recently written to his wife to sell their barley crop of eight hundred bushels, and to keep the money in the house for the purpose of paying orders on the township treasury. This letter, committed by Mrs. Roosa to a friend, had been read in a store at Deerfield, in the presence of a number of persons. The publicity, innocently given to this letter is believed to have been the cause of the murder, by arousing the cupidity of the perpetrator of the crime, robbery and not murder, undoubtedly, being the purpose with which the house was entered. Only about $20 however, were found and carried away.

The horrors witnessed by the neighbors, who, on Tuesday morning, December 27, first arrived at the scene of the tragedy, need not here be described. Three persons lay dead; Francis was still living, but unable to give any account of the crime, and not long after died; Mrs Roosa was found with many marks of the murderer's hatchet, and from her face the blood had spurted to the ceiling. Serious as were her wounds, she finally recovered. No clew of the murderer was found, except a red silk handkerchief, picked up on the walk near the house, and prints of a horse's feet by the hitching-post. The bloody

hatchet belonged to the house. Dispatches from Dayton in answer to those sent from Lebanon stated that Mr. Roosa was still in the asylum, and was not absent at the time of the murder. The excitement in the community was intense. Volunteer detectives swarmed in from all directions. Several persons were arrested, and no evidence being found against them, were promptly discharged.

Immediately after the discharge of one who had been arrested on suspicion and held for preliminary examination, Samuel Coovert came to Lebanon, and sought an interview with the Prosecuting Attorney. He had come from Middletown to Deerfield, his former home, a few days after the murder, and had remained at his old home until the time of the interview. He stated that he knew the murderer; that David Hicks, of Cincinnati, had confessed to him the commission of the crime. George R. Sage, now, a distinguished member of the Cincinnati bar, was then Prosecuting Attorney of Warren County. After carefully listening to the story of the stranger, and having it repeated, the suspicion arose in the lawyer's mind that the narrator himself had a guilty knowledge of the crime. The story of the confession was in itself improbable, and in giving the details of the alleged confession, the murderer's work was described so minutely and circumstantially, that it seemed hardly possible that the description could all be fabricated. The informer was permitted to sign and make oath to a declaration charging David Hicks with the murder; the accused was sent for, and steps also taken to secure the arrest of the accuser, on the charge of perjury. Hicks, on coming to Lebanon had no difficulty in showing that he was in Cincinnati, at the time of the murder, and in fastening upon Coovert the guilt of perjury. Of this offense, Coovert was afterward found guilty, and sentenced to imprisonment in the penitentiary for five years.

The detectives continued in the work of ferreting out the murderer. The County Commissioners offered a reward of $1,000 for the detection and conviction of the perpetrator of the crime. Many were the theories advanced. The Prosecuting Attorney had become convinced that the man who had dastardly sought by perjury to fasten the crime upon an innocent man was the murderer of the Roosa family. There were, however, difficulties in the way of this theory. Samuel Coovert, though a native of the vicinity of Deerfield, and well aquainted with the Roosa premises, was at the time of the murder living in Middletown; where he worked in a saw-mill. It was known that he had been seen in Middletown, on the evening of the day on which the murder was committed, and also early the next morning, and that he had worked in the saw-mill the day before, and the day after the murder. The distance between Middletown and the Roosa farm, by turnpike, is eighteen miles. A horse's tracks had been seen near the Roosa house, on the morning after the murder. Had the murderer rode on horseback thirty-six miles, committed a robbery and murdered four persons, in the hours of darkness of a night between days both passed in hard labor? Link after link in the chain of evidence, which seemed to establish this theory was discovered, and Coovert was indicted for murder. The Legislature passed a law to meet this case, authorizing the removal of a convict in the penitentiary, against whom an indictment for felony is pending, for trial in the county in which the indictment was found. Coovert was brought from the penitentiary at Columbus, and his trial on the charge of murder commenced at Lebanon, March 1, 1866. Judge George J. Smith presided on the bench; the prosecution was conducted by George R. Sage and David Allen, the latter having succeeded to the office of Prosecuting Attorney; the attorneys assigned by the court for the defense of the accused were J. Kelly O'Neall, J. M. Smith and Thomas F. Thompson. The trial continued for several days and resulted in a verdict of guilty of mur-

der in the first degree., It is worthy of note that eleven members of the jury, which agreed to this verdict, had stated in their examination that they were on principle opposed to capital punishment, but that they believed that their views would not prevent them from rendering a verdict in accordance with the law and the testimony. A new trial was granted the defendant, on the ground that one of the jurors had expressed an opinion as to the guilt of the defendant before the trial. The second trial commenced on June 6, 1866, continued five days, and also resulted in a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree. The briefest summary of the evidence by which the guilt of the defendant was proved to the satisfaction of two juries, is all that can here be given.

Mrs. Roosa and Jeannette, the sole survivors of the tragedy, gave, on the witness stand, their recollections of the horrible scene. The former testified that she had been awakened by a blow on the head, and became unconscious; afterward she saw the murderer standing in the door, with a light in his right hand and a hatchet in his left hand; he came toward her, and, as she thought, struck her again. She described him as a tall man, with a light moustache and pretty long hair. When told to look at the prisoner, she said: "He looks like the man; his eyes look to me like the man's; they have the same staring look; I notice it every time I look at him." Jeannette described the man as tall, with light hair and a red moustache, white shirt and black pants. She said the prisoner looked like the man. She had escaped with her life by hiding under the bed; she had heard her sister pleading with the murderer that he would not kill her, and his reply that he did not want to kill her, but he would have to.

The testimony of several witnesses was introduced to show that a horse kept in a stable not far from the saw-mill in which Coovert worked was found covered with mud on the morning after the murder. A man on horseback had been seen on the Shaker Hill, going in the direction of Lebanon and Deerfield early in the night of December 26; and one going in the opposite direction had been met by a party of four young men about 3 o'clock the next morning.

The handkerchief found near the Roosa house was shown to be like the one Coovert had used in the saw-mill, and there was on it the smell of oil, such as is used in lubricating machinery.

It was shown that Coovert was left-handed, or ambidextrous, and a physician gave it as his opinion that the blows on Mrs. Roosa's head had probably been struck with the left hand.

Monday, the 26th of December, had been observed as Christmas, and a ball in Middletown on that night enabled many witnesses from that place to fix definitely the time of events concerning which they testified. Perhaps the strongest evidence of the guilt of the defendant was that which showed that both Coovert and the family of Harrison McNeal, his brother-in-law, knew of the murder in Midddletown on the morning after it occurred. Miss Mary Shaffer, who lived in Middletown with her step-father, who kept a hotel, testified that she was at the ball; the next morning, after breakfast, went to the house of Harrison McNeal; Mrs. McNeal and the children were in; afterward Samuel Coovert came in, and his sister said: "Sam, how did you say that murder was last night?" Sam said it was the awfulest murder that ever was; that there was an old man killed, and a woman and a young lady; that the young lady threw up her hands and begged not to be killed; that the hatchet was so dull that when it struck Mrs. Roosa's face, it glanced off. Witness asked him how he heard it, and he said a man had told him about it. Putting his hands to his hips, he said he felt pretty stiff; that he had been at a party the night before, and rode there on horseback.

A drayman testified that on the morning after the ball, Coovert had said:

"You will hear by the papers to-day or this evening of the Roosa family, at Deerfield, being murdered." Another witness, on the same morning, had heard of the murder from Harrison McNeal. An acquaintance of the defendant living at Middletown testified that on Saturday night Coovert told him that he was going to the ball. The witness was at the ball, but Coovert was not; and afterward, told witness that he had business at other places. The witness had a conversation with Coovert about the murder on the Wednesday after it occurred. He said the man who committed the murder must have been awkward, or have had a dull hatchet, as he struck Mrs. Roosa a glancing blow and killed the child accidentally. He said the Doctor and Coroner had come to the conclusion that the murder was done by a left-handed man, but they were keeping it a secret in order to find out the murderer.

The defense in the first trial was an alibi. The prisoner's brother-in-law and sister both testified that he was at home in bed on the night of the murder. This testimony was found to have so little weight that it was not introduced on the second trial.

The conviction of the murderer was due largely to the skill and ability with which the prosecution was conducted by George R. Sage, who brought to the trial a thorough acquaintance with all known facts concerning the commission of the crime and a deep conviction of the guilt of the prisoner. Coovert maintained that he was innocent until the last, and all efforts to secure a confession of his guilt were unavailing. His sister, Mrs. McNeal, also asserted his innocence, and continued in her efforts to save her brother until he was executed. The testimony was sufficient to satisfy the great mass of the people of the county of his guilt, and in the sixteen years which have elapsed since the trial, no new fact has been discovered to throw a doubt upon the justice of the verdict.

A scaffold for the execution of Coovert was erected in the yard of the jail. The execution took place August 24, 1866. At 12 o'clock, the doomed man was taken to the scaffold. He seemed very weak, but quite calm. Standing on the trap door soon to fall beneath him, with only a moment or two between him and eternity, in response to the Sheriff's question whether he had any remarks to make, he said in a steady voice:

"Gentlemen, I am about to leave this world, I have had two dreadful trials. I have been treated justly so far as I know, as to the jury and Judges, but as to the witnesses, I cannot say that they were just. While my end is near, I call God to witness that I never murdered that innocent family. As to the evidence of my speaking of it on Tuesday, I hope I never may see God if I heard of it till the Thursday following. I hope that we may all meet in the next world. That is all I have to say."

He sat down and Rev. J. E. Snowden, of the Methodist Protestant Church, his spiritual advisor, approaching him, said:

"In the awful realities of this hour, are you ready to meet Jesus?”
"I am."
"Jesus is your friend—do you trust in Him?''
"I do, indeed."

Mr Snowden then made a short, prayer, saying:
"Oh, thou Searcher of all hearts, we beseech Thee to look down upon us in tender mercy, in this awful moment. A soul is about to be hurried into eternity—prepared or unprepared, Thou alone knowest. We pray that Thou have mercy upon that soul. His declarations of innocence are before God and man, but Thou alone knowest his heart. We commend his soul unto Thee—back to the God who gave it to him. We pray that Thou will pour out upon him Thy spirit, and give him strength for this awful crisis. Amen."

Coovert - "Amen, amen."
Rising from his knees, Mr. Snowden said:
"And now may the blessing of God, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost rest upon you. Samuel Maud Coovert. Amen."
Coovert - -"Amen.''
Mr. Snowden then said: "Good-bye, Sam. I will meet you at the judgment seat, and then all hearts will be known."
To which Coovert responded: "Good-bye.''

After this, the Sheriff, John Butler, ordered Coovert to rise. He obeyed with quiet resignation. His death warrant was then read to him. He listened to it attentively and manifested no emotion. The Sheriff then passed around to the other side and while fixing the noose. Coovert's eye caught that of David Hicks, of Cincinnati, the man against whom he had sworn out a warrant for the murder of the Roosa family, on which ground he had been sent to the penitentiary on the charge of perjury, and he said in clear and distinct tones:

"Dave Hicks, you will forgive me? "
Hicks responded: "Yes, Sam. I bear no malice in the world against you."
The black cap was drawn over his face, and just as the cord was being attached to the hook above, he said:
"An innocent man, gentlemen,. I am."
"God bless you, Sam Coovert; good-bye," said the Sheriff.
"Good bye," responded Coovert.

Then the lever was moved, the door fell, and Samuel Coovert was in eternity.

FOOTNOTES: [a place to add additional information that you might want to submit]


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