Henry Wehrli’s trial began at the end of May 1891 and the testimony of the prosecution’s witnesses was the same as had been presented in the preliminary hearings shortly after the crime had occurred. What had not been heard was Henry’s version of events that were presented to jury during the trial itself. A note: this post contains profanity from Henry Wehrli’s testimony.
The following testimony from Henry Wehrli was reported in the Thursday, May 28, 1891 edition of the New Philadelphia Times, and provided the first opportunity for the public to hear Henry’s perspective on what had occurred on Christmas morning 1890.
Henry Wehrli’s testimony started with him providing the court with background on his life, his immigration to the United States, his work in the local mines, and his relationship with the Booth family prior to the death of James Booth. He then moved on to the two days in question, Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. Henry prefaced his testimony by stating, “James Booth and I were on friendly terms when he was sober and when he was drunk he abused me.”
Henry began his testimony about the event by stating that he “…went to work at 7 o’clock day before Christmas. I returned to the house at 3 o’clock on account of them not hauling ore, having nothing more to do that day. When I came home I washed…I was up stairs after washing, in Jim Booth’s room; he had the only grate; my room was not in condition for [a] fire…Jim came up and was sober. He asked me if I wanted some whiskey. I said no – I had some of my own. I got it at New York; sent money order; had 6 bottles, about a quart in each. I knew if I took a drink of his he would want mine. He opened the trunk, pulled out a quart bottle and began drinking; said he was going to have some anyhow.”
It was shortly after that William Gribble, one of the primary witnesses, arrived on the scene. After going outside to chat with a neighbor, “Billy Gribble and I [Henry] went back upstairs to Jim’s room and Jim was there and pretty well drunk already.” It was around 5 o’clock in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. The trio then went downstairs to supper and, after, “we went up to Jim’s room and I [Henry] was reading and Jim asked if I wanted whiskey, and he said he knew where he could get it and left.”
Henry testified that “in about an hour James Booth came up; five minutes later Wm. Gribble came; had oysters and crackers, and cooked the oysters…He [James] gave me one and he and Gribble each took one.” It was shortly after eating that Henry claimed that James Booth became more belligerent with both he and William Gribble.
The testimony continued when Henry stated that, “Jim went back on the bed and said some damned son of a bitch stole his bottle…I told him I did not take it – that I had plenty of my own, and he came up to me and asked me for whiskey; I refused it.” After being refused Henry’s whiskey, he claimed that James “came up to me and said I had better not take anything out of this house and said he would kick the life out of me.” Henry stated that he left the room but that James “called me names to Gribble, and said if I came in there he would burst my head with a bed slat, and I went out in the hall and said if he wanted to kill me he would have to come out of there; that I would not break the door – it was a penitentiary offense.”
Eventually James Booth turned his drunken abuse on William Gribble who then left James’s room to spend the night in Henry’s room instead. The following morning, Christmas morning, Henry said that “…Jim kicked next morning on door of my room and said to come to breakfast, and he said let me in. I asked what for? He said to get some whiskey. I said I had none, and he said ‘go to hell you God damned son of a bitch,’ and went downstairs…I was asleep when he first kicked and awakened me…he said ‘I’ll burst your God damned brains,’ he gave a kick that I thought would break the door and I got up and got my gun and he ran downstairs…”
Henry, claiming he wanted to scare James, “…went and opened a window and looked out and fired in the air to scare him. The gun was pointed in the direction of the stone wall. Jim Booth was at the corner when the gun went off. Jim had in each hand a river biscuit, or river rock, about the size of my fist…I then heard Jim downstairs pounding and said he would burst my head if I came down there, and that I should leave the house.”
Henry “wanted to get out and took my gun down with me; had the gun under my arm; gun pointed down; breech of gun was under my arm; hammer just under the arm; I met Mary Hart coming from the hall into the porch. I went into the porch and then into the dining room and Jim was standing close by the grate.” According to Henry, James continued to threaten him, saying “‘You God damned son of a bitch, I will fix you,’ and he [James] grabbed the gun and I held to it, and in the struggle the gun went off.”
During his cross examination, Henry tried to be even clearer about what had occurred in the Booth dining room. “I had no intention to shoot Jm. Booth at all; it went off in struggling over the gun. I had the gun under my arm; the hammer was under my arm. I took the gun along for I was afraid Jm. Booth would burst my head. I stepped into the dining room and Jim made a dash for me and grabbed the gun and we were then by the table when he had the gun. Can’t tell the position the gun was in when it went off. I knew if he got the gun he would shoot me down.”
Only two individuals were actually in the dining room when James Booth was fatally shot. James Booth was the son of a well-known Tuscarawas County family and Henry Wehrli was a recent immigrant to Ohio, a stranger to the community. Only one of those individuals was alive to give an account of what happened. Most of Henry’s story was corroborated by the witness testimony of William Gribble and Mary Hart. Unfortunately for the jury, neither of them witnessed what had occurred in the dining room. The testimony concluded, Henry Wehrli’s fate was now in the jury’s hands.
© Noel B. Poirier, 2020.