The Christmas Murder, Part Five: Testimony of Mary Hart

Farmhouse in central Ohio

Henry Wehrli stood in the Tuscarawas County courtroom for his preliminary hearing in front of the Mayor of New Philadelphia as the prosecution brought forth witnesses who offered their testimony as to what happened the morning of Christmas 1890. What follows is the testimony of murder victim James Booth’s aunt, Mary Hart, based on contemporary press accounts.

James Booth’s elderly aunt, Mary Hart, and her invalid sister resided with him on the farm of her late brother-in-law, and his father, John Booth. Apparently her role was to keep house, cook, and take care of her nephew and any other boarders and farm-hands. She was the only other person present at the time of the murder.

Mary Hart testified that she had lived on the farm with her brother-in-law John Booth for a number of years and that James also lived there. Mary did not address James’s penchant for drinking other than to state that he “was desperate when drunk.” Mary stated that Henry Wehrli had boarded at the home for the past five years and that James had been living on the farm throughout Henry’s residency there.

Mary reported hearing a lot of loud talk from the upstairs bedrooms where Henry, James and William Gribble were drinking on Christmas Eve. She did not bother to go upstairs as she wanted to “let the boys have their time.” Regardless, she thought nothing of the noise as it was apparently common when the men got together and drank. At one point in the evening, likely when James left to look for more whiskey, Mary reported that James came into her room and told her he was going out.

The next day, Christmas morning, Mary heard James making noise upstairs and told him breakfast was ready and to come downstairs to eat. She observed that James was still drunk that morning when he came to eat in the dining room. Mary testified that shortly after James sat down to eat his breakfast, Henry came downstairs with a gun and “looked as though he was going to shoot.” As Henry leveled the shotgun at James from about ten feet away, she called out “Henry, for God sake don’t shoot!”

Woman surprised while cooking.

Mary said that she immediately ran from the dining room to the room where her sister was, and was not present when Henry allegedly pulled the trigger and shot James. She stated that within a few minutes William came into her room and stated that James had been shot. The two of them went into the dining room where Mary said she saw James laying on the floor. William told her that he had laid James down after discovering his body.

Mary stated that they then contacted Dr. Goudy of Newcomerstown to come to the house and that, following the removal of James’s body, neighborhood men named Jim Crosley and Dave Daily cleaned up the blood and brain matter in the dining room. Under cross-examination by Henry’s attorney, Mary’s testimony ended with the observations that James had been carrying a brick or rock in his hand for self-defense, and that she hoped that by feeding James breakfast she would “cool his anger.”

Mary was the last witness to actually be present at the time of the murder, other witnesses were called to speak to the aftermath of the murder and Henry’s potential intent.

The next part of this story will continue preliminary hearing witness testimony.

© Noel B. Poirier, 2020.


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