The Christmas Murder, Part Two

Print of men fighting

Henry Wehrli, William Gribble, and James Booth spent most of Christmas Eve 1890 drinking copious amounts of rye whiskey, eating oysters and arguing amongst themselves. By the time they all decided to go to their separate rooms, Henry and James were threatening one another with death while William attempted to stay out of the fray. The following account of the murder is drawn from a variety of press accounts and court testimony found in period newspapers.

By all accounts, both at the time and later, Henry Wehrli and James Booth were the best of friends – when sober. Once they went on, what was described as, a “spree” then all bets were off and the two would frequently argue. Earlier in the Christmas week Henry had managed to get his hands on six bottles of Childs & Company Rye Whiskey from New York, most likely in preparation for the holiday. Henry, working in the local mines, always seemed to have ready cash on hand for these purchases.

Henry began his drinking on Tuesday evening, though apparently not enough for the two to become quarrelsome or to prevent Henry from getting to work the next day, Christmas Eve morning. After arriving back at the Booth residence after work, around three o’clock, Henry got together with James and William Gribble and the real celebrations began. By six o’clock both James and Henry were “tight” and had already begun to argue and have words. To add insult to injury, Henry was starting to get stingy with the whiskey, further irritating his friend James.

After supper, and given Henry’s stinginess with the whiskey, James decided to go to Post Boy Station to pick up some oysters and more whiskey. William accompanied James while Henry stayed back at the house. The two returned around nine o’clock and the three prepared and ate the oysters in Henry’s room. Not surprisingly Henry and James continued to argue with one another culminating with Henry accusing James of having stolen a bottle of his whiskey. Tempers were high and Henry allegedly threatened to kill James. How serious was Henry’s threat to James? James apparently thought the threat was very real and locked himself in his room. Henry continued to yell at James through the door, but made it clear he would not break the door down as that would be a “penitentiary offence to break open a locked door.” James threatened that, if Henry did break the door down, James would “smash his head with a bed slat.” This ended the evening with the two each going to their rooms and William staying in Henry’s room after being kicked out of James’s.

How much longer the individual drinking continued after the party separated is hard to determine but, at least in James’s case, he was up until one o’clock in the morning (Christmas morning). James left the house and went to a neighbor’s where he first asked to be allowed to stay there because he was afraid that Henry would kill him. When the neighbor told James to go home and go to bed, James asked him if he had any whiskey he could spare. Turned away by his neighbor, James went back to the house around two o’clock, woke his Aunt and told her also that he feared Henry would kill him. She convinced James that he was fine and persuaded him to finally go to bed.

James Booth’s Aunt, Mary Hart (his mother’s sister), awoke at five o’clock Christmas morning and began to prepare breakfast for her nephew and the other boarders. James woke up shortly after, still drunk and whether he slept at all that night is unknown, and went to the kitchen. An hour later breakfast was just about ready and Mary asked James to go wake Henry and William and let them know. James went to Henry’s door and kicked it forcefully and yelled to Henry and William that breakfast was ready. Henry angrily replied that if James did not go away he would shoot him. James decided to give the door one more kick and then ran.

Henry was apparently not kidding. As James ran down the stairs, Henry picked up and loaded his single barrel shotgun and aimed it out the hall window at James as he ran across the yard to the main house. Henry fired once in James’s direction but missed him as he went around the corner of the house. This gunshot was heard by a neighbor but, oddly enough, not by Mary in the main house. James picked up two rocks as he ran into the house, apparently to be used to protect himself from Henry, but his Aunt told him to throw them away.

Henry, still in a rage and also still drunk, proceeded to put on some clothes, reload his shotgun, and walk over to the house. In the meantime James had sat down at the dining room table to eat his breakfast and, as Mary poured him a cup of coffee, Henry burst into the room. “For God’s sake Henry, don’t shoot him.” Mary was reported to have said.

Henry’s drunken state had the best of him, however, and from less than ten feet away he fired directly at James’s head. The blast tore into the right side of James’s skull at his temple and just above the ear creating a wound that was described as large enough to put one’s fist in. William Gribble, having heard the gun fire, ran to the house and dining room. There he discovered James, having fallen off his chair and slumped on the dining room floor, dead. William ran up to his room to get dressed and found Henry there. Informing Henry that he had killed James, Henry said “bring me a revolver and I will kill myself and that will end it.” William then watched Henry stuff $20 in his pocket, grab some more shells for the shotgun and, of course, a bottle of whiskey.

Headline of the New Philadelphia Ohio Democrat, 1 January 1891.

William left the room and ran to the barn to get a horse so he could alert someone of what had happened. As he came out of the barn he ran into Henry again. Henry, with the gun over his shoulder and a bottle of whiskey in his hand, called out “Good bye Billy!” and ran off across the field and into the woods to the south.

The next part of this story will discuss Henry Wehrli’s capture and trial in the murder of James Booth.

© Noel B. Poirier, 2020.


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