The Christmas Murder, Part One

Tuscarawas County Courthouse

While researching the life of New Philadelphia lawyer, judge and politician Abraham W. Patrick, a previous occupant of my home, I came across newspaper accounts about a murder on Christmas Day 1890. Abraham W. Patrick served with the prosecution during the murderer’s trial. It is a story worth telling.

Our modern conception of the celebration of the Christmas season often involves large family gatherings, community activities, church functions, and many others that may be specific to our families. When James Booth, William Gribble and Henry Wehrli* gathered for Christmas 1890 it was under very different circumstances. The holiday would end with one of them dead.

(* Henry Wehrli’s name appears, not surprisingly, in a number of different spellings depending on the writer and/or newspaper. I am using the spelling as it appears first and in later, official, records.)

James Booth (b. 1855) was the son of the late John Booth, who was one of Tuscarawas County’s largest land holders during his life. The Booth’s land was mostly situated in the very southern part of Oxford Township, near the cross roads known as Post Boy Station and east of it (an area today known as “Booth”.)

Illustration of James Booth from The Ohio Democrat newspaper.

John Booth’s father arrived in Tuscarawas County in the summer of 1811 from England, settling in Oxford Township. John was the middle child in a family of ten siblings, not all of whom lived to adulthood. The family name became common in southern Tuscarawas County. John Booth’s wife, Nancy, passed away a few years earlier and John himself died only two months before the fateful events of Christmas 1890.

Following his father’s death James Booth was living on the family farm with his mother’s elderly sister, Mary, Mary’s invalid sister, and a granddaughter of John Booth named Alice. The family’s young farm hand, named William Gribble, was often around but did not live on the farm. Henry Wehrli, a general laborer by trade, had been boarding on the Booth property for a few years by 1890. Henry and James, of similar ages and with a shared interest in alcohol, were reportedly good friends when sober.

Map showing the land owned by the Booth family in 1875.
Booth properties in Oxford Township, Tuscarawas County, 1875.

William Gribble, the Booth’s farm hand, was born in November 1875 and was the son of Peter and Catherine Gribble. William’s father was also a general farm and mine laborer in Tuscarawas County during the period. William, not surprisingly, would hang around with James and Henry when they were all on the farm. It would prove to be an unfortunate habit.

Henry Wehrli, the Booth’s boarder, was born around 1858 in Switzerland and arrived in the United States in the spring of 1884. During his youth Henry had attended school until he was 13 or 14, afterwards he worked in a store for a number of years before immigrating to the United States. This story seems to match the arrival document of a 25 year old Henry Wehrli who arrived in the spring of 1884 through the Port of Boston. He listed his occupation at that time as a grocer. Upon his eventual settling in Tuscarawas County, and his boarding at the Booth farm, Henry started working as a miner in the Black Band Ore Mine.

Illustration of Henry Wehrli from The Ohio Democrat newspaper.

Henry Wehrli purchased six quart bottles of Childs & Co. Rye Whiskey the day before Christmas Eve and he and James Booth started emptying them right away. Henry still managed to get to work the next day but, being Christmas Eve, was able to return home by 3 o’clock. James, Henry and William Gribble gathered for supper around 6 o’clock, by which time both Henry and James were quite drunk and quarrelsome.

Henry’s whiskey store was getting low, causing him to limit James’s share as the afternoon dragged on. James, with William as company, decided to ride to Post Boy Station to find more whiskey and get some oysters for later. The pair arrived back at the Booth home by 9 o’clock, prepared the oysters in James’s room and the trio ate them, drank, and Henry and James continued to argue and threaten one another. Tempers would escalate until morning when one of the men would be dead at the hands of another.

Part two of this series will present the murder based on the accounts of the trial witnesses. It is worth noting that Post Boy received its name as a result of an earlier (1825) murder of a Post Boy near the home of John Booth.

© Noel B. Poirier, 2020.


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