The Christmas Murder, Part Seven: For the Defense

The lawyers charged with defending Henry Wehrli were well-known local attorneys with roots and connections in Tuscarawas County. The task in front of them was to somehow defend a client who, according to preliminary testimony, had frequently spoken of, and threatened to, shoot the victim.


Henry Wehrli’s defense team consisted of two attorneys, Philip S. Olmstead and James T. O’Donnell, both of whom were well-known Tuscarawas county lawyers by the 1890s. They were of similar age, had both studied law in the offices of local attorneys and socialized with one another, as well as with other lawyers in the county.

One of the first references to Philip S. Olmstead in the newspaper, 29 May 1879.

Philip S. Olmstead was the son of Swiss immigrants Jacob and Susan Olmstead of Wayne Township, Tuscarawas County. Philip’s parents immigrated from Switzerland to Ohio sometime before 1841 and started a large family. Philip was born December 6, 1854, one of at least ten children in the Olmstead household. Philip eventually found himself reading law with New Philadelphia attorney J. H. Barnhill in the 1870s. Philip married Cora Gilmore in the fall of 1877 and by 1879 had established a household on the 300 block of East High Street in New Philadelphia.

Philip, in 1879, was appointed as a Justice of the Peace for Goshen Township and, after finishing his reading with Barnhill, entered into law practice himself. He initially went into partnership with fellow attorney W.S. Bailey. Philip Olmstead, along with his various partners throughout the 1880s, took on a variety of both civil and criminal cases. Olmstead found himself handling estates, real estate purchases, and pretty much anything one might expect from an attorney in a small, rural Ohio county.

One of the earliest newspaper references to James O’Donnell, 3 October 1878.

Henry Wehrli’s other attorney, James T. O’Donnell, was born in Mill Township on 9 November 1849. He was the son of local farmer Thomas and Sarah O’Donnell and, during his childhood helped out on the family farm. He attended New Hagerstown Academy and eventually assumed the role of school teacher for a few years before deciding to study law with local attorney J.C. Hance. James went into partnership with Hance after finishing his legal studies in 1873.

James married Margaret Kilgore in 1878 and, following the election of his partner as a Judge to the Court of Common Pleas in the fall of 1881, went into practice for himself and then later with another partner, Edward M. Bailey. By all accounts James O’Donnell was a respected, capable, and successful attorney.

It would appear that the two were friendly, if not good friends, since during the summer of 1888 James O’Donnell and Philip Olmstead, along with Charles Matthews, took a trip to Europe together to, as the newspaper reported, tour the “ould[sic] countries”. Given their personal relationship, and Philip’s Swiss heritage, the pair were a good fit to defend the recent immigrant from Switzerland. Henry Wehrli’s lawyers in 1891 would find themselves opposed in court by a formidable Tuscarawas county prosecutor, aided by a past resident of my home.

The prosecution’s team will be profiled in the next post.

© Noel B. Poirier, 2020.

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