Historical newspaper stories are a treasure trove of information about a community and its inhabitants. Often dull, sometimes inflammatory, and in the case of John Pryor Cary (1841-1901) of Uhrichsville, tragic. After reading a newspaper story about his death, I wanted to learn more about what may have led this man to his unfortunate end.
John Pryor Cary’s father, Thomas Cary (1814-1873), was born in Gloucester County, Virginia around 1814. He eventually found his way to Ohio where he operated a mercantile business in Zanesville, Ohio during the middle of the 19th century. The Cary household in Zanesville in 1850 consisted of Thomas, his wife Anna (1816-1897), John and his five siblings. John was still living in his father’s Zanesville household in 1860 and when, in 1861, he volunteered for service with the 3rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
The 3rd Ohio Infantry Volunteer Regiment was raised in April 1861 for three-month service. The regiment moved to Camp Dennison near Cincinnati and served garrison duty there until the end of their three months. Afterwards many of the men, including John Cary, joined a newly organized three-year regiment with the same regimental designation. The newly created 3rd Ohio Infantry saw action in West Virginia during 1861, capturing the Confederate-held town of Beverly in July. The regiment spent the remainder of the year on duty in western Virginia and took part in the battles of Rich Mountain and Cheat Mountain.
The 3rd Ohio Infantry was sent to Kentucky, in the fall of 1861 and served in the Western Theater for the duration of the war. The regiment saw considerable action in the campaigns against Nashville, Tennessee and Huntsville, Alabama and took part in the pursuit of Braxton Bragg’s Confederate army during the Kentucky Campaign. The 3rd Ohio Infantry was heavily engaged during the Battle of Perryville, and took part in the Battle of Stones River at the end of 1862.
By spring of 1863, the 3rd Ohio Infantry was part of Streight’s Raid in Georgia and took part in skirmishes at Day’s Gap, Sand Mountain, Crooked Creek and Hog Mountain. Most of the regiment, including John Cary, were taken prisoners of war on 3 May near Rome, Georgia. They were prisoners for less than a month, being exchanged and returned to Ohio for reorganization. Upon being reorganized, the regiment helped control the Holmes County Rebellion, and took part in the pursuit of Morgan’s Raiders. By the end of the summer, the regiment was sent to Nashville and then on to Bridgeport, Alabama, where it was on guard duty until October. The regiment was also part of the Union force sent against Confederates under Nathan Bedford Forrest. It was eventually ordered back to Camp Dennison in June 1864, and mustered out on 23 June 1864 having seen considerable action during the war. John Cary then reenlisted for one year as a Sergeant in the 192nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry where he served at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia and in Winchester, Virginia.
Following his service in the Civil War, John Cary returned home to Zanesville, Ohio and was living in his father’s home with his siblings when the 1870 census was taken. He, along with another brother, was working as a machinist in one of Zanesville’s many manufacturers. Other siblings were working for their father, attending school, or learning trades. Three years later, in 1873, John’s father passed away.
It was around this time that John Cary apparently started to show signs of a mental condition, at the time it was attributed to a severe case of sunstroke but another cause is more likely. It was probable that he was suffering from PTSD as a result of his long and active service during the Civil War. It has been documented that exposure to extreme heat can have debilitating affects on those already suffering from mental illness. It is likely that John’s heat stroke exacerbated an existing condition. John’s life between 1873 and his arrival in Uhrichsville in the 1880s is a bit hazy but some can be gleaned from the historical record.
Based on the 1900 census records, and the report of his death, we know that John Cary was married in the early 1880s. His wife, Sarah Thompson (1856 – 1945), was the daughter of Uhrichsville doctor Samuel Thompson (1829-1904). This would seem to indicate that John had relocated to the Uhrichsville area around that time. Between 1883 and 1887 the couple had two children; a daughter named Jessie (b. 1883) and a son named Charles (b. 1887).
According to the newspaper article at the time of John Cary’s death, he was still suffering considerably from his mental illness in the 1890s. At one point during the decade he was admitted to St. Francis Hospital in Columbus, Ohio to be treated for his “strange fits of frenzy”. While the family is listed in the 1900 census as residing in the same household, the press reported that Sarah and the children had moved out and were living with her father at the time of John’s death in June 1901.
When exactly John Cary began operating a saloon in the Parker Hotel on Water Street in Uhrichsville is unclear, but in 1900 he is listed in the census record as operating a restaurant. Apparently there had been complaints to the local health officer that Cary was allowing stagnant water to lay in the basement beneath his saloon, thus creating a health nuisance. The local health officer, Dr. J.R. McCollum, brought Cary to Mayor Reed’s office on the second floor of Uhrichsville’s city hall on the afternoon of June 4, 1901 to determine a fine for the infraction.
Dr. McCollum and Mayor Reed informed John Cary that, since he had been previously told to make necessary repairs, that the city was going to issue him a fine for the infraction. John asked for permission to return to his business to retrieve the funds to pay the fine, not indicating at the time any animosity towards the two city officials. Between leaving the office and his return, John Cary’s anger must have grown and he returned to the Mayor’s office armed with a pistol.
Upon returning to the Mayor’s office around 2:30 pm, and obviously far more agitated than when he left, John Cary announced that he was going to kill the Mayor and Doctor. Luckily for the intended victims, John’s condition made him easily distracted and in one of those moments the men were able to make their escape from the office. The men then heard a lone gunshot from inside the office and, when they returned, found John Cary lying on the floor in a puddle of his own blood. He would die from his wound 7 hours later.
John Cary shot himself in the Mayor of Uhrichsville’s office over a small fine for minor health infraction at his saloon. That John had struggled with his mental health was apparently well known in the local community. He was not villainized for his intent to murder two prominent members of the community; rather, the newspaper account of his death was empathetic to him and his family. John’s family arrived from Zanesville the following day to make arrangements for his funeral.
John Pryor Cary had served his country in one of the bloodiest conflicts in American history and it obviously left its mark on him. When John Cary died, and in spite of the fact that he had threatened to kill two men, he and his family “had the sympathy of the entire community.”
© Noel B. Poirier, 2021.