Port Washington’s Stull Distillery (oh, and a murder)

I thought I would take a break from the Fallen Heroes series and look into something new. My neighbor and I enjoy a wee-dram of whiskey every now and then, so I thought I would look into early distilling in Tuscarawas County. I did not expect the examination of one early distilling operation to lead where it did, but that’s history for you!

John Stull (1828-1910) was born in Ohio, the son of Michael Stull, Junior (1801-c. 1880) and his wife Catherine Hohn (1799-1903). John, in his youth, served in Company C of the 4th Ohio Volunteer Infantry during the Mexican War. When he returned from service, he first appears in Tuscarawas County’s 1850 census living in his father’s household in Salem Township. He married 17 year old neighbor Catherine Renneker (1839-1924) in 1856, began farming, and started to raise a large family of his own.

When, and how, John Stull learned the art and science of distilling spirits is not known. Though it should be noted that, like its southern neighbor of Kentucky, Ohio farmers were well versed in the process of converting grain to alcohol. It was essential for farmers who lived any great distance from a population center to find other ways to sell their crops. The Stull family owned around 80 acres of land northwest of Port Washington, roughly where current West Hill Road crosses over Interstate 77 along Buckhorn Creek.

Where exactly John Stull established his distillery is not clear. His advertisement, in December 1870, that announced its establishment states that it was in Port Washington but it is also possible that it was on their property outside of the town itself. The latter seems more likely when one considers how later events were reported. While there were a number of distillery fires in the early 1870s, John Stull’s distillery was luckily spared that fate and thrived.

Notice of the operation of Stull’s Distillery in the New Philadelphia Ohio Democrat, 16 December 1870.

Management of John Stull’s distillery changed hands in 1874, though the name stayed the same and John continued to work in the distillery. The new management advertised that they had “pure rye whiskey” for sale, and offered whiskey as payment for grain. A newspaper article referencing the distillery, published in the fall of 1878, distracted me from the history of distilling in Tuscarawas County and took the story of John Stull in a very different direction.

It was Sunday, November 10, 1878 when someone came across the body of a woman, about two miles from Port Washington, her neck broken and her body beaten badly. The person that found the body recognized it as a local widow named Amy Best (1823-1878). The news hit the New Philadelphia press the following Thursday, November 14, and an investigation into her death was underway. It did not take long for the investigation to uncover the murderer.

Catherine Stull, on Friday, November 9, went to the the distillery looking for her husband John and was told that he was out in the distillery’s hog lot. Upon reaching the lot, she saw her husband on a hill near the residence of Mrs. Best. He was tearing up a piece of paper that he had removed from under a rock. She confronted John and accused him of having an affair with the widow Best. He denied the affair and ordered Catherine to return home.

Report of the murder of Mrs. Amy Best, New Philadelphia Ohio Democrat, 21 November 1878.

When Catherine returned home, she wrote a note to Mrs. Best pretending to be her husband, asked to meet her the following day, and left the note under the stone on the hill. The next day, at the allotted time and place, Catherine confronted Mrs. Best about having an affair with her husband. The information on what happened next, for obvious reasons, relies entirely on the testimony of Mrs. Stull.

According to Catherine’s confession, “Mrs. Best immediately came toward her in a menacing attitude, and that she [Catherine] struck Mrs. Best with a club in self-defence [sic]; and then tried to choke her, failing in which, she picked her up and threw, or pushed her over the fence and down the hill.” The case against Catherine was clear-cut, she had confessed, and she was subsequently arrested and jailed.

There is no record of how much time Catherine spent in the county jail leading up to her case reaching a county grand jury in late January 1879. When the grand jury completed their deliberations regarding Catherine’s killing of Amy Best, they decided not to indict Mrs. Stull on any charges. She left the courthouse a free woman on February 6, 1879. According to newspaper accounts, the grand jury determined that there was no way to obtain a conviction of Catherine Stull and that the cost of a trial was not warranted. Apparently, the grand jury felt that she had been driven to her crime by the actions of her husband and Mrs. Best.

The report of Catherine Stull’s grand jury decision from the New Philadelphia Ohio Democrat, 6 February 1879.

One newspaper reported that the community “rejoiced” over the grand jury’s decision, but the press did not. Editorials in a number of papers excoriated the grand jury for releasing a confessed murderer. One paper reported that “she [Catherine Stull] is at liberty now to use her club, and beat out the brains of some other helpless being.” Another paper accused the grand jury of valuing a woman’s life less than a man’s, stating “if, however, the clubbing process was was applied to another sex, perhaps, even some grand jurors might see things in a different light.” Catherine Stull, by her own admission, had murdered Amy Best but was never tried for the crime.

Catherine would return to her husband and the family. Perhaps escaping her murderous past, the couple relocated to Hamilton County, Ohio after 1880. They were living with their son, Samuel, and his family in Cincinnati in 1900. The couple are buried in Glen Haven Cemetery in Harrison, Ohio.

© Noel B. Poirier, 2021.


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