“Torch Murder” of 1934

Torch Murder Headline 1934

Tuscarawas County was not immune when it came to the rise of organized crime before, during, and after the era of Prohibition in the 1920s. The local newspapers carried stories of extortion, bootlegging, murder, and more. During the winter of 1934, Tuscarawas County witnessed a brutal gangland killing in a style reminiscent of the worst New York, Detroit, or Chicago style.


James Brick (1899-1946) and his cousin Donna Walter (1911-2003) were taking a drive on the evening of Thursday, January 11, 1934. As they drove north along Dover-Mineral Springs Road (modern Route 800), around 9:00 pm, they were forced to slow down as they passed by two cars. One car was parked on the shoulder on their right and the other car was parked on the shoulder on the left facing back into Dover. James noticed that a short, heavy set man was standing along the side of the car on the right hand shoulder. Thinking nothing of it, the two continued on their way.

Fifteen minutes later Clarence Hammell (1912-1977) and his girlfriend, having spent the evening in Dover, were returning to their homes in Mineral Springs. About four miles into their drive they saw a 1930-32 Dodge Coupe partially off the right hand shoulder, angled back towards Dover, its rear wheels in the dirt. A medium sized man was standing next to the seemingly disabled car and directly across the road was another car, a Chevrolet Coupe. Clarence slowed down and asked the man if he needed any assistance. The man glared at Clarence and, in an accent that gave the impression he was foreign, told him to “mind your own business.” Clarence, a bit startled by the response, drove on and never looked back.

Another Mineral Springs resident, Pearl Bozman (1898-?), was headed north on the same road several minutes after Clarence Hammell’s run-in with the unpleasant man on the side of the road. Ahead on the road he saw a bright light and, as he got closer, realized that a car on the right hand side of the road was completely in flames. The car was burning within a half-mile of the popular roadside resort known as the U-Auto Park. He sped on to Mineral City where he asked Frank Riggle (1883-1996), who owned a garage in town, to call the highway patrol and report the burning wreck.

The flames that had engulfed the car had more or less subsided by the time that highway patrol officers arrived on the scene. One of those officers, State Highway Patrolman Earnest P. Webb (1906-1981), examined the smoldering wreck. While he could smell that the car had been doused in gasoline or oil, the passenger compartment of the coupe was empty. Moving to the back of the vehicle Officer Webb and others worked to pry open the rumble seat. Finally the lid opened and an almost completely burned body tumbled to the ground in front of the men, reeking of gasoline.

Tuscarawas County Sherriff Abe Laird (1883-1946) arrived on the scene shortly afterwards and he, along with the highway patrol and Dover police, began to investigate the area immediately around the car. It appeared that the perpetrators were trying to push the car back into the woods when it became stuck in the mud. Spots of blood were noticed on the pavement around the vehicle, leading to speculation that the victim may have been lured to the location and subsequently murdered there. As witness reports like those above came in, law enforcement began to suspect that this murder was connected to some form of organized crime activity.

A campaign advertisement from Sheriff Abe Laird’s 1936 campaign for State Senator.

While the body had been burned so badly that at first glance it appeared to be nothing but a torso, some of the victim’s belongings were discovered in the mud around the vehicle. Among them were some keys, a belt buckle with the letter “J” on it, and a single bladed pocket knife. One of the keys, perhaps providing a clue, had the name of a Cleveland key making shop on it. This information led local law enforcement to believe they could identify the victim, and officers from Cleveland arrived the next day to investigate and confirm.

A few days earlier a life-long criminal, and a man associated with organized crime racketeering in Cleveland, had been reported missing by his family. His abandoned car had been found under the Harvard-Dennison Bridge in Cleveland at the beginning of January. His name was Frank T. Joiner (1885-1934) and he had been in trouble with the law his entire life, including burglary, attempting to break his children out of reform school, abandonment, and lately, racketeering. Joiner had run Cleveland’s notorious “Harvard Club” and he was the only eyewitness to the gangland murders of Joe Porrello and Salvator “Sam” Tilocco at the “Venetian Restaurant” on July 5, 1930,

As the investigation continued law enforcement were also able to determine that the torched coupe had, at one point, been owned by murdered Cleveland criminal and bootlegger Joseph Orsino (1898-1933). Orsino had been murdered in March 1933 by two men who, as he exited a Cleveland store, opened fire on him at point-blank range with shotguns. The clues, evidence, and witness reports all leaned to the victim being the missing Frank Joiner, but the true victim’s name was not learned until late the next day.

The belongings that would help identify the “Torch Murder” victim.

We’ll discover the victim’s real name and why he may have been murdered in part two of this story.

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© Noel B. Poirier, 2022.

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