Unsolved and Forgotten: The 1901 Murder of Mrs. Martha Hensel

Harvested cornfield. (Source: loc.gov)

A particularly grizzly murder took place in New Philadelphia, Ohio in the fall of 1901. Despite the violence of the crime, and the fact that there were a number of potential suspects, no one was ever brought to justice. The victim’s death, and life, were subsequently forgotten.

It was a Wednesday afternoon in late October 1901 when two North Third Street (modern 2nd Street NE) boys grabbed a small bag and headed out to collect walnuts in the woods east of a farmer’s field that bordered their street. As they climbed over the fence, one of the boys noticed something in the field about 100 yards or so away. At first they thought perhaps someone had gotten drunk and passed out in the recently harvested field of corn and cabbages. The older of the two boys took another look and realized immediately that it was the body of a woman. They ran back to the nearest home and told what they had seen.

Within a short time a small crowd had gathered around the body and neighbors were able to identify the woman as Martha J. Hensel (1853-1901), the widow of Joshua Hensel (1834-1901) who had died from natural causes only a couple of weeks earlier. Martha had been Joshua’s third wife, after he divorced one wife and a second had died, and he had been her second husband. She had divorced Zoar tavern keeper Emanuel Hostetler (1847-1930) in 1893. Joshua had seven children with his first wife and Martha had two children with Emanuel.

Very little is known about Martha’s life before her marriage to Emanuel in 1873. She was born in Indiana, her maiden name was Grant and she met, and married, Emanuel when he was operating a saloon in LaGrange County, Indiana. Emanuel was born in Wayne County, Ohio and the stay in Indiana was a brief one. He was operating his Zoar tavern and restaurant, and living in Zoar, at least as early as 1884. There is no indication in the record as to why Emanuel and Martha divorced, nor why Joshua Hensel and his first wife did either.

  • The headline of the Canton, Ohio newspaper reporting on the murder of Martha Hensel, October 1901. (Source: newspaperarchive.com)
  • The North Third Street neighborhood as it appeared on the 1906 Tuscarawas County Atlas map of New Philadelphia, OH. (Source: ancestry.com)
  • The location of the Hensel residence on North Third Street as it appeared on the 1914 Sanborne Fire Insurance Map. (Source: loc.gov)
  • The location of the Hensel House and the area where Martha Hensel's body was discovered overlaid on a modern map of New Philadelphia, OH. (Source: google.com)

Among the authorities to arrive on the scene was the County Coroner whose examination of the body yielded information on just how violent the attack had been. Martha was lying on her back, her open eyes covered in blood and her body surrounded by a thick pool of coagulated blood. The Coroner estimated that she had lost nearly 3/4 of the blood in her body and that her murder had likely occurred early the previous evening. He determined that she had been struck on the head several times with a sharp object, either a hammer claw or an axe, and the blows had crushed her skull. The assailant had struck her twice in the back of the head, twice on top, and then two more times on her face. It was a particularly brutal, and believed, personal killing.

The authorities searched Martha’s person, and the field, looking for clues as to who had committed this murder and why. Martha was still holding her house and outbuilding keys in her hands and money that she had on her, totaling almost $50 and partially concealed, was untouched. The murderer obviously had not searched her after the crime, content with savagely ending her life. There was no murder weapon found in the field, nor at the Hensel home when it was searched a short time later. The only potential physical clue was a muddy footprint on her apron that may have been left by the murderer.

The lack of physical evidence did not prevent the public, the newspapers, and the authorities from speculating as to who murdered Martha Hensel and why. The one physical clue, the shoeprint, was said by one paper to be that of a woman’s shoe. Whether it was the assailant or Martha’s print was not clear. This led that newspaper to suspect that possibly she was killed by a jealous woman, though jealous of what was hazy. Another theory was that, apparently, someone in the neighborhood sent a threatening letter to the person who planned to sell the Hensel’s their property. That person indicted that they did not want the Hensel’s living there. The letter writer threatened to burn down the seller’s home, which did occur after the sale to the Hensel’s was complete. Perhaps this person had decided to kill Martha now that Joshua Hensel was out of the picture as well. Another theory put forward by the press was that Mrs. Hensel somehow knew the identity of a serial arsonist that had been plaguing the city for some time and that the person murdered her to conceal their identity. Though how she would have known that information is never presented.

  • Headline to an article that appeared in the Massillon, Ohio newspaper, 17 October 1901. (Source: newspaperarchive.org)
  • Headline to an article that appeared in the Massillon, Ohio newspaper, 22 October 1901. (Source: newspaperarchive.org)
  • Headline to the article on Martha Hensel's murder that appeared in the New Philadelphia, Ohio newspaper, 24 October 1901. (Source: newspaperarchive.org)

Unlike the out of town newspapers, the New Philadelphia newspaper was more circumspect in their speculation on why Mrs. Hensel was murdered. That did not stop them from rumormongering about Mrs. Hensel’s character, her divorce, and her personality. The paper mentioned that numerous potential perpetrators aligned with those rumors were interviewed by the authorities, adding the appearance that the rumors may have been true. Interestingly, the character of her late husband Joshua Hensel, a longstanding member of the community and a well known Civil War veteran, was never in question. Additionally, her ex-husband Emanuel Hostetler also did not have his character examined in the press. Regardless of the killer’s motive and whether any of the rumors were true is irrelevant. Martha Hensel did not deserve what happened to her that October evening.

A couple of days after her murder, her two sons from her previous marriage came to town from Zoar to gather up their mother’s belongings from the Hensel home. There was no grand jury investigation into who may have murdered Martha Hensel, just the Coroner’s Inquest to determine cause and method of death. The story of the murder disappeared from the newspapers almost as quickly as it arrived, with no further details on the case surfacing. The sole mention of it was in January 1902 when a woman went missing, only to be found later. The article noted that the town was still on edge from the unsolved murder of Mrs. Hensel.

Despite her divorce, Martha Hensel was buried in the Hostetler plot in Zoarville Cemetery in Zoar, Ohio. Emanuel was buried there with her after his death in 1930. The identity and motive of Martha’s murderer, very much like her early life, remain a mystery to this day.

Martha J. Hostetler Hensel's headstone in Zoarville Cemetery in Zoar, Ohio, 2014. (Source: findagrave.com)
Martha J. Hostetler Hensel’s headstone in Zoarville Cemetery in Zoar, Ohio, 2014. (Source: findagrave.com)

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© Noel B. Poirier, 2023.

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