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The Curse of Bairdstown….truth or trifle?

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My kinfolk, the Santmires, were from Bairdstown, Ohio.  Grandma Ethel grew up there and that’s how I know about the town.  But if you have never heard of it or been there, you’re  not alone.  Bairdstown is not much more than a fly speck on the map,  a tiny forgotten cluster of humanity, about six miles due east of North Baltimore that has seen its better days.  But at one time, a hundred years ago or so, back in the oil-field era, Bairdstown was a boom town.  A much bigger burg, once brimming with promise and prosperity.  Two hotels, plenty of saloons, stores, a barrel factory, and a reputation as a wild brawling village in the center of a prosperous oil patch.  As a result there were plenty of oil and refinery workers who made the small southern Wood County hamlet their home, along with the many farmers who also toiled in the fields of “corn and crude” in this oil-rich region of Southern Wood County.  So rich it was, during that era, it was considered the oil capital of America. Hard to believe, but true.

But it also turns out that many of these once thriving villages in this rural countryside  were also rich in legend and lore. One of those legends is the “Curse of Bairdstown”.  As the legend has it, Bairdstown’s fortunes, or lack thereof, may have been determined by one old resident who lived there long before the advent of oil. His name was Jim Slater, and he and his wife, had settled in the area sometime in the 1840’s.  Slater bought a quarter section of land(a quarter square mile) to farm and worked hard, to make it go, but the hardships were too much to overcome. He seemed cursed.  His corn died, his cattle wouldn’t give milk, and fortune was fickle.  Slater not only struggled and remained poor, but his wife died in childbirth from the cruel realities of a primitive pioneer environment.  Adding to Slater’s bad luck, were the rumors that not only was he a nervous and irritable man, but that he was mentally unstable and given to a quick and violent temper. As a result, he was not well liked among his neighbors and had few or no friends.

One farming season, according to an article from a 1937 Toledo News Bee, Slater persuaded his farm neighbor, William McMurray, to plant wheat in his field on shares. At harvest time, however, the friendly agreement as to how to to dispose of the wheat and split the profits became a point of argument between the men as Slater objected to McMurray taking the wheat off the land to be threshed. The argument sharpened and became a war of wills and McMurray decided to take it to the courts to decide. The courts agreed with McMurray and he won the legal case against Slater who became livid with anger and declared after the verdict,  that the “wheat would do McMurray no good”.   A few weeks later, the stacks of wheat in field were set ablaze and destroyed. There were also harnesses and other equipment stolen from McMurray’s barn. Slater quickly became the chief and convenient suspect in the arson and robbery as he was promptly arrested and taken to Perrysburg and thrown in jail. The evidence was weak at best and when his case finally did come to trial, Slater was acquitted.  But what should have been reason to rejoice was not, for Slater had spent all of his money defending himself in court, and while he was in jail, he couldn’t tend to his farm and pay his creditors who wanted their loans paid off. Despite attempts to keep them at bay, a foreclosure was filed and the land that had been his farm was sold at a Sheriff’s sale to a prosperous farmer in the area by the name of Josiah(John) Baird. It was Baird who when took the land to plat out the plans for a small town.  In 1874, he built a hotel, a flour mill, a saw mill, and when the B&O railroad tracks were laid through this new village called Bairdstown, Baird’s future looked bright.  Jim Slater, however, now penniless and embittered, angrily declared of the new town,  If there is a just God, he will curse this place till the end of eternity. The curse of the place goes with the wronged man and all who have had a hand in robbing me.”

It is not written as to how the townspeople reacted upon hearing Slater’s curse, but it wasn’t long until the bright promise of the little community began to dim. Josiah Baird, who built the town was also facing problems with his creditors. They were relentless in pursuing his debts and took him to court. Then his sons, it was said, began to develop bad habits and did not tend well to their father’s business.  Baird’s flour mill was burned down, by persons unknown and his cattle in the fields became ill and died.  Baird saw his hopes dwindle and his good fortune whither, and wondered in Slater’s curse was something to take seriously.  Believing that he might be jinxed, he left the town that bore his name and moved his family to Arkansas. He took up hotel keeping, but within a short while,  both his wife and daughter took ill and died. Baird returned to Ohio, but far away from Bairdstown and lived out his years in the southern part of the state.

Meanwhile, George Strain, the man who was the prosecuting attorney in the criminal case against Jim Slater developed a serious mental disorder and was put in an insane asylum where he died.  And David Hayes, Slater’s defense attorney, also met with the ill winds of misfortune as he too went broke and his wife and daughter died.  Slater, himself, not long after, died in the infirmary, the poor house, at Bowling Green where he is buried in a Potter’s field.

From those years forward, Bairdstown has never been able to get past the curse of Jim Slater. Misfortunes and fires have bedeviled the community over the years. In 1890, a train derailed on the B&O tracks in Bairdstown in February, resulting in several deaths. Then in July of that year, a series of mysterious fires, over a three-week period destroyed much of the Bairdstown business district. In 1894, a hold up occurred on the B&O Railroad between Deshler and Bairdstown, ending with the murders of two men aboard the train.  Even during the boom years of the oil-field wealth, Bairdstown never quite blossomed, as did other towns nearby, but always found itself doomed by some tragedy.  Today, it  is not much more than an aging curiosity along Route 18 between North Baltimore and Bloomdale.   A collection of older homes, a cemetery, a set of railroad tracks and a public park named for my great uncle, Merle Santmire.  Who I might add, never believed in Jim Slater’s curse.  Said he didn’t have the time to ponder what he regarded as a trifle.  But some people around Bairstown at least consider the notion that Slater’s angry oath may have in fact been more than just the crabby words of a  ranting old man.  And I confess that I too have given it a thought or too, for despite Uncle Merle’s cynicism, his father, my great-grandfather,  Amos Santmire, in 1898, at the age of 46, the father of ten children, including my grandmother, was struck and killed by a freight train on the edge of  this little troubled town…..Bairdstown.



Filed under Strange Happenings

The Toledo Trunk Mystery, A Grave Robbing Tale



It was known as “Toledo’s Trunk Mystery”  and for a while in 1886, it was probably the most talked about story of the day. Not  just in Toledo, but around the world as it made headlines in many major newspapers. And no doubt it would be just as attention grabbing today, for this story was not only sensational, but  laid bare the grisly truth of grave robbing by medical schools. A story that began in a Toledo train station where the lifeless body of a young woman was found in a large trunk. As the New York Times relates the story on September 11, 1886, the trunk had been put on the Wheeling and Lake Erie train earlier in the day in Bellevue, about 40 miles east of Toledo.


“Among the assortment of trunks that arrived this forenoon was one from which there came a terrible odor. It was placed in an isolated spot and the authorities were notified. When the detectives broke open the trunk it appeared to be filled with straw, but on pulling out a quantity, the officers found the body of a young woman. She was of medium height with blue eyes and brown hair. The clothing was of fine quality, indicating that the victim was of a family in good circumstances. In the mouth, a lot of tissue paper had been stuffed.”

Police stayed with the trunk and waited for someone to claim it and and finally a man did. He was promptly arrested and identified as Martin.E. Wilson. He told police he lived near Bellevue, Ohio and didn’t know the contents of the trunk but had been given money by “certain parties” to take the trunk to Toledo where he was to turn it over to a Dr. Hill from the Toledo Medical College on Lagrange Street. Dr. Hill, however, later said he knew nothing about it. A subsequent investigation by the Lucas County Coroner’s Office concluded that the woman had died of consumption a day or two earlier and without any foul play, but for some reason this woman’s body had been spirited away before her burial. The coroner even noted there had been puncture marks under the arms for embalming. By the next day, however, more information was forthcoming and it was revealed that the body was that of Belle Bowen, the 17-year old daughter of a well-known and “prosperous farmer” John.M. Bowen. She had died of consumption(tuberculosis) and had been buried in a small cemetery near Attica, but her grave, still fresh from the Friday burial, was exhumed that same evening. It latercame out at trial that Wilson had worked under the light of a full moon that September night to pull her body from the grave and then put it into a large trunk before loading it on the train to Toledo with a final destination at the Toledo Medical College. When news of what appeared to be a “grave robbing” surfaced, indignation grew rapidly. And it was widely speculated that this might have been part of a regular system of grave robbing that had been taking place to help medical schools obtain cadavers for research and training. The Bowen family doctor, an H.G. Blaine was arrested. It was alleged that the man who took the trunk to Toledo, Martin Wilson was his assistant and the two of them had conspired to steal the body of young Belle. Wilson also faced charges, along with several staff members of the Toledo Medical College. Back in the Attica and Bellevue area, neighbors and townspeople were irate. A number of men threatened to lynch the two medical men if they returned to the area. Meanwhile, farmer John Bowen traveled to Toledo, with the empty coffin of his daguhter to reclaim his beloved Belle.

In the ensuing trial, it was learned that the 35-year old Wilson was a medical student who had been offered free tuition by the Toledo Medical College to bring them cadavers which were rare in those days since there was no lawful way to obtain them. Wilson was eventually convicted and sent to prison, while Dr. Blaine was cleared of charges, claiming that he didn’t know Wilson had stolen the body and had merely helped him buy the large trunk.  Blaine eventually returned to practice and moved to Willard Ohio. The staff members at the college were also cleared of wrong doing.

Today, Belle Bowen’s body lies undisturbed, and otherwise undistinguished in her grave at the tiny Omar cemetery near Attica, alongside her parents and other family members. There is no notation of how famous she was in death in 1886 when much of the world knew her name and her macabre story.

The practice of grave robbing was apparently in vogue for a number of years in the Toledo area, for only ten years later after this case made Toledo famous, another Toledo doctor was arrested for stealing corpses from the Toledo Infirmary cemetery. Dr. F.O. Hunt was charged with stealing the body of Edwin Cartwright from his grave. The New York Times reported that the coroner at the time, said he was believed to be “part of a gang of professional ghouls operating here for several months and reaping a rich harvest”.







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