Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Uncovering Murder in My Family Tree


In doing family history research, you sometimes stumble upon a story that somehow wasn't really passed down through the generations.  Such was the case for me recently.  I was simply looking for an obituary for my great uncle John Wesley Terrell, who was born a century before me. Often you can find keys to siblings, spouses and birth/death dates in an obituary.  But I found something much more -- the story of my great uncle's conviction for first degree murder.

As Lowell Thomas would say,  here is the REST of the story about my great uncle John Wesley Terrell.

His daughter Lucy was married to a guy named Melvin Wolfe. They split up, and Lucy moved home near the town of Petroleum, not far from Bluffton. Wolfe and his buddies then undertook to harass his soon-to-be ex by repeatedly passing by John Terrell's house, yelling out taunts.  John had enough, and lay in wait with his shotgun along the side of the road on a Sunday afternoon. When Wolfe and his buddies went by, John shot him. Accounts in the newspaper said the blast nearly took off Wolfe's leg.

Wolfe's friends took him to the nearby town doctor. But John Wesley wasn't done. 

John showed up at the doctor's office, gun still in hand. He broke  through the door to the surgery room where Wolfe was laying on a table, pushed his gun through the door and fired his shotgun again. This time, as the newspaper recounted, the blast nearly decapitated Wolfe.

John was indicted and tried first degree murder. The trial was covered extensively in Fort Wayne and Muncie newspapers. The jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to life in prison. On appeal, the Indiana Supreme Court reversed the conviction because of an error in the asserted date of the crime caused by the pre-printed sheet that was used for the indictment. Terrell v State, 75 N.E. 884 (Ind. 1905).

Meanwhile, another proceeding commenced, and John was found insane and sent to the asylum in Richmond, where he remained for four years. 

Great uncle John Wesley Terrell died of natural causes in 1916 at age 64 while visiting his now remarried daughter in Muncie. Even in death, his story made the front page of the Muncie Morning Star.