BLUFFTON — It was dangerous to be related to Isaac B. Charles Jr.
Charles was born in 1834 to Isaac and Sarah Charles near Bluffton. He was one of three boys, and all but Charles inherited their father’s propensity of prospering at business. Charles did not fare so well. He was treasurer of Ada, where he lived, for a time until defaulting on $1,100. He had two failed businesses. He even forged the signatures of a brother and nephew, going $1,200 into debt.
It appears greed worked on Charles until he acted on his thoughts. First, it appears he tried to shoot his father. A newspaper story from Dec. 10, 1874, reported his father was sitting in his home near a window when a shot came through the window and lodged in the opposite wall. He was 75 years old at the time.
“True, Mr. Charles is a man of considerable wealth and at times has been known to possess considerable money, but no robber with a thimble full of brains would have attempted to rob him in that way,” the story reported.
Four months later, the elder Charles was dead — 18 days after the death of his wife. He was kicked in the head by a horse, which was initially to blame. The wife was sickly. But Charles was visiting during both of these instances, and it would later be suspected that he was involved. During this time, Charles apparently finagled the will and made himself executor, although he was the youngest son.
Suspicion of Charles began after a dinner party with his brothers and their families. All 11 people at the table were sickened terribly, and his sister-in-law died. Charles gathered the family under the ruse of discussing his father’s estate, so dinner was arranged at his brother Elijah’s house near Bluffton.
Charles brought arsenic, sometimes called white cyanide, and put it in either the flour or the yeast. Regardless of the starting point, it ended up in the freshly baked bread for dinner on June 8, 1876.
His 15-year-old niece took the stand in Hancock County Common Pleas Court and relayed how she saw her mother suffer and die after three days and what the arsenic did to her own body. After the initial vomiting spells, the arsenic causing terrible stomach cramps, leg cramps and headaches. She was also incredibly thirsty. Some family members vomited blood. She also told the court how she saw her uncle lingering around the storeroom and she thought his activities odd that day.
Melissa Charles, who baked the bread, ate a sliver as she was slicing the loaves for the table. It sickened her so immediately that she had to go lie down instead of eat with the rest of the family. The theory put forth by doctors in court was that she died because she didn’t consume enough of the poison to cause vomiting. The others survived because they had a full meal and were vomiting profusely.
Isaac Charles, while absent for the meal, returned in time to help care for the sick. It is believed he continued to administer poison at their bedsides.
A newspaper story from Feb. 7, 1877, laid blame at the feet of Charles.
“If the prisoner be guilty, and there seems to be no doubt of that, although there may be difficulty in establishing it, it is one of the most cold-blooded and determined efforts to put away one’s relations ever recorded, with the only possible motive being that the guilty party might inherit the property of his victims,” it reported.
The more officials looked into Charles, the more they found. It is believed he killed his first wife, first taking out a $2,000 insurance policy on her. The deaths of his parents were questioned. There is even mention of a dead sister, although not enough details are known to piece that together.
The newspapers described Charles in detail, saying the 43-year-old man was dark complected and somewhat handsome. He was about 5 feet 5 inches and 155 pounds. He was described as intelligent but cold to most of what happening around him. The papers often describe him as a “fiend.”
The case was closed Feb. 21, 1877, after 16 days. He was convicted of second degree murder, which carried a life sentence at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus.
Off he went to do his time — but he didn’t have a life sentence, in the end. The governor pardoned him at some point that is not clear, on the stipulation that he confine himself to Columbus. He apparently did so until his death from cancer.
The papers ran a small note about his burial on May 10, 1895. His body was brought home to Bluffton, and he is believed to lie in Maple Grove Cemetery with the rest of the family, but he has no headstone.
The note about his burial carried this headline: “An eternal reunion: Isaac Charles has gone to face his victims.”
See next week’s Reminisce for another story of murder that happened very near the same location in Bluffton of the Charles family poisoning.