HARDIN COUNTY — When Nora Nichols, of rural South Whitley, Indiana, died at 90 years of age in July 1993, her obituary in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel noted she was the widow of Lester Nichols, who had died 44 years earlier.
She was fortunate to have survived him.
Violence had followed Lester Nichols like a shadow, culminating in early hours of a spring day in 1947 when he pumped five bullets into his estranged wife and one into his father-in-law, who died almost instantly. Twenty-two months later, just one week short of his 45th birthday, Nichols was executed at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus.
“What shall I do?” Nichols asked as he entered the death chamber, according to the Lima News reporter who covered the March 4, 1949, execution. “With two guards on either side, the silver haired slayer, pale faced, was escorted to the chair. Switching his pose to seat himself, his right knee buckled as he lowered himself to the seat,” the reporter wrote.
A black hood was placed over Nichols’ face and, at 8:03 p.m., the warden gave the signal that sent electricity coursing through his body. He was pronounced dead eight minutes later.
Nichols, the reporter added, “carried out in full the boast he made to Common Pleas Judge Moran B. Jenkins January 8, 1948, the date he was sentenced to die. “If you have the heart to give it out, I’ve got the heart to take it,’ he told the judge that day.”
Nichols’ life began March 11, 1904, in Marion Township in Hardin County, the son of Harlan and Hulda E. Burris Nichols. On Dec. 11, 1920, when he was 16 years old, Nichols married 18-year-old Floyd County, Kentucky, native Nora Mae Whitaker, the daughter of the Rev. Louis and Isabelle Whitaker. The couple had five children.
In March 1927, Nichols was arrested after a dispute with his brother in law over a tire ended in an exchange of gunfire along a creek near McGuffey. The brother-in-law was wounded. Two years later, Nichols and a brother were charged with holding up a Crawford County store. In August 1930, Nichols was sentenced to 10 to 23 years in the Ohio Penitentiary.
He emerged from prison in 1940 and eventually settled in Silver Lake, Indiana. It was in that area west of Fort Wayne in the summer of 1946 that Nichols first turned his gun on his estranged wife, Nora, shooting her four times in the legs and abdomen.
“Describing her as ‘the finest little woman in the world,’ Nichols’ first concern after he was captured in a marsh near Rochester (Indiana), was for his wife,” the News reported Aug. 6, 1946. “While he has talked freely of the shooting, Nichols has not signed a confession, authorities at Rochester stated. He blamed the shooting on ‘troubles at home,’ they reported.”
On May 5, 1947, two days before he was to go on trial in Indiana for that assault, Nichols and his son Melvin drove to Kenton where Nichols consulted an attorney. His son, meanwhile, had dinner with his mother, who had moved in with her parents, the Rev. Louis and Isabelle Whitaker, in West Newton four weeks after her home in Indiana was destroyed by fire. The Rev. Whitaker, 76, was pastor of the Pentecostal Church of God near McGuffey.
“About 2:30 a.m., several hours after Melvin left, Lester Nichols is reported to have come to the Whitaker home, forced the lock on the rear door, and walked into an upstairs bedroom where Rev. and Mrs. Whitaker and their daughter were sleeping,” the News reported May 7, 1947. “Mrs. Whitaker told officers the three occupants of the bedroom heard rattling on the outside door and surmised that it might be Nichols, but she said they believed the lock would hold and that their unwelcome nocturnal guest would leave without an argument.” He didn’t.
Nichols, who the News later would report had gone to the Whitaker home to persuade his wife to testify on his behalf at the Indiana trial, entered the bedroom and, after “an apparently friendly greeting,” began abusing his estranged wife. The Rev. Whitaker pleaded with him to stop. “Then, Mrs. Whitaker said, Nichols fired five times at his wife and shot Mr. Whitaker who fell dead at the foot of the bed” before turning the gun on himself, the News wrote.
Mrs. Whitaker also told reporters that Nichols said, “I’d rather die than go to the penitentiary” as he shot himself behind the right ear with the 38-caliber revolver. The bullet emerged under his right eye. His wife was shot twice in the abdomen, twice in the legs and once in the shoulder.
After Nichols slumped to the floor, Mrs. Whitaker and her wounded daughter made their way to the home of a neighbor who called a Kenton ambulance and notified Lima police of the shootings.
When officers arrived at the home on the north edge of West Newton, they found only Mr. Whitaker’s body. Nichols hadn’t died but had recovered enough to drive to the home of a brother near McGuffey. The brother took him to the McKitrick Hospital in Kenton, where he was arrested and transferred to Lima Memorial Hospital. The murder weapon was found several days later just east of West Newton by a Boy Scout who was part of a team of 40 Scouts and law enforcement officers combing the area.
After his partial recovery, Nichols was indicted by the October 1947 grand jury and his trial was set for early December 1947.
During the trial, Mrs. Whitaker “admitted that the Nichols had accused each other of running around with other men and women and that Nora had left him and returned to him several times,” according to a story in the Dec. 9, 1949, edition of the News.
Final arguments were heard Dec. 10, 1947. Assistant Allen County Prosecutor Clarence Fischer argued that Nichols “showed no mercy and is entitled to none.” For the defense, attorney L. Earl Ludwig claimed Nichols’ trouble was with his wife, not her father. He said the killing was the result of a “brainstorm” and “in the heat of passion without premeditation.”
The jury retired to deliberate at 3:55 p.m. that day and six hours later returned a verdict of guilty with no recommendation for mercy. On Jan. 1, 1948, after a 15-day evaluation at Lima State Hospital showed Nichols was sane, Judge Jenkins sentenced him to die in Ohio’s electric chair.
After all other appeals were exhausted, and the U.S. Supreme Court had refused to hear the case, the News reported March 3, 1949, that “any defense hopes for saving Lester T. Nichols, convicted murderer, from the electric chair appeared doomed Thursday” when Nora Nichols failed to appear in her husband’s behalf before the Ohio Pardon and Parole Commission “as previously expected.” Nichols’ attorney Ernest S. Navarre, who was at the hearing, blamed “family pressure” for Nora Nichols’ decision.
The following day, March 4, 1948, the News commented, “In the almost two years which have followed (since the Rev. Whitaker’s death), Nichols has tried almost every legal maneuver in the book to keep from doing what he must do tonight.” Eight hours before the execution, Ohio Gov. Frank Lausche refused executive clemency.
Nichols’ brother, Ronald, waited outside the prison gates during the execution and accompanied the body back to Alger for services. Lester Nichols is buried in New Pleasant Hill Cemetery south of Alger.
Nichols was the first person convicted of murder in Allen County to die in the electric chair since Harry Pierpont who was executed on July 12, 1934, for slaying Sheriff Jess L. Sarber on Oct. 12, 1933, while springing John Dillinger from the county jail.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.