LIMA — Andrew Brentlinger was a very suspicious man. Married to a woman half his age, he suspected her of being unfaithful; he suspected he was not the father of their three children; he suspected some of her lovers were trying to kill him, although, he would later confide to a reporter, he carried a charm that “turns aside bullets so I cannot be shot.”
On an October day 148 years ago, the 50-year-old Brentlinger, after months of coming slowly unhinged, stabbed his wife to death on the porch of their isolated farm set among the woods and fields of Shawnee Township northeast of what today is the intersection of Kemp and Breese roads. The act would earn him the grim distinction of being the only man ever legally hanged in Allen County.
Brentlinger was born in 1820 in Pickaway County. The family migrated to Allen County in the mid-1830s, with Andrew eventually settling on what the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer in April 1871 described as “one of those unpretending but comfortable” Ohio farms. In 1843, he married Eliza Gardner and the couple had nine children over two decades. Eliza died about 1864 and Brentlinger then married Sarah Howlett, a young widow from Tennessee with whom he had three children.
“For four years all went smoothly, the woman working and giving satisfaction in every way to her simple-minded husband, who appeared to be fond of her,” the Enquirer wrote. “Then came into the household the demon of jealousy.”
Brentlinger, the newspaper wrote, “began to talk to his children and even his neighbors” about Sarah having affairs, about some of these men threatening his life. “He would talk of these things continuously, weeping the while,” the Enquirer wrote. “Finally, in the summer of 1870 he sent his wife to Cincinnati. In September he wrote her to return and she did, and matters progressed about the same as before till the 24th of October …”
On that day Brentlinger and his wife had yet another violent argument that ended with Sarah “jumping through a shut window whose sash gave way before her weight,” according to the Enquirer. “Brentlinger followed, caught his victim, and stabbed her with a pen knife.”
Brentlinger, however, was having a difficult time murdering his wife with the pen knife. “He then called his little girl, telling her to bring him his large knife, a dirk,” the Western Associated Press reported in story from November 1870. “She refused at first, but he threatened to kill her also, and she finally got it. With this knife he finished his hellish work and left his wife to die.”
Except she didn’t die right away and was pleading for mercy and water when Brentlinger returned from saddling his horse. He stabbed her eight more times before turning a wagon bed over on the body and riding off “with a parting threat to secure the silence of the little ones (the younger Brentlinger children),” according to the Enquirer.
Brentlinger then rode to a nearby farm where two of his older sons were working. “The old man threatened the boys with death unless they obeyed him, and tells them to go home, bury their stepmother in the potato patch, plow the ground and harrow it over,” according to the Enquirer account.
After fleeing to the area of Kalida in Putnam County, Brentlinger returned to the Shawnee Township farm after a couple days. The Allen County Democrat in November 1870 reported Brentlinger “had returned with the intention of giving himself up to the officers of the law, and of making a full confession of the horrible crime he had committed.” Other accounts, however, have him captured while cowering in his attic.
In early December 1870, he went on trial, was found guilty and was sentenced to be hanged in January 1871. “Perhaps 5,000 people came to town that day to see a man hung, which had he been hung at all, not over a dozen or two would have been admitted to see his final going off,” the Democrat wrote Jan. 25, 1871. “The crowd was very orderly and peaceable, which may in a large measure be accounted for by the action of the mayor in closing all places where intoxicating liquor could ordinarily be obtained, thus compelling everybody to keep sober.”
Brentlinger wasn’t hanged that day because Ohio Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes, citing a new law which required 100 days to elapse between conviction and execution, forced it to be pushed back. Brentlinger’s execution was set for Good Friday, April 7, 1871. “Brentlinger, the wife murderer, will be hung on ‘Good Friday,’ no preventing Providence. It will not be very ‘good’ to him,” the Democrat quipped Feb. 15, 1871.
Because of the crime’s brutality, the impending execution drew reporters from many newspapers and Brentlinger granted interviews to several of them. Asked by a New York Herald correspondent the day before his execution why he had killed his wife, Brentlinger replied, “As I said, my wife was untrue to me. She received the visits of other men, and often told me they had to do with her. I believed this then and I believe it now. They wanted to kill me and get me out of the road.”
Asked why this had not happened, Brentlinger with an “air of confidence and assurance,” told the reporter, “Because I wear a charm which turns aside the bullets so that I cannot be shot. The soldiers that went from Lima (to the Civil War) took charms with them and not one of them was killed or even struck with a bullet.”
As in January, large crowds gathered in Lima on April 7, 1871. The Enquirer reporter was aghast at the spectacle. “Men — and we blush to write it — women; aye, and little children, too, poured into town from early morning light ‘till high noon, coming from all directions, in vehicles, on horseback and on foot — many walking 10 miles — and swarmed around the center of attraction like (humiliating to our common humanity as is the confession) bottle flies about filth, or vultures around carrion.”
Most would not witness the execution. “Some 30 spectators were admitted to the jail around 9 a.m. on the day of the execution,” the Herald wrote. “In a few minutes Brentlinger appeared between the sheriff and the minister. He was dressed in a plain, common suit of dark clothes. He wore a white shirt without cravat or tie. His face was cleanly shaved and looked ruddy. He ascended the scaffold and sat in a chair in one corner.”
Brentlinger recited the Lord’s Prayer with the minister and then stared intently at Allen County Sheriff J.A. Colbath as he read the death warrant. The gaze was steady, intelligent in expression and full of apprehension.”
Brentlinger, a black hood pulled over his head, “stood with his back to the wall. The spectators stood on the floor and on the landing of an iron staircase, leading to the upper tier of cells in front of him, and only a few feet distant. A dim light only reached the grim scene through the heavily grated loopholes in the massive limestone walls,” according to the Herald account.
“The sheriff stationed himself beside the platform and looking at his watch said: ‘It is now twenty minutes to ten o’clock, Mr. Brentlinger, your hour has come.’ A dull clap was heard, and Andrew Brentlinger was seen dangling at the end of the rope, over six feet below the floor of the scaffold, and slowly turning round and round with the slack of the twisted hemp.”
After Brentlinger’s body was prepared for burial, the coffin was placed in front of the jail for public viewing.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.