Officer Sponsel Slain; 3 Convicted

HAMILTON – William Hobbs was passed out drunk when company started arriving.

The Smith Street house was dark when Charles Vincent Rose, 24, came calling at 11 p.m. He was family, the first cousin of Hobbs’ common-law wife, Helen Schindlebower, so he started to climb in a bedroom window. Hobbs roused at the intrusion and gave Rose a key and told him to go around to the door. Formerly of New Miami, Vince Rose had hitchhiked to Hamilton from his home in Metamora, Indiana, where he worked on his stepfather’s farm. He had come to visit with a bottle of whiskey. Rose sat up with him. The cousins, who were raised together by Rose’s mother, talked and played the phonograph while Hobbs slept in the next room.

Schindlebower said that she and Billy had spent the afternoon and early evening of April 11, 1937, drinking beer in a Hamilton saloon. Around 7:30 or 8 p.m., they went to visit Hobbs’s sister Pearly Farthing and her husband on Lane Street drank some more beer. Hobbs also took the occasional hit off a pint flask of whiskey. By the time they left at 10 p.m., Hobbs was so drunk that his brother-in-law had to help him to the curb. Schindlebower took him home and put him to bed.

Shortly after midnight, John Agnew, 34 and a father of three children, arrived. He and Hobbs had been planning a burglary and he was angry that Hobbs was asleep. “Don’t be so lazy,” he chided the sleeping fellow. “Get up and we’ll go out and make some easy money.”

Hobbs, 32, dragged himself out of bed and went into the kitchen, Agnew close behind. Rose and Schindlebower could hear them talking, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. Hobbs walked back into the front room and told Rose to put on his coat, they were going to take a ride and make some easy money. Hobbs returned to the bedroom to get dressed while he and Agnew argued some more, Agnew objecting to taking Rose with them.

“The kid’s alright,” Hobbs said angrily. “I know him and we need a third man.” That put an end to that argument, but then Schindlebower started in on him. He was still drunk, she complained; he didn’t need to be going anywhere. Hobbs ignored her.

“We should take a gun,” Agnew said. Hobbs told him his place had been broken into a couple of weeks prior and someone stole his shotgun, so his .32 revolver was at a friend’s house for safekeeping. Rose said that he had a gun, but Agnew ignored him, saying they’d go get Hobbs’s.

They walked over to Walnut Street where Agnew had parked his car and rode to Rose Bolser’s house on South Eighth. Hobbs retrieved his gun and 18 cartridges in a tobacco bag. He loaded his gun and handed the rest of the bullets to Rose. They all had several drinks of whiskey while they were there and Rose bought a pint to go from Bolser, who had a record of moonshining and selling untaxed liquor.

When they got back to the car, Agnew explained they were going to the National Dairy out on Middletown Pike. They had a safe that was small enough for three men to carry out and open later. On the way, Agnew pointed out other places that were easy enough to knock off, including Mike Vertich’s Café.

When they got to the dairy, the lights were on. They hadn’t been expecting that, so they kept driving and talked about the other places they had passed. They decided to go back to Vertich’s Café at 548 North Third Street, where they could break in through a back window. Agnew parked the car on Vine Street and stayed at the wheel while Rose and Hobbs went to check things out.

They stood on the cellar door to open the back window, but it was locked. The two started to open a gate to get to the other side of the building where they could try the other windows and maybe even the front door if they had to. Just as Hobbs pushed open the gate, we saw a car stop suddenly and a man jumped out with a flashlight in his hand and started toward us,” Rose would later testify as a state’s witness. “He yelled and I ran toward an abandoned automobile which was standing on the lot and then headed up an alley. I heard four shots from a heavy caliber gun and three from a lighter gun as I was going through the alley.

“I made my way back to where the car was parked and Agnew asked me what had happened. I told him there had been some shooting and urged him to drive away. He asked me what had become of Hobbs and I said he probably had been shot. We waited for about a minute and a half and as we were starting to drive away, Hobbs ran in front of the auto and hopped in.

“Agnew drove out the Middletown Pike and on the way, Hobbs said that he had fired three shots and asked me if I had done any shooting. I told him no and he broke open his gun and emptied out three shells… Hobbs remarked that he believed he had shot someone but had not looked to see who it was. Hobbs said that after he shot, the man ran like a turkey. Agnew laughed.”

The three men drove around a while longer, then parked and drank the whiskey Rose had bought from the Bolser woman. When the bottle was empty, Agnew dropped the others off a few blocks from Hobbs’s house.

“You don’t know me, kid,” Agnew said as Rose got out of the car.

The engine was running

Hamilton City Police Patrolmen Herschel Seward and Levi Justice finished their shift at about 4 a.m. on the morning of April 12, 1937. They were taking Cruiser 6 to the city garage, Seward driving and Justice following behind in his private car.

They saw fellow officer Arthur Sponsel’s car parked in the middle of the street near Vertich’s Café. The left front door was open and the headlights on. Sponsel had gotten off duty a couple of hours earlier, had delivered Cruiser 8 to the city garage, a block further to the north at 2:45 a.m., and picked up his own vehicle.

“When I saw Arthur’s car, I believed he had run out of gasoline and that he had probably returned to the garage,” Seward said, but he was not there when they dropped off Cruiser 6. “After leaving the police car at the garage, Justice and I returned to Sponsel’s auto.”

The car engine was still running. They noticed the beam of a flashlight low in the parking lot, about 25 feet east of North Third Street. It illuminated a .38 caliber police revolver. Four feet beyond, in the darkness at the side of the building, they found Patrolmen Sponsel face-down, slain, a bullet through his heart.

Built his home

Sponsel, ArthurPatrolman Arthur Sponsel was a World War I veteran, having served in England and France. He was known as an “air bird,” although he had never flown on any missions. The war ended before he finished his training. He worked as a carpenter after the war and built the family home on Forest Avenue. He joined the police force on March 19, 1931. He would have been 37 on his next birthday.

Police Chief John C. Calhoun said that the department lost “one of its most efficient officers.”

“Arthur was a gentleman both on and off duty and none was more fearless in the face of danger,” the chief said. “Every member of the department respected Sponsel as an officer and a friend.”

He left a wife, two sons, his mother, one brother and five sisters.

Just three weeks before his death, he’d had a close call at the Blue Goose Inn at Dixie Highway and Minor Avenue when a 23-year-old man pointed a shot gun at him and told him to raise his hands. Instead, Sponsel took two shots at the suspect, wounding him in the left shoulder and taking him and a companion into custody.

“Patrolman Sponsel was one of the finest officers in the department,” said City Manager Price. “He was efficient, used every precaution in the performance of his duty but he never flinched in the face of danger.”

Forced off the road

Patrolman Sponsel’s gun contained four spent cartridges. A search of the scene uncovered only one meager clue: a .32 bullet embedded in the side of the restaurant, on the northeast corner. There was a stripped automobile in the parking lot.  Police considered the possibility that Sponsel had noticed someone stripping the car and went to investigate.

In interviewing witnesses, including a pair of night watchmen at the nearby Niles Tool Works, police first surmised that six shots had been fired. The newspaper reported that police were looking for a man taller than the 5-foot, 10-inch patrolman as the bullet entered the body near the heart, piercing that organ and the left lung, before traveling downward and coming to rest lodged in the left hip. They also considered the possibility that the shooter might have been a fugitive from justice, or that Sponsel had interrupted a hold-up. None of these theories would prove to be true.

Alexander Thomson, chairman of the Champion Paper Company and president of the Chamber of Commerce offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of the man or men who killed Patrolman Sponsel. The Butler County Commissioners and other citizens contributed until a pot of $5,850 was at stake.

Police soon began receiving tips, many of them false leads but some pointing toward William Hobbs, a local thug. Hobbs was known as a small, mean man who stood 5-foot, 3-inches and weighed all of 115 pounds. On Wednesday, Chief John Calhoun put a shadow on Hobbs night and day. On Sunday, an officer followed him to Rose’s house in Metamora when Hobbs and Schindlebower got a ride there from a friend named Ralph Baines. Baines and Rose Bolser would both lay claim to the reward money. Further tips implicated John Agnew and Vince Rose, but Hobbs was pegged as the shooter, and police wanted to make sure he still had the gun.

Bolser would testify that Hobbs had come back to her house late Monday morning after Sponsel’s death to return the gun and ask her to keep Rose’s revolver, too. He had been awakened by a friend named Bob Beaver, who told him that–as early rumors had it–a night watchman had been shot. Bolser had heard about the shooting, too, and refused to take the guns. Hobbs had already been drinking, and apparently knew he was in trouble. He buried his gun in the backyard of a home in the Belmont addition, where he had helped build some houses, and returned the other gun to Rose.

When Hobbs went to Metamora the following Sunday, he told Rose to ditch his gun. “My gun hasn’t done anything,” Rose told him and said he was keeping it in his dresser drawer.

The next afternoon, Monday April 19, one week after the murder of Arthur Sponsel, Hobbs loaded up Baines’s car with his belongings and headed south on Dixie Highway to Mansfield, Kentucky. Police were ready for him and made chase, a posse of nine officers in two automobiles, Chief Calhoun himself driving lead. They overtook Baines in Fairfield and Calhoun forced Baines off the road. Officers swarmed the car and arrested Hobbs, Schindlebower and Gaines, and confiscated Hobbs’s .32 revolver. At the same time, other officers were on their way to Metamora to arrest Vince Rose and to John Agnew’s house, where he was apprehended.

Hobbs and Rose readily confessed to the crime, saying that they didn’t know that Hobbs had killed a cop until they read about it in the papers.

Vince Rose did not testify in Hobbs’s trial, but was a state’s witness in the trial of John Agnew, who was found guilty by a jury. Rose pled guilty to second degree murder. Both were sentenced to life in prison. Hobbs, the shooter, would pay the ultimate price for his crimes.


The last mile

William Hobbs spent his last day on earth constantly and calmly smoking cigars, pausing long enough to take a last meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and corn. He had gained 52 pounds during his confinement. Sitting on his bunk, he had just lit a fresh cigar when guards notified him that it was time to “walk the last mile,” 8:45 p.m., July 6, 1938. He merely shrugged and hopped off the bunk. Two death row inmates greeted him as he passed, but Hobbs ignored them. He just puffed on his cigar all the way into the death chamber. He kept his eyes downcast, not looking at the witnesses, handing his cigar to a guard as two others strapped him in. Three jolts from Old Sparky ended his life, making him the 209th murderer to be electrocuted in the state of Ohio.


Sources:  The Hamilton Journal-Daily News, April 12, 1937, to July 7, 1938.


True Flood Historian

2014-10-07 21.36.07I want to thank the Colligan History Project and Hamilton’s official Historian Jim Blount for conferring this honor upon me.

During the Centennial Commemoration of the Great Flood of  1913, I made it a particular goal of mine to cover each and every event that the Colligan Project and the Butler County Historical Society produced in cooperation with all the local history partners. I wrote over 20 articles:

  1. Impact of 1913 Flood still felt today March 7, 2013
  2. Flood expert: 1913 event changed nation March 7, 2013
  3. Flood Recovery was a regional effort March 13, 2013
  4. Plaques to mark flood level throughout city March 15, 2013
  5. ‘Time of Terror’ tells story of 1913 Flood March 16, 2013
  6. Animation illustrates 1913 Flood level March 16, 2013
  7. Flood commemoration reaches high water mark  March 23, 2013
  8. Local historian donates historical markers March 25, 2013
  9. City honors the lives lost  and the people who helped with 1913 Flood March 26, 2013
  10. Community gathers to hear flood stories March 28, 2013
  11. Flood ravaged some small towns, left others alone March 30, 2013
  12. Local actors recount flood stories from the streets of Hamilton March 31, 2013
  13. Scientist shares advances in flood forecasting April 5, 2013
  14. Flood left Hamilton a divided city April 10, 2013
  15. Conservancy work took 5 years to get started April 11, 2013
  16. Miami Conservancy created unique flood control plan April 15, 2013
  17. Letters put personal touch to flood tragedy April 20, 2013
  18. Conservancy’s work set standard for future flood control April 26, 2013
  19. Artists pay homage to 1913 Flood survivors April 28, 2013
  20. New video tells the story of the Great Flood April 29, 2103
  21. Downtown church used as hospital after the flood April 30, 2013
  22. Forum explores future of the river May 5, 2013
  23. Flood commemoration shows Hamilton’s ‘resilient community spirit’ May 5, 2013

I was supposed to receive this award and the magnificent glass trophy last spring, but they graciously postponed until tonight.

EXCERPT: Massacre on Prospect Hill

A Presumption of Insanity

cover01Francis Lloyd Russell arrived at the jail gasping for breath, holding his hand over the wound in his chest. Sheriff Luther Epperson took charge of the prisoner. Russell begged for a glass of water and drank it in big gulps. Within minutes he had recovered his composure and gave the sheriff a clear story of the tragedy. Sheriff department detectives took down the confession as Russell repeatedly asked for water.

“I had the best brother in the world,” he told the sheriff. He spoke of his mother and recalled that she was born in 1866. His father, Wellington Russell dropped dead a few years earlier while at work in the Champion Coated Paper Company mill. Russell knew the exact ages of his nieces and nephews–and every birthday.

Cincinnati Post illustration
Cincinnati Post illustration

Russell told the Sheriff that he had a $1,600 mortgage due on his home that day and that being forced to move weighed heavily on his mind. The intense heat of the early summer wasn’t helping matters any.

He said that he at first had intended to only kill himself. The interview was interrupted by the visit of Dr. M. F. Vereker, in lieu of taking the prisoner to a hospital. After the examination, Dr. Vereker said that the wound was not fatal. He probed but was unable to find the bullet, believing that the ball struck a bone and became lodged in the left side of Russell’s chest, barely missing his heart.

“The doctor told me that if I fired a little to one side, I would have made it,” was Russell’s only comment. By “made it,” he meant his suicide.

Later, the doctor would ask him why he didn’t shoot himself in the head.

“I was always told the heart was the weakest place for a man of my stature,” he said, “and that any little shock would cause the heart to fail.”

 What prompted Lloyd Russell to get out of his bed in the middle of the night and shoot his mother, his brother and his brother’s entire family in their sleep? Find out in A Two Dollar Terror #8, Massacre on Prospect Hill: The True Crime of Francis Lloyd Russell. Available now at

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