The Indignation Over Tom McGehean

Thomas McGehean, who was implicated in fixing the fight between Prickett and Waller but not mentioned in any of the nasty business that followed, would be the defendant in another of Hamilton’s most celebrated notorious cases.

Thomas McGehean
Thomas McGehean

McGehean was a native of Clermont County, about 35 years old when Thomas Myers was killed in the American Saloon. McGehean had been brought up as a shoemaker, but abandoned that occupation for politics and financial speculation. In 1862, through his political influence, he was a named special agent of police of the United States government, and later on, city marshal of Hamilton. A bold, rough, determined man, he made many enemies and had been charged with counterfeiting and other crimes, but he was slicker than snot and nothing stuck to him. He was also involved with the Whiskey Ring, but generally had the reputation of being generous to his friends and deadly to his enemies.

Among his chief rivals was Thomas S. Myers. They had come up in the world together and were partners in many ventures, but had a falling out. Both men had their entourages and there would be frequent clashes in Hamilton’s taverns and saloons, where the real business of the city was conducted in those days.

There are many versions of what happened on Christmas Eve, 1870, but basically, Myers was upstairs in the American saloon’s crowded game room. One table was devoted to what was called Seven Up at the time, but remained Hamilton’s house game for another century as Pitch. Another larger table played Faro, a popular gambling card game with rules so complicated that in addition to the dealer, the house employed a watcher to keep track of the bets.

McGehean and his party arrived, and according to some testimony shot at Myers, who was sitting at the Faro table, as soon as he entered the room with a gun in his overcoat pocket, “California style”. Myers in turn pulled out his revolver, but being fatally wounded fired wildly several times before collapsing. Someone threw some rocks and someone was slinging a slungshot, but in general, those in the crowded room decided to flee the room than to start a brawl, and the place was soon empty.

McGehean’s version (which in hindsight is probably closer to the truth) is that his stop at the American Saloon was his third or fourth of the evening as he went around collecting debts and making plans. At the first saloon, he took off the heavy fur overcoat he was wearing and sent a boy to his house to bring back the light-colored chinchilla coat. He was just going up the stairs at the American, wearing that chinchilla, when he heard pistol shots in rapid succession and sound of chairs falling. People bumped into him as they fled. He continued into the room, but never went far past the doorway. The commotion did not last longer than fifteen seconds.

At the coroner’s inquest, Jackson Garver was identified as the man who threw the rock and slung the slungshot at Myers. No one saw — or at least, no one told — who shot Tom Myers at that hearing.

McGehean said that when Garver hit Myers with the stone, an act that Garver corroborated, Myers drew his pistol and in doing so accidentally shot himself in the abdomen.

McGehean hired the famous Copperhead, former Congressman and Ohio gubernatorial candidate Clement L. Vallandigham as his attorney. Vallandigham argued for a change of venue, and the trial was moved to Lebanon in adjacent Warren County. Thomas Millikin served as co-counsel.

The trial began June 6, 187l. The Prosecuting Attorney at the time was S.Z. Gard, whose son Warren Gard will be the prosecutor in the cases of Samuel Keelor and Alfred Knapp.

It wasn’t hard to prove that there were bad feelings between McGehean and Myers. Garver swore that he saw McGehean shoot Myers with his gun still in pocket of his overcoat. However, the coat showed no bullet holes.

After the witnesses had been examined, defense counsel arranged that Millikin would make the first speech and Vallandigham would finish it off.

Vallandigham had a new Smith & Wesson .32 five-shot revolver, and the defense team went on a walk to a remote place where they could experiment with seeing how close they could fire to a swatch of fabric without burning it. They then walked back to Vallandigham’s room on the second floor of the Lebanon House. Millikin urged Vallandigham to take the three remaining bullets out of the gun, and he said he would later.

When he got to the room, Vallandigham laid the revolver on a table next to an unloaded weapon that he had planned to use in a demonstration during his closing argument to illustrate the theory that Myers accidentally shot himself.

Symmes went on his way but two other attorneys on the defense team, S.C. Symmes and A.J. McBurney, joined Vallandigham in his room.

“I will demonstrate to you in a moment,” said he to his associates, “the absurdity of (the) statement that Tom Myers did not shoot himself.”

He picked up one of the pistols on the table, put it in his right pants pocket and continued, “Now here is the way Tom Myers had his pistol in his pocket.”

Symmes interrupted him and excused himself, seeing someone pass in the hallway that he needed to conduct business with, leaving Vallandigham alone with McBurney.

“You see, Mr. McBurney, how I hold this pistol?”

“Yes.”

“Very well, now, Myers drew his out this way, and the muzzle came up to hereabout he pulled the trigger.”

Vallandigham held the muzzle against the right side of his abdomen at a point corresponding with that where Myers received his bullet.

There was an explosion, and Vallandigham exclaimed, “Oh, murder! I am shot!”

The wounded man tore at his garments and McBurney shouted for assistance.

“What a foolish thing to do,” Vallandigham said calmly, pointing to a little red spot on his skin. “I took hold of the wrong pistol, and that’s the result.”

He died the next morning.

The jury in the case could not reach a verdict for McGehean, but the second trial resulted in guilty finding of second degree murder. That decision was reversed, however, and on a third trial, McGehean was acquitted.

That wasn’t good enough for the people of Hamilton, who held a series of “indignation meetings” composed of well-known and influential men, at which they denounced the verdict and voted to have McGehean run out of town.

Their resolution carried no weight of law, but McGehean left town for a few years anyway and lived in Cincinnati until things cooled down a bit. He eventually returned to Hamilton and opened a saloon in a two-story frame house on Basin Street.

On June 13, 1875, McGehean had closed the place for the night, then went to another bar to drink. He met some friends there and bade them come back to his saloon around midnight, where he would treat them to a night cap.

He unlocked opened the door and turned on the gas, then went behind the bar to pours some drinks when two shots rang out. Someone had blasted a shotgun through the windows behind the bar. McGehean fell back with 11 large buckshot in him, three of them severing his jugular vein.

He staggered out from the bar and fell a few feet outside the door. The shots were heard across the city and many came running to see the infamous Tom McGehean assassinated in his own bar. He died game, however, his revolver gripped in his right hand.

No one was ever charged with the crime.

The newspapers hinted that everyone knew who had killed Tom McGehean, that the killer had used colored buckshot so he could prove the deed and collect the bounty on the man’s head, but no one talked or wrote it down, and the name of his assassin is lost to history.