Around the Cincinnati Brewing Company, which was actually located in Hamilton, a smaller city in the next county north, most people knew Sam Keelor as “Hornpipe” because he continually whistled the jaunty tune “The Sailor’s Hornpipe.”
The sprightly tune, now familiar from quotations of the melody in the “Popeye” and “Gilligan’s Island” theme songs, announced Keelor’s path throughout the day as he and his horse went back and forth with the coal cart, providing the fuel that cooked the wort to make 400 barrels of Pure Gold beer a day, a regional brew with the slogan “The Beer That Made Milwaukee Jealous.” [It is now the site of Hamilton Police Headquarters.]
In every respect, Keelor, just two weeks away from his 34th birthday, was considered an upright, straight-laced and cheerful fellow by the men who worked in the brewery. Although his job was in beer manufacturing, he never touched a drop of alcohol himself and eschewed tobacco in all of its forms, except for the occasional cigar.
Keelor and his wife, the former Bertha Caldwell, 29, were married in Liberty, Ind., his native town, in 1891, and had two bright and talkative little girls, Edith, 11, and Ethel, 9. The couple moved a lot early in their marriage, living for a time in Somerville in rural Butler County, then to the Cincinnati suburbs of Norwood Heights and Madisonville before coming to Hamilton shortly after Sam got the job at the Cincinnati Brewing Company in July, 1902, not far from the Chestnut Street house where Bertha grew up, and where her mother still lived. Previously, Sam had worked on the railroad and for a short time in a brick yard.
Keelor was a stoutly built man of medium stature, sandy blonde hair, a red mustache and was “not a bad-looking man,” the papers said. Keelor had always kept a careful diary in which he wrote the dates he commenced or quit work at various places and other matters of interest to himself. He was above average intellectually, a hardworking, temperate man, but also with a fearful temper. He was unreasonably jealous of his wife, Bertha, who was five-foot-four-inches tall and 130 pounds, with dark hair and eyes. She was pretty, the papers said, though her features were “irregular.”
She was very young-looking and always seemed to be fond of her home and children. Sam “loved her to distraction,” his mother would later say, and never wanted anyone to be very familiar with her. This, along with Sam’s tense relationship with his mother-in-law, had caused some trouble between the couple, which came to a crisis while they were living in Norwood Heights. They seemed to have reconciled, however, when they first moved to Hamilton.
The young family occupied six rooms on the first floor of a large brick house at 331 South Water Street, just behind the Cincinnati Brewery, and right next to the railroad tracks coming off the CH&D viaduct over the Great Miami River just a couple dozen yards away. The house was known as the Hahn property, on the site of a former slaughterhouse and was itself a butcher shop, ironically enough. Though the Keelors were poor working people living in one of the poorest parts of town, Bertha kept the house clean and tidy. The main front room in the center of the house was a parlor, and the couple’s bedroom was just off that, closest to the railroad tracks. On the other side of the parlor was a spare bedroom where Bertha’s younger half-brothers, Jesse and Walter Joseph boarded. The girls’ room was at the back of the house with the kitchen. August Rosmarin, a sausage maker, lived above them with his wife, Flora.
Just before the holidays, however, something odd seemed to come over Sam, and in the last week of January, he missed three days of work, his first absences since he started working there near the end of July, 1902.
His happy disposition seemed to vanish almost overnight and his face took on a blank, far-away look, unaware of his surroundings as he stared off into space. His last two letters to his mother in New Paris, a town about 40 miles north of Hamilton in Preble County, near Richmond, Ind., had a “tone of discontent” about the marriage.
A Family Quarrel
Saturday was always Sam’s busiest day as he had to move enough coal to get the large brewing company through Sunday so that he could have a day off. He worked hard that day, and no one noticed anything out of the ordinary in his behavior or demeanor. If anything, he may even have been a little more jolly than usual of late, joking around a little with some of the other fellows as he put his horse away before going home.
He read the story of Ada Geiger’s murder in the newspaper while he ate his supper, and in the course of the evening, Bertha’s mother Mary and her other half-brother Clarence, who lived on Chestnut Street a few blocks away, dropped by. When Mary asked Bertha if she wanted to accompany her to Pleasant Ridge on the following Wednesday to visit her other daughter, Elizabeth, and her husband, William Hill.
The invitation touched a sore spot with Sam, him being a jealous fellow and loving his wife more than is healthy. He didn’t like her to go away from the house, even to run an errand. And he especially didn’t like her going to see her sister as he was particularly jealous of her husband, William Hill. He’d rather take a trip to Indiana to visit his relatives there, he said.
After they argued about it for a while without resolving anything, Sam announced that he was tired and wanted to go to bed, asking his wife to make him a hot lemonade to help him sleep.
“Well, you might as well tell me to go home,” the indignant mother-in-law said. “If you don’t want me here, just say so.”
“I’m not ordering you out,” Sam said. “You just talk too much.”
Mary Joseph left the house in a huff.
Somewhere between 10:30 and 11 p.m., Sam attempted to go to bed, and his wife followed him into the room and they argued some more. Bertha’s half-brother Jesse was out at a dance, but Walter could hear a lot of the harsh banter behind their closed door. The Rosmarins upstairs would later say they could hear the argument as well, but they could only hear the harsh melody, not the lyrics.
“That’s just the kind of business that caused the Geiger murder,” Sam said at Bertha’s mention of the proposed trip to Pleasant Ridge. “This will be another one if you insist on going.”
“You don’t mean that you would kill me that way, do you?” Bertha said.
“I didn’t say I would,” Sam replied, then added. “I’m not telling you what I’ll do.”
“Well, here are the scissors, then,” Bertha screamed at him. “Go on and use them.”
“I don’t want the scissors,” he said.
Walter went to bed, but with misgivings, and when his brother Jesse came in at 4 a.m., Walter roused and asked him if he heard anything in Sam and Bertha’s room.
All was quiet however.Maybe TOO quiet, fellas… Find out what happened while the Joseph boys slept in A Two-Dollar Terror #2, “The Sleepwalking Slasher: The True Crime of Samuel J. Keelor”…
Here’s a nice orchestral version of “The Sailor’s Hornpipe.”
Butler County Democrat: Murderers disgusted by report, Jan. 21, 1903.
Cincinnati Enquirer: Foul murder committed, Feb. 13, 1903; Emulated slayer of Mrs. Geiger, Feb. 16, 1903.
Hamilton Evening Democrat: Awful crime by a husband, Feb. 16, 1903; Keelor committed a double murder, Feb. 17, 1903; Regrets he didn’t kill his mother-in-law, Feb. 20, 1903; Keelor tells the story, Feb. 21, 1903; There may be a special Grand Jury, Feb. 28, 1903; Keelor entered a plea of not guilty, March 14, 1903; Special grand jury now considering awful murder cases, March 23, 1903; First degree murder is the indictment, March 27, 1903; Knapp and Keelor plead not guilty, April 4, 1903; On trial for his life is Samuel Keelor, May 20, 1903; Keelor meets his mother in the courtroom, May 21, 1903; Keelor trial dragging slowly, May 22, 1903; The bloody murder of Mrs. Keelor, May 23, 1903; Keelor must die says the jury, May 27, 1903; Keelor guilty, Sept. 17, 1903.
Hamilton Republican-News: Samuel Keelor murders his wife with a hammer and cuts off her head, Feb. 16, 1903.
Hamilton Sun: Most horrible murder in annals of the city, Feb. 15, 2903; Keelor tried to get rid of his victim’s body, Feb. 16, 1903; Keelor calmly confesses to cold blooded murder, Feb. 17, 1903; Relatives of murdered woman engage in fight, Feb. 18, 1903; Taunted him to a frenzy, Feb. 21, 1903; Keelor taken to jail Wednesday, March 11, 1903; Keelor pleads ‘not guilty’, March 14, 1903; Knapp and Keelor indicted for first degree murder, March 25, 1903; Knapp again made plea of not guilty, April 4, 1903; Keelor’s fate with the jury, May 26, 1903; Keelor is declared by jury to be guilty!, May 27, 1903; Knapp and Keelor platt mixed up, July 17, 1903; Keelor in the penitentiary, Oct. 21, 1903.
Butler County Place Names, Jim Blount, Lane Public Library, Hamilton, Ohio. www.lanepl.org.
A History and Biographical Cyclopaedia of Butler County Ohio, With Illustrations and Sketches of its Representative Men and Pioneers, Cincinnati Ohio. Western Biographical Publishing Company, 1882.