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Murder Mystery-Eli Sheets

Milestones Vol 24. No. 4

Strange Story of First Real Murder Mystery Clever Work of District Attorney - Escape and Recapture of Doomed Man



In March, 1862, a farmer named Sheets, who lived a short distance from Unity, had his barn destroyed by fire. In the barn were two large and valuable bay horses, newly shod. When searching the debris the next morning, it was discovered that the shoes on the charred remains of the horses' feet were small shoes, such as would fit inferior horses. This gave rise to the suspicion that the large bay horses had been taken out and replaced by inferior animals.

Five days after the fire Eli Sheets, a nephew of the other Sheets, and who lived near Darlington, rode a large bay horse over to the farm of John Ansley, near Black Hawk, and proposed to trade his horse for a colt belonging to Ansley. Ansley accepted the proposition and the deal was closed. But a short time after, Ansley read in a Pittsburgh paper an account of the fire and a description of the stolen horses. The description fitted the horse which he had got from Eli Sheets, and he resolved to ascertain from the older Sheets if it was one of the stolen horses.

Riding the horse in question he approached the Sheets farm. When he came near the house he gave the horse a free rein, and it at once turned to an old watering trough, and thence to the site of the burned barn. The horse had evidently been there before. The old man Sheets at once surmised that the horse was one of the stolen animals, but in order to be sure, he suggested that Ansley ride to the home of Eli Sheets, and there ascertain for a certainty. Ansley then left for Eli Sheets' farm, but stopped over night at the home of Robert Imbrie, now a resident of Beaver. In the morning, about half-past eight o'clock, Ansley, riding the bay horse and wearing white mittens, started for Eli Sheets' farm. He was noticed by several passersby and was observed to stop at the Sheets' place and enter the house. That was the last seen of John Ansley alive.

About a week after this time, some people going through the woods, found the body of Ansley in a deep hollow, perhaps two miles from the home of Eli Sheets. The body had several bullet holes in it and the knees and breast were covered with horse hair, indicating that the body had been stiff and rigid when put upon the horse. Ten rods from the body of Ansley lay the carcass of the bay horse. These were the surface facts which District Attorney Young noted when he arrived on the scene from Beaver. The problem now was to ascertain how Ansley came to his death. Sheets denied all knowledge of the affair, but was compelled to accompany the officers in their search.

Between the main road and the Sheets farm house, there lay a 30-acre piece of heavy forest, and through this forest a bypath led from the house to the main road beyond. For a short distance the tracks of the horse were followed along the path and then lost. The tracks were not again discovered until they led through the branches of a fallen treetop, and across a brook where the bank was exceedingly steep. Four rods further on, the run could have been crossed by the regular path. After crossing the brook the trail ran to a rail fence, the rails of which had been lowered. A few rods along there was a regular open gateway. All this at once indicated that the horse had been led through the woods at night. On either side of the tracks of the horse were the marks of a man's shoes. The trail was thus followed until it came to the lonely hollow where both man and horse were found dead. Investigation thus far showed that the dead body of Ansley had been borne on the back of a horse through the woods at night, and that two persons had accompanied the horse. It now remained to find where the man had been killed.

On the four sides of the 30-acre plot of timber were four -farm houses, and the inmates of these houses stated that, on the morning of the day when Ansley was last seen, they had heard several shots in the midst of the woods.

As a means of locating the place of the shooting, District Attorney Young directed that a line of sapling stakes be run from the different houses through the woods in the direction from which the sounds of firing came. Where these four lines converged the search for something showing where Ansley had been killed was commenced. In a few moments a deep hole was found, and after removing the top rubbish, the imprint of a man's shoulders, knees and hands was clearly seen on the wet leaves below. Here the body of Ansley had first been thrown and some days after it had been removed by night.

Eli Sheets, fearing conviction for the burning of the barn, had persuaded Ansley to take a short cut home through the woods and then shot him from ambush.

Mr. Young now took Sheets in custody and left him in a hotel in Darlington, in the hands of two constables. They were to bring the prisoner to Beaver the next morning, but about 5 o'clock a.m., Sheets leaped through a window and was off, running like a deer. The leap through the window had caused him to gash his arm, and to prevent the blood marking his trail, he drew off his boot and thrust his arm in it. He soon succeeded in eluding his pursuers and was not again seen for three weeks, when he was arrested in Wellsville, OH, having a stolen stallion in his possession.

It afterwards transpired that he had hid under a church near East Palestine until he made his dash into Ohio. After considerable difficulty, and not until Mr. Young had started for Columbus to make the governor coerce the New Lisbon officers, the murderer was finally put on the road to Beaver. When Mr. Young went to the Lisbon jail, he found Sheets literally riveted to the floor in a manner which outdid the worst schemes of the Inquisition. While waiting for a conveyance at Rochester, Mr. Young suggested to his assistants and the prisoner that they have a glass of beer. Sheets declined the refreshment, saying with the shrewdness which ever marked him, "Whiskey in; wits out."

The trial lasted for five days. Judge Agnew was on the bench and Michael Weyand was Prothonotaiy. Attorneys Young and Thomas Cunningham conducted the prosecution, and Mr. Wadsworth, a brilliant Ohio lawyer, defended Sheets. The case was a hard fought one, but things were looking bad for the defendant when the end was near. The defense, however, sprung a surprise at the last moment by producing as witnesses two elderly and respectable gentlemen who lived near Unity, where the barn was burned, and who swore that they had know the bay horses as colts, and that the day after the fire they had seen one John Gallagher with the two horses in Wellsville, OH.

Further, Gallagher was now in the army, presumably in Virginia. This testimony, of course, knocked the bottom out of the prosecution's case, for if the dead horse found with Ansley in the hollow was not one of the stolen animals, there could be no motive in the murder.

As Attorney Young was crossing the bridge that night to his home in Rochester he drew from his pocket his memorandum book and found that at Darlington he had made an entry to the effect that John Gallagher, a distant relative of the Sheets family, had not been in that vicinity for two years, and that he was employed in a furnace at Wampum. That very night Young set off post haste for Wampum. At 4 o'clock the next morning he was back at the court house with John Gallagher, the furnace officials and their books. Scarcely anyone knew of the move, and the court and jury were astounded when, in a voice of thunder, as if he had been calling him from Virginia or even further, the Court Crier roared out the name of "John Gallagher! John Gallagher!" But the surprise of the court was as nothing compared with that of the two old men who had made the testimony the evening before; and the moment they saw the face of Gallagher as he came up the aisle, they seized their hats, fled from their posts in front of the witness box and rushing out of the room, started for Unity, OH. The day was saved for the Commonwealth. After a session of five hours, a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree was brought in. A motion for a new trial was refused and Sheets was sentenced to be hanged.

The Barkers, however, a prominent Beaver family, and people of spiritualistic inclinations, took pity on the condemned man and got the turnkey to release him. He was then secreted in the Barker home. Attorney Cunningham insisted upon putting the turnkey in Sheets' cell, and frightened that he would swing in the murder's stead, the turnkey revealed his hiding place. There he was found under a lounge, disguised as anegro. He was putback injail and finally met his doom on the gallows April 10, 1863.

As an aftermath of the case it may be said that five years ago a man living near Darlington stated on his deathbed, that at the pistol's point Sheets had compelled him to help him in removing Ansley's body. The mystery of the double tracks was thus solved. It had until then been thought the second tracks were those of a woman.

The time of the trial was the most exciting in the history of Beaver County. While the case was being heard a company was being raised and the recruiting drum often disturbed the lawyers. Michael Weyand, the prothonotary, was unable to resist the fever of the day, and left the office and the court for the battlefield. Attorney Young went into the army after the conviction of Sheets, and was not here at the time of the murderer's escape and recapture by the Sheriff.

Sheets was a young man of 20, of good appearance and athletic build. The man whom he killed was an honest, middle-aged farmer.