At about 10:15pm on the night of Saturday, January 7, 1899, seventy-year-old John Blevins, the well-known City Treasurer of New Castle, Pennsylvania, went to his office in the City Hall building. When he failed to return to his residence by midnight his son William “Bill” Blevins went looking for him. What the younger Blevins found in the City Treasurer’s office became a tragic and sensational news story.
John Blevins was born in Ireland in 1828 and came to the United States with his parents when he was three years old. His family settled in Washington Township in what later became Lawrence County. When he was seventeen he was made his way to New Castle and took a job with a local tailor. In 1850 he was married to the former Ruth Thorne and together they had several children. He later started his own grocery business. In 1884 he ran for City Treasurer and was defeated by Robert Osburn, but was elected the next time out a year later. “Uncle John” was reelected several times and became a popular figure in New Castle.
The evening of Saturday, January 7, 1899, was very cold and the streets and sidewalks were covered with ice. Blevins, as usual, spent a good portion of the day in his office on the first floor of the old City Hall. The building was located at the foot of the Pittsburg Street Bridge (East Washington Street Bridge), at the corner of East Washington and East Streets. His office was accessible from a main entrance on East Street, and was located across the hall from the office of Mayor Samuel W. Smith.
In the early evening local plumber Adolph Stadler, wanting to cash a check, visited Blevins in his office to do so. Afterwards, Blevins went home to his nearby residence on North Street and had dinner with his wife Ruth. He then returned to his office and was visited by his close friend a businessman Perry Douds, a former Lawrence County Deputy Sheriff and local civil servant. Blevins left the home at 9:00pm to go to a local tailor shop to check on alterations being done to an overcoat. Learning the work was not yet completed he visited his son William “Bill” Blevins, employed in a nearby shop, and then returned to his office around 10:15pm. Exactly what happened next remains a mystery to this day.
At about 11:30pm his son went to the Blevins family residence on North Street and learned his father had not returned home for the evening. He immediately made his way to City Hall and arrived just after midnight. He found his elderly father lying partially face down in a pool of blood under his desk. The room was in a state of distress and blood splattered the immediate area. He sprinted to the neighboring New Castle Fire Department on East Street, where Frank J. Connery (the future Fire Chief from 1901-1924) and Frank Vandergrift came to assist. He then alerted Dr. James K. Pollock, who arrived just in time to witness Blevins gasp his last breath. Police and other city officials soon arrived on scene. As news of the dastardly murder quickly spread, a large crowd of people gathered on the street outside.
Blevins, his private office in disarray, had obviously put up a desperate struggle as blood splattered the immediate area – on the desk, chairs, and book shelves. He had received a series of savage blows to his left temple and head, had a severely crushed nose, and a dislocated jaw. It appeared a heavy, sharp instrument had been utilized as the murder weapon. Blevins’ body was soon removed to the Dunn & Rice undertaking home, where City Coroner Edmund C. Porter, a veterinary surgeon by trade, and several doctors took up a thorough examination of the remains. Blevins had over a dozen major impacts on his head and face, and a crushing blow to the back of his skull was thought to have led to his death.
The next morning at 11:15am a slew of city and county officials gathered at City Hall to conduct a thorough examination of the bloody crime scene. Robbery seemed the motive as a small vault, with several lock boxes, had been pried open and its contents were missing. Saturday would be the most opportune time to rob the City Treasurer, because banks closed early that day and Blevins would probably have extra cash on hand. It’s unknown how much cash was contained in the vault, but it was thought to be about $500. Blevins’ pockets had been emptied as well.
It seemed likely that the crime was committed by more than one person. Blevins either walked in on the robbery attempt at about 10:15pm, or he was already in his private office and the intruders came in and surprised him. Blevins blood-soaked keys were found in the lock on the inside of the door. It appeared that after they beat him, they took his keys and locked the door from the inside while they emptied out the safe. Some people speculated Blevins may have actually known his assailants. Oddly enough, a strip of heavy iron was found in a basin of water within the office, but it was not a match for the wounds. A bloody handkerchief was also found. A large tax book was opened, as perhaps the assailants came in and pretended to want to pay their taxes. It was also reported that some of Blevins’ paperwork or books may have been stolen as well. No substantial clues were located as the intruder or intruders apparently covered their tracks quite well.
The Police Department and city jail were located directly below Blevins’ office and several inmates (who were unattended at the time) said they had heard a brief shuffling the previous night. No screams or cries for help were heard though. A dozen policemen had been on duty, but they were all out on the street and walking the beat. It seems the vicious struggle lasted a few minutes or more.
Local police officials, led by New Castle Chief of Police William McClain and County Detective Stephen B. Marshall, took up the investigation. Policemen took to the streets and began questioning suspicious persons. Four homeless men were arrested on Sunday, as it was initially speculated that vagrants might be responsible. The “tramp theory” was quickly discounted as the crime seemed to be more of a well-planned operation vice an act of desperation. The citizens of New Castle were in shock, as it appeared the police had little to go on.
On Monday, January 9, a reward of $4,000 was announced for the capture of the assailants, as the City Council and County Commissioners each chipped in $2,000. The next day a solemn funeral service was held for Blevins at the First Presbyterian Church.
The New Castle News of Wednesday, January 11, 1899, reported, “Never in the history of New Castle has the funeral service of any citizen been so largely attended as was that of City Treasurer John Blevins, on Thursday afternoon. The First Presbyterian church, the largest in the city, was crowded to its utmost capacity, and many turned away, unable to gain admittance. At 1 o’clock the remains were removed from the family residence on North Street to the church. They were encased in a handsome black casket. At the church the casket was placed in the vestibule of the church, being arranged that the people could pass by on either side. Until 2:30 o’clock, the hour fixed fur the funeral services, the remains lay in state, and were viewed by thousands. The street, for a block either way, was crowded with people… At 2:30 o’clock the church was filled to overflowing. At about that hour the city officials, city councils, police force, paid employees of the fire department, and the school board filed into the church and took seats reserved for them. The family and relatives came in later…The services were opened by a selection by a quartette, after which Rev. T. W. Winter led in a short prayer. Dr. (M. H.) Calkins read several scriptural selections, after which Dr. (R. A.) Browne arose and made a brief address… Rev. J. Q. A. McDowell then delivered an address… At the conclusion of the services the remains were placed in the funeral car and the funeral procession was formed and weaved its way to Greenwood cemetery. There, in the shadow of the pines, all that was mortal of the murdered city treasurer was laid to rest. The services at the grave were short and simple.”
The New Castle News of Wednesday, January 11, 1899, also reported, “The police are wholly at sea regarding the crime and as far as can be learned they are entirely without clue regarding the perpetrators or perpetrator of the crime. It is now certain that the murder occurred about 10:15 o’clock Saturday night, although the crime was not discovered until after midnight. It is not known how much money was taken, but it is thought the robbers got $500. The police are of the opinion that the crime was committed by some one who was well acquainted with the office and with whom the dead man was also well acquainted.”
The New Castle News of January 15, 1899, reported, “The work of the coroner’s Jury is now ended and whatever further light is thrown on the mystery must come from other sources. Detective S. B. Marshall, Chief of Police McClain and Postmaster John B. Brown, together with all the police and constables of the city have not relaxed their vigilance in the east, but are keeping a sharp lookout for anything that may lead to a possible clue. As has been stated on several occasions the assassin left no clue of any value in the treasurer’s office and whatever is developed must now come from other sources. Those who believe in the old saying that “Murder will out,” maintain that the murderer cannot keep his secret but will yet betray himself by some act, word or deed. There are others who are not so confident that the assassin will give himself away and in support of their views point to the long list of murders committed over the country in past years and which are yet shrouded in the deepest mystery.”
In the coming weeks several suspects were identified, including a career criminal named Charles Blanco. Police officials arrested Blanco in Franklin in Venango County and transported him to New Castle for questioning. He was cleared in late January as it was learned he was in Ellwood City on the night of the murder. He was sent back to Franklin and charged with various other crimes involving theft. The investigation soon grew quiet and in March 1899 the Perkins Detective Agency of Pittsburgh was called in to assist the local police.
To jumpstart the investigation Blevins’ remains were secretly exhumed on the early morning of April 7, 1899, by a team that included Dr. James K. Pollock, Dr. Edmund A. Donnan, and Dr. Jesse G. Moore. The head was removed for a detailed examination and the body was reinterred. The task was carried out quietly before most people were even awake.
Months later, In July 1899, the public was shocked as authorities finally released details of the exhumation and examination. The New Castle News of July 19, 1899, reported it this way, “The coffin was opened at 5 o’clock, and 10 minutes later, the physicians were ready for its re-interment. The head was brought to Donnan’s office in a sealed box. It was in an excellent state of preservation. The same evening, the physicians went to work. They first examined the head as it was. A description was made of each wound. There were 18 in all. They were found to range from half an inch to three inches in length. There were none on top of the head. They started at the left temple and ran clear around the crown to the other side. Those on the left side were made at an angle of about 15 degrees. None of these wounds had disturbed the pericardium. The skull had not been fractured here. The wound in the back of the head, which was “popularly” supposed to have been the cause of death, was merely a flesh wound. The wound which did cause death was on the right side of the face. On the surface it was a mere contusion, and at the time of the previous examination had been so regarded. The victim’s face was very much discolored, and it was supposed to be due to these bruises. Underneath the contusion, however, was a fracture. The sides of the skull were pressed together unnaturally. There was a fracture on the other side. As Mr. Blevins lay on the floor, his left side under him, the death blow was directed downward, and with great force. A man’s heel is the only thing which would have inflicted such an injury. A downward blow from a club or bludgeon would not have caused a fracture on both sides and broken both the nose and jawbone. The former was broken loose at the extreme upper part and the murderer wore either rubber boots or rubber overshoes. Had he struck with his unprotected shoe heel there would have been marks on the outside to show it.”
The police had previously received several anonymous notes from someone alleging to have information about the murder. The notes, apparently of little value to the investigation, were never made public. Finally, on Monday, April 15, 1901, in a confusing twist, Blevins’ close friend Perry Douds was charged in connection with the letters.
The New Castle News of Wednesday, April 17, 1901, reported, “The arrest of Perry Douds, who was charged with obstructing justice in the Blevins case, created a big sensation in the city on Monday and nothing else could be heard on the streets the rest of the day. The information as made by J. L. McFate, stated that some letters, supposed to have been written by M. Douds, had been found and were never made public. These are in the hands of the people who are making their investigation and the contents are being kept secret. The News had an extra edition on the streets at 2 o’clock and the papers were fairly snatched out of the newboys hands by the eager public. Nearly 4,000 copies of The News were sold by 4 o’clock and by that time the sensation had spread all over the country. Telephones and telegraph wires were kept busy all afternoon by people from a distance who had heard of the affair and were anxious to get the full particulars… Mr. Douds is deeply humiliated by the charges made against him and says the fact that he is charged with doing this thing almost breaks his heart.”
Douds went on trial in June 1901 and after proceedings of two weeks he was acquitted of all charges. It was a rather embarrassing affair and Douds was obviously not responsible for the letters. The investigation dragged on and officials from the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency were called in to assist for a time. In early 1902 the City Council and County Commissioners were close to an agreement to raise the reward to a total of $10,000, but this apparently never came to fruition.
In the summer of 1903 a career criminal named James McPhillamy was named as a potential suspect, but was quickly cleared as it was learned he was in jail in Pittsburgh back in early 1899. In January 1904 a prisoner in Westmoreland County named Charles E. Kruger, condemned to death for killing a local constable, confessed to killing Blevins. His confession was discounted as a simple attempt to delay his execution. He was hanged to death in Greensburg on February 11, 1904.
In March 1908, Ruth Blevins, who apparently never rebounded from her husband’s tragic death, suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent to a sanitarium. She passed away soon after and was buried next to her husband in Greenwood Cemetery.
In June 1908 a former New Castle resident and career criminal named Addison Ruth (aka Frank Barnes), incarcerated in the Venango County Jail in Franklin, began to receive publicity because he seemed he knew specific details about the case. For several years he had been saying he knew who killed Blevins. He said the killer was notorious criminal Dan Wilder and two accomplices named Gene Parker and William Farrell. After the trio robbed and killed Blevins they split up, with Wilder and Parker heading north together. Wilder then killed Parker and buried him in Elk County. Bones were later found at the location which seemed to lend credence to at least that part of the story.
New Castle attorney C. Henry Akens was tasked by authorities to go to Franklin and question Ruth. Akens investigated the story, but in the end nothing came of it. Again, it was probably a case of an inmate trying to lessen his sentence. Ruth and Wilder, both in jail for various offenses, had also committed a robbery together at Pithole in Venango County. In May 1909, when they were sentenced for Pithole robbery, Wilder received a six-year prison sentence, while Ruth (for his cooperation) only served another year at the jailhouse in Franklin.
Meanwhile, on the financial front, investigations and audits revealed numerous irregularities in the business practices of Blevins, who had been City Treasurer for about thirteen years. It appears in addition to the stolen $500 in cash, the assailants also made off with seven city bonds from 1886 worth a total of $3,500. Blevins had been holding the bonds for the owner – a recently deceased wealthy farmer in Petersburg, Ohio, named Hugh Martin. Another man from Mount Jackson, identified only as Hogg, was now claiming ownership. Regardless of who owned the stolen bonds it was quite unusual for a city official to be holding bonds for a private party.
In late 1898 the City Council had ordered an independent audit of the City Treasury funds. This was to be the first audit in over ten years and the murder occurred before it commenced. Two in-depth bookkeeping audits revealed different results. But the bottom line was that anywhere from $26,000 to $50,000 (or possibly even as much as $75,000) was missing dating back to 1893. Just what happened to this money, most from the school board budget, was uncertain and this resulted in a major scandal. The school board was owed as much as $27,000 in collected taxes that never made it to its budget. The school board later sued the Blevins estate to recover the money, but there was no money to collect. It was not until November 1923 that the school board officially dropped its claim against Blevins estate.
Blevins, although a unskilled and informal bookkeeper, was known as an honest and frugal man and few people thought he might have been embezzling money. However, many questions remain about the discrepancies. Did Blevins misappropriate the missing funds? Could Blevins have secretly loaned the city money to a friend and was then killed when he attempted to recover it? Could Blevins have been murdered as part of a cover-up or blackmail scheme? Was a corrupt city official behind the murder to silence him?
Various prominent local businessmen had acted as bondsmen for the City Treasury funds. In March 1900 the City of New Castle went to court to attempt to force the bondsmen to pay for the missing funds. This resulted in often bitter and prolonged legal battles that stretched over two decades. It wasn’t until the early 1920’s that the various legal cases were all settled.
Another case involved the First National Bank of Lawrence County suing the City of New Castle to recover a loan of $5,431.49 given to City Treasurer Blevins in September 1898. Several other banks were also seeking repayment of much smaller loans given to Blevins. These cases all went to court and stretched out over the next decade. The City of New Castle claimed although Blevins borrowed the money (and the money may have been used for city purposes), he did so without the consent of the City Council. A judge in Butler eventually ruled in favor of the City of New Castle and determined that Blevins had no legal authority to vouch for loans in the name of the city. The case was appealed all the way to the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court, which reaffirmed the decision in February 1913.
Meanwhile, the murder investigation grew cold but was never forgotten. The New Castle News of Wednesday, January 8, 1936, reminded people, “It was 37 years ago last night since City Treasurer John Blevins was murdered. This greatest mystery crime in the annals of Lawrence county is still fresh in the minds of older persons, but a new generation has grown up, many of whom have learned but vaguely of the crime that shocked the community on that memorable Saturday night, January 7, 1899.”
The News Castle News of January 7, 1999, reported on the 100th anniversary of the crime with, “Despite theories on motive and identity of the killer or killers, the murder of the 70-year-old treasurer has never been solved. There is no statute of limitations on homicides, but Lawrence County District Attorney Matthew T. Mangino said, “From a practical standpoint, there’d be little likelihood you could find any evidence to proceed.” The Blevins case, which will be 117 years old in January 2016, remains New Castle’s most notorious and longest-running unsolved murder.