Fire, robbery and murder in Bellville

Village enjoys considerable charm; early days were not always peaceful

By Rhonda Bletner - Bellville Star

Little villages are quiet and rarely produce breaking news; that’s okay: quiet is good. But even in Bellville the occasional dire news breaks. Here we look back more than 100 years to a huge blaze on Main Street, a robbery at the post office, and a murder south of town.

“Big Loss By Fire!” was the headline in the Aug. 7, 1908 edition of the Bellville Messenger.

The flames destroyed “three of Bellville’s best business blocks.” Villagers were awakened about 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning by the clanging of the fire bell. The fire broke out in Lundy’s saloon, “right in the heart of the business district” on the west side of Main Street.

A hand engine couldn’t suck water from the “creek” for the needed distance; and according to the report, “no one seemed to know where the cisterns were located.” The Smith building was doomed and firefighting efforts were made to spare the neighboring buildings with the help of a bucket brigade.

The fire hose was carried to the top of a neighboring building (the Hare building) and it seemed the efforts would prevail. However, the flames flourished and the fire wasn’t extinguished until help arrived from Mansfield.

The livery stable and the Bell block were spared and the reporter gave special credit to the women and girls who worked the bucket brigade, while note was made of some men who did nothing.

In that issue’s report, the investigation was under way but it was believed to have started with an incendiary device. Mrs. B.O. Smith, who owned the building, had just days previously transferred her insurance from the brick building to her timber home. Her building was a total loss as was John Donel’s three story brick building, and the K. of P. lost all their possessions that were located on the third floor of the Smith building.

Post office robbed

That issue of the Bellville Messenger carried more bad news: “Cracksmen Make Havoc in Bellville Post Office and Escape with Booty to the Amount of $1,000.”

Robbers broke into the post office about 1:30 a.m., two nights after the fire. They pried open a window in the rear of the building and blew open the safe (the means not mentioned) and made away with approximately $1,000 cash and postage.

The office furniture was demolished by the explosion and the windows blown out. The robbers escaped by means of a hand car.

The account in the paper included the following details.

“Mr. Ira Howard, who sleeps almost directly over the place where the safe is located, was awakened but the noise made by the explosion, and tried to give the alarm by calling central, but was unable to get an answer from the operator. He fired a number of shots from his revolver and after a time Lee Gardner, Hill Sargent, John Staley, H.R. Shindel, and Gay Cornwell got out and followed the safe breakers to the railroad track where they took a hand car which they had in waiting to a spot about a mile from Butler where it was abandoned and the thieves had taken to the open country toward Butler.”

As of that week’s report, though a detective tried to “sweat” a former Butler man for information, no suspects were identified. The U.S. post office offered a $500 reward for information.

Murder south of Bellville

Then, in a special section of a 1973 Bellville Star, came a retelling of the 1882 murder of John Fox.

The story is lengthy and includes the inquest and interviews, but in summary John Fox was murdered on March 8, 1882 about two miles south of Bellville while riding in a wagon on his way home with his brother Daniel.

The reporter, perhaps the editor, voiced his opinion: “…several young men from this village were at the school house [Red Brush] where the news was first spread, who returned after satisfying themselves with viewing the scene of blood and learning the particulars of the horrible crime perpetrated by some hell-born coward. Accordingly, before the shades of night blackened by the iniquitous deed were swallowed by the light of approaching day, the terrible news were passing from tongue to ear and by the time business shook off its slumber, the town was in a commotion, and murder was the breakfast talk in hundreds of homes.”

Apparently Fox had enemies. It wasn’t generally known until after his death that he had been shot at while entering his home several weeks before. Fox had a lawsuit pending in court in Mansfield and one was also entered against him by a Dr. Erwin of Mansfield. The Bellville news report stated, “His life was full of family storms and legal warring.”

The Mansfield paper reported: “John Fox was about 40 years old, was a prosperous farmer, and lived within a half-mile of the place where he was killed.

“John and Daniel Fox were brothers. On the morning of the day of the fatal tragedy, they had come to Mansfield together in a two-horse wagon, and at the City Mills exchanged wheat for flour and bran. They left Mansfield about 5 o’clock for their home, 14 miles distant, and at about 8:30 o’clock, when in a slight hollow a half-mile east of the Honey Creek school house, an assassin fired two shots, killing John instantly. Dan claimed that he jumped from the wagon when John was attacked, and that as he essayed to run he was shot in the leg.”

John Fox was shot in the back of the head and another shot entered the left side of his abdomen.

Dan Fox was a suspect, at least in part because one testimony said he was shot at close range, but that testimony was later rescinded. Dan Fox may also have been a suspect because just the week before John Fox’s will was filed in probate court. In his will he gave all of his property to his brother with the exception of $1,000 to each his nephew and his sister.

Dan Fox was spared the murder charge, however, because doctors ascertained that the gunshot wound in his leg could not have been self-inflicted.
Village enjoys considerable charm; early days were not always peaceful

By Rhonda Bletner

Bellville Star