AN OLD-TIME MURDER.
How a Ghost’s Appearance Led to Some Important Discoveries — The Jury Disagrees With the Ghost.
The death of Lem Mercer, a farmer who for many years had been a resident of Pleasants county, Va., has had the effect of reviving, in a most decided manner, local interest in a most horrid and unprovoked murder, which, some thirty-five years ago, produced a tremendous sensation all along the upper Ohio valley, from Wheeling to Parkersburg, a distance of nearly 100 miles.
The crime in question was committed in Wetzel county, and the victim was John Gamble, a prosperous citizen, who resided with his family a few miles from the town of New Martinsville, then, as now, the county seat. Gamble was of a speculative turn of mind, and frequently visited New Martinsville to dispose of live stock or whatever else he had to realize upon. At such times, after finding a customer, Gamble would have several hundred dollars in his possession, and there were frequent predictions, from the careless manner in which he displayed his money when under the influence of liquor, that some day there would be a tragedy and that he would be the victim.
NOTE: This map shows the general area where this murder/death might have taken place, approximate location of John Gamble’s residence (across from Sardis) and the town of New Martinsville, based on the information provided in this story.
One day late in the summer of 1853, Gamble, who lived on the river shore almost directly opposite the little town of Sardis, came up to New Martinsville with some portable property of some sort or other, which he disposed of, realizing therefrom about $200. Mercer was in town that day, and the two men, being well known to each other, soon got to drinking together. Toward dark Gamble concluded that he would start for home, and as Mercer’s route also lay along the river for a mile or so before he turned off to go through the hills, he told Gamble he would accompany him thus far on his journey. The two men took one more drink together, and then started off along the river road, Gamble being more under the influence of liquor than his companion. Gamble was never seen alive afterward. He not arriving at his home that night, his family and friends the next day caused an extended search to be made, but all to no purpose. No trace of the missing man could be found. Mercer was questioned, but he insisted that he left his companion at the point their paths diverged, and that he had no knowledge whatever of his fate.
FINDING GAMBLE’s BODY.
Thus matters rested for a week or two, when the body of the missing man was found lodged against some rocks, in the channel of the river, twenty miles or more below the point where Mercer claimed to have left him. No one could account for his death, and it was urged by some that, being intoxicated, he had simply fallen over the precipitous bank of the stream, and that death by drowning had resulted. Others, however, insisted that a crime had been committed, basing their claim mainly upon the fact that the remains were partially disrobed and had been stripped of everything of value.
Thus matters went on for two or three months, when events of a rather unusual and sensational nature transpired. After the custom of the country, there was a great corn husking bee given, about the first of November, at the barn of John Travis, a few miles from New Martinsville, and the boys and girls from all the surrounding farms were there, together with not a few of elder years. Among others a crowd of fifteen or twenty young men went out from New Martinsville, and after a night spent in mingled work, kissing and cider drinking the town boys started to return home. The party kept together until they came to the brow of the immense hill which bounds the town on the east, where a halt was called. The hillside was very steep, and as there were two paths leading down to the river bottom, one direct, but difficult and dangerous, and the other, while a little longer, comparatively easy, a dispute arose as to which should be taken. The dispute waxed warm, and finally the party separated into two rival factions, each agreeing to take one of the routes, and a wager being made conditioned that the party last arriving on the court house square should buy a gallon of whisky.
A CURIOUS ADVENTURE.
The party which took the longest but less precipitous route came out on the river bottom about a mile below the town, and just south of the location of a swampy piece of land. The owner of this land had cut a deep ditch through the high bank of the river to drain the hollow behind, and the depression thus formed had assumed the shape of a small ravine, full of brush and small trees. A path ran along the river bank, parallel with the stream, and thus crossed this ravine at right angles. This path was the one taken by Mercer and Gamble on the night when the latter met his death, and the spot about the little ravine was an extremely lonely one at the hour when the belated party of corn huskers arrived upon the scene. The young men had been traveling at their utmost speed to avoid having to buy the jug of whisky, and by the time they came to the ravine one of their number, John Hineman, who was the proprietor of a tavern and saloon in town, was so badly blown that he could no longer keep up. He told his companions not to risk losing the wager on his account, but to hurry on to the appointed rendezvous and thus win the bet, and he would follow after he had become rested a bit, and help to drain the jug the others would have to fill.
Hineman sat down upon the edge of the little ravine to rest, and the remainder of the party hurried on to town. They had barely got beyond hearing when Hineman was startled by a slight noise behind him, and on looking around he was horrified at seeing a tall figure, robed from the neck to heels in white, standing within a few feet of him. The frightened man managed to call out, “Who’s there?” to hwich a muffled voice made answer that it was the spirit of John Gamble who had been murdered close by.
Hineman managed to screw up courage enough to ask who committed the crime, when the “spirit” replied: “Lem Mercer.” The white-clad figure then stole slowly and softly away, and Hineman lost no time in getting upon his legs and hurrying to town. He made his appearance on the public square more dead than alive, but after a pull or two at the jug, managed to relate to his companions what had occurred. The next morning a party visited the ravine, and after a thorough search of the locality succeeded in discovering some articles which were recognized as belonging to the murdered man.
The day following this Mercer came up to New Martinsville, and it was agreed that Hineman should be given an opportunity to talk to him alone. Hineman accordingly called Mercer into the little back parlor of his house and was proceeding to question him, when Mrs. Hineman, who was cognizant of her husband’s aim, broke open the door of the apartment and brought the inquisition to an abrupt termination.
Mercer was arrested and brought to trial, he being defended by the present Judge Alpheus F. Haymond, while the venerable Judge G.W. Thompson, of Ohio county, now eighty-two years of age, sat upon the bench. The prosecuting attorney was the father of Sep Hall, of New Martinsville, now deceased. A long and closely contested legal battle was fought, but, despite the utmost endeavors of the state, it was impossible to obtain a direct proof of the guilt of the accused, and a verdict of “not guilty” was returned by the jury.
NOTE: “Sep” Septimius Hall served as a state legislator.
Mercer continued to live in the vicinity of New Martinsville for many years, but led a blasted life, with no friends. The little ravine wher John Hineman saw the “ghost” is known to this day as Gamble Hollow, from the belongings of murdered man so peculiarly revealed therein.
The Saint Paul Daily Globe (St. Paul, Minnesota) Nov 6, 1887
NOTE: This story was also published in a New Zealand newspaper. The story appears to be true, except probably the part about the ghost. Please leave a comment if you know more about this incident. I am particularly interested in knowing more about the John Hineman mentioned in the story, as I am researching the Hineman families who lived in Western PA, Eastern OH and Hancock Co. WV during this time period.