Murder in a Sleepy Village

 by Kathleen Franks

I found it tucked between the old volumes. A small booklet, obviously homemade, not more than an inch thick. “My Stories,” by Ellen Ryan. It didn’t look very old. I looked for the date of publication on the cover page: October 18, 1912. Written only a few short years ago! I wondered who Ellen Ryan was. I had never heard of her. She must have had something to do with the Academy. This is the Headmaster’s house and I am the Matron and Manager of the Boarding Hall. If anyone should know of this Ellen Ryan, it should be me!

Why would her book be on his shelf?

The chapter titles looked interesting: “Toy Clowns and other Terrors”, “The Secret of the Frozen Flies”, “The Saturday Gang”, “Blamed for Everything”, “Moon Messages”, “Young Hearts”, “I Saw John Kill Michael”, “The Cat that Never Died”, and the final chapter, “‘I Told You I was Sick’ and other Interesting Tombstones”.

I jumped to Chapter 7. She was a witness to a murder? I had to find out.


Poor Bridget. When she told me that she was pregnant I didn’t know what to say. This was going to change her life. Mine, too. I’m her best friend. I told her that, of course, I’ll help her with anything. It was a shame that she wouldn’t be able to start at the Ladies’ Seminary in the fall. But then, she didn’t pay that no mind. Bridget was never one to give up. She’d get back to school someday.

It was a relief to hear that her family was going to support her through the whole thing. That didn’t surprise me, though. The Calnan’s were just what a family should be – large and loving. There’s no way they would send Bridget off to one of those homes for “bad girls.” Bridget had made a mistake, but it wasn’t a reason for them to judge her as unworthy of their love.

Another thing about the strength of this family – they told Bridget that if that coward of a boy, John Maloney, ever stepped foot in Hudson again, they’d see to it that the legalities of the matter would be settled on the spot. Uncle William, the attorney in the family, would see to that.


Michael Stepleton and John Maloney worked on the railroad together. A couple of young Irish blokes. Worked hard, played hard, as they say. Like a lot of young people of that time, they liked to kick up the dust in Hudson. Everyone knew that this was the place where all the fun was, especially on a Saturday night.

Michael stopped by John’s place early one morning.

“You wanna go to Hudson tonight?” Michael asked.

“No, I don’t think so. I don’t want to run into Bridget,” replied John.

“Oh, don’t worry about that, I heard she was sent off to one of those homes for unwed mothers,” declared Michael.

“Really?” responded John, “That doesn’t sound right. The Calnan’s wouldn’t do something like that.”

“Well, I don’t know what you know about the Calnan’s, but, I do know that I heard from a reliable source that Bridget had to leave town,” said Michael, “C’mon, you just gotta come out tonight. There’s a new girl in Hudson. I met her last week. She’s best friends with my Kate. I can fix you up.”

“I don’t know,” muttered John, “It’s too soon for me to show my face around there.”

“What if I told you she was the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on?” Michael said with a big grin.

“Well, okay, now you got my curiosity aroused. What’s the plan?”

Michael slapped John on the back. “That’s my man! I’ll pick you up at 6:00 sharp.”

Michael couldn’t wait to tell Kate that he had gotten a date for Louise. He rode off as fast as he could.

Well, with Hudson being a small town and all, it didn’t take too long for word to get around that Louise had a date with none other than John Maloney! Of course, Bridget got the news before lunch. Her Uncle William drew up the necessary legal papers before dinner.

Lockhart’s Saloon was packed to the corners that night. Lights were low. It was hard to see who was coming and going. John felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around and there was Bridget! I was standing on the other side of Michael, so I couldn’t hear what she said. It didn’t look like she said much. All I saw was her giving John an envelope and walk out.

“I thought you said she had left town!” John roared in Michael’s ear.

“I’m just as surprised as you!” Michael shouted above the din.

John got up and left, not ten steps behind Bridget. None of us heard what took place after that, but knowing Bridget’s family, we were all pretty sure that plans were set that very evening to make things right for all concerned. The next Sunday’s edition of “The Hudson Independent” wrote up what had been running on the gossip trail around town all week long (why do small towns think they need a newspaper is beyond me), “Calnan-Maloney Exchange Vows” in which was said that the “loving not wisely, but too well” couple were accordingly joined in the bonds of holy wedlock by Father Scanlon of Akron, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul’s Church.

John and Bridget set up housekeeping in Macedonia where he owned a beautiful piece of property situated on a picturesque stream with an old weeping willow sweeping the banks. John had built a house out there for himself the year before. A small cottage, but nevertheless, a nice place for the newlyweds. From all outward appearances, it seemed that the rocky start to their marriage had smoothed out just fine. In fact, I had paid them a few visits myself and was impressed with the peaceful transition they had managed to create. On my last visit, the addition for the nursery was nearly complete. John had even used his masterful carpentry skills to build an ornately carved cherrywood crib. Bridget was happily sewing a layette on the new machine John had gotten for her birthday the month before. She was the first of my friends and for that matter, any woman in all of Summit County to have one of those Singer sewing machines. John had certainly turned out to be a model husband if you ask me! Life for the newlyweds couldn’t have been sweeter.

A few months later, I ran into John one Saturday afternoon in town. He was talking with Michael in front of the Mansion Hotel. I came up as I heard Michael say that he had no idea Bridget was going to show up that night at Lockhart’s Saloon, that it was a total surprise. John seemed to accept Michael’s explanation, laughing with him about the  “little misunderstanding”.

Later that evening a group of us met for dinner at the hotel. Michael had invited John to stay in town and join us. The two seemed to be having a gay old time, telling jokes, slapping each other on the back. Why at times they nearly fell off their chairs they were laughing so hard!

Long about 8:00, having enjoyed the evening, John said he was going to call it a day. He relayed the usual pleasantries of departure, shook hands all around, and left.

We lingered another hour or so, then the boys offered to walk us girls home. It was one of those cool autumn evenings in late October. We weren’t in any hurry as we strolled along the village streets crunching leaves beneath our feet.

Kate and I were the last two girls to be dropped off. We got to my house shortly after 10:00. Well, it wasn’t really my house. It belonged to George Pierce, president of Western Reserve College. I was living with the Pierce family while my parents were in Europe.

We lingered at the gate, stalling as long as we could, telling old stories and silly jokes. Suddenly a man jumped out of the bushes, shouting, “You are there yet!” and with both hands raised a heavy club and struck Michael on the head with such force that I heard a loud crack! Michael fell to the ground. The darkly clad assailant stood over Michael pummeling him with severe blows, all the while yelling, “Traitor! Traitor!” I recognized the voice as that of John Maloney, our affable companion of earlier that very evening!

Without a thought as to my peril, I jumped into the fight and twice tried to pull John away from Michael. John shoved me aside both times, screaming, “Ellen Ryan, let go! This rat has betrayed me!” As I got to my feet again, John threw his weapon into the hedge and took off running on the road to Macedonia.

During the melee, I had not even noticed that I was alone! I yelled for help. Kate came out from behind the Pierce house. We took hold of Michael and tried to prop him up on the steps. His groans made us afraid that we were causing him further injury. I yelled again for help. Kate said that Sam Rowley, my date for the evening, had took off for home as soon as the fight began. So much for gallantry on his part. I have to say in his defense, however, that he did apologize later. I understood. Not everyone knows what to do in those kind of situations, nor has the inclination to do it!

Neighbors started to pour out of their houses. M.C. Read, Esq., was soon on the scene. He lived across the street. Dr. George P. Ashmun came running from next door. Sadly, they arrived too late. Death had gotten there first.

The news quickly spread that a man had been murdered. The once sleepy village of Hudson was abuzz with excitement. The residents were in shock. How could such a heinous act happen in our upstanding community? Why, weren’t these the sort of despicable crimes that only took place among the drunken sailors up in Cleveland?

In no time, a group of men took it upon themselves to bring the villain back to Hudson that very night. They mounted their horses and took off thundering for Macedonia.

Upon arrival at Maloney’s home, the men hurriedly dismounted their steeds and charged through the front door. Much to their surprise they found the murderer at home in bed with his wife!

“Have you no shame?” roared Dr. Ashmun.

Ignoring the question, Maloney sat up in bed and turned to his pregnant wife, “I’ll be leaving you for a little while, dear. I had a dispute earlier this evening that apparently is in need of reconciliation.”

With that, he stood up, stepped into his trousers, pulled on his boots and walked out leaving Mrs. Maloney in a state of pitiful bewilderment.

M.C. Read tipped his hat and apologized for the intrusion.

Outside, Maloney calmly saddled his horse, not responding to any of the questions hurled at him by the awaiting party.

Back in Hudson, Maloney was retained in custody until Monday morning when he was brought before Judge Harry C. Thompson. It was then that Maloney was forced to answer all the questions concerning the incident. Judge Thompson rightly assigned Maloney to remain in jail until further legal proceedings.

Prosecuting Attorney McKinney did not think it necessary to interrupt the ongoing docket of cases through the fall term of the Court by arranging a special grand jury to expedite matters. Therefore, the trial was placed on the calendar for the November term. At that time, Maloney was indicted on the charges of willful and premeditated murder. Upon arraignment, Maloney entered a plea of “not guilty.”

The trial commenced on Monday, November 26, 1860. Jurors were selected from a pool of 36 summoned to appear that day. The prosecuting attorney, Henry McKinney, was assisted by William H. Upson and Matthew C. Read (yes, he is the same M.C. Read who took Maloney into custody on the night of the murder). The team for the defense consisted of Judge Van R. Humphrey and General Lucius V. Bierce.

The trial took seven days including the jury deliberation of six hours on the last day. At 3:00 that afternoon, they returned the verdict of murder in the second degree.

Remorse washed over John Maloney’s face upon hearing his fate. Visibly shaken, he asked to address the court:

“Your honor, I am deeply regretful for the murder of Michael Stepleton. A lifetime of apologies will never be enough to cover the cavern of sorrow that I have created for the Stepleton family. I especially want to convey a message to any young person that may hear my story. Please listen to me. One rash act of rage can ruin many lives. Violence can never be justified as a means to resolve insult or injury.”

With those final words, John Maloney hung his head in shame as he was escorted back to jail.

On the 14th day of December, 1860, John Maloney began his life sentence at the state penitentiary. Bridget had had the baby on November 14th, exactly one month before. She named her son, John H. Maloney, Jr., and called him little Johnny for short. He got to see his daddy on several occasions while John, Sr. was in the local jail before he left for prison. Sadly, visits to the state penitentiary would be nearly impossible due to the distance.

John Maloney became a model prisoner. It was recorded in the records that he was a “quiet and cooperative” prisoner and “performed all his duties of internment cheerfully and thoroughly.” He submitted to all rules and regulations without complaint. Thus, he gained the goodwill of the prison guards and officials.

In time, John Maloney’s loyal friends interceded on his behalf and petitioned Governor Jacob D. Cox for his pardon. On the 22nd day of October, 1867, John Maloney secured his freedom having served only six years, ten months and eight days of his sentence.

Bridget welcomed her husband home with unbounded joy. Being a fine Christian wife and all, she believed that “love covers a multitude of sins” and that her unwavering love for John would restore him to his God-given role as her husband and as little Johnny’s father.

John Maloney did indeed live on to benefit thoroughly from the deep and abiding love from his dear wife. The Good Lord blessed their union with many “slips of olive trees around their table” just as the Bible says. All nine of the children grew to become fine upstanding citizens. As for John and Bridget, they lived well into their nineties, happy and satisfied.


My dear children and grandchildren, I am leaving these words on this paper as my gift.

signed and dated, October 18, 1912

Ellen Ryan


About Kathleen Franks

Kathleen Franks is a writer, artist, storyteller, and community volunteer based in Berkeley, CA
This entry was posted in Small Towns, Uncategorized, Unwed Mothers and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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