I recently obtained transcriptions of letters written by my ggg grandfather, Robert Bowland. Many letters detailed Bowland’s anguish after his son, Robert Mercer Bowland (RMB), stabbed to death Franklin Barker, husband of Bowland’s daughter, Margaretta, in 1846 on a Mansfield, OH street corner. Barker had been relentless in his insistence that RMB’s new bride, Julia, had been a prostitute in Manhattan.
The Bowland and Barker families were well-known, upstanding families in the community, and the murder trial gained state-wide attention. The prosecutor was Samuel Jordan Kirkwood, and the defense attorneys were Columbus Delano and Thomas Ewing. All three attorneys later served as U.S. Secretaries of the Interior. Bowland described townspeople as being sympathetic to RMB, but RMB was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. Before RMB’s arrival at the Ohio Penitentiary, his sentence was commuted to life in prison at the request of his sister (Barker’s widow) for the sake of their parents.
A Mansfield friend of mine, Alan Wigton, had been interested in the murder. Through research, he located Kirkwood’s prosecutor file, and I obtained a copy of that file. We now knew the Barker family’s side of the story.
Bowland garnered support for RMB, and Mansfield citizens sent letters to Governor Seabury Ford asking for RMB’s pardon and release. Barker family letters pleaded that the murderer should serve his sentence. Alan Wigton suggested those letters might be in Governor Ford’s files.
At OHS I hit the jackpot! I found RMB’s Ohio Pen admission records dated Feb. 1847 describing his physical appearance. I then requested Governor Ford’s pardon files. I assumed I would view film and was surprised when five boxes of original documents were brought to me by the helpful staff. My pulse quickened as I realized the second box held what I was looking for.
There were dozens of original letters from Bowland, Margaretta, and prominent Mansfield residents. I imagined my ancestors writing them, straining under the flickering light of kerosene lamps 160 years before. I was thrilled to hold those letters in 2010! Included was Ford’s Feb. 1849 pardon of RMB.
Because of the Ohio Historical Society, the circle of information became complete. This resulted in Alan Wigton writing and publishing his book, Two Sons, The Bowland – Barker Murder. Eye- witnesses’ sworn testimonies show that Franklin Barker’s comments about Julia had been true. Robert Mercer Bowland met “French Julia” Weidenbacher, a known Manhattan prostitute, during his enlistment in the Navy.
Linda Carew Ejzak