The Only Man Ever Hanged in Trumbull County: A True Crime Story of the 1830s
By Kieran Robertson
Content Warning: violence, death, child abuse
Most of us have seen at least one true crime TV show, and it seems that many Americans are increasingly obsessed with these programs (or similar stories told in podcasts, such as Serial, which many true crime fans credit as kicking off the latest proliferation of television shows and movies.) One interesting piece from the Ohio History Connection’s archives suggests that this fascination with true crime stories is not exactly new.
This piece is a poem, written c. 1832, titled “Lines Written on the Death of Maria F. Buel, Who was Murdered by her Step-Father in Warren, Trumbull Co., Ohio.” In neat pairs of couplets, or as the poet declared it, “rustic verse” the reader encounters the murder of Maria Buel, reaching a peak when her stepfather, Ira West Gardner, “…from his pocket drew a knife, And pierced her heart and took her life.” The poem is printed rather than handwritten, suggesting it was meant for public consumption much in the way we currently consume true crime on television.
The fascination with Maria’s murder expands beyond this poem. In her history of Trumbull County written in 1902, Harriet Taylor Upton (an interesting historic figure in her own right) wrote of Maria’s stepfather, “He was the only man hanged in Trumbull County, and Gustavus people still speak of him with the utmost contempt.” She goes on to explain that children of the 1860s, who grew up hearing of Maria’s murder, “always shivered as they passed the corner of South and Chestnut streets on the way to cemetery, and dare not look towards the tree from which Gardner is supposed to have swung.”
There have been some attempts to mediate the fascination with Maria’s murder and offer her some dignity and rest beyond the grave. Ira Gardner is buried in an unknown and unmarked location. Local trustees removed Maria’s original headstone after it was frequently vandalized. It has recently been replaced.
As the story of Maria Buel tells us, the human fascination with true crime is not a new phenomenon. Residents of Maria’s hometown of Gustavus have told stories of her murder since its occurrence in the 1830s. So what causes this fascination? After discovering this poem in the archives, I decided to do some quick research.
After asking Google, “why are we fascinated by true crime?” I found four suggestions for our obsessions that could explain Maria’s case.
1. A Twist on Schadenfreude
Schadenfreude is a German term, used by psychologists to describe joy taken from another person’s failure. As Dr. Sharon Packer points out in a 2016 article “‘it’s not necessarily sadistic, but if bad faith had to fall on someone, at least it fell on someone else.’”
If this theory is true, then these many memories of Maria were meant to reassure the residents of Gustavus that they themselves had escaped a terrible fate.
The documentation of Ira West Gardner’s trial in the Supreme Court of Ohio demonstrates exactly how terrible Maria’s fate must have been.
It is clear that Maria was experiencing some sort of abuse at the hands of her stepfather. As the trial record notes, “Something unpleasant had taken place between [Ira Gardner] and [Maria Buel]…What this difficulty was, the evidence did not disclose, but the sympathy of the neighborhood was excited in Maria’s favor…”
It is further noted, that a few months before her murder, Maria fell ill. When Gardner heard that she had spent time visiting a Mr. Roberts while her parents thought her elsewhere, he refused to supply her any medicine.
It appears that Maria took matters into her own hands, and two days before her murder, she ran away from home, taking refuge at the home of a neighbor, Mr. Mills. Gardner immediately began looking for her, traveling from house to house and threatening to harm Maria when she was found.
Eventually, Gardner found out where Maria was staying, and he came to the Mills’s house. Despite frequent public threats of vengeance, Gardner claimed that he only wanted to talk to Maria. Her reaction to him clearly demonstrated her great fear of her stepfather. As the trial report reads, “Shortly after Mills returned home, and went to his barn, Maria came running out agitated, and said, Gardiner was coming.”
On August 8, 1832, Maria Buel decided to come home, at the very least to pick up the clothes she had left behind. As Maria approached the fence in front of the Gardner’s home to meet her mother and step-father, Gardner grabbed Maria and stabbed her twice with a knife from his pocket. A friend who had been inside the Gardner’s home, Mr. Bidwell, heard the screams and saw Maria die ten minutes later.
2. A Reluctance to Redefine our Notions of Human Capabilities
One of the more frightening suggestions as to our obsession with true crime is succinctly summarized by this piece in the Boston Globe:”It is impossible to envision ourselves, or people we know, taking someone’s life for any reason.” Perhaps the interest in Maria’s case was founded in the psyche of her murderer.
During Ira Gardner’s trial, his lawyers attempted to prove his insanity. However, many of his neighbors claimed that Gardner seemed perfectly sane, “temperate, and of general good character.” Even Mr. Bidwell, the friend that was sitting inside Gardner’s house during the time of the murder, trusted Gardner when he said no harm would befall Maria when she came home.
Joshua Reed Giddings, who would later become famous as a lawyer and statesman fighting for abolition.
It must have been shocking to Gardner’s neighbors to hear that a man capable of such brutal crimes was living nearby in a home just like their own, attending their church, waving hello on the street, or shopping in the same stores. Perhaps they were drawn to remember and retell this story because of the fear it caused. If Gardner, a normal neighbor, was a murderer, then who else might be hiding in plain sight? People would ask themselves, is my father a murderer, perhaps my brother, my friend, or am I myself capable of this crime?
Maria’s case is particularly frightening, because her murderer was a family member. As the poem warns, “You guardian step-fathers beware, Of those entrusted to your care, Treat them with tenderness and love, And merit blessings from above.”
3.Missing Pieces of the Puzzle
Maria Buel is not the only historic murder victim to take a place in public consciousness. Despite the fact that their crimes occurred over 100 years ago, we still discuss the likes of H.H. Holmes, Jack the Ripper, and even Lizzie Borden.
Lizzie Borden’s case reported in the Van Wert Times.
It is possible that what makes these killers interesting are the unsolved details of their crimes. Perhaps part of our fascination with true crime stories is the chance to play detective.
The biggest missing piece in this puzzle is the story of what could have been. What if Maria had not come home for her clothing? And more importantly, what exactly was Ira Gardner thinking as he spent the day running about town threatening and then retracting vengeance upon Maria? What was his motive? Could he have been prevented?
As reported by Mr. Bidwell, at the scene of the crime, Mrs. Gardner, in agony over her daughter’s imminent death, said to her husband, “’I know what caused you to kill her, but should never have told you.’” What did she tell him? When?
Bidwell also noted that before Mr. Gardner headed out the door to kill Maria, he stopped short for a moment- was this when he decided to carry out the murder?
After the murder Gardner himself said, “’you ought to have kept her away a day or two until I got over it, knowing as you did that I was in a passion.” Apparently, “’he had not a mind to kill her but a few minutes.’”
4.It’s Just Too Horrifying to Look Away
One of the most common explanations of our interest in true crime is that it is simply too scary to look away. In the same way that many people get a rush from roller coasters or haunted houses, true crime stories pump adrenaline through our bodies.
Unfortunately well-known murders such as Maria’s become cultural touchstones and monuments to our greatest fears and insecurities. While it may be interesting to discover why exactly the town of Gustavus could not let Maria go, it is important to remember that she wanted to live a long happy life like the rest of us.
As our poet wrote, for a young Maria, “The cloudless skies appeared serene, And not a fear to intervene, Her hopes were bright for happiness, She hoped to live and die in peace.”