Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a 2-part series.
In November 1921, Clinton County was very much abuzz, with the talk of murder.
As to all things, there is a backstory, and what that story is, no one is sure. All we do know is that there are facts that are presented, and those facts decide if a person is guilty or not.
This is the story of those facts.
It was a Saturday night in November 1921 and Thomas Oliver Vandevort, a fur buyer from Burtonville, Ohio, was at the home of Mrs. Whitlow, near Cuba. He was well-known and well-liked in Clinton County, according to newspaper records.
Mr. Vandevort would see three people at the home that night: ex-wife, Bertha Whitlow, age 30; Bertha’s mother, Mrs. Jeff Whitlow, age 57; and a so-called friend, Howard Bosier.
Lying on the floor were two dead and one mortally wounded.
According to first accounts by then-Sheriff Kirk, Mr. Vandervort said he was walking to his brother’s house when he heard a commotion coming from the home of his former mother-in-law and saw a man leap from the door. Vandervort then went inside the home to find his ex-wife and Bosier lying on the floor. He then said he went on to find Mrs. Whitlow, mortally wounded, on the kitchen floor.
Thomas and Bertha’s 10-year-old son, who was making a home there, summoned Doctor A.P. Basinger of Blanchester. The chain of events continued when Mrs. Whitlow was rushed to the Gison-Basinger Hospital in Blanchester.
When Mrs. Whitlow recognized that she was not going to survive, she requested to speak with Doctor Basinger. She then revealed to the doctor that Vandervort had been the one to fire the fatal shots!
Sheriff Kirk was still at the murder scene and was not present to hear any of this conversation.
On the same night, another shooting had taken place in Wilmington.
Rodney Wallace, a friend of Vandervort’s, had been drinking, and an argument ensued between the two men. During the argument, Vandervort proceeded to shoot Wallace in the shoulder. Wallace would survive his wounds and Sheriff Kirk had no choice but to arrest Vandervort for murder. What would happen next would become one of the biggest trials in Clinton County history.
According to accounts and records at the Clinton County History Center, Vandervort’s arraignment would be on a Tuesday at 10 a.m. and would be heard by the local magistrate, Squire W.I. Stewart. Three charges of first-degree murder were brought before him for the murders at the Whitlow house, as well as an intent to kill Rodney Wallace.
A very pale Vandervort entered a plea of not guilty. At that point, he had started to talk and was quoted saying, “I would give my life to know who did this.” He expressed to Stewart that he wanted W.B. Rogers, of New York, to represent him as his counsel.
Clinton County Prosecutor A.L. Gregory called Rogers and an agreement was made. Everything had to be put on hold until Rogers could travel to Wilmington. He said he could arrive in just a few days, so Stewart set the hearing for Friday at 9 a.m.
Vandervort was the only prisoner in the Clinton County Jail at the time, and he would take every opportunity he could to speak with Sheriff Kirk. Kirk described him as “very blue” because no one wanted to see him.
Meanwhile, funeral services were being held for the deceased, and suspense was mounting on what was going to happen. Evidence was piling up and guns were found at Vandervort home, all while a train was steaming towards Wilmington with Lawyer Rogers onboard.
A trial would ensue in the courtroom of Judge Frank Clevenger, where evidence would then be laid out and witnesses would be called, in front of himself and his jury.
On January 28th, 1922, the courtroom was packed — standing room only. The first witness would be the doctor who was first to arrive at the ghastly scene. He was questioned and told the court what he saw when he had arrived at Whitlow’s residence.
He then shocked the court and told them what Mrs. Whitfield had revealed to him before she passed that Vandervort had fired the shots!
To be continued in tomorrow’s News Journal…
Jonathan McKay is a Clinton County native and a current member of Wilmington City Council.