Professor seeks clues to 127-year-old whodunit

September 13, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

WESTMINSTER -- Jesse Glass knows who murdered contentious local newspaper editor Joseph Shaw. But what the 38-year-old college professor wants to know is: Who put them up to it?

"It's one of the great historical mysteries of Carroll County," says Dr. Glass, who grew up in the area, taught at the University of Wisconsin and is now on a two-year teaching assignment in Japan.

On April 6, 1865, Shaw, an outspoken Confederate sympathizer, published an editorial in his Western Maryland Democrat calling on "Providence" to remove Abraham Lincoln so that Vice President Andrew Johnson could assume the presidency.

Eight days later, John Wilkes Booth shot the president. Ten days after that, on April 24, five men broke into Shaw's room in a Main Street hotel, where they beat, shot and stabbed him to death.

Had Shaw's editorial provoked his own murder by those outraged by the death of Lincoln? Or had it merely been the excuse his enemies wanted to end a vicious political battle that had started in the tension-filled years before the Civil War?

"It was a plot to get rid of Shaw. It was not a spontaneous attack. Someone put them up to it," said Dr. Glass, who wrote a book titled "Ghosts and Legends of Carroll County" and spent a decade researching Shaw's life and untimely death at age 35.

The researcher said five men ultimately accused and acquitted of the crime had no previous connection with the victim. The historian's prime suspects: an opposition editor and a prominent local lawyer. The three men had traded political, literary and personal insults for years in both newspapers.

"It is sort of a parable for today, the erosion of the First Amendment," said Dr. Glass, who hopes to expand his research into a book about the Shaw case.

'Tested the limits'

"Joe Shaw tested the limits of free speech. He bucked the group that ran Carroll County, the political machine. They were the remnants of the Know-Nothing Party, a group of violent people. He was not politically correct for his time, and he paid the price."

There were plenty of witnesses and evidence against the men accused of the crime, Dr. Glass said. Four of the accused dropped out of sight soon after a jury stacked with Know-Nothing sympathizers acquitted them, he said.

The fifth man, Henry Bell, who had a record of violence, stayed in Carroll County for a few more years and faced assault charges several times.

"But there is nothing to show that Bell knew Shaw," Dr. Glass said. "Someone put Bell and the others up to it."

The most likely candidates, Dr. Glass speculates, are William Grammar, editor of the American Sentinel and General Advertiser, and C. W. Webster, a local lawyer who became the state's attorney and prosecuted the five defendants.

Shaw and Grammar had traded political and literary blows for years in their newspapers.

Webster became a Sentinel columnist, writing "The Chronicles," a series of stinging, witty satires in biblical prose that Shaw never managed to counter successfully.

The two newspaper offices were only a long block apart on Main Street; the buildings still stand. The Sentinel building is now a law office. A thrift shop occupies Carroll Hall, where Shaw published the Democrat.

Lynching threatened

On the night of President Lincoln's death, citizens at a town meeting at the Court House a few blocks away voted to run Shaw out of town. They also refused to allow paroled rebel soldiers to return to Carroll County. After the meeting, a mob attacked Shaw's offices. Rioters threw his equipment into the street and warned him to leave town or be lynched.

Shaw fled to Baltimore but returned a few days later, spouting defiance.

He went to his room at the Anchor Hotel, now the site of a large Victorian house. That evening, the men broke into his room. Shaw fired a gun in self-defense, hitting Bell in the left hand. The men fired back, wounding Shaw, according to an account in The Sun.

Dr. Glass said the men dragged the bleeding editor down the stairs, stabbing him during the struggle. Shaw bled to death on the floor of the hotel bar.

The New York Times account of the case referred to Bell as a "Northern agent," Dr. Glass said, but a search of the National Archives, Hall of Records and court documents turned up nothing more on him than several assault cases.

"Bell was no secret agent for anybody. He was a thug," Dr. Glass said.

Shaw did have an early association with the Know-Nothing Party before turning vehemently against it to become a "Free Soil Democrat," Dr. Glass said. The slain editor came from a well-to-do Taneytown family and attended Jefferson College near Pittsburgh, where he met the sons of the Southern aristocracy and was imbued with Confederate sympathies.

"Throughout the war, Shaw freely expressed his view that President Lincoln was wrong. He decried the war but said it was necessary because Lincoln had veered away from democratic principles," Dr. Glass said.

'In an attic somewhere . . .'

Standing in front of Carroll Hall, the researcher mused, "I've spent a lot of time here contemplating, trying to imagine what it was like then."

A poet and short-story writer, Dr. Glass has written a screenplay about the Shaw case that he hopes to produce as a film with the help of a professor at Western Maryland College.

"I'd love to know who was behind the murder, and I'd love to know what Shaw looked like. I've never found a picture of him," Dr. Glass said.

But he believes he will someday.

"In an attic somewhere there is a picture of Joseph Shaw and maybe something that will tell what happened," he said.

But even if such things exist, the problem will be to find someone willing to disclose them, he said.

"It was dirty laundry in this county for a hundred years; so many people have relationships with those who were involved," he said. "They still don't like to talk about it."

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