David's Reformed Church Congregation

David's Reformed Church Congregation
Congregation of David's Reformed Church, Montgomery Co, Ohio, Circa, 1900

Monday, January 23, 2012

Shot Through the Heart - The Story of Harry Odle

The cause of death listed on the certificate stated simply "Shot through the heart by officers."   The headline of The Portsmouth Daily Times on 1 March, 1927 proclaims "Coroner Starts Investigation in Death of Harry Odle -  Was Slain in Home in Rardon by Officers; Wife is Slightly Wounded in Gun Battle, Victim Insane, Alleged".   I stumbled upon that headline last night as I was doing a little "light" family history research on my husband's family.  On just another one of those days when I wanted to avoid doing the housework that is still waiting to be done, I discovered another compelling family story. 

As has happened so often in the past for me, researching newspaper archives had provided the beginning of a story that required more research to fill in the missing pieces and to finally put together a more complete picture of an event and a greater understanding of a distant family member.

Harry Odle, my husband's 1st cousin, 2 times removed, was born to John P. and Sarah Alice Cochran Odle on 20 April, 1883 in Nile Township, Scioto County, Ohio.  On 30 April, 1900, he married Iva Estella Freeman and between the years of 1902 and 1920, they had 8 children. 
According to the United States Census, in both 1910 and 1920 he was farming in Rarden Township,  Scioto County.  What could have happened that would have lead to his violent death on 28 February, 1927?

 I began with the lengthy article about the gun battle itself.  I learned that Harry Odle had been shot only once, with the bullet passing first through his forearm and then completely through his body. 
His wife, Iva, had been wounded when she was hit by a bullet that first hit a stovepipe, then the wall, a door, and then lodged in her calf.   Somehow, miraculously, Harry's mother who was also sitting in the room, was not injured. 
It had all begun when Deputy Sheriff Willis and City Patrolman Goodman had arrived at the Odle home with a warrant in hand certifying that Harry had been deemed "insane" and they were to return him to the state hospital in Athens, Ohio. He had been an inmate there in 1924 for the period of about one year.  He had run away at that time and was home for a year and half before being sent back to the asylum where he stayed until he was dismissed. The article states that the first time he was taken, it took more than a half a dozen men to handle him and while in his cell, he had torn out the iron bars with his hands.  During the short time following his release, he had worked off and on farming and working for the railroad with his brother, Nelson.  However, not long before the shooting incident, Harry's family and friends had complained to the sheriff that he had threatened their lives.  Harry himself  had also sent the County Clerk, Fred Warner, this threatening message: "To the Courts of Scioto County:  I herewith set my  hand and seat.  Harry Odle the ruler of Almighty God swear to do what is right by all people.  so I warn you to go according to law.  The first thing my trip to the insane asylum paid all my debts by law.  The second thing I seen in the paper where you appraised my place.  It is a d---- lie. It was never appraised as I know of, and I have been at home all the time.  I wasn't looking for trouble, but if that is what you want go ahead.  But, remember I am a citizen of the U.S. born and bred in Scioto County, and must be recognized."

On the Friday before his death, Harry had gone to the office of Mayor Walter Scott and threatened him with a gun, pointing it into the air and firing it several times. Then, on Monday, the day of the shooting,  Harry's daughter, Gertrude, sent the sheriff a telegram that stated, "Harry Odle dangerously insane. Family in great danger.  Come Immediately." 

Armed with a warrant for Harry's capture, the officers arrived at the home with the hope that they could "nab" him before he had a chance to shoot.  They entered the house through the kitchen and upon stepping into the middle room,  Harry fired upon them with a .32 caliber revolver,  as he wordlessly sat in a chair.  The officers drew their guns and stepped behind the door, returning fire.  Even after the shooting stopped, so wary were the officers about approaching Harry, that they threw tear gas into the room to make sure he was incapacitated.  Upon the coroner's investigation, it was discovered that Harry also had in his possession a large knife and several packs of 32 cartridges in his coat pocket.

The portion of the article that I found most interesting came towards the end when it detailed the following:  "According to relatives, Mr. Odle was a hard, earnest worker and was a sober man always and was never known to use a profane word until after he was first taken mentally ill about six years ago.  At that time, a young daughter, Berlin, about six years old, died, and he turned to religion in the hopes of forgetting his great sorrow.  Instead, relatives claim, he gave every thought to his new religious faith and soon showed signs of insanity."

When I read those lines about the mental illness not manifesting itself until after the death of his precious little girl, I knew I had to find out more about her.  According to the 1920 United States Census, Harry and Iva had a daughter named, Elizabeth B., who was 8 years old.  I felt this was probably the little one I was looking for.  I researched the Ohio Death Certificate database at familysearch.org and there I discovered the information I sought.  Elizabeth Burlene Odle, aged 7 years, 10 months, and 10 days, had died on 1 November, 1920 as a result of typhoid fever that she had contracted at school.
Harry and Iva had buried their little girl just a few weeks before Thanksgiving, 1920.   Certainly, Harry Odle would not have been the first parent to have been driven "insane" by the death of a child.  Today, there are many resources where grieving hearts can receive support, love, and understanding.  But, in 1920, counseling, especially in very rural areas, would have been virtually non-existent.  In fact, in many instances, grieving families were expected to just move on once an "acceptable" period of mourning was over.  The newspaper article reveals that Harry had "turned to religion", but we don't know exactly what that meant.  I'm sure his clergyman and his family all tried to help him ease his grief, but severe depression and it seems in this case, pychosis, could not have been talked away or even "loved" away.

According to an article in The Portsmouth Daily Times, dated 9 April, 1924, the probate court first officially judged Harry as "insane" on 8 April, 1924, and sent him to the Athens State Hospital because he had become violent and had terrorized his neighbors numerous times.   It is possible that his mental condition would have deteriorated without the death of his little girl, but it is hard to look at Harry's life just preceding the incident and not believe that his grief was not the major contributor to his downfall.   The fact that Harry Odle was a different man before his illness was told by the story of his funeral in The Portsmouth Daily Times on 5 March, 1927,  which stated "The throng that filled the church until the obtaining of standing room was next to impossible testified to the wide friendship of the man."

Thankfully, his actions did not harm anyone else,  at least physically  However,  I can't imagine what life must have been like for Iva, his wife, who had to grieve for her child and then for her husband.  She survived the gunshot wound, but remained in serious condition for many weeks.

The tragic story of Harry Odle began many years before he was "shot through the heart".  I can't help but think that his heart was injured twice; the first time by the loss of his beautiful Burlene and the final time when the lawman's bullet took his life.


  1. What a tragic story. Mental illness was such a stigma and, as you have pointed out, while we will never know what it was that pushed Harry over the edge, chances are it was a number of events, including the death of his daughter. What a wonderful tribute and one I'm sure will stand the test of time as giving your family a chance to look at this with a fresh perspective. Well done Lori.

  2. What a great post! I was spell bound by the story. Great research! I have to agree with your last sentence, poor Harry Odle had his heart injured twice.

  3. Lori:

    What a sad and tragic story. His heart was broken twice....


  4. I had no idea about this dark corner of my family history. John P. Odle was my great grandfather and Harry and Nelson were two of my Grandfather's (John Odle) brothers.