John Piatt, Jr. is standing on his front porch with his son. It is about 9:30 p.m., Tuesday, two days after Christmas, 1910. In the distance he can hear the frantic barking of some hounds on a fox hunt. The night is cold and he feels the chill through his coat. Suddenly, the sound of gunshots echoes in the night. It is not unusual for men to carry guns during the fox hunt and John just assumes that is what has happened.. He is joined on the porch by his son and soon they notice what they think is the hunter's campfire. It grows larger and larger and John tells his son the men must be burning up the whole country. The air turns colder and after watching the flames for awhile, John and his son go back into the house to warm up and head to their beds, blissfully unaware of the tragedy that had taken place only one and half miles away, at the home of his brothers, Oliver and Minor.
At about noon, on Wednesday 28 December, 1910, John Piatt, Jr. was shredding tobacco in his field at his home, near Rocky Fork in Scioto County, Ohio. He was approached by Mr. Hazelbaker, a storekeeper from the town of Pink, who informed him that he had heard John's brother's home had burned to the ground. Neither Minor nor Oliver Piatt, had been seen, and it was feared they had both been killed in the fire. John quickly stopped his work and headed for the home of his brothers, an 80 acre tobacco farm, 18 miles from Portsmouth, Ohio on the Adams/Scioto County line. He asked his friend, James Brownfield to go with him. It was around 3:00 pm when they arrived and before he was able to look for his brothers, two ladies, Mrs. Nichols and Mrs. Brown, apppeared on the scene. Mrs. Nichols told John that it was her sons who had discovered what had happened. She had sent them to the Piatt cabin to buy some tobacco. When they saw the tragic scene, shocked and scared, they ran back home to tell their mother. She and her neighbor came to see if their story was true. Sadly, it was.
Inside the home, John found the bodies of his brothers, Minor, age 50 and Oliver, age 53. They had both been killed by gunshot wounds to the head and they were burned beyond recognition. One body was located in the corner between the fireplace and the kitchen. It appeared that any gunshot would have come through the front window, perhaps killing him with no warning. The other man's body was found near the front door.
Sheriff Eckhart was summoned to the scene, as was the coroner, Dr. O.W. Robe. The investigation began immediately and the speculation was that the Piatt brothers had been murdered for their money. Family members told the investigators that the brothers were hard working, thrifty individuals who were known to keep large amounts of money in their home. They carried silver money with them, but no silver was found in the ruins. Armor Piatt told reporters for The Portsmouth Daily Times that he believed his brothers probably had between $500 and $1000 between them and it would have been somewhere in the cabin. John Piatt put his suspicians on a man named William Briggs. For a reason which he could not remember, Briggs had once said that the Piatts would "die with their boots on". This man had been charged with selling his vote during the last election and was waiting for his punishment on that charge. He was the first suspect.
The crime scene itself filled with clues, even though the murderer had done his best to hide his deed.
In the yard were 3 empty Winchester cartridges. Fresh, sized #8 footprints led in and out of the cabin and a bloody butcher knife was found on a window sill. It appeared the culprit had approached from the west, up a small ravine that led down to the Rocky Fork Creek.
Within a few hours, a hundred people converged upon the crime scene. This was a rugged and isolated area and travel to the cabin wasn't easy. The sheriff, the coroner, and those who reported the crime details for the newspaper had a difficult time navigating the rocky and overgrown terrain to get to the cabin. In the case of the reporter, he had to have footman on either side of his rig to help steady it and keep it from falling over.
It didn't take the coroner long to make his determination on the cause of death for the men and he set about gathering up their remains for burial. All he was able to find of both of the men was placed into an old lard can. and early on Friday morning, 30 December, 1910, what remained of Minor and Oliver Piatt was placed in a "rough box" and buried in the cemetery at Berry Chapel on Rocky Fork.
In my next post, I will cover the investigation and arrests for the murders of the Piatt brothers of Scioto County.