|Last Quarter Phase
Photo by Ed Ting
|Colt Frontier Six-Shooter, c. 1884
According to the first news report, Nancy “was found lying on her face, cold in death. Two bullets had perforated her brain and were found in the ceiling," first reports said. Her head was terribly mangled by an ax and almost severed from her body. Two revolvers were found lying beside her and belonged to parties in the family, and four chambers were empty. The ax was also lying near, which was an old rusty one newly sharpened. The walls and furniture were stained with blood, while the carpet was thoroughly saturated with its crimson flow. A darker or more fearful crime was never known in this county, and it will form a black page in our county’s history.”[i]
Another news account includes Johnny's statement that he woke up in time to see the tramps leaving with a watch and some money. Then, “I slipped out on my tip-toes and ran as hard as I could to where Mr. Pace [an African-American field hand] was plowing corn, about one-half mile away. I told him there were three men up at the house murdering ma and they had pistols and an ax. After hitching the horses we went back as hard as we could. After we got to the branch [i.e., creek], Pace went over to [Odey] Casey’s to get someone to go with him into the house. After he and some others came back, we went into the house.”[iv]
Beall farm with residence lower right.
The original home no longer exists, but
the pond, grounds, roads, and fields
are probably much the same as they were
in 1887. (Google Earth image)
Regarding the boy’s relationship with his mother, the father stated that “no trouble had ever existed between the boy and his mother and on that day there was none to his knowledge.” However, the New Paris Mirror of Preble County reported that week, “The boy has been causing his parents considerable trouble for some time, by his refractory conduct. At the breakfast table yesterday morning the boy quarreled with his mother and now says he made her take back all she said.”[v]
Putting all the facts together, on Friday, June 17, Coroner C. C. Jones announced his conclusions: “I do find the deceased, Mrs. Nancy C. Beall, came to her death by two pistol-shot wounds through the brain, one shot entering the temporal bone on the left side, just back of the left eye, and making its exit on the opposite side; the other shot being an inch or an inch and a half back of the one described, and making its exit at the outer angle of the orbit on the right side. Also, two ax wounds on the back of the neck, between the head and shoulders, completely severing the spinal column, either of said wounds being sufficient to cause death. I further find that while it seems almost impossible to conceive that one so young, and especially a son, would commit such an atrocious crime, yet the evidence presented to me and the circumstances surrounding the case are so strong that I feel warranted in fixing the crime on John A. Beall.”[vii]
Preble County Courthouse, 1887
The townspeople were mystified. “There has never anything occurred in this county that has so shocked everyone. The frightfully brutal manner in which the woman was butchered up, and the thought that a son could be so inhuman as to kill his mother, is so shocking that people can hardly believe it possible.
“There is no disposition to act rash with him. There is not a father or mother but hopes and prays that the grave suspicions may be removed, and that the boy may not be guilty.”
One cannot imagine what was racing through the mind of William Beall. His wife murdered, his son in jail, the facts all pointing to the worst imaginable scenario. It goes some way toward showing the strength of a father’s love in that he not only accompanied Johnny to the jail and made a special request for the boy’s privacy, but that he also asked to be allowed to remain with the boy in his cell that first night. However, the Sheriff considered it better that the boy remain alone. He later reported that Johnny had “eaten his dinner and supper all right” and that he remained “unmoved, quiet, and unconcerned.” At 9 o’clock that night, there was no sign that Johnny was going to break down and confess.
“Yes,” came the reply.
“Well, I’m onto your game,” he said. “You want to see me released, and then you will have me arrested again.” He refused to have any more to do with the mayor, who was totally unaware of what was going on under his nose. It is hard to know why Peters and Crisler did not let the mayor in on the ploy, or why the mayor wished to undermine the temporary imprisonment of a supposed Kentucky safe-burglar wanted by authorities in Newport. Perhaps this is a sign of bad blood among the various authorities in the town, but the man calling himself P. S. Fay managed to navigate the deep waters of local politics and remain in the jail close to Johnny.
|Model of Folsom in the same era
Those who dealt with Johnny face to face in those critical days after the murder left comments which help us to see Johnny’s persona. Fay indicated that Beall was “as bloodthirsty a young desperado as the famous Jesse Pomeroy” (a 14-year-old serial killer imprisoned in Massachusetts in 1874). In the presence of the sheriff or another authority, said Fay, Beall “is a sniffling little hypocrite, but when they leave him, he is seen in his true character.” Specifically, he “would swear like a trooper” and say of his father, “The G-d d-d old s-n of a b-h, why don’t he get me out of here?”[xii] Why, indeed?
Putting together the statements of the witnesses, the coroner, and the boy himself, as they are recorded in various news accounts of the day, we can begin to see what happened in the Beall home on the day of the murder.
According to persons who knew the family, the boy was “refractory” and had been causing his mother a lot of trouble. The week of the murder he had argued with her at the breakfast table and had “made her take back all she said,” which shows the disrespect with which he treated his mother and the dominance he may have held over her. On the day of the murder, Johnny had planned to go to town with his mother to buy a new set of clothes, a telling piece of information recorded only by the Mitchell, South Dakota, Republican.
However, for some reason, that did not happen. Perhaps Johnny had been acting up and his mother decided the trip could wait until Johnny was more amenable. So, the father and sister left for town at 1:00, leaving an upset, perhaps seething Johnny at home with his mother.
What started the downward spiral that resulted in the violence that led to Nancy's death? In his statement to the authorities, Johnny said something in passing that may offer a clue. To be specific, he stated that his mother had accused him of not hitching the horses for his father. Johnny seemed curious to know if Nancy had told his father about this. Perhaps he viewed it as another example of his mom's supposed opposition to him. She replied that she had indeed told the father that (from her viewpoint perhaps) Johnny had been negligent in his duties.
From this distance, we can never learn the truth of exactly what happened, but Johnny explained it (or explained it away) by saying that he had hitched up the horses, but not in the usual spot. He told the officers that his mother “had not thought of that.” This exchange, which followed fast on the heels of Nancy's refusal to take Johnny shopping, may have been the trigger that set Johnny off.
From Johnny's point of view, he was tired of his mother favoring his sister, refusing him some R&R, and telling his father about his real or imagined shortcomings. From Nancy's point of view, Johnny's sulking, lipping off, disrespect, and malingering were just getting too much to handle. No doubt, they argued. Later, in his confession, he would say that his mother “whipped him,” which sent him into a fury.
Of course, it's possible that when Johnny picked up the gun, two chambers were already empty. Most revolvers in the late nineteenth century did not have a hammer block, a safety that is nowadays built into a revolver to prevent the gun from going off if accidentally dropped.
|1877 Colt with no safety
The coroner noted that one of the wounds indicated a bullet had entered the left side of Nancy's face at the temple and exited at the orbit of the right eye, which is a somewhat upwardly angled path. The upward angle combined with the fact that the bullet was found in the ceiling suggests that Nancy had turned to look over her shoulder, which would have lowered her head somewhat. At that moment, Johnny fired into the left side of her face at a somewhat upward angle.
Johnny then stated that as she fell, he “stood over her and again shot.” The path of the second wound supports this statement. The second bullet entered the left temporal bone “just back of the eye” and made its exit on the opposite side, passing directly through the brain. The bullet used to make that shot would logically have penetrated the floor, not the ceiling. So, how do we account for the second bullet lodged in the ceiling? Was it from a third discharge? Certainly it is possible that one of Johnny's shots went astray—perhaps the first shot and the reason why Nancy looked back over her left shoulder as she tried to escape. Another possibility is that only two shots were fired, the first one fragmenting and, thus, striking the ceiling in two places, while the second shot went into the floor.
Still, after two shots to the head, there was life in
Nancy. She raised her head from the floor—the image
that later haunted Johnny’s thoughts and kept him from sleeping at night, in
the same way that Shakespeare noted people do when burdened by the horror of
It is unknown whether there were any cartridges in the second revolver, but since Johnny now threw down the guns and picked up the rusty ax, it is not unreasonable to conclude that Johnny was out of ammunition. The reporter stated, “As she raised, he got the ax and split open her head.” The coroner’s report stated there were “also two ax wounds on the back of the neck, between the head and shoulders, completely severing the spinal column, either of said wounds being sufficient to cause death.”[xv]
In February, 1888, came the sentencing trial. The Evening Bulletin of Maysville, Kentucky, published these details on February 29: “ closing scene in the horrible Beall murder, that occurred in the afternoon of June 13, took place Monday morning in the criminal court, before Judge Fred Van Derveer, by the appearance of John A. Beall, aged thirteen years, in court and asking to retract his plea of not guilty to murder in the first degree, and entering his plea of guilty to murder in the second in the killing of his mother, Mrs. Nancy Beall, age fifty-one years, which was accepted.
Cell block at Ohio State Penitentiary
|Ohio State Penitentiary
What happened to Johnny upon his release? Well, there is a John A. Beall in the Columbus, Ohio, City Directory of 1899, residing at 482 Armstrong and working as a laborer. Could this be Johnny one year after his release? The census records show more than one person named John A. Beall in Ohio at the time, so it is hard to say whether the resident of Columbus is the person who committed murder near Eaton twelve years earlier. A yellowing, type-written page from a Beall family history offers the assertion that at the time of his father’s death Johnny was residing in Richmond, Indiana, which is in Wayne County, Indiana, immediately adjacent to Preble County, Ohio, but, if he was there in 1908, he was gone by the time the census was taken in 1910.[xviii]
|Silverene Watch, 1901
The coroner’s inquest the next day produced these sparse details: “Blue eyes, black and gray hair; carried 3 bank books, revolver, pocket knife, silverene watch, [bank] note, [and] some money.”[xx] So the man’s life comes down to the grief inside his heart and the trifles in his pocket.
|Certificate of Marriage for William T. Beall
and Rebecca Hart
Rebecca Hart’s children had also gone their own ways. Charles married and by 1910 had moved to Washington state; it is unknown if he and his wife Ellen were still in Preble County in 1908, when William committed suicide. Hannah had married a piano tuner named James Stallard and was living in Indianapolis. Mary seems not to have married and disappears from the record. None of William’s children—neither those of Rebecca Hart nor those of Nancy Gard—seem to have borne children of their own. So, in addition to losing two wives and three children to untimely deaths, William Beall seems to have had no grandchildren to comfort him as he grew old, feeble, and alone.
Does the elder Beall’s act of burning down his barn and other outbuildings suggest a desire to prevent anyone else (say, Johnny, nearly 34 now, for example) from having the use of the property? Had son Johnny made an appearance in the county, raising the ire suppressed in his father’s heart for years? Had bad relations between his son-in-law, his Hart relatives, or the Gards driven him to despondency? Would it be proper even to speculate that the instability seen in Johnny Beall was perhaps shared, to some degree, by his father? Is it beyond the boundaries of reason to wonder whether Johnny (if he did indeed live just across the state border in Ohio) showed up at his father's farm and committed a second murder? That, of course, is pure speculation, perhaps fueled by twenty-first century crime drama, but deserves voicing nonetheless.
The world wags on. Youthful psychopathic murderers continue to make headlines. Psychologists study and study and study, trying to account for such behavior with every possible explanation and a list of disorders and symptoms as long as your arm. Yet no one can say with any certitude what causes the behavior of a psychopath.
Johnny Beall entered prison in 1888. He was released back into society in 1898. His father killed himself ten years later in 1908. Twenty years of misery for the father, and who knows what for Johnny.