Thriller Thursday: the Trial of Tilby Smith

For a time, I worked a mind-numbing retail job. Luckily, I’ve been fortunate to stop doing that. But one summer after I had taken some time off to bring feeling back into my mind, I was working the back to school section, stocking crayons. My supervisor (who later became a friend) was jabbering away about the newest obsession in her life: genealogy. I was sort of listening, but mostly thinking about sorting 8, 16, and 24 packs of Crayolas when one sentence made me drop an entire case of 24 counts:

“My great-uncle was executed.”

That got my attention.

So as I scrambled to get the loose crayons that had rolled everywhere, I was drawn into the story of one Tilby Smith.

On Wednesday, 8 June 1904, during a hot Ohio summer, Frederick Henry Smith and his wife, Inez welcomed their third child and second son, Tilby Lafayette Smith into the world. Tilby was named for both of his grandfathers: Henry Tilby Smith and Lafayette Eugene Hyde.

Nice, normal family, right?

It didn’t stay that way for very long.

His mother, Inez, died at her family’s home in Hastings, Florida a month after giving birth to her daughter, Dorothy. Tilby was five years old. Septicemia is a horrific way to die. It went by many names then, among them are childbed fever and puerperal fever. Now it’s commonly known as blood poisoning. Most often caused by contaminated medical equipment or dirty doctors or midwives, the infection spread rapidly and was often fatal before the rise of antibiotics.

photo of the Hyde home in Hastings, Florida courtesy of the Little family

Tilby watched his mother linger with sharp, severe pains that caused her to cry out all hours of the night, burn with a fever of over 100 degrees, and, toward the end, be lost and confused. She didn’t know who she was or probably anyone else, either. No child should witness that. He probably called out “mama” and got no response. Or at least one that made no sense. I’m sure it affected him and the rest of his siblings. His father, Fred, was left with four children, ranging in ages from 15 days to 15 years old.

Fred and the kids went back to Saybrook, Ohio soon after, this time for good.

By 1920, Fred had married again, to Edna Hopkins. They had no kids of their own. From all accounts, Edna was a good stepmother.

But a good mother or stepmother couldn’t change Tilby’s cold, cruel streak. Sure, he could be charming, but there was something odd about Tilby. There had to be.

Regardless, he found himself a bride, Lorena Welton. They married in June 1923.

Tilby’s marriage to Lorena Welton

The marriage didn’t last very long and Tilby was married to Clara Unangst by 1926.

In 1930, Tilby and Clara were the picture of happiness. They had two sons, Donald and Frederick. So when the unthinkable happened that May, not many saw it coming.

Or did they?

Poor quality photo of Tilby and Clara Smith taken from the May 31 issue of the Ashtabula Star Beacon and said to be the only photo of Clara in existance

The morning newspapers of 31 May 1930 blared the same type of headline.

IMG_1127I think you get the gist of it. Tilby was cheating on Clara, young beautiful Clara, and killed her to be with the other woman.

Monday, May 19. Tilby wanted to get away from another angry, bitter day at home. Clara would just have to deal with it.

The kids won’t eat today. Clara’s voice rang in his ears. Always nagging, she was. What was the matter with women? Why couldn’t they just leave him alone?

It didn’t matter that she might have had a point. Tilby was a trucking contractor, but work had been really slow lately. They sold most of what they had to put food on the table, but relief was not in sight.

So that morning he opened the newspaper and saw this

ad in 19 May 1930 issue of the Ashtabula Star Beacon

Tilby fumbled through his pockets. He had ten cents but not much more. He left the house quietly. The picture show would be his relief.

Her Private Life was about the scandal an English aristocrat causes when she runs off with an American man, leaving her husband behind. Tilby thought that must be nice to be able to do that, leave your problems behind. He was probably deep in thought when Julia walked in and sat down.

Julia Lowther was there to escape a failing second marriage and a dead end job cleaning a rich woman’s house. She wanted to run away too. She had dreams, but no way to make them real.

Then she met Tilby.

They would later say they fell in love at once and talked of going away from their problems together.

“I’m married,” Tilby must have said. But this didn’t faze Julia in the least.

“Leave her,” Julia must have replied. But that wasn’t enough for Tilby because Clara always made him angry, so angry he could kill her.

Again, Julia wasn’t fazed. She just asked how. Neither of them paid much attention to the picture anymore.

Tilby was ready; Julia was willing. Tilby had the revolver and a plan. The Smith & Wesson 32 caliber revolver was one of the few things he hadn’t sold. His wedding ring was sold the week before. He didn’t want it. Soon he wouldn’t need it.

Ten days later on May 29, Julia found herself in the woods off South Ridge Road in boots her boss had given her, holding Tilby’s gun. It was cold and it was raining, hence the boots.

Three hours went by before Tilby pulled up.  Tilby had stopped to get gas at his brother Wilbur’s service station and spent some time talking. Donald and Frederick were in the truck too.

He stopped when Julia stepped out of the woods. Tilby put his plan into action. There were robbers lying in wait so Tilby bent over, looking for a weapon. They asked for the Smiths’ money. They had none. So they asked for jewelry. There was none of that either. So Julia put the gun to Clara’s head and pulled the trigger. Clara died instantly. Young Donald, only three months old, slid down his mother’s legs and onto the floorboard, covered in his mother’s blood.

There were no robbers, only Julia. Tilby told Julia to run. She did.

Tilby gathered his plainly upset children and walked back to Wilbur’s store to call the police. When the sheriff came, he took Tilby back to the crime scene where he put on an award winning performance as a grief stricken husband. But there were no tire tracks belonging to the getaway car and boots had been found in the woods. Tilby was taken in for questioning.

He held out for five hours before breaking and telling the truth. He finally admitted he’d had his wife murdered.

Tilby’s mugshot

There was no real reason other than he had grown tired of Clara and was besotted with Julia.

Tilby went to trial, requesting to be tried by a judge and not a jury. This was not granted and he was sentenced to death but won a new trial on appeal. The appeal was granted on grounds that he had the mental ability of an eight year old child and wasn’t able to make his own plea or request trial by judge. But anyone as clever, charming, and conniving as Tilby Smith was not mentally challenged.

The second trial only confirmed the sentence and Tilby was sentenced to be electrocuted 20 November 1931.

Tilby Smith was led to the chair at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, still claiming complete innocence for Clara’s murder. He was only sorry that he had wasted his life and not a bit for killing his wife.

He didn’t let Julia off the hook either.

“I will not die with a lie on my lips,” he told the warden’s wife. She also gave his written statement to reporters.

“I, Tilby Smith, truthfully say that I had nothing whatever to do with he plotting or slaying of my beloved wife, Clara. I wish everyone to know I am innocent of this crime and before my God I will be honestly judged and my innocence will be proven.”

His strength appeared to fade once he saw the chair. But he managed to speak to the witnesses.

“May God bless every man in this room,” he said as he was led to the chair. “I hope none of you will ever have to face what I am facing today.”

As guards strapped him in and put the cap on his head and the electrode on his ankle that would complete the circuit, Tilby began to pray.

“God forgive me for my sins,” Tilby begged, “And take me to heaven to be with my grandfather, my sister, and my dear wife whom I…”

They threw the switch at this point. They didn’t want to hear his lies either.

 Tilby was taken home to Ashtabula for burial.

Tilby’s death certificate

the last photo of Tilby Smith, courtesy Ohio State Archives



Sympathy Saturday: Manuel Fratis

On 20 February 1865, on the island of São Miguel in the Azores, a little boy who came to be known as Manuel Fratis was born. His parents were Lewis Fratis and his wife, Rosa Minnise. Lewis and Rosa were coming out of some of the worst years the Azores, a Portuguese possession, had ever seen. First there was Portugal’s civil war in the 1820s and then famine in the 1850s.

It’s during this time that you find a rise in Portuguese immigration, just like the rise of Irish immigration during their famine in the 1840s. To the best of my knowledge, Lewis and Rosa were not among the immigrants to America.

Manuel married Rosaline Rapose around 1894 in the Azores, soon beginning their own family with the birth of son Manuel Junior the next year.

Meanwhile in America, Ashtabula, Ohio had recently become the busiest port on the Great Lakes, sending out iron ore and coal on Lake Erie and the recently completed Pittsburgh, Youngstown, and Ashtabula Railroad. The city experienced a thirty-year boom, attracting immigrants from around the world including Manuel Fratis and his growing family. However, he was leaving behind the twin sister of his infant daughter, Dorothy.

The first time we find Manuel in America is in the 1902 Ashtabula city directory. His brother Anthony was already there.

1902 Ashtabula City Directory showing Manuel and Rosa Fratis. Notice the different spelling (Frates) and brother Antonio (Anthony) living across the street.
1902 Ashtabula City Directory showing Manuel and Rosa Fratis. Notice the different spelling (Frates) and brother Antonio (Anthony) living across the street.

Manuel worked on the docks in Ashtabula’s harbor district. Unloading ships of iron ore and reloading them with coal was hard work, often taking 150 men to unload a ship.  Thousands of immigrants flocked to the harbor, competing aggressively and often violently for work.  Ashtabula had earned a rough reputation as a port city and was considered, along with Calcutta and Shanghai, one of the three roughest ports in the world.  The district was filled with bars and brothels.

Postcard picturing the harbor, 1906.
Postcard picturing the harbor, 1906.

It was not an easy place to be. But Manuel had to support his family that now included eight children by 1910. He never spoke any English or not enough to do business on his own, anyway. This was a time just before the First World War when immigrants were expected to assimilate quickly into society, like they were in the mid-19th century and a good bit like many expect today. The immigrant who does not learn enough English to get by can easily be taken advantage of and mocked as dumb and unpatriotic. But English is not an easy language to learn.

Manuel’s life was not easy and it was short. Manuel worked hard at a dangerous job to support his family, while Rosa stayed home to take care of the kids. Their oldest son, Manuel Junior, is found at the Boy’s Industrial School in Hocking in 1910. It was a reform school for juvenile offenders. Home life must have been stressful and difficult.

Then in the summer of 1911, Manuel noticed tumors on his neck. Two months later on Saturday, September 16, he was dead of liver and stomach cancer. He had gone to bed Friday night and never woke up. Rosa found him still in the bed. He was only 46.

Manuel's death certificate
Manuel’s death certificate