Webster, George N.
Manuscript Diary of George Norman Webster, of Geneva, Ashtabula County, Ohio, with entries concerning the infamous Lewis Webster Murder Trial, 1884-1886.

Quarto, 91 manuscript pages, dis-bound, lacks binding, a few of the pages are loose, chipped at edges, diary measures approximately 7 ½” x 9 ½”, written mainly in ink, some entries inscribed in pencil, in a legible hand, dated 4 December 1884 to 5 July 1886.

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George Norman Webster was born on 21 August 1858, at Geneva, Ohio, the son of Dennis Norman Webster (1820-1884) and Mary Asenath Comstock (1834-1913). His parents were married at Ashtabula County in 1857 and George was born the following year. His father Dennis was earlier in life a dentist in California, but after moving back to Ohio went into farming. He also took out a couple of patents, one for a window sash that did away with putty, the other for the improvement of hay racks.

In the 1880 Census George is found enumerated with his parents and siblings, three sisters, at Geneva. He is working for a lock company. In 1884, when this diary begins, George is 26 years old. Eventually, George became an attorney and moved to Cleveland, where he is found in city directories during the 1890s. Webster died in 1899, at Cleveland, Ohio. He is buried at the family plot at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, at Geneva, Ashtabula County, Ohio.

Webster starts his diary with a “Preface” in which he notes his reasons for keeping his diary:

“Providing I should ever feel in the future like apologizing to myself for having written such a medley as will in all probabilities appear here, I think that I can excuse myself upon realizing the time in which it was written, at least it would be a consolation if I could remember that in the present times lunacy appears to be a universal trouble and insane notions all most appear to be the most popular ones possible to hold. The condition of political affairs; the pressure of the times when money fails to circulate, the ridiculous notions of style and dress which are popularly accepted as proper and becoming, all tend to produce this peculiar effect upon the minds of our people. Perhaps the young act more natural, as they are less influenced by the causes but even the girls of but few years of age find pleasure in “crazy piecework” so here I feel what at least I may find an excuse for having written as I write: with no order and with little care, with no system or plan and with less thought and reflection I shall expect to produce a crazy result and this then shall be my “crazy book”… However I trust that the poor thing may remain in the same asylum with myself.”

 

The volume contains not only Webster’s diary entries, but, throughout the volume he adds additional thoughts, copied letters he has sent, and various musings. Perhaps the most interesting entries concern Webster’s’ cousin, one Lewis Webster, who was involved in one of the most horrible murders in Ashtabula County. Much of Webster’s writing is about the crime, the trial and the aftermath. The trial was considered at the time one of the most sensational in Ohio history.

Sample quotations:

“Geneva December 4th, 1884

The year is passing on toward its close, the last month is here. These years as they pass by us leave their marks with us and while we are striving and doing, time takes us on. There is for us no stopping, no loitering. We are in the swift and increasing current and as we go, and strive and do, let us not strive simply for that which helps us as we go but let us also strive for that which will help us after we have gone…

The year of “84” has been a year of high winds and low prices; Farmers have raised very good crops, but have received but little for them. Times are hard and money is scarce but the Dem’s promise something better to come under the administration of Grover C……Father’s sickness and death in the fall was a sad experience to us which made an impression upon our minds the memory of which will not pass away. The business of the town has been considerably affected by the “hard times” of the past year. However there was enough money raised to entirely pay for the new Baptist Church which was completed this fall. Mr. Rice building an addition to his house this fall but it is not all paid for yet. Why does an All Wise God send a curse?...

 

      Webster then begins to discuss the murder:

 

      “December 18th, 1884. Is it true? Providing that the people are not mistaken. He is the biggest demon this country has ever produced. Young and strong and just entering his prime, or what might have been his prime of life, Lewis Webster is suspected of one of the blackest crimes that has ever darkened the pages of history; he is arrested on the morning of the 18th of December 1884. He is taken to Jef. (Jefferson) in the P.M. at three o’clock. The next day Herbert Sullivan and I go over to Jef., the sleighing is good and the weather cold. I manage to be present at the “hearing” and talk a few words with Lew. This is a very sad thing. A father killed, the mother badly hurt, left with a family of young children to mourn his death and bear the memory of this awful occasion. The circumstances are so strong and the evidence so fearfully against Lewis that there is but small chance for a doubt of his guilt. His punishment cannot be too severe if he is guilty, for he is surely a brute and a devil. The facts with me are these. I will not give one cent to help defend so dark a case as Lew Webster’s even though he were my brother…”

 

      The following article was found in the Cleveland Leader of 19 December 1884 (pp.1), which gives a brief account of the crime:

 

“One of the most appalling and cold blooded murders ever chronicled in Ashtabula County was committed here last night, the parties to the terrible tragedy all being well-known citizens of this township.

“Shortly after 8 o’clock last evening, Perry Harrington, a well to do farmer, living in the northwest part of the township, about four miles from this village, was seated with his wife in their dining room, when the outside door leading to the porch was suddenly thrown open, and a man, his face masked with a white handkerchief, stepped boldly in, and flourishing a cocked revolver demanded Harrington’s money or his life. Mr. Harrington remonstrated with the villain, but seeing that he was determined, and realizing that he and his wife were completely at his mercy, started into an adjoining bedroom to get his money, closely followed by the robber. Mrs. Harrington thought she recognized the fellow and said so. “You do, do you?” he retorted sharply, and at the same instant fired at her, the ball striking her in the left arm, near the shoulder. As he did so the handkerchief dropped from his face, revealing the features of Lewis Webster, a well-known young man of the vicinity. Mrs. Harrington started towards the kitchen, and as she did so her assailant fired again, the second shot striking her in the same arm. The terrified woman, the blood streaming from her wounds, rushed into the road, and with all possible speed to the school house about eighty rods distant where an entertainment was in progress, and where the rest of the family were. She gave the alarm and neighbors and friends hastily returned with her to the house, only to find Mr. Harrington lying unconscious in his own blood upon the floor, a bullet hole in his forehead over the left eye and his life fast ebbing out, and the villain gone.”

 

           Within a day, Lewis Webster was arrested at his boarding house and was to stand trial for the murder of Mr. Harrington. His first trial ended in April of 1885, when he was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. Shortly thereafter, he was given a new trial on the strength of new evidence.  A change of venue was asked for and granted and the trial was moved to Warren, Ohio. His second trial lasted twenty days and in October of 1885, he was again found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang. It was stated his execution was set for February 6, 1886.

           In December of 1885, Lewis Webster was given a stay of execution until July of 1886 in order for him to file a writ of error in the State Supreme Court. In May of 1886, he was given yet another chance to prove his innocence and was granted another new trial because of prosecutorial errors. In October of 1886, in the third trial for his life, Lewis Webster was finally found not guilty.

Webster continues with more musings, one on shooting birds, one a short love note, one on the act of debating, and then some 1884 - 1885 genealogical facts for his family. Then more musings and two long letters he copied off and sent to his cousin, most of which contain his thoughts on his strict  religious beliefs. Finally pages 30-58 carry more diary entries, sample entries follow:

      1885

 

“January 24th, This Saturday is a much warmer day than we have had before in some time. I am painting the dining room and spend considerable time in reading. Anna Reid was here this P.M. (pretty girl). Aunt Susan Simond’s is confined to her bed. She is a grand good woman and wears the look of it in her face. The wrinkles are only furrows through which the light of her blessedness shines.”

 

      “January 30th, Weather is more mild this morning. Is snowing this morning and looks quite as if the Ashtabula folks are talking that they have a very nice place for the courthouse and think that the county seat would be much better situated at Ashtabula than at Jefferson. I have seen Mr. Smith concerning Lew. Also Mr. Means about my own affairs and he tells me some things about the murder case which do not look very favorable for the young man in confinement.”

 

     “March 3rd … I was down to H. J. S. Thursday eve. for an all nights stay. We had a most excellent time and did not retire till very late. I told him in the morning of my final decision in regard to my future business. There has been a second attempt to quash the indictment against Lew. Mr. Myers is preparing to drill for gas.”

 

     “March 5th, The outlook for Lew is bad for no one can expect him to be found innocent. Stayed at Sullivan’s last night.  Yesterday was a great day at Washington. Mr. Cleveland is now president of the U.S.”

 

     “March 26th …The suit is going on at Jeff. and looks darker for Lew as it advances. The management would not be at all satisfactory to me if I were interested in behalf of the defense but it is something in which we can not interest ourselves in such a manner as to contribute either sympathy of money to the defendant, unless there is shown to us cause for holding other opinions than those which we are now obliged to hold. This I write with regrets and sincerity.”

 

      “April 19th If we were to wish to find cause for believing him [Lew] free from guilt we would be obliged to completely ignore his manner and appearance in court. To entirely forget or disbelieve the testimony of many witnesses and alas even then were it not for that charitable doctrine of the law through which the prisoner is to receive the benefit of the doubt, we would be obliged to wish in vain. I must say that I have sincerely wished and hoped for some ground which I should appear as a reasonable foundation upon which to build a theory which might in time tend to produce in my mind convictions of innocence but when I fail to find any principles upon which I may with any degree of fairness be allowed to base such theory, I find that if I am to think him anything else than guilty, I can only hold that opinion through perverseness by shinning the truth and blinding myself to reality…..I am sorry for him as I use to know him but when I think of him as the perpetrator of such a crime and especially when in striving to comprehend its awfulness the mind wanders back and in imagination I see the fearful beast of depravity in his hellish act of accomplishing such bloody work, the heart within me makes but a faint response to the call for sympathy…”

 

     “May 3rd … Lew was sentenced to be hanged in October….”

 

     “May 5th, ….the case of Lew Webster is now about settled at least so it appears to be for while his lawyers may yet be talking of going up with it. There appears to me to be a great hindrance as the money is wanting and will probably continue so. There is something awfully sad about the case, it opened with surroundings of gloom and it has closed in a manner most terrible to his (the devils) people, but for me to write more concerning this subject, here is to waste time and to do no good to those who suffer.”

 

      “June 21st … Sister Haddie is sick and has been for a week or more. It is not easy for me to feel at all comfortable with her in the condition that she now is. It is time for her to change and I do hope that she may soon be better. I received last week from Mr. Ball a picture, a group of himself and family, which I prize highly.”

 

     “November 8th, Well it all most appears that this has been neglected, at least it has been some time since I have written herein, so much as happened in one way and another to take time and attention from such work that I have done but little writing for some time and now in undertaking to think back over what has taken place here in town….”

 

His entries stop in December; however he does write a few brief entries for 1886. He ends with describing his feelings about wanting to study his law books instead of keeping up the farm for his mother.