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Sarah Alice Laughlin

September 22, 1875 seemed like any other day in the small town of Bellefontaine, Ohio. It was a beautiful fall day, and Sarah Alice Laughlin was looking forward to a day of picking plums and walnuts with the family of one of her father's farm hands.

James Schell would arrive at the farmhouse with his wife, Malinda and their 3 young children bright and early with the wagon they had rented the day before. The oldest Schell daughter, Ester, was especially excited to see "Allie" as she looked up to the older girl as a role model and almost like the big sister she never had. Esther Schell had asked Allie to come over the night before, so they would be able to get an earlier start, but Allie had politely refused the offer saying she had chores to get done.

James would leave the wagon to let Allie know that they were there, returning with the girl a few moments later. When everyone was settled, the wagon began moving toward their destination of the Lewistown Reservoir (Modern day Indian Lake).

Arriving at the reservoir around noon, the small group would set out the food they had packed for the afternoon meal and have lunch before getting started with picking walnuts from nearby trees. After a short time, James and Allie would head over to a nearby thicket to collect plums.

They would be gone for a couple of hours, and James would return to the wagon by himself. What happened next is hard to completely know because of conflicting reports.


  • Malinda says James returned without Allie and told her that he had killed the girl.

  • James says he and Allie became separated while they were picking plums and he was surprised when he got back to the wagon to see she wasn't there.

Either way, Malinda took the wagon back to the Laughlin farm and told Josiah that Allie was missing while James ran to nearby houses to collect people for a search party. By the time Josiah had arrived at the reservoir, the search had started and there were dozens of people combing the woods. More and more people would show up for the search, looking all night. Early in the morning hours of September 23 they would find the body of Sarah Alice Laughlin. Partially nude, she had been stabbed 13 times and had a fracture to her skull.

James would be quickly arrested and taken to the Logan County jail in Bellefontaine.

A coroner's inquest would be assembled to determine the cause of death and figure out who was responsible. The investigation would start on the afternoon of the 23, with details of what was happening inside the courthouse being passed to a growing crowd outside. As more details began to emerge, the crowd outside started to become hostile, with rumblings of hanging James growing. The sheriff was able to quell the crowd that night, but he wasn't sure he could hold them off much longer.

Throughout the day on the 24th, the crowd was growing in size and animosity as the inquest dragged on. At one point during the day, the Sheriff approached James and offered to get him out of the city if he would profess his guilt. James refused this offer, saying he was innocent, and that Malinda had done the deed.

By the evening, the crowd outside the courthouse consisted of close to 1,000 men, organized into groups that included those carrying a large railroad tie to use as a battering ram if needed. At around 11 PM, the "leader" of the mob would bang on the courthouse door, demanding to be let in. The sheriff didn't respond, so the group with the railroad tie approached the door and began to batter it. It didn't take long for the door to be down, allowing the mob inside. They would tie up the sheriff and deputies before pushing their way further into the jail. Knocking down several doors as they searched, the mob would eventually find James Schell and started working on his cell door.

As they worked to get to James, the mob leader would emerge from the courthouse to tell the rowdy crowd "We've got him, and we will bring him out and make him confess to this and other crimes!". Shortly thereafter, they would emerge with James in their grasp and bring him around to the south corner of the courthouse where there was a tree large enough to hang him from.

There was some debate within the crowd about whether they should hang James right then and there or give him a chance to speak first. The decision was made to allow him some words, mostly because the mob was convinced James had committed more than one murder and were looking to pin others on him.

When asked what happened to Allie, James would tell them that Malinda had orchestrated the murder because she was jealous of Allie. He claimed he had bought some candy for the girl at one point and Malinda had hated her ever since, believing he was going to leave her for the younger Allie.

The leader of the mob would move on, accusing James of other crimes, including another murder that had happened prior, all of which James denied. They would then return to the subject of Allie, and James would finally say "Do you supposed I'd do such a thing? Mr. Laughlin was my best friend!".

Knowing there was nothing more to be said, they asked him what was to be done with his body. He asked that he be buried next to his son who had died years prior and asked that they would send word to his parents to tell them he had died a free man and hadn't committed the crime. His final words were reportedly a prayer, "I hope the lord will have mercy on me and on all of you!", after which the box he was standing on would be kicked out from under him and he would hang for the next 30 minutes before being pronounced dead.

The crowd would slowly disperse over the next few hours and the sheriff would be untied and emerge to cut the body down as the sun was coming up.

Following the hanging of James Schell, the investigation into the death of Allie would continue. Malinda would be questioned multiple times, and Esther Schell would testify about the events of the day as well. When inspecting Allie's remains, the coroner would find some hair clutched tightly in the girls clenched fist. Upon a close look, the hair appeared to match the hair of Malinda Schell, being 10-14 inches long and lighter than James' hair. 

Malinda would be arrested at one point as an accomplice in the murder, but she would be later freed, and charges were dropped.

After the events of September 1875, Malinda would more or less drop off the radar. I couldn't find any more information on what happened to her or the children.

One article from 1902 does mention someone by the name of Charles Martin coming to Bellefontaine and claiming to be the son of James Schell and wanting to see his father's jail cell. He disappeared before he got the chance and the thought at the time seems to be that he may have been trying to pull come kind of scam. No other info on that is available and I am not even sure what newspaper the story was in.

So, who really killed Sarah Alice Laughlin?

I personally think that Malinda was involved in some way, but I don't think James was innocent either. Even if he had acted alone, he deserved a trial and proper sentence, not mob justice.

The fact is that Allie's life was cut short, but it wasn't the only life that was affected in a tragic way. The Schell children lost their father, more or less lost their mother. The Laughlin's lost a daughter and a sister. 

Newspaper Clipping about Charles Schell
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