Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Dead Women Tell No Tales... Or Do They?

It's been 13 years since one of Columbus' oldest landmarks met the wrecking ball in the name of progress. Built in 1834, the Ohio Penitentiary saw thousands of criminals pass through its doors. From Morgan's Raiders to the author O. Henry, many well-known people spent some time behind bars on Spring Street at this prison in its 150 years of operation. Today, it's the site of Nationwide Arena, a few random modern buildings, and plenty of parking spaces. But there might be a few leftover dead people lingering around.


People believed the old Ohio Penitentiary was haunted before it was demolished. Stories say that some of the 332 people who died during an arson blaze on April 21, 1930, still roamed the halls. Ghosts of many executed prisoners who breathed their final breaths inside the high stone walls were said to roam their old cell blocks and wander through the execution chamber. Though the building is gone, paranormal activity has still been reported at the site. If these prisoners really did stick around, perhaps one of them is the ghost of Ohio's first black woman to be executed. And it's quite likely she was a lesbian.


In the 1950s, sexuality was still a very taboo subject. Even newspapers, when faced with the task of telling tales of murder, often avoided the subject or (in certain cases) changing around the facts to make things sound, well, . . . less gay. That was certainly the case for Betty Butler.


By all accounts, Betty hailed from Cleveland, Ohio, where she had lived with her husband Harry, a strict Methodist, and two children. The exact reason why they couple separated is unclear, although court records indicate that Betty "associated with lesbians" in northeast Ohio. For one reason or another, Betty found herself in Cincinnati. She befriended a woman six years her senior by the name of Evelyn Clark. Some say they were lovers, while others say Betty was a woman caught up in poverty who had sex with Evelyn in exchange for money and shelter. Either way, their relationship was quite rocky. Arguments were frequent, and violence was not uncommon.


On September 6, 1952, the women were in a rowboat, joined by 42-year-old Deezie Ivory, enjoying the lake at Sharon Woods Park. A quarrel erupted between Betty and Evelyn; to escape the fight, Deezie quickly rowed to shore. There around 5:00 PM, the argument reached its peak. Betty strangled Evelyn, rendering her unconscious but still alive. In full view of the crowded park, Betty grabbed Evelyn by the ankles and held her head beneath the lake waters. "If I can't strangle her," she cried, "I'll drown her!" Leaving Evelyn partially submerged in the water, Betty nonchalantly said, "My work here is done," and walked away. She was stopped by park rangers before leaving the park; attempts to resuscitate Evelyn were unsuccessful.


Newspaper accounts varied when reporting the details. Some claimed the women argued over a man and it was a crime between "love rivals" while the Plain Dealer claimed it was a "sex revenge" murder. Jet Magazine made full mention of the "abnormal relationship", but seemed to waffle between Betty willingly becoming Evelyn's girlfriend and her being taken advantage of by a lesbian. In any case, it seemed the press was uncomfortable addressing the possibility that this was a legitimate same-sex relationship. They avoided the exact details of the crime as much as humanly possible.

Betty Butler was charged with first-degree murder and taken to jail. Her trial was swift; though Betty claimed it was self-defense "to escape [Evelyn's] perverted intentions" of keeping Betty as a "sex slave", she was found guilty and sentenced to death. She was sent to the reformatory in Marysville, Ohio, to await her execution. While in prison, Betty took up charcoal drawing and found she had a knack for art. "It's one of those things I didn't know I could do until too late," she said.

Her execution was delayed three times by appeals, but she met her fate on June 12, 1954 at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus. After a last meal of scrambled eggs with cheese, toast, and apricots, Betty went to the electric chair dressed in a pink and black dress with white bobby socks and white Oxford shoes. At 8:00 PM, still clutching her rosary (Betty had turned Catholic while in prison), the switch was thrown. She was pronounced dead at 8:10 PM. She was the last woman executed by the State of Ohio.

Women were housed in a building at the southeast corner of the prison, not too far from the "Death House" where the electric chair sat. Today, this spot is covered by McFerson Commons, better known as Arch Park (so named because of the stone arch found here, the only remnant left of the 1897 Union Station which once faced High Street before being demolished in 1979) at the corner of Spring Street and Street. Perhaps if you take an evening stroll in Arch Park, you can still catch a glimpse of Betty, or maybe she finally found peace and has moved on to a better place.


For more information on Betty Butler's story, read The Penalty is Death: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Women's Executions by Marlin Shipman.

No comments: