In 1929, Carroll County was rocked by two violent murder cases that each made front-page news, and they even shared newsprint on the same day.
Threads of similarities ran through each of these cases — the death of a spouse at the hands of the other, alcohol, domestic violence and two shots — but the outcomes could not have been more different.
According to newspaper reports of the court proceedings, John Marsh, of Westminster, was a farmer, but his wife Beulah was the backbone of the family. One news account described her as “hard working, delicate in health, [and a] mainstay for providing for the family,” according to an April 1929 article in The Comet newspaper in East Berlin, Penn.
John, who was in his early 50s, had had a history of threatening to kill his wife on several occasions. Beulah, 30, had left him before about a year and a half before the murder, but after John begged her to come home, she relented. It was reported that he had threatened her life several times before.
On this particular occasion in April 1929, John had dropped off Beulah and their two young children to Beulah’s sister’s home. He came back a while later, intoxicated, and picked them up. John became angry on the way home after dealing with some transportation issues, and he threatened to kill Beulah. A neighbor helped get her and the kids to her parents’ home for safety.
The next day, Beulah got a warrant for her husband for disorderly conduct and threats on her life. She then took the children to her sister’s farm in Bachman Valley.
According to court testimony from a 10-year-old neighbor boy who was helping to clean the barn on the day of the murder, John came looking for Beulah at the farm with a shotgun, confronting her, shouting “I’ve got you now!” The boy ran, according to court accounts, and heard two shots.
John shot Beulah in the head and abdomen, killing her instantly. He then ran from the scene.
A sheriff’s posse of about 25 men were involved in the search. They followed tracks he’d left in a freshly plowed field, and cornered him near the Deep Run Schoolhouse.
It was reported that he confessed to his crime after he was surrounded, telling the group “If I can’t live with her, no one else will.”
In July of that same year, 39-year-old Viola Spurrier was charged with killing her husband, Ernest, at their home near Finksburg.
In newspaper accounts, Viola first told authorities at the scene that her husband had threatened to kill her several times in the past and, during the struggle between them that evening, the pistol accidentally went off.
Viola remained in jail from the time of the incident until her trial in December 1929. She pleaded not guilty and asked for a jury trial. Dozens of potential jurors were screened before 12 were selected, including seven farmers, a hardware store clerk, a canner, an auto salesman and two merchants.
On the night of July 28, per newspaper accounts of the trial, Viola testified that Ernest said that he was going out to get some whiskey and then he was “going to put her light out.” When he returned, they got into a physical fight, and a visitor to their home had to separate them. Then Ernest advanced toward Viola, who was on her knees, and she shot him twice, killing him.
However, the prosecution contended that Ernest and Viola were 3 to 4 feet apart when she shot him, not struggling for the gun as she first told authorities. Her defense attorney maintained that Viola was on her knees when her husband came at her, and she fired the gun in self-defense.
According to news reports of testimony during her trial, Viola survived 13 years of abuse and threats at the hands of her 51-year-old husband. She’d bought and carried a pistol to protect herself.
During his trial John Marsh told the court that he must have lost his mind, and that he remembered going to the barn but didn’t remember what had happened.
After deliberating for 2 hours and 25 minutes, a jury found John Marsh guilty of first degree murder in the death of his wife, Beulah. His 10-year-old daughter refused to see him, telling newspapers that she wanted nothing to do with the murderer of her mother.
John Marsh spent the day of his execution reading the Bible and smoking cigarettes. As his executioners prepared him for his hanging, adjusting the noose around his neck, he fainted. Just after midnight on August 9, 1929, he was hung at the Maryland State Penitentiary.
In December 1929, after about 45 minutes of deliberation, a jury acquitted Viola, a mother of three. According to the Scranton Republican, the trial was “one of the most speedily disposed of murder trials in the history of the Carrol[l] county circuit court.”
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