Adams County, Ohio History
Murder of the Senter Family
Near the little hamlet of Unity, there resided in 1855 William H. Senter and Nancy, his wife, a daughter of Aaron Roebuck, in a little round-log cabin on the farm now owned by the widow of William Davis.
In the autumn of that year, Clinton Dixon, of Brown County, a relative of the Senters, introduced them to Alexander Milligan, a native of England, who had lived (so he said) several years in Pennsylvania prior to coming to Ohio. He had been employed as a farm laborer by Dixon for some months, and at this time said he desired to purchase a small farm, such as Dixon represented the Senter premises to be, and which had been offered for sale. This was about the first of November, and while at Senter's, Milligan bargained for the farm in the sum of $1,000 to be paid on the first day of December following, when the deed was to be delivered to him. The contract for the sale of the farm was drawn up by William B. Brown, then a merchant at Unity, and it was witnessed by him and Dixon.
It was agreed that Milligan should take with the farm the live stock, farming implements, and of the households goods and utensils such as would be necessary for his use in keeping a rude sort of "bachelor's hall", and that he should be permitted to make his home with the Senters until he could make some collections due him to comply with the terms of the agreement for the sale of the farm.
During his stay with the Senter family, Milligan familiarized himself with the farm and its surroundings, formed acquaintances in the community, and took a part in the social and friendly gatherings, such as choppings and huskings, occurring in the neighborhood. It is said of him that he was of rather pleasing personality. He is described as being of good stature, fair complexioned with blue eyes, sociable, but quiet in his manners, with a broad Yorkshire accent in his speech, and seemingly intelligent in the ordinary affairs of life. He was at this time about twenty-five years of age, and had borne among the people with whom he had been associated in Brown County for the year and a half prior to his coming to Senter's, the reputation of being a quiet, hardworking young man. Nothing of his former life was ever learned excepting what has already been stated.
The fact of the sale of Senter's farm and chattels to Milligan soon became noised over the neighborhood, and George A. Patton, then a merchant in Harshaville, whom Senter owed a sum of money, upon inquiry was told by Senter that the report of the sale was correct, and that on the first of December he would settle his account with him when he received the cash for his farm.
Within a few days following this conversation with Senter, Patton learned that Senter and his wife had gone from the neighborhood without informing their relatives and friends of their intentions to leave. Accordingly, Patton, somewhat annoyed about his claim, rode over to Senter's place to make inquiry concerning the rumor of their departure. He found no one at the Senter residence except Milligan, who said Senter and Nancy had gone away without making him a deed for the farm. But, he expected them to return the next day, 01 Dec, to comply with their agreement, as he had been to Ironton to collect his money and was ready now to make the payment for the farm and chattels.
Mr. Patton returned to the Senter residence the next day and found Aaron Roebuck and wife, parents of Mrs. Senter, there, whom Milligan informed that Senter and his wife had gone "out among their friends some days before" and had not yet returned.
Two days later, Patton went to West Union to take legal advice about his claim. Learning that Milligan had been to Squire William Stevenson's, of Monroe Township, a few days prior, he, on the next day, 04 Dec, went there and learned that Milligan had been to Stevenson's and had represented himself as William Senter, and had had a deed written for his farm to Alexander Milligan. On the next day, Patton again went to the Senter home and saw Milligan, who informed him that Senter and wife had returned with the deed, that he paid them the purchase money, after which they again went away to visit some friends up the river. On being requested to produce the deed, Milligan said he had lodged it with James B. McClellan, and after much persuasion went there with Patton and others, when it was discovered that the alleged deed had not been acknowledged, Squire Stevenson having refused to certify the acknowledgment until Mrs. Senter came before him as he afterwards stated at the trial of Milligan for murder.
Strange as it may seem, Patton, Brown and McClelland, all of whom Senter owed money, and whose claims Milligan agreed to secure, came to West Union that day with Milligan, where he gave notes and mortgages to the amount of $250 on the farm to secure the several amounts owed them by Senter. But when Brown returned to his home in Unity that night, he found his shop and store crowded with people of the neighborhood who demanded that Milligan be put under arrest for murder. A.J. Roebuck, a brother-in-law of Senter, was sent for, but he refused to make the affidavit until Brown brought Patton who related the facts in the case to Roebuck as he knew them. Squire J.C. Milligan, of Oliver Township, was then aroused from his slumbers, and the affidavit was made and a warrant was issued to old Johnny Moore, the constable, to arrest Milligan on a charge of murder.
Milligan was found eating his breakfast and refused to go with the officers until he finished his meal. By this time, a search of the premises was begun. Blood spots on the pillows and bed-clothing in the cabin were discovered. Then, some bloody clothing was found in some wheat barrels in the smokehouse. And finally the bodies of the murdered couple were discovered buried under some logs and brush in the spring branch below the cabin. They had been killed with an axe while asleep in bed, and then dragged to the spring branch, their hair being matted with blood, burrs and leaves.
Upon closer inspection, the poll of the axe yet had traces of blood on it, and bits of hair from the heads of the murdered pair, and there were marks on the joists of the cabin over the bed where the blade of the axe had struck when uplifted to crush the skulls of the victims. Yet, in face of all this, Milligan declared his innocence of the murder, even when taken into the room where the deed had been committed and placed before the bodies of his victims with their ghastly wounds exposed to his view.
He had committed this horrible crime on Sunday night, 26 Nov, and had slept in the bed in which he had murdered Senter and his wife, every night until their bodies were discovered on 06 Dec. And he had, in the meantime, entertained visitors at the cabin, and one young man, William Johnson, had stayed all night with him on 04 Dec.
Milligan was indicted for murder in the first degree and was tried before Judge S.F. Norris and a jury in November, 1856. He was defended by James. H. Thompson, J. R. Cockerill, Thomas McCauslen and J. M. Wells. The attorneys for the state were J.W. McFerren, Joseph McCormick and T.J. Mullen. The trial consumed a week, and after a day and night's deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of murder in the second degree. Milligan was sentenced to the penitentiary for life, where he died in a few years after his confinement.
The following named persons constituted the Trial Jury: George W. McGinn, Daniel Kenyon, Starling Robinson, Michael Roush, Simon Dunn, James Abbott, Samuel Phillips, James Vandegrift, John Scott, John Plummer, James Middleswart and Joseph McKee.
While in the jail at West Union, Milligan attempted to escape 22 Oct 1856. As the jailer opened the door of the cell in which he was confined, he rushed out past him, made his way through the house, got into the street and was making off as fast as possible. The jailer pursued him, and after running a few rods, Milligan fell and he was secured and returned to the jail. He had been hobbled, but had cut his irons in two near one leg, and had fastened the long end of the chain up so as to enable him to run, but this came down and he tripped and fell. John Cochran was sheriff at that time.
While Milligan was being tried for Murder, "Old Bill" Terry, a negro who had outraged Mrs. Morrison, of Manchester, was taken from the jail by a mob from that town, and hanged on the lower island.
From HISTORICAL COLLECTIONS OF OHIO IN TWO VOLUMES
An Encyclopedia of the state: History both general and local, geography with descriptions of its counties, cities and villages, its agricultural, manufacturing, mining and business development, sketches of eminent and interesting characters, etc., with notes of a tour over it in 1886.
The Ohio Centennial Edition - Henry Howe, LL.D. [© 1888]