The John Wesley Family Murders of 1936

Mary Singer was dead, hacked to death by an ax-wielding assailant. It was a sudden and violent end, and the circumstances and motivations behind the slaying were rather bizarre. It’s hard to say how Mary’s son, Harry, handled the news of his mother’s death.

In March of 1935, he was incarcerated at the Indiana State Reformatory. Prison is a hard place full of hard people, some of whom have done terrible things both inside and outside of the jailhouse walls. No doubt Harry, already a seasoned criminal in his mid-twenties, had seen and heard his fair share of horrible deeds committed by some of the people he now shared his airspace with.

Did he break down and cry bitter tears in the privacy of his own cell after the lights were turned out for the night? Or did Harry feel nothing at all, void of any feelings for a mother that he may or may not have seen much of since his late teens?

Ultimately, we’ll never know; that knowledge is lost to time.

What we do know is that the news reached a young man who had been in and out of the Indiana and Illinois prison systems since his late teens. Charges ranged from petty larceny to burglary, and even included an escape from a prison farm. Harry seemed to like being a criminal, and, although he kept getting caught, showed little sign of stopping.

Harry Singer
Harry Singer. Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star.

In June 1935, just a few months after Mary’s death, Harry was granted parole. By February of the following year, Harry stopped making his required check-ins with his parole officer and simply vanished off the law enforcement radar.

In August, Harry turned up in North Manchester, Indiana, under the name of Fred Wesley. Singer had been employed by a local farmer named John Fielding Wesley as a farmhand for the past several months, and lately he had been selling off crops, cattle, and horses that belonged to his employer while posing as his son.

When Singer bought a new car under his assumed name, the proprietor sensed that something was off when Singer tried to get the new license plates. On what amounted to a small suspicion, the dealership called the state police.

When they arrived in North Manchester, they began to question the young farmhand. As the conversation progressed, they began to wonder if he wasn’t involved in something other than fraud.

Earlier that year, a young man named Joseph Bryant and his fiancée, Marguerite Rankin, had been driving through Wabash, Indiana, when someone fired two shots through the windshield of their car.

When they stopped to find out what had happened, two men entered the vehicle and forced the young couple to drive to a secluded area outside of town. There, the gunman shot Bryant, robbed him, and stole his car.

Bryant, still alive, and Rankin walked to a nearby farmhouse and called the police. In spite of being taken a hospital and receiving treatment, Bryant later died from his wounds.

Possible leads had quickly dried up and the trail of the two gunman had gone cold…until now.

The police brought Singer to the station, where they began to question him. They wanted him to confess to the robbery and murder of Joseph Bryant, or least give them a new lead that would help them to bring justice to those that had committed the crime.

Finally, Singer confessed to being a murderer – but not of Bryant.

   John Wesley, his wife Viola, and their daughter Margaret, had lived on a farm near North Manchester for several years, and were known to the community. When they stopped being seen around town, people took notice, and while not really worried, they were curious.

Singer Home
The Wesley Family Home. Courtesy of The Indianapolis News.

When they saw Singer around town, he seemed the natural person to ask about it. After all, he lived with the Wesley’s, and if anyone would know, it would probably be him, right?

The first few times he was asked, Singer told people that the Wesley’s had moved back to their native Kentucky so that their daughter could go to school there. After a while, he changed his answer, telling people that John Wesley had some serious debts, and had preferred to flee the area rather than pay them back.

More than a few people thought that Singer’s explanations were a little suspicious, but it still wasn’t quite enough for them to call the police. It wasn’t unheard of for families to leave without saying anything to their neighbors or even their friends if they had the right reasons.

However, when Singer started selling so much Wesley family property without seeing John or anyone else, and when Singer’s explanations for their absence began to contradict each other, their suspicions began to grow.

With his story now under official scrutiny, cracks started to form in his story and he finally broke. In an unexpected revelation, Singer told police that he had murdered the entire family.

   In Singer’s initial statement, he claimed that the Wesley’s mistreated him and didn’t pay him fairly. Finally having enough, he murdered them.

After John had left the farm one day, Singer took a shotgun and went into the barn, where Viola was milking a cow. Singer walked up behind her, aimed the gun at her head, and pulled the trigger.

Viola fell to the barn floor, dead. Margaret, alarmed by the sudden sound of gunfire, came running into the barn to see what had happened. When she did, Singer attacked her, beating her to death with the barrel of the shotgun.

Singer went back into the house, and sat down to wait. When John came home, Singer shot him to death as he walked in through the kitchen door. He then dragged John’s body out to the barn and placed him with the rest of the family. Covering them in straw, he left.

The next day, Singer returned to the barn, removed some floor boards, and began to dig. When he felt that the hole was big enough, he drug the Wesley’s to it and threw them in. With that finished, he filled in the hole with dirt, replaced the boards, and walked away.

Harry Singer Barn
The Wesley Family Barn, where their bodies were found buried beneath the floor boards. Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star

   Officers were sent out to investigate Singer’s claims, and found the Wesley family exactly where he said they would.

Initially, Singer claimed that he killed the family because he was angry with them. He said that they treated him poorly, and that they didn’t pay him well. After a while, his feelings of resentment built up and he killed all of them.

The next day, Singer changed his story. This time, he said that the Wesley’s were killed because he was having an affair with Viola Wesley and the daughter had either caught them or found out.. Singer was afraid that Margaret would say something to her father and that fear drove him to kill them all.

Police, however, doubted at least some details of Singer’s confession, mainly the motive behind it. One investigator even suspected that Viola had caught Singer as he made inappropriate advances on her daughter.

While the disappearance of the Wesley family had been solved, police were still looking to close the Bryant robbery and murder. They continued to question Singer about any involvement he may have had in it, but he consistently denied it.

Having already been proven to be a habitual liar multiple times, they didn’t trust him. Wanting to put the matter to rest, he was given a lie detector test and questioned once again about any possible role he might have had in the murder. According to the machine, Singer was telling the truth, and he was never a part of it.

Singer pled guilty to the murder of the Wesley family and was sentenced to die in the electric chair on December 26, 1936. He was sent to Indiana State Prison to wait on death row for his sentence to be carried out.

   About a week before his execution, Singer finally told police that he had been one of the two men who had robbed Joseph Bryant. The other, he said, was John Wesley.

By this time, a document had been found that listed Wesley’s name as John Wesley Caufman. Was this evidence that he had something to hide, and that he might not have been just a simple murder victim? The name change could very well have been explained away by a very honest explanation. Or, he could have been the second man at Wabash, as Singer claimed.

Either way, police were satisfied that he had been one of the men who killed Joseph Bryant. Although Wesley stuck by his claim of an affair with Viola being behind the killing, police strongly suspected that they might have  If the other man was John Wesley, then he was already beyond any mortal justice.

On Christmas Day, Singer chose to eat fried chicken for his last meal. He claimed that he regretted killing Marguerite, but not any of the others.

Six minutes after midnight, on December 26, he was taken to the electric chair at Indiana State Prison. When asked if he had any last words, Harry Singer remained silent. With nothing more to be said or done, the switch was pulled, sending thousands of volts of deadly electricity surging through Harry Singer’s body.

By 12:14 a.m., December 26, 1936, Harry Singer was dead. He was only 25-years-old.

   Did Harry Singer think of his mother, Mary, and brother, Alonzo, in his final hours?

One newspaper pointed out that no relatives came to visit him while he was on death row. They may or may not have known that those closest to him were already dead.

Harry Singer’s final thoughts were very much his own. He faced his death not with fear, but with dark resignation. Singer had seemingly made peace with his decisions and accepted the consequences.

In the end, all that we’re left with is that a confessed murderer and thief met justice, paying for the lives that he took with his own.

 

 You have been reading John Brassard Jr., the Kitchen Table Historian. Please stop over and have a seat at the table every week or so to hear new stories of true crime, disasters, the paranormal, and other weird and dark stories from America’s Heartland. 

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Sources

The Noblesville Ledger, 7/4/1936

Young Hold Up Victim Dies In Wabash County Hospital. Muncie Evening Press, 7/7/1936

Detroit Youth Dies of Gunshot Wounds. Kokomo Tribune, 7/7/1936

Triple Murder is Confessed By Harry Singer, Ex-Convict. Journal and Courier, 8/8/1936

Ex-Convict Kills 3 Near Wabash. The Star Press, 8/8/1936

Family of 3 Murdered By Farm Hand. Rushville Republican, 8/8/1926

Triple Slayer Placed Under Lie Detector. Muncie Evening Press, 8/8/1936

Farm Hand Admits Triple Slaying. Indianapolis Star, 8/8/1936

Changes His Story of Triple Murder. Kokomo Tribune, 8/8/1936

Scene of 3 Spite Murders. Indianapolis News, 8/8/1936

Slayer Taken to Huntington. The Indianapolis Star, 8/9/1936

Slayer Adds To Confession. The Star Press, 8/9/1936

Triple Slaying Tests Finished. The Indianapolis Star, 8/11/1936

Vidette-Messenger of Porter County, 10/31/1936.

Garrett Clipper, 12/7/1936

Convict Admits Fourth Slaying. The Indianapolis News, 12/18/1936

Confesses Fourth Murder. Logansport-Pharos Tribune, 12/18/1936

Harry Singer Dies For Murder of 4. The Indianapolis Star, 12/26/1936

 

 

 

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