When the Reverend Clarence Valentine Sheatsley walked into his house on the afternoon of November 11, 1924, the first thing he noticed was the smell of cooking meat.
The smell permeated the parsonage where Clarence lived with his wife, Addie. They had been married for twenty-seven years, and she had been an excellent wife and companion to him through all those years.
During that time, she had borne him four children, and had cheered him on to increasingly greater success as a Lutheran minister. By 1924, Sheatsley had landed a very comfortable job in the fashionable Bexley residential section surrounding the Ohio state capitol, Columbus.
Founded in 1908, Bexley grew up around Capital University, a private school strongly rooted in Lutheran traditions. Over time, several of the professors moved into the area to be closer to work. More affluent citizens followed, and Bexley eventually became a very exclusive and upscale residential neighborhood.
Clarence and Addie had quickly become involved in the religious and social circles of the area. Not only was he a professor of religion at the university, but he was also the pastor of Christ Lutheran Church, one of the most prestigious churches in the entire neighborhood.
The Sheatsley’s lived in the parsonage adjoining the church. While many parsonages can be considered modest and functional, the Bexton parsonage was large and almost grand. It was a place that was befitting a professor and pastor in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in Columbus.
Addie became heavily involved with the neighborhood families and in Clarence’s church, all the while maintaining their home and raising the four children.
The Sheatsley’s had spent the morning together. The children were at school and Clarence had the day off from teaching. The hours passed quietly as the sun rose higher into the sky and afternoon came.
At about 1:30 p.m., Clarence left to make a bank deposit, visit a few parishioners, and look in on a fellow pastor. When he returned at 4:30 p.m., his nostrils were greeted by what he at first must have thought was his wife cooking. It was about time for dinner, so the smell initially didn’t surprise him.
But as Clarence smelled again, he noticed that something was off. The meat didn’t smell right. It smelled like a combination of beef with a hint of pork. For the life of him, Clarence couldn’t think of anything that Addie had ever made that smelled like that.
He walked into the kitchen, ready to greet his wife and ask her what that smell was. To his surprise, she wasn’t there. That was odd. If Addie wasn’t in the kitchen, then where would she be?
Clarence sniffed the air again. He grimaced. The smell was definitely not a pleasant one. It had a coppery, sweet smell that almost burned his nose. If it wasn’t coming from the kitchen, then where was it coming from? Clarence began to look for the source, periodically sniffing the air as he moved from room to room.
It got stronger as he neared the basement. Opening the door, he began to descend the stairs. As he did, the smell washed over him in a sickly wave. There could be little doubt that the odor was coming from someplace down there.
As he stepped out onto the cellar floor, Clarence’s eyes scanned the room for anything that might be burning. The only thing that he saw was the furnace. Someone must have thrown something inside to burn it, Clarence thought. What would be making that God-awful stench was beyond him, but he wanted to find out what it was. If it wasn’t burnt too bad, maybe he could take it out and throw it away outside and have it taken away later.
Walking over, Clarence opened the furnace door and looked inside.
Letting out a small cry, he slammed the door back shut and ran back up the stairs. He went straight to the phone and called the police. When they answered, Clarence told them that his wife – or what was left of her – was in the furnace.
When police arrived, they couldn’t help but notice the smell when they entered the parsonage. Just as Sheatsley had described, the remains of a woman lay smoldering in the furnace downstairs. Clarence positively identified them as those of Addie Sheatsley.
An investigation was started immediately. Police canvassed the area, looking for any possible clues while detectives questioned family, friends, and neighbors about the death.
A coroner’s inquest was called the following morning. The coroner, Joseph Murphy, along with the county prosecutor, John R. King, began to question some of the main witnesses to the events.
Clarence told them how he and Addie had spent the morning together, and that he had left to run errands in the afternoon. He had found the body in the furnace after returning home. When asked, Clarence stated that he believed that his wife had committed suicide.
King, however, was convinced that Clarence had murdered Addie and then had tried to burn the evidence in the parsonage furnace.
One of Sheatsley’s students, E.E. Brideweser, said that he had visited the parsonage that morning to drop off some Sunday School papers for Clarence. He had knocked loudly, but no one ever answered the door.
As he started to leave, Brideweser thought that he heard someone moving around down in the basement.
At this point, Sheatsley interrupted the questioning, stating that it was possible that he was in the basement when Brideweser had come to the door, and Addie could have been somewhere in the back of the house. If that were the case, then the Sheatsleys would have never heard the knocking.
Neither the coroner nor King believed that anyone would have the sheer will it would take to crawl into a lit furnace, close the door behind them, and then simply sit there and burn to death. Someone must have killed her and then tried to burn her remains in the furnace.
Clarence was the last one to have seen Addie alive. He seemed the best and most viable suspect at that point in the investigation, so King initially focused his attention on him. After the inquest was over, he had Clarence and the four Sheatsley children taken to the police station for further questioning.
Clarence’s story always stayed the same. He was calm and collected, and only became uncomfortable when King tried to ask him leading questions.
One of the Sheatsley sons stated that he had returned home early from his classes that afternoon. No one was home when he arrived, but he didn’t think much of it. When asked, he did say that he had noticed the smell in the house, but said that he had recently thrown some rabbit skins into the garbage. He figured that his mother must have found them and thrown them into the furnace, and that had caused the smell.
It was clear that Clarence and his children all had alibis for themselves during the time of the murder, ruling them out as suspects.
The investigators also came up empty-handed. There were no signs of a struggle anywhere in the home, no incriminating evidence. There were no sordid rumors of secret abuse. There was nothing indicating that Clarence Sheatsley had murdered his wife. On the contrary, by all accounts Clarence had been very devoted and faithful to his wife.
The autopsy of Addie Sheatsley’s remains were equally inconclusive. They had been burnt so badly that there was no way for the coroner to accurately conclude if she had been murdered or not.
The entire time, Clarence kept adamantly stating his belief that Addie had committed suicide, forming a point-by-point argument in support of his claim.
He had apparently done some inquiries of his own, and told police that professional furnace men had told him that a person could indeed fit through the furnace door on their own. Furthermore, Sheatsley stated that one of the women in the neighborhood had confided in him that she had the exact same type of furnace in her home. She had been able to crawl through that door in order to remove a few canaries that had flown inside.
As for being able to perform these actions while the furnace was lit, Sheatsley asserted that alienists, a precursor to modern forensic psychologists, stated that it was not uncommon for some insane individuals to show a high resistance or even complete insensitivity to severe pain.
While certain experts supported Sheatley’s claims, there remained the fact that Addie hadn’t exhibited any signs of depression, anxiety, or any kind of mental disorder. She had seemed sane and rational to everyone that had come into contact with her.
There had also been no evidence of insanity or severe mental illness in Addie’s family, or at least none that anyone mentioned.
Sheatsley accounted for this by explaining that Addie had been about 50 years old when she died, and that she might have started to experience what he called the “sufferings incident to her age.” What he seemed to mean by this was that Addie Sheatsley might have begun to go through menopause.
He contended that her private “sufferings” might have been so great and so intense that they had driven her insane. In her temporarily insane state, Addie had decided to end her own pain by carefully inserting herself into a lit furnace and burning herself to death.
John King still remained skeptical.
The furnace door was about 14 square inches. Looking at it, King thought that it would have been impossible for her to even get through the door, let alone close the door after herself. While he might have been able to concede that they could fit inside the furnace, as per Sheatsley’s claim, those individuals had done so when the furnace was cold and unlit.
Addie would have had to do it with a blazing hot furnace, feeding herself carefully and deliberately into the roaring flames that were heating the parsonage. And then, once inside, she would have had to find a way to close the door behind her.
King just didn’t buy the theory. It had to be murder. But Clarence and his children had iron-clad alibis.
If Clarence or one of the children hadn’t killed Addie, then he contended that it must have been a third-party that was either known or unknown to the family. The investigation was shifted to explore this new perspective.
Unfortunately for them, there weren’t many leads supporting that theory, either.
The most reasonable idea that investigators could come up with in light of the evidence was that someone, a third-party, had snuck into the parsonage while everyone else was gone. They had then murdered Addie and put her in the furnace.
E.E. Brideweser said that he had been knocking on the parsonage door at about 3 p.m., about the same time that police believed Addie had been placed into the furnace. A bread delivery man, C.O. Strader, told authorities that he had been at the house for a delivery at about 2:15 p.m. He had knocked at the back door, but no one answered. Trying the door, Strader found that it was unlocked. He put the delivery on the kitchen floor and left. He also said that he didn’t smell anything when he was there.
This placed the time of the murder approximately between 3 and 3:30 p.m. The proposed third-party would have had to have been in the neighborhood about that time, perhaps sneaking into the house as early as 1:45 p.m. However, if they were, then they remained unseen by either Brideweser or Strader when they were at the house.
Investigators questioned everyone that they could, from neighbors to professors at Capitol University in the hopes that someone might have seen someone, anyone, around the area that stood out. Bexton was an exclusive neighborhood, after all, and a deranged drifter-type probably would have stood out. But no one had seen any strangers in the area.
That didn’t leave out that someone close to Addie might have committed the murder, but all of the most viable suspects already had alibis and had been ruled out. No one else that they talked to had any reason to kill her.
But then the unexpected happened. Clarence, the Sheatsley’s 16-year-old son, told investigators that he hadn’t been completely honest with them. He told them he had been the first one to discover the body in the furnace.
When he had come home that afternoon, he had noticed the odd smell in the house. Like his father, young Clarence had followed the smell to the furnace. When he had opened the door, he had seen what looked like his mother’s clothes inside.
His first thought was that it was his mother, but he quickly rationalized it. It couldn’t be her. Couldn’t possibly! She must have taken an old dress, and maybe those rabbit pelts he had thrown in the garbage, and then thrown them in the furnace.
The young man must have been in a state of utter disbelief, perhaps even shock. He went upstairs and laid down, then decided to go outside and play football with some of his friends. Maybe he thought that when he came back, everything would made sense and he would have a good laugh about it with his mother.
When he returned, however, young Clarence discovered, to his horror, that his first impressions had been right.
While strange at first glance, King decided, after further questioning, that, given the circumstances, his actions were understandable. No matter how much he may have wanted to, King could detect no further deception in the boy’s story, which only differed from his original statement in that he had seen what looked like his mother’s clothes burning in the furnace.
However, the revised story did clear up something for King.
Young Clarence said that when he found the body in the furnace, the door was slightly open. When his father had looked inside and saw the remains later, he must have then closed the door all the way. In King’s mind, this gave the suicide theory slightly more credibility.
If the door was open, it obviously meant that Addie hadn’t shut the door behind her, which, to King, would have been nearly impossible to do in her situation.
For his part, Clarence Sheatsley still believed that his wife had committed suicide, no matter how improbable King thought that possibility might be. In what might come as a surprise, he was also gathering more and more support for his theory. The longer the investigation went on, even some of the detectives were beginning to support Sheatley’s theory.
The coroner, however, still had his reservations in ruling the death a suicide.
A bottle of carbolic acid had been found missing in the parsonage during the police investigation. No matter how hard they tried, no one could find it. During that time, drinking carbolic acid was a common, albeit painful and gruesome, method of committing suicide.
While he could believe that Addie might have killed herself in this way, the coroner just couldn’t believe that she had been able to stuff herself through the 14 square inch door of a lit furnace.
In an effort to determine if Addie had been alive while she was in the furnace or not, chemists determined that her lungs and some other internal organs were still intact enough to examine for signs of smoke inhalation, soot, and even tissue damage indicating that she had breathed inside the furnace. If she had, then the suicide theory gained much more credence. If not, then the evidence leaned toward murder, or at least that Addie had been dead when placed inside the furnace.
On Saturday, November 22, King received the preliminary report of the test results conducted on Addie’s body. The results were startling.
The tests had concluded that the lungs were heavily congested, which was consistent with someone being suffocated or strangled to death. They showed no signs of soot, ashes, or carbon monoxide, which would be expected if she had been trying to breathe in the furnace while she was still alive.
However, these were only preliminary results. A pathologist would be doing further tests and examinations to achieve a final, conclusive cause of death.
While they awaited the final results, King ordered investigators to take another look at the parsonage. This time, police found stains on the basement floor that they thought might possibly be blood stains. Reddish-brown stains were also found on a pipe over the furnace itself, as well as three clear fingerprints in the dust.
All of it was carefully gathered and sent off for further scientific analysis.
The pathologists, meanwhile, had decided to conduct an experiment. Taking the corpses of two guinea pigs, they burnt the bodies until they resembled Addie’s remains. Tests were then conducted on them to see if the conditions of their lungs matched the conditions of Addie’s.
In a strange turn of events, in the midst of all of this, the missing bottle of carbolic acid that the family and police had looked so hard to find mysteriously returned to the storage shelf where it was normally kept. No one seemed to know how it had gotten there.
While wondering about why someone would have done this, King had an idea. He began to theorize that, perhaps, whoever had murdered Addie Sheatsley had been so overcome with grief and remorse that they decided to kill themselves. They took the bottle with intention of using it towards that end.
But when they tried to follow through, the killer just couldn’t do it. So, for reasons that only seemed to make sense to them, they returned the bottle to where they had found it inside the house.
The family was questioned again, but their stories remained unchanged. With no other leads, the return of the bottle would remain a mystery.
The results of the test on the suspected bloodstains also came back as either non-human blood or as grease. None of it could be connected to a proposed murder.
Finally, there were no other leads. Every possible avenue of approach and angle had been explored and reexplored. While the clues might show that Addie had been murdered, they offered no evidence of who might have committed the crime. Investigators had reached the end of the road.
On December 1, Clarence gave a speech to an assembly of students and faculty at Capital University. In it, he told them that he and his family wouldn’t have been able to come through the tragedy of his wife’s death without God’s help.
He went on to praise the investigators and the work they did, and extolled the values of living a practical, Christian life. Sheatsley also announced that he would be returning to his professorial duties that week.
Coincidentally, the pathology results came across the county prosecutors desk the next day. The guinea pig experiment had concluded that Addie Sheatsley had not taken a breath inside the lit furnace. This meant that she had most probably been murdered.
The case took yet another strange turn when Clarence came to investigators and handed them an envelope. It was addressed to the pastor, and was postmarked in Buffalo, New York. There was no return address.
The letter read:
“I kill your wife and I will kill you. No detectives will get me. I murder them all. The police think she kills herself – ho,ho: Rev. Sheatsley, I will get you. Beware! P.S. You kill my wife and I kill yours.”
It was signed with skull and crossbones.
The handwriting was so bad that detectives could barely read it. The family said that they had never even been to Buffalo and had no idea who might have written it. While Columbus police contacted Buffalo officials, no one could find any clue as to who had written the letter.
Once again, it was another potential clue that went absolutely nowhere. The letter was disregarded as being some kind of crank message and was disregarded.
On December 4, 1924, Coroner Joseph Murphy rendered his official verdict of Addie’s death: “immediate asphyxiation.” He believed that when Addie came into contact with the fire, it had caused a reflexive spasm in her vocal cords, which would have made her stop breathing. Because she couldn’t breathe, no soot or carbon dioxide from the furnace could have gotten into her lungs.
He contended that she must have held on to another part of the furnace while working herself into the fire feet first, a theory that had also been put forth by detectives early in the investigation.
The county prosecutor didn’t make any comment on the verdict. While he might have still disagreed with it, his investigation had turned up absolutely no leads as to who had killed Addie Sheatsley. And, he probably had to admit, that the scientific evidence presented by Murphy made just as much sense as what had been given to him in support of murder.
Instead of officially stopping the investigation, King just started to ignore it. For nearly three weeks, it had been his focus. There were other cases and impending trials that he needed to tend to, and so he simply turned his attention to those. Eventually the investigation was stopped.
With the official verdict rendered and the investigation brought to a close, Sheatsley returned to his pastoral duties at the church.
The strange case of Addie Sheatsley’s death was finally over. Clarence eventually remarried, and the children grew up and had long lives of their own. But while over, the long shadow of its memory still remained.
When Clarence passed away in 1943, articles announcing his death remembered him as the pastor whose wife committed suicide in the furnace of their home.
What did happen to Addie Sheatsley on that cold November day in 1924? What caused her to have such a deep, sudden psychotic break that she decided to climb into a lit furnace and die? Or were Prosecutor John King’s initial reactions right and she was murdered? If she was, then who did it? If that were the case, then whoever committed the crime had both an iron-clad alibi and left no trace of their involvement.
Whatever happened, and whatever people might thing almost one-hundred years later, the case of Addie Sheatsley will be remembered as one of the strangest cases in Ohio history.