On August 19th, 2011, a 55-year-old Marion man was arguing with his 46-year-old girlfriend when he pulled out a .357 caliber revolver and shot her in the head. He then turned the gun on himself. By the time first responders arrived at the Mark Street crime scene, both the man and woman were dead.
For the friends and family left behind after such murder-suicides, the grief and horror must be profound. Even for those of us who don’t know the people involved, such violence causes a complex mix of emotions: There is sadness, of course, that people have died in such unnatural ways. But there’s also frustration that the perpetrator of the murder will never have to face justice and perhaps answer the one question on everyone’s mind: Why? There’s also a deep sense of disquiet because the murderer and the victim(s), more often than not, know each other intimately. We think to ourselves If that woman just over on Mark Street could die at the hands of her boyfriend, then it could happen to me…
Sadly, this grim scenario has played itself out a number times in Marion over the years. “A Real Horror Story” is one such example, and the following two cases are equally bleak.
Insane Henry Powers
On Sunday morning, November 29th, 1896, 36-year-old Henry Powers sat down to breakfast with his wife and four children at their home on Marion-Bucyrus Road just north of the city. After breakfast the two older boys went out to play while Henry and his wife, 32-year-old Katherine, along with their teenage daughter and youngest son, stayed inside. According to a Marion Daily Star article that appeared the next day, although Henry had been showing signs of an “unsound mind” for some time, on the morning of the 29th, “He [was] quiet and undemonstrative.” It came as shock, then, when Katherine and her daughter, upon hearing a noise in the kitchen, found Henry standing there with a shotgun in his hands. Both women immediately turned to flee. Mrs. Powers ran toward the sitting room and Henry followed her. The daughter, Ella, ran for the door, and it was as she was racing outside that she heard the shotgun blast. The neighbors, alerted by Ella, watched from a distance as the still-armed Henry left the house trailed, shockingly, by Henry and Katherine’s youngest boy, 2-year-old Willie. Luckily, the two older Powers boys spotted their younger brother, grabbed him and carried him to the safety of Ella and the neighbors. As they all watched, Henry Powers disappeared behind the house, and they heard a second gun blast. Incredibly, Powers reappeared a few minutes later, gun still in hand, and with blood “streaming down over his face.” He disappeared back inside the house.
A messenger was sent to fetch the sheriff. The neighbors, unsure of whether Henry Powers was still dangerous, chose to wait with the Powers children at a safe distance. When the sheriff and the rest of his party eventually arrived and entered the house, they were met with a gruesome scene. According to the Star, “Mrs. Powers [lay] in a pool of blood [in the sitting room]. Half her head and face had been blown away, and her brains lay upon the floor beside her.” As for Henry Powers, his corpse was also found in the sitting room just a few feet from his wife’s body, and his wounds were likewise terrible: “In the left eye and directly above it was a large hole where the muzzle of the gun had been placed when discharged.”
Why did Henry Powers kill his wife and then himself? It appears the man had been mentally ill for a long time. According to the Star, most of his delusions centered around an “insane jealousy” of his wife. In May of that year, Powers had attempted to commit suicide by cutting his own throat with a straight razor. Shortly thereafter, a judge committed him to an asylum in Columbus. Five months later, however, the asylum’s superintendent, believing that Powers should given “one more chance,” released him.
Powers returned to his wife and family in Marion on October 16th. He wife was so surprised that he had been released that she believed the asylum must have made a mistake. In fact, fearing that Mr. Powers was still capable of carrying out “injury to himself or his family,” she had even contacted the sheriff about the possibility of returning Mr. Powers to the asylum. According to the Star, during the week prior to the tragedy, Powers was convinced that his wife had been trying to poison him. Tragically, it seems that the only thing poisoned in the Powers household was Mr. Powers’ mind, and ultimately the Powers family paid the price for it.
“It Was the Awfulest Thing I’ve Ever Seen in Almost 40 Years of Railroading”
On March 27th, 1948, 40-year-old Charles Gerstenlauer called his wife from a pay phone at Five Points, a lunch room and filling station once situated where Route 309 and Route 98 meet. In a disturbing conversation, Mr. Gerstenlauer told his wife, 38-year-old Elsie, that he was going to “do away” with himself and their two small children. The Gerstenlauers were in the middle of a particularly ugly divorce, and Charles, against Elsie’s protests, had taken the children earlier in the day from their home and disappeared. Immediately after receiving the call, Mrs. Gerstenlauer alerted authorities, and the search, which included members of the city police, the sheriff’s department and the highway patrol, got underway. However, by the time authorities located Mr. Gerstenlauer, he had already carried out the unthinkable.
Charles and Elsie Gerstenlauer had married in 1943 in South Carolina and moved to Marion in 1945 to take over Acme Dry Cleaners on Olney Avenue. In Marion, however, things seemed to sour for the couple, and in 1947 Elsie consulted an attorney about getting a divorce. On May 20th,1947, she filed for divorce, citing “gross neglect and extreme cruelty.” In fact, on the morning of the 27th, Mr. And Mrs. Gerstenlauer had been in court over Mr. Gerstenlauer’s violation of a restraining order.
Less than a quarter of a mile north of Route 309, a railroad crossing cuts across Route 98. John Dairy, the foreman of an Erie signal repair crew that was working in the area at the time, told the Star that he had noticed Mr. Gerstenlauer driving back and forth across the tracks all afternoon and thought it was a bit strange.
Another witness, Kenneth Carpenter, told the Star that he was following behind Mr. Gerstenlauer on Route 98 when Gerstenlauer stopped at the crossing, apparently waiting for the train approaching in the distance. Since the train was still a good ways off, Mr. Carpenter was initially irritated because he was running late and thought that, “[the man] still had plenty of time to cross safely [and] seemed pretty cautious.” However, the witness was dead wrong about Mr. Gerstenlauer’s intentions. Carpenter told the Star, “When the train was about 100 feet away, he drove his car right onto the tracks, and it looked like he stopped. The engineer never had a chance.”
The train, which was an Erie passenger train called the Lake Cities, was heading east and bound for Jersey City. By the time it was nearing Route 98, it was traveling at around 70 miles per hour. Mr. Gerstenlauer was thrown 200 feet from his car while the children were later found in it. Charles Lowe, the train engineer, told the Star that, “It was the awfulest thing I’ve ever seen in almost 40 years of railroading. I’ve been riding engines when they hit cars before, even people walking, but when I saw those two little girls it really hit me.” One has the impression Mr. Lowe and the other witnesses would be haunted by what they saw that day for a long, long time.
Note: Shannon Morris taught Spanish and French at Harding High School for twenty nine years before retiring in 2013. He told me the following story in September 2013 as we sat at the picnic table out behind the Harding Home, where he has worked for more than 20 years.
“Most people who hear this story are surprised at how well I remember the details. But I have hyperthymesia, which is a kind of extreme biographical memory. So even though the story I’m about to tell you happened when I was only 6 years old, I remember many of the details clearly.
“Now this is going to get weird. It was December 10th, 1964, which was a Thursday. I was watching an episode of The Flintstones with my grandmother, who was babysitting me. My grandmother lived with us and had so since before I was even born. She was kind of like a second mother to me. We lived at 634 Lee Street.
“So my parents and my brother had gone Christmas shopping that night. I remember The Flintstones came on TV at seven thirty, so it had to have been dark. The house was already decorated for Christmas, quite elaborately. I had a little rocket launcher that I was playing with. I shot the rocket off, and it went up and knocked down some Christmas decorations. We laughed. You know, she was just entertaining me while my parents were gone.
“It was snowing heavily, and it seemed like my parents had been gone quite awhile – at least it seemed that way to me. Anyway, while we were horsing around, we heard what sounded like tires squealing out on the road there on Lee Street. And it was a little scary because we thought maybe there had been an accident. So my grandmother and I went to the door to see what had happened. Well the porch was snow-covered, and we noticed that there were man-sized footprints leading up to the door. I remember that kind of mildly scared me. As it probably would a kid. But I don’t remember necessarily that my grandmother made a big deal about it. In any case, we didn’t see anything. So we closed the door and we went back into the living room
“It probably wasn’t more that five or ten minutes before we heard another noise that sounded like squealing tires. And when I ran to the door to see, I remember my grandmother saying, “Don’t open the door!” But I opened the door. Well, those footprints were still there, but they were overlaid with footprints that looked as if they had been made by someone who wasn’t wearing shoes. And I remember very distinctly finding that strange. I remember my grandmother yelling, “Close the door and close it now!” And she grabbed me and pulled me back from the door before closing it. Once that happened, that’s when, excuse the expression, all hell broke loose. My memories from that point on are very, very clear but also bizarre.
“Our TV was an old black and white Philco with the dials on the top. And it stood on legs – it wasn’t a floor model. And I can still see the pictures that my mom had sitting on top of that TV. In any case, for some reason I looked underneath the TV. They had it sitting in the corner of the room. And I remember looking under the TV, and I saw what looked like dog’s legs. But we didn’t have a dog. They were grey and I only saw two. I remember screaming because I didn’t know what that was. At that moment I didn’t know where my grandmother was. I have no memory of that, which is strange for me. I only remember seeing those two animal legs. And they moved. From somewhere out of my field of vision, I heard my grandmother tell me to hide. And I hid behind the couch. There was a space behind the couch, and just above the back of the couch was a window. I distinctly remember hiding, but I didn’t know why I was hiding. I never did find out why I was hiding. And at that point I still didn’t now where my grandmother was.
“I was sitting there with my back to the window when I heard a noise above me. The curtains were open. I looked up over my shoulder and at the window, and there was a goat looking in and staring directly down at me. That’s all I can remember – a gray colored goat – at the window! Now I’m not saying it was the devil or anything of the sort. It looked like a barnyard variety goat! I remember screaming, but that’s the last I remember.
“The next thing I remember was sitting on that couch crying and shaking, and my grandmother was in the room, but she wasn’t sitting with me. She was standing up, and I remember my mother, my father, and my brother (who was much older that me) coming in with all kinds of Christmas presents. Bags and bags of stuff. And I remember my grandmother telling them, “We have to talk.” And she took them off into another room and left me sitting on that couch right by that same window! Since then, to this day, I always close the window shades wherever I am.
“Here’s another strange thing about an already strange story: to this day, I’ve never been able to get anyone in my family to talk to me about what happened that night. My mother is 91 and lives with my sister, who is 73. I was by far the youngest. If I bring it up, mother says, “There are things better left unsaid.” I’ve asked and asked, but she won’t talk about it. My grandmother, who died when I was 21, wouldn’t discuss it, either. I would try to get her to talk about it, and she’d only say, “Now, now, don’t worry about it.” And my brother claims he doesn’t remember it.
“Even all of these years later, I have so many unanswered questions. Was it paranormal? It sure seemed like it at the time. But other possibilities have also occurred to me as well. Maybe it was a home invasion. Maybe someone was trying to break in, and that’s why my grandmother told me to hide. I was talking to an acquaintance one time, and he said that maybe these strange memories I have of that night are replacement memories for some traumatic event. But what a heck of a way to deal with it! Because that memory has caused me a lot of long-term stress. Another possible explanation – at least in my mind – had to do with a rumor going around town about a man named Mr. McGregor. My brother, who would’ve been in his late teens then, had some friends over a day or two after that incident, and I remember there were a lot of hushed conversations about a Mr. McGregor out in the county and his having seen something on his property that no one could explain. (I remember the name because Peter Rabbit who was always getting into Mr. McGregor’s carrot patch.) What this man had supposedly seen was never clear to me since these conversations always died out when I went into the room.
“To this day I can’t explain what happened that night, and I wish I knew what it was I experienced. Even telling this story has given me goose bumps.”