1846: Mansfield’s Trial of the Century (Part 1)

From the very first time I ever read about this crime I couldn’t help but see it enacted in my mind like a scene from an ancient classical Greek tragedy.  Please allow me to tell it that way.

First of all, in order to imagine this you have to understand that in 1846 the entire population of Mansfield numbered fewer than 3,000 souls, and they all lived within about a 5-block radius of the center of town.

Most everybody circulated through the Central Park area every day like lifeblood naturally passing through the heart of the community.  The four sides and corners of the Square were without question the stage upon which transpired the public play that was the life of Mansfield.

There was, as it were, a spotlight focused squarely on that arena where everything of importance—socially, commercially, politically and recreationally—took place.

So imagine how like a Greek drama it would be when one evening at sunset, in clear view of an entire audience in the public venue, the protagonist steams purposefully across the sidewalk through a small crowd of gentlemen in top hats and, after a pause for dramatic effect, in one sweeping gesture plants a dagger into the vest of a young man in their midst.

It was a powerful moment.

It certainly shook the town, and it shook the state.  Before it was over it resonated through the hearts and careers of several men whose public lives engulfed the entire nation.

That was the day that launched a famous murder trial.

It wasn’t a ‘who done it’ at all—everyone knew exactly who done it—they all saw him do it.  The case became, rather, about why he did it, and whether or not any man so similarly twisted by insulting social circumstance could have honorably done otherwise.

Dramatis Personae

It is very much the manner of classic Greek tragedy to center the plot around the actions and motives of one family.  That’s exactly how it happened here in our story of a sadly fated set of siblings, fathers and in-laws.

The Bowlands were one of the most prominent families in town—certainly the most prominently situated in downtown, and highly visible on the Square.  The Bowland Mansion—as it was then called—stood on the intersection at what is today Main Street and Park Avenue West.

The Bowland Mansion is seen at the right, on the corner of (what is today) Main Street and Park Avenue West.  Mechanics Bank is there today.

The head of the family was Robert Bowland, and his sons and daughter occupied a tier of society that was as highly visible and as continually observed as anyone on stage in the cast of Mansfield.

Bowland’s daughter Margaretta married a promising young attorney in a big society wedding, and his son Robert married a woman from Manhattan while he was in the US Navy.

The drama began the night before Margaretta’s wedding, when her fiancée had a disturbing conversation.  The groom was Franklin Barker, a young man whose social charisma had already won him a great many friends in the legal profession, and seemed to presage a promising career as a trial lawyer.

On the eve of his wedding Franklin had a long talk with one of Margaretta’s brothers.  The topic of their discussion was Margaretta’s other brother Robert, whose New York wife was not in town for the wedding.

What Franklin heard was that Robert’s wife, Julia, was a well-known Manhattan prostitute.  This conversation planted the seed of tragedy in the Bowland-Barker destiny.

From that day forth Franklin Barker would not let his wife set foot back in the Bowland Mansion so long as Julia was accepted by the family.  He taunted Robert about his wife, both privately and very publically.

When Julia attempted to join the church Barker went into an overt rage.  When she passed him on the street he made an outsized show of glaring at her and uttering rude comments loud enough for all to hear.

In a place like the Square where everything that happened was under continual public scrutiny, the friction between Barker and Bowland was a common cause of worry among all circles of their separate and mutual acquaintances.

This image was sketched in 1846 by Henry Howe for the first edition of his Historical Collections of Ohio, published in 1847.

Every Greek drama has that Greek chorus in the background commenting on the action and setting the scene.  In Mansfield this chorus of church friends, business friends, and social associates was the community who couldn’t help but share the pain of the Bowland family.

It was impossible to not hear about it.  The town didn’t exactly split into factions as the brothers-in-law and their spouses did, but it suffered nonetheless: powerlessly watching the situation deteriorate.

Crisis and Catharsis

One of the distinguishing characteristics about Greek tragedy is the mounting sense of inevitable doom.  There are no real surprises—everyone can tell what’s coming as soon as the play is in motion and destiny starts rolling. 

Everyone in Mansfield had that same sense, and said the same thing in 1846: they could see that it was only a matter of time before some disaster struck.   Warnings were pointless once tension neared the breaking point.

The wedding took place in 1843 and the crime happened in 1846, so the pressure cooker had three years in which to build breathtaking suspense.

Greek dramas are based on the stories of ancient myth and, as such, often have otherworldly characters so it is easy to dismiss them as fantasy.  Yet, always associated with these fictions there are concrete, specific geographical locations where the mythic dimension intersects with the actual hard world.  They built shrines at these places.

There was very much this same shrine-like sense of tragedy on the Square in Mansfield for many generations after the crime.  People could point out exactly where Robert Bowland stabbed Franklin Barker.

No one marked the place with a memorial but, interestingly enough, the spot is almost exactly demarcated for us today by the placement of a civic sidewalk fountain.

The site where the Bowland-Barker assault took place is today enshrined by a civic fountain on Main Street at North Park Street.

News of the Mansfield tragedy traveled quickly and was carried in newspapers all over Ohio and in major cities across the U.S.

It was on that corner of the Square where ultimately the blood was fated to spill.

Bowland opened the scene first with a couple shots of whiskey at the North American Hotel to stoke his courage.  From there, at the corner of Main and South Park Street, he anxiously stormed the entire length of the western end of the Square heading north.

Barker was strolling casually with another attorney across from North Park Street, and they were facing down the Main Street hill when Bowland rushed quickly past them and then spun suddenly.

Witnesses said time slowed down to a crawl, and then it seemed to speed up in fast motion when bystanders had to wrestle away the knife from Bowland or tried to staunch the blood in Barker.

In very few seconds, the three years of slow tragedy ended in very quick tragedy.

A little over a day later after the attack, Franklin Barker died. 

Thereupon commenced the gathering of the attorneys.

Franklin Barker died at the age of 26 and was buried in Plymouth where his family lived.


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