Wells County family learns of century-old murder through genealogy

Local News

WELLS COUNTY, Ind. (WANE) — When researching family history, most people dream of discovering they are descendants of famous, historic or royal figures. When retired lawyer Stephen Terrell started digging into his family’s history, he found a family secret straight out of a movie.

“All these commercials about Ancestry.com about finding princes and heroes and all these wonderful people in your family history it’s not necessarily true,” said Stephen Terrell. “You need to be prepared that for every president that you’re going to find in your family tree, you’re going to find a scallywag of some kind and it is interesting.”

Stephen’s great uncle John Wesley Terrell. John was a prominent businessman in Wells County and also a convicted murderer. Thanks to old newspaper articles and court documents Stephen was able to piece together the life of his great uncle.

John Terrell’s youngest daughter Lucy married a man named Melvin Wolfe. However, it wasn’t long before the newlywed’s love turned to abuse and harassment. Eventually, Lucy moved back to her father’s house, but Wolfe couldn’t stay away. Melvin reportedly passed the house repeatedly yelling taunts.

Then on July 12, 1903, John Terrell “snapped.”

When Wolfe passed with his friends, John emerged from the bushes and shot Wolfe in the leg. According to newspaper reports from that time, the blast nearly took off Wolfe’s leg and he was taken to the doctor in Petroleum.

While Wolfe was on the operating table John Terrell broke in, pushing his gun through the door and shot his shotgun. Wolfe then died. John then went home, picked up a local doctor, and met the County Sheriff.

“He was surrendered at that point,” said Stephen Terrell. “He went to jail and his cell overlooked the Opera House. The newspaper at the time said he was barking orders out the window of his cell.”

The trial lasted three weeks in December 1903. More than 140 witnesses called and the court was seeking the death plenty. John Terrell’s defense was insanity. The transcript of the trial was more than 2,500 pages.

John Terrell was indicted on first-degree murder however, he was not put to death by hanging. Instead, he was sentenced to life in prison. However, on appeal, the Indiana Supreme Court reversed the conviction because of an error in the asserted date of the crime caused by the pre-printed sheet that was used for the indictment. He was reindicted but was never re-tried.

Stephen Terrell

He also never served a day. The day John was scheduled to be taken to Michigan City and be taken to prison, the Governor Winfield Taylor Durbin sent an order to the Sheriff of Wells County to take John to the East Haven Asylum in Richmond.

Stephen Terrell says that there’s a lot more to the story. So much so he is in the process of writing a book. He also has an article being published next month in the American Bar Associations Experian Magazine.

“There are so many character’s that I didn’t even touch on,” said Stephen Terrell. “It’s been a fascinating experience to go through the transcript and see how the trial took place.”

John Terrell life has also inspired a play called ‘Of Sound Mind’ that is currently in the audition and casting stages at the Pulse Opera House in Warren.

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