The Mysterious Lycoming Creek Murders of 1922


 

When a small child was found hungry and crying inside an abandoned automobile parked along a rural stretch of Lycoming County in the summer of 1922, the first chapter of a perplexing mystery was written. When the bodies of a man and woman, their throats slashed as if by a razor, were found a few feet away in the waters of Lycoming Creek, the mystery deepened, and to this day no one knows if Henry Shearer and his wife were victims of a double murder or a murder suicide.

On the early evening of Wednesday, July 19, a man was driving along the highway near Bodines, eighteen miles north of Williamsport, when his attention was drawn to a vehicle parked along Lycoming Creek. Inside was a young girl of about three years of age. Concerned for the child's safety, the man stopped his car and immediately began searching for the child's parents. He saw a portion of a man's clothing protruding from the water, and jumped down the embankment for a closer look. What he saw chilled his blood-- the body of a man and a woman, partially submerged, a few hundred feet apart. Both of them had their throats cut from ear to ear.

He searched the body of the man for identification, and found a watch that had been stopped at 9 o'clock. It was now after six in the evening. Witnesses would later come forward stating that they had seen the automobile parked along the creek that morning, but, oddly, no one had taken any notice of the little girl crying inside. He also found a small penknife inside the dead man's pocket. The motorist examined the vehicle but found no trace of blood. He found only the remains of the little girl's lunch-- orange peels and cookie crumbs. There were no indication of any struggle taking place, no grass or weeds around the vehicle had been trampled. Only a woman's footprints were found in the mud, near the water's edge. He dragged the bodies from the water onto the bank of the creek, and comforted the weeping child before seeking assistance from nearby farmers.

When Sheriff Thomas Gray arrived, he noted that no jewelry or money was missing. Mrs. Shearer still had on her rings, and $80 was found in her husband's wallet. A Kodak camera was found inside the car; later the film would be developed, showing a smiling couple posing at the creekside. Police identified the couple as Henry and Ruth Shearer of Attica, New York. This was the couple captured on film. The child was their three-year-old daughter, Helen Marie. The Shearers had left their home on Tuesday for a trip to Harrisburg to visit relatives. On Tuesday afternoon the Shearers visited the home of the dead woman's grandmother, Mary Witherow, in Hornell, New York. They spent two hours in Hornell before continuing on to Troy, where they spent Tuesday night. They resumed their trip in the morning. Henry Shearer was employed as a switchman on the Erie Railroad, and the Shearers had been residents of Attica for about six years. Henry had been married once before, but sought a divorce after a few months, alleging infidelity. This was all the information that could be gleaned in the early hours of the investigation.


The Grandmother's Story


On the morning of Friday, July 21, the exhausted child was taken back to her great-grandmother's house in Hornell by train, where she nestled in the old woman's arms, oblivious to the tragedy that left her an orphan. Mrs. Witherow had come to Williamsport by train to identify the bodies, which were resting in a casket at the undertaking parlor of Harold Page on Fourth Street. After she arrived in the city late Thursday night, she told Sheriff Gray an interesting story.

"I dislike to divulge personal sorrows," said the old woman, "but for the sake of my granddaughter I feel that I should. That man whose body lies alongside the woman he killed deserves no sympathy. He Lured her to the creek and did away with her." The sheriff did not interrupt. The old woman continued.

"Henry Shearer married my granddaughter four years ago this August in the home of her parents at Hornell. She was Ruth Webb. Her mother and father moved not long ago to California. They seemed to adore one another. Many times after he came home late at night and tired from a hard day spent in firing a locomotive on the Erie Railroad he used to make her get out of bed to play with him. He was like a child that way-- always wanting to cut up. He used to tease her about being a year older than he was. Then she would laugh and say, 'Well, I'm still young and won't be twenty-nine until October.' She meant this coming October.

"About four months ago, shortly after they moved to Attica from Buffalo, where they had been living, I noticed Henry acting very strangely. He had lost his former joviality. He flared up at every little thing that didn't suit him. I believed him to be losing his mind. He often returned from work and took great delight in saying nasty things about my granddaughter. Once he told me that if any more children arrived he would not keep them. He told me I could have them. Then he asked his wife to leave him, but she believed the man was run down from overwork. She insisted upon standing by him."

It was shortly after this when Henry instructed his wife to pack her bags and accompany him on a trip to Bachmanville, in Dauphin County, where his parents lived. They had dinner with Mrs. Witherow before they left for Pennsylvania. According to Mrs. Wetherow, Henry behaved very strangely during the visit. She tried to convince Ruth to postpone her trip; she told Ruth that Henry's didn't seem right-- his eyes were "bulging out of his head". Ruth laughed and said that it was just his nerves. A trip to his parents' house would do him good.

"I really believe he intended to kill her when they stopped alongside the creek," the old woman continued. "I believe he posed for his snapshot by the side of the car, then took his wife to the edge of the water and stabbed her to death and committed suicide."

Mrs. Witherow later told reporters in Hornell that Helen Marie had said to her that "Mama was crying when daddy pulled her out of the car," and "Mama's in the water", which seemed to put the mystery of the killer's identity to rest. She added that the other relatives the Shearers had stayed with in Troy thought Henry had been acting strangely.

The Shearer family also came to Williamsport to view the remains, but the father, Abe, was denied permission to see the corpse. "Henry didn't do this," Abe Shearer kept repeating, over and over.


The Mystery Deepens


While the public was satisfied with the murder-suicide theory, some had doubts-- including the coroner, Dr. George L. Schneider. The coroner's doubts were based on the story told by Mrs. Mary Witherow to New York reporters. Despite hours of pleading, authorities couldn't get a single word out of the child. If Helen Marie could tell them nothing about what happened when the tragedy was still fresh in her mind, Pennsylvania authorities wondered how and why the child spoke so readily to folks in New York as soon as she got off the train. And, if the dead woman's grandmother and daughter were telling the truth, why was there no evidence of a struggle? Why had the girl remained inside the abandoned automobile instead of waving down a passing motorist? This seemed to suggest to some people that Helen Marie might have feared that she was in danger if she left the car. 

Other discrepancies were found in Mrs. Wetherow's statements. She had said on record that the automobile was owned by her granddaughter, but Henry Shearer's relatives declared that Henry had bought and paid for it himself. They also refuted the old woman's claim that Henry was depressed and morose. They pointed to the photographs from the camera found at the scene. Didn't they show the couple smiling alongside Lycoming Creek? Why should Henry slash Ruth's throat just moments later?
Henry's brother Aaron and their father, Abe, disputed nearly everything Mary Witherow had told police and reporters. They even furnished a letter which Ruth had written to them before the Shearers departed New York. It was in her handwriting; Ruth was fond of writing letters to her husband's family. It read:


Hello All!

We'll be down to see you Wednesday for a vacation of a week or more and hope to spend a happy time. If we have good luck, we'll arrive there early in the day.

As Ever,
Henry, Ruth and Helen Marie

The Shearers stated that Henry and Ruth visited often, and they have never seen the slightest indication of any difficulty between them. Attica's chief of police was also friend of Henry's, and flatly denied rumors of marital troubles. He knew Shearer to be a good, sober, industrious man. So what was Mary Witherow's angle?

District Attorney Carl A. Schug had his own questions. He originally believed the murder-suicide theory, but after viewing the photographs for himself, he wasn't so sure. He wondered if the couple had been slain elsewhere, then taken to the spot along Route 14. Police pursued this lead, with officers H.E. Zuber and Romaine Thomas helming the investigation. They quickly uncovered another one of Mrs. Witherow's lies; the Shearers had not spent Tuesday night at a relative's home in Troy as she had claimed, but had stayed at a hotel. They had checked out at 7 o'clock on Wednesday morning, without eating breakfast.

Residents of Bodines and nearby communities of Trout Run and Ralston came forward with their own theories. Lycoming Creek was popular with fishermen, was fished daily from one end to the other year round. The rocks upon which the bodies were found was a favorite spot from which anglers cast their lines. The official timeline didn't seem to add up, either. The dead man's watch was stopped at nine o'clock, and Gray had found the bodies well after six. Yet, during that time, many claimed to have been in the vicinity of the creek, though no one had alerted the authorities until evening.

Lycoming County locals also scoffed at the idea that the dead man's tiny pocketknife could've been the murder weapon. It simply wasn't large enough nor sharp enough to slash two throats from ear to ear.

According to the coroner, the gash on Ruth's neck was five inches in length, and the edges of the wound were more consistent with an attack from a razor-- not a penknife with a dull two-inch blade. However, the wound in Henry's neck had not been a slash, but a puncture wound. The weapon had left a large hole with jagged edges. The Harrisburg Telegraph reported that "the hole in Shearer's neck is large enough for insertion of a medium-sized sponge", and that part of the thorax had been cut away. Could it be that Henry had dulled his knife so much by slashing his wife's throat that he had no choice but to stab himself? The coroner also noted two lumps on Henry Shearer's head, one on the front and one on the back. Falling onto a rock might explain one of these lumps, but not both. Another curious fact is that blood was found on Henry's undershirt, but not on Ruth's clothing.

 


 


A Possible Lead


When word of the tragedy reached New York, Rochester's chief of police, Fred W. Tepel, recieved a latter from a resident named M.P. Davis describing an unsettling experience he had while near the scene of the tragedy a few weeks earlier. According to Davis, he had been driving from Rochester to Allenwood, Lycoming County, on July 2 when the driver of a green automobile attempted to rob him below Bodines by backing up to his car in front of a railroad crossing. Davis noted that the car contained three men and a woman, and that the two men in the backseat were getting out of the car when Davis made his escape. Davis noted that the vehicle's tag was from Altoona.

But, if robbery had been the motive, why had nothing been removed from the bodies or Mr. and Mrs. Shearer? Were the bandits scared off by an approaching motorist or fisherman before they could take anything of valuable? It's possible that the robbers meant to return, perhaps warning the little girl to stay in the car and keep quiet... or else.

Attention also turned to two women hikers who were seen in the vicinity at the time of the tragedy. A special railroad officer had seen the women near the Shearer automobile on Wednesday morning, but had thought nothing of it at the time. Why hadn't Helen Marie said anything about the hikers? Had she been sleeping?

On July 24, the funeral of Henry Shearer was held at the home of his parents near Bachmanville, and laid to rest at the Spring Creek Church cemetery near Hershey. Over 900 people attended the graveside services. Ruth Shearer's body was returned to Steuben County, New York, and she was buried at Rural Cemetery outside of Hornell.


Conflicts and Contradictions


Dr. Fred E. Widdington analyzed the pocketknife found in Henry Shearer's pocket, and announced that he had found traces of human blood on the blade. Opinion once again shifted back to the murder-suicide theory, though it begged the question-- how is possible for someone to stab himself in the throat, and then have the presence of mind to put the knife back in his pocket? Of course, the possibility exists that Shearer had cut himself with the knife at some point predating July 19, and had failed to remove every trace of blood. To answer this question, authorities knew they had to find out everything they could about the pocketknife. When had it been purchased? And where?

It was discovered that, after checking out of their hotel, the Shearer's had stopped at Dobbins' Hardware Store in Troy, where Henry purchased a pocketknife. However, upon studying the knife found inside Henry's pocket, the proprietor declared that it was not the same knife he had sold to Shearer. Witnesses said they'd seen the Shearer automobile passing through Ralston at 8:05, sixty-five minutes after they'd checked out of the hotel in Troy.


The Case is Closed


On July 28, Trooper Leo Gratcofsky of the State Police announced that they had closed their investigation. They concluded that Henry Shearer had taken his own life after murdering his wife. Even though facts strongly refuted this theory, it was reported that Gatcofsky had gone to Hornell to speak with Mrs. Witherow. She told the trooper that around Christmas, she had received a letter from Ruth stating that she was "afraid for her life", and asking Mrs. Witherow to come to Attica and stay with her. Strangely, Mary Witherow had never mentioned this detail before. 

Mrs. Witherow-- whose numerous inconsistencies had been well documented in dozens of newspaper by this time-- also told Trooper Gatcofsky that, during her granddaughter's funeral, Helen Marie had noticed a pool of water along the road to the cemetery. According to Mrs. Witherow, the child had looked at the water and said, "Mama drown! Mama drown!" She said that she asked the girl what she meant. "Mama holler! Mama holler!", Helen allegedly replied. 

"Why did mama holler?" asked Mrs. Witherow.

"Daddy pushed her," was the reply.

Even though it would've been circumstantial evidence at best, Gatcofsky asked Mary Witherow to produce this incriminating letter. She could not. She did provide him with another letter, however. It was from Ruth's parents, and hinted that Ruth may have been planning a trip to California to visit. At the time of the Lycoming Creek tragedy, Ruth Shearer's mother had already died. So how old was this letter? Apparently, the State Police didnlt seem interested enough to find out.

Instead, they spoke with Henry's co-workers, and reached the conclusion that Henry was guilty because one of the railroad engineer's, Addison Gitner, had told the trooper that he feared Henry was going insane. "He would at times jump across the cab of the engine to the engineer's side and cry out that the men were trying to get him," claimed Gitner. He had also once remarked to Gitner that he was "going away" soon. When Gitner asked him what he meant, Shearer said that he was "going to have a new home". While Sheriff Thomas Gray and the district attorney may have scoffed at this "evidence", it was enough for the State Police to declare Shearer the perpetrator of a murder-suicide. 

There is one strange coincidence attached to the case of the Shearer murders; Sheriff Gray recalled that a few years earlier, another man named Shearer (no relation) had attempted suicide in the Lycoming  County jail-- by slashing his throat with a penknife.

Mary Witherow passed away on October 3, 1939, at the age of 83, and is buried at Rural Cemetery along with her granddaughter. As for the orphan, records show that lived with Mrs. Witherow up until the time of her 1939 death. Whatever became of her is unclear, although newspapers reported that she had inherited one-quarter of the Witherow estate after the funeral.


My Own Theory


Were Henry and Ruth murdered by would-be robbers? Did Henry, in a fit of insanity, murder his wife at the side of the creek with a pocketknife before taking his own life and falling into the water? These are the prevailing theories, but I propose a different scenario entirely.

The man who found the bodies searched the car and found crumbs on the floor, and the Kodak film revealed that the couple had appeared in the best of spirits just minutes before the terrible tragedy. Mrs. Witherow had told Sheriff Gray about the couple's playful teasing. "He was like a child that way-- always wanting to cut up," she had said. "They adored each other."

Let's suppose that the Shearers stopped alongside Lycoming Creek to eat. This seems logical, as the facts show that the Shearer's left Troy at 7:00 that morning without eating breakfast. They stopped at Dobbins' Hardware Store, leaving around 7:30. They would've reached Bodines about 45 minutes later. This corresponds with sighting of the Shearer automobile in nearby Ralston at 8:05. Helen Marie ate first, and returned to the car for a nap, while Henry and Ruth walked down to the rocks with their food. Horseplay ensued, and Henry began choking. He fell onto a rock, thereby explaining one of the bumps on his head. Ruth, his adoring wife, knelt down and tried in vain to dislodge the bit of food from her husband's throat. She began to panic-- help was too far away, and she had to act quickly.

She remembered the pocketknife and attempted an amateur tracheotomy-- a relatively bloodless operation. If only she could get Henry to breathe again, that would buy her enough time to summon help. But the procedure went wrong; the blood ran back into Henry's throat. He choked to death, on his own blood. This explains the hole in Henry's neck-- not a gash or a stab-- and why blood was found on only his undershirt. 

Overcome by grief and fear, she returned the knife to Henry's pocket, then dragged him down to the creek, desperately hoping the cold water would revive him. It only succeeded in stopping his watch at 9:05. So far, the timeline fits perfectly, and this would account for the second bump on Henry's head.

Ruth composed herself, and calmly returned to the car. Her little girl was sleeping so peacefully. Surely, someone would come along and take her in, give her a new life, one with a father in it. She left her sleeping girl some cookies and an orange. She remembered Henry's shaving razor-- what man would leave on a week-long trip without one? She took the razor and went down to the water's edge (don't forget, the only footprints found along the creek were those of a woman), where she entered the water and joined her beloved husband in death. Perhaps it was out of grief, perhaps it was out of fear that she would be held accountable for Henry's death, or perhaps it was because she felt that, without a father, little Helen Marie would be destined to a life of hardship and poverty.

Ruth Shearer must've known that most self-slashings of the throat fail; when the head is thrown back, the jugular vein is virtually unreachable. She knew enough to keep her chin down when she made the slash, thereby ensuring fatal results-- and also explaining why there was no blood found on her clothing. Her blood washed downstream, and the razor dropped from her hand into the rushing water, never to be seen again. It all fits, down to the last minute, down to the last detail.

Maybe, just maybe, Abe Shearer had been right all along-- his son hadn't killed anyone. There is only one solution that fits: Henry Shearer had been killed accidentally by the woman who was attempting to save his life.

Sadly, Abe Shearer had tried valiantly, but in vain, to have Ruth buried alongside her son. Not surprisingly, it had been Mary Witherow who had arranged to have her grand-daughter's body brought back to Hornell for burial. The Shearers had welcomed Ruth into their family with open arms, accepting her as one of their own. If my theory is correct-- and I believe that it is-- perhaps the saddest part of this tragic, forgotten tale is that husband and wife lay hundreds of miles apart, buried in different states. 






Sources:

Philadelphia Inquirer, July 20, 1922.
Lancaster New Era, July 21, 1922.
Harrisburg Telegraph, July 21, 1922.
Philadelphia Public Ledger, July 21, 1922.
Harrisburg Telegraph, July 24, 1922.
Lebanon Daily News, July 25, 1922.
Lancaster News-Journal, July 26, 1922.
Harrisburg Telegraph, July 26, 1922.
Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, July 28, 1922.


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