The Gribble House Axe Murders

In 1909, three women were viciously murdered in a row house in Savannah, Georgia.

On December 10th, 1909, Eliza Gribble and her daughter Carrie Ohlander were discovered beaten to death inside their home located at 401 West Perry Street, in Savannah, Georgia.  Not too far from them Maggie Hunter was found clinging to life, she was also beaten and her throat was slit.  She died three days later at the hospital. 

The house stood on the outskirts of Savannah in an unsavory neighborhood called Frogtown, close by the railroad tracks. Later some theorized the killer could have been a railroad worker who committed the deed and then left the area.

A widow renting out rooms in a rundown boarding house occupied by two divorcees, fit right into the dubious reputation the Savannah townspeople had for those who lived in Frogtown.  The reason this figures in the story, is the area housed many undesirables, including thieves, drug addicts and unsavory characters, any of who could have committed the crime.

Carrie Ohlander who was partially deaf was raped, and then her throat was slit. She had recently separated from her husband who stayed living in Memphis.

Her mother Eliza Gribble, 70, had immigrated from Cornwall, England during the American Civil War. She was found in a back bedroom with her skull bashed in. Her spectacles and newspapers she’d been reading lying on the floor.

Maggie Hunter, 34, rented a room at the Gribble House.  She moved in the day prior to the attack.  Maggie had also separated from her third husband J. C. Hunter, who was 30 years her senior. She planned to make a living as a seamstress. 

Hunter’s real name was David L. Taylor. During the Civil War he served in the 63rd Regiment Georgia Volunteer Infantry. Afterwards he turned to crime and went to jail twice, once for stealing a horse, and the second time for bigamy.  After his last stretch in jail, he changed his name to Hunter. He was missing an eye, and walked with a cane.

The murder weapon was a bloody ax found at the scene; however this choice was not that unusual as most households of that time had one, either for chopping wood, killing a chicken, etc. The murder of Lizzie Borden’s parents in 1892 was carried out with a similar weapon.

When the story made the headlines of the Savannah Evening Press, a riot broke out in the city as mobs went on a witch hunt looking for the murderer.  The gruesome story made the headlines around the country, and the Los Angeles Herald reported that 150 men with criminal backgrounds had been rounded up. 

Bloodhounds were brought in, and the city mayor offered a $1000 reward for apprehension of the culprit.

Margaret Elizabeth "Maggie" Wise Hunter, who was barely alive at the hospital, revealed to Rev. John S. Wilder, a Baptist minister who was sitting at her bedside that her killer was her husband J. C. Hunter.  Police were immediately notified and they went and arrested Mr. Hunter.  Inside the home they found bloody clothing stuffed inside the fireplace. 

Maggie was interred at Laurel Grove Cemetery as was Eliza and Carrie.

On February 23, 1910, the Chatham County grand jury indicted J. C. Hunter, Willie Walls and John Coker for the triple murders. All three men denied any involvement, and on August 17, 1910, Hunter was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging.  He appealed his sentence and was slated to hang on December 22, 1911.  The same Rev. Wilder who heard his wife’s accusation against him, baptized Hunter the day before his execution date. Hunter escaped hanging when the governor commuted his sentence to life in prison. On October 27, 1923, he was pardoned by Governor Clifford Walker.  He then returned to Savannah.

J. C. Hunter was a painter and paper hanger originally from Guyton, Georgia.  Not only was the age difference odd between Maggie and Hunter, but the fact that he often referred to her as his daughter, and she in return called him the “old man”.

Willie Walls, one of the other men who were suspected of the murder, said that he came to see Maggie on the same day of the attack. Later it was reported he paid Maggie’s rent at the Gribble House for an entire month.  He was only questioned, but never went to trial since the case against him was so weak. It was believed that he was Maggie’s lover.

The other accused was Bingham Bryan, who at the time of the murders was the yardman for the property.  It was believed his motive was robbery, as there was a rumor circulating that Mrs. Gribble had an old trunk full of wills, stocks and other valuables.  Even though he was held, there was no evidence against him, and he was released.

John Coker who had been arrested based on information provided by a neighbor was released, after it was found that the servant who had given testimony was a cocaine addict and was hoping to gain some type of reward money from the story.

At the time there was more than one theory surrounding this murder, especially as to who were the intended victims. The crime scene indicated the first two victims were Eliza and her daughter Carrie.  This theory was confirmed when family and friends of Maggie Hunter told police she breakfasted with her sister, Mrs. Hewlett.  She later stopped at three nearby houses, trying to sell some remnants of cloth to get money.  Another witness claimed they saw Maggie Hunter walking towards Perry Street, and she appeared to be drunk. Based on this timeline, she could have arrived as the murders were taking place.

This was not the only mystery surrounding this crime, when six days afterwards another witness came forward saying that Maggie Hunter had predicted her own death.

On December 16th, 1909, the Morning News reported that Maggie had stated: “the bloody work would be done”. The witness was John Flatman, and insurance salesman who on the day of the crime had met with Mrs. Hunter at her sister’s house early that day in order to collect a premium.

She didn’t have the money and he told her that if she made payment by Saturday, the insurance policy would be intact. She replied by saying she did not think she would be alive on that date.  Mr. Flatman asked her if she planned to kill herself, and she said no and that he would be surprised by how later in the day the bloody work would be done. Mr. Flatman said Maggie Hunter was sober but very nervous when she spoke to him. The affidavit provided to the police by this witness made them think this was not a random act of violence.

There was also speculation as to why no one heard anything from the home as the killer attacked the victims, especially as the murders which were believed to have taken place around 2 p.m. This coincided with the lunch time of various people who worked very close to the location of the house.

Another twist in the tale came from another witness who said that J.C. Hunter had threatened to kill his wife before.  Police also learned that Hunter had papered the inside of the Gribble home six years before and was familiar with the interior.

In March, 1917, while J.C. Hunter was still serving his sentence for the murder, a man named J.B. Gaving approached a Savannah policeman serving in the National Guard at the Mexico border during the hunt for Pancho Villa. He claimed responsibility for the murder of the women. He said he committed the crime with a partner, and described the interior of the house with great detail.  He was considered insane and his confession was discounted.

The Gribble House was demolished in 1941, and by 1944, another building was erected on the site which later became the Old Town Trolley Tours, where stories continued to persist of paranormal occurrences in the part of the building where the house once stood. One person described a huge, black mass come out from between two parked trolley cars.

In 1974, the Morning News interviewed Elizabeth White Monsees, who grew up in the area of the Gribble House before WWI. She said she heard ghost stories about the house on Elbert Square where blood stains would appear mysteriously on the walls.  The house continued to be used as a boarding house even after the murders and different guests reported on these phenomena.

Could these be the restless spirits of the three women, stuck in an eternal hell where the crime is recreated, or the ghost of J.C. Hunter who is seeking forgiveness for what he did?  Or maybe the ghost is that of a diabolical killer who never paid for his crime, and comes back to revisit the scene of the murder.  In his version there is no trolley barn, but the Gribble House intact and standing as it once did, with three women that became the victims of his blood lust.


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