The Reitz Home Museum presents it’s 20th Murder Mystery Event on Saturday, Aug. 18, with the production of Murder on Slaughter Avenue, written by local author and Evansville Living contributor Kelley Coures. This is Coures’ fourth script for the Museum. Local celebrities and community leaders perform the characters in the plays, which raise considerable funds for the preservation of the Downtown landmark.
In April 1899, newspaper readers were shocked to read that Mary Storck, a young Evansville woman, had been found strangled to death, her body dumped into a drainage ditch along Slaughter Avenue (today the Lloyd Expressway, near Vann Avenue). Police at the time suspected an inmate at the nearby Southern Indiana Hospital for the Insane (now the Evansville State Hospital) as the culprit. Over a two-year period, two more women were found murdered in the same fashion, including a young African American girl found dead in a horse barn near Fifth Street and Chandler.
Nothing, however, had prepared residents for the headlines of Nov. 13, 1901. The Sunday evening before, two more women — Lena Renner and Georgia Railey — were found strangled. Both women, like Storck, were well-known “ladies of the evening,” and Renner’s body had been dumped in the exact same spot on Slaughter Avenue as Storck’s. The largest manhunt in the city’s history began, which led authorities to their first major suspect: a 35-year-old city police officer named Wilbur Sherwell.
A former boxer, Sherwell had come to Evansville to work for the Reitz Lumber Planing Mill and was recommended to the Evansville Police Department by F.J. Reitz. Sherwell seemed to lead a normal and happy life, living in a modest house with wife Mary and their two small children. But as the investigation evolved, police learned Sherwell had intimate relations with the five murdered women, including Fanny Butler, who was rumored to be carrying his unborn child. In fact, his name wasn’t Sherwell at all, but Charville. He changed it to escape child support and alimony from a previous wife in his hometown of Monroeville, Ohio.
Sherwell admitted he had lied about his alibi the evening of the double homicide, and had coerced his wife into lying as well. Conviction seemed only a formality.
Sherwell was held in the Old Vanderburgh Jail during the month-long trial in 1902 for the murder of Mrs. Railey. His defense attorney, the brilliant young Edwin Henning (who later became a judge), actually put the women themselves on trial, pointing out that prostitutes make themselves available to any man willing to pay. No evidence tied him directly to the murders, he claimed, and although that would make Sherwell an adulterer, it didn’t make him a murderer. Ultimately, the all-male jury found Sherwell not guilty.
In 1903, the prosecutor asked the court to dismiss the other charges, and Mr. Sherwell/Charville left Evansville, never to return. The cases are officially unsolved, although after Sherwell’s release, more evidence was produced that directly connected him to the murders.
According to the Monroeville newspaper archives, Mr. Wilbur Charville died of complications of syphilis in 1917, just out of prison for charges of trafficking “obscene photographs, arson, and other crimes and misdemeanors.” Many unusual side stories and theories evolved from the investigation and other suspects were questioned, but none of them had such an intimate connection to all five of the women as Wilbur Sherwell.