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Murder of a Journalist

The True Story of the Death of Donald Ring Mellett

Thomas Crowl

Publication Year: 2009

Private detectives, crooked cops, gangsters, and bootleggers

The July 1926 murder of the editor of the Canton, Ohio, Daily News, Don R. Mellett, was one of the most publicized crimes in the 1920s. For less than a year, Mellett was the editor of the Daily News, owned by former Ohio governor and Democrat presidential candidate James Cox. Having promised Cox he would turn the unprofitable News into a success, Mellett combined personal conviction with marketing savvy and in 1925 embarked on an antivice, anticorruption editorial campaign. The following year, the Daily News and Mellett, posthumously, received the Pulitzer Prize for his columns.

His editorials were often aimed at the Canton police chief, S. A. Lengel, making the News law and order crusade personal. An unholy alliance of bootleggers and corrupt police, angered at Mellett’s interference with business as usual, hired an ex-con from Pennsylvania, Patrick McDermott, to attack and scare the editor. When the intended assault spiraled out of control and Mellett was murdered, the national press became outraged and saw this situation as an attack on the First Amendment, demanding justice in editorials appearing on the front pages of newspapers throughout the country.

Author Thomas Crowl, using newspaper and magazine accounts, interviews, and other primary source material (some previously unavailable), follows the investigation into the Mellett murder by a private detective who was hired by the Stark County prosecutor. The arrest of the prime suspect and the sensational trial of the cocky hitman received nationwide media coverage. The murder investigation also netted the two local hoodlums who hired McDermott. Additionally, a former police detective was arrested and convicted as the originator of the plot, and he in turn implicated police chief Lengel in the murder conspiracy. Nearly a year and a half later, however, Lengel was ultimately acquitted of the charges.

This compelling and intriguing story is the first in-depth study of the Mellett murder. Historians and true crime buffs will welcome this as a valuable addition to the field of true crime history.

Published by: The Kent State University Press

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Preface

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pp. ix-xiii

The late-nineteenth-century press lord and father of journalism’s highest award, Joseph Pulitzer, wrote in 1904, “Our republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested public spirited press, with trained intelligence to know right, and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without...

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1. The Newspaperman

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pp. 1-13

Who was Donald Ring Mellett that by virtue of his death he achieved overnight nationwide fame and recognition? The Mellett name was French. A distant relative and the first governor of South Dakota, Arthur Calvin Mellette, wrote proudly of those who bore the Mellett name: “They are a law...

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2. Mellett in Canton

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pp. 14-41

Don Mellett went to Canton feeling that it might be his last chance in the newspaper business. At this point in life, he considered himself a failure. He had not finished college and had failed twice as a newspaper editor. Competitor that he was, Mellett wanted a successful career in journalism. He couldn’t...

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3. The Murder

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pp. 42-61

During a golf outing on Sunday, July 11, Don Mellett told his partner, Vic Merson, who was on the Daily News’s advertising staff, about the now-frequent threats against his life.¹ Increasing the pressure was Don’s revelation that he had discovered who killed Paul “Mooney” Kitzig in August 1921. Friends...

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4. Unraveling the Conspiracy

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pp. 62-77

It would not be an easy crime to solve. But perhaps a substantial reward would loosen a few tongues in Canton’s underworld, or lure some reluctant witnesses out of the shadows. Whether the idea for a reward was prosecutor Charles McClintock’s, former judge and Mellett friend H. C. Pontius’s, or the...

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5. The Gang of Three

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pp. 78-93

Ora Slater now had three suspects in a conspiracy to kill Don Mellett: Pat McDermott, Ben Rudner, and the mystery driver, Smitty. Since McDermott had initially come from Cleveland, Slater guessed that he might have returned there. He quietly asked Cleveland police to try to find McDermott. Detectives...

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6. The Slugger Goes on Trial

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pp. 94-123

The trial of Patrick Eugene McDermott for first-degree murder in the slaying of Don Mellett was set to begin December 6, 1927. This trial was more than a legal proceeding to determine McDermott’s guilt or innocence. Canton was on trial. Would the rule of law prevail in Canton? The outcome...

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7. The Rich Man Faces a Jury

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pp. 124-134

With Pat McDermott destined to spend the rest of his life in the Ohio Penitentiary,¹ the state turned its attention to the man Henry Harter called the “smart aleck wolf” of the evil threesome, Ben Rudner. The decision to try Rudner next delayed Louis Mazer’s trial once again. This may have been...

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8. Mazer Confesses

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pp. 135-141

Prosecutor Henry Harter reconvened the county grand jury at the end of February to hear new evidence concerning the Mellett murder conspiracy that had come to light during the Rudner trial.

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9. The Detective’s Day in Court

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pp. 142-153

Don Mellett’s “classic martyrdom”¹ was recognized on May 2, 1927, when the Canton Daily News was awarded the Pulitzer Prize “for the most distinguished and meritorious public service rendered by any American newspaper during the year (1926).” The $500 gold medal was posthumous recognition...

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10. The Dutch Baker Defends Himself

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pp. 154-167

B y the conclusion of the next session of the Stark County grand jury, June 9, former Canton police chief Saranus A. Lengel was indicted for the murder of Don Mellett. In an ironic twist, that day also marked the twentieth anniversary of Lengel joining the police force; if he hadn’t been fired, if he had worked...

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11. McDermott Has the Last Word

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pp. 168-173

Just two weeks after Saranus A. Lengel’s acquittal in Lisbon, and in a surprising turn of events, Pat McDermott decided to break his public silence. For months rumors had reached Canton that Pat was telling his fellow inmates at the Ohio Penitentiary his version of the slaying of Don...

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12. Unanswered Questions

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pp. 174-177

More than eighty years later, the answers still elude us. Mellett never had a chance to explain his motivation or his strategy. The myth that grew up around the martyred editor has clouded the real truth. Who really initiated the plot to assault Mellett? Which of the conspirators actually fired at Mellett that July night? Three...

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13. The Aftermath

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pp. 178-185

One last detail remained to be resolved before Canton could put the two-year saga of the murder of Don Mellett to rest: distribution of the reward money. Of the nearly $28,000 pledged, $24,113 was actually collected and held by the common pleas court. Wisely, the overseers chose to withhold...

Notes

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pp. 186-202

Bibliography

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pp. 203-205

Index

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pp. 206-210


E-ISBN-13: 9781612775555
E-ISBN-10: 1612775551
Print-ISBN-13: 9781606350027

Page Count: 192
Illustrations: (To view these images, please refer to print version)
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: True Crime History
Series Editor Byline: Harold Schechter

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Subject Headings

  • Mellett, Donald Ring, 1891-1926.
  • Murder victims -- Ohio -- Canton.
  • Trials (Murder) -- Ohio -- Canton.
  • Murder -- Ohio -- Canton.
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