Wabash Legends and Folklore
French Family Murder
The folklore of any area would be definitely lacking without a murder, and Wabash County is no exception. Although there were a number of murders and tragic deaths here, the one outstanding in its brutality and therefore the one remembered and discussed is the murder of the French family. This murder also resulted in the only hanging that took place in Wabash County.
Wabash County was an infant at the time it all happened. The Wabash and Erie Canal had packet boats passing through its waters and the Toledo, Wabash and Western Railroad was being constructed nearby. Hanna Masonic Lodge had already been organized and Lynn's Mill was grinding grain on Treaty Creek. In 1854 Aaron French, his wife and five children were squatters living in a small cabin on the Keller farm northeast of Keller's Station which is now Richvalley. A former Cincinnati merchant, French did odd jobs, raised a little corn, and did a little gardening, and earned the respect of the community, but ill health made him unable to continue to work and he could barely make a living for his family. In the latter part of September John Hubbard, his wife Sarah and son Richard came to Wabash to work on the canal or the railroad and boarded with the French's. It was thought that this couple was welcomed into the cabin, as they could be of some assistance to the family. One morning a neighbor stopped to inquire about French's health, and was met by Hubbard before reaching the house, who told him that the French family had gone away to Iowa. A brother had come the night before with the information that their father had recently died leaving a tract of land for the children Hubbard went on to say that he and his wife had purchased the family's belongings for forty dollars.
Sometime during the month of December 1854, Edward Boyle, a laborer on the canal who had boarded for awhile with the Hubbards, also disappeared. A few days before, he had been carrying a large sum of money. In March of 1855, when some work was being done on the canal, the water was drawn low and the body of a man was found. Fully dressed in drawers made of a common mackinaw blanket, two shirts, cotton drilling pants, vest, blue sack coat and light kip boots, he still had his pipe in his pocket. The body was identified as that of Boyle and marks on the body indicated that he had been murdered. Evidence pointed to Hubbard, particularly because it was known that he had previously been without money and then about the time of Boyle's disappearance, had a great deal. He was therefore arrested and placed in the Wabash County jail on suspicion of murder along with his son.
Information as to what became of the French family came about by accident. Mrs. Hubbard had gone to visit her husband in the jail, and the conversation overheard between them strongly implicated both in the murder of the French family also. This led to the arrest of Mrs. Hubbard and an immediate investigation of the cabin by the sheriff and his deputy. Removing a plank from the floor and using an axe and pick the common grave for the seven-member French family was found, 18 inches under the floor. Upon digging, the body of a child was discovered. This led to more systematic excavation, and soon six more bodies were exhumed: Aaron French, his wife and their five children. All had been buried in one grave, with the father and mother on the bottom and the children piled on top according to ages: John-13, Sarah-11, Louise-8, Tilman-6, and a fifteen-month-old infant girl. The skull of each had been broken with a hammer or ax. Mrs. French's neck and one leg were broken, and she was nearly naked. Neighbors had recognized a dress owned by Mrs. French being worn by Mrs. Hubbard after the French's disappearance. When the news reached Wabash it took the coroner and his jury less than 30 minutes to head for the one-room log cabin immediately west of the Stearns Fisher house on the road to Peru. The cabin burned before the case ever went to trial.
August 2, 1855 the grand jury returned a bill charging John and Sarah Hubbard with Aaron French's murder and the trial lasted from Sept. 3 to Sept. 7. The jury's verdict was murder in the first degree with the death penalty. His wife was also found guilty, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. She died in prison Jan. 16, 1887. Their son Richard went free when it was proved he was not at home when the murders took place. The 16-year-old had been working with the canal gang. He worked on the canal about a year, an ignorant youth who didn't know one piece of money from another. Eventually he became a hand on a horse farm near Poe, Indiana and died in 1908.
Some might call it the blackest day in Wabash County history, yet it didn't make the front pages of the weekly newspapers. Without a doubt it was the blackest day for John Hubbard, who, despite his pleas of innocence, was hung from the gallows on the courthouse lawn in answer to the Aaron French family murders.
Hubbard died absolutely friendless and with the blood of several innocent people on his hands, it is doubtful that anyone in the Wabash area felt any sympathy for him. Following the hanging his body was cut down and carried back into the jail. The lid was screwed onto the coffin and put on the packet for Fort Wayne. Later it was learned only a log had been in the coffin. "Somehow" rather than going on the packet boat to Fort Wayne, Hubbard's body landed in potter's field at the county poor farm about a hundred yards from the house. Body snatching was not uncommon in those days and what better chance to get a cadaver? In Hubbard's case there wasn't much chance that anyone would even notice the body was gone! In view of all this, a number of physicians from Wabash and the small towns of Somerset and LaFontaine determined to secure the body after burial and place it on the dissecting table. The sheriff was taken into their confidence, since he was in charge of the burial, and he promised to mark the grave in such a way as to make it easy to find after dark. The physicians had engaged a team and spring wagon at the livery stable and waited patiently for the coming of night. They had heard that a gang of physicians from Huntington and another from Ft. Wayne had also arranged to steal the body, and they were afraid that their plan might fail after all. About four o'clock rain began to fall, the best kind of weather for body snatching for those who know their way around. Arriving at the schoolhouse on the Urbana road a few hundred rods from the poor farm, they left the wagon and team with the driver and started for the grave. The intense darkness and feverish excitement caused them to lose their bearings, and it took hours to find the grave. They also forgot to bring shovels, ropes and other paraphernalia necessary to remove the body from the grave. So while some stood guard over the grave, the others went to the poor house for the necessary tools. Meanwhile, the Huntington and Ft. Wayne doctors arrived and attempted to frighten the Wabash party away by threatening to shoot, but the latter would not be intimidated. The others soon returned with the needed implements and the grave was opened. A rope was tied around Hubbard's neck and the body was hauled out of the grave. To carry it back to the wagon, they tied the body to a rail, which was shouldered by two of the men. The way to the wagon led directly through the woods, and at one point the two lost their footing and fell into a deep gully, the body tumbling in on top of them. All the while the parties from Ft. Wayne and Huntington kept up their threats, occasionally shouting "Stop or we will shoot!". Finally reaching the wagon, the driver was almost overcome with terror because of the threats. At last, the corpse was loaded into the wagon and they headed home at top speed.
The body was brought to a building on Canal Street in Wabash. A brick thrown across the canal was the signal to tow the body across the canal. The waiting physicians tied the rope around Hubbard's neck and heaved the body into the canal. It was pulled up the outside of the building and dragged through a window into the room. Objectors in the neighborhood delayed the dissecting, so the body was sacked and toted across the street in open daylight to a room where prying eyes and keen ears would not intrude. The bones were divided among the doctors, but finally became the possession of Dr. Dicken at LaFontaine. He had them mounted and the skeleton remained in his office for sometime, but eventually it ended up in the LaFontaine High School. As Hubbard's body was converted to the interest of science, it was discovered he had carried several bullets for many years. A plaster cast of his head and shoulders was long preserved by Dr. James Ford. The supposition that Hubbard might not have actually killed French but had been busy killing the rest of the family while Mrs. Hubbard killed him was never proved. Neither ever confessed guilt.
The French family was buried in the Richvalley Cemetery and the stone marking their burial stands alone in the southwest corner. The cemetery had been donated by Jonathan Keller for anyone who wished to be buried there, free of lot cost. The Hubbards wanted to be tried in Grant County because it was largely populated by Quakers, who were opposed to capital punishment. If that wish had been granted, would the story have been the same?
The above information was collected from "Wabash County History", and from newspaper articles by Earleen Ulery, Plain Dealer Reporter.