Return Ward: Ohio’s First Serial Killer

Return Ward was christened Return Jonathan Meigs Ward and was born in Erie County in Ohio on 8 June 1815. His mother died when he was two years old, and his father never remarried. It was hard for his father to raise him and his other children and so Ward was “put out to be reared, and came up without the fostering care of a mother, or the ordinary circle of family affection.”[1]

Return Ward

Return Ward from an artist’s rendering in 1857. Author’s collection.

At the age of nine, Ward’s father sent him off to be cabin boy and when the vessel he was working on was sold at the end of the season, Ward found himself in Erie, Pennsylvania, all alone and knowing no one. However, he made friends with some boys and eventually made his way to Huron on another vessel. The captain of this second vessel took him under his wing until he learned where Ward’s father could be found.

When Ward was returned to his father, his father once again put him out. This time Ward was tasked with doing hard manual labor. Unfortunately, Ward was attacked by a severe case of rheumatism during this time, and it was bad enough that it affected his feet, and he became crippled for life.

Return Ward next went to live with his brother-in-law, Isaac Collins. He was a blacksmith and Ward trained under him. The two supposedly traveled from place to place meeting men described as being of a “very rough fare.” During these years as a blacksmith, Ward’s temper grew and those who knew reported that he became “violent and imperious.” He would also brook no opposition and became angry when things did not go his way.

In 1835, the same year that Madame Tussaud established her Wax Museum on Baker Street, Ward became apprenticed to a tailor named Baxter Ashely. He was a religious man who attempted to impose his religious beliefs on Ward. This caused Ward to seek “more congenial associations” and he left Ashely’s employment and moved to Mansfield, Ohio in 1841.

Two years later Return Ward met Sarah Lamson. They began courting and around this same time, Ward became involved in “various difficulties.” For instance, he had a fight with a coworker but was saved from jail because of his father’s intervention. Ward then burned down a house and was arrested around the same time for assault and battery, which landed him a stint in jail.

Despite Ward’s police troubles Lamson fell in love with him. She was the daughter of a respectable farmer and Ward wanted to marry her but when Ward asked her father for her hand, he refused to give his consent believing Ward was no good. Sarah didn’t care what her father said, she married Ward anyway, and her father disowned her.

After their marriage, Ward and Lamson moved to Richland County, Ohio. There Ward became keeping a tavern called the Eagle House Tavern. During his time as a tavern keeper, rumors swirled about his bad behavior. So, later when he was charged with murder, gossip mongers insisted it was likely not his first murder as trouble always seemed to follow him.

They were right. Apparently, during the time Ward was keeping the Eagle House Tavern, a merchant by the name of Noah Hall began taking his meals at the tavern. Ward soon learned that Hall had gathered a considerable sum of money in expectation of undertaking his annual visit to New York City to buy goods for his store. One night in 1851 Ward sneaked into Hall’s store, murdered Hall in his sleep by hitting him over the head with an iron poker and smothering him with a pillow. Ward then stole about $800.00 from him.

No one had an inkling that Return Ward was the culprit except Lamson. In fact, her belief that he murdered Hall is what people alleged caused her to become insane. Her mental issue resulted in her being sent to an asylum in Columbus and she remained there for some years before going to live in Richland County, where she supposedly continued to suffer mental issues.

In the meantime, Return Ward was not suspected by authorities of being involved in Hall’s murder. Two Irishmen were instead thought to have perpetrated the deed. They were in fact indicted for it, but luckily for them the evidence against them was weak, and they were acquitted.

About a year after Halls’ death, Ward committed a second murder. This time he killed a tin peddler by the name of Lovejoy, who had stopped at Ward’s tavern for a night. Ward used an axe to kill him. Moreover, according to the Buffalo Courier, the circumstances of this slaying were even more horrendous than Hall’s.

“[Lovejoy] was an utter stranger, and Ward lighted him to bed, as he says, without thinking to do him any harm. He then went to bed himself and slept till midnight, when, on awaking, the thought struck him that the pedlar might have money. … He immediately arose and went up to his room, opened the door, went to the bedside and found him sleeping soundly. He then went down stairs and got an axe, and, returning struck him a blow on the head which soon put a sudden end to his existence. He then took a dry goods box which he had laid in the yard, and packing the dead man in it put it under his bed in his own room and went to bed. Two days after he took the box in a one-horse wagon some sixty miles and threw it into the Huron river.”[2]

Return Ward was never charged with Lovejoy’s murder and immediately after his death, Ward left Richland and settled in Shelby. There, although still married to Lamson, he married Susan Reese. The pair purportedly lived happily, and Ward reported that he had great respect for his new wife. When Reese died in 1856, Ward moved to Sylvania, Ohio.

After arriving in Sylvania, Return Ward meet Olive Davis. He immediately proposed to her, and they married within two or three days of knowing one another. David had two children ― a 9-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl ― from a previous marriage. The family took up residency in Sylvania on the west side of Division Street (present day Main Street).

Ward was stressed because they were poor. The situation was not helped with him having to deal with two children who were not his. Thus, it was not long before Davis and Ward began to have petty fights that quickly turned into nasty quarrels.

At some point, Davis got fed up, took her two children, and left Return Ward. According to Ward he convinced her to come back, although claims were that she only did so to get her clothing and other belongings. Conjecture was that when he found she was only there to collect her things, he became enraged and murdered her. The States and Union newspaper out of Ashland, Ohio reported in March of 1857:

“On the evening of the third instant, Mrs. Ward, the wife of Return J.M. Ward, in Sylvania disappeared in a very mysterious manner. The ensuing morning, her husband visited Mr. Allen’s grocery, in the village, and informed him that he and his wife were going away, and desired Mr. Allen to tell those who might wish to see him that he had left the place. On the Thursday following, Ward against visited the grocery, and had another conversation with Mr. Allen. He this time said that his wife had left him again, (she had once, in consequence, as it was believed of ill treatment left him for a brief period). Allen asked him, ‘When did she leave?’ Ward replied, ‘On Tuesday night last. She took the cars here saying that she was going to California.’”[3]

Ward’s tale about Davis was not true and eventually, he acknowledged that he had murdered her in a fit of jealousy. Apparently, however, Ward had initially hoped to hide his crime and therefore spent all his free time dismembering his wife’s body with his pocket knife, an act that was similar to what Théodore Gardelle did to Mrs. Anne King. Ward then burnt Davis’s dismembered parts in his stove.

Return Ward - portion of his wife's jaw bone

Portion of Davis’s jaw bone recovered and presented at trial. Author’s collection.

Gruesome and exacting details about how he committed the murder and how he accomplished the dismemberment were printed in various papers, including the Louisville Daily Courier. In addition, the paper reported that Ward confessed:

“I took up the ashes [of my wife] in a small bag, sifting out the larger pieces of bone with my hands, placing the same in my over coat pockets, which I scattered in various places in the fields, at various times. … I burned her trunk and every vestage of her clothing, disposing of small portions at time to prevent their creating too much smoke.”[4]

Neighbors were suspicious and many believed that Return Ward believing had done something to Davis. They therefore soon conducted a search of his home and discovered pieces of Davis’s burnt body. After his arrest, Return Ward confessed that he had killed her. He stated that he slipped behind her, struck her on the head with a smoothing iron, and watched her die. She apparently died within fifteen minutes of the blow and never spoke a word after being struck.

Despite this confession, Ward changed his story several times. At times he claimed that he had resolved to murder his wife before he killed her, “though he had not fixed the time, or made any calculations as to what disposition he would make of the body.”[5] He also said that he killed her in “the heat of passion” and stated:

“Mrs. Ward and myself had some words, during which Mrs. Ward struck me on the head with a fluid lamp, also on the right side of the nose, causing the same to bleed freely. I begged her not to strike me, took the lamp away from her and went to bed. We arose between six and seven o’clock on Wednesday morning. I spoke to her about the blow she had given me, showing her where she had struck me on the evening previous, also the blood on the bolster and tick. She said she wished I had bled to death, and picking up a stick of hickory wood, she attempted to strike me. I warded of the blew, which fell upon my right thumb, laming it severely. The stick fell from her hand, and as she stopped to pick it up, I seized a flat iron, and in the heat of passion struck her with it on the right side of the head, upon and under the car, driving the car-ring into the flesh. She fell to the floor, exclaiming, ‘Oh! Ward, you have killed me!’ I dropped the flat-iron and went to her; she was lying on her side; I turned her over on her back, and placed a petticoat under her head, supposing she was only stunned. I used all means to restore her, but in half an hour she died, having only spoken once, ‘Oh, my Nellie,’ meaning, as I suppose, her little girl.”[6]

After Ward’s arrest, phrenologists were greatly interested in him because they were curious about the criminal mind and how it operated. They believed that his head held clues as to his disposition. The phrenologists who examined him declared that he had a characteristic called “secretiveness” and also stated:

“He had a wonderful power to plan and execute in secret, and to keep his own counsels. He certainly was one of the most dangerous murderers that the country has ever produced. His murder of Hall and the Pedlar, are two of the most remarkable murders on record, and evince a coolness, a want of sensibility, and a want of conscience which it is rare to find in any human being. Since he has been in jail, he has shown the same peculiarities. It was easy to excite his sympathies; and easy to make him weep by referring to his situation or to his friends; easy to make him acknowledge that his sentence was just, and that his country had a right to take his life; but he evinced no feeling of penitence for his crimes; expressed no sympathy for his victims; and felt no remorse of conscience for what he had done. Whatever of feeling or sorrow he exhibited was for his own situation, and not on account of any wrong that he had committed. Indeed, he seemed to think that he was hardly dealt by, and that the Court had no right to convict him on such slender testimony.”[7]

After the trial and while a motion for a new trial was pending, Return Ward made another shocking confession. He finally admitted to having killed Hall and Lovejoy. He also talked about Davis’s death with the Holmes County Republican reporting:

“[Ward] acknowledg[ed] his guilt, but plead[ed] in extenuation that he done it in a moment of passion while smarting under provocation received from his wife. He made his confession, he says, under the impression that it might favorably effect the motion for a new trial, whereby he hoped to have his sentence commuted to imprisonment for life. But the motion having been overruled by the Supreme Court, and all hope of life failed, he resigned himself to his fate.”[8]

Return Ward was scheduled to be executed in Toledo, Ohio on 12 June 1857. As none of Ward’s family members were going to attend his hanging, he requested that he might speak to a friend. He then gave him a message to him to take back to his family apologizing for the troubles he had caused.

The day before the execution a reporter visited Ward at the jail in Lucas County. The reporter noted that the scaffold was ready. It was strong, braced, bolted with iron bars, and painted black. The drop was also covered with carpet and the hinged portion comprised about two thirds of the platform. The noose for Ward’s hanging was a whale line, three-fourth inches in diameter and was fastened to an overhead beam by an iron bolt. Ward would be standing on the platform with the noose around his neck so that when the executioner moved the lever it would send Ward to his death.

Location of Lucas County in Ohio. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The reporter noted that a heavy thunderstorm broke that evening as Ward sat in his cell and that “flashes of lightning through the barred windows rendered the gloom of the place depressing in the extreme.”[9] He also reported that it must have been a fearful time for Ward. He remarked that Ward must have contemplated all night the flight of his soul “from dungeons and human accusers, to eternity.”[10]

In the morning as the execution was to be a private affair there were no large crowds waiting near around the scaffold. However, despite the storminess, and despite the execution being private, about a hundred people gathered in the vicinity of the jail hoping to catch of glimpse of the proceedings before the execution started. Around 10am authorized spectators were admitted inside the jail. They consisted of forty to fifty persons and included county officers, police heads, reporters, physicians, and a brother to Davis.

About an hour passed as Return Ward was prepared for execution. At precisely 11:00, he was conducted from his cell to the scaffold. Two Catholic priests who were with him and were seated on chairs near the rope. Ward wore white pants and a white robe with a belt around his waist. A cross hung from his neck on a black cord, and he held another cross in his hands. “He was a man of large size, broad high forehead, somewhat bald, clean shaven on the face save a large goatee.”[11]

The usual execution ceremony was carried out before the Death Warrant was read aloud by Sheriff Springer, who stated, “Mr. Ward, we are to carry this sentence execution. If you have anything to say, this is the time to say.”[12] Ward wavered several times before he began speaking but when he finally did, his voice was strong and could be heard clearly by everyone in attendance. However, what he said was often incoherent and unintelligible and he ended his remarks stating, “Gentlemen, … you see I am not afraid to leave this world, don’t you?… May the Almighty God give me pardon and absolution for my sins – my God! – my God! I am dying ― amen.”[13]

He then stood up and said goodbye. He also turned to some gentlemen near him and stated, “I guess you don’t have as much trouble with me as they did with the chap at Cleveland? Now gentlemen see me go. … You need not tie my arms. I will never touch that rope. … You might all shut your eyes when I go do down ― don’t laugh.”[14] In addition, while waiting for death, Ward insisted that his confession to murdering Hall and Lovejoy was a lie. He now maintained that he had only killed his wife. He also said he was sorry for what he had done, but it didn’t matter what he said.

Those witnessing Ward’s execution watched as the executioner pulled the white cap over his eyes and at five minutes before noon, Return Ward was dead. His dangling body hung for about half an hour before it was cut down. As no one claimed his body, it was turned over to the two Catholic priests for burial and he was laid to rest in a plain wooden box.

Return Ward - headline

Headline about Return Ward and his execution from Buffalo Evening Post in June of 1857. Author’s collection.


  • [1] Buffalo Courier, “Execution of Ward – His Life,” June 17, 1857, p. 2.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] The States and Union, “Shocking Tragedy in Sylvania,” March 4, 1857, p. 2.
  • [4] The Louisville Daily Courier, “Confession of Ward the Murderer of His Wife,” April 10, 1857, p. 1.
  • [5] Buffalo Courier, p. 2.
  • [6] The Louisville Daily Courier, “Confession of Ward the Murderer of his Wife,” April 10, 1857, p. 1.
  • [7] Buffalo Courier, p. 2.
  • [8] The Holmes County Republican, “Execution of Return J.M. Ward,” June 18, 1857, p. 2.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] The Holmes County Republican, p. 2.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Ibid.

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  1. rusty on October 29, 2021 at 4:52 pm

    I have lived in this part of Ohio my entire life and have never heard of, or seen it written about , anywhere.

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