In 1898, First Lady Ida McKinley received shocking news. Her brother had been murdered.
George Saxton, Libertine and Rake
The Saxtons were one of the most prominent and wealthy families in Canton, OH. They had three children, born within three years of each other. Ida the eldest, then Mary (always called Pina) and George. George Saxton (1850-1898) grew up to be charming, good looking and well educated. He entered the family businesses and did well, was considered eminently “eligible,” a very snappy dresser and on every Cantonian’s invitation list.
He is reputed to have been engaged at least twice, but while he happily courted and escorted, he assiduously avoided marriage. In fact, he still made his home in the “family” mansion with his married sister Pina Barber and her husband and children, although he maintained a bachelor pad nearby. By that time he was in his mid-40s, and his sister Mrs. Ida McKinley was First Lady.
Enter Anna George
Anna (Annie) Ehrhart George, ten years younger than George Saxton, was different from his other conquests. She was definitely attractive, but she was a dressmaker, married with two children. Her husband, Sample George was a carpenter, which put her at a much lower social level than the Saxtons (or his other ex-fiancées). While his sisters and their spouses frowned upon the affair, they never ostracized him.
The attraction between George and Mrs. George was mutual. A married woman was tantalizing: forbidden fruit. Perhaps Saxton believed it would make her more accommodating, but Annie took the relationship very seriously.
He plied her with expensive gifts, and wooed and pursued for nine years. Then she finally left her husband, and moved into an apartment next door to George’s bachelor pad. Sample George immediately filed a $30,000 suit against Saxton for “alienation of his wife’s affections.”
The lawsuit dragged on and on in court. George Saxton had the wherewithal to engage fine lawyers, who could nitpick, argue and delay. It took nearly six years to settle the case, and the aggrieved husband wound up with only $1500 or so. But by that time, the husband had found and married another woman, and perhaps was not as aggrieved.
During that long interim of separation, the relationship between Annie and George Saxton had cooled substantially.
Nevertheless, George promised to marry her, pending the legalities. He sent her to South Dakota (the Reno of its time) for a quickie divorce, giving her $1200 for expenses. Still believing marriage was in her cards, Annie obtained her divorce and returned to Canton, only to learn that Saxton reneged on his promise to marry her.
She also learned that he had been wooing and pursuing several other women for at least five years. Now Annie sued him – for breach of promise. Nevertheless, she continued to stalk him and seek reconciliation. But George had wearied and wanted to be rid of her, and sought an injunction against her. (It gets very complicated). A brief reconciliation was effected, but it was rancorous and stormy, especially when Annie learned that George had been seeing Eva Althouse (another wedded woman) and Mary Park (yet another wedded woman), who was planning to divorce her husband in order to marry George Saxton. (Notice a pattern here?)
October 7, 1898
Around 6 PM the evening of October 7, 48-year-old George Saxton was riding his bicycle to the home of Eva Althouse, duded out for a romantic evening in a three-piece suit, a flower in his lapel, and a bottle of champagne in his satchel. Eva Althouse however, his intended amour du jour, was not home.
Then two shots rang out. George fell on Althouse’s steps. The assailant came closer, and upon hearing George cry out, pumped two more bullets into him before disappearing into the shadows.
The news spread like wildfire across Canton. Everyone had an opinion.
In the White House, President McKinley was receiving guests when an aide came and whispered a private message. The President’s face paled visibly. Always aware of his wife’s frail health, he waited until after midnight before gently breaking the news her.
The Trial of Anna George
Two hours after the murder, Anna Ehrhart George was arrested, jailed and charged with first degree murder.
Her friends said Annie had finally given up hope of marrying Saxton. She had no money, and her reputation was in tatters. They also claimed she had threatened to kill George if he continued to see Mrs. Althouse, claiming no jury would convict her once they heard her story.
It was circumstantial, albeit compelling, evidence. She was recognized by a streetcar driver in the area; her dress was soiled; police had scraped gunpowder from her hand. However no eye-witnesses placed her at the scene; the murder weapon was not produced (although discovered some months later), and her alibi was corroborated by three witnesses. Anna George did not testify; nor did her attorneys consider pleading temporary insanity, or a crime of passion. There was hardly any plea at all. And no one from the Saxton-McKinley family attended the trial, which lasted for 22 days!
Annie had been right. Nobody wanted to see her hang. The people were sympathetic. Newspaper reporters all over Ohio were sympathetic. Even her ex-husband Sample George was sympathetic and said nothing against her.
The jury deliberated for 23 hours and took 22 votes. Then came the unanimous verdict: Not guilty. The crowd went wild!
President and Mrs. McKinley and the Barber family made no public comment about the trial, however they led a private funeral procession for George Saxton, and it is said the First Lady wept at his grave.
George Saxton is buried in the Saxton family plot. Anna Ehrhart George’s grave is generally unknown.
Leech, Margaret, In the Days of McKinley – Harper & Brothers, 1959
Morgan, H. Wayne – McKinley and His America – Syracuse University Press, 1964
Dale E. Shaffer, Yesteryears Section of the Salem News, December 27, 1994
Traxel, David – 1898: The Tumultuous Year…that saw The Birth of the American Century – Knopf – 1998