“A murder-suicide took place in a grocery store on North Main Street in 1890. S. L. Sage, the proprietor, accused his clerk, David Hoke, of diverting income to his own pocket to which he admitted. Angry words ensued over the amount of the restitution. Only two men were present when the final scene was enacted on December 8. Mr. Sage was found in front of the store, a bullet hole through his head, and in the back room was the body of Hoke, in similar condition” (pg. 10).
This is how Ernst Henes described the deaths of Samuel Sage and David Hoke in his 1983 publication, Historic Wellington Then and Now. What I find curious about this brief passage is that it is specific enough to suggest that Henes had issues of The Wellington Enterprise from the period at hand while writing, yet his description of the motive for the crime–at least as it was reported at the time of the shootings–is incomplete. The Sage/Hoke tragedy was not Wellington’s first murder, nor sadly its last, but it might have been its most salacious.
In late 1890, Samuel L. Sage was the 63-year-old owner of a grocery store operating in the ground floor of the Crosier building, built as a cheese warehouse and still standing on the west side of North Main Street today. Sage led a quiet life; his wife of more than forty years had just died over the summer. His clerk, David Hoke, was also in his 60s and had previously worked for decades in the carriage business, first for Edward Tripp and later with Timothy Doland.
According to a published interview with Wellington’s Marshal Williams, he noticed in early November that Hoke was regularly opening the grocery store as early as 5:30AM. Williams soon observed that the same female customer was shopping at that strange time of day, and leaving “with well-filled baskets.” The marshal decided to tell Samuel Sage that he believed something inappropriate, and likely criminal, was occurring. Sage did not immediately believe the allegations, so they arranged to have the store watched. “[I]t was not only ascertained that [Hoke] donated goods but sold goods for cash and did not account for it to Mr. Sage. What else took place at these morning meetings will not be reported in this paper” (The Wellington Enterprise, 12-10-1890, pg. 5).
I realize that I live in a hyper-sexualized 21st-century culture, but I read this as implying that Hoke was “trading” provisions for some sort of illicit interaction. The woman in question was Emma Gardner, a 28-year-old domestic servant who lived with her husband and child on Kelly Street. Gardner’s husband was a railroad worker and the family had been in town for less than a year. Four decades younger than David Howk, Emma Gardner was described as having light hair and blue eyes, and “previous to this happening, she presented a very fair appearance” (12-17-1890, pg. 8).
Sage and the marshal decided to summon Emma Gardner to appear before Mayor George Couch. She was accused of theft, a charge she denied. She confirmed that she had purchased items at the Sage store, but “supposed that they were charged upon the books to her husband” (12-10-1890, pg. 5).
Sage then confronted Hoke directly. The clerk initially denied wrongdoing, but when presented with evidence of his crimes, eventually confessed. The marshal proposed that Hoke be allowed to make financial restitution, but warned that if he did not fully satisfy Sage in whatever figure the owner demanded, Hoke would be arrested. The men settled these terms on Saturday evening, and Hoke was to be arrested Tuesday morning if he had not complied. Hoke then made the rather extraordinary request that he be allowed to continue working at the grocery store in the interim, so as not to arouse his wife’s suspicions. Sage agreed, an act of kindness which perhaps cost him his life.
Monday afternoon around 3PM, shots rang out in the village. Marshal Williams was on patrol near Doland’s carriage factory, and came running into the grocery store to find Samuel Sage bleeding on the floor, a bullet wound in his temple. David Hoke was in the back room, also with a mortal wound to the head. Both men were still alive. Hoke died within minutes, but Sage was carried to a relative’s house on Mechanics Street (now East Herrick Avenue) and expired about three hours later.
The coverage in the Enterprise is fascinating in that it does not seem to judge David Hoke at all harshly. The lengthy report of the murder-suicide is followed by obituaries for both men, and Hoke’s reads in part: “There probably was no more prompt man in Ohio to meet his obligations. His credit was gold-tinged, and although he was possessed of some weak points of character, he had many virtues which would not come amiss for the average person to observe.” This is a surprisingly positive assessment of an individual who apparently confessed to theft and possibly sexual misconduct, before pushing down and shooting a man “noted for his honesty and uprightness” (12-10-1890, pg. 5).
David Hoke was interred in Greenwood Cemetery; Samuel Sage was taken to Huntington and buried next to his late wife. Emma Gardner was summoned again to Mayor’s Court. Her trial was set for Monday, December 15th, one week after the shootings. Saturday evening she was seen boarding a southbound train, apparently fleeing town. The Enterprise rather callously printed an account of Gardner’s legal troubles directly above a note from David Hoke’s widow, thanking her friends and neighbors for their sympathy and assistance (12-17-1890, pg. 8).
The grocery store became a kind of town curiosity. The paper noted that it was visited daily by numbers of people long after the shootings. In March of 1891, a little notice appeared in the paper: “When the Hoke-Sage tragedy took place in the Crosier building, the contents of one chamber of Hoke’s revolver passed through a cluster of bottles standing on the shelf filled with ink and struck the wall. Three or four bottles were broken and the contents forced upon the wall, leaving an indelible mark of the tragedy for visitors to gaze upon through the window. A mason was called last week to kalsomine the wall to obliterate the marks” (3-11-1891, pg. 5). Kalsomining is better known, of course, as whitewashing.