Poe searches for answers to 119-year-old McClung murder case

Evan Ponstingle | Staff Writer

Graphic by Lexi Brown

Mason, Ohio, 1901. A small farming village is rocked by the brutal murder of reclusive resdient Rebecca McClung. The town has their suspects–but the murder is never solved.

Mason, Ohio, 2020. A high school junior in the growing city becomes obsessed and begins a search for the truth: who really murdered Rebecca McClung?

Junior Katie Poe has been interested in the McClung murder case for years — an interest that began her tireless research into the case, which she plans to turn into a book.

“It was almost common knowledge [in Mason] – the sky is blue, you shouldn’t talk to strangers, and Rebecca McClung was murdered at the present-day Banana Leaf building,” Poe said. 

Poe first began researching the background of the mysterious McClungs. Rebecca and her husband John may have lived in what was considered a mansion on East Main Street, but they were a frequent source of gossip in the town. John McClung was known as a reclusive miser who was controlling over his younger wife, Rebecca.

“Both John and Rebecca were estranged from their families and bore no children,” Poe said. “Their reclusive nature, wealth, and lack of children definitely played a role in how locals viewed the McClungs.”

In the early morning hours of April 12, 1901, the house devolved into chaos when Rebecca’s body was found in an upstairs bedroom in the house. She had been beaten to death with a log from the fireplace. Suspicion was immediately cast on her husband, John.

“A trial later aquitted John from being charged with Rebecca’s murder, however he is still the most popular suspect in the case,” Poe said. “Since her untimely death 119 years ago, generations of Masonians have debated the ultimate question – who killed Rebecca?”

While John McClung’s strange behavior after the murder cast suspicion his way–including blood all over his coat immediatley after the murder and his bizarre claim that “If I did it, I do not remember it”–Poe’s research has indicated that the actual culprit(s) may reveal a different story.

“The night before Rebecca’s murder, the couple had signed a contractual agreement pertaining to a new home that they were having built,” Poe said. “Allegedly, the couple had argued over the size of their new home. Rebecca insisted on an extravagant new home, while John wanted something more modest in size and price. Although John eventually gave in to Rebecca’s wishes, it remained a source of tension between the couple until Rebecca’s time of death. But would a disagreement over a new house prompt a husband to murder his wife? I’m not so sure.” 

The age of John McClung also raised Poe’s eyebrows.

“It was no secret that John was much older than Rebecca,” Poe said. “At the time of Rebecca’s murder, John was 75 years old. Although he may have had motive to kill his wife, I question whether he was in the physical state to have committed such a brutal crime. Could a man of John’s age and physique have had the physical strength to murder his 60 year old wife with a log? I’ve contacted physical therapists and other specialized doctors to answer this question, but it has not been easy to find people willing to help a highschooler. If John truly were the murderer, why did he not use a weapon that would be more accommodating to someone of his age, such as a gun or knife?”

Another possible suspect could be related to the other residents of the home. While waiting for their new house to be built, the McClungs sold their home to a seamstress and her husband, with the McClungs temporarily residing on the house’s second floor. 

“The media reported that the McClungs’ section of the home was in shambles,” Poe said. “Clothing, linens, wood, and other items covered the floors. It had even been claimed that John McClung had been sleeping on a pile of rags in the corner of their room. Could stress over their strange and unkept housemates have encouraged the new tenants to commit the crime? 

The female tenant was one of the first people on the scene of the crime, which was odd considering how early in the morning it was and how quiet the actual crime was reported to have been. These tenants had motive and more than enough opportunity to kill Rebecca.”

119 years later, the case still captivates Mason residents, including Poe. The stay-at-home orders in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak proved to be a silver lining for Poe’s research. She was able to collect numerous historical documents pertaining to the case, including court transcripts and coroner’s records.

“For some people, they dedicated their quarantine to learning new hobbies, sleeping, and watching Netflix,” Poe said. “But for me, I spent a lot of my quarantine time by contacting records offices, combing through old newspapers, and learning to read the squiggly cursive on historical documents! Old newspaper articles have been very helpful in providing me with a basis of important information that I should research. I don’t really trust these newspapers to provide me with truthful evidence, but they have been a great resource to point me in the right direction.”

So where is all this research heading? Poe’s ultimate goal is to write and publish a book about the case.

“It is in its very early stages,” Poe said. “It may be too generous to call it a book right now. I definitely intend on expanding my writing about the McClung case, however I don’t want to publish any unsubstantiated information. In a perfect world, I’d have access to a cold case officer, a criminal profiler, etc., but unfortunately for me, it’s not easy to find help when you’re a highschool student on a budget.”

Ultimately, Poe wants to put a face to a name and publicize the truth.

“It struck me as incredibly unsettling that Rebecca McClung never achieved justice, and how her life has been reduced to a scary ghost story that people tell during the Halloween season,” Poe said. “I couldn’t accept the narrative that Rebecca lived – and died – as a voiceless woman. If I could show people that Rebecca was a person, and not just a story to share on Halloween, I’d be satisfied. Until then, I’ll continue to research her case in hopes of delivering the justice that she deserves.”