Fearless Females Challenge: March 14 – In the News

The following post continues the month long Fearless Females Challenge by Lisa Alzo, author of The Accidental Genealogist blog, which is focused on “celebrating and honoring ‘fearless females’ in our family trees” to mark National Women’s History Month, which is the month of March, with a post responding to unique prompts for each day of the month.

Prompt for March 14 — Newsmakers? Did you have a female ancestor who made the news? Why? Was she famous or notorious? Did she appear in the social column?

Researching my ancestors has not reveled too many news-makers, apart from obituaries or notices of funerals.However, while researching my Hamilton (originally Heldman) branch, I discovered a female that certainly qualifies as a news-maker, Rhoda Margaret (Horner) Heldman (1908-1928), my great grand aunt, who was also known (in newspapers) as the “Phantom Flapper Killer.”

My maternal great grandfather, Harry Carol Hamilton (1891-1960), was born Carl H. Heldman in Robinson, Crawford Co., Ohio the son of Rufus Bert Heldman (1870-1944), a plumber, and Jennie M. Lightcap (1872-1905). Harry had three siblings, one of which was a younger brother named Wilbur Owen Heldman (1900-?). In 1927, Wilbur married Rhoda Margaret Horner (1908-1928), who perfered to go by her middle name, Margaret, and was originally from Pennsylvania. Wilbur and Margaret had one child together, Emmitt Richard Heldman, who was born in 1928. Wilbur was employed at this time as a furnace salesman in the Canton and Lorain area. They lived in Lorain.

On December 6, 1928, a young woman wearing a blue chinchilla coat got off a 6:00 pm bus near an Inn in Canton, Ohio, being observed by passengers, the bus driver, and the Innkeeper. While waiting for another bus, she walked a little ways away to the home of Vernard Fearn, a 35-year-old coal merchant and mine operator.

Mr. Fearn was at home with his wife, Mary, and their daughter Kathryn. Mary was preparing dinner, when a knock was heard at the door. She answered, and the young woman specifically asked for Mr. Fearn. Mary told her husband someone was at the door for him. As soon as he came to the door, the young woman pulled out a 32 caliber gun and shot Mr. Fearn six times, with three of the bullets entering his chest, another entering his side as he spun around, another entering his back as he fell to the porch, and a sixth grazing his neck. The young woman is reported to have fired two more rounds into the screen door frame. After the shooting, the young woman was reported to have walked back to the bus stop, boarded a bus, road to downtown Canton, and disappeared in a crowd of Christmas shoppers.

According to his death certificate, Vernard E. Fearn (1893-1928) was murdered on December 6, 1928 in an apparent homicide in which “he was shot through the heart with a 32 caliber gun” while standing “on the porch of his house.” The media coverage of this murder dubbed the murderer “the phantom flapper” killer, because witnesses described her as a young woman dressed in a blue chinchilla coat.

Death Certificate of Vernard Fearn
Death Certificate of Vernard Fearn

On the night of December 13, 1928, about a week after Mr. Fearn’s murder, Wilbur Heldman brought his wife, Margaret, to the office of Sheriff Ed Gibson. She had been shot with a bullet in the heart and was dying. She was rushed to Mercy Hospital, where shed died at 7:30 pm. According to reports, Wilbur stated that before this, Margaret came to him and confessed that she had killed Mr. Fearn, and that she shot herself while they were driving to Canton from their home in Lorain to turn her over to the police. He told the police that Margaret said that Mr. Fearn “had made [her] life like a ‘hell on earth.’” (No details exist as to what Wilur meant by that.) In addition to Wilbur’s statements, Mr. Fearn’s widow, Mary, apparently identified Margaret as the killer. This lead Sherriff Gibson and the Stark County Prosecutor, Henry Harter, to concluded that Margaret was indeed the “Phantom Flapper” killer that they had been looking for in the murder of Mr. Fearn.

Death Certificate of Margaret Heldman
Death Certificate of Margaret Heldman

However, not everyone was satisfied. Margaret’s family, who took her body back to Pennsylvania for burying, appear to have thought that some or all of Wilbur’s statements did not make sense, and requested that a second autopsy be performed. Following this, the coroner, T. C. McQuate, charged that Wilbur was “morally responsible for his wife’s death.” On December 31, 1928, he was bound over without bond to the Stark County Grand Jury after a preliminary hearing decided that he was to be charged as the “moral murderer of his pretty 21-year-old wife Margaret.” Wilbur was eventually cleared of all charges, and released, after which he eventually left Ohio and possibly changed his name.

In addition to Margaret’s family, many others did not believe that she was the “Phantom Flapper” killer. Many of the eye-witnesses, including the bus driver, the innkeeper, and numerous bus passengers stated that Margaret was most certainly not the woman in the blue chinchilla coat. Some even suggested they thought the young woman could have actually been a man dressed in a woman’s coat and hat. Although officially closed, the murder of Mr. Fearn, the identity of the “Phantom Flapper” killer, and what role Margaret Heldman played in this (if any) remains a mystery today. Many wonder if Wilbur was actually the murderer of both Mr. Fearn and his wife over an alleged affair between Mr. Fearn and Margaret. Others speculate if there wasn’t a business connection, as Wilbur was a furnace salesman and Mr. Fearn was a coal dealer. Because of these unclear motives, mysterious and uncorroborated confessions, and eye-witness testimonies pointing to someone else, the story of the “Phantom Flapper” is a legendary mystery in Ohio criminology, appearing in numerous publications, including two specific works by John Stark Bellamy II: The Corpse in the Cellar and Women behaving badly: true tales of Cleveland’s most ferocious female killers: an anthology. In both these works, the title reads, “The Phantom Flapper Killer: The Mystery of Margaret Heldman (1928).”

The following are clippings from the The Toledo News-Bee on Dec 14, 1928, complete with details and photographs:

Margaret Heldman News Article Part 1 Margaret Heldman News Article Part 2

Margaret Heldman News Article Part 3 Margaret Heldman News Article Part 4


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