NELLIE — In the aftermath of Cletus Reese’s confession to triple murder in the summer of 1954, many people questioned why the schizophrenic mental patient had ever been released from the Cambridge State Hospital in the first place.
One report from the asylum, where Reese had been a patient, identified some alarming tendencies. Reports stated that Reese had a sudden temper and suffered from occasional delusions, such as believing himself to be a policeman or an FBI agent.
During his confession, he complained at one point about soldiers overrunning his farm and killing people, thus explaining that his murders were committed in self-defense. At several points during the confession, Reese shouted at the investigators that he had perpetrated the killings on instructions from U.S. first lady Bess Truman, President Harry S. Truman’s wife!
What he never talked about was the fact that all of his known victims were male, and that Reese was never known to have had a relationship with a woman. One can’t help but wonder if part of his rage was a viciously repressed attraction to men, possibly even one that was consummated with his later victim Paul Tish at the Cambridge State Hospital.
Something drew Tish to seek out Reese when he fled the asylum, and Cletus responded by killing him.
Was it a fear of being discovered as a homosexual that first triggered Reese’s series of murders? It is interesting to note that Tish’s grave is the one pushed farthest up the ridge, most distant from the house. And of all the attacks, it was the one that appeared to be the fiercest. Sheriff Kempf stated that the man’s skull had been broken almost completely in two.
Decapitation is rare enough in gruesome murder cases, complete separation of the skull into two pieces is far rarer. It suggests an unhinged amount of rage.
Not much is known of Tish’s life. He was born in Mount Vernon, but the seeds of his own instability were sown in his childhood. Tish’s father died when Paul was only 5 years old, during the 1918 influenza epidemic. Paul’s mother passed away only a few years later.
He spent much of his childhood in the children’s home or in foster homes.
In adulthood, Paul got married, but then served in the Navy during World War II, and returned a broken man. His wife divorced him, and Tish fell apart, landing first in the Knox County Home in Bangs, and then in the Cambridge State Hospital, where he met Cletus Reese. His escape to Reese’s farm brought his life to an early end at the age of 39.
Though Reese tried to make it sound like he did not know Tish, eyewitness reports from staff at the Cambridge State Hospital said that, in fact, they did know each other. It is extremely interesting that staffers noticed this.
Cletus was always described as a loner, yet it was noted that he had some sort of connection with Paul Tish. It is also interesting that Clyde Patton’s personal belongings were found in Reese’s bedroom, as opposed to anywhere else in the house or barn.
Why did he take his souvenirs to his private realm? It would hardly be unprecedented for a killer’s activities to be driven by a sexual compulsion and guilt over that compulsion.
One local rumor that built over the years was that for years Cletus had been collecting stranded motorists from the highway, killing them, cannibalizing their flesh, then tearing apart their cars and selling off the parts. This legend seems to have been prompted by the presence of about a dozen junk cars on the property.
It’s an entertainingly baroque spin on the crime. But it’s more likely that these were run-down cars which Reese purchased so he could sell the parts separately and try to turn a profit. Searches of newspaper archives show that he sometimes placed newspaper ads to buy and sell livestock, so it’s not all that hard to believe that he would have tried additional wheeling-and-dealing.
He certainly would have had the time, as contemporary reports suggest that not much of the 195-acre farm was actually farmed, and the general condition of the place was cluttered and in disrepair. He must have been doing something with his time other than roaming the hills at night with his dogs.
The notorious murders even made waves in Ohio politics.
Long-time Ohio governor Frank Lausche was being challenged by the up-and-coming James A. Rhodes, who was to eventually become Ohio’s longest serving governor. Rhodes pinned the Coshocton County tragedy on Lausche’s supposed “negative attitude” about the state hospital system.
“I say with all sincerity,” Rhodes proclaimed, “that as matters now stand, every community in this state is a potential ‘murder ridge.’” He said that Lausche “must bear responsibility of this sad and miserable state of affairs.”
The Ohio state welfare director responded sharply.
“This is not the first time that events like this have occurred,” Henry J. Robison said, “but Mr. Rhodes has never shown any interest in the problems of the mentally ill until now.
“I’ve become weary of listening to the statements that come from an individual like Rhodes who has demonstrated over the last 10 years that everything he does in politically-inspired regardless of whether he is candidate for city auditor, mayor, state auditor or governor.”
Whatever the case, the attack didn’t hurt Gov. Lausche’s popularity. Rhodes would not win election as governor until 1962.
The superintendent of the Cambridge State Hospital, Dr. Arthur Hopgood, said Reese’s social isolation prevented his recovery once he was at home. The doctor felt that if Reese had moved into town, gotten a job, and interacted with people, he could have recovered his stability.
Instead, the opposite occurred.
Meanwhile, even though Sheriff Kempf was uninterested in probing further into Reese’s possible misdeeds, others were very much interested.
Police Chief A. E. Jones from Newark in Licking County drove up to Coshocton to confront Cletus with a photograph of Peter Mraiste, who had been missing since 1948. Reese took one glance at the photo, then shrank back and refused to say anything at all to Jones for the rest of his visit.
Sheriff William McElroy of Licking County questioned Cletus about other missing persons from the area, but made no progress, with Reese keeping his head hung down throughout the questioning.
To this day, it is unknown if some of the men who went missing in central Ohio in the late 1940s and early 1950s were runaways, or murder victims whose bodies were never found.
In the aftermath of events, many blamed Ethel Reese, but she denied instigating her half-brother’s move home.
“On the recommendation of the hospital,” Ethel said in a newspaper interview, “I was notified that Cletus seemed to be in condition to come home for a trial visit.”
She added that she never for a moment thought Cletus was completely recovered.
“Myself, I never thought that Cletus was in condition to warrant his unconditional release. Repeatedly, I refused requests from the hospital that I sign papers vouching for his permanent recovery and discharge.”
Ethel said that Cletus’ troubling descent into mental instability had only begun five years previously.
“He had fits of anger and at times was incoherent,” Ethel said. “But when he was himself, he was honest, generous and harmless. When he had these spells, he was tense and he stared into space. At times he was verbally cross and unreasonable to me.”
Cletus was sent from the Coshocton County Jail to the Lima State Hospital for a formal evaluation of his sanity. After a month of observation, superintendent R. E. Bushong wrote to the Coshocton County officials. He noted that while Reese was generally calm and polite, his words suggested otherwise.
“It is in his speech that much incoherence is noted for he uses many coined words and his stream of talk is disconnected and delusional,” Bushong wrote. “The delusions are mainly of a grandiose though morbid character. It is his belief he had a mission to perform because of his fancied employment by the FBI and in his fulfillment of his mission, he did away with three men.
“He brings the names of prominent people into his scheme of things and would have us believe that they visited him while he was in jail.”
He also spoke of Reese having hallucinations of sight and hearing. His judgment was clear:
“Altogether Reese is severely deranged and it is our opinion that he is legally insane, highly dangerous, and of course committable.”
Heeding the report, on Aug. 17, 1954, Judge Lloyd S. Leech declared Reese unfit for trial and sentenced him to return to the Lima State Hospital “until restored for reason.” This sentence was only for the death of Clyde Patton, the other two charges being held back in the eventuality that Reese should ever be released.
He never was.
Rosalie Patton took her children and returned to Salem, West Virginia, stating to the Coshocton Tribune that she had forgiven Cletus and bore no ill feelings against the Reese family because she understood that Cletus’ actions were beyond his own control because of his insanity. At the end of August, she gave birth to her and Clyde’s fifth child, Linda.
Perhaps the cost of supporting five children alone led to her change of heart in 1956, when she sued Ethel Reese for $100,000, alleging that her husband died because of Ethel’s inadequate supervision of her half-brother. No further reports followed in media sources, suggesting that the case was settled out of court.
Ethel Reese leaned on prayer and faith to pull her through, stating that she prayed daily for God to restore her brother’s sense of reason. She outlived Cletus by many years, passing away in Millersburg in 1991 at the age of 88.
Little else is known about Cletus’ years in the asylum. He died of a heart attack at the Lima State Hospital in May of 1966. He was just 48 years old. His body was returned to the family for burial at the Darling Run Cemetery east of Nellie.
Forty years after her father was slain there, Linda Patton McCauley confronted her past by traveling from Arkansas, where she had lived most of her adult life, to visit Coshocton County in 1994. She stopped by the quiet farm.
The uneasy feelings she got from the place went beyond what she knew happened to her father and two other men.
“I had strong feelings there are still more bodies on that farm,” Linda said. “I didn’t want to get out and it was very upsetting to be there.”
Others have said that they don’t feel spooked by the place, and I can say that it mainly struck me as a beautiful and peaceful place when I visited. It is private property, so I sought and received permission to take a photograph of the house, with the understanding that the farm is now marked with ‘No Trespassing’ signs. It is not open to the general public at this time.
When I discussed this case recently for the Elixir Chautauqua Series in Mount Vernon, several people asked about the possibility of discovering evidence of any further killings with today’s technology, such as ground penetrating radar.
But the fact is, if Cletus Reese had further victims and buried them in the same sort of shallow graves as Tish and Melick, the ground would very likely have been worked and plowed many times over the years. That plowing and 70 years of weathering would likely have deteriorated almost any traces of any further bodies.
It’s likely we’ll never know if the quiet farm big city media dubbed “Murder Ridge” ended up being the final resting place of a number of the region’s missing persons of the 1940s and ’50s. The assertion can neither be proved nor disproved.
Cletus Reese wasn’t even capable of giving a straightforward answer when he was confessing, so the things he said can neither be completely believed nor entirely ignored. And any shreds of reality that he was still able to discern went with him to the grave.
The infamy of Murder Ridge lingers, along with its unanswered questions.