Travel approximately 25 miles from Columbus in Ohio and it is quite possible to overlook one of many small towns dotted around America. Situated along the banks of the Scioto River, Circleville is the type of small-town America in which everyone knows everyone else. It is likely to be the kind of place where residents can leave their doors unlocked overnight without fear of recriminations. On the face of it, Circleville does seem like the kind of place that big city citizens might turn to in order ‘to get away from it all’. For a few terrifying weeks during 1976, all of that changed. Someone began a campaign of terror against the entire town with the Circleville letters.
They thought it was over, but the Circleville letters didn’t stop.
The letters contained threats of violence and personal information that, in some cases, only the recipient was aware of. Many of these letters were hatefully written with vulgarisms and lewd artwork. None of the Circleville letters had any return address and all appeared to come from somewhere within Columbus. Every single letter was written in the same distinct style – block-letters – and might have been an attempt to cover up the author’s personal handwriting.
The Circleville Writer Targets Mary and Ron Gillespie
Even though many of the town’s 14,000 inhabitants were targeted, one woman was seemingly singled out for some severe and/or harsh treatment. Mary Gillespie drove a school bus for a living and was among the initial targets for the volatile author. In addition to revealing disturbing facts, such as her home being under surveillance by the author and that she was a married mother, the letter also contained an allegation that Gillespie was having an affair with a superintendent of schools. In no uncertain terms, the author demanded that she stop and that she was not a subject of a hoax or prank.
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Anyone receiving the Circleville letters would be understandably upset at it. Worse was to follow though. Several additional letters were sent to her, all of a similar nature. At first, the terrified woman just hid them all away and began to keep a discreet and panicked eye on her everyday activities – just in case the unknown stalker made the mistake of being spotted. Gillespie did an admirable job at concealing her terror until one of the Circleville letters arrived addressed to Ron Gillespie, Mary’s husband. This one was blunt and to the point. Ron was ordered to put an end to the affair or die.
Mary is Accused of an Affair
Mary first admitted to Ron that she had no clue what the author was referring to and that no affair was taking place. Perhaps this was a failed attempt at blackmail, but the damage to Mary’s reputation had already been done. Just the idea that a mild-mannered woman that would easily blend into a crowd was having an extra-marital affair was enough to get the gossip-mongers talking. Both Ron and Mary Gillespie worked together to try and ignore the threats and intimidation and carry on. Another chilling letter quickly changed that.
Gillispie, you have had 2 weeks and done nothing. Admit the truth and inform the school board. If not, I will broadcast it on CBS, posters, signs, and billboards, until the truth comes out.
The couple began to deliberate about who the possible Circleville letter writer could be. Their suspicions centered on Ron’s brother-in-law, Paul Freshour. To test this hypothesis, the Gillespies used the rampant panic as a tool and sent Freshour several similarly written letters, outlining that they knew who he was and what he was up to. A request to stop all activities without resorting to any violence was included, and that ploy looked as though it had worked.
Ron Gillespie’s Body is Found
While the Gillespies could not be certain that Freshour was responsible for their torment, they at least considered that it was over.
August 19th, 1977 began as just another day. Whatever had plagued them before was just a bad memory and things had returned to normal. When the phone rang that day it was treated as just another phone call. Ron answered. Mary never did find out what was said or who made the call, but it was assumed to be the phantom author and he was back with a bang.
Ron lost his temper, grabbed his pistol and left the house. At an intersection close to where they lived, Ron’s vehicle struck a tree and killed Ron Gillespie. If the caller was indeed the letter writer, then he or she had clearly carried out on the threat to Ron’s life. When the police investigated the crash, they discovered that Ron’s gun had been fired once. Detectives could find no reason or excuse for Ron to have fired at all whether it was deliberate or not. The crash happened moments after Ron drove away and no shot was reported.
The crash was ruled to be a genuine accident even though strange facts emerged. A postmortem examination recorded that Ron’s blood-alcohol level was 1.5 times the legal limit. Those that knew Ron best all confirmed that he was actually teetotal. The Sheriff was once said to have admitted that there was more to the crash than met the eye but later denied those ascertains. And the phantom letter writer began to get in contact with several residents, almost begging for a more thorough investigation to be conducted. It was almost as if the author wasn’t satisfied with the accident conclusion.
The Circleville Writer Tries to Kill Mary
The Circleville letters began once more in earnest. As well as Mary Gillespie and her immediate family, elected officials were almost targeted. The threats and vulgar nature of the prose was the same as it had been before. The hostility shown to Mary proved to be too much for her to bear any longer. She admitted to the affair taking place but insisted that it only began after the first of the letters had been delivered. When Freshour was accused of being the Circleville letter writer, he vehemently denied it.
Despite all of this harassment and the scandal that made her the talk of the town, Mary managed to keep her job. Six years after the campaign had begun, whoever was behind this took a bold step in furthering their tactics. While at work, Mary noticed a sign en route that threatened the life of her daughter. Angered by this, she stopped the bus and removed the sign.
She noticed a box with a string tied to another post. Mary removed the box and returned to the bus in order to open it. Inside was a crude booby trap in the form of a pistol. Thankfully the trap failed to execute at all. Once again she called the police, and they quickly discovered that someone had made a crude attempt to file off the gun’s serial number. Police traced the gun to Freshour who, not for the first time, insisted he knew nothing about the events. Freshour stated that the gun went missing long before.
Freshour Takes Handwriting Test
The gun was about the only solid lead that the police had available to them at the time. So they coerced Freshour into taking a handwriting test in which he had to copy some of the Circleville letters. Even if experts were able to prove that the handwriting was his, the investigation was criticized for the incorrect manner for administering the handwriting test in the first place. The Sheriff was satisfied that Freshour was the Circleville letter writer — or that the handwriting was close enough at least — and he arrested Freshour for attempted murder.
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The trial began in late October 1983 and even though he had an alibi for the day of the booby-trap attempt on Mary’s life, he was convicted and given a sentence of 25 years in prison with the recommendation that he spent at least 7 years behind bars. Many of Circleville’s residents had already convinced themselves that Freshour was guilty despite the evidence given during the trial. Freshour maintained his innocence until his death in 2012.
Letters Continue During Freshour’s Term
While serving his time, Freshour was considered to be a model prisoner. He rarely got the chance to correspond with the outside world. In the decade that he was incarcerated, the letters carried on regardless. Like before, they were all postmarked Columbus and Freshour was not sentenced to prison anywhere near Columbus. Even the prison wardens doubted that Freshour was guilty of writing the letters. Authorities, on the other hand, were not convinced. They maintained that, somehow, he was responsible for everything the police accused him.
While he was in prison he even received a mysterious letter that stated: “Now when are you going to believe you aren’t going to get out of there? I told you 2 years ago. When we set ’em up, they stay set up. Don’t you listen at all?” Six months after Freshour’s release, TV show Unsolved Mysteries aired a segment on the Circleville Letters. A few days later, the network got one of their own.
It simply said: “Forget Circleville, Ohio… if you come to Ohio, you el sickos will pay. The Circleville Writer.”
The Line Up
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