Wilbur Wright and the hockey stick


By Justice Paul E. Pfeifer - Guest Columnist



Author David McCullough’s latest book – The Wright Brothers – recounts the inspiring story of the brothers from Dayton who conquered the air and ushered in the age of human flight. It’s a story we’re all generally familiar with, but McCullough provides rich detail of the brothers’ lives and times.

One of the most significant stories about the Wrights involved older brother Wilbur who, in high school, was a “star athlete – in football, skating, and gymnastics – and outstanding as a student.” His future was bright, and there “was talk of his going to Yale.” But that all changed one afternoon in the winter of 1886, his senior year.

Wilbur was playing hockey on a frozen pond beside the Dayton Soldiers’ Home when he was smashed in the face with a stick. Most of his upper front teeth were knocked out. For weeks afterward Wilbur “suffered excruciating pain in his face and jaw, then had to be fitted with false teeth. Serious digestive complications followed, then heart palpitations and spells of depression that seemed only to lengthen.”

For the next three years, Wilbur “remained a recluse, more or less homebound.” It took him about seven years to fully recover his health, and “all talk of Yale ended.” But it was during this time – as he read everything he could find – that he became interested in the quest for human flight. And the rest, of course, is history.

The story of Wilbur’s hockey injury was already well known, and its impact on his life was undeniable: had he pursued a more-traditional education, the brothers might never have flown. But McCullough, who had access to the diary of Milton Wright – the boys’ father – fills in a piece of the story that wasn’t so well known.

According to Bishop Wright, the boy who busted Wilbur’s face was Oliver Crook Haugh. At the time, Haugh lived two blocks from the Wrights. He was only fifteen – three years younger than Wilbur – but “as big as a man and known as the neighborhood bully.” It was later said of Haugh that he “never was without the wish to inflict pain or at least discomfort on others.”

We’ll never know if Haugh’s hit was an accident or on purpose. But we do know that Haugh was working in a drugstore at the time, and the druggist, in an effort to relieve Haugh “of the pain of rotting teeth, was providing him with a popular cure of the day, ‘Cocaine Toothache Drops.’” Haugh “became so dependent on drugs and alcohol, his behavior so out of control,” McCullough writes, that he was committed to an asylum for several months.

After Wilbur and Haugh’s incident on the ice, their lives took divergent directions. While Wilbur and Orville gained everlasting fame with an invention that changed the world, Haugh gained eternal infamy as one of the most notorious murderers in the history of Ohio.

Things didn’t start out badly for Haugh. He actually received a medical degree in 1893. But his drug addiction continued to haunt him. When Robert Louis Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886, the book evidently had a profound impact on Haugh. He boasted that he was on the verge of discovering a way to improve mankind, as Dr. Jekyll had claimed in the book.

Instead, Haugh’s use of cocaine and morphine turned him into a Hyde-like monster. It’s believed that between 1891 and 1905 he committed at least sixteen murders in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin – often drugging his victims with hyoscine.

Haugh’s likely first victim was his fiancé’s father, who didn’t approve of the marriage. Haugh opened his first medical practice in Dayton, but he was forced to move often to escape suspicious deaths and bad medical practices. He also allegedly had several wives in different cities, some of whom met untimely deaths.

Haugh might have continued his anonymous reign of terror without detection had it not been for losing his temper when he learned that his parents intended to leave their small inheritance to his brother. Haugh allegedly drugged his parents and brother, mutilated their bodies, then set their home ablaze. He was apprehended while fleeing the burning house.

Newspapers across the country covered Haugh’s story. The AP reported that he denied committing any crime, but “a strong circumstantial case was made. His defense was insanity, but he was legally declared to be sane.” Haugh was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. But he filed an appeal that brought his case before the 1907 version of the Ohio Supreme Court.

In his appeal, Haugh claimed there had been several errors in his trial. One of those alleged errors involved a Mr. Heitman, who was the “star witness” for the prosecution. Heitman was on the stand at the close of court one day, and was scheduled to continue testifying the next day.

According to Haugh’s attorney, “The next morning upon resuming the stand the defense questioned Heitman…if he had not stayed away from home at a saloon all night, and talked considerable about the case during the evening.” When the court sustained an objection by the prosecution, Haugh’s attorney claimed that he’d been denied an important line of questions that “were not immaterial.”

Haugh also objected to the testimony of Delia Betters, whom he claimed was his wife. Under the law at the time, “in criminal prosecutions, husband and wife may only be witnesses for each other,” not against one another. But it was determined that Delia wasn’t his lawful wife – Anna Haugh was – and Delia’s testimony was allowed.

The 1907 Ohio Supreme Court ultimately denied each of Haugh’s seven claims of error and affirmed the judgment of the trial court.

In his last statement, Haugh wrote: “They say I murdered my father, my mother and brother with hyoscine for the sake of the money. Then they say that when I have taken enough of the hyoscine the man within me disappears, and Hyde is the power. It seems as though I must do something – destroy something. My only recourse is to get out into the street – out into the open country – away from men and women, lest I murder them. It is possible for me to have killed these people and know nothing of it. It is possible for me to have committed all the other murders of which they accuse me, and in my normal condition be in ignorance, for in my normal condition I am another man. All that I do know is, that if I die for these crimes, I shall have at least established the proof of the theory on which I have always insisted – that two beings, one of good, the other of evil, may exist in the same man, and in that respect at least I shall have rendered a distinct service to posterity.”

Haugh was executed – by electrocution – on April 19, 1907, in the annex at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus. And thus ended the story of the man who changed the trajectory of Wilbur Wright’s life, and, in the process, changed the course of history.

By Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

Guest Columnist

Paul Pfeifer is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.

Paul Pfeifer is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.

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