There is an element of local history not often investigated that has to do with the circumstances of coincidence … when place and time and events all intersect as strange evidence of some inscrutable pattern in the ways of fate.
We have a classic example of this phenomenon in the annals of Richland County that took place during the summer of 1948—a pair of shocking events whose intriguing connection was so tenuously documented that knowledge of it was almost lost altogether.
Both of these moments in history took place in a field on Fleming Falls Road, north of Mansfield off Ohio 42. One of the events made a brief headline at the time and then disappeared, and the other caused a nationwide media frenzy that overwhelmed all memory of the first event.
The connection between the two was lost until recently when an obscure crime pulp magazine from 1948 turned up in research that connected the two dots.
A crime for headlines
One side of this coincidence is very well documented, not only through 1948 sources when the crime was committed, but also more recently in the 2012 book The Mansfield Killings by Scott Fields. It is the story of the murder of the Niebel family by a couple of Ohio State Reformatory punks who went on a two-week killing spree.
The devastation in the wake of these two ‘Mad Dogs’ — including armed robberies, car jackings, and a variety of murders — was covered in the daily press and radio around the state and nation as it unfolded. Afterward the disturbing rampage was featured in true crime publications for another several months.
The pall it cast over Richland County was significant, not only through the shock of the Niebel killings, but also in its ongoing adverse impact during the months to follow as the trial took place in the county courthouse. The City of Mansfield and the Ohio State Reformatory were dragged repeatedly through the bad news.
The crime scene
There is no way to make the Niebels’ story any less horrific than it sounds, and I certainly would not wade into any of the gruesome details in any way that might rob more dignity from the end of their lives. I tell the story only because there is another element to the crime scene that is actually very interesting, even intriguing, that has to do with The Field.
It might be easiest just to take up the story after the family was already dead. They had been missing from their house for some time, and everyone connected to them already suspected that when they turned up it would not be a relief.
The bad news came when a troop of boys hiking from the nearby church camp walked past The Field. Their leader happened to glance into the corn, and spotted the bodies.
Almost immediately The Field was surrounded by crowds of sheriffs and cruisers, coroners and ambulances, reporters and spectators. Photos of the scene show lines of vehicles along the little dirt road and uniforms milling in and out of the corn.
Amid them all, wandering around through the crowd of reporters and lawmen, was a farmer who kept saying “This is so weird. This is so weird.” No one was paying any attention to the old guy.
There was one reporter however, who listened to what the man was saying and passed it along to his editors at True Detective Magazine in case they thought it might mean something. What he quoted Mr. Gardner as saying was this:
“There must be a jinx on this field. A plane crashed here once and killed two men. And now this!”
From the air, a few hundred or thousand feet up, Richland County is a pretty big place—all spread out like a crazy patchwork quilt of mammoth proportions. From up there looking down it takes a skilled eye to locate a particular house, a certain specific farm.
So what are the chances that a plane would drop out of the sky in 1946 into the same precise field where in 1948 all the investigators gathered?
That’s exactly what happened. In December of 1946 a similar crowd of bystanders, onlookers and gawkers gathered around this very same field to watch investigators, lawmen, coroners and reporters mull over the wreckage of a PT-19 Ranger that held the bodies of a flight instructor and an insurance agent.
Witnesses nearby said they heard the aircraft motor stop, and when they glanced up the plane did a nosedive out of the sky. Two men died that day in The Field just a short furrow away from where three people died 605 days later.
Mr. Gardner was right — this was so weird. It makes you wonder about things.
It makes you wonder about that particular plot of acreage. Has it claimed other people who didn’t make it into the headlines — maybe a farmer in the 1800s who took a kick from his mule? Were there Wyandots or Paleos in our prehistory who entered the next life from that same specific gravelly portal? Is it a sort of Bermuda Triangle of Mifflin Township?
Maybe some day they’ll be able to plot those things on a geographic grid to identify specific crossroads of here and hereafter. For now, from our limited field of experience, it is just one of those intriguing enigmas of history.