Dayton’s Ridge Avenue Bridge has haunted history as site of notorious 19th century murder

Ridge Avenue Bridge project

The bridge will close to vehicular traffic on Tuesday, Feb. 18 and remain closed until September 2015. Ridge Avenue will be closed between Riverside Drive and DeWeese Parkway. The detour begins just north of the bridge. The detour will be north on Riverside Drive to Siebenthaler Avenue, east on Siebenthaler Avenue, and south on Ridge Avenue.

The Stillwater Bikeway under Ridge Avenue will be detoured during construction. The detour begins just north of the bridge. The detour route will be on DeWeese Parkway, across Ridge Avenue, along the south edge of the parking lot east of Ridge Avenue, and onto the Great Miami River Trail. Bicyclists can then follow the Great Miami Trail south back to the Stillwater River Trail at the bikeway bridge to Island Metro Park.

The demolition this month of a bridge in Dayton has a deeper, otherwordly dimension — it was the scene of one of the most notorious crimes in 19th century Dayton.

Some say the Ridge Avenue Bridge remains haunted to this day by the victim — a pregnant young woman shot twice by her lover. The killer’s decision that murder was the best choice in a sticky situation made him only the fourth man in Ohio history to meet death in the electric chair. The investigation had as many twists and turns as a television procedural crime drama.

The $5.2 million project to demolish and replace the bridge over the Stillwater River near Triangle Park is scheduled to begin Feb. 18. A modern-style concrete span will be built with wider sidewalks and turn lanes. It’ll finish up next year.

The murder occurred on a bridge that preceded the 1927 span that's there today. Curt Dalton, local historian and author of "Spilt Blood: When murder walked the streets of Dayton," recreated the dramatic tale of Albert J. Frantz's murder of his lover Bessie Little.

The following is from Dalton’s account.

Bessie Little’s origins underscored the tragedy. She was adopted by Peter and Elizabeth Little in 1873 as a two-year-old orphan named Tressie Doty living at the Miami County Infirmary in Troy. “At the first sight of Elizabeth, the child threw her little arms about the woman’s neck and seemed greatly pleased to meet her,” Dalton wrote. The family settled in a home at 1637 West Second St.

Bessie thrived in the new city. Her teachers said “she seemed to be unusually bright and a rapid learner. She was a constant church member and well-known for her beauty and kindness.”

Meanwhile, Albert J. Frantz was growing up in the Miami-Erie Canal town of Tadmor, now a ghost town reachable through Taylorsville MetroPark. Growing up, Albert “was known as an exemplary young man and dutiful boy.” Before too long after Albert’s family moved to Dayton, Albert and Bessie met. They became constant companions. Bessie was 23, nearly three years older than Albert.

On July 17, 1896. Bessie’s mother while walking out to her stable found the two “in a compromising situation.” She demanded they marry immediately. Albert stammered out that he wasn’t yet of legal age and could not marry without his father’s permission, which his father refused to give.

Although Albert was “forbidden to see Bessie anymore,” he was soon caught sneaking out of Bessie’s bedroom. Bessie’s parents give her an ultimatum and she left home, moving into a hotel. When Albert couldn’t afford to pay for the hotel on his $5 a week salary, Bessie moved into a room at a boarding house on South Jefferson Street.

On Aug. 27, Bessie left the boarding house hastily at 6:10 p.m., claiming that she should have been gone at 6. The land lady, a Mrs. Freese, later said Bessie “had been in the best of spirits, saying that she was going to Boulevard Park, near Fifth Street, to meet her lover, Albert.”

Next day, Albert showed up at the boarding house and asked for Bessie. He claimed not to have seen her for days. Albert told the landlady not to contact police since Bessie had told him she was considering going home to see her parents.

But on Sept 2, a Cincinnati man swimming in the Stillwater spotted “what he thought might be a shoe stuck under a stick in the water. Swimming closer, however, he discovered the decomposed body of a woman.”

Inititally, the coroner found no signs of violence and the body went unidentified. But a tooth on the upper jaw was practically covered with gold and a dentist was able to identify the body as Bessie Little. In her boarding house room, police found an undelivered letter to Albert’s father, Jacob. In the letter Bessie said she was pregnant by Albert and “begged the father to allow them to marry so that her honor and reputation might be preserved.”

Albert, at police headquarters, denied any knowledge of the death but said he’d been looking for her. When asked why Bessie might commit suicide, Albert said that perhaps she had killed herself out of depression.

His story began to unravel on Sept. 4 when three boys turned over two tortoise shell hair combs they had found the day following Bessie’s disappearance. One comb had been found in a pool of blood on the bridge, the other about twenty-five feet away. Bessie’s parents were contacted and they identified the combs as their daughter’s.

Blood spots were found a distance of about 20 feet leading to the bridge railing and a large blotch on the railing itself. It was noticed that a buggy wheel had rolled through the blood and had left a bloody impression on the new flooring of the bridge. When Bessie’s body was disinterred and re-examined, two bullet wounds were found in the right ear. The brain contained tiny leaden splinters, an amount equivalent to that of two .32 caliber slugs.

Albert then claimed Bessie killed herself in his presence when they were on the bridge together. Acting on impulse, Albert said he threw both her body and the gun into the river.

On Sept. 15 Albert was held without bond on the charge of first degree murder. On Oct. 29 he was arraigned and entered a plea of not guilty. The prosecutor argued his motive was that he had grown tired of Bessie and was fearful of a breach of promise lawsuit that would mean he’d lose $1,700 from his mother’s estate, money he’d get when he turned 21.

In the trial, a sporting goods store clerk said he had sold Albert Frantz a .32 caliber revolver just two weeks before the murder. On Dec. 29, after sixteen days and more than 100 witnesses, the verdict was guilty.

The execution room scene was a spectacle. More then 500 had been turned away. Some observers were drunk. It became impossible to maintain order. The crowd laughed and people shoved one another to get a better view. A reporter described a party-like atmosphere among the witnesses before and during the execution.

A sharp singing sound was heard when the warden turned on the current and the smell of singed hair filled the room. Albert Frantz survived the first burst of electricity. It took having the current turned on five times to kill him. After each successive current, Frantz was heard to groan. After the fifth and last, a check found that he had no pulse.

Montgomery County Engineer Paul Gruner is looking forward to the bridge project getting underway. As yet, he’s not seen the ghost of Bessie Little. “We have been out there a number of times and have not seen her yet,” he said. “She hasn’t caused any accidents yet. Interesting story, though.”

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