The Tragic Story of Return Ward


On June 12th, 1857, at 11:56am, Return Jonathan Meigs Ward was hanged at the Lucas County Courthouse in Toledo, Ohio. A violent and jealous man, he was sentenced to death after he murdered his wife Olive, on February 5, 1857 in Sylvania, Ohio. As it turns out, Ward was probably the first serial killer brought to justice in Ohio, as he confessed to two other murders in Ohio.


Return Ward was born on June 8, 1815 in the Abbot's Settlement* which is in now Milan Township, at his parents home - Jared and Huldah Ward. The Wards were located on the west side of the Huron River and were the first white settlers in this part of the Firelands in 1809. They bought their farm property from David Abbott, who the following year also moved to this area.

Huldah died when Return was only two years old and his father, Jared put his son out to be raised by strangers without a family environment and with little education. We don’t know why he wasn’t raised with his family because four of the children stayed at home after his mother’s death (Sarah at 16, Betsey at 14, Elam at 12 and Collins at 5 years old), but for some reason, it was not to be. Return had a hard life having put to work at a young age (by accounts at 9 or 10 years old as a cabin boy/cook on lake schooners) and for most of his life, moved around from family to family, town to town and from job to job.

When he was eleven, he lost his first job, was homeless in Erie and then got a boat to take him to Huron to search for his family. He discovered where his father and family lived in Milan, beside the Huron River and re-united with his family. The next year, when Return was 12 years old, his father arranged for him to work as a labor at blacksmith Barney Meeker in Milan. Later that year he was diagnosed as having Rheumatism** in his feet and his father arranged for him to move in with Major Hiram Russell, who lived near the Huron area on the east side of the river, and had the same affliction. The ailment distorted his feet and crippled him for life.

Return then was sent to Columbus to live with a brother-in-law Isaac Collins, who was a blacksmith (married to Betsey Ward).  He stayed away from Milan for eight years, during which he lived first with Collins (who subsequently moved to Huron) and then another brother-in-law, Zebulon Stevens (married to Sarah Ward) who was also a blacksmith in Huron who died in 1828, and finally back to Collins working in his blacksmith shop.  

In 1835, at age 20, Return moved back to Milan and apprenticed himself to Baxter Ashley, a tailor living in Milan who operated a shop on the west side of the square, where he stayed for one year and then worked for another tailor by the name of Patrick Kelly.

For the next six years, Return moved from one area to another – Huron, Ohio for three years, Detroit, Michigan for a short time and then to Toledo, Ohio where he worked for three years, and then to Tremainsville, Maumee and Sylvania all in Ohio, for short stays. After that, he moved back to Huron, Ohio and started a partnership with Morris Homan, who he had worked for three years previously.

In 1841, at age 26, he moved back to Milan and worked for tailor Baxter Ashley again. During this time he had a fight with a fellow journeyman and his father had to intervene to settle the matter. As far as we know, this is the last time he ever lived in Milan, although he would return for one last trip in 1852.  

Return J. M. Ward
Return Ward

When he moved away, he first went to Bellville in Richland County, Ohio and then went to Mansfield where he married his first wife - Sarah Lamson or Terman . Her father disowned her for marrying Ward and several weeks later he died and left very little to his daughter Sarah. While in Mansfield, Return was arrested for assault and battery and served time in jail. Then he moved to Cass Township in Richland County where he was arrested for suspicions of burning down a house. He then moved to New Haven in Huron County. And finally back to Richland County where he managed a public boarding house by the name of Eagle House/Tavern in Planktown in Richland County.

Noah Hall, a merchant in the area, stayed at the boarding house on a regular basis. When Return Ward learned that Hall was saving to buy new merchandise, he decided to kill Hall and steal his money. In 1851 he murdered Noah Hall and stole $800 from his room. He was not a suspect and he continued operating the Eagle Tavern, although his wife suspected him of the murder. She eventually became mentally unstable and she was sent to an asylum in Columbus. She was still living, with her family, at the time of his death.

A year after the murder of Hall, with his wife in an asylum, Ward was alone in the boarding house and rented a room to a tin peddler named Lovejoy. Return awakened during the night and it occurred to him, that perhaps Mr. Lovejoy also had money on him similar to what he found on Hall. He picked up an axe from the tavern and proceeded to Lovejoy’s room and with all his might, struck him on the head which resulted in Mr. Lovejoy's death. But, he only found $50.00 in the money purse and now he had to get rid of the body.

Ward came up with a plan that would serve two purposes. He was in need of money, so he would travel to his father's home in Milan Township to borrow money from him which would explain Lovejoy's money and while there, he would dump the body into the Huron River. Mr. Lovejoy had two crates of tin items. The first one, Return emptied and placed in the tavern, the other one he decided to place Mr. Lovejoy into the box along with the supplies. To fit into the box, Ward found it necessary to cut off Lovejoy's legs to fit the body into the crate. In early morning the next day, he loaded this crate onto a wagon and attached a single horse to the wagon and set off for Jared Ward’s farm which was about 60 miles away from Plankstown. It took him about 16 hours and he arrived near his father's farm at 10 pm. He headed north beside the river until he had gone about a 1½ past his father's farm, then turned the wagon towards the river and traveled about ½ mile to the river where he dumped the crate containing Mr. Lovejoy’s dismembered body into the Huron River which it sunk with the weight of the supplies.*** To this day, no-one has found the crate containing Mr. Lovejoy and as far as I know, from documentation of this event, this was the last time he was ever in Milan or Milan Township.

After killing Lovejoy, Ward decided to move to Shelby where he meets Susan Reese, romanced her and married her in 1853. Needless to say, he did not divorce his first wife who was in an asylum. A year later, in 1854 he moved to Sylvania, Ohio. Return and Susan lived in Sylvania about a year when Susan became sick. As she got worse, he took her to her father's home in Shelby but she died shortly after that in early of 1856. He had one child from Susan but it died at two months of age. Both the wife and daughter are buried in Shelby.

By the fall of that year, he was married again, this time to Mrs. Olive Davis. She had two children by a previous marriage and they were a constant source of problem in their marriage. Olive was from Adrian and she finally left to go home in January of the next year. But Return begged her back and finally arranged for her to come back by sending her train fare, when she in fact, came back just to get her belongings. Ward, decided in a jealous rage, that "if he couldn't have her, no-one would have her" and that night he killed her. 

Eventually the neighbors noticed her absence and in search of their home, came across pieces of her burned body that resulted in his arrest, trial and guilty verdict. His brother-in-law, Eli Hubbard (married to Rhoda Ward), owned a wagon shop in Sylvania and two of his children - Henry Hubbard (who operated the wagon shop) and Caroline Hubbard/Lewis also lived in Sylvania. Before the search of his house, he spent his days cutting up her body and burning her in the stove. To get the necessary wood shavings to burn in the stove, he picked up the wood from the Hubbard's wagon shop. At night, he said that he was lonely and stayed first at Caroline Lewis for two nights and then the night before his arrest, stayed with Henry Hubbard. Neither one of them knew of the murder and each thought they were supplying a bed to a lonely and crippled uncle.

Waiting for the execution, he confessed to all three murders**** but on the gallows, he changed his mind and said he only killed his wife. There was a storm on the day of his execution and yet, several thousand people gathered around the courthouse. Fifty people witnessed the hanging and although two of his brothers (Elam and Collins) and one of his sisters (Betsey) were alive at the time of his death, plus the Hubbard's who lived in Sylvania, no family member came to his execution. Return asked to see a friend and instructed him to take messages back to his family in Milan. After the hanging, when he had hung for 1/2 hour, he was placed in a wood box and when no one claimed his body, the sheriff turned the coffin over to the Catholic priests for burial.

That was the end of the murderous ways of Return Jonathan Meigs Ward and with his passing, his family and friends in Milan could finally put behind them the shame and anguish of his actions. Today, serial killers are not that uncommon which is a refection of our society, but the peaceful Village of Milan will always be connected to the first serial killer in Ohio.

What Happened To The Jared Ward Family


Jared Ward Tombstone at Sweet Cemetery

Jared Ward was an important figure in Milan history and his children were raised during the early pioneer days. Jared lived to be in his nineties, living with his son Elam on the farm, and some thought he was alive when Return was hanged. Elam stayed on the farm until his death in 1888 at 84 years of age and he was married several times (first to Christian Bayard and then to Jane Merry who died in 1891). Jared, Elam and both of his wives are buried in the Sweet Cemetery in Erie County, near the farm. Huldah Ward, Return's mother who died in 1817, was probably buried in the cemetery behind the old county seat. Rhoda Ward, who was married to Eli Hubbard, died in Sylvania, Ohio in 1840. Sarah (Sally) Ward was married to Zebulon Stevens and after her husband died, she moved to Peru, Huron Co. She died in 1842. Collins Ward married Laura Thomas and he died in 1886. Betsey Ward married Isaac Collins and they both moved to Huron in 1858 - one year after the hanging of her brother, perhaps to live in peace without people knowing she was a Ward, sister of a murderer. She died on September 2, 1877 at 74 years of age and both she and Isaac are buried in Milan Cemetery.



* Abbot’s Settlement: When David Abbot purchased 1800 acres on both sides of the Huron River, this area was part of Avery Township (now known as Milan Township – part of Section Two) which was on both sides of now Mason Road.  Later, Abbot submitted to the recorder’s office a “Town Plat of Huron” which was on the east side of the river and this area became briefly the County Seat on Huron Township until it was moved to Norwalk in 1818. Abbot’s Settlement is also known with historians as Abbott’s Settlement, Avery Twp, Huron, Avery (there is no record of changing the name from Huron to Avery) and the old county seat. The old town of Huron/Avery are gone today and they have no relationship to the current towns of Huron or Avery in Northern Ohio today.   


**The term "rheumatism" is still used in colloquial speech and historical contexts, but is no longer frequently used in medical or technical literature; there is no longer any recognized disorder simply called "rheumatism".


***If you travel the path described in his confession, you would go north on River Road or on Rt.13 towards Huron. I measured the distance and it’s possible he dumped the body at or near Franklin Flats or across from the flats. He was familiar with the Huron River between his fathers farm and Huron, and I think he would have gone across Abbott Bridge to travel along the east side of the river because the river was closer to the road and more accessible for him to dump the crate/body.  He also knew Rt.13 well as his father helped to design/build it. The depth of the Huron River is about 30' at that point.


****These confessions were printed in booklet form “ THE TRIPLE MURDERER:  LIFE AND CONFESSIONS OF RETURN J. M. WARD” by Hawes & Co. in Toledo, Ohio.  In 2007, Gaye E. Gindy published a book called “Murder in Sylvania, Ohio as told in 1857” which details all the coverage and confessions of that day and you won’t find this book in the Milan Library. You can order it from Amazon list below.


A special thanks to Cathy Danhauer, a distant relative of the Ward family, who contacted me some time ago to see if I had researched Jared Ward and pointed me to the proper documents doing research on this article. And before I published it, Cathy was kind enough to read it and added her insight/corrections to the story.


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