The ground was broken for the mansion and hundreds of laborers were hired. The family watched from the little wooden house as a great brick edifice arose from the fields on the knoll to the north. Three stories it rose, a two story wing, almost another house unto itself for the servants grew to the north and a cupola crowned the top. Glowing copper panels formed the roof and brightly colored paint trimmed the ornate gingerbread porticoes. Sooner than anyone thought possible the house was complete. It stood glowing in the summer sun of 1856, a testimony in brick to the community and family that made it happen. The night before the family was to move in the house caught fire and burned to the ground. A bucket brigade arrived too late and could not get near the inferno.
Some people said an elderly Native American woman simply called “Satan” had burned the house because it sat atop the burial place of her people, the Shawnee. The more likely explanation is that of a bricklayer on the project named George Blackburn. He was a notorious character who, when he was not robbing and plundering, worked as a bricklayer in the Dresden area. He supposedly bragged in a drunken stupor to someone in Dresden of having burned the mansion in order to generate more work for himself. George W. Adams heard of this and promptly had Mr. Blackburn arrested and sent to the Columbus Penitentiary. Blackburn had helped build the prison and was able to escape soon thereafter. He returned to Muskingum County where he met his end through the splitting axe of a farmer he attempted to rob in the area of what is now Ellis Dam.
The Inaccurate Details of George Blackburn; the supposed Prospect Place arsonist.
Plagued by questions and doubts surrounding this chapter of mansion-lore, board member and super-sleuth Johnathon Robson digs into the historic record to learn more about this enigmatic and dangerous ne’er-do-well. Below are Johnathon’s findings.
As many visitors to Prospect Place are aware, the mansion that exists on the estate grounds today (completed around 1856-1857) is actually the second building to stand on the original foundation. The first unfinished structure was burned to the ground on April 5th, 1855. Bricklayer, George Blackburn has widely been accused and is believed to have been the arsonist responsible for the terrible crime. It has been printed in previous copies of our history guide (from a previous administration), and also cited by several individuals online as being factual and has made George Blackburn a part of mansion-lore. However the new Board of Trustees (appointed in 2017) has uncovered new information that dispels part of the legend while bringing new information to light on this notorious outlaw. In our efforts to update and correct facts relating to the mansion and its history, I decided to take a closer look at the nefarious George Blackburn. I am pleased to share the results of this research with our many friends and followers.
The story passed down over the years is that George Blackburn burned down the mansion, days before G.W. Adams was scheduled to move-in with his family. Word supposedly reached G.W., identifying Blackburn as the culprit and Mr. Adams has him locked up in the Ohio State Penitentiary. The motive for the arson; wanting to make more work for himself. As the story goes, Blackburn eventually escapes prison and returns to the Dresden area where he meets his demise at the hands of a farmer… and the business-end of an axe, presumably during an act of theft. Many of the details noted above appear to be drawn from a 1967 Coshocton Tribune article and seem to be the premise of the stories and legends that have survived into the modern era.
However, diving deeper into historic newspaper articles and archived records at the Ohio History Center in Columbus, reveal a different story, while bringing to life the escapades of a very dangerous Ohio career-criminal.
Based on the research, we believe that the information detailed in the 1967 Coshocton Tribune is incorrect. In the article; an un-named victim of theft (the farmer), defending himself (with an axe) against George Blackburn, mortally wounds Blackburn. Before succumbing to his wounds, George Blackburn supposedly confessed to burning down Prospect Place. We were unable to confirm this. To the contrary, we learned that George Blackburn actually died of heart-disease while in the Ohio State Penitentiary. Let’s take a closer look, based on the historic record, at the career of George Blackburn.
NOTE: it’s important to remember that mid-19th century and early 20th century newspaper reporting, journalism, and administrative recording-keeping (local, county, and state) were little more than cave-drawings compared to today. The same could also be said about local, county, and state jails and prisons as you will soon see.
Newspaper articles we found covering George Blackburn, state that his first notable criminal offense occurred when he was involved in a safe-blowing incident at a flour mill in Walhonding, Ohio (approx. 25 miles north of Dresden). Blackburn and two accomplices were later captured for the incident and he was sentenced to ten years at the Ohio State Penitentiary. Blackburn actually escaped from the local jail before he could be transported to Columbus but was recaptured a few weeks later. Microfilm of this incident was discovered in the Ohio State Penitentiary archives (housed at the Ohio History Center in Columbus), and Blackburn's name appears directly beside both of his accomplices for the incident. It's important to note that the description of his trade, listed with the penitentiary is "bricklayer,” and that he had a wife and children at that time living in Dresden, Ohio.
Blackburn did in fact work on the original mansion's construction and is still believed to be the arsonist involved in the fire (1855), and it is also believed that he committed the act in an effort to generate more work for himself. Though it is rumored he bragged about setting the blaze, he was never charged with or served time for the Prospect Place arson. None the less, George Blackburn was already involved in an array of criminal activities at the time the mansion was being rebuilt. According to archived microfilm records; in 1859, Blackburn was sentenced to 10-years in the Ohio State Penitentiary for a burglary in Coshocton. However Blackburn was fortunate enough to receive a pardon from Governor David Tod in December of 1863.
In 1864 Blackburn was once again arrested for burglary, but escaped the confines of a jail in Newark. He once again fell into the clutches of the law in 1866, when he and two other individuals attempted to rob Ruben Porter of Morgan County. Ruben Porter fought back and nearly chopped Blackburn's arm off with an axe during the altercation. Unfortunately Mr. Porter succumbed to his injuries shortly after the attack and Blackburn and his accomplices were quickly apprehended. Ironically, Blackburn was never tried on the charge of murder. It was stated in court that Blackburn's accomplices were the attackers and that he never struck Mr. Porter during the altercation. Blackburn was sentenced to ten-years at the Ohio State Penitentiary but was later released by an order of the Ohio Supreme Court in 1873. This didn't stop Blackburn from continuing his life of crime.
Blackburn's next offense involved robbing a wealthy farmer/stock dealer at Mt. Perry (approx. 15 miles southwest of Zanesville). He and one other accomplice stole $303.00 from the job but quarreled over the division of the money. His partner gave him away and Blackburn was convicted and sentenced to 7-years in February of 1875. Blackburn however escaped the Ohio State Penitentiary by crawling through a sewer that emptied into the Scioto River. After he escaped it is believed that he served time for another burglary in Pike County under the alias of James Smith. Once released he was again apprehended and served a five-year sentence at the Ohio State Penitentiary for another burglary in 1883.
In September 1890, Blackburn found himself at the center of another murder/robbery, this time joined by three accomplices. The masked men forced themselves into the home of Farmer John Krinn of Gibisonville (approx. 50 miles southeast of Columbus). Sadly Mr. Krinn sustained severe head injuries during the assault and died within hours. Blackburn's men ransacked the house and terrorized his elderly wife and granddaughter before finally leaving with what money they could find. Three months later (December 1890), Blackburn and his accomplices were captured and stood trial for the crime, however once again avoided the murder charge and the hangman’s noose due to insufficient evidence. He did however land a ten-year sentence at the Ohio State Penitentiary for "burglary and larceny".
George Blackburn escaped the Ohio State Penitentiary for the final time on September 5th, 1895. He had been working on an Ice House for the institution that was located outside of the prison walls. He was considered a "trustee" prisoner at the time and was not under direct-supervision. At the time of his escape, Blackburn was seventy-five years old and had served over thirty years of his life behind bars. Blackburn was once again captured, and, once again returned to the prison on October 14, 1895. Blackburn died at the Ohio State Penitentiary on April 15th, 1896 from heart disease. His remains were handed over to his daughter, and his body was interned at Green Lawn Cemetery shortly thereafter.
Did George Blackburn work on the original Prospect Place Mansion? Every indication suggests yes, he did. Did George Blackburn torch the nearly completed Prospect Place Mansion in order to make additional work for himself? Regardless of motive, we can only say; it’s possible, perhaps even likely. Did George Blackburn confess to the arson of Prospect Place Mansion? Rumors and inadmissible hearsay evidence suggests he may have bragged about it to friends and possibly neighbors, but records indicate he was never charged with, or served time for the Prospect Place arson. We will update this record if we find any further information.
Note : The Ohio State Penitentiary microfilm records can be researched and viewed at the Ohio Historical Center.
Microfilm records : GR3628, GR03629, GR3630, GR3636
Download a free copy of our in house history text here:
History of Prospect Place