By Mitchell L. Wise, 2000
When stories are handed down from generation to generation, those stories sometimes turn from history to folklore. Such is the case with the 175-year-old tale of the “Postboy Murder.” Although the murder of the mail carrier and the prosecution of his murderer are in no doubt facts, many other details gathered on the events through various sources are sometimes suspect. Many articles have been written on the subject for whom the small community of Postboy gets its name. With the resources that I have available at this time, I would also like to add my version.
The tale took place in the year 1825. The construction of the Ohio Erie Canal had only just begun.
Transportation in the young state of Ohio was slow and required lengthy treks through rugged hillsides and thickets.
Mr. John Cartmell had built a cabin on the eastern edge of Coshocton and had contracted with the authorities of the time to carry the mail from Coshocton to Freeport. His son William was eager to take part in his father’s business adventure and was soon traveling the mail route on his own.
The exact age William Cartmell at that time is not available but he is often described as a young man, and a mere lad.
The main road from Coshocton to Cadiz and Wheeling, Virginia was called the “big road.” It was a thin dirt path that was full of hardship and held danger at every turn. The thought of a “mere lad” on this route alone in those days is hard to imagine, but it was on this road that young William was forced to travel to deliver his mail.
In those days traders called drovers would drive their products eastward to the Ohio River and sell their goods that were destined for the eastern states. These drovers also used the big road.
One of the more successful drovers of that time was a man named Smeltzer. His business was widely known along the trail. After delivering their goods to the east, these drovers would usually be paid in silver and large amounts of this precious currency would be carried in large saddle bags as the drover traveled back to his home on horseback.
The Postboy, William Cartmell also traveled by horseback and because the mail that he delivered was also carried in saddlebags, it is easy to see how he could have been mistaken for a drover.
On this particular mail delivery in September of 1825, young Cartmell would befriend a man named William Johnston. Not much is known of Johnson except that he was from Steubenville and was also heading west toward Coshocton. Cartmell and Johnston seem to have developed a friendship at some time during the trip, perhaps at the tavern located on the big road about fifteen miles east of Coshocton. During the long trips along this road travelers would often stop at the friendly tavern to spend the night. On the night of September 8, 1825 Cartmell and Johnson spent the night at the inn and departed the tavern together early the next morning on September 9.
A few miles east of the tavern lived John Funston. Funston is described as a farmer and he and his family “squatters.” They lived in a hollow a few miles east of the tavern. They were a dirty lot and not well liked or trusted. Three grown men occupied the shack and John Funston was the worst of the three. He was lazy and selfish, a tall thin man of 26 years. He was never seen without his long rifle. A local man who needed help on his farm had offered him honest work, but Funston chose an easier way to earn a living, a dishonest way.
Cartmell and Johnston began their morning journey, they had only traveled about one mile from the tavern before Johnson became thirsty and stopped by a natural spring to get a drink for himself and perhaps for his animal. Some accounts say Johnston was on foot. Cartmell was on horseback and continued eastward toward his home in Coshocton County.
As Johnson knelt by the cool spring, he was startled by the sound of a loud shot. Johnston hurried in the direction of young Cartwell but it was too late, the young man lay dead in the road. He had been shot in the back and his mailbag was gone.
Suddenly, a dark figure appeared from the thicket and approached Johnson. It was John Funston carrying his long rifle. Johnson turned toward Funston defensively, which cause Funston to ask, “ Someone has shot this boy. Do you say I killed him?”
Johnston feared for his life and appeased the man by saying, “No, I don’t know who did it.” But Johnson did know. He kept his eyes on the stranger at all times. He also noticed a scar on the Funston’s hand.
Funston wanted to make a getaway and suggested they should split up. He told Johnston to go back to the tavern to tell the occupants there while he would go on westward to the next farmhouse. Johnson agreed and hurried back to the tavern.
The proprietor and others at the lodge were summoned to the murder site but “the other man” of whom Johnston spoke never appeared. This fact led many to accuse Johnston of being the murderer.
Soon Johnston found himself fettered hand and foot in the Tuscarawas County Jail at New Philadelphia. Johnston’s constant plea of innocence and the claim he could identify the real murderer led the authorities to invoke a “writ of Posse comitatus” or Power of the County. All of the adult males who lived in the immediate area of the murder were summoned to the county seat and lined up in front of the jail.
Johnston was brought out still in shackles and walked along the line of men. If he were not able to identify the killer it would probably mean his life. Funston was in attendance because if he had not appeared the suspicion of guilt would have been pointed at him immediately. During the lineup, Funston had tried to shrink back out of the line and became fearful as Johnston approached.
“You are the man!” Johnston shouted at Funston.
“You are a liar!” Funston replied.
“Now, I am certain when I hear you talk,” said Johnston.
The identification was complete when the scar on Funston’s hand was discovered and other evidence was revealed such as a ten-dollar bill that was known to be in the postboy’s mailbag.
Johnston was released and Funston went on trial on November 16, 1825.
Within three days a jury had found Funston guilty of murder and Judge Alexander Harper pronounced the sentence of death and set December 30, 1825 as the date for the execution.
On December 28, Funston attempted to hang himself in his cell with his suspenders. The attempt failed and Funston received a severe head injury for his trouble. When he revived, he made a full confession of his crime to Judge James Patrick. Funston said he had mistaken the Postboy for the rich drover named Smeltzer.
On a cold and rainy December 30, a large crowd watched Funston hung from a gallows built by John B. Sappington. The carpenter was paid $10 for his handiwork; David Miller provided two ropes for $1.62 and ½ cents. Funston was led to the gallows followed by a wagon that held his coffin. Sheriff Walter M. Blake stood by with a watch and an ax. At the appointed time he used the ax to cut a rope that held the trap door beneath Funston’s feet. Funston became the only person ever executed in Tuscarawas County.
The weather at the time of the hanging was said to have been so terrible that some who attended it died from exposure.
Funston’s body was taken by his two brothers back to Newcomerstown and was secretly buried on their farm about three miles east of town.
During and following his incarceration, William Johnston experiences severe emotion trauma. Although he returned to his home in Steubenville, he would continue to suffer emotional breakdowns and died within the next year.
The Postboy, young William Cartmell, was buried near his father’s home outside of Coshocton. Years later a plow operated by William Sprinkle unearthed the small skull of the Postboy.
A large oak tree on a sharp curve once marked the spot where the murder was said to have occurred. Today, on Postboy Road in southern Tuscarawas County, the tree is almost gone and only a twenty-foot trunk of it still remains.
In later years the small community of Postboy grew prosperously for a short time with a local lumber industry, a station on the Cleveland and Marietta Railroad, and a general store.
Today, Postboy is a small farming community that is known for its treacherous winter roads. In 1825 the roads were also treacherous and the story continues to be told.