The Lost History of Hester Foster
A short time ago a student approached the front desk at the Columbus Cultural Arts Center and asked if the building was haunted. She explained that she had just watched a female figure in 19th century clothing walk through the gallery. While that was unusual, but not outside the realm of possibility, she noticed further that the spectral figure’s boots caused no sound as their heels crossed the hardwood floor—a task not easily accomplished by the living. “That would be Hester,” was the clerk’s response.
It only seems fitting that students and staff at the Cultural Arts Center should give their ghost this name. The idea that spirits of the dead return to haunt their place of suffering, demanding their tale be told, is as old as humankind itself. And just steps away from the arts center, on February 9, 1844, Hester Foster was put to death. She was the first woman the state of Ohio ever executed.
Her demise was a gruesome public affair and, quite honestly, the city’s first major tourism event. At the time, 7,000 people inhabited Columbus, but that afternoon an estimated 12,000 to 20,000 souls converged on downtown. An atmosphere of dark and drunken revelry descended over the crowd, leaving one spectator trampled to death in what was commonly described as a scene of much noise, confusion, and disorder.
All’s Quiet on the Hester Front
For many the chaos that surrounded the gallows that day overshadowed the particulars of its unfortunate guests. As a result, the newspapers printed few words about Hester. Little, if any, other documentation concerning her life and death was thought to have survived. Consequently, outside of the occasional mention in articles and books, her identity has since remained as vague and indistinct as her ghost.
In March of 2021 the legend of Hester’s specter led The Q Files, a locally-produced paranormal podcast, to conduct an investigation at the Cultural Arts Center. To assist in their efforts, they asked if I could find out more about who she had been in life. I accepted the challenge, but, having already extensively researched her story for Columbus Ghost Tours, the most I hoped to come across was one small piece of the puzzle like a prison record or census listing. What I found, instead, was a document that not only answers the question of who Hester Foster was, but does so in her own voice.
The Murder Pamphlet
Murder pamphlets are thin, cheaply produced booklets that contain detailed accounts of sensationalized crimes. Typically, they were sold at executions from the 1400s until the turn of the last century. It’s rare to find one today, especially from a rowdy public hanging that took place on a winter day 177 years ago, but it is not impossible. In fact, a murder pamphlet that tells Hester’s story was acquired by the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, a precursor of the Ohio History Connection. However, that organization’s collection was moved to an archive library in Cincinnati in 1849. There, the 21-page booklet sold at Hester’s execution sat lost and forgotten for nearly two centuries until, inspired by a ghost story, someone went to look for it.
Another reason the murder pamphlet might have gone unnoticed for so many years could be that such documents have long been viewed as unreliable sources of information. Depending on the integrity of the publisher and whim of the criminal, their contents can range from fantastically exaggerated yarns to a mundane recital of facts. The account presented in Hester’s murder pamphlet appears to be the latter. Her narrative is written in the first person and includes an exhaustive list of people, places and events that had a bearing on her short and tragic existence. While not conclusive, this reinforces the veracity of her life story.
Hester Foster was born in Philadelphia on Christmas Day, 1821. Her mother was an Indigenous American and her father an Irish immigrant. The mother’s land holdings qualified the family as wealthy and the young girl had the makings of a happy upbringing. However, her parents separated and at the age of 3 she was sent to Cincinnati to live with a relative.
The stability of Hester’s childhood was further shaken when her caregiver remarried and relocated. After this she was thrust into a series of temporary living situations during which she was beaten, abused and kept locked in a room. When she was in her mid-teens, Hester reunited with her mother in Louisville. There she became pregnant and gave birth to twins. During this time her mother, who was a slaveholder, gave her two enslaved people. Hester, however, freed the couple and provided them with money and clothes to start a new life. Eventually, a fight with the twins’ father led her to return to Cincinnati, leaving the children with her mother.
Shortly after returning to Cincinnati, Hester received a letter that shattered her world. Her mother wrote that one of the enslaved people that Hester had freed had murdered both of her children and their father. Stricken with grief and guilt, Hester grew reckless and indifferent as to her fate. She took to drink and “plunged into” what the murder pamphlet called “vice and wickedness of almost every description.”
During one of these bouts of wickedness, Hester went drinking in downtown Cincinnati with an acquaintance named Maria Brunlow. Stumbling from tavern to tavern, the two met a woman from Dayton. At some point Hester went her own way, but later that evening saw the women in the company of two men. At Maria’s request, Hester followed the group into the woods, where the stranger was raped and beaten.
It wasn’t until later in the summer, after she was jailed for fighting with a patrolman, that Hester was implicated in the brutal offense. She admitted to watching the attack, but swore she took no part in it. For aiding in assault and rape with the intent to murder, she was sentenced to 20 years in the Ohio Penitentiary.
Imprisoned and Pestered
Within a year of arriving at the prison, Hester had become adversaries with a fellow inmate by the name of Louisa White. In time, the population in the female ward divided into warring factions, with some supporting Hester and others on the side of Louisa. To restore order to the prison, officials eventually separated the two camps. However, this was not enough to stop Louisa from tormenting and provoking her enemy. A prison guard sympathetic to Hester suggested that she knock Louisa on the head. The guard promised to look the other way.
Hester got her chance on March 13, 1843, when Louisa entered her ward brandishing a small shovel. Louisa attacked an inmate named Eveline Jones and a struggle between the two ensued. Hester shouted to Louisa, asking why she had come into their quarters. When Louisa answered “for murder,” Hester replied, “If that is what you have come for, you shall have it to your satisfaction.”
With that, Hester grabbed an iron shovel from the fireplace and struck Louisa twice on the head, sending her careening down the stairs. Satisfied, Hester walked away. Eveline, still reeling from the beating she had just received, grabbed the smaller shovel that Louisa had used against her and descended the stairs to exact her own revenge. According to an 1893 history of the Ohio Penitentiary, Louisa’s skull was later found “beaten to a mass of flesh and bone.”
Even though the attack was not premeditated, Hester Foster was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to death on December 21, 1843, just four days shy of her 22nd birthday. The fate of Eveline Jones is unknown.
At 10 a.m. on the grey winter morning of February 9, 1844, a military regiment of seven to eight companies marched to the Franklin County Jail. Inside the prison’s pale stone walls, Hester Foster was being prepared for her final moments on earth. At noon she was dressed in her grave clothes and escorted out of the cell and onto the street, where she was loaded into an open carriage.
Hester was accompanied by William Young Graham, a 36-year-old scoundrel from southern Ohio who had decapitated a prison guard while serving time for robbery. Because of his actions William wouldn’t just share a carriage with Hester, but also a gallows. Flanked by an army under the command of General Gale, the melancholy procession made its way towards the place of execution. The crowd of onlookers—some solemn, some jeering—grew denser as the two wretched souls reached their journey’s end.
At the appointed spot, they were met with a sea of bodies pushing and shoving for even the most fleeting glimpse of their soon-to-be-lifeless faces. There, Hester Foster and William Graham ascended the platform, accompanied by the Franklin County sheriff and ministers of the Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopalian faiths. William seemed indifferent to the situation and refused to participate in the comfort and concern offered by the religious leaders, but Hester fell to her knees, weeping and praying.
After several minutes of ceremony, the moment of reckoning arrived, and the doomed were asked to speak their final words. William stepped forward and shouted “My name is Graham! My father and brother murdered a traveler in Missouri and were lynched for it.”
Hester attempted to speak, but her words were inaudible through the tears. She then nodded to the sheriff to indicate that she was ready, shook his hand, and stepped forward onto the gallow’s trap. Amid a crowd of expectant faces the hood was drawn over her head, followed by the noose, which was then positioned at the back of her neck and tightened. The ritual was then repeated for William, who was heard to exclaim “Let her go quick!”
The sheriff looked at his watch, a signal was given and, at around 1:30 p.m. that afternoon, the floor beneath Hester’s feet gave way as the 22-year-old woman who spent her life slipping through the cracks, was swallowed by the darkest void of all—or, as they more optimistically phrased it in those days, was “launched into eternity” – an expression those who claim to have encountered her ghost, swear to be true.
To learn about other grim episodes from Columbus’ past and the ghosts they are said to leave behind visit www.columbusghosttours.com and to hear the podcast that details the hunt for Hester Foster listen to The Q Files, available on all streaming services.