Mabel Champion – The Sphinx
Imagine driving in a car in 1922 from Indianapolis to Cleveland all in one day. You’re tired, you’re hungry and your friends suggest you go out to dinner. So, you head to Downing’s restaurant in Cleveland. Your husband’s been drinking, even though it’s during prohibition, so he’s a little unsteady on his feet. A drunk man approaches you as you go into the restaurant and demands a drink.
Your husband blows him off and you and your friends go into the restaurant. The man follows you and starts a fight with your husband knocking him to the ground. What’s a woman to do? You reach in your husband’s coat, pull out a gun and shoot the man attacking your husband three times. While your husband yells, “Go get him!” And then the police arrive, and your husband denies you’re his wife let alone that he even knows who you are.
Finally, days later your husband admits you’re his wife and that the gun you used to shoot the drunk was his.
That’s what happened to Mabel Champion, 22-year-old beauty. By the way Mabel is also known as the Sphinx because she never spoke to the press or the police about the case. When Mabel was arrested, and they searched her purse and found a switchblade they asked her what she used it for, her reply, “Oh, I peel peaches with it.”
There were questions about exactly who the dead man was. The police had different names, Connell, O’Connell, Connelly, and first names of Edward, Ed, Tom, and Thomas. It was found that his name was Thomas C. O’Connell.
Theresa O’Connell Thomas O’Connell’s wife and his brother George traveled to Cleveland from Highwood, Connecticut, a suburb of New Haven. Thomas was a Yale graduate and had worked in stained glass until he entered the Carnival business several years before the shooting.
Theresa was from Cleveland and the couple had lived there for several years. Thomas had been living in their cottage at Geneva-on-the-lake. Mrs. O’Connell spoke to the press, “Drinking was my husband’s only fault. We had always been happy together and never had any trouble of any kind before. I cannot understand it all.” Thomas’s father was a Deputy Sheriff in Heywood CT.
Who was Mabel?
It was found that Mabel using the names Teddy O’Brien, Inez Parker and Marie Champion had a criminal record of sorts in Cleveland. She was charged twice with robbery charges by men, both of whom later dropped the charges. She also had a record in Indianapolis where Mable had robbed and stabbed another man. Mabel had jumped bond in that case.
Ausley, Mabel’s husband was arrested as well as Mabel. The charges against Ausley were that he hit O’Connell four times with a chair after he fell to the ground shot.
The police begin taking statements and George Linn, a patron of the restaurant tells police that Mabel said to him, “Don’t mind him. He’s drunk. I did it.”
Mabel appears in arraignment court and asks for a continuance so that she can hire attorneys and speak to her husband. Both were granted. No bail was granted to Mabel. Ausley was arraigned soon after and was released on $5,000 bail which he paid.
Mabel’s court date was delayed several times. Once for her attorneys to prepare, once for a death in one of the attorney’s family, once because a key witness for the prosecution was ill, and once because another key witness for the prosecution had disappeared.
Finally, October 24, 1922 the trial begins. Mabel’s attorneys, Walter D. Meals and John Orgill, had a whole new wardrobe made for her specifically for the trial. It was fashionable, conservative, and black.
The first panel of jurors was exhausted with 7 women and 4 men tentatively accepted. A second panel of 50 prospects was called. Ausley was not in the courtroom.
Mabel finally said something to the press, “Mabel Champion is my right name, my home is in Texas. I was married in Brownsville, TX when I was 16 years old.”
Ausley fails to appear in court for the second day. “I don’t know where he is. He was so nice to me while I was in jail, bringing me books and candy. I’m sure he’ll be back soon.” Mabel answers the questions of the police.
The jury is finally set, it contains seven women and five men. This is one of the first time that one of our bad girls have had women on the jury.
The prosecution begins. William Conklin the cashier at the restaurant testifies, “I saw Mabel shoot Thomas O’Connell taking deliberate aim. O’Connell said, ‘For God’s sake, don’t shoot!’ ”
Then he heard Ausley shout, “Shoot him, Mabel!” Conklin said he heard 2 more shots as he ran to the phone to call the police.
Joseph Shimendle, a chauffeur, testified that he heard Mabel yell, “Step aside Daddy and I’ll fill him full of lead!”
Continuing, “Mrs. Champion produced the gun from her bosom walked over and got her coat from the wall, held it over her arm. She shot once at O’Connell and as he wheeled around, she fired twice more.” This brought gasps from the audience.
Prosecution rests its case. The arresting officers were the last to testify. Sergeant Snyder testified that Mabel had tried to trick them into believing that Thomas O’Connell had cleared her of any wrongdoing from his hospital bed.
Ralph Pearson of the YMCA testified for the defense, that Mabel had shot O’Connell in self-defense as he had struck out at her as she tried to break up the fight between Ausley and O’Connell.
Ausley was supposed to testify next. He has apparently skipped out on his bond, as he hasn’t been in court and no one can locate him.
For once Mabel opens up to the press, “I am fighting my battle alone for one reason, back in the west in a small town far enough from the big cities to prevent them from gaining access to the news of the day, are an old man and an old woman.
“One is my father and the other my mother. Rather than cause them pain as I did when at the age of 16, I married Champion. I have made up my mind to fight this out alone.”
Mabel begins, “Ausley had a bottle of whiskey. O’Connell without hat or collar was standing in front of the restaurant. He asked for a drink, and my husband gave it to him. We then went into the restaurant and sat down at the table. We gave our order and then O’Connell lurched into the room and came toward our table. There was a quarrel. O’Connell wanted more whiskey. He tried to beat my husband when he refused to give it to him, and then he scuffled with me, and the gun discharged. I did not mean to kill him, and I did not aim the gun.
“I didn’t mean to shoot him. But it was the dead man’s life or my husband’s. And in the scuffle, the gun I somehow got hold of, went off. That’s all there is. I’ve had plenty of time to think it over.”
Mabel for the first time did not wear black, but a dark blue suit.
Edward C. Stanton gave his statement to the jury. He asked for the death penalty and described Mabel as, “a cold-blooded murderess – a clever shrewd woman from Texas, where they shoot from the hip and are quick on the trigger.”
The defense immediately objected to by this as there was no evidence of “hip shooting” which was sustained. He then presented O’Connell’s blood-stained clothes as evidence as a rebuttal to Mabel’s testimony. Edward Stanton had Captain Daniel Stanton the firearms expert of the Cleveland police testify that the shots could not have been shot from close range.
He testified, “The revolver which pierced this shirt, and this suit of underwear could not have been closer than three feet from the injured man, or there would have been powder marks on the suit.”
In the defense’s summation they pictured Mabel as “the little peacemaker – trying in vain to prevent trouble.”
They described O’Connell, “A Paris apache of the worst type, he dug with his own hands the pit into which he now lies.”
The jury is given the case late in the afternoon, but can’t come to a decision, it was reported that it was 10-2 for conviction of first-degree murder with no mercy, which meant the electric chair. The 2 holdouts consisted of one woman and one man. The jury was sent to a hotel for the night.
Mabel is to serve 20 years with no parole in Marysville Reformatory. The jury convicted her of manslaughter not first-degree murder, 28 hours after it had started deliberating. Mabel who was 22, was the youngest woman ever convicted of killing. Mabel lost her composure that she had had throughout the trial burst into sobs. The women on the jury joined her in crying as did many of the women in the audience.
Mabel is granted a stay of execution for five days pending the appeal trial. The appeal trial is a gamble on Mable’s part, she was close to being executed in the electric chair and was lucky to get manslaughter. Mabel is granted a new trial from the court of appeals due to three errors made by the judge in the original trial. The prosecution immediately appealed to the state supreme court.
On January 16, 1924, The Ohio state supreme court upheld Mabel’s conviction in the lower court and a new trial is denied. Mabel entered Marysville Reformatory to begin her 20-year sentence.