By Bob Weaver|
Originally Published Jan. 2002
One of West Virginia's most infamous murderers was William Holly Griffith (1892-1971) of Creston, Wirt County, sometimes called the "bestial killer." Griffith was incarcerated for killing at least three people, although he was never convicted for a first episode, the shooting of Creston Constable Jeff Goff in 1915 on "Fish Pot" or Ann's Run. He was issued three life sentences.
Griffith was charged with other murders and folklore made him suspect in other cases around West Virginia and other states, in most of which he was not involved. Over the years, many people in West Virginia came to his defense. His counsel J. Howard Holt, who wrote extensively about the case, believed he was given life sentences for murders he did not commit.
Griffith reportedly continued his killing spree in 1921 after an escape from the West Virginia Penitentiary. A trustee was stabbed to death in a break-out which involved several inmates, and Griffith either committed the murder or took the blame.
During his half-century incarceration he was a likable, docile and model prisoner, and became one of West Virginia's "graybeard prisoners." He created a business behind the walls, a forerunner to prison industries, and accumulated some wealth through his endeavors.
After attending school in Creston until third grade and growing up in the community, he married Lula Stewart in 1912, and worked as a farmer and construction laborer.
Griffith shot Constable Jeff Goff when he was serving a warrant in 1915, Griffith was twenty-three. The killing was validated by local residents, although the case was never brought to court. Howard Lee, a Wirt County historian and former Attorney General of West Virginia (1925-1933) had little fondness for Griffith and felt he was a dangerous man. Lee wrote about him in his book Looking Backward One Hundred Years In Appalachia, acknowledging Constable Goff was once his neighbor.
"Thomas Boyce, a Justice of the Peace at Creston had issued a warrant for the arrest of Griffith, charging him with a minor offense. He gave the warrant to Constable Goff with directions to arrest Griffith and bring him before the justice for trial."
Lee said his brother, Wirt Lee declined to be deputized to help Constable Goff, stating "I know Holly. He is a well-armed dangerous outlaw who will kill before he will submit to arrest." Lee said Constable Goff replied "I don't need anybody to help me arrest that lad."
Later, Wirt Lee found Goff lying in Griffith's yard. He covered his wounded body with bed clothes from Griffith's bed and left to summon help. Lee and some neighbors removed Goff to his own residence and Dr. Stewart was summoned, who announced nothing could save the injured man. He died one week later.
Griffith took off toward Spencer and caught the Coke and Coal Railroad from Clendenin to Gassaway. One report said two railway policemen saw a man riding between two cars and attempted to stop him, with one officer being shot in the head by Griffith. The State of West Virginia offered a $1000 reward for his capture.
Two Youngstown, Ohio police officers captured Griffith about six weeks later in a diner, after a tip from a waitress. He was returned to Braxton County to be tried and convicted on July 16, 1915 for the killing of the railroad officer. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Charles Park, an 85-year old, who now lives at Newark, Wirt County, said Griffith and his father, William Park were long-time friends. The elder Park, while acknowledging the shooting of Constable Goff, never believed Griffith was responsible for the other murders. (Editor's Note: Mr. Park has passed away since this article was written).
Charles Park said he visited Griffith in Moundsville twice about thirty years ago. "They let me right in. We talked about my dad and their friendship. They knew each other well all their lives."
"My dad lost an arm from blood poisoning after his gun exploded because he got snow in the barrel. He was shooting at a fox, and old Dr. Mitchell from Burning Springs sawed his arm off with a hand saw, using whiskey to numb the pain," said Park. "We talked about all that."
Park said Griffith confirmed he and his dad had a visit after his prison escape in 1921. Park quoted his dad saying "The man who Holly Griffith killed at Creston, deserved it," referring to Constable Jeff Goff. "He had all the reason in the world to kill him. My dad did not believe he killed all those people, although he knew he shot Jeff Goff." Park said his mother was at Griffith's house when the shooting happened.
The 1921 prison escape appeared to be carefully planned and involved four or five other inmates. After setting a fire, Griffith and his associates managed to cut a belt to a dynamo which generated electricity to the prison, dimming the lights around the wall. It was then Griffith's co-conspirators backed out of the escape, and Griffith dropped himself down the thirty foot wall. During the frenzy, a trustee in the engine room interfered with the escape and was stabbed to death.
J. Howard Holt wrote "Whether Holly or some other (inmate) struck the fatal blow will never be known." Griffith told Holt "These other men are here for a few years and I am here for life, and it makes no difference to me. I will bear the blame."
After Griffith's escape from Moundsville, rumors circulated he had murdered the Sheriff of Taylor County in addition to an old man near Marietta, Ohio at precisely the same time, a hundred miles apart. While the Ohio man was killed, the Sheriff was alive and well.
The killing of Captain Ira Roush, a young boatman on the Ohio River "was at once laid to Holly Griffith's charge," according to attorney J. Howard Holt. Griffith fled to South Carolina, where he was arrested as a suspicious person after a breaking and entering. He was asleep, sitting in a chair, worn from his travels. He was returned and tried for the murder of the trustee killed during the escape.
J. Howard Holt said the Moundsville warden displayed extreme "hostility" when obtaining a conviction and another life sentence against Griffith, with only one person, an inmate, giving testimony against him. The record shows the convict was immediately pardoned.
Griffith was taken to Mason County to be tried for the murder of the boatman. Griffith offered no witnesses or defense and the jury found him guilty of murder in the first degree. He received another life sentence. Attorney Holt said the case against Griffith was riddled with flawed evidence, although historian Howard B. Lee was convinced Griffith committed the murder.
In 1934 Griffith went to work in the prison tailor shop and became an accomplished tailor, often making uniforms for the West Virginia State Police and Conservation Commission. He managed to set up his own shop in the prison and was given special privileges. His prison wealth was estimated at $40,000, after which the State of West Virginia canceled his contracts in 1958.
Gov. Hullett Smith gave Griffith a 180 day "medical respite" in 1967 to seek treatment for what was described as cancer. He was placed under supervision, residing at his sister's residence in Barberton, Ohio, supposedly to seek help at the Cleveland Clinic.
Griffith, according to several sources, then purchased an old car and contacted a prison buddy, and in 1968 they began a tour of America. A newspaper headlined the story "Holly Griffith, West Virginia's Notorious Killer on the Loose Again."
Griffith reported he and his prison buddy traveled to the west coast, stopping in Mexico to get treatment for his cancer, which C. Robert Sarver. Director of the Division of Correction said was a lie.
During his final escape, historian and former Attorney General Howard B. Lee, said he remembered Griffith saying he would like to "talk things over with me." Lee sold his home in Florida. "I was fearful this insane killer might come to Florida to talk with me," he said. Lee had consistently opposed his pardon.
Griffith did the unexpected. He returned to the Huttonsville Medium Security Prison, and asked for money to finance his treatment, knowing full well he would be locked up again in solitary confinement, although a very sick man.
Retired Calhoun businessman Von Yoak was often advocated for Griffith, and believed in his innocence. He has a large collection of letters and information about the Griffith case.
After lingering with illness, probably prostate cancer, William Holly Griffith died on July 10, 1971, his unclaimed body was taken to White Gate Cemetery, the prison burial ground at Moundsville.
After a year researching this story, I am unclear what really happened to Holly Griffith. Whether he was the "bestial killer" and serial-like murderer described by Howard B. Lee, or the victim of a system bent on making him responsible for several crimes he did commit. Could the compelling case of misguided justice detailed by counselor J. Howard Holt be closer to the truth? Holt said "He is only one example among ten thousand injustices suffered under our prison system."
Holt concluded his comments on Griffith with this poetry:
"Our crimes against our fellow men outweighs our virtues far, And hide the good we may have done as black storms hide a star."
"And the darkest blot upon that page, the greatest crime of all, Is the crime of those who walk erect .... and stand upon the stage."
- January 20, 2002