Today the area is Malabar Farm State Park, in Richland County, Ohio, named for the farm that author Louis Bromfield created and worked for some twenty years beginning in 1939. In 1945, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were married there.
A half-century before that happy event, it was the scene of one of Ohio’s most infamous murder mysteries. Three members of a farm family died of arsenic poisoning, and the fourth member was convicted of the crimes. It’s said that to this day, the murderer, Celia (Ceely) Rose, comes back to the old farmhouse where she killed her family. She’s not looking for them, though; Ceely killed for love, and she’s still looking for the man she killed for, although he skedaddled for parts unknown within days of her arrest.
Ceely, as her family called her, was a lateborn child. Her parents had one son who was nearly twenty years old before she came along as an afterthought. Her mother, as her daughter grew up, often wondered if the fact that Ceely had been born when both she and her husband were past forty was responsible for Ceely’s difficulties. Ceely was not “normal”; during her murder trial, a number of witnesses referred to her as “silly”—a kind word for developmental delay. Ceely was slow to learn to read and write, and was held back so many times at school that, when she left at the age of fourteen, she was still in classes with children half her age. Nor was she any better at household chores; her mother, try as she might, could not teach her to sew, to cook, or even to clean adequately.
Needless to say, she was the butt of most of the unkind jokes the kids around the area made. A couple of neighbor girls her own age, sisters Cora and Theresa (Tracey) Davis, finally took pity on her and she became close friends with them. And yet, in the end, even those friends, horrified by what she did for love, worked with authorities to bring her to justice.
By 1896, the year she killed her family, Ceely was nearly twenty, and while both intellectually dim and physically awkward, she was sexually mature, and took an interest in the young men who worked the farms around her family’s. The one she was most interested in was a neighbor’s son called Guy Berry. Guy was kind to her; he never made fun of her and always made it a point to come over to the fence and speak to her when she was outside. Unfortunately, she became so infatuated with him that she began to hamper him at his work. Worse yet, she began to tell people that she and Guy were to be married soon. Guy, of course, was distressed at this turn of events, and he told her they could never be married because her family disapproved of him. It wasn’t such a big lie, but her family would pay for that lie with their lives.
There was a box of arsenic in the house, purchased by her brother to kill rats. Ceely, angry with her parents and older brother for disapproving of Guy Berry, sneaked that box from its upper shelf, and, one morning in late summer, poured it into the family’s coffeepot.
Her father, who drank two cups, was dead before night. Her brother, who drank a single cup, lived a few days before he succumbed. Her mother was ill that morning, and didn’t feel like drinking coffee; she eventually drank a half-cup, and then was beastly sick for several days.
Sometime, while she was under treatment, Rebecca Rose realized that Ceely was responsible for the deaths of her father and brother and for her illness. She began talking of moving away, her one thought being to save her daughter from the gallows. Ceely, who had no intention of going away and leaving her beloved Guy Berry behind, took action; she gave her mother more arsenic-laced coffee, and Rebecca died.
The community was shocked, to say the least, by the three deaths. Guy Berry’s father sent his son away, lest he be accused of having something to do with the deaths, given that Ceely still insisted they were going to be married. That left Ceely alone in the house, hysterically insisting to all questioners that she had no idea how her family had been poisoned.
It was left to her friend Tracey Davis to get the truth out of her. Tracey had been living and working in a nearby town, but she came home to see her family. While she was there she spent some time talking to Ceely. Tracey used a spurious story of a love lost to parental disapproval to get Ceely to talk.
And talk she did. She confessed that she had killed her family, and professed hurt and amazement that Guy Berry seemed to have deserted her.
Unknown to Ceely, the sheriff, summoned by Tracey’s father, had been listening to their conversation. He arrested Ceely on the spot.
Ceely was found guilty but mentally ill, and sent to an asylum for the criminally insane, where she lived out the rest of her life. She died at the age of eighty-three. Her family is buried in Pleasant Grove cemetery, not far from the house; she is buried in a prison graveyard.
The old Rose farmhouse is preserved as a museum of sorts. On days when the weather is not too bad, a large photo of Ceely sits against the wall on the front porch, a picture taken at the time of her trial.Her face is inscrutable, giving nothing away.
According to some, though, Ceely herself is still there. Sometimes—especially toward harvest time—people report seeing her ghost standing at the window on the side of the house where the fields were, where she used to stand and watch hungrily as her beloved Guy Berry worked.
She still can’t believe, it seems, that he would leave her. She waits, not knowing that he, too, is now long in his grave.