Everything Librarian: Who Was William Holly Griffith (1892-1971) of West Virginia?

Monday, May 7, 2018

Who Was William Holly Griffith (1892-1971) of West Virginia?

Who was William Holly Griffith (1892-1971), a convicted murderer and prisoner from Wirt County, West Virginia? Sometimes called the Bestial Murderer (because of the heinous nature of his crimes), Griffith was probably responsible for the deaths of four men including Constable Jeff Goff, police officer G. Ord Thompson, boat owner Ira Roush, and inmate Henry Lewis. This cop killer, murderer, and chronic prison escapee is probably one of the most dangerous criminals in recorded West Virginia history.

Griffith in the Census

In the 1900 US Census, there is a William Griffith (born in July 1892) living in the Burning Springs district of Wirt County, West Virginia. William’s parents are listed as James (age 33) and Eva (age 24) Griffith. James’ occupation is listed as farming. At the time of the 1900 Census, James and Eva had been married for 8 years. Also listed are additional children of James and Eva including Elizabeth, age 7, and George D., age 2. William is listed as attending school. The birthplace of all parents and children is listed as West Virginia, and the parents of James and Eva are listed as being born in West Virginia.

William H. Griffith (age 17) and his parents, James (age 44) and Evaline (age 36) are also found in the 1910 US Census. They are living in Nicholas County, West Virginia, in Kentucky District Precinct 3. What we can conclude from looking at the census is that the Griffiths had a very large family that included:
Minnie S. (age 15),
George D. (age 11),
Albert F. (age 8),
Lona (age 6),
Bessie (age 2),
Atha (age 0, indicating infant).

Including parents and children, that is nine people in one household. James Griffith’s occupation is listed as a carpenter who works on his own account and builds or works on houses. The future murderer William is listed as working as a laborer in a coal mine. An article in Goldenseal Magazine by Herbert R. Cogar in 2010 lists Griffith’s wife’s name as Lulu. Allegedly, William Holly Griffith also had a daughter.

The Crimes of Holly Griffith

So, what are the crimes of Holly Griffith? It all started over a car that Griffith purchased using a bad check. Mr. Griffith had been arrested in Athens, Ohio. The arresting party, with Griffith, stopped to spend the night in Cairo and Griffith was able to escape and return to his home in Groundhog, West Virginia.

Special Constable Jeff Goff went to Griffith’s house in Groundhog (near Creston) in Wirt County, WV, to arrest Mr. Griffith. Griffith shot Goff rather than submit to the arrest. For reasons unknown, William Griffith was never charged in the shooting of Constable Jeff Goff on April 1, 1915 that resulted in Goff’s death on April 8. (Sadly, Thomas Jefferson Goff lingered for a week before he died from the gunshot wound.) After this shooting and escape, Griffith was chased with bloodhounds and a group of deputies lead by the Sheriff of Wirt County.

Griffith was able to escape arrest and was on the run when he murdered again.

Griffith was convicted for the murder of G. Ord Thompson, the Chief of Police of the town of Gassaway, WV. Thompson was murdered by Griffith on May 1, 1915, while Griffith was on the run from the first murder. It is interesting to note that the wanted poster from 1915 lists Griffith alias as F. S. Rose, the name he used to write the bad check.

So while there is no census information that gives us William Griffith’s middle name, there is evidence that the man known to many as “Holly” really had a similar, but different, middle name of “Howlie.” One strong piece of evidence as to the identity of William Griffith is his World War I draft card from December 1918, easily found on the Church of the Latter Day Saints site Family Search. Is this an error? One possibility is that the card was filled out by someone else who misheard the middle name of the Bestial Murderer.

This record clearly lists Griffith’s name was William Howlie Griffith, born in Sanoma on July 31, 1892 in Wirt County, West Virginia. Griffith lists his occupation as electrician and claims to be married with a child. He also gives his address as Clarksburg.

Griffiths' death certificate lists his first name as Holly, one must assume, because that is his nickname. He died July 11, 1971 at Moundsville Penitentiary of a cerebral vascular accident due to hypertension. Griffith died of a stroke.

You may read and view the entire death certificate of William Griffith here. The cause of death of the Bestial Murderer is listed as cerebral vascular accident and hypertension-- William Holly died of a stroke at age 79.

Speculation About Griffith/p>

So, did one bad check begin the criminal career of this notorious West Virginia felon? The details of Griffith’s life and crimes are a bit murky. It is known that Griffith’s lawyer, the highly respected J. Howard Holt came to Griffith’s defense and argued that his client was not guilty of the three murders he was ultimately convicted. (Holt also was a passionate opponent of the death penalty.) William Holly Griffith is an interesting character from West Virginia history. Descriptions of Griffith are contradictory as he has been described as a model prisoner who was entrepreneurial in prison and yet he also escaped from Moundsville Penitentiary. Do model prisoners escape? I think not. But you can look at the mugshots of William Holly Griffith and tell that he was in prison for most of his life. Holly was incarcerated for over 55 years, one of the longest serving inmates in US history. He is so much a convict that he was allowed to have his own dog when incarcerated at Moundsville Prison in Moundsville, WV (see pic below).

By some accounts, Griffith was a wealthy man and had built up a bank account of several tens of thousands of dollars but this is hearsay. Sadly, there is just not a lot of historic information about William Holly Griffith. If he was indeed a vicious, or bestial, murderer, perhaps a lack of details about his life and death is a suitable epitaph.

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