Dayton History’s “Old Case Files” opens this Friday at the Old Montgomery County Courthouse in Downtown Dayton.
The story is ripped from the headlines—but not today’s headlines. The cast will be reenacting a murder trial from 1935, when, on Christmas Eve, a former police officer shot a man five times at the postal telegram office on 3rd Street in Dayton. To at least one passer-by, it seemed pretty cold blooded.
“He came outside, twirling his gun around his finger,” one witness tells the court. “He did that with his right hand. And with his left, he rolled a cigarette.” The witness, played by Ehron Ostendorf, says that he ran off to find a cop after seeing that.
As it turns out, the shooter, Louis E. Parker, had motive to kill the deceased, Thomas Payne. Payne had run off with Parker’s wife and children and car. Parker’s wife was more than willing to go. She’d been having an affair with Payne, and she lied to both her husband and mother to facilitate the affair.
In one exchange, Mr. Parker, played by Wayne Wolfe, testifies on his own behalf. He’s questioned by a defense attorney, played by Scott Stoney.
ATTORNEY: Did your wife, when she became ill last summer, accuse you of passing an infectious disease on to her?
PARKER: She did. And she said it had to be me because she had no dealings with any other man. She asked me to see a doctor, which I did, and he pronounced me “okay.”
ATTORNEY: What else did she say about her illness?
PARKER: She said she believed she should go away to recuperate.
Needless to say, Mrs. Parker was “recuperating” with her lover, who would later be shot by Mr. Parker.
The defense doesn’t deny the shooting, but they insist it was in self-defense—that Payne was reaching for a gun.
Margaret Piatt is the writer and director of Old Case Files, which is now in its seventh season.
“It’s not quite like being a playwright,” she says. “Instead, I think of it as a little bit like starting off with a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle.”
It’s a jigsaw puzzle because there usually aren’t transcripts from cases this old. So, Piatt has to research. She reads as many accounts as she can. “After I’ve fitted them together,” she says. “I usually know what the witnesses said, but I don’t know what was asked to make them say that.”
Authenticity and accuracy are important to these reenactments, and there’s a whole team that does research, including Sandy Lemming, who also acts in Old Case Files. While each case is different, Lemming says that every year there are audience members who come to see their ancestors portrayed.
“The very first year we had descendants of the man who was the murderer, who was convicted and executed,” Lemmings says. “They came up to us afterwards—we didn’t know they were going to be in the audience—so we were really wondering what kind of reaction they would have to putting on this trial which kind of proved their ancestor was a murderer.”
Lemming was relieved to learn that they appreciated the portrayal. And it’s not just audience members who feel connected to Old Case Files. Some of the actors get emotional talking about the play, too.
Jim Charters, who plays the Bailiff in this year’s production, says he wishes his father were alive to see the play. “He knew these attorneys,” Charters says. “It’s a shame he’s not still around. We could have some interesting talks.”
Each night, after the attorneys make their closing statements, the Bailiff chooses a dozen audience members at random, and they have ten minutes to decide the fate of Louis E. Parker. After the verdict is declared, the audience is invited to stay for a Q & A and find out how the real jury ruled back in 1935.
Scott Stoney of the Human Race Theatre has been involved with Old Case Files from its inception, and he says writer and director Margaret Piatt doesn’t take it easy on those audience members.
“She works very hard to get a balance between the two cases, so that when we start with actual audiences and actual juries, they have to consider both sides. It’s not a slam dunk for either side.” He also notes that Piatt has been known to do rewrites if it turns out one side has too much of an advantage.
While the writing may try to give the actors a level playing field, the same can’t be said of society at large. Stoney says that Old Case Files juries often make decisions based on “the current political scene. Many times we’ve had juries that are feeling very frustrated because someone’s not getting justice or someone’s not being put in jail that should be, and they will take it out on our cases.”
If you want to see how Stoney and the rest of the defense team fairs against the prosecution, Old Case Files runs Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays until August 6, but tickets cannot be bought at the door. Visit https://www.daytonhistory.org/ or call (937) 293-2841