On the morning of Oct. 9, 1896, Benjamin H. Osborne escaped from a locked room in his family’s house with a pistol, fearful that he would be returned to the state lunatic asylum at Milledgeville. He found Alice, his 18-year-old bride of less than a week, and told her that his soul had been given to a dog and that he had to find the dog and kill it before anyone took his soul from it. If someone had already found his soul, he would have to find and kill them.
Word spread swiftly throughout Atlanta that an armed madman was stalking the streets and policemen fanned out through the city while citizens gave wide berth to strangers on the sidewalks. By mid-afternoon Osborne had not been found.
At 4:30 Theodore Schrader left work at the Atlanta Lithographing Company where he was foreman of the engraving department. Schrader was a 30-year-old St. Louis native who lived with his wife and 9-year-old son in Atlanta’s West End. Until a few weeks earlier Ben Osborne had been one of the engravers in Schrader’s charge, but as Osborne’s mind grew more unstable his work suffered and Schrader had suspended him for several weeks in hopes that he would regain his senses and return to work. Osborne seems to have accepted the arrangement and apparently never shown any hard feelings toward his supervisor. As Schrader walked down Lloyd Street to catch the streetcar home he found his way blocked by a train halted outside the Union Station. Ben Osborne was approaching the train from the other side.
Instead of waiting for it to move, Osborne went around the end of the train and saw Schrader. He pulled his .32 and walked quickly toward his old foreman. When he was three feet away he leveled the pistol and fired five rapid shots, never making a sound. One bullet passed through Schrader’s chest, another hit his left arm. Schrader had time only to cry out once; he staggered a few feet and fell in front of the depot.
Osborne stood staring at his victim as a crowd of passerby rushed in. He tried to shoot a man who was trying to help Schrader, but the pistol was empty. Osborne was subdued without resistance and taken to jail. Schrader was taken to a nearby undertaker’s where he died within minutes.
Ed Osborne was walking down Broad Street when he saw a crowd of excited newsboys gathered outside the Journal offices. He asked what was going on and they told him that the crazy man had killed someone at the depot. Ed hurried to police headquarters where he was shown to his brother’s padded cell. Ben’s face was pale and contorted. He did recognize his brother, but asked if he was the man who had his soul, and, if not, to leave immediately. This was all that Ben Osborne would say to anyone.
He refused all food, saying that the police were trying to poison him with dog meat. Dr. Wright, the city physician, examined Osborne and asked him about the piece of string that had been in his pocket when he was arrested. Osborne explained that he tied the string around his head from time to time to keep his brain from exploding.
A grand jury was impaneled Oct. 11 and returned a true bill for murder; Ben Osborne was taken to Fulton County jail to await trial. After a few days he stopped refusing food, but rejected the prison fare in favor of home-cooked meals brought his family.
The manager of the Lyceum Theater issued a statement to the effect that neither Ben Osborne nor anyone else had been hypnotized to think that they were a dog or any other animal during the engagement of the hypnotists Professor and Mrs. Lee. Friends of Theodore Schrader announced that they were considering suing the city of Atlanta for failing to put Osborne in custody after they knew that he was deranged, armed and dangerous.
Osborne’s case was compared with that of Alex Carr, an Atlanta murderer who had successfully feigned insanity for over a year until he broke under the strain of maintaining the ruse and admitted his deception. The county jailers and prisoners were unanimous in thinking that Osborne’s madness was genuine; he would discuss nothing but the whereabouts of his soul and the manner in which his food was to be prepared.
After a week in jail Osborne attempted to choke himself to death. In another week he had taken to blowing out the jailer’s candle every evening as he came around to count the prisoners. Shortly thereafter he set a basket afire in his cell, but no one could figure out where he got the matches. In the first week of November Osborne again refused to eat. He tore his shirt into strips in which he tied up all the food brought to him and hung it from the ceiling of his cell. One of the strips he tied around his head to keep the dog’s brain within from exploding. With another strip of his shirt he made a circle on the floor and placed scraps of paper inside it in the outline of a dog. Inside the paper dog was a paper heart with the center torn out, and at that hollowed-out heart Ben Osborne stared all day, passing his hands over it again and again.
© 1995, John Ryan Seawright
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