You've heard the phrase “ripped from the headlines” to describe TV storylines touching on current events, but a new streaming miniseries from Pulse Opera House in Warren is turning back the clock to 1903.
“Of Sound Mind,” written and directed by Pulse artistic director Cynthia Smyth-Wartzok, dives into the sensational Bluffton trial of farmer and businessman John W. Terrell, who was accused of murdering his son-in-law Melvin Wolfe.
Though it happened more than a century ago, the trial's story features characters that might have been pulled from a prime-time soap opera or legal procedural.
A daughter who found herself – in the parlance of the time – “in trouble” and needed to marry an unloving man. A cruel husband who might have been having liaisons with his stepsister in the bedroom across the hall from his pregnant wife, whom he kicked out of the house more than once. A father so distraught that he not only shot his son-in-law once but tracked him down to where he was being treated by a doctor and shot him again on the operating table, killing him.
From the extended hunt for a jury (the members of which were forbidden from leaving the courthouse until the trial concluded), to the testimony of dozens of witnesses and a packed-in crowd of onlookers that the judge needed to repeatedly admonish to keep quiet, newspapers including The Journal Gazette reported every detail of the trial that made headlines across the country.
Those reports are the backbone for the 12 episodes of “Of Sound Mind,” which features 55 area actors and volunteers doing dramatic readings almost word for word from what was published about the trial. Set against the backdrop of the oil boom, the miniseries is complete with costumes and a musical number for each episode. Each episode is about a half-hour long.
Among members of the cast, Travis Fisher plays Terrell and Lina Willard plays his daughter, Lucy Wolfe.
Though the trial ended just before Christmas 1903, the story doesn't stop there. The aftermath continued for years, involving multiple Indiana governors and changes to state law. The production recently traveled to the Indiana Statehouse where actor John Gregg read a 1904 statement from then-Gov. Winfield Taylor Durbin.
In some ways the project is a nod to the reporters who wrote everything down because we wouldn't know stories like this one if it weren't for newspapers, Smyth-Wartzok says.
She first came across the story about 1983 when she was studying Warren's Pulse Opera House in graduate school. The trial came up in her research because Terrell was involved in the building of the Bluffton Opera House.
The story just sucks you in, says Smyth-Wartzok.
“It's one of those projects you think, 'You know, somebody ought to do something with this,'” she says with a laugh. “Then COVID hit and I kind of had time to do it.”
Though she says viewership of the series had a slow start, it has definitely generated interest in the history of the trial. People are going to graveyards trying to find the burial sites of people who were part of the trial – some of whom were their great-great-grandparents. Smyth-Wartzok has seen people researching the murder and trial themselves, including looking up the court transcripts. She started a Facebook group, “Of Sound Mind at the Pulse,” and within a half -hour, 60 people had joined.
The title “Of Sound Mind” comes from the question of whether Terrell was sane at the time of the murder. He testified that he couldn't remember doing the things he was accused of, and his legal team argued his family had a history of mental illness.
Witnesses were split nearly evenly on whether they thought he was sane at the time of the murder. The community, too, was divided on the question. Some said they believed Terrell was a good man with issues, others said that hunting the victim down and shooting him a second time must prove that he knew what he was doing.
“He's a very complicated man,” Smyth-Wartzok says. As a farmer with hundreds of acres of land, he made a lot of money very quickly during the oil boom.
He set up an office in his jail cell where he kept his safe and people came in to pay bills and do business. When the opera house he was funding (and could see being constructed across the street from his cell) opened, he was temporarily released from jail so he could attend the celebration, Smyth-Wartzok says.
Though so much source material exists, the biggest challenge in creating “Of Sound Mind” was nailing down the timeline of events and deciding which of the dozens of people to include in the script. There has also been a learning curve of directing for video instead of the stage. For example, where you might want people standing here and there across the stage for a live performance, it's easier and faster for the camera to find them if they are in a straight line.
Episodes are being filmed about a week in advance and are released on Saturdays. This week is Episode 5, but all episodes will remain available for several months so people can stream them when they have time. The streams are available for 48-hour rental for $5 each at ShowTix4U.com. Search “Pulse Opera House” to find them.
Proceeds from the production go toward reopening Pulse for in-person productions, which might include a show this fall. The theater is also considering a live panel-type event tied to “Of Sound Mind” with attorneys, health professionals and historians.
Smyth-Wartzok says the episodes might be offered again down the road, perhaps on the anniversary of the trial.
By the numbers
Potential jurors examined by the end of the second day, with only 11 of 12 seats filled. More men were called in to complete the jury.
Witnesses the state and defense each claimed to have ready to introduce to the court, though not all ended up testifying.
People in court when the verdict was announced Dec. 20, 1903.
Episodes in “Of Sound Mind” miniseries by Pulse Opera House.
Area actors and volunteers performing in “Of Sound Mind”