December 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 8
In June of 1953 a friend and I, both eleven years old, were cliff climbing in a park in Cleveland when I tumbled down the slip- pery shale and broke a wrist. After inching our way down to the roadside, we hitched a ride in a garbage truck to the park police station. By the time my parents learned what had happened I was sitting in the emergency room of Bay View Osteopathie Hospital in suburban Bay Village, quite a distance from my west-side Cleveland home. I never did find out why I was taken there and not to the nearby hospital in Fairview Park.
An intern set my wrist, plastered on a cast, and released me to my relieved father. On the following day, however, we received a call from the hospital. One of its more experienced orthopedic surgeons had reviewed the X rays and was dissatisfied with the way my wrist had been set. So back we went, my father and I, to the hospital. The surgeon, a tall, nice-looking fellow with thinning hair and an easy smile, told us he would have to break my wrist again and reset it. When I woke up from the anesthesia, I had a new cast, and six weeks of healing lay ahead.
In August I was back at Bay View in the hands of the same congenial doctor. He took off the cast and offered some leisurely advice on how to rehabilitate my wrist. My father and I thanked him for his care and kindness and left for home. A week or so later the bill came from the hospital: $150. It seemed fair, but our physician, I guess, had reckoned differently. There was an ink slash through the charge and below it the revised figure: $75. “Hell of a nice guy,” my father said, as he noted the signature under the discounted bill, Samuel H. Sheppard, D.O.
It was naturally quite a shock when, the following summer, local newspapers announced Dr. Sheppard’s arrest for the murder of his pregnant wife. What followed, of course, was one of the most sensational trials in decades, with biased news coverage by the Cleveland Press , prosecution charges of a cold-hearted, adulterous husband, and a seemingly lame defense that a “bushy-haired” intruder had committed the crime. Sheppard was convicted in the media even before the unsequestered jury reached its own verdict. He was sentenced to life in prison. The case inspired a television series, “The Fugitive,” which ran from 1963 to 1967, and a movie in 1993.
The rest of Sheppard’s life, especially in light of recent evidence that strongly suggests he did not commit the murder, resembles Greek tragedy. Ten years after the trial the Supreme Court overturned Sheppard’s conviction, declaring in effect that the trial had been a sham. A second trial and an acquittal followed. There was reasonable doubt after all. So Dr. Sheppard was free, though not vindicated.
Lingering public suspicion haunted him for the rest of his life. After a brief unsuccessful effort to resume his medical practice, he drew new notoriety for his drinking, his emotional turmoil, his divorce from his second wife. There was mocking coverage of his admittedly bizarre spell on the pro-wrestling circuit during the year before he died. A brain hemorrhage finally struck him down in April of 1970.
Over the years a number of books have argued his innocence. But the most persuasive case of late has been the result of his son’s long crusade to vindicate his father by identifying and proving the guilt of the “bushy-haired” intruder (evidence suggests the man was a window washer named Richard Eberling). I wish him well. His father was no saint, but he was a more gentle man than many once thought.