James Eldridge: The Wrong Kind of Victim

He was a politico, writer and radio host whose star shone brightly in Columbus. Then James Eldridge was brutally murdered in his Downtown apartment, revealing a secret life in an intolerant time.

Bob Vitale
Columbus Monthly
James Eldridge

Governors, mayors and members of Congress are among the 154,000 people laid to rest in the rolling fields of Green Lawn Cemetery. Off its winding pathways and under its shady oaks, the lives of Central Ohio pioneers, war heroes, authors, athletes and icons of business are remembered with statues and obelisks and granite memorials. Some of the names carved in stone or stamped in bronze—Sullivant, Huntington, Battelle, Rickenbacker, Rhodes—are memorialized outside Green Lawn’s iron gates as well.

But not everyone here has a dignified burial. In a dark, 12-by-5-foot closet in the basement of the cemetery’s Huntington Chapel, the cremated remains of more than 500 people lie in near-anonymity in an area known as “permanent storage.” Green Lawn trustee Randy Rogers knows some of their stories and speculates on others. Some of the children, he thinks, were placed here by parents who planned posthumous reunions but never shared those ideas with the people who outlived them. Some outlived their money. Some were estranged from family before their deaths. Some, he’s sure, were abandoned by family because of how they died.

This is where you’ll find the unclaimed remains of James Eldridge, who was killed more than four decades ago in Downtown Columbus. Like the others in permanent storage, Eldridge’s final resting place is a plastic bag that was placed inside a metal urn. His is bronze, a mid-priced step above the basic tin models that Rogers compares to coffee cans. The urn, like all the others, sits inside a cardboard box, one of the many that line the closet’s wooden shelves.

The interment urn of James Eldridge at Green Lawn Cemetery

The name James A. Eldridge, once a fixture on local radio and in area newspapers, is written in marker on that box. It’s a forgotten name now, but his life and violent death still have lessons to teach about fear, secrets and intolerance during an unenlightened age.

***

“Many at the Gazette knew Jim had a shadow life of some sort,” Chillicothe Gazette news editor Jim Bruney wrote on March 17, 1978, two days after the newspaper’s former opinion-page columnist and book critic was killed in his Columbus apartment on the sixth floor of the Great Southern Hotel.

Eldridge, an Indiana native, had moved to Chillicothe, his wife’s hometown, when the couple married in 1970. He was 50 at the time and brought to Ohio a long professional resume that included work in journalism, public relations, public policy and politics with stops in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. He delivered lectures on both sides of the Atlantic and had researched a book about a fellow Hoosier who was the mother of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. 

He talked—a lot—about the people he had worked with and the people he knew, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson. “There are people who talk games of knowing people, and then there are people who can back it up,” recalls Terry Casey, a longtime Columbus political consultant for whom Eldridge once arranged a tour of the Palace of Westminster in London. “You don’t just walk into the Parliament building.” 

“He was a very interesting, entertaining guy,” says Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, who was the city prosecutor back then and would meet Eldridge and courthouse regulars at the Jury Room bar on Mound Street. “If you mentioned World War II, he would tell stories about Churchill. If you mentioned government, he would quote the Kennedys. No matter what it was, he was very knowledgeable and very well-informed.” 

A publicity photo of James Eldridge

So was “Columbus Feedback,” the interview and call-in show Eldridge hosted three nights a week on WMNI after he was hired as the AM station’s public affairs director in 1974. It was substantive but with a bit of an edge, says Casey, who in 1978 was an aide to Columbus Mayor Tom Moody and an occasional guest on the show. Former Mayor Greg Lashutka, who was the city attorney at the time, calls Eldridge’s show one of a kind. He and O’Brien had drinks with Eldridge the night he was killed to talk about plans for an upcoming episode. 

In Chillicothe, Eldridge had been derided in letters to the editor as an “erudite newcomer,” “Ross County’s resident avatar” and so arrogant and pompous that he made William F. Buckley seem like a humble country parson. “Mr. Eldridge is an intelligent, urbane, informed member of the Fourth Estate who wields a facile pen, and Chillicothe is indeed fortunate in having him,” wrote one critic/fan. “But does he have to keep reminding us of it?” 

The writer’s closing line—“I hate him, but I read him twice a week”—became the headline of a Gazette house ad that Eldridge shared with friends. “I think you will all enjoy—and approve,” he wrote. 

In Columbus, Eldridge quickly made his mark on radio. Within six months, Moody honored “Columbus Feedback” for “distinguished public service to radio broadcasting and the creation of an informed public opinion.” Columbus Dispatch TV and radio writer Cynthia Robins listed the show as one of Columbus radio’s best—even though Eldridge once was suspended for a week by WMNI owner William Mnich after one guest was able to squeeze in little more than his name. “It’s well-known by Eldridge’s legions that the man does his homework and that he is not above injecting a little friction and heat into the conversation,” Robins wrote. 

After his murder, though, the details of Eldridge’s “shadow life” became well-known, too. 

***

The March 14, 1978, edition of “Columbus Feedback” was an early St. Patrick’s Day party of sorts, broadcast live from the Tiffany Room at the Southern Hotel. Eldridge wore an Irish hat, but people didn’t remember him that night with the shillelagh he’d often carry Downtown for style and protection. 

Downtown Columbus was a different place back then, but Eldridge told his listeners often that he felt perfectly safe any time of day or night. The Southern, long before its reincarnation as a Westin luxury hotel, was Eldridge’s home and his workplace; WMNI was on the seventh floor, one above his two-room apartment in No. 614. The adjacent Southern Theater was home to WMNI’s weekly country-music jamborees until it closed down in 1979. Mnich owned them both and let his popular talk-show host live there rent-free. 

“Places like the Gentlemen’s Book Store and the 40 Karats were across the street, and prostitutes, drug dealers and muggers were frequent visitors to the four corners of Main and High at night,” says Rick Minerd Sr., who was an overnight DJ at the station before he went on to become a Franklin County sheriff’s deputy and the chief of police in Obetz. 

The 40 Karats—a strip club so notorious that when it caught fire in the 1980s, then-Mayor Buck Rinehart quickly called in the wrecking ball—was one of Eldridge’s known haunts. Minerd says he’d spot him in the Tiffany Room with younger men or women closer to his own age. Eldridge also hung out further down High Street at the Tremont Lounge, which flies rainbow flags on a sidewalk patio today but was far less obvious and much more ambiguous in 1978. He’d sometimes take the elevator up to the seventh floor and stop in the WMNI studio before going home to his apartment for the night. 

“Jim was not a young man, nor did he appear to be one who could easily defend himself if involved in an aggressive encounter,” Minerd says. “For these reasons alone, he would have been an easy mark for a violent predator.” 

A Tiffany Lounge regular told police that Eldridge knew a lot of important people in town but had a lot of questionable acquaintances as well. Rick Brown Eagle, who was in charge of security at the Southern Hotel, warned Eldridge more than once that he was putting himself in danger when he took, as Brown Eagle told The Dispatch in 1978, “male friends” up to his apartment. He had visitors frequently, Brown Eagle added. 

Housekeepers and desk clerks at the Southern were familiar with the routine of strange young men taking the elevator up to the sixth floor and Eldridge following soon after. Bartenders all over Downtown knew his type, and hustlers who worked the bars and streets knew exactly what he was into. 

Eldridge didn’t usually drink before his shows, but friends said he had his usual Canadian Club and soda before his March 14 St. Patrick’s Day’s show. Afterward, he invited himself to the Beck Tavern with Lashutka and O’Brien, and when O’Brien left at 11 p.m., Eldridge asked him for a ride to the Tremont Lounge. A cab driver told police he dropped Eldridge off at the Southern around midnight but saw him walk past the hotel entrance. A server at the 40 Karats remembered him ordering a drink and talking with several men around the bar. 

When Eldridge didn’t show up for work by late afternoon on March 15, Mnich and his secretary went down to the sixth floor to check on him. The station owner found Eldridge near the foot of his bed, clad only in his underwear. He was covered in blood, which also was splattered on the ceiling and three bedroom walls. The Franklin County coroner said Eldridge suffered more than 20 blows to the head, with cuts so deep his left ear was severed. He had broken ribs and nearly 30 lacerations and bruises to his torso. He had more on the backs of his hands from fighting for his life. The likely weapon was a brass table lamp that was covered in blood and broken.

A photo from the crime scene
***

Columbus police spoke to 150 people within five days, but The Dispatch described them as stymied. The newspaper’s initial story mentioned that Eldridge was arrested twice in 1967 on charges of soliciting undercover police officers near a Chicago bus depot for deviant sexual conduct. Police told The Dispatch that Eldridge “may have been killed during a similar encounter.” 

Records of the police investigation include interviews with dozens of people who speculated about Eldridge’s sexual orientation. Hustlers acknowledged visiting his apartment repeatedly but claimed they didn’t have sex with him and weren’t gay themselves. “This information apparently substantiates our efforts to establish a definite homosexual trail,” a homicide squad sergeant wrote after an interview with a Downtown lawyer who saw Eldridge leave a dinner at the Tremont Lounge with a tall, muscular man in his mid-20s. 

A photo from the crime scene

Although police had created a sketch of a suspect based on the description of a Southern Hotel night clerk who saw Eldridge enter the lobby at 1:30 a.m. with a younger man, it was a call to the new Crime Stoppers line in July that finally put police on the killer’s trail. While at a bar, an acquaintance pointed out a man, Elmer Harry Jackson, to the tipster and said he killed Eldridge. Fingerprints taken from the murder scene came back as a match to Jackson, who by August was interviewed, arrested and charged with murder. 

On the night of the killing, Jackson told police, he was driving Downtown when he saw Eldridge get punched in the nose outside a bar on South High Street. Jackson said he pulled over and offered Eldridge a ride. The two never met before, Jackson told police, but employees at the Southern said they’d seen him there about 10 days earlier. However they met, the 23-year-old admitted he went up to Eldridge’s apartment that night for a drink. 

Eldridge got out a bottle of bourbon and a bottle of Scotch, Jackson told police. Eldridge told him that he “turned queer” during his two years in the U.S. Army, took off his clothes and suggested Jackson do the same. He offered the younger man $40 to let him perform oral sex. The two moved to the bedroom. 

Jackson told police he woke up later when he felt Eldridge’s weight on his back. “He panicked,” police detectives wrote. Jackson jerked around and swore at Eldridge, who, according to detectives, “told Jackson he didn’t want to hurt him; he just wanted to suck on his ear.” During his police interview, Jackson confessed to killing Eldridge. He said he became emotional, started fighting and told Eldridge he “wasn’t going to screw him.”

***

“Slaying Victim Made a Habit of Bringing Home Strangers,” read the March 17 headline in The Indianapolis Star, which covered the killing because of Eldridge’s local ties. He’d attended Butler University and worked for five years in the 1950s as a copy editor at The Star’s sister paper, The Indianapolis News

Or perhaps the coverage had something to do with the tawdriness of it all. As distasteful as homosexuality was to Americans in 1978—Gallup’s first poll on the topic a year earlier found just 43 percent thought consensual same-sex relations should be legal—newspaper editors and reporters loved writing about it when someone ended up dead. “Death Seemed Inevitable,” the kicker above The Star’s headline concluded. 

Under the headline, “Sexual Meeting Ended in Death, Police Claim,” The Dispatch reported that Eldridge liked to “enlist partners who would ‘punish’ him.” In the Chillicothe Gazette, every story from August until Jackson’s sentencing in December mentioned the victim’s “history of homosexual behavior.” 

Jackson’s lawyers dropped an attempt to plead not guilty by reason of insanity after doctors found no evidence to suggest he was mentally ill. He pleaded guilty in December to reduced charges of voluntary manslaughter and aggravated robbery and was sentenced to seven to 25 years in prison. Prosecutors said they couldn’t determine whether Eldridge was killed in a deliberate act or a crime of passion; defense lawyers, who said “we are dealing with perversity,” alleged Jackson was subjected to “extreme provocation.” 

Despite the brutality of the killing, Jackson was released on parole after 13 years in prison, according to state records. He was incarcerated again on a parole violation in 1993 and then released once more in 2001. Records indicate he’s continued to live in Columbus, but his last known phone numbers no longer work.

***

Police investigations and media coverage of crimes against gay men both reflected and shaped attitudes toward homosexuality, says James Polchin, a cultural historian and author of the 2019 book, “Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall.” (It’s not clear whether Eldridge considered himself gay or bisexual, although people interviewed for this article say they assumed he was one or the other.) 

For his book, Polchin gathered stories about dozens of killings across the country between the 1920s and 1960s. They often portrayed the men killed as both victims and criminals, he says, and they sometimes portrayed killers as victimized by men trying to lead them astray. In Columbus in 1969, a month before riots at New York’s Stonewall Inn birthed the LGBTQ civil-rights movement, a Franklin County jury acquitted a 19-year-old who admitted killing another man, stealing his wallet and watch, and taking his car to Florida. The accused man claimed his victim made “homosexual advances.” 

“It’s a hard history to put next to the LGBTQ histories that we have,” Polchin says. “Our stories are based on a certain kind of identity, resilience, activism. These men were criminalized. They were having encounters, but they were people who might not have lived their lives as gay men.” 

But for every Fred Holdridge and Howard Burns—the late, legendary, longtime German Village couple who owned the Hausfrau Haven wine shop and helped revitalize the neighborhood—there were hundreds of James Eldridges in the 1970s. “It’s sort of an interesting window to use to think about how these men tried to find a social life, tried to find sexual partners, tried to create a world,” Polchin says of the crimes he researched. “Of course, the crime stories are the ones that have gone horribly wrong, but they do help us see these other kinds of social interactions that were probably going on that didn’t end in murder or violence.” 

Eldridge’s murder took place amid one of the nation’s first culture-war skirmishes over LGBTQ civil rights. A year earlier, singer and orange-juice pitchwoman Anita Bryant led a successful campaign in Dade County, Florida, to repeal a local anti-discrimination ordinance. She had moved on to California, where a statewide ballot initiative that would have barred gay people from working in public schools was headed toward defeat. 

Ohio rescinded a state sodomy law in 1972 that outlawed consensual sex between people of the same gender, but “unwelcome importuning”—any unreturned expression of same-sex desire—was classified as a misdemeanor until 2003. And despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this year that expanded federal sex-discrimination laws to cover sexual orientation and gender identity, it’s still sometimes legal in the state to fire an LGBTQ employee or refuse to hire someone based on their LGBTQ identity. 

In his column in Chillicothe, Jim Bruney shared the reality of what even a closeted life meant for Eldridge. He was “dealt some cruel punches,” his former editor wrote. Bruney wrote about how word of Eldridge’s Chicago arrests got him fired in 1970 after a month as the Ohio Democratic Party’s finance director. “He had been blunt enough in his writing to ensure that it would be used again some years later … when he tried to land several jobs in Columbus with various regional or state offices. The pattern repeated itself several times. He would be told he had snuffed all other applicants in the preliminary interviews and could probably expect an offer soon. Then, mysteriously, at the 11th hour, a letter would arrive which always seemed to begin, ‘We regret…’” 

Bruney wrote about one person who bragged he had shared the information with one of Eldridge’s potential employers. He wrote about another person who used an epithet to describe Eldridge. (The epithet isn’t identified, but presumably it was a gay slur.) 

The editor’s tribute praised Eldridge’s writing and described how work in the newsroom would stop when Eldridge held court. “Handle the shadow part of his life any way your conscience dictates,” Bruney wrote, “but if you have to mention his passing aloud, remember the good things.” 

***

Jennie Keplar was on a Halloween-themed tour of Green Lawn Cemetery last year when she first learned about Eldridge. “Right off the bat, the guide tells us this story, how legend has it he still haunts the hotel. She said his murderer hadn’t been caught, which I later found out wasn’t true. She said how his ashes are still in this room of unclaimed remains.” 

“We did the rest of the tour,” Keplar says, “but that bugged me the whole time. It just stung me.” Keplar has been an ally of the LGBTQ community since her teen years in the 1980s, when a friend at West High School who later came out as transgender was a frequent target of classmates’ harassment and bullying. 

“It got me thinking, how many people in Columbus were left unclaimed during the height of the AIDS epidemic? How many other crimes like this happened in Columbus where not only did they suffer this terrible, brutal death, but then they were left unclaimed by their families?” 

Eldridge had no funeral in Columbus after his death, although he had no family here, either. The papers reported plans for a service in his hometown of Indianapolis, but it’s unclear whether that ever took place. 

Although Eldridge’s ashes have no final resting place, his papers—a 1942 Army induction notice, recommendation letters, lecture brochures, Chillicothe Gazette columns—are housed at Indiana University’s Lilly Library in Bloomington. There are autographed photos, no longer in the frames that once hung on his apartment walls, of people such as U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, first lady Lady Bird Johnson and journalist Eric Sevareid. There’s a pen that President Lyndon Johnson used to sign into law the bill that created the National Endowment for the Arts. Eldridge was a congressional aide at the time. 

His ex-wife donated everything. The couple divorced in 1975, and she died in 1988. The only other things Eldridge left behind were books. 

On Ancestry.com, a great-nephew who posted photos of Eldridge as a child in Indiana and as a young man in Chicago knows the whole story of his uncle’s death. He’s planning to contact the Indiana University library to take a look at his family history in its archives. 

Keplar, who a few years ago started a local LGBTQ history page on Facebook, is thinking about connecting with others in an effort to give Eldridge the dignity he hasn’t had for 42 years. Rogers, the Green Lawn trustee, says it would cost $2,500 for the most modest permanent memorial the cemetery has to offer. Eldridge’s life shouldn’t be stripped of his contributions and accomplishments and reduced to gory details from police interviews and court records, Keplar says. Eldridge’s great-nephew says he’ll join the effort. 

They want the name of James A. Eldridge to live on.