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The Madness of John Terrell

Revenge and Insanity on Trial in the Heartland

Forthcoming, True Crime, True Crime History

Cold-blooded murderer or loving father driven insane?

In early 1900s Indiana, John Terrell was the wealthiest man in Wells County, thanks to oil discovered on his farm. But when his youngest daughter, Lucy, became pregnant and entered into a forced marriage to abusive Melvin Wolfe, Terrell’s life and fortune unraveled in a tumultuous spiral of murder, a dramatic trial, and a descent into madness.

Wolfe’s abuse of Lucy eventually drove her back to her parents’ home. His continued harassment of the entire family became too much for John Terrell. He shot Wolfe in a roadside ambush, followed the wounded man to the doctor, broke into the operating room, and put a shotgun to the injured man’s head before pulling the trigger. The murder made sensational headlines across the country. Terrell, a polarizing figure in the community due to his wealth and atheism, went on trial and faced the death penalty. His lawyer presented an insanity defense; over 150 witnesses testified, including a dozen high-paid experts for the defense.

Yet Terrell was convicted in just 15 minutes. While awaiting sentence, his mental condition rapidly deteriorated; transferred to an asylum, he was ultimately proclaimed “insane.”

Until his death, the fierce debate raged: Had Terrell truly lost his mind? Or did he simply scam his way out of prison?


Stephen Terrell is a novelist and retired Indiana attorney with decades of experience in trials and appeals at the state and federal levels. He has been a frequent speaker at legal conferences and seminars and was selected to the Indiana State Bar Association’s General Practice Hall of Fame.