The Woodward Shoot-Out

Grave of William Ettlinger (left) and John Barner (right), Woodward. Note the spelling of William’s name on the stone and his death year is wrong, but it is the correct grave

In Pennsylvania Mountain Stories, Henry Shoemaker records the story of the outlaw Silas Werninger. Silas was a local trouble-maker known throughout the region. One night, after an argument between him and two men, Silas pulled his gun and shot the two men, killing one of them instantly. Silas fled the scene and hid in the mountains of Central Pennsylvania for a couple of weeks before returning to his home in Oak Valley.

During this visit with his family, a stand-off happened at the Werninger homestead as Silas and the local authorities traded gunshots. In an attempt to capture Silas, authorities set the house on fire to drive him out. As the homestead was burning, Silas got his family safely out danger before killing himself. Locals buried him among a grove of white oaks, not wanting to place him in the sacred grounds of a cemetery.

Soon after the burial a large black wolf began terrorizing the region, appearing and disappearing in the area of the oak grove. Many residents tried to kill the wolf but failed. Unable to put an end to the reign of the black wolf, someone approached Granny Myers, a regional witch who resided in Sugar Valley. She told them to stop the black wolf, the body of Silas Werninger had to be dug up and buried in sacred ground. Very reluctantly the men of town removed the outlaw’s body to the nearby grounds of the Lutheran Cemetery. This seemed to work because the large, black wolf was never spotted again.

While Henry Shoemaker writes a good story, Silas Werninger never existed. Nor does Oak Valley, the location of this story.

However, the events that Shoemaker wrote about actually did happen. These events did not happen in the Oak Valley, but instead they occurred in the tiny community of Woodward in 1895.

The first time I set foot on the sacred grounds of Woodward Cemetery, it was in the late 1990s and I arrived searching for a phantom black cat that supposedly haunted the cemetery grounds. A co-worker at the time had told me about a “mysterious black cat that was seen roaming the grounds.” I roamed the cemetery for a couple minutes before realizing my search was in vain – being outside, of course, meant that it was probably a real cat that had been spotted. Not seeing a cat that day – real or otherwise – I turned my attention to the tombstones.

A few minutes into roaming the tombstones, I discovered the stone for John M. Barner. The inscription on the stone definitely caught my attention: “Was shot while in the performance of his official duty.” I walked around the stone a couple of times, hoping to find another clue, but my search yielded no clues as to what happened to Mr. Barner.

I was browsing through files at the Centre County Historical Library when I came across a folder filled with newspaper clippings about the shoot-out in Woodward. As I flipped through the newspaper clippings, a single photograph tumbled from among them. The picture was the stone of John Barner, who was shot and killed by William Ettlinger during the Woodward shoot-out.

William Ettlinger was known throughout the Woodward region for his quick temper and in the summer of 1895, it exploded. During a festival at Woodward, Ettlinger had an argument with his father-in-law, Benjamin Benner. The argument started when Benner began to question Ettlinger about his wife’s (who was not only Ettlinger’s wife, but also Benner’s daughter) supposed adulterous activities. Before the night was over, Ettlinger beat Benner with a whip handle. Benner swore out a complaint and Ettlinger was arrested for assault and battery, but was promptly released on bond until his case came up in court. When the date for his court case arrived, rather than go to court and face the charge, Ettlinger fled into the mountains above Woodward. A warrant for his arrest was issued, but never executed.

For the next six months William Ettlinger lived off the land and terrorized the locals. Known to be well armed, Ettlinger carried two pistols, a shotgun, some knives and a couple sticks of dynamite. Ettlinger threatened to kill anybody who tried to arrest him.

In February 1896, John Barner was elected constable of Haines Township under the promise of bringing William Ettlinger to justice. On March 5, 1896, just a few days after taking office, Constable Barner received word that Ettlinger was at his home in Woodward. Barner and his deputies arrived at the house to serve the warrant for Ettlinger’s arrest. When Barner approached the door, he was greeted with two blasts from a shotgun. The first hit Barner in the shoulder and the second in the head, killing him instantly. Then, to make sure Barner was dead, William cut Barner’s throat before taking refuge in the house, shooting at anyone who dared approach the house to recover Barner’s body.

Within hours, a mob descended on Woodward. Ettlinger continued to shoot at people and would occasionally toss a stick of dynamite toward the growing crowd. Sheriff Condo and his posse arrived in Woodward to discover Ettlinger was barricaded within the house and was holding his wife and two children hostage. Shots were exchanged, and though some of those gathered outside were injured, none of those in the house were harmed during the stand-off. The exact number of shots fired is not known, but it was recorded that over five hundred shots had been fired by the men who had surrounded the house. This number did not take into account the shots fired by Ettlinger, nor the dynamite he tossed at the crowd.

The next morning, Sheriff Condo had attempted to charge the house, but the men were driven back by Ettlinger. By that afternoon, Sheriff Condo decided he had enough and ordered the house to be set on fire. Mary Jane Ettlinger was forced out of the house by William and his children soon followed. When William emerged, someone in the mob shot at him, but missed. “I’ll do this myself!” he yelled out and shot himself, dying instantly. The townspeople quickly approached the house and dragged the bodies of Barner and Ettlinger away from the house just minutes before it was engulfed in flames.

Barner left behind a wife and four children and received hero’s burial. Ettlinger was buried in a shallow grave on property owned by the family. In late April 1896, only a couple weeks after the shoot-out, Ettlinger’s body was removed to Woodward Cemetery and given a proper burial under the curious gaze of townsfolk.

Note: The removal of Ettlinger’s body was covered in regional newspapers at the time. This is in conflict of the regional, word of mouth story about the moving of Ettlinger’s body. According to most regional histories, Ettlinger’s body was not moved until many years later when William’s son, Jay, recovered it from Lewis Orndorf’s peach orchard. According to this version, when they removed the body, the bullet that ended Ettlinger’s life supposedly fell from the skull, which was the means of identifying the outlaw’s body.

Years after the first visit, I returned to Woodward Cemetery to take more pictures. While walking around the cemetery, I discovered two gentlemen who were in the process of placing flags for Memorial Day. After talking with them for a couple minutes, they started talking about those buried in the cemetery and a few stories later they shared the history of the Woodward shoot-out, pointing out the graves of John Barner and William Ettlinger. After they finished telling the story, one of them added, “They say that on the anniversary of the shoot-out you can hear strange noises in the area where it all happened.”

“But that’s not the best part of it,” the other added. “There’s a strange glow that appears where the house once stood.”

“Do you remember…,” the first spoke in a very serious tone. They told me how one night, when they were kids, they were walking home at night when a strange glow appeared near the place where the Ettlinger house once stood. The air was suddenly filled with the sounds of gunfire. “You never saw two boys running so fast for their homes as we did that night.” They both laughed as they finished their story.

We talked for a while longer before they said they had to finish up as they had another cemetery that needed flags placed. As we got ready to go our separate ways, one of them added, “You ever hear about the phantom cat that roams the cemetery?” I have never found the phantom cat, nor have I witnessed the phantom shootout that reoccurs from time to time.

I finally left John and William to rest peacefully on the hillside of Woodward Cemetery, victims of the Woodward shoot-out.

Note: As I observed under the picture at the start of the article, William’s name is spelled wrong on the family stone. However, the individual marker next to the family stone has his name spelled correctly. Also, the date of his death is off by one year. I’m not sure if this was done purposely to keep curiosity seekers away at the time, or if this happened to be a mistake by the engravers of the family stone.

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