Minding Mother: The Murder of Sepharna Gleason
Sepharna Gleason was born March 3rd, 1851, in Steuben County, Indiana. Sepharna married James Gleason in 1882. The two worked on their farm in Angola, Indiana. When Sepharna became pregnant, she was moody and irritable. This seemed to bother her husband, who quickly moved Sepharna’s sister in to care for her. Soon after, he took off without explanation. Sepharna suffered a miscarriage, contributed to the stress of her husband leaving her. James returned soon after but left again when Sepharna became pregnant again. Sepharna gave birth to their daughter, Nora, on October 13th, 1888.
Sepharna was not the motherly type and often made statements about not wanting her child. She hated Nora so much she would refuse to nurse the baby, only feeding her upon the instance of her own mother. Sepharna grew to resent her mother and her daughter. As a result of neglect, Nora had a very difficult childhood. Nora did not speak until age five. She was not sent to school until she was ten years old. Even after starting school, she was sent in terrible clothing, had no social skills, and was often sent without food. Nora, who was known as “Kittie”, would often eat what scraps other kids would give her. Nora dropped out of school at age sixteen, at which time she was a fourth grader.
Pictured Above: Sepharna and young Nora
Nora’s grandmother tried to help the girl by teaching her prayers, but Nora was never able to learn or recite them. Kittie was awkward and didn’t have any friends. Although testing for mental defects was not readily available at the time, Nora likely had an IQ well below the level considered mentally impaired. Her childhood was marked by significant abuse and neglect, contributing to her mental status.
As Kittie grew older, her mother’s behavior grew more and more strange. She started hoarding items, including large amounts of spoiled meat and butter. The house was filthy, with cats dropping feces all around the house. Sepharna stopped emptying litter boxes and just sprinkled litter on top of the cats’ feces and urine. Sepharna was no less resentful of her daughter, either. She told her daughter every day that she hated her. She told her that if she ever made her a grandmother, she would take pleasure in burning the child while Kittie watched.
Despite her difficult upbring and lack of social skills, Kittie began seeing Ward Coleman, someone she had known all her life, in 1905 at the age of sixteen. The two finally married in 1917, when both were in their late twenties. Sepharna was not fond of having a son-in-law but asked the couple to live with her on her farm. Ward opposed the idea because he didn’t want to live in the filth of Sepharna’s home. The couple bought a farm next door, however, and were just a few hundred yards from Sepharna’s farm.
Kittie and Ward kept their own farm, but Kittie continued to help her mother with the farm chores after she completed caring for her own home and farm. Every night she would milk cows with her mothers and ensure all the animals were fed. Sepharna continued to verbally and, in all likelihood physically, abuse her adult daughter. She told multiple people that she hated children, and should Kittie become pregnant, she would kill the child by burning it alive. Kittie continued to endure the abuse, likely not realizing there was another option as this was how she had spent her entire life.
Pictured Above: Nora "Kittie" (Gleason) Coleman and husband Ward Coleman
In February of 1918, Kittie realized she was pregnant. She was fearful of how her mother would respond and feared for the safety of her unborn child. On February 6th, 1918, Kittie decided she had to take action. After completing her farm chores at home, she walked to her father-in-law’s house and took his shotgun. She then went to her mother’s home. She helped her mother milk the cows, as she always did. When the chores outside were complete that evening. Sepharna walked towards the farmhouse. As she walked away from Kittie, Kittie aimed the shot gun and fired directly into the back of her mother’s head.
After shooting her mother, Nora put the pails of milk away and cleaned up a bit. She left her mother lying on the ground with her skull in pieces and brain matter scattered on the ground. Then she walked home. Once at home, her husband was asleep. Kittie could not sleep, however, and paced the house most of the night. When Ward woke early in the morning, Kittie lit the lamp and told her husband what she had done. Ward asked her if she was sure her mother was dead, to which Kittie said, “Oh, yes. I knew mother was dead. I wouldn’t leave a cat in agony” (Thornton).
Ward took his wife to his parents’ home and eventually called a friend who worked for the police department. On February 7th, police discovered Sepharna’s body exactly where Nora said it would be. Several community members showed up at the crime scene, tracing pieces of brain tissue and blood in and out of the house and contaminating the crime scene. In 1917, forensic science wasn’t a part of murder investigations, so the crime scene contamination did not seem to be an important factor as it would be today.
Nora “Kittie” Coleman showed no remorse for her crime, nor did she show any emotion. Sepharna’s cruelty was widely known in the community, so despite the fact that Nora had killed her mother, most felt sympathy for Nora. Nora was taken by the coroner to make final arrangements for her mother. Once the funeral arrangements were finalized, Nora declined to attend the event. She was soon indicted for murder, and suffered a miscarriage while awaiting trial.
At trial, the prosecutor contended that Nora had a hatred for her mother and planned this murder with premeditation. He asked the jury to convict her and sentence her to either death or life in prison. Nora’s confession and lack of remorse were the primary pieces of evidence against her. The defense, however, claimed Nora was insane. The prosecution rebutted this claim, pointing to the correct grammar and punctuation in Nora’s written confession as proof she was not insane.
Five doctors examined Nora and determined that she was insane based upon various tests available in 1918. These tests included the fact that Nora’s systolic blood pressure was 115, with the norm at that time in medicine being 128. The doctor concluded that this was evidence that Nora was anemic and likely insane at the time of her crime. Today, normal systolic blood pressure is considered to be anything from 100-129. Another doctor suggested that Nora’s pregnancy diminished her mental capacity. Additionally, witnesses testified that Nora’s grandfather and two uncles exhibited behavior consistent with insanity, as did Sepharna herself. Numerous defense witnesses testified that Kittie had always been a strange girl who lacked social skills. Witnesses also corroborated the abuse allegations against Sepharna Gleason.
In February of 1918, the same month she committed the murder, Nora “Kittie” Coleman was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Nora was sent to the East Haven Hospital for the Insane. She continued to show no emotion or remorse for murdering her mother until 1924. The five doctors who determined in 1918 that Nora was insane now testified that Nora was cured and should be released. Her husband, Ward, stood by her and testified that his wife had improved greatly, and he would care for her upon her release. Nora took the stand herself at this hearing, expressing remorse for the first time. “I am dreadful sorry. I could not realize it at first, but I do now.” The judge declined to release Nora for the safety of the community.
On March 22nd, 1929, Nora “Kittie” Coleman was released from the East Haven Hospital for the Insane. Six months later, her father-in-law’s gun disappeared. Kittie was taken into custody, with most believing she was planning another murder. Soon, Ward’s sixteen-year-old nephew confessed to selling the gun, letting Nora off the hook.
Despite Ward sticking by his wife all those years, Nora filed for divorce in 1932. Nora returned to the property of her mother, Sepharna Gleason, where she spent years being bullied and abused. She never remarried or had children. She spent the rest of her life living on her mother’s farm, the same place she committed that brutal murder. Nora died in 1957, at the age of sixty-nine.
Thornton, J. (2020). No Place Like Murder: True Crime in the Midwest. Available on Amazon.
Sepharna J Hults Gleason (1851-1918) - Find a Grave Memorial
Nora J. “Kittie” Gleason Coleman (1887-1957) - Find a Grave Memorial
True crime book features Steuben murder | Heraldrepublican | kpcnews.com
Angola Herald (1918). Is she insane?. 01 Mar 1918
Steuben Republican. (1918). Mrs. Coleman is Not Guilty. 06 Mar 1918