The Circleville letters: You’ve got hate mail

Circleville letter
June Whitehead

An anonymous letter writer terrorizes a small town, threatening to expose their rumored dark secrets. “48 Hours” seeks answers in “The Circleville Letters” airing Wednesday, August 25 at 10/9c on CBS and Paramount+.


Starting in the late 1970s, Circleville, Ohio, residents opened their mailboxes to find mysterious letters meant to terrorize them. This letter reads in part:

“You have been watched: Failure to comply and you shall suffer: no one can help: no one can protect you: Obey: Obey:”

Circleville, Ohio

Circleville, Ohio
CBS News

The peaceful character of the small town best known for its annual Pumpkin Show changed in March 1977. Circleville businesses and select residents started receiving anonymous letters with personal information and accusations.

Anonymous Letters

The Circleville letters
Pickaway County Sheriff’s Office/ Marie Mayhew

Some of the mysterious handwritten letters were sent out with no return addresses. Recipients were  being accused of embezzlement, domestic violence, affairs, and even murder.

The Affair

Mary Gillispie and Gordon Massie
Jackson Middle School yearbook

School bus driver, Mary Gillispie (left) became the main target of the letters. The writer accused Gillispie, who was married, of having an affair with married school superintendent Gordon Massie (right). 

The Poison Pen

The Circleville letters
Pickaway County Sheriff’s Office

One letter to Mary Gillispie reads:

“Lady:

This is your last chance to report him: I know you are a pig and will prove it and shame you out of Ohio: A pig sneaks around and meets other womens husbands behind their backs, causes families and homes and marriages to suffer:”

A Letter to Ronald Gillispie

The Circleville letters
Pickaway County Sheriff’s Office/ Marie Mayhew

The letters sent to Mary Gillispie didn’t stop and they became increasingly threatening. Her husband, Ronald Gillispie, began receiving them too. The writer, who was adamant that an alleged affair was happening between Mary Gillispie and Gordon Massie wrote to Ronald Gillispie: 

“You should catch them together and kill them both.”

A Fatal Crash

Ronald Gillispie fatal crash
Pickaway County Sheriff’s Office/Ohio BCI

One evening in August 1977, while his wife was on her way to Florida, Ronald Gillispie received a mysterious phone call allegedly from the writer. He drove off in his pickup truck and was killed when he crashed into a tree. A gun that had been fired once was found under his body, raising the question if he had been firing at the letter writer. The coroner ruled Gillispie’s death an accident, but others suspect he was murdered. He was 35 years old.

Another Day, Another Sign

Circleville, Ohio
CBS News

Mary Gillispie always denied having an affair with Gordon Massie, but after her husband’s death, she says they began seeing each other. That’s when the threats against her escalated. 

On February 7, 1983, Mary Gillispie was driving her bus route to pick up kids. This is the intersection where she saw an obscene sign about her 13-year-old daughter. Mary Gillispie tried to pull the sign down from a fence, but she noticed it was rigged with twine and a box. She took the box  home and opened it. Inside was a gun ready to go off.

Deadly Booby Trap

Circleville booby trap
Pickaway County Sheriff’s Office/ Ohio BCI

Mary Gillispie took the box to the police, and they quickly realized it was a booby trap. Investigators at Ohio’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) uncovered the gun’s serial number and traced it back to someone Mary Gillispie knew. 

Paul Freshour

Paul Freshour
Craig Holman/USA Today Network

The gun belonged to Paul Freshour. The news was shocking because Freshour was Mary and Ron Gillipsie’s brother-in-law. Freshour had always believed that Ron had been murdered and had pushed the Pickaway County Sheriff’s Office to take a closer look at the case.  

The Suspected Letter Writer

The Circleville letters
CBS News

When investigators interviewed Paul Freshour’s estranged wife, she claimed he was also the Circleville letter writer. Although Freshour insisted he had nothing to do with the letters or the booby trap, he was arrested and tried for attempted murder. 

“Whatever Remains” Podcast

Podcaster Marie Mayhew
CBS News

Marie Mayhew is the host of the “Whatever Remains” podcast, where she discusses the Circleville letters. She tells48 Hours” there’s only one piece of evidence connecting Paul Freshour to the booby trap.  “I think the gun is probably  — to me in the entire scope of the investigation the strongest evidence,” said Mayhew. 

Tormenting Letters Continue

The Circleville letters
Pickaway County Sheriff’s Office/Pickaway County Courthouse/Marie Mayhew

Although Paul Freshour was never charged with writing the letters, at trial the judge allowed in 39 of the letters. It was a break for the prosecution who claimed the writing on the booby trap shared similarities to those letters.

Freshour was convicted of attempted murder and everyone presumed the letter writer was now behind bars, but the letters never stopped.  

Is the Writer Still Out There?

The Circleville letters
Pickaway County Sheriff’s Office/Marie Mayhew

Paul Freshour served 10 years in prison for the attempted murder of Mary Gillispie. He wasn’t allowed pens or paper while behind bars but the letters still continued. Even Freshour received one. 

The letter to Freshour reads in part: “Freshour: Now when are you going to believe you arent getting out of there: I  old you two years ago when we set em up: they stay set up:”

Clues to the Writer

Former FBI profiler Mary Ellen O'Toole
CBS News

Former FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole looked at the letters that continued while Paul Freshour was in prison. After nearly 20 years, the letters stopped in 1994 when Freshour was released from prison. Over the years, Freshour still maintained his innocence.

“If a crime continues on and you have someone in custody for a long period of time, you have to say, “Somebody else is sending these letters. They’re not happening by magic. Somebody else is writing the letters,” said O’Toole.

Due Diligence

Beverley East
CBS News

“48 Hours” wanted an independent analysis of the Circleville letters and turned to forensic document expert Beverley East, who studied some of the anonymous letters and some of Paul Freshour’s handwriting examples. She pointed out how unique the letter “G'”was written and a few other numbers, which convinced her she knows who is responsible. East says she is “100 percent sure.”