When Darke County Vigilantes Rode


This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, September 10, 1933

 When Darke County Vigilantes Rode

By Howard Burba

 

     It’s difficult to believe in this much vaunted age of enlightenment that there was a time, and not so very many years ago, when men of integrity and good standing actually resorted to murder to rid their community of an undesirable citizen

     Possibly the violent acts of modern gangsters, and their common crime of  “putting ’em on the spot” is a throwback to the old spirit which Darke co. citizens displayed when they masked their faces and went forth with hate and murder in their hearts.  It may or may not be fair to compare the “Vigilantes” of yesteryear with the gangster of today.  But when you have heard the story of two murders perpetrated by the former within a period of 12 months you will agree that the latter class are not actually resorting to a new type of crime when they deliberately take the life of someone whose presence is objectionable to them.

     To tell the almost forgotten story of “Vigilante” crimes in Darke co. it is necessary to go back to the year 1877, and to the little hamlet of Palestine, down in the southwest corner of the county, and bordering close upon the Indiana line.  It lies in a cluster of hills, eight miles from the county seat of Greenville, and 14 miles from New Paris.  Fifty-six years ago, when the first of the two crimes we are about to recount was committed, Palestine was set in a wilderness of forest trees, far from the sound of a locomotive whistle and almost out of sight of such peace-producing institutions as church and school.

     The giant forest trees of 56 years ago have been cleared away.  Modern schools and churches are now the proud boast of the people of the community.  They still are off the beaten path insofar as transportation lines are concerned.  But residents of Palestine today are law-abiding and home-loving; the years have served to remove from the memories of the oldest residents the cruel campaign waged here by the “Vigilantes” more than a half-century ago.

     Twenty years before the event which first called the attention of the outside world to this secluded hamlet, there arrived in the place a man by the name of John Wesley Geyer, a cabinet-maker by trade.  Having purchased a small tract of ground he followed his avocation, and with the settlement of the surrounding country he appeared to derive a comfortable revenue by its means.  His family, consisting of a wife and seven children, were welcomed as a desirable addition to the community.  Geyer had erected a comfortable house in which to shelter them, and nearby a large frame structure in which he worked at his trade.

     Along in the early seventies business became somewhat slack in the cabinet shop, and with its decline came rumors in the community that Geyer, unable to meet necessary expenses in a legitimate way, was resorting to questionable methods of earning a livelihood.  These rumors soon spread and, there is reason to believe in view of the small-town gossips mania for exaggeration, took on a more serious aspect.  Geyer lost caste, and despite the fact that his wife and children conducted themselves properly and tried to live clean and honorable lives, subsequent actions on the part of the father made their life in the community almost unbearable.

     According to those who wrote the news of 1877, Geyer had formed a dislike for one David Putnam, an attorney who resided in Palestine and who had much to say in the town’s civic affairs.  Putnam, it is related, openly accused Geyer of dishonesty, going so far on one occasion as to brand him a horse-thief.  And stealing a horse was a capital crime in 1877.

     One version of the disaffection existing between Putnam and Geyer is credited to their service in the Civil War.  Putnam raised a company at the first call to arms, and it is said Geyer was a member of it.  Just what came up to shatter their friendship was unknown to residents of Palestine 50 years ago, but they were quick to discern that a bitter hatred had sprung up between the two men.  Putnam was outspoken in his denunciation of Geyer, climaxing his charges with that of horse-stealing.

     Some months before the tragedy which cost Geyer his life, Col. Putnam was passing from one room of his residence to another, carrying a lighted lamp in his hand, when a bullet crashed through a window, shattering the lamp globe and grazing his chin.  No one had been seen on the street in front of the Putnam home at the time, and while there was a general tendency to credit Geyer with the attempted assassination, none dared make such an accusation openly for fear of incurring his wrath.  Col. Putnam was not so secretive.  He added to the charge of horse-stealing that of attempted murder and contended that Geyer had fired the shot which came so close to ending his existence.

     Commenting on this accusation we find in the files of a local newspaper these interesting details of the case, appearing in the issue of Oct. 27, 1877:

     “The accusation of Putnam seems to have bred a general suspicion of Geyer, and also a dread of him.  Yet as far as can be learned Geyer does not seem to have conducted himself as a bully. He is spoken of by his immediate neighbors as a jovial, pleasing man who was a cheerful companion.  Those who condemn him utterly have an evident personal interest in the matter, while those inclined to speak well of him are restrained by a sense of ill-consequence to themselves.

     “Lately there have been several burglaries in Palestine and the public mind has become very much exercised over the fact.  The burglaries were attributed to Geyer and a man named Jack Quackenbosh, who worked for him.  Quackenbosh was at one time a soldier in the confederate army and is said to be not above stealing.  This is the extent of the evidence; no proof of their being thieves actually existed.  An organization was formed in the town a few months ago for the protection of property.  A little later notice was received by Geyer that he must leave Palestine.  He paid no more attention to it than if he had never heard it.”

     Older residents of Palestine recall that notice, and they remember, too, the commotion it caused in the community.  The organization formed, it was explained for the purpose of “upholding the law in the community,” was naturally responsible for it, and while no threat of violence accompanied it the general belief was that so determined were its members that they would not stop short of violence in the execution of their demand.  That these surmises were well grounded is shown in the light of subsequent events.  We turn again to the old file of 1877, and there we find a story which for half a century has stained the record of what is today a most excellent community:

     “Wednesday night about 8 o’clock Geyer was sitting in his home reading.  His wife had already retired with her little girl, aged about 10 years.  Hearing an unusual noise in the street, she got up and looked out the door.  A crowd of not less than 40 men were collected in front of the house.  The moon was just rising but it was too dark to distinguish the men plainly.  One of them said, with an accent:

     “Is the mon of the house in?  We want to see him; tell him to come out.”

     “Then she saw their faces appeared to be blackened.  She turned to her husband, asking him if he knew what the men wanted.  He replied that he did not, and then walked past her out the door.

     “The house is at a secluded end of one of the streets.  It is enclosed by a light wooden picket fence.  Geyer walked up to the gate, within about ten feet of the gang and stopped, resting his right arm on the gate-post.  One of the gang seemed to act as spokesman.  He began to repeat something.  All Mrs. Geyer could overhear was that they said they were ‘Seymour boys’ and that Geyer must leave the town as the citizens wanted to be rid of him.

     “Geyer stood facing them, in his shirt sleeves, but said nothing.  When the man had ceased speaking he suddenly drew up his gun and discharged it full at Geyer.  Simultaneously several others fired.  Geyer fell over without a groan, mortally hurt.  The men continued to fire into his body for a space of several minutes.  Bullets, buckshot and small shot were emptied at him, and but for the intervention of the fence the body must have been torn like a sieve.  Three bullets had proved fatal.  Many others had entered less vital spots.

     “As the people in the village, roused by the firing, began to assemble the gang, after threatening Mrs. Geyer and declaring she would be treated the same way unless she left town in 10 days, took their departure.  At the home of Quackenbosh they repeated their threats to him.  They were seen to pass down the village road in the same direction they came, and all trace of them was lost at the outskirts of the town.”

     Bad news traveled swiftly then as now, and by daybreak a report of the assassination had reached the county seat.  Who carried it there was as much of a mystery as it has always been a mystery as to just who composed the firing squad.  At any rate, the sheriff and his officials hastened to Palestine.  Their inquiries failed to disclose a single citizen who had not been in bed and peacefully asleep at the time.  Never, possibly, could any Ohio town laid claim to as many sound sleepers as Palestine sheltered that night.

     Arrangements went ahead for the burial of Geyer, but, as the papers pointed out at the time, there were no expressions of sympathy, so thoroughly intimidated had the populace become at the hands of the vigilantes.  Coroner Teal, with great difficulty impanelled a jury, having to bring a constable from a distance.  The verdict was simply to the effect that Geyer’s death had been caused by persons unknown.  The number of the gang was estimated by several witnesses before the coroner as high as 75, but not a witness could be found who knew, or could offer the slightest clew to the identity to even one member of it.

     Following the funeral service Geyer’s body was laid to rest in the little cemetery at Palestine.  On a simple granite marker, in addition to the birth and death dates, appears the announcement that he was a United States soldier, a member of Co. E, 69th Ohio Infantry.  Geyer had enlisted Oct. 15, 1861 at the age of 29, and was mustered out with his company on July 17, 1865.  He was 45 years of age at the time of his death.

     “The wife and children of the deceased are not bad looking people,” wrote the newspaper man who traveled to Palestine on the day following the crime.  “They are even more than ordinarily bright and prepossessing in appearance.  There is not the appearance of criminals, nor of the association with criminals in their faces.  The eldest of the boys is over 21.  There are two girls, and the youngest child is about four years old.  All are bright and intelligent children and one could not help sympathizing with them in the great tragedy which has come to them and in which they had no part.

     “Mrs. Geyer stated that the eldest son would leave the village tomorrow for she feared he, too, might be injured if he remained in the community.  For herself and daughters she had no fear; she did not know where she would go, but would leave as soon as her property could be disposed of.  She said, in answer to an inquiry, that there had been no offers of protection for her from the citizens.  On the contrary, she had been advised to quit the place as soon as possible.”

     It must be said to the shame of those who did not compose the mob that no demands for legal action were taken following the crime, nor were there any efforts on the part of constituted authority to ferret out the identity of its members.  Palestine citizens closed up like clams when newspaper men sought interviews.  There was a hushed and suspicious atmosphere about the town for weeks following the commission of the crime.  Residents talked in whispers.  And then one day, not so very long after the tragedy, Mrs. Geyer and her little brood of innocent children packed their worldly belongings into a farm wagon and drove tearfully and slowly from the scene.  Palestine settled back to its normal state, but with tight lips and a reluctance to discuss any part of its one brief orgy of bloodshed and cruelty.

     For almost a year Palestine was on its good behavior.  But the community surrounding it had not been purged of its lust for blood, and the spirit of the mob which visited its wrath upon John Wesley Geyer had not been crushed.  On Sept. 14, 1878, 11 months after the first appearance of the vigilantes, they reorganized and for a second time Palestine was thrown into a frenzy of hushed excitement.

     One morning in early September Stephen Wade, one of the few colored residents of the community, awoke to find the following notice tacked on the door of his humble little home:

     “To Stephen Wade and his sons, Robert, Benjamin and Phillip Wade---You are each and every one of you hereby advised to leave and stay away from Darke Co., Ohio, within 30 days from date, or suffer the penalty.  This means business.”

     Petty thefts had not ended with the assassination of Geyer.  That fact, coupled with frequent opposition to the settlement of colored citizens in the county, brought Wade and his family into the lime light and marked them as undesirable citizens in the eyes of the so-called “Vigilantes.”  But Wade apparently convinced that the better element of the community would protect him, and strenuously affirming the innocence of himself and his sons of rumored charges of theft and burglaries, turned the note over to county officials, and sat down to await further developments.

     He had not long to wait.  On the evening of Oct. 14, 1878, a second and more emphatically worded note was passed to him.  This second note read:

     “You and your whole family are hereby notified for the last time to leave this country in haste.”

     Scarcely had the note been read aloud by Wade to his sons than the man’s mind was made up. He went to the homes of neighbors and again declared his innocence.  Again he asserted his intention to remain at his home despite all the threats that might be made against him.

     That night the “Vigilantes” of Darke co. rode for the second time.  Along toward midnight Wade was awakened by shouts from the yard at the front of his home.  He arose and secured a shotgun which he apparently had kept handy for this emergency he must have known was sure to come.  The shouts were followed by a shot which crashed through a front window, shattering the face of an old clock near where Wade waited in the darkness with cocked gun.  Wade answered it with a volley from his own gun, fired in the direction from whence came the voices of the vigilantes.

     Instantly the mob began yelling and cursing Wade, demanding all the time that he come forth or the house would be burned above his head.  Random shots struck against the house, followed by a volley which shattered the front window.  The bullets narrowly missed Wade as he moved to a far corner of the room.  Realizing he could not long escape such a fusillade, he made for the back door, hoping to escape in the darkness.  But it was to find that the “Vigilantes” had completely surrounded the house.  Another volley greeted him at the rear door, and crying out in pain he fell mortally wounded.  A load of shot had penetrated his left eye, entering the brain.

     Confident they had accomplished their purpose and that Wade’s sons had accepted the second note literally and met its demand by quitting the community, the mob moved on.  But it was not, however, until they had placed a crudely lettered cardboard on the door bearing these words:

     “Bad Niggers, Move West!”

     This time legal machinery was set in motion with a view to stamping out the mob spirit in Darke co.  A grand jury met and investigated the crime, and actually tried to fix the responsibility for it.  Their efforts were fruitless.  There was the same deep secrecy surrounding the murder of Wade as followed the assassination of Geyer.  Gradually interest was lost in the case, though a general understanding had arisen that those who formed the mobs—and there was no doubt but the same members figured in each one of them—had best not attempt reorganization at any future time.  So the “Vigilantes” and the mob spirit of Darke co. passed out with the murder of Stephen Wade.

     “Four Gables,” the old home of Col. Putnam, who was fired upon one night by a would-be assassin, still stands in the now prosperous village of Palestine.  The old “Palestine House,” with its oval sign, long since has been replaced by a more modern building.  The old wagon shop up the street near where John Wesley Geyer stepped from his home to face death at the hands of his neighbors, no longer flaunts bright red running gear as its mark of trade.  Altered, yet occupied, the home of Geyer still stands.

     Many changes have come to Palestine throughout the years.  The wilderness and the wild spirit it nurtured have been obliterated.  In their stead has come a respect for law and order, a high sense of the finer things of life, a citizenship which shudders at and seemingly cannot comprehend the full meaning of those two dark chapters written into history when “Vigilantes” ruled their town.