Without the Fear of God
"Without the Fear of God..."
Dayton’s First Murder
November 20, 1806
Crime wasn’t exactly rampant in the early days of Dayton. Having settled the city in 1796, it wasn’t until three years later that its citizens felt the need for a constable. Court was held at Colonel George Newcom’s tavern, a two-story log cabin which was built on the southeast corner of Main and Water Street (now Monument Avenue) in the winter of 1798-1799. Newcom’s building served as Dayton’s first store and courthouse. As there was no regular jail, a dry well on Newcom’s lot was used to confine prisoners.
In 1803 Ohio was made a state, Montgomery County was formed and Dayton was selected as the county seat. It was thought unseemly that a town that had grown to such importance would continue to use a well to detain lawbreakers, so in 1804 a jail was constructed out of round logs.
The following year Dayton received a town charter from the state legislature. The charter called for the hiring of a local marshal, who made up the entire police force. Although at the time a marshal may have seemed almost unnecessary, the sleepy little frontier town of Dayton was about to become the scene of the worst type of crime known to man.
John and Rachel Aiken owned two prime lots in Dayton, close to the river. They paid their taxes on time and never seemed to have any disputes with their neighbors, or each other for that matter, at least nothing that involved the local justice of the peace. The couple lived comfortably, owning two feather beds, two yokes of oxen, a cow with a calf, a sorrel mare and several dishes and eating utensils made of pewter. They were at least somewhat educated, possessing a number of books and pamphlets. They were a typical pioneering husband and wife, building a home on land that was primarily still in the heart of the wilderness.
But the event that took place on November 20, 1806 was far from normal for the small community. On that day John, "not having the fear of God before his eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil", beat his wife about the head and stomach to the point where she was mortally injured. Rachel languished until the next day, then died from her injuries.
When John was arrested, a man by the name of Martin Myers was also taken into custody, under the accusation of trying to help hide the crime.
On November 25, 1806 a special Court of Common Pleas session was held on the second floor of Hugh McCollum’s Tavern, which had replaced Newcom’s as the legal center of Dayton. The Associate Judges were Benjamin Archer, Isaac Spinning and John Ewing.
Due to guilt, or maybe fear, John had a complete breakdown that day, to the point that he was unable to speak. Martin persuaded John to hire attorney George F. Tennery for his defense. Tennery told the pair that he would accept a signed draft by Aiken for $50 to defend him. John was so distraught that Martin literally had to grasp his hand and help him sign the draft.
When it came time to leave for court, John collapsed entirely and had to be carried from the jail to the Courthouse.
Sheriff George Newcom brought the two men before the judges. Since the crime had occurred only a few days before, neither side was prepared for a trail to begin. The judges ordered that several people be subpoenaed to appear before them as soon as possible. Bond was set in the sum of $1000 for John Aiken and $600 for Martin Myers. Various friends and family of the two men swore in court that they would be responsible for payment of the money. Aiken and Myers were both reminded that they had to appear at the next term of the Court of Common Pleas held in Dayton, at which time they would have to answer any charges against them and abide by the final judgment of the court.
The cause of what happened next remains a mystery. Only a short time after appearing before the judges, before he was even able to leave the courthouse, John was dead. Heart attack? Suicide? No record exists of how or why. Martin would later testify that Aiken had gone on to his "long home", or heaven, approximately four hours after signing the draft for Attorney Tennery’s services.
In April 1807, Myers appeared in court for his role in the murder. The charges were dropped for lack of evidence.
Records do not indicate where John and Rachel Aiken were buried. Most likely, it was at the graveyard located on West Fifth and Wilkinson Street. It began being used for public burials in 1805, then was abandoned in 1843 when Woodland Cemetery opened.
By 1854 the old burial ground was all but forgotten. The fence around the perimeter was in disrepair and the graves were no longer being tended. An editorial in the Dayton Gazette newspaper bemoaned the condition of the graveyard, stating that it spoke badly of the city’s respect for their dead.
Through the neglect of the living, the hallowed ground where their ancestors sleep their last sleep, has become a common pasture, a neglected waste, open for the cattle to enter and feed upon, while vagrant porkers root at the base of the monuments reared by the hand of affection.
As time passed, the city grew larger and the earth that enshrined the dust of the old pioneers became too valuable to remain a cemetery. John and Rachel would have been transported to Woodland Cemetery when the graves were moved in 1869 and 1870.
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