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The Day They Mobbed the Shakers

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, October 7, 1934

The Day They “Mobbed” the Shakers
By Howard Burba

             Here and there throughout the history of this section of Ohio one finds pathetic little chapters serving to reveal the fiery tempers of many of those who helped snatch Ohio from the wilderness. In most instances the early historian has preferred to turn back on these dark pictures. He has doubtless from a charitable standpoint, left untold many unpleasant incidents of earlier days. He seemingly had overlooked the fact that the history of a people cannot be faithfully written unless it portrays both the highlights and the shadows, and that suppressing the shadows often leaves one wondering if the fact themselves have been faithfully set down.

            Those who wrote the early history of this part of the state were careful to recite how the first straggling band of that colorful old religious sect known as the “Shakers” came into these parts. But they neglected, in almost every instance, to picture the bitter animosity their arrival bred, or to present in detail the acts of violence, and ofttimes personal harm, visited upon those loyal to the faith. For instance, it is impossible to find in the average school history a detailed story of the time an angry and determined mob set itself against the stronghold of Shakerism in Ohio, the settlement over in Warren co. long since bereft of almost every reminder of its one-time prosperous existence.

            Assuming that you are familiar with the early history of the Shaker movement in Ohio, and that you are more or less acquainted  with the fact that the strongest settlement of members of this faith was made but a few miles from your present abode, I want to take you back to a Monday morning in August of the year 1810, and lay before you what one faithful old Shaker, Elder Benjamin Youngs, later declared to be “the most extraordinary instance of unconstitutional proceedings that ever was witnessed in this country.” It was the day “the mob” visited Union Village, the old Shaker colony near Lebanon, a mob in which the old military organization known as the “Springfield Light-Horse Calvary” had a leading part.

            The true story of this “infringement on the rights of conscience” probably never would have been told had not Elder Youngs written it in detail, and incorporated his writings as a part of the Shaker records at Union Village. In later years, when Shakerism has entered into a decline and the organization’s affairs were being legally dissolved, this old document came to light. Comment on it is unnecessary-it tells its on thrilling story in every graphic detail.

            At the top of the page of Shaker records on which Elder Youngs’ expose is started, appears the date of Monday, Aug. 27, 1810. And here are his very words:

            “This day occurred in the county of Warren, now Union Village, near Lebanon, one of the most extraordinary instances of unconstitutional proceedings, and the most formidable appearance of infringement on the rights of conscience, that ever was witnessed in this country.

            “A body of 500 armed men, equipped in uniform, and in military order, with their officers, appeared on the grounds before the meeting-house and, by a committee of about 12 men, appointed for the purpose, demanded of us that we should renounce our faith and practice, our public preaching and mode of worship, or quit the country.

            “This very extraordinary attempt first began to be agitated principally through the instrumentality of a certain John Davis, John and Robert Wilson and John Bedle, who had apostatized from the faith, and became bold in wickedness and false accusations against the believers; whereby those who had long waited for false witness to accuse the believers of something criminal, were at length furnished with sufficient matter (as they said) to answer their purpose.

            “Accordingly, about the first of June a piece appeared in the public papers, signed by Col. James Smith, stating as matters of fact what he had been informed by the aforesaid apostates-viz., that the education of children among the Shakers is chiefly a pretence-that they whip their underlings severely, and also their children-that they count it no sin to have carnal knowledge of their own women-that all surplus money and property is given up to Elder David-that he keeps the whole treasury of the society in his own hands; and that he, like the Pope, exercises unlimited authority over all under his control; and that he, with his council, live sumptuously on the labors of others; with many things more of a like nature; with remarks made to exasperate the public with the hottest indignation against the society, as being a poisonous nest, and enemies to the cause of American liberty.

            “But what seemed to be intended as the weightiest charges in this publication were certain things therein alleged against James Smith, jr., who was among the believers, and for which there was some plausible pretence. James’ wife, Polly, having left him on account of his faith, and he refusing to give up his children to her, furnished the old man with matter for many heavy charges of oppression and cruelty.

            “This piece was publicly answered, in a spirited manner, by Richard McNemar, the falsity of it exposed, and the author cited to prove what he had alleged or bear the character of a slanderer. Notwithstanding, as many wished to receive accusations upon any ground whatever, the answer was little regarded by such; nor did it appear that Smith, or any of his associates, had any intention of prosecuting the matter in a lawful manner.

            “About the middle of July we were secretly informed that a subscription paper was being handed about, for the purpose of raising a mob against us and that John Davis and the two Wilsons were active in the business. But they, being publicly taxed with it, denied that there was any such thing in agitation; and so it remained in the dark until Aug. 23, when there was a small hint dropped to some of the Believers at meeting that Col. Smith, with a number of men from Kentucky were over, and engaged in collecting others to assist in taking off his grandchildren.

            Next day being Friday, we heard from credible authorities that 500 men were to assemble the next Monday morning at Capt. Kilbreath’s, about three miles off, and intended to come as a mob, and take off J. Smith’s children, and do other acts of outrage. The next day the news became still more flagrant, and in the afternoon we were informed by Wade Loofbourrow, a young man from Butler co., near Hamilton, that he had seen the written instrument which the designing party had signed, but did not read it; that it was in the hands of Maj. J. Potter, of Hamilton court, the day before; that the mob was a common subject of conversation on that occasion; that he heard Maj. Potter say that 500 subscribed; also that Rev. Matthew G. Wallace was forward and active in the business that Maj. Potter would be second in command; that the Springfield Light-Horse would be on the ground, and  many more of the baser sort from Springfield, the Big Hill, from around Hamilton and from the vicinity of Dayton; that we might expect the party to appear on Monday, without doubt; and that he came on purpose to inform us of the plot, and wished to tarry and see the result.

            “The same evening news came in from every quarter of their preparation and threats of abuse-that they meant to tar and feather R. McNemar, drive the old Shakers out of the country, and restore the rest back to their former faith and manner of living.

            “The next day (Sunday, Aug. 26) some of the party came to our meeting, particularly Capt. Robinson, who avowed the fact that they would be on the ground the next day for the purpose of violence, but what he did not fully specify. The state’s attorney, J. Collett, and the high sheriff of the county T. McCray, both of Lebanon, finding out their place of rendezvous, went for the purpose of giving them a lecture on unlawfulness of their intention, which we understood they delivered. The matter had now become generally known, and a number of sensible, influential men determined to return the next day and see the event. Among them were Dr. Budd and Dr. Bladgley from New Jersey; Col. Stanley, from Cincinnati, and D. Corneal, a noted young man from Kentucky.

            “Monday morning the Believers went about their ordinary business, and about 8 o’clock the people began to collect from different quarters as spectators to the scene which they expected shortly to commence. The first circuit judge of the state, F. Dunlavy, was early on the ground, intending, if anything unlawful should be attempted, to countermand the proceedings. News came from every quarter that the troops were assembled at Kilbreath’s and would certainly appear. Dr. Bladgley, with some company, concluded to ride out and meet them, which he accordingly did. About 12 o’clock he returned and informed us that they were mounted and moving and would be on the spot in less than an hour. Accordingly, about 1 o’clock, the troops appeared, coming in by the Dayton road from the north, and marching in order till the front came within a few rods of the meeting-house, and called a halt. A number of officers were in uniform, and the troops armed and were generally equipped in regimental order. The whole body of people now collected on the ground consisted of about 1500-some supposed upwards of 2000. Besides the 500 troops in military order, many scattering ones who came with the multitude, also were armed but undisciplined persons; old gray-headed men, boys and others, who exhibited a very mean and mob-like appearance. Some of the undisciplined multitude were armed with guns-some with poles or sticks on which were fixed bayonets, and others with staves and hatchets, knives and clubs.

            “The exhibition presented a scene of horror, the intention of which was covered with duplicity. It was very probable that, through the influence of these peace-designing men before mentioned, the mob party had agreed upon the expedient of choosing a committee to state to us proposals in the name of the party, and to receive in return our answers.   After a few minutes’ halt at the meeting-house, the committee came forward and faced the dwelling-house of the old Believers. They requested three of the original Shakers – John Meacham, Benjamin Youngs and Issachar Bates – to come forward in order to confer with them on the occasion of the people’s assembling, observing that a committee was chosen for that purpose, consisting of 12 men then present, among who was one chief speaker. They were told that two of the men they called for were not present. They said two others would answer. Several respectable characters stood in the yard and we concluded to take with us two or three of those who were not of our Society, viz., John Dunlavy, Gen. W. Schenck and J. Corwin, Esq., allowing that six at least would not be too many to be present with their committee of 12. This we proposed, but they objected, allowing none to be present but members of the Society, and of those only three.

            “Three of the society, Benjamin Youngs, Peter Pease and Matthew Houston, withdrew with the committee into a piece of woods beyond the garden, a half-mile south of the meeting-house. The leading characters of the committee were Rev. Matthew G. Wallace, a noted Presbyterian preacher, chief speaker; Dr. Squire Little, a New-Light; Capt. John Clark and John Fisher. Wallace began in the name of the people to state their grievances, observing that our principles and practice had caused great disturbances in the minds of the people, and led to the extinction of civil and religious society, which they determined to uphold; that our system was a pecuniary system and led mankind into bondage and oppression, and that the people were determined to bear it no longer. Then he stated the following conditions:

            “1.-Which we should deliver up the children of James Watts, deceased, to their grandfather, alleging that the said James made that request at his death.

            “We answered that we had not seen the propriety of so doing, as we supposed the mother, under whose care the children now were, had the greatest right to them, and asked if it was recorded that the said James wanted the grandfather to have them. They answered that it was not and we replied that we could not give up the children.

            “2.-That old William Bedle be permitted to see his grandchild, a son of Elijah Davis, alleging that the said child was in the society’s care contrary to its inclination. To this we replied that the child was in the care of its own parents, that we had no control over him.

“3.-That we should give up the children to James Smith. To this we also answered that the children were under the care of their father.

“That we cease to inculcate our principles and that we cease our practice; that we cease to dance on the Sabbath day and on the week-days, observing that such practices were reverse from the gospel; or depart out of the country on the first Monday in December next. These were the terms proposed by the mob’s committee in the name of the people. If we acceded to the term, well; if not the people, as they called them, were determined to enforce them by violence. We now requested them to state their proposals in writing, but Wallace observed that what had been proposed was short and could be easily remembered without writing. Benjamin said as they were short they could be the more reduced to writing. But they refused.

“It was 2 o’clock and one hour was agreed upon to receive a positive answer.  The committee arose and we returned home. All the elders, brethren and sisters present assembled. We invited Judge Dunlavy, Gen. Schenck and Squire Corwin to join in the meeting. We stated in their presence the proposals of the committee and the answers we expected in return. At the expiration of the time appointed we again met the committee at the same place in the woods and handed them the following answer:

“1.-Respecting the children demanded to be given up, we had already stated what we had to say on that subject.

“2.-Respecting our faith, which we held in the gospel, we esteemed it dearer than our lives and therefore meant to maintain it, whatever we might suffer as the consequences, and as to our leaving the country, we were on our own possessions, which we had purchased with money obtained by our honest industry. It was our endeavor not to owe any man anything; we had not a cent of any man’s money; we enjoyed our own peaceable possessions in a free country and were entitled to those liberties (including the liberty of our consciences) which the laws of the country granted us. This was our answer.

“About the meeting-house, the school-house, the children’s house and the first family of young believers there was a vast crowd of armed men and spectators, some disputing, some inquiring, others railing out against us and driving us out of the country. Women of the easier sort, who were in fellowship with the riot, had placed themselves in sight of the buildings, on the edge of the woods, awaiting to see the destruction of the Shakers; others of the same cast were taking an active part in urging on parties of the mob to take away by force, children of their connections.

“About 3 o’clock a public speaker of the party, standing in the street before the meeting-house door, proclaimed liberty, that all who had any charges against the Shakers might come forward and enter them. A number of charges were produced, but no charge, however, was regularly entered and taken up except a charge of murder against Amos Valentine, upon the deposition of John and Robert Wilson, who declared that when they lived among the Shakers the said Amos had a boy that had fits, and that the boy for some time past had been missing, and they believed he had been murdered and put out of the way. The boy was immediately sent for, being at Mose Waston’s, two miles away. Soon after the boy arrived, very corpulent and healthy.

“Mounting his horse, Judge Dunlavy ordered that the boy be released. Capt. Kilbreath refused, whereupon Judge Dunlavy ordered him arrested and put in prison. The latter being armed, and defying arrest, the matter was dropped, and the boy was released.

“At this stage of the proceedings the mob was somewhat irritated and thrown into confusion. But the word of command was given, and the party moved down the street in a violent career, amid clouds of dust and halted in a vast crowd facing the dwelling house of the Elders. Maj. Robinson in a loud voice demanded of those in the house whether they would comply with the proposals of the committee. No answer came, whereupon everyone in the house was ordered to come forth and place themselves in a circle on the ground before the mob. Then Robinson continued to harangue to the effect that every Shaker would leave the settlement on the first of December next, or suffer the consequences.

“Maj. Robinson then appointed a committee to enter the house of the Elders, and see if anyone was being held in bondage therein. This they did, searching every compartment. They then drank generously of cold coffee, and went out and reported. Then they examined they house of the young Believers. All who were interrogated made firm replies that they were free and might go away at any time they pleased, but would not. By this time the committee was under considerable mortification and their seal began to abate. Matthews then told them the Shakers would not suffer any child to read the scriptures, so the committee entered the school house. There they found Testaments aplenty. They looked at the children’s writing which some said, excelled their expectations. Then they asked the children such question as ‘Have you had enough to eat?’ and the answers were always ‘Yea, Yea, Yea.’ Do you want to go away from these people?’ And again, all answered heartily, ‘Nay, Nay, Nay.’

“No ground of accusation being found or reported to the mob, the last of them disappeared as the darkness of the night began to creep over the horizon, without leaving behind them any visible marks of cruelty.

“No disturbance or confusion appeared among the Believers through the whole occasion. The generality kept busy at their usual employment-took dinner in their usual manner and entertained such as they could with convenience. They answered those mildly who spoke to them, whether peaceably or in a taunt. Such as wished to enter the rooms from the noise and clamor did so, and spent their time in conversation.

“Perhaps a scene entirely like this has not transpired since the rights of conscience have been esteemed sacred by man. That no evil or cruelty was transacted after such formidable preparations of design, can be assigned to no other cause than the interposing hand of Divine Providence.”

It is a matter of history that the orders of the mob leader were never enforced. That spectacular Monday witnessed the last organized attempt to drive the Shakers from their settlement, though they suffered much at the hands of their religious enemies for long years after that event. But the Shakers lived on and, for many years, prospered. Their ranks decimated by death, and unable to enlist new believers in their faith, they eventually dissolved into but a memory. They wrote an interesting chapter in the early history of this part of Ohio, however. And of that chapter there is no more interesting part than that recorded here.