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The Slaying of Two Town Marshals

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, June 3, 1934


By Howard Burba


     Scanning old newspaper files of 50 years ago one reaches the conclusion that it was the open season for town marshals.  Two of them were slain in neighboring counties within a period of seven months.

      Wilmington, seat of justice of Clinton co., and Eaton, county seat of Preble co., were the scenes of the two tragedies noted in old Dayton papers of 1884, and older citizens of both communities recall quite vividly the stirring scenes and lynching threats which attended them.  Let it be noted in passing, however, that such threats were not carried out in either instance, and that both Clinton and Preble counties have a clear record in this respect-neither has within its history resorted to mob law; neither has stained the pages of history with crimes of this nature.

     But older citizens are not averse to telling how closely each event came to winding up in a "necktie party," and how in each instance only the powerful argument of cool-headed citizens overcame the lust for blood which followed the assassinations of two of the most popular town marshals ever to hold the office in their respective counties.

     Eaton and Wilmington had not at the time we write reached the point where they could boast of chief of police and metropolitan methods of law enforcement.  There was a town marshal in each town, and upon their shoulders rested wholly the responsibility for preserving the peace and protecting the dignity of their communities.  Kidnapping and banditry of modern form was unknown.  But of rowdyism there was aplenty, and while both towns have grown rapidly in the 50 years that have elapsed since the slaying of their town marshals, it is safe to say there were just as many law-breakers, in proportion to population, then as now.



     The scene is the attractive little city of Wilmington, and the time is March 8, 1884.

     Alfred Ballard, a young man residing with his parents a short distance north of the town, had come to town prepared, as he had previously informed acquaintances, to "have a good time."  Ballard was the son of a well-known and highly-respected family and, despite efforts of his parents to guide him along proper paths he developed wayward tendencies.  He early became addicted to the use of liquor and among his neighbors and associates he was recognized as a boisterous, reckless character when under the influence of intoxicants.  He had been involved in numerous escapades, though none of a serious nature and all were directly traceable to his fondness for whisky.

     Ballard had been hanging around Wilmington all afternoon.  He had imbibed freely, and was under the influence of liquor when he approached a saloonkeeper named George Barlow, along about dusk, seeking more liquor.  Barlow was acquainted with the young man, and knew that a refusal of his demand for drink was apt to encourage an outburst of temper.  But he felt that the youngster had imbibed a sufficient amount of intoxicants for one day, so he firmly refused.

     Thereupon Ballard started in to berate Barlow.  The latter, however, remained firm in his decision, which only served to anger Ballard the more.  Finally he threatened to do Barlow bodily harm, whereupon the latter, anxious to avoid an open altercation, walked away from him and, apparently intended to remain out of his sight so long as he remained in town.  Friends attempted to persuade Ballard to go on back to his home in the country.  Their suggestions went for naught.

     It was when Ballard's temper had reached the point where open threats of violence were being made against Barlow that someone notified Marshall John T. Van Doren of the affair.  There was never a more highly-respected man in Wilmington than the town marshal, the faith and loyalty of the community in his ability having been expressed by his repeated reelection to the office of marshal.  In face, he had served faithfully for almost 12 years, continuously, up to the event of which I write.

     It was about 7 o'clock in the evening when VanDoren, his attention called to Ballard's threats against Barlow, started to locate the young man and send him on his way home.  Ballard was found by the town marshal at the corner of South and Locust sts., within one square of the center of the town, and within a like distance of the place kept by Barlow.

     In his search for Ballard the marshal had encountered a deputy, one George Daniels.  Fearful that Ballard might attempt violence, and knowing full well his quarrelsome and irresponsible disposition when intoxicated, VanDoren instructed Daniels to come along.  They sighted Ballard at the corner mentioned, and approaching him VanDoren notified him that he was under arrest.  Instantly Ballard's fighting blood arose, and he demanded to know on what charge he was being arrested.  VanDoren explained that the charge probably would only be that of intoxication, although he had reason to believe that a more serious charge could be filed since there was plenty of evidence that he, Ballard, had threatened to do George Barlow bodily harm.

     Before VanDoren had succeeded in pacifying the young man quite a crowd had assembled and as the town marshal and his assistant started walking west a short distance to the town lockup, the bystanders straggled along behind.  Up to this point the gathering constituted nothing more than the ordinary bunch of idly curious such as are wont to assemble in any town under similar circumstances.  In less than five minutes, however, it had resolved itself into a swearing, shouting mob, clamoring for the body of Ballard that he might be strung up to the nearest tree.

     But few steps had been taken by the officers and their prisoner when the latter, still swearing vengeance on Barlow, jerked his arm from VanDoren's grasp and, hurriedly reaching into his pocket, produced a pistol.  Before the marshal could regain Ballard's wrist, or draw his own weapon, Ballard's gun exploded, and VanDoren sank to his knees.  Another instant and his body was stretched at full length, a crimson stain of blood cascading down his face from a bullet hole in his head.  The bullet fired by Ballard had struck VanDoren in the right eye, and pierced the brain, death being almost instantaneous.

     Daniels had made a grab for Ballard the moment he jerked loose from the marshal's grasp, but did not succeed in preventing the tragedy.  A second grab, however, and he had Ballard's arms pinioned and was shoving him forward toward the city prison.

     By this time the crowd of curious had become a frenzied mob.  They pushed forward demanding of Daniels that he release Ballard to them.  Some stooped in the street for stones, but were prevented from casting them through fear of injuring Daniels.  Someone in the mob, however, had drawn a knife and shoving his way close to the prisoner, slashed him across the face.  The location of the wound left no doubt but the man who wielded the knife was attempting to cut Ballard's throat.

     Lodging the prisoner in jail, Daniels called for help in dispersing the mob, and some of the foremost citizens of Wilmington hurried to the scene and joined in persuading the angered ones to return to their homes and let the law take its course.  Word of the tragedy quickly spread over the town, and each moment saw additions to the ranks of the crowd, which had now grown to the point where the entire street in front of the prison swarmed with people.  For an hour the mob spirit was manifest.  But no leader came forward, and loud threats of lynching decreased to low mutterings.  Gradually the ranks thinned.  Wilmington had passed the crisis.  Her first and only mob had melted away to leave the law take its course.

     That the Ballard's family was not without influential friends was evident when the case came on for trial. Attorneys for the defense contended that so great was public sympathy in Clinton co. in favor of the dead officer and his family that it would be impossible to impanel an unbiased jury.  As a result, the case was carried to the neighbor county of Greene on a change of venue plea.

     It was almost a year before it was finally disposed of.  Then, in an issue of a local newspaper of Tuesday, Feb. 24, 1885, we find this final chapter.

     "The trial of Alfred Ballard for the murder of John T. VanDoren, a town marshal of Wilmington, has been agitating the courts of Xenia for sometime.  A month ago he was found guilty of manslaughter.  Ballard shot the marshal while he was in the discharge of this duty and citizens of Wilmington were with difficulty restrained from lynching him.  A change of venue was secured and the prisoner was tried in Xenia.  Mayor Blackburn appearing in his behalf.

     "When the verdict of the jury was declared a motion for a new trial was made to save the young man.  Yesterday the case was taken up and Attorney Savage asked for a postponement of the sentence on account of the absence of Mayor Blackburn.  The court refused to grant the request.

     "Judge Hawes reviewed the legal points in the motion, declaring them not well taken. He then took up the evidence in the case and reviewed it at great length.  He thought the verdict was a most liberal one for the defendant.  The defendant's statements regarding the purchase of the pistol were contradictory and inconsistent, he said.  The large number of threats he had made were very strong against him, especially as many of them were made while the defendant was sober.  The jury ought not, the judge thought, to have found a first degree verdict because of the struggle.

     " 'But there is no question but the evidence shows malice on the part of the defendant; said the judge, and added that there is no doubt but that the deceased officer was in the exact discharge of his duty, and in as proper and mild a manner an any officer could have done.

    " 'Instead of the verdict being unfair to the defendant,' said the judge, 'I can see how it might have been in a higher degree.'

     "The court then asked Ballard if he was ready to receive sentence.  He answered in the affirmative, whereupon the judge said:

     " 'I have thought about this case a great deal, but could not find anything to mitigate your crime.  I believe your act in shooting that old man was malicious, but I cannot sentence you for that, as the verdict interferes.

     " 'The sentence of this court, therefore, is that you be imprisoned in the Ohio state penitentiary for the term of 18 years, no part of which shall be in solitary confinement.  Also that you pay the costs of this case.'"



     “The town of Eaton, Preble co., is all torn up over a murder that occurred there yesterday;” said a Dayton paper in its issue of Oct. 28, 1884.

     “A telephone message states that shortly before 7 o’clock Town Marshal Michael Ryan of that village was shot by a rowdy who has been attempting to run the town for some time past.

     “A short time ago the town marshal felt called upon to interfere with the drunken hilarity of the man who turned out to be his murderer.  At that time the marshal met with resistance, and to pacify the man and put an end to his boisterous conduct it was necessary for the officer to use force.  This he did applying his club vigorously.  The man was finally landed in the calaboose, and when he recovered sufficiently to appear in court he was given a sentence on the stonepile.  He swore vengenance on the town marshal at the time.”

     Eaton citizens, one learns from the old newspaper account of the tragedy, were accustomed to such drunken bravado as the incensed prisoner displayed during the days he was in jail, and during more sober moments when he was working on the rockpile.  The fact that his threats to “get even” with the town marshal continued after he had served his sentence and gained his release were also accepted by Eaton citizens as nothing more than the idle mutterings of a drink-crazed brain.  No one thought for a moment that anything serious, and certainly nothing tragic, would develop from the threats.

     “Yesterday evening,” continues the old newspaper of 1884, “shortly before 7 o’clock this man, one William Ellis, met the marshal coming down the street and without warning opened fire upon him.  Not until that moment did Eaton citizens realize that the threat made by Ellis while in jail that he proposed to ‘lay for Ryan and get him’ was to be carried out.  Three shots were fired, all three of the bullets taking effect in Ryan’s body, but only the third, and final shot, was of a fatal nature.

     “The murderer then fled down the street, but was soon captured and taken to jail.  The story of the shooting spread like wildfire, and an indignant populace gathered on the street corner nearest the county jail.  Each moment served to add to their number, until finally they were swarming about the jail yard.  Rage was high and threats of lynching were openly made.  Some of the closest friends of the dead marshal, however, mingled with the crowd and spent considerable time in arguing against a display of violence.  This argument was successful, though for several hours it was apparent that all that was needed to carry out a lynching was someone to step forward and be accepted as a leader.

     “Marshal Ryan was a Democrat and a very popular man in Eaton and all over the county, as shown by the fact that he has been elected in a Republican town for a number of years.  He has always kept the rowdy element well under control since he has been in charge, though he had often had to use force to do so.  By this he had incurred the enmity of a class of desperate law-breakers.  He has been caused some trouble, but at no time has he flinched from his duty as an officer of the law.  Many threats have been made against him, but they were not heeded.  A strict adherence to duty and determination to have order terminated in this tragedy.”

     Few details of the assassination were carried by local papers, even though the affair was hours old when news of it first reached the city.  The Eaton correspondent of the Cincinnati Enquirer, however, was not slow to get these details through to his paper, and it is from those special dispatches to The Enquirer we learn the inside story of the tragedy.

     “A shocking tragedy took place this evening at 9 o’clock, “ said the Eaton correspondent of The Enquirer under date of Oct. 27, 1884.  The affair occurred at John Deem & Sons’ livery stable, and it ended the life of city Marshal Michael Ryan, who was shot down by William Ellis, of Richmond, Ind.  The particulars are as follows:

     “Ellis came to Eaton from Richmond this evening on the train to see about a claim for $10 he had against John Fleming, proprietor of the Eagle hotel, for cleaning a vault last summer.  He had some time ago given Marshal Ryan an order for the money and Fleming had paid it to Ryan.  Ellis went to the hotel to see about it, and Fleming told him that he had already paid the $10 to Ryan on his (Ellis) order.

     “Ellis then left the hotel and came across Ryan.  That was about 7 p. m.  Ellis stated his purpose in coming to Eaton, and an argument over the money arose.  Angry words were passed.  The two men walked down Barton st., still arguing and quarreling, and when near the corner of Main st. they came to blows, Ryan getting the better of Ellis and pounding him badly on the head.  They were separated and Ryan went up Main st., while Ellis was taken to Deem’s livery stable.

     About 9 o’clock Ryan went to the stable and inquired for Ellis.  He was met by Joseph Deem, whom he asked if he was going to take the part of Ellis, at the same time prefixing a vicious word to Ellis’ name.  Ryan had a revolver in his hand at the time.   Deem informed him that Ellis was in the office, and that he had no intention of shielding him from the law.

     “Ryan started toward the office and Ellis called to him to go away and leave him alone. Ryan did not halt in his approach, and on reaching the office opened the door, walked in and grasped Ellis by the lapel of his coat.  Ellis jerked away and said:

     “If you attack me I’ll kill you!

     “Ryan then pulled him out on the stable floor and Ellis fired three balls into his stomach.  Ryan, releasing his grasp on the man said:

     “My God, I am a dead man; he has killed me!”

     “Ryan expired almost immediately following the firing of the third bullet.  He was then carried into his home next door and Ellis started off for the jail and delivered himself to sheriff Corwin and was locked up.

     “Ryan has served a city marshal here for 17 years and was on his eighth term, having been elected last spring.  He was one of the best-known men in southwestern Ohio and filled his position creditably.  He has been instrumental in bringing to justice a great many criminals and was known to all evil-doers in this part of the country, the result of which was the keeping of Eaton free of bad characters.  Ryan was also a deputy United States marshal.  He was kind, generous, loved by all and everyone will say ‘Poor Mike,’ and it will be many a day before Eaton has another marshal like him.

     “Ryan had been married three times and leaves a wife and large of family of grownup daughters and two young sons.  He was a devout member of the Catholic church.

     “Ellis is a resident of Richmond, and very little is known of him here. It is said that he killed a man some years ago.  He is very quiet since the tragedy of last night and does not seem to realize, or care, what happened.”

     It was not until Nov. 6, 1884, that Ellis had his preliminary hearing.  Then he was arraigned before Mayor W. B. Marsh, with Prosecutor Crisler being assisted by Attorney Robert Nevin, of Dayton.  Ellis was remanded to jail without bail.

     On Dec. 4 of the same year his case came on for trial, the grand jury having returned an indictment of murder in the second degree.  Bond was fixed at $3000, which was given by relatives of the accused.  The case was postponed until Jan 5, 1885, and started promptly on that date, continuing until Jan. 12, when the jury brought in a verdict of not guilty.  Commenting on this verdict, The Eaton Register in its issue following the trial said:

    “To say that the verdict was a disappointment to nearly everybody is not an exaggeration of the fact.  Some were agreeably disappointed, while others felt that justice had been outraged.  None, however cast any censure upon the jury, for they were men of good judgment and firm integrity.  Nobody believes they were influenced by any other motive than to do right under the law and the testimony.  A better jury was never summoned under a special venire, and yet there was disappointment in their verdict.  Everybody knows Michael Ryan was shot and killed by William Ellis, but as to its being a justifiable murder no one knowing the marshal believes, and Ellis only escaped just punishment through legal technicalities, discrepancies in the evidence, and by placing all doubts to his credit.  He was pronounced innocent by a jury of 12 good men and the community bowed in meek submission to their verdict.”