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A Wild Night at Washington C. H.

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, June 26, 1932


By Howard Burba


     You don’t have to be a patriarch to recall that wild night in Washington C. H., the wildest in the history of Fayette co. and yet a generation has been “born and raised” in this community since it occurred. Forty years lacks a great deal of being an ordinary lifetime.  Yet there are living in Washington C. H. today citizens who will tell you that they lived a lifetime in that one wild, frenzied night of rioting and insurrection.

     For a good many years events in this community were reckoned from the date of the Washington C. H. riot.  Then memory of it gradually faded away.  The “gay nineties” passed, and the nineteen hundreds brought so many other events crashing onto the first page that folks actually ceased to talk about it.  So it became history.

     The fact is, Washington C. H. really tried to forget that wild night.  It didn’t relish the idea of being pointed out as a place where people were quick to lose their heads.  Nobody who participated in that wild night went around afterward boasting about it.  On the other hand, they preferred to speak in whispers when they did condescend to discuss it.  If they made any confession at all it was that the entire affair was nothing to their credit.  Yet they found considerable consolation in after years in the knowledge that their neighbors up at Urbana and Springfield, and over at Newark, had passed through almost the same thing. So Washington C. H. put a red line around the date of Oct. 17, 1894, and returned to the peace and quietude that prevailed for all time up to that date, and that has prevailed for all time since.

     On Oct. 9, 1894, a telephone call to the sheriff at Washington C. H. from a constable at Parrott’s Station, a tiny settlement a few miles northwest, announced that one William Dolby, colored resident of the neighborhood, had assaulted Mrs. Mary C.  Boyd at her home in the town, and that he had escaped his pursuers.

     While authorities in all surrounding cities and towns were promptly notified to be on the lookout for the colored man, and accurate descriptions of him were wired and telephoned to all outlying points, it was not until one week later that he was apprehended.  He was captured at Delaware, O. and promptly returned to Washington C. H.

     When Dolby was lodged in the Fayette co. jail along in the afternoon of Oct 17, Sheriff Cook realized that an ugly state of unrest was fast developing among the citizens of the town.  He saw, too, and recognized an unusual number of residents from over around Parrott’s Station.  Whispers of a possible attempt at lynching likewise reached his ears.  But it was not until well along in the afternoon that the agitation became of sufficient seriousness to justify him in taking steps to safeguard the life of the prisoner in his keeping.

     Without waiting for a mob to organize, Sheriff Cook called on the local militia for assistance in guarding all approaches to the jail.  This had an opposite effect to that intended, since it served to increase the crowd about the courthouse and jail, and to anger the populace, now apparently deserting their regular routine for a place where they could witness any act of violence that might ensue.  During the early evening the crowd had swelled to considerable size, and Sheriff Cook appealed to Gov. McKinley at Columbus for aid.

     The appeal was promptly answered, and a detachment of militiamen, under command of one Col. Coit, entrained at Columbus and within a few hours were patrolling the lawn in front of the jail.  Pushing forward into the jail yard, the spectators, now an angry, determined mob, attempted to make their way inside the structure when it was rumored that Dolby was to be taken across to the courthouse for preliminary arraignment on a charge of criminal assault.  As usual in such cases, added gruesomeness accompanied the detailed story of the crime as it was told and retold in the crowd.  All of which accomplished the usual purpose—that of increasing the fury of the mob.

     It was generally known throughout the town that Dolby had confessed his crime upon being apprehended at Delaware.  In the hurried arraignment which followed his removal from the jail to the courthouse he reiterated his original confession, pleading regret and beseeching protection from the mob in the same breath.  It was but the work of the moment to pass sentence, and he was given 20 years in the state penitentiary, the charge being one of criminal assault.

     Leaving the courthouse to return the prisoner to the jail, Sheriff Cook and the guard were almost overpowered by the principals in the uprising.  Henry Kirk, a brother-in-law of Dolby’s victim, was knocked down the steps and badly bruised.  Deputies with drawn revolvers formed a cordon about the prisoner, now trembling with fear, and succeeded in pushing him through the corridors of the courthouse to the grand jury room, crying like a baby, shouting loudly for help and only pacified by his protectors when he had been placed in the jury room.

     The mob had become so determined as to make it impossible for the officers to get their man back across to the jail.  Immediately Sheriff Cook wired Gov. McKinley for more troops, declaring that he could not with his present force cope with the crowd, which was gaining in numbers with each passing hour.  He explained that it would mean a loss of life to try to leave the courthouse with the prisoner.

     Col. Coit mounted the front steps and addressed the mob.  He urged all those assembled to disperse, assuring them that there would be no delay in legal proceedings and that they could be sure that justice would be meted out to the prisoner.  Hisses and threats of personal injury greeted his plea, while a stronger wall of angry citizens packed itself closer about the steps, on the lawn and in the street facing the courthouse.  The sheriff and his aides found it impossible to get Dolby back through the passage-way to the jail, so he was surrounded by deputy sheriffs and militiamen in the grand jury room, where it was decided to make a final stand against the mob in the event it insisted upon laying hands upon him.

     Scarcely had Col. Coit finished speaking until there was a forward surge and members of the mob were grappling hand-to-hand with the militiamen, attempting to get inside the courthouse.  They were repelled.  But they were not overpowered. Those nearest the door tried to burst it from its hinges, and the waiting militiamen inside the building threw open the door and gazed out on a mass of upturned faces, all centered on the spot from which they expected the leaders of the mob to appear with their victim.  Surging ahead, pushed on by clamoring, shouting, frenzied members in the rear, the main body of the mob pressed toward the entrance.

     Apparently bewildered, and at the same time angered because his pleas had fallen upon deaf ears, Col. Coit raised his hand and gave his men a command to fire.  A volley rang out, the smoke and flame fairly enveloping those closest to the entrance-way.  In an instant pandemonium reigned; men were lying in the street, or struggling to maintain their footing in the wild scramble that followed the volley.  The cries of hysterical women mingled with the shouts and protests of the men; the din could be heard far out beyond the corporate boundaries of the little city.

     Then came a lull while the mob took stock of its casualties.  It was found that 23 people in the crowd had been struck by bullets from the rifles of the militiamen.  Two were killed outright—Smith Welsh, aged 16, and Jesse Judy.  Mark Johnson, of Kyles, Butler co., died within a few hours and still another, William A. Sammes, expired a few days later from a bullet wound in the stomach.  Among the wounded were F. L. Niederhause, an aged and highly-respected citizen; Dial Parrott, George Keating, Walter Leach, John McHugh, John Korns, Ernest Ellis, H. C. Morris, Miss Hannah Coughlin, Grace Morris, Frank Jackson, Frank Smith, J. W. Wilcox, Dale DeWitt, and Leon and Charles Bloomer.  Others suffering minor injuries escaped the inquiring reporter in the wild scenes that followed the shooting, though it is safe to say that in Fayette co. today there are men carrying scars sustained in that historic outbreak.

     Within an instant the spirit and purpose of the mob had been changed.  Where a moment before the volley it had sought the life of a fiend, now it clamored for the blood of the militiamen, and especially their commander.  The leaders threatened to dynamite both the jail and courthouse, in the hope of destroying the militiamen; they vowed that Col. Coit should not leave Washington C. H. alive.  The object of their original wrath had been lost sight of.  The authority of the militia was cast aside.  They had seen the limp bodies of their comrades carried from the street.  They wanted to see the blue-uniformed bodies of the militiamen being carried out in the same way.

     Sheriff Cook sensed this new danger.  He fairly burned up the wires in insisting that more troops be sent.  He appealed to Mayor Creamer, and he, enjoying the respect and esteem of his fellow-citizens, immediately ordered all saloons closed and went into the streets with a personal plea to the rioters to disperse and return to their homes.  Business houses and the fire engine house nearby had been converted into hospitals for the relief of the injured, and all doctors and surgeons in the town were immediately called out to render assistance.  Mothers, sisters, wives and sweethearts crowded about the dead and wounded and added pathos to the scene by their lamentations.  Bitter and vicious were the threats directed at the militia, and it pervaded all classes.  The plea of the mayor was fruitless.  Instead of dwindling in size, the mob increased in numbers as the hours passed.  All roads leading to the city were filled with men on horseback, in wagons and on foot, hurrying with all possible speed to the scene of bloodshed.

     Meanwhile in the little city a search was in progress for arms and ammunition and dynamite.  Shouts of “Down with the militia!” and “Blow up the dogs!” echoed in the streets.  They but feebly expressed the pent-up feeling of the populace.   All had now become members of the mob, so far as personal feeling was concerned.  The militia realized that a plot was on foot to blow up the courthouse; some of the soldiers admitted afterward that they confidently believed Col. Coit would be seized and hung before the affair was at an end.

     Gradually, however, cooler heads, taking stock of the night’s work, concluded that little was to be gained by adding to the slaughter, and quiet once again began to settle over those milling in the streets.  At 2 o’clock there was another volley from the militiamen and excitement flared high for a second time, until it was discovered that they had merely fired far over the heads of a group of the more determined who had approached too close to the entrance to the courthouse, the militiamen fearing that they meant to dynamite the building.  No one was injured.  By this time a rumor was flying about the streets to the effect that Gov. McKinley was en route to Washington C. H. to personally take charge of affairs, and that his special train also carried several carloads of militia to reinforce those already on the ground.

     Elmer Boyd, a son of the outraged woman, pushed his way to the entrance to the courthouse, and when he asked permission of the soldiers to address the crowd his request was readily granted.  He begged the mob to disperse and let the courts mete out the proper punishment to the one who had brought sorrow into his own family.  When he had concluded and regained his place on the lower steps he was hooted and jeered.  He made his way through he crowd and sought a quiet part of the city to await developments.

     Col. Coit had warned from the steps that if the doors were broken in the soldiers would most certainly fire another volley, but none believed he was serious.  Even when the fatal volley rang out there was a cry that “They’re firing blanks!”  It was sometime before the mob actually realized that deadly bullets were being used.

     Gov. McKinley had an appointment to speak that night at Hamilton.  He had reached Cincinnati at midnight, following the speech.  All day from points along his route he had been directing Adj. Gen. Howe as to the best method of dealing with the outbreak.  He had planned to take a train at Cincinnati for a speaking tour through the south, but changed those plans and started back for Columbus.  Shortly before 6 a. m. his train was halted a the depot in Washington C. H., where he was joined by Col. Coit, the latter having marched to the depot in full protection of his troops.

     At 10:30 on the night of the rioting the first regiment, O. N. G., Col. Hunt commanding, entrained at Cincinnati, 400 strong.  They joined the men who had figured in the heat of the outbreak, and shortly before Gov. McKinley’s train had passed they formed in two solid lines leading from the jail to the depot, while between these lines other militiamen marched with Dolby, his guard formed by a square of men with fixed bayonets.  By daylight the train, the same one they had used on their hurried run up from Cincinnati, was halted at Denison av., in Columbus, within the shadow of the walls of the penitentiary.  Then Dolby was hurried through the main entrance to a cell.

     At the station in Washington C. H. but a few hours later, as the governor’s train halted that he might take on Col. Coit, McKinley said to newspaper men:

     “The act speaks for itself.  Troops were sent to act in aid of the civil authorities, who were powerless to quell a mob that was seeking to overthrow the law and its orderly administration.”

     Altogether, the intended victim of the mob spent 12 hours of terror in the little courthouse room in which he was being guarded by the militiamen.  Coit had almost one hundred men in command.  From the moment the volley was fired at his order it was apparent to the soldiers that not only had they the protection of the prisoner’s life on their hands, but the protection of their colonel’s life as well.   Even while Sheriff Cook was delivering the prisoner into the hands of the authorities at Columbus rumors persisted about the streets of Washington C. H. that plans had been made for killing him when he got back to town.  He returned later in the day, following the riotous night, but secreted himself, remaining indoors all day.   The feeling against him in Fayette co. never fully died down, while as for Col. Coit it would have been worth his life to have shown himself there at any time for a good many years after the event.  It was common knowledge that Washington C. H. citizens had virtually set a price on Coit’s head, and the feeling that he would be assassinated if he ever again entered the town was general all over the state of Ohio.

     Washington C. H. did not return to its former peaceful pursuits following the removal of the prisoner to Columbus.  It could not retrace its steps to the path of peace when the echoes of the volley fired from the courthouse the night before had scarcely died away.  Then, too, relatives of the dead and injured were coming in on all trains Thursday; newspaper men were scurrying about for new details.  Throughout the entire day there was an ominous atmosphere about the little city; the fact that the blue uniforms and brass buttons of their foe—the Ohio National Guard—were still a part of the proceedings was not destined to make for an early return of the peace so rudely interrupted the night before.

     But Thursday passed without additional violence, and Friday morning came an order from Columbus removing the remaining militiamen.  They marched to the depot, entrained for their homes, and then, and not until then, Washington C. H. breathed a sigh of relief.  She could now bury her dead.  She could now calmly and soberly review the events of the past 48 hours.  She could cast up her accounts and determine for herself if that night of Oct. 17, 1894, her wildest night, was worth what it cost.

     Washington C. H. has ever since kept that one wild night posted on the red ink side of her ledger.