Washington Court House is a quiet town in Fayette County in central Ohio. From what I've read and heard, it's always been a quiet town - always, that is, except for one night in October of 1894. That night, a mob formed outside the courthouse in an attempt to lynch a prisoner being held there. Shots were fired and five men were killed. This incident has come to be known as the Washington Court House Riot of 1894.
On October 9th, 1894, Mary Boyd was at home in town when William Dolby entered her house, assaulted and raped her. He ran off, but was apprehended a week later and brought back to Washington Court House to stand trial. On the day of his trial, October 16th, Sheriff Cook noticed a lot of people milling around and heard whispers that a lynching was being discussed. He decided not to wait and see what happened, and immediately called on the local militia. When the citizenry saw the militia arrive, it angered them more than they already were. Tensions rose and the crowd grew. At that point, Sheriff Cook appealed to then governor and future president William McKinley for help.
McKinley acted swiftly and sent a state militia unit under the command of Col. Alonzo Coit via train to Washington Court House. They arrived within a few hours of the call going out, and promptly took up positions in front of the jail and courthouse.
Dolby was moved under heavily armed guard from the jail to the courthouse for his arraignment. He pleaded guilty, expressed regret and was sentenced to 20 years for aggravated assault. His guilty plea was communicated to the crowd and it quickly became apparent that if they tried to bring Dolby back to jail from the courthouse, even with the military presence, there was going to be trouble.
Col. Coit addressed the crowd directly, urging them to disperse and telling them that justice was being served inside the courthouse. The angry crowd surged towards him with fists blazing and started grappling with the militiamen. The militia escaped back behind the heavy courthouse doors, and the crowd started trying to batter their way in. Col. Coit told them to stand down or they would be fired upon. When they continued their assault on the courthouse, Coit gave the order to fire. His men fired through the courthouse door, killing five people and wounding 23 more.
Sheriff Cook called on McKinley begging for more troops. McKinley got on a train himself, backed by several units of militia, and headed towards the small town. Mayor Creamer ordered all the bars closed and went into the streets making a personal plea for calm. He ordered all the doctors and nurses in town to the local firehouse to care for the victims.
Meanwhile, the mob's anger had turned from the prisoner to the militia, and specifically towards their leader Col. Coit. Their fellow citizens had been mowed down and they now wanted Coit's head on a platter. At some point, Elmer Boyd, the son of the original victim, mounted the steps and pleaded with people to just go home. Even he was booed off the steps.
Shortly before 6 a.m., Governor McKinley's train pulled into the station. The militia fixed their bayonets and formed a double line around both William Dolby and Col. Coit. They marched back to the train station, boarded and pulled off towards Columbus. The long night had come to its end.
Governor McKinley was later quoted as saying "The law was upheld as it should have been but in this case at fearful cost. Lynching cannot be tolerated in Ohio."
Personally I think that rape is one of the worst crimes that can be committed. People should get angry every time a rape is committed and we should do whatever is within our power, within the confines of the law, to prevent and prosecute it. In this instance though, people weren't calling for Dolby to be lynched because he was a rapist, or because a white woman had been raped. They wanted to lynch him because a white woman had been raped by a black man, and for some reason this has always been seen as somehow than any other kind of rape. So bad, in fact, that lynch mobs form and try and kill the perpetrator, sometimes before they've even stood trial. In this case, it seems, Dolby was guilty. If you haven't listened to my podcast on the lynching of Ell Persons in Memphis, you should because it's heart wrenching. In that instance, he likely was not guilty. I wanted to write this post to dispel the myth that these sort of incidents were only occurring in the South. The police response, though - the response of those charged with defending all people, was markedly different. Police and militia were willing to risk their lives, even for a guilty prisoner, because that is their job, it's what they are supposed to do. Mob violence is never the answer, and in this case it cost five people, including a 16 year old boy, their lives.
The town of Washington Court House has decided to memorialize this incident instead of covering it up or sweeping it under the carpet of history. Not only is there a plaque prominently displayed on the courthouse lawn, but you can also still see and touch those bullet holes in the courthouse doors. For me, it's only with the ability to run my fingers along that bullet-riddled door that I can connect with this story, that this incident becomes real and not just an old story in a book somewhere. And I applaud that.