One of Fayette County’s leading civic boosters a century ago was Jess W. Smith, born in 1872 and graduated from Washington High School in 1890. In 1900, he opened a department store on North Main St. and named it the Jess W. Smith Company. The store faced the courthouse and carried a wide variety of men, women, and children’s apparel offered at reasonable prices.
Jess Smith stood six feet tall and was heavyset. He was friendly, likeable, and a good mixer. He often described Fayette County as “the best place on earth”; he liked to quip that Washington C. H. was located 40 miles from Columbus and every other city in Ohio. For most of his life, Smith lived in a double residence at the northeast corner of Temple and Hinde streets. (The house is still there.)
Many considered him the local authority on good taste and etiquette. He delighted in giving advice on how to dress smartly and select the best wines, cheeses, and cigars.
A picture of Jess with his employees, taken in front of the store around 1908, shows a happy, cheerful group of people. At Christmastime, he treated his employees to a lavish multi-course dinner in the dining room of the Cherry Hotel on North Main Street.
Smith’s enthusiasm and recognized ability as an organizer made him a valuable community asset a century past. He was a principal planner of Fayette County’s centennial homecoming celebration in 1910. He played a key role in bringing Ohio’s Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) encampments to Washington C.H. in 1905 and 1913 and making both events a success. During World War I, he served on the county’s War Work Council and singlehandedly orchestrated the city’s impromptu Armistice Day celebration on Nov. 11, 1918.
Jess was a prominent member of the local Elks lodge and the force behind the lodge’s Christmas parties for needy youngsters. Throughout his life, he gave generously from his own purse to better the lot of disadvantaged children. Popular with Elks throughout Ohio, he was elected president of the Ohio Association of Elks in 1917.
In 1908, Jess Smith married Roxy Stinson, an attractive redhead, whose mother Eldora operated a finishing school for girls in rooms above the department store. The couple divorced in 1910, but they remained pals and confidants.
Jess was a lifelong friend and associate of Harry M. Daugherty, the Washington C. H. native whom President Warren G. Harding appointed Attorney General of the United States in 1921. Daugherty served as Attorney General from March 1921 to April 1924.
Daugherty took Jess to Washington as his unofficial assistant, and the two men shared an apartment at the Wardman Park Hotel. Through his association with the Attorney General, Smith became friends with President and Mrs. Harding.
General Daugherty’s reputation soon became tarnished with allegations of corruption. Capital insiders considered Jess Smith the middleman between Daugherty and a bevy of shady characters. Other officials of the Harding administration were accused of malfeasance as well.
Jess had been in Washington less than six months when he told Roxy Stinson: “This intrigue is setting me crazy.” He wanted to come home but was unwilling to abandon the Attorney General. In poor health and depressed over his connection with the purported misdoings at the Department of Justice, Smith died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the early morning of May 30, 1923 at the apartment he shared with Daugherty. He was 51 years old.
His funeral took place in Washington C. H. on Saturday, June 2, 1923 at the First Presbyterian Church. The businesses of the city closed during the funeral out of respect to him. Conspicuous among the many floral tributes was a large wreath of flowers from President and Mrs. Harding.
Jess Smith will forever be a footnote to the scandals of the Harding administration. But he was also an important civic leader who helped make Washington C. H. an exemplary small city of the Middle West 100 years ago. This is his story, too. Jess W. Smith is buried in the Washington Cemetery alongside his mother.
As for Harry Daugherty, he was indicted for conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government but was never proven guilty of any wrongdoing. Twice tried in federal court, the juries deadlocked at both trials.