Throughout my years of traveling around this state, I have gained an appreciation for Ohio’s county courthouses, the architectural jewels that are the crossroads of life in our towns and cities.
It’s no accident that the courthouse is usually the grandest, most prominent building in a county seat, often occupying a stand-alone square at the center of town. Our courthouses, many over a century old, were constructed as a lasting testament that says something very important about the people who built them. They speak of the belief in the rule of law and its central role in the life of a community. They symbolize stability and order over chaos, and they represent the triumph of justice over inequity.
Several years ago I had the honor of speaking at the rededication ceremony for the newly renovated courthouse in Washington Court House, the county seat of Fayette County, about halfway between Cincinnati and Columbus.
Since 1885, the magnificent building at the corner of Main and Court has stood guard over that quiet town. But on the evening of October 17, 1894, the quiet was shattered, and the courthouse became the epicenter of a frozen moment that left a permanent mark.
The drama began to unfold on October 9, 1894, when Mary Catherine Parrott Boyd – a 53-year-old widow – was physically and sexually attacked. Mary was white; her alleged assailant – William “Jasper” Dolby – was a 19-year-old black man.
Dolby, who had fled, was later apprehended in Delaware, Ohio. Upon capture, he confessed to the crime and expressed regret for his actions. When he was brought to the Fayette County jail, Sheriff James Cook quickly realized that an ugly state of unrest was fast developing in town.
Dozens of townspeople – convinced that Ohio’s criminal penalties weren’t sufficient – began gathering around the Courthouse Square demanding that Cook release Dolby to the swelling crowd. Cook heard rumblings of a lynching.
Believing that his forces couldn’t protect Dolby, Cook called out the local unit of the Ohio National Guard on the evening of October 16. As the crowd increased, Cook contacted Governor William McKinley for additional troops. Reinforcements soon arrived from Columbus under command of Colonel Alonzo Coit.
On October 17, Coit and his troops managed to move Dolby from the jail to the courthouse for arraignment, although there was a skirmish along the way. By the time the court proceedings ended, the crowd had become an angry, determined mob. It was impossible to move Dolby back to the jail. Sheriff Cook immediately wired Governor McKinley for more troops, declaring that he couldn’t handle the crowd with his present force.
Recounting the event several decades later for the Dayton Daily News, Howard Burba wrote that Colonel 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.” He warned that if the doors were breached, his men would fire. But his pleas went unheeded.
While Coit and his troops guarded the entrances, deputy sheriffs and militiamen surrounded Dolby in the grand jury room, determined to make their final stand there if the mob made it inside the courthouse.
Just after Coit finished speaking to the crowd, there was a forward surge, and soon the people were “grappling hand-to-hand” with the National Guard. “They were repelled. But they were not overpowered.”
Compelled by an irrational frenzy that overtakes a mob, there was another surge forward at the south entrance, those behind pushing the ones in front. Colonel Coit raised his hand and gave the command. The troops fired through the door.
A newspaper account written at the time reported that, “Immediately there was a deafening and continuous volley from two score of muskets. A pandemonium of yells and curses and a dense smoke filled the corridors.”
Five men were killed; more than 20 others were wounded.
“Within an instant the spirit and purpose of the mob had been changed,” Burba wrote. “Where a moment before the volley it had sought” Dolby, now it clamored for Coit and his men. There were threats to dynamite the jail and courthouse, and vows that Coit wouldn’t leave town alive.
At around that time, Elmer Boyd – Mary Boyd’s son – pushed his way to the entrance and asked permission to speak. He begged the mob to disperse and let the courts mete out the proper punishment. “His pleas were met with hoots and jeers.”
Gradually, however, cooler heads prevailed. Governor McKinley arrived early in the morning, and more troops reinforced Coit’s beleaguered force. They managed to get Dolby on a train to Columbus. Coit made it to the depot too, under protection of his men.
Dolby was sentenced to 20 years in the state penitentiary. He was released after 13 years. A newspaper account reported that Dolby “celebrated the event by procuring a license to wed Marie Ross.” The paper noted that Dolby “has been a good prisoner. A tailor is making a fine suit of clothes. His sweetheart is patiently awaiting the day of his final discharge. She made his acquaintance behind the walls.”
Dolby’s “total capital after being released was 41 cents, besides the usual 5 dollar bill given to each inmate when discharged.”
It was a different story for Colonel Coit. Having been thrust into a volatile and difficult situation, he was later indicted for manslaughter. But, after a trial, he was acquitted.
Governor McKinley was not apologetic. “The act speaks for itself,” he said. “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. Lynching cannot be tolerated in Ohio.”
The south doors of the courthouse were never replaced or repaired, leaving the bullet holes as a reminder of a night where, as McKinley said, “the law was upheld as it should have been…but at fearful cost.”
Paul Pfeifer is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.