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Copied from Harbaugh's 1909 History


Miami County Ohio

Chapter 11


First Court Session in 1807 - First Grand Jury Impaneled
First Case Docketed - Early Lawyers
Manner of Holding Court in the Late Forties - Some Famous Cases
The Present Bench and Bar - Court Officers in 1908
Amusing Incidents

Born of the backwoods and nurtured under difficult circumstances the bench and bar of Miami County have reached a prominence second to none in the State. Members of each have obtained a celebrity that has extended far beyond our borders and at the present day these legal organizations are noted for their judicial lore and forensic abilities.

In the humble home of Peter Felix at Staunton the first session of court was held June 23, 1807, the year of the formation of the county. The sessions were held in Staunton till November 1808, when Overfield's house in Troy was transformed into a temple of justice. The surroundings were simple, the first court room no elaborate affair, and the few attorneys present were clad in homespun. About the court stretched the forest, rich in the varied garb of nature and abounding in wild game. The bridgeless Miami flowed unvexed toward the Gulf and the craft that cut its waters were the flatboats of the first traders.

At the first regular session of the court Francis Dunlavy presided and John Gerard and John H. Crawford were sworn in as associate judges. Cornelius Westfall was duly appointed clerk pro tempore of the court, which proceeded at once to business. The first official act promulgated by the bench was the taking of a census of the white male inhabitants of the county. and the listing of all taxable property. Stephen Dye was the first sheriff and Arthur St.Clair, prosecutor for the State.

The impaneling of the first grand jury was a ceremony of considerable interest. Its personnel were as follows: James Blue, foreman, James L. McKinney, Henry Orbison, Joseph McKorkle, Henry Robinson, Daniel Knoop, Theodore Sanders, Michael Blue, Jolin Huston, William Miller, Andrew Dye Jr., Matthew Caldwell, John Wallace, John Jenkins, James Youart. Isaac Holt was constable. At the May term, 1808, William Barbee was added to the roll of associate judges and Isaac G. Burnett succeeded General St.Clair as State prosecutor. The first indictments found by the grand jury were against George Overpeck and Alonzo Shaw, both for assault and battery.

At the first regular term in September, 1807, the first case docketed was Nathan Hathaway vs. John McKinney and was a case of trespass in which the defendant asked for $300 damages. R.S. Thomas stood for the plaintiff and General St.Clair took charge of the defendant's interests. This case was dismissed at the following May term, each party paying half the costs. The launching of the first county court must have been an event of supreme importance to the people. It assured them that a new era had opened and that the new county had taken its place among internal commonwealths.

In course of time the number of attorneys increased. There were tedious journeys over poor roads to the county seat and these were performed in all sorts of weather. Locomotion, therefore, was slow and the early lawyers had ample time to think over their cases.

Mr. M.H. Jones, who was admitted to practice in l848, gives an interesting account of his first journey to the county. After being formally admitted at Cincinnati and having purchased a few law books, he took passage on one of the old-fashioned canal packets and arrived at Piqua without so much as a dollar in his pocket. In the Border City he hung out his shingle and became a full-fledged member of the Miami County Bar. At that time there were then practicing in Piqua James H. Hart, S.S. McKinney and Gordon N. Mott. Esben Adams and William I. Thomas were the attorneys in Troy. Mr. Thomas came in 1819 and Daniel Grosvenor in 1822.

Several years after the arrival of Mr. Jones in Piqua, J.F. McKinney and James T. Janeiro came to the bar while George D. Burgess, Ebenezer Parsons, Harvey G. Sellers, Charles Morris, George H. Aylesworth and Henry B. Smeltzer represented Troy's legal contingent. Wilson F. Ross, one of the county's famous practitioners, followed soon after. Practicing at the bench of these times were some noted Dayton lawyers, among them Robert C. Schenck, Peter Odin, Joseph H. Crane, Daniel Haynes, E.W. Davis, John Howard, Wilbur Conover and C.L. Vallandingham.

The manner of holding court in the late forties was yet rather primitive. "On one occasion," M.H. Jones says, "the court came to Troy in their buggy in the evening and went to the court house and got all the papers in all the cases from the clerk, read them and considered them in their room at the hotel that night, decided them, putting a slip in each package announcing their decision, took them back to the clerk before breakfast the next morning, called his attention to their decisions and told the clerk to tell all the lawyers when they came in, and after an early breakfast started in their buggy to "hold court" in the next county. You can imagine the pious ejaculations of the lawyers when they came into court to try their cases."

In early times court terms were limited to two weeks and consequently the docket was always crowded. The system of pleading was under the old Common Law, the complications of which often tried the patience of the early bar. Divorce cases were few and far between and not many criminal cases were docketed.

Those were the days of meager fees, in fact, litigants as a rule were poor in this world's goods and therefore avoided litigation as much as possible. The first pleaders before the Bench of Miami County were men of worth and ability. There was the McKinney brothers, Col. J.H. Hart, Gordon K. Mott, Judson Cottingham, Jonathan Vaile, General Robert Young, Seth H. Wood, Benjamin Powers, R.P. Llewellyn Barber, Charles Morris, Harvey Sellers and Stephen Johnston. Courtly in their manners, these old lawyers made for the Bar of Miami County a reputation which has been sustained by their successors. Many of these were men of much erudition. They knew literature as well as law; they were as familiar with Shakespeare as with Blackstone and eloquence often flashed from them like sparks front a Toledo blade. It would be invidious to discriminate. The old bar of the county has disappeared. The temple of justice which echoed long ago to its wit and eloquence has given place to a new structure, but the record left behind by the first lawyers has not been lost. The last of the old practitioners passed with Major Johnston and J.F. McKinney; and M.H. Jones, the Nestor of the present bar, loved and venerated by all, stands alone to represent the glories of the older day.

There have come before the courts of Miami County several famous cases which deserve more than a passing notice. Perhaps the first of these was that of a man of the name of Armstrong, who was indicted for murder in l816. The crime was committed near Piqua in a house which is still standing. The case, the particulars of which are lost, created a great deal of excitement and the accused was found guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced to be hung, but afterward his sentence was commuted to a term of imprisonment. In 1855 came the celebrated Ragan case.

This trial was one of the most sensational ever held within the limits of the county. It was the first, and last time a woman ever appeared before the bar of our courts with an offense whose surroundings were so heinous. Mrs. Jane Elizabeth Ragan, or Riggin, as the name is sometimes spelled, was a young married woman of twenty-two who lived in Piqua. She was a person of some attractions and intelligence. She was under medium size, fair complexion, bordering on the brunette, regular features, dark forehead, rather low, gray-blue eyes, voluptuous lips and possessed an organization and expression that indicated strong passions and great decision and energy.

Despite the fact that she was married she formed an intrigue with one James D. Mowry, who resided at Cowlesville, near Tippecanoe City. Whether Ragan suspected his wife's infidelity or not, I do not know, but Mrs. Ragan determined to make herself a widow without the sanction of the law. Mr. Ragan became ill and the services of a physician were secured. He grew rapidly worse and the circumstances were suspicious. It was suspected that he was the victim of a slow poison. When he was improving and gave assurances of regaining his health he was suddenly taken worse and died. In a short time Mrs. Ragan was arrested. The warrant was served by S.B. Garvey, constable, but as his time was about to expire his successor, Mr. Goggin, completed the necessary details. The arrest of Mrs. Ragan took place in April, l855.

The accused was brought to Troy and lodged in jail. At that time Judge R.S. Hart was on the bench and Mr. H. Jones was the prosecuting attorney. The prosecutor was assisted by Ebenezar Parsons, who afterward became judge. The defense was conducted by John A. Corwin, of Urbana, James S. Hart, and S.S. McKinney. The jury consisted of Robert Johnson, Henry F. Zellers, Paul Pence, Menalcus Crew, Nathaniel Hollingsworth, Eli Pearson, Erastus Covault, Jeremiah Furrow, Garland Bruce, Joseph Harland, Abner Jones and Jeremiah Thomas.

James D. Mowry was arrested with Mrs. Ragan, but as there was no convicting evidence against him he was finally dismissed and the whole machinery of the law was put forth for the conviction of the woman. The trial, when it came up, was attended by great crowds from all parts of the county. The cold-bloodedness of the crime commanded execration everywhere, for there was no doubt of Mrs. Ragan's guilt. A chemist had found in Mr. Ragan's stomach a sufficient amount of arsenic to have killed half a dozen men. What made the case of the accused so black was the fact that she was a member of church and a teacher in the Sunday school, and it was very evident that she didn't practice what she preached. She was a woman who dismissed for unholy love the religious tenets she professed and hesitated not to take her husband's life because he stood between her and the real object of her affections.

There was not the slightest doubt of Mrs. Ragan's guilt. In fact she made a confession, but as it was made to an officer it could not be used against her. While confined in the county jail a child was born to the accused woman and this offspring was nursed in court in order to secure for the guilty mother the sympathy of the jury. Never before had such a spectacle been witnessed in our courts. The trial was full of dramatic episodes. The case for the State was conducted in an able manner while all the eloquence of the defending attorneys was put forth to save their client from the gallows. The charge of Judge Hart was able and impartial and every one looked for a verdict of guilty. The state had fully proven its case and the defense itself had little hopes of securing an acquittal.

What, then, was the surprise when the jury filed solemnly into the court-room with a verdict of "Not guilty" falling from the lips of its foreman! It seemed as if a bomb had fallen through the roof. There was nothing left now but to turn the woman loose. The trial had lasted thirty days and for the State had been time wasted in the end. Slowly Mrs. Ragan passed through the press of indignant spectators and went her way. She remained not long in Piqua but went west, where she afterwards died. A few years after the trial she was accosted in Indianapolis by a person who knew her, but she denied her identity until convinced that she was really known, when she asked the gentleman not to expose her past life. With the exception of M.H. Jones, who prosecuted Mrs. Ragan, every one connected with the trial of this celebrated case has passed to the Great Beyond, but the memory of the trial is yet one of the causes celebre of the Miami Bar.


It would seem from the outcome of the Ragan trial that the county had been afflicted enough in the miscarriage of justice. It was soon to have another trial none the less aggravating. In the summer of 1859 two young men reached Miami County on their way home from California. One had been-unsuccessful in his search for gold while the other had accumulated, if not a competence, enough to give rein to the generous impulses of his heart. These young men were Michael Hobatta and one Manning. The latter's home was in Kentucky, while Hobalrta lived a few miles out of Piqua. They had been friends in the far west and Manning, taking pity on his companion, had generously paid his fare home. With the blackest intentions in his heart, Hobatta invited Manning to accompany him to the home of his (Hobatta's) parents -before proceeding to Kentucky. This invitation was accepted, Hobatta pledging Manning that his father would reimburse him for his kindness to his son.

When the pair reached Piqua they started afoot toward the Hobatta home. There were persons who saw them on the road and noted Manning's joyous nature. Little did he dream that he was being tolled to his death by one of the most despicable wretches that ever infested the county. There is no telling at what time the demon, Murder, took possession of Mike Hobatta's heart. He not only coveted the wealth concealed on his companion's person, but he wanted also the very rings he wore. Almost in sight of the Hobatta farmstead the body of Manning was found. A bullet from a revolver had taken his life and the body had been left on the scene of the crime. At once a hue and cry was raised and as circumstances pointed in but one direction, the hands of vengeance were laid on Hobatta. Excitement became intense, and it is probable that the swift apprehension of the murderer spared the county a lynching.

The late Harrison Gale, of Troy, was constable at that time and he saw that the accused was promptly lodged in jail. Even then there were threats of an attack on that structure by the infuriated populace. After some legal delays the case came up for trial December 9th. Judge Ebenezer Parsons then occupied the Common Pleas Bench and the late James T. Janvier was the prosecuting attorney. Mr. Janvier called James S. Hart, an able lawyer, to his assistance, while Samuel E. Browne took charge of the defense. Not for a moment did the excitement over the case abate. Ithamar McDowell, a returned gold seeker who knew Manning, visited Hobatta in the county jail and identified a ring on the prisoner's finger as belonging to Manning.

The jury selected to try Hobatta was as follows: J.H. Mitchell, John Wolcott, James Cable, J.C. Mitchell, Henry Cox, John H. Woodward, Robert Buckels, Joseph Coppock, James R. White, Adron R. Murphey, Robert W. South and Levi Coffield.

It would seem from the evidence, which was circumstantial, but without a missing link, that death would surely be the doom of the accused. He demeaned himself both in jail and in the courtroom as a merciless wretch, having little to say, owing perhaps to his nature. His attorney presented his case as best he could and in an able manner. The state labored hard to convict the prisoner the prosecutor making an able argument, in which he was seconded by the able Hart. All their efforts were, however in vain. The jury after some hours of discussion brought in a verdict of murder in the second degree and Hobatta's life was saved. It is impossible to describe the indignation that possessed the people of the county at this verdict. In Kentucky at Manning's home Hobatta was hung in effigy and the excitement was intense. The jury was hotly censured.

The prisoner was taken to the penitentiary at Columbus to begin his life sentence. He served a term of eleven years when he received the benefit of executive clemency and was set free. Although years had passed since his conviction Hobatta was ostracized by his former friends and was driven from their presence when he attempted to take up his old life among them. Forsaking the scenes of his boyhood, he went into an adjoining state, where perhaps the great crime of his life was unknown, and he eventually died in a strange community. It was not the ending that he deserved, for the death penalty should have been meted out to him for his atrocious crime.


During the days of the Civil War, a tragedy growing out of the animosities of politics took place in Dayton. A newspaper called "The Empire" antagonistic to the Government, was published there by a man named Bollmyer. Political feeling at that time was high. It was the home of Vallandigham and his disloyal sentiments had embittered the Union people against what was then known, as the Copperhead Party. In Dayton lived one Brown who kept a hat store and who was an ardent Union man. One evening the personal and party quarrel between the two men terminated in blood. Brown went to Bollmyer's house, and, calling him to the door, shot him dead on the sidewalk. This act stirred the city to its very foundations. Brown was placed in jail and a mob was formed among Bollmyer's friends to take him out and lynch him. Brown was brought to the Miami County jail for safe keeping and, a change of venue being secured, he was tried in the old courthouse in Troy.

The bitter feelings engendered by the war made the trial a noted one. There was little question as to Brown's premeditation. The court house was filled to overflowing during the trial, which lasted some days, and resulted in the prisoner's acquittal. It was thought for some time that his life was in danger by Bollmyer's friends, but he was not molested and a few years later he was found dead in a field, his life having been taken by apoplexy.


After this exciting case the Miami County Court room witnessed no stirring trial till the arrest of George Mitchell, colored, who was charged with the murder of his wife. The Mitchell case is celebrated from the fact that it terminated in the only legal execution ever held in the county. This case came to trial in 1880. Judge H.H. Williams presided and Moses B. Earnhart was prosecuting attorney. The late Daniel C. Miller was sheriff. Mitchell was a blacksmith, but was not considered vicious. Claiming that his wife was not faithful to him, he one day attacked her with a corn-cutting knife and inflicted wounds from which she died. After committing the terrible deed Mitchell made his escape and was not apprehended till months afterward, when he was found at work in another county of the state. He was arrested, brought to Troy and placed in jail. Calvin D. Wright became his attorney. Brought to the bar of the Common Pleas Court he entered a plea of not guilty and the trial began.

The shocking details of the murder aroused public interest and the courtroom was daily crowded. The jury brought in a verdict of murder in the first degree and Mitchell was sentenced to be hanged. The day for the execution was set, but Governor Charles Foster permitted a postponement while the attorneys labored hard for a commutation of sentence. Their efforts availed naught, however, and on the 17th of September the execution took place amid dramatic scenes in the jail yard at Troy. It was a day long to be remembered throughout the county. The county seat was thronged with people who came from every part of the county as well as from other parts of the state. The streets were patrolled by several companies of militia and scores of deputy sheriffs were sworn in to preserve order. Mitchell met his fate unflinchingly. After the execution the body was handed over to the family for burial and the first and last execution ever had in Miami County was at an end.


In l893 Jefferson Shank was brought to trial for the murder of his wife. This case became one of the most noted ever tried at the criminal bar of the county. The hearing lasted three weeks. Judge Theodore Sullivan occupied the bench and Thomas B. Kyle was the prosecuting attorney. He was assisted by Ex-Judge Calvin. D. Wright. H.H. Williams and Ellis Kerr defended the prisoner. The prominence of the prisoner's relatives added interest to the case. The evidence against Shank was altogether circumstantial and need not be related here. The verdict was "Guilty of murder in the second degree" and the prisoner was sentenced to the state penitentiary for life. A short time after his incarceration he became a "trusty" and eventually was the recipient of a pardon.

The foregoing are some of the famous trials held within the county. There have been others, but they do not merit space at the hands of the historian. Many of them have been forgotten and the record of others are buried in the dust of time. It may be said that while Justice at times has been "side-tracked," her scales have been, on the whole, well balanced at the county bar and that the evil doer has generally received his deserts.

The present bench and bar of the county reflect credit upon all concerned. The men who compose it are lawyers of ability and citizens of worth. From Judge Jones down they are worthy successors of the legal lights who brought fame to the county in the years that have passed away. Of the judges who have filled the bench within the last thirty years, Calvin D. Wright, Theodore Sullivan and Walter D. Jones are living. Judge H.H. Williams died a few years ago in Florida. Judge Theodore Sullivan is now judge of the Circuit Court, Second Circuit, and Judge Jones is the present judge of the Common Pleas Court of Miami County.

A century has passed since the first county court was convened. In that time the bench and bar of Miami have reached a place lofty in particular. It is noted for its learning and eloquence and celebrated for its legal lore. Its personnel will compare favorably with the personnel of any similar body in the land. It can look back upon a history of which its members may feel proud, a history covering the stirring events of ten decades. It is no longer the era of the old circuit-riding judges and the lawyer of few books and fewer cases. It is the day of the scholarly barrister, the day of the law library, of the generous fee and the intelligent client. It is a far cry from the bench and bar of Peter Felix's time to the present organization which dispenses and aids justice in the Temple of Justice, and when one casts a retrospective look across the space that intervenes he is impressed with the advancement made by the courts of the county. That our bench and bar will maintain its high standard goes without saying. Its future is bright and the county is proud of it. Following is the present personnel of the Miami County Bar:

Attorneys-Edward H. Allen, Alfred M. Brant, George A. Brooks, A. F. Broomhall, C.N. Burns, A.C. Buchanan, E.M. Bell, G.W. Berry, A.B. Campbell, T.M. Campbell, S.D. Croft, John V. Daganhardt, J.A. Davy, A.W. DeWeese, U.G. Earnest, C.F. Faust, F.V. Flinn, J.S. Forgy, Charles E. Fox, J.C. Fullerton Jr., Freshour & Freshour, M.K. Gantz, Gilbert & Shipman, F.C. Goodrich, W.A. Hains, L.O. Harbaugh, J.C. Hughes, W. E Harness, E.A. Hiatt, Nate Iddings, C.B. Jamison, M.H. Jones, W.S. Kessler, A.H. Kessler, Kerr & Kerr, E.H.& R.A. Kerr, James Ward Keyt, Lindsey & Lilley, George A. Long, Thomas B. Kyle, William E. Lytle, J.H. Marlin, W.L. Martindale, Seth McCullough, J.L. McKinney, J.W. Morris, M.H. Nill, O'Donnell & Billingsley, Bert Reed, J. Harrison Smith, J.F. Spitler, L.E. St.John, Thomas & Thomas, W.P. Walker.

Officers of the Court, 1908-1909-Hon. Walter D. Jones, Judge; J.H.Landis, clerk; B.J.Johnson, Florence M. Fickes, deputy clerks; Renna R. Spitler, stenographer; W.E.Lytle, prosecuting attorney; R.H. Gibson, sheriff; P.H. Moyer, deputy, H. Southerland, bailiff.

A volume of anecdotes concerning the county's old barristers might be written and its perusal would be highly entertaining. In speaking of the celebrated "Bob" Schenck, Mr. Jones narrates how that old-time lawyer once broke down a witness on cross-exam investigation.

"Schenck was once defending a case and the testimony was going dead against his client, and among the witnesses who were strongly against him was one John Maddux, of Piqua, a very shrewd, sharp wag, who was equal to Schenck in wit and resource, and Schenck announced to some of the lawyers that he was going to break Maddux down on cross-examination. So after Maddux was examined in chief, Schenck undertook the cross-examination in a manner that became offensive to Maddux, who imagined that Schenck assumed a superiority over him. Schenck led him through a long cross- examination in the details of the case and his testimony became harder on Schenck's client, and in a fit of anger and disgust Schenck, in one of his loftiest moods, turned on the witness and asked him: "Now, Mr. Maddux, you have sworn to know a good deal about this case and testified very strongly will you please have the goodness to tell me and the court how you know these things?' "Maddux raised up and in the grandest mariner and the clearest voice, assuming social equality with Schenck, looking him squarely in the eye said: "Why, Bob, I saw it with this scrutinizing eye of mine" at which the whole audience, judge; and jury, roared with laughter, all except Schenck, who in an angry manner said, "The witness can go." It was the lawyer broken down, not the witness."

Mr. Jones was elected prosecuting attorney in 1851. He defeated the famous Harvey Sellers, one of the oldest members of the Miami County Bar, and was probably the first and only Republican who ever carried Brown Township, the Gibraltar of Miami Democracy. The prosecutor's salary was then $225 per annum.

One of the old time legal geniuses of the county was R.P. Lewellyn Baber, of Piqua. He was gifted in oratory and his flights of rhetoric was indescribable. At one time he was to deliver a Fourth of, July oration at Xenia and in order to create a lasting impression he prepared a very eloquent address. It was written to be delivered in the open air and was filled with allusions to the golden glow of the sunlight, the warbling of the birds, and the soft zephyr. As it was written so it was delivered, but the day was cold and dreary. The rain fell in torrents and a public hall held the orator. But undaunted he called upon his hearers to observe the sunshine, etc., which they heroically tried to do amid shouts of laughter.

An amusing story is told of William I. Thomas, one of the first members of the Miami County Bar. It was customary a number of years ago for members of the Supreme Bench to sit in various counties and hear cases. On one occasion one of these high officials was performing this duty in Troy. Mr. Thomas had a case in which he was deeply interested and while absent from the court room the court decided it adversely to Mr. Thomas. When he returned to the court room he said to the court: "I would like to have a decision in the case of A vs. B." Thereupon the court replied: "The case has been decided, Mr. Thomas, and adversely to your client. I shall carry it up to the Supreme Court," retorted Mr. Thomas, with a good deal of spirit. "I want to see how the d---- case looks in a book." The gist in the old lawyer's retort lies in the fact that all cases carried to the Supreme Court are printed in pamphlet form for consideration by the highest tribunal in the state. There is no doubt that not a few cases are taken into the Supreme Court for no other reason than to see how they "Look in a book."

The members of the old county bar were men who would have made any bar famous. There was the suave, gentlemanly Janvier, who left the mercantile business for the law, the bright Burgess, who was," careless in essentials and details," the philosophic Grosvenor, the elder Thomas, who possessed a deep legal mind, the reasoning and thinking Ross, the careful and scholarly Morris and the brilliant Sellers. "The early Bar of Troy, where is it? Gone! gone whence? No response. The heart beats faster, the pulse quickens, the brain grows dizzy, the voice struggles to articulate the answer, but none comes. The early Bar of Troy has passed away; its members are no more; life's journey for them is ended, and that is all we know."

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