Bluffton history professor details the significance of Ohio’s last attempted lynching
In front of a packed room in Bluffton University’s Stutzman Lecture Hall, Dr. Perry Bush, professor of history, detailed the evening of Aug. 30, 1916, in Lima, Ohio.
A mob of thousands crowded around the Allen County Courthouse ready for a lynching, and the man with a noose around his neck was an unlikely hero of his day, Allen County Sheriff Sherman Eley.
The disturbing narrative set the scene for Bush’s Colloquium address, "We Have them Whipped Here: Lynching and the Role of Law in Lima," on Friday, Sept. 8, which detailed the last attempted lynching in Ohio. On Aug. 30, 1916, an angry mob in Lima, Ohio, went after Eley for protecting the location of a black man who was accused of rape.
Bush said the story is one of “courage, anti-racism and commitment to the role of law.” Instead of bodies swinging from trees and lampposts, Bush explained, “courts and prosecutors swung into motion and packed the ringleaders of the mob off to prison.”
The professor began researching the story with Anna Selfridge, curator and archivist at the Allen County Museum, last year. During the presentation, he explained that lynchings began to spill into the north and west during the later 19th and 20th centuries.
“The Midwest in particular, proved particularly fertile ground for extra-legal violence,” said Bush. The violence was an expression of Gilded Age racism as black southerners moved north to find work and to escape the racism and violence of the south.
The events that led to the near-lynching began on the morning of Aug. 30.
Vivian Baber, a 23-year-old wife and mother was attacked and raped by a man in her rural Allen County farmhouse. An elderly boarder in the home, broke off the attack by releasing a dog and hitting the attacker with a broom.
A makeshift posse was formed, but Eley already had a suspect in custody. A black man, Charles Daniels, admitted to being near the Baber farm that morning and had scratches on his chest. Daniels insisted he was innocent.
Fearing for Daniels life, he was brought thirty miles north to the Putnam County Jail. “Having seen to Daniels’ safety,” said Bush, “Eley had neglected his own. Angry crowds had gathered around the courthouse animated by liquor and false reports that Baber was dying.”
Newspaper reports described the crowd growing to 5,000 people and many were moving towards the jail.
Learning that neither Daniels nor Eley were there, they ransacked the Eley residence, which was inside the jail, and roughed up his family, including his three-year old daughter who was frail and sick.
When Eley returned, the mob went after him and beat him when he refused information on Daniels.
Eventually a noose was tossed around a lamppost. Meanwhile, Ortha Barr, the county prosecutor, and several detectives walked among the crowd, identifying ringleaders.
Barr eventually got close enough to Eley to reason with him.
“With the noose tightening around his neck and his feet nearly lifted off the ground, the sheriff finally relented,” said Bush. Eley revealed Daniels’ location.
Strapping Eley across the hood of a truck, a hundred rioters tore through the countryside to Ottawa, but Barr had already made a call to have Daniels moved to Toledo.
In the mayhem, Eley was able to slip away. The next day newspapers were filled with headlines from Lima.
“Riotous mayhem or the threat of it seized the city for another several days,” said Bush. “It posed an undeniable threat to Lima’s entire African American community.”
Three prominent, black religious leaders issued a statement on behalf of the city’s black residents. “They did not ask for ‘leniency,’ but hoped for the fair-minded and just law enforcement that had always been exercised in Allen County.”
The riots only ended with word that the sheriff’s young daughter died in the city hospital.
According to the Lima Republican-Gazette, the rioters “bared their heads and then slunk away quietly.”
After a short trial filled with circumstantial evidence, Daniels was found guilty. However, upwards of 30 white men were also brought before juries with Eley serving as the star witness in many, and juries delivered guilty verdicts to 21 participants in the riots. Others pled guilty.
Just days later, the entire slate of county officials including Barr and Eley was up for re-election. “If they had incurred the public wrath for their defense of law and order, here was the voters’ chance to express it,” said Bush.
Barr did lose, but voters re-elected Eley by a margin of 54 percent.
A letter-writer to the Lima Democratic-Times summed up that Eley, “did his duty faithfully in maintaining the dignity of the law… Good citizens of Allen County cannot afford to encourage anarchy.”
The NAACP also recognized the significance of the events in Lima during a banquet hosted in December 1916, when Eley was given a cup with the inscription, “For devotion to duty in defending a colored prisoner from lynching, enduring torture and insult that the majesty of the law might be upheld at Lima, Ohio.”
Bush explained for the rule of law to be upheld in Lima over mob rule was a shift of seismic proportions. “The coming of the rule of law meant everything to African Americans in a society so saturated with racism,” said Bush. “It was a necessary precondition for a civil rights movement; it was the first step that made others possible.”
Bush’s research also led to a letter written by Eley which was printed in the journal of the NAACP about the ongoing prosecution of rioters.
“’We have one serving time in the Ohio penitentiary, three serving time in the Mansfield Reformatory, one locked up in the Ottawa jail… We have them whipped here, and I hope and pray that our steps here in this matter will have its effect everywhere.’ Eley’s use of the word ‘we’ in this context clearly referred to law enforcement officials in Lima,” explained Bush. “Yet in it he also may have included the NAACP and the larger network of anti-lynching activists whose cause he now embraced as his own.”