Journal-News, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2004
President and former president fared poorly in 1912 election
(This is the last of three columns on the history of presidential elections in Butler County.)
By Jim Blount
The 1912 presidential election was one of the strangest for the nation and Butler County. Among four major candidates, a sitting president and a former president finished third and fourth in local balloting. Their combined total was less than a third of the votes cast. The Socialist Party nominee received almost a fourth of the county votes.
Democrat Woodrow Wilson, the winner, was no surprise. In 14 presidential elections since 1856 -- when the Republicans and Democrats became the two major parties -- Democrats had won the county every time. Wilson took 44 percent of the 1912 Hamilton vote and 46.6 percent countywide.
Seeking reelection was President William Howard Taft, a Cincinnati Republican, who campaigned in Hamilton the day before the 1912 election. At the GOP convention, Taft's re-nomination had been opposed by Theodore Roosevelt, who had occupied the White House from September 1901 until March 1909.
Roosevelt -- who became president with the assassination of William McKinley -- formed his own party in 1912 when he failed to stop Taft from securing Republican support. Roosevelt ran under the banner of the Progressive Party, also known as the "Bull Moose Party."
In 1904, when Roosevelt sought election at the top of the Republican ticket, 51.2 percent of Butler County voters favored his rival, Democrat Alton B. Parker, in the county's closest presidential race. In 1908, Taft won nationally, but Democrat William Jennings Bryan took 57.4 percent of the county votes.
Another 1912 candidate was Eugene V. Debs, who also had been the Socialist Party candidate in 1900, 1904 and 1908 and would run again in 1920. Debs, born Nov. 5, 1855, in Terre Haute, Ind., had quit school at age 14 and went to work as a painter in railroad yards. Later he become a fireman on steam locomotives and a billing clerk in a wholesale grocery business.
His career in the labor movement and politics began in 1875 as a charter member and officer in a local lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. In 1893 he organized the nation's first industrial union, the American Railway Union.
Debs attracted national attention in 1894 when the ARU was involved in two struggles -- a 19-day strike by workers on the Great Northern Railway and a boycott and strike against Pullman. He and other ARU leaders were jailed for contempt of court in the Pullman strike.
The controversial labor leader was well known and supported by railroad workers throughout Butler County. In 1912 the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad were major employers in Hamilton, a busy industrial center. The Socialist Party also had been gaining strength in the area in recent years.
In Hamilton, 2,447 of the city's 7,841 votes went to Debs. He had a majority or plurality of the votes in eight of 30 Hamilton precincts. His 31.2 percent support exceeded the 15.5 percent (1,295 votes) for President Taft and 8.3 percent (648) for Roosevelt, the former president.
Debs' 2,447 Hamilton votes represented 70 percent of his 3,500 county total. There were 16,643 votes cast in the county, including 7,763 (46.6 percent) for Wilson; 3,500 (21 percent) for Debs; 3,434 (20.6 percent) for Taft; and 1,787 (10.7 percent) for Roosevelt.
The county response for the 1912 Socialist candidate still stands as the highest Butler County percentage for a candidate from a party other than the Democrats and Republicans since 1856.
Based on percentages, the second highest support for a minor party nominee was Ross Perot's 20.99 percent of the county total in 1992. Democrat Bill Clinton, the national winner, had 30.6 percent and Republican George H. W. Bush 48.5 percent. Perot didn't fare as well in 1996. The Reform Party candidate earned only 8.5 percent of the county votes. Clinton, while winning a second term nationally, had 35.7 percent and Republican Bob Dole 54.9 percent.
In 1968, as the American Independent Party candidate, George Wallace had 19.2 percent of the county vote, third highest for a minor party contender. The former Alabama governor was running against Republican Richard Nixon (48.7 percent) and Democrat Hubert Humphrey (32 percent).
In Debs' fifth run for president in 1920, he was unable to campaign. He had protested U. S. involvement in World War I in a June 16, 1918, speech in Canton, Ohio. He was arrested and convicted of espionage in a Cleveland federal court. Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison and lost his voting rights and citizenship.
His campaign slogan was "From Atlanta Prison to the White House, 1920." A Socialist campaign button said "For President, Convict No. 9653." Debs finished a distant third with 915,490 votes.
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Journal-News, Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2004
Underground Railroad sojourn ended in tragedy
(This column is the seventh in a series on the slavery issue and the Underground Railroad in Butler County in conjunction with the opening of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati).
By Jim Blount
Scholars have concluded that the Underground Railroad was a loosely organized system assisting runaway slaves before the Civil War. An absence of maps, documents and instructions helped guard its secrecy and reduce the risks. The whites and free blacks operating the escape system usually knew only that part of the maze in their own locality. In one legendary Butler County incident, a Hamilton conductor apparently went beyond familiar territory -- with tragic results.
"The demands of secrecy were always carefully observed by those connected in any way with the thoroughfare," wrote Wilbur H. Siebert, regarded as the leading authority on the Underground Railroad during his 42-year tenure as a professor of history at Ohio State University. Siebert interviewed former slaves and people who helped runaways, and collected letters, diaries, newspaper articles and other sources of information on the network.
Writing in 1896, early in his research, Siebert calculated there were between 2,800 to 3,000 miles of Underground Railroad in Ohio. In Southwestern Ohio, several routes converged at West Elkton, now on Ohio 503 (West Elkton Road), immediately north of Butler County. Quakers in the Preble County village are reported to have provided a haven for escaped slaves.
George Crout, a Middletown area historian, related the fate of a fugitive group in his recent book, Madison Township Bicentennial Sketches, 1799-1999.
The Underground Railroad "was neither underground nor a railroad," except in this unfortunate incident, "the station was indeed underground," Crout explained, in retelling the story from "yellowed files of an old local newspaper of 1892." It involved escaped slaves being escorted between Hamilton and West Elkton.
The story was "the narrative of an elderly resident describing an old cave near Middletown, which he wrote was not over six miles from the downtown corner of Main and Central Avenue" in Middletown, Crout wrote. "His farm homestead had been adjacent to the cave. The narrator's grandfather, one of the area's pioneers, had discovered it. He noted that some mysterious, poisonous gas filled its inner chamber and therefore concealed its opening to keep anyone from entering it."
The family tried to keep the cave a secret, but "a few knew its approximate location," Crout said. "Among these were an Abolitionist who lived at Hamilton, a prominent doctor dedicated to helping free slaves by assisting in the Underground Railroad. The narrator's family, being of Quaker background, also believed and supported the cause."
According to the account, "one night in 1849 a knock came at the back door of the farmhouse. The narrator of the story and his parents were in the parlor reading. His father was alerted when he heard four slow and distinct raps at the back door -- a signal used by the underground railroad conductors.
"Not wishing to involve his son, he asked him to remain in the parlor, but he and his wife went to answer the kitchen door. All lamps were extinguished. The youth quietly walked over to the closed door between the rooms, climbed up on a chair to look through the transom. he watched and listened."
As the opened the door, the farmer recognized a Hamilton doctor known to be a conductor on the Butler County section of the Underground Railroad.
The physician, who was guiding two wagon loads of slaves toward West Elkton, believed his party was being followed by bounty hunters. In desperation, he hid the fugitives in the cave near the farm.
"Upon hearing of this," Crout wrote, "the farmer warned that he knew the cave to be a tomb of death, filled with a poisonous gas (probably methane). He feared that none of the 21 would ever emerge alive."
After a rest, the doctor and the farmer’s son sneaked to the cave. Crout said the doctor "took a few steps into the cave, and began to call. Getting no response, he tied a handkerchief around his face to prevent the inhalation of any gases, instructing the youth to stand guard at the entrance." Inside, he found 21 bodies, victims of the fumes.
Is the story history or legend? As with most stories of the secretive Underground Railroad, the accuracy of the cave tragedy is unconfirmed.
"Only a few such stories have been thoroughly investigated, and some of those have been found to lack any real basis in fact," wrote Larry Gara in his 1961 book, The Liberty Line, The Legend of the Underground Railroad.
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Journal-News, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2004
Helping escaped slaves costly to Hamilton County farmer
(This column is the eighth in a series on the slavery issue and the Underground Railroad in Butler County in conjunction with the opening of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati).
By Jim Blount
Secrecy was a key to the success of the Underground Railroad. Ohioans -- whites and free blacks -- relied on the cover of darkness and the silence of neighbors as they advanced escaped slaves along the freedom network. Federal fugitive slave laws enacted in 1793 and 1850 included penalties for people aiding the runaways. Citizens were supposed to help federal marshals and slave hunters. Those convicted of failing to cooperate with finding and capturing fleeing slaves could be fined and imprisoned.
In most instances, the federal law was ignored north of the Ohio River. In some cases bystanders were prosecuted for their inaction, but seldom convicted.
Legal challenges -- through contradictory state laws and contested arrests -- were numerous. Most were settled in local and state courts to the advantage of the abolitionists.
One case -- with origins just south of the Butler County border -- reached the U. S. Supreme Court. The decision exacted heavy penalties on a Hamilton County farmer known to have been involved in the Underground Railroad in this region. It was a setback -- and a warning -- for people operating the Underground Railroad in all states.
John Van Zandt had moved from Kentucky to a farm north of Cincinnati. Sources place him at a village named Mount Pierpont, near Sharonville, Glendale and Springdale. Van Zandt was an active ally of Levi Coffin -- known as "the president of the Underground Railroad" -- and others who assisted fugitive slaves.
April 22-23, 1842, Van Zandt, while returning from an overnight trip to market in Cincinnati, "was caught in the act of conveying a company of nine fugitives in his market wagon at daybreak," explained Wilbur H. Siebert in his 1898 book, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom.
One runaway managed to escape the slave catchers in the confrontation about 15 miles north of Cincinnati. Eight were captured and returned to their owner, Wharton Jones, in Kentucky.
Van Zandt was represented by Salmon P. Chase, then a member of Cincinnati City Council. Chase argued that the federal fugitive slave law required proof that Van Zandt had been notified that the blacks he assisted had escaped from a slave state.
"The jury gave a verdict for the claimant of $1,200 in damages on two counts," Siebert said. "Besides the suit for damages, an action was brought against Van Zandt for the penalty of $500."
Abolitionists came to Van Zandt's assistance in appealing the verdict, viewing the case as their first opportunity for a direct legal challenge to the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.
When it was argued before the U. S. Supreme Court in February 1847 -- nearly five years after the incident -- two high-powered lawyers represented Van Zandt. Joining Chase was William H. Seward of New York.
Seward, a lawyer since 1823, had been an unsuccessful candidate for governor in New York after serving four years in the state senate. Later, he was elected to the U. S. Senate, serving from March 1849 until March 1861. He would be a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. After Abraham Lincoln won that nomination and the election, Seward was named secretary of state. He continued in the post after Lincoln's assassination, serving from 1861 to 1869. While in President Andrew Johnson's cabinet, Seward negotiated a treaty with Russia for the U. S. purchase of Alaska.
Chase also would become a member of Lincoln's cabinet. He had started a law practice in Cincinnati in 1830 and was elected to council for the first time in 1840. Later, he served in the U. S. Senate, 1849-1855, and was elected governor of Ohio in 1855 and 1857 before election to the Senate again in 1860. He resigned after two days in office to become Lincoln's secretary of the treasury. He left that office in 1864 when he was appointed chief justice of the U. S. Supreme Court.
Despite his prestigious legal team, the court ruled 9-0 against Van Zandt March 5, 1847. The decision in Jones v. Van Zandt has been described as "a particularly harsh interpretation of the 1793 law," costing the Hamilton County farmer $1,700.
"The loss Van Zandt suffered embarrassed him seriously, and I believe he never recovered from its damaging effects," Chase wrote later. He lost his farm, spent some time in jail and was barred from his church. Van Zandt died in 1848.
A few years later he would be immortalized in a book that did much to end slavery. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe depicted John Van Trompe as the man who helped Eliza, a runaway slave, move from the icy Ohio River to safety in Lebanon. Stowe wrote that "the poor girl was never retaken" and later "married well in Cincinnati, is a very respectable woman and the mother of a large family of children."
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Journal-News, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2004
Study named county's Underground Railroad leaders
(This column is the ninth and last part of a series on the slavery issue and the Underground Railroad in Butler County in conjunction with the opening of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati).
By Jim Blount
At least six people from Butler County helped guide escaped slaves to freedom in the decades before the Civil War, according to Wilbur H. Siebert, who has been described as conducting "the pioneer study of the Underground Railroad." Siebert listed about 3,200 people "known to have been engaged in this work" in his 1898 book, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom.
The Butler Countians -- William Elliott, Dr. Cyrus Falconer, Jane Lewis, Dr. Loammi Rigdon, Dr. William H. Scobey and John Woods -- were among 1,540 Ohioans and 1,670 people in other states named in Siebert's book. The six Butler County participants were part of a network that, according to a map in Siebert's book, extended from the Cincinnati area through Hamilton to Richmond, Ind.
Siebert's numbers for UGRR leaders in surrounding counties are: 54 in Hamilton, 36 in Clermont, 28 in Warren, 14 in Preble and 10 in Montgomery counties in Ohio; four in Dearborn, eight in Union, 37 in Wayne and none in Franklin counties in Indiana.
The Ohio State history professor didn't identify his methods or sources for naming six Butler Countians. He also didn't claim to have included everyone involved in the Underground Railroad.
John Woods -- a Pennsylvania native -- opened his law practice in Hamilton in August 1819; was county prosecutor, 1820-25; represented the area in the U. S. House, 1925-29; served as state auditor, 1845-51; and owned and edited a Hamilton newspaper for three years.
The 1882 county history said Woods left his "impression on almost every public improvement in and about Hamilton," including the canal, railroads, turnpikes, hydraulic canals and education.
While in Congress, Woods negotiated federal assistance for extending the Maimi Canal north from Dayton to Toledo and Lake Erie. As president of the Junction Railroad (Hamilton to Oxford), he promoted the merger of Hamilton and Rossville during the construction of the railroad. Voters approved the consolidation in April 1854. The union was completed in February 1855 and accepted by the state March 10, 1855. Woods died July 30, 1855.
Dr. Cyrus Falconer -- also a Pennsylvania native -- was raised in Rossville, attended Miami University, the Ohio Medical College, Cincinnati Medical College and studied medicine under Dr. Robert B. Millikin in Hamilton before being licensed in 1832. He was a founder of the Butler County Medical Society in 1837.
"He accompanied his father on his last trip to New Orleans on a flatboat down the Ohio and Mississippi," said the 1882 county history. " It was on this romantic trip that he became instilled with abolition principles. He witnessed slavery in its worst form; and the cruelties and degradation seen by him made a lasting impression upon his mind." Falconer lost two sons in the Civil War.
Dr. Loammi Rigdon -- another Pennsylvania native -- graduated from Transylvania Medical College in Lexington, Ky., and practiced medicine in Wilmington and Lebanon before coming to Hamilton in 1826.
Dr. William H. Scobey practiced medicine in the Oxford-College Corner area until 1838. That year he moved to Rossville and in the 1850s was a leader in the merger of Rossville and Hamilton.
Because Siebert didn't provide sources or biographical information, the exact identities of William Elliott and Jane Lewis are uncertain.
There were several men named William Elliott in pre-Civil War Butler County.
One William A. Elliott was a merchant and businessman in Rossville who also owned a farm, grist mill and saw mill at the mouth of Four Mile Creek, north of Hamilton. He also supplied stone and railroad ties for the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad. "He could not witness anyone suffering without shedding tears of sympathy, and was the most charitable man I ever met," said Dr. Henry Mallory in his 1895 book, Gems of Thought and Character Sketches.
Another possibly is William J. Elliott, a native of Ross Township, who was county coroner (1835-39), sheriff (1843-47) and a pork packer before moving to Indiana.
Jane Lewis may have been the woman who lived for almost 40 years in what is now known as Lewis Place, the Oxford residence of Miami University presidents since 1903.
She came to Oxford in 1837 with her husband, Romeo Lewis, and three orphaned girls -- two of Jane's sisters and one of Romeo's nieces, according to Ophia Smith in Old Oxford Houses and the People Who Lived in Them. Romeo Lewis died in 1843, at age 48, four years after building his Oxford mansion. His widow, Jane Lewis, remained in the house until her death in 1888, at age 80.
The Elliott and Lewis voids are typical of the many unsolved puzzles associated with the Underground Railroad. As Siebert noted, "there is something mysterious and inexplicable about the whole anti-slavery movement in the United States."
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