LIMA — The 52-year-old barber died as he prepared to leave his West High Street home for work on a late-spring day in 1904.
With “a last good by on his lips to his family, John H. Lillie gasped and started to fall towards the floor, but was assisted to a bed where he expired from heart failure,” the May 17, 1904, edition of the Allen County Republican Gazette reported. “Probably no man in Lima was better known than Popular John, as he was known to his wide circle of friends, who recognized his sterling worth and his deep sense of honesty.”
Lillie, “Popular John,” was working as a barber, his occupation for much of his adult life, when he died, but he was also something of a pioneer for a couple years in the 1890s. William A. Jackson was Lima’s first black police officer, joining the force in 1891, a time when police forces across the country were exclusively white. John H. Lillie was the second and, like the men who followed Hillary or Armstrong or Amundsen, he seems to be largely forgotten.
“Throughout the years there have been many African-American officers in the Lima Police Department,” a history of the Lima Police Department notes. “The first documented was William A. Jackson, who served from 1891 to 1895. He was reappointed in 1898. Next came Arthur Harrison from 1902 to 1918 …”
Lillie was appointed to the force on May 11, 1896, the Lima Times Democrat reported. A photograph of Lillie, except for his skin color looking every bit the late-19th century cop, appears in an 1897 composite photo of the Lima police force.
Born in Winchester, Va., in 1852, Lillie came to Lima shortly after the Civil War ended in 1865. By 1870 he was working as a barber at the John H. Bishop residence on West High Street. City directories between 1888 and 1895 list him as a barber with a shop in the basement of the 1st National Bank and a residence at 522 W. High St.
On Nov. 25, 1873, Lillie married Hellen, also known as Ella, Bishop. Over the next 15 years, the couple had six children: Florence, born in November 1874; Blanch, born in December 1875; Jessie, born in June 1882; Hellen, “Pearl,” born in 1884; Cloyd, born in April 1887; and Elmore, born in October 1888.
Sadly, tuberculosis, known at the time as “consumption” or the “white plague” was widespread in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and would claim most of the Lillies’ children, three of them before their father’s death in 1904. All of the couple’s children would be dead before their mother, Hellen, died at 81 in March 1934. Blanch was the first to die, in July 1893. Pearl died in February of the following year and Cloyd in August of 1898. Jessie died in October 1910 while visiting her sister Florence in Lima. In May 1924, Elmore died in Chicago. Florence, the oldest and only surviving of the couple’s children, died in March 1927. Tuberculosis is listed as the cause of death for all but Blanch and Elmore.
Lima was flourishing in 1896, the year Lillie was appointed to the police force. The discovery of oil in 1885 boosted the economy. Railroads crisscrossed the city and hundreds found work in the railroad shops. Lima’s population, close to 16,000 in the 1890 census, approached 22,000 by the turn of the century.
A Times-Democrat article on Aug. 3, 1896, notes Lillie was assigned to patrol from Wayne Street to the river and west of Main Street for the month. In October his assignment was described simply as “the west side.”
In May 1897, Lillie is listed as assisting in the arrests of two men after a night of “considerable” beer drinking at the home of a married man ended in a “bloody fight.” The married man, according to the Times-Democrat article, “did not approve of the conduct of his wife and one of the young men.” The two were fined $10 each in mayor’s court the following morning.
On May 30, 1898, under the headline “CARELESS DRIVERS,” the Lima Daily News reported that police were looking for two young men “wanted by the police for fast and careless driving on west Spring street last night. They collided with a buggy occupied by ex-county surveyor Taylor, doing considerable damage to his buggy. The vehicle occupied by the young men was overturned. Patrolman Lillie happened along and captured their horse, the boys escaping.”
In August 1898, in an article on the death of his son, Cloyd, Lillie is described as an “ex-patrolman.” The city directory of 1899-1900 indicates Lillie had returned to barbering.
When Lillie died in May 1904, the Republican Gazette reported he had “served his city faithfully as a patrolman and left the position voluntarily with a record of which any man could be proud as not a breath of scandal was ever laid at his door.”