George McCready would later say he turned away as the mob slipped a noose around the neck of Allen County Sheriff Sherman E. Eley.
“I didn’t see just what happened after they placed the rope around the sheriff’s neck,” McCready testified at the trial of a ringleader of that mob according to an Oct. 21, 1916, story in the Lima Republican-Gazette. “I turned my head away for I didn’t want to remember for all my life that I had seen a white man, or any other man, lynched by a mob.”
If so, McCready was in the wrong place the evening of Aug. 30, 1916. The mob, reported to number upwards of 5,000, that descended on the county courthouse that evening was hell-bent on lynching a black man.
A battered and bruised Eley survived and was hailed a hero, although he paid a dear price.
The incident and its implications are studied in an article by Bluffton University history professor Perry Bush in the latest edition of the Allen County Reporter, a publication of the Allen County Historical Society.
Wednesday, Aug. 30, 1916, dawned warm and sunny in Lima. At the home of 23-year-old Mrs. Vivian Baber on Spencerville Road west of Lima, the Republican-Gazette wrote, “The bright sun glistened on the morning glories entwining the rustic porch posts, birds twittered in the trees and all was peaceful.”
As the woman “hummed quietly a favorite tune” while she worked, a “burly” black man appeared at the door and demanded breakfast. When told that breakfast was over, the man attacked Mrs. Baber, fleeing only when an elderly neighbor woman intervened, the newspaper reported.
In short order, a posse was formed and, two hours after the attack, Eley arrested Charles Daniels, a black man from Mississippi, on the nearby Erie Railroad tracks. Daniels was charged with rape and taken to the jail in Lima.
“The news of the assault of Mrs. Baber, strangely enough, was not generally known about Lima until noon, although the central portions of the city were discussing the crime,” the Lima Times-Democrat wrote on Aug. 31. “Reports that she had died at the city hospital brought the topic into more general knowledge, and on the advice of prosecutor (Ortha) Barr, Eley took his prisoner to Ottawa at 5 o’clock.”
An angry crowd, which included “many women and girls bent on gratifying their curiosity,” gathered at the courthouse, the Times-Democrat noted. “A majority of the men were also spectators, but a few of the more aggressive, evidently intoxicated and loud in their demands for the blood of Daniels, soon worked up the passions of a hundred or more of the others.”
The mob surged toward the county jail and, according to the Times-Democrat, ransacked “every corner for a trace of Daniels.” They then turned their anger toward Eley, invading the sheriff’s residence next to the jail, roughing up Eley’s wife, Hazel, and his sister-in-law.
“Worse,” Bush writes, “they broke into the baby’s room and tossed the bedcovers off little Doris, then sick with fever. Some of the mob proposed tossing the child into the air. But a ringleader named Milton Spyker thought she served better as a hostage. ‘If you think so much of the baby,’ he told the terrified women, ‘we will just keep it until you tell us where the sheriff is.’”
Eley had the misfortune of returning from Ottawa about this time. Finding his home packed with angry people, he fled next door to the Elks Lodge building but was soon found and dragged into the street.
Eley “firmly refused” to tell where Daniels could be found, even after a makeshift noose was placed around his neck and he was forced to a pole at the corner of North and Main streets.
“Police were unable to contend with the crowd,” the Times-Democrat noted. “Fire Chief John Mack appeared with the fire truck, forcing a path through the mob, but the crowd, anticipating a drenching, slashed a rear tire in a matter of minutes.”
Barr then worked his way through the crowd and advised the exhausted Eley to reveal where Daniels was being held. “Then, and not until then, did Eley show the first symptom of surrender” and reveal the location, according to the Times-Democrat.
“Within minutes,” Bush writes, “a hundred rioters in fifty cars tore out into the summer darkness for Ottawa. They kidnapped Eley and took him with them, tied spread-eagle across the hood of a creamery truck they had commandeered.” Eley, “vomiting and slipping in and out of consciousness,” remembered little of it, Bush notes.
Barr had already notified the Ottawa Police of the approaching trouble, and they hustled Daniels toward Napoleon 15 minutes before the mob arrived and headed toward Ottawa himself with a contingent of Lima police.
Eley, left unguarded while the crowd descended on the Ottawa jail, was hustled off by Ottawa citizens to a nearby hotel. Finding Daniels gone, Bush adds, they “returned to take their anger out on Eley” but were held off by Lima police while Eley was slipped out the hotel’s back door.
While Eley recovered from his injuries, which included broken ribs, the threat of more violence lingered for several several days as angry crowds roamed the streets.
“Rumors that negro saloons were to be burned, and the colored race driven from Lima and the sheriff again captured early, led Mayor (Bailis) Simpson to close all saloons,” the Times-Democrat reported on Aug. 31. “Chief McKinney secretly deputized forty citizens with instructions to slip around quietly as scouts for the department. As late as 9 o’clock state troops were in readiness at Port Clinton to rush to Lima on the first call for aid.”
That same day, the Times-Democrat printed a statement from the city’s leading black citizens.
“Just at this time we, as residents of Lima, do not wish to assume the burden of strangers,” the statement read in part. “Also at this time we wish to emphatically express ourselves in that we abhor, despise, and regret, that such inhuman crimes have been committed in our midst.”
Bush notes that perhaps 200 of the city’s black residents — a fifth of the tiny black community — “simply left town.”
It was the death of Eley’s daughter, Doris, however, that finally calmed the crowd.
“’Mamma, don’t let them get me!’ With this feeble cry on her lips, Doris Mildred Eley, three-year-old daughter of Sheriff Sherman Eley, died at the city hospital at 7 o’clock last night,” the Times Democrat reported on Sept. 1.
On hearing the news, the crowd that still surrounded the county jail “bared their heads and slunk away.”
Within days, Prosecutor Barr and the legal system moved to restore the rule of law. Upwards of 30 rioters were dragged into court, beginning with Spyker.
“Shorn of the darkness, booze, and bravado of that August night, they appeared now hatless and humble, focused primarily on saving their own skins,” Bush notes.
Eley testified at many of the trials, which went on well into 1917.
Daniels, who maintained he was innocent, was found guilty of criminally assaulting Mrs. Baber and spent the next 14 years in prison.
On Jan. 17, 1917, Mrs. Baber, who was “expected to die momentarily” after the assault four months earlier, gave birth to a “little cherub” of a girl, according to the Times-Democrat.
Eley was hailed in editorials statewide for his bravery the night of the riot. On Dec. 27, 1916, the NAACP presented Eley with a loving cup at a ceremony in Columbus. Inscribed on the cup was: “For devotion to duty in defending a colored prisoner from lynching, enduring injury and insult that the majesty of the law might be upheld at Lima, Ohio, August 30, 1916.”
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.