Monday, August 27, 2007

Sinking Spring and the Death of James Holton

Part IV

This is the last of the installments on the story of Reverend Weed. - ALF

After causing a near riot in Waverly, the Rev. Edward Weed found a more receptive audience at Sinking Spring, an area where some residents had already joined a local chapter of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS). In a letter to an abolitionist newspaper published in New York, Weed claimed that a mob had followed him from Pike county, but they had “found but little countenance among the citizens” in Sinking Spring. When the crisis, which Weed had predicted, came the Pike countians were chased out of Highland county by the local militia and then pursued by a posse comitatus. When all was said and done, when rumors of Weed’s lynching began showing up in the nation’s papers, one man lay in the grave and another faced charges of murder.

“When they [the mob] commenced their interruptions,” Weed would later explain, “they were promptly met by the authorities of the place and dispersed.” However, the anti-abolitionists rallied and came back the following day with greater numbers, “about forty strong, a dirty, shabby, and savage looking set.” Arrest warrants were secured and the local militia unit was called up to clear the mob before Weed’s second lecture was to begin. According to Weed, “as soon,” as troops “appeared in the village with guns our mobocratic gentlemen began to talk about home, and … soon ‘put out.’” Weed’s series of lectures proceeded and in the end he succeeded in starting a branch chapter of the AAS at Sinking Spring with about 40 founding members.

The militia was most likely raised under the authority of Col. Thomas Rodgers of the Highland County Militia, the first president of the Paint Valley Abolition Society, which had members in Ross, Highland, and Fayette counties. Rodgers had risen to the rank of major in the War of 1812 and was widely respected in the region.

Unlike any other anti-abolition riot I am aware of, the Sinking Spring mob is the only one in which arrest warrants were secured. Whether led by the Highland County Sheriff or the Brush Creek Township Constable, it appears a posse comitatus was raised, which pursued the warrants into Pike county.

Among those sought was James Holton, who, once found, resisted his arrest. Holton was thirty years old at the time, a father of nine children, the youngest having been born the previous year. Like many early settlers of the Lower Scioto River Valley, Holton was a native of Virginia, who moved to Ohio with his father at a young age. When his father died James Holton was orphaned at the age of sixteen – his legal guardian was Allen Trimble of Highland county. Trimble was one of the early leaders of the region, having served in the state house and senate, before becoming Governor of Ohio in 1826. Holton’s own children, after his untimely death, would also marry well, finding brides from families such as the Vanmeters and the Beekmans.

A member of the Sinking Spring posse, William H. Mitchell found himself in a deadly confrontation with Holton. In what appears to have been self-defense, Mitchell stabbed Holton in the gut with a large bowie knife, leaving a four-inch deep mortal wound. Holton was slow to die. He lingered on until the 25th of September when he finally died, whereupon a Pike County grand jury indicted William Mitchell for murder.

The case came before the Pike County Common Pleas Judge John H. Keith, who had recently been elected by the State Assembly to the post, after having served as the Assembly’s presiding officer. Judge Keith oversaw a brief trial, whose jury returned a verdict of not guilty. With friendly rulings by Keith, the jury found that Mitchell’s use of force was lawful.

That October, when the editor of the Chillicothe Gazette published his correction of the false reports of Rev. Weed’s lynching, he suggested that Holton’s murder may have been the confused origins of the report. Somebody had, in fact, died, but it was not Edward Weed. Somehow this news had gotten so twisted and turned around that a traveling agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society (Edward Weed) had been attacked and murdered by an angry proslavery mob of southern Ohioans. I’m not so sure that explains the rumored lynching of Weed.

Considering the mob actions in Waverly and Sinking Spring and the anti-abolition resolutions passed in Piketon, one can reasonably conclude that these rumors were purposely generated by anti-abolitionists who wanted to scare off any future visits by the Rev. Edward Weed, or any other abolitionist organizer, for that matter.

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