A History and Biographical Cyclopaedia of Butler County, Ohio
Pages 253 - 258

The Courts

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As we have recited, the courts of this county had their first session on the 10th of May, 1803, at the house of John TORRENCE, in Hamilton. This building is still standing on the ground owned by Henry s. EARHART, but not occupied by him. The judges were James DUNN, John GREER, and John KITCHELL. John REILY was the clerk. All these were laymen, chosen for their good sense, but not for their acquirements in the law. At the first election James BLACKBURN was chosen sheriff, and Samuel DILLON, coroner. The first regular term began with Francis DUNLEVY as presiding judge and Daniel SYMMES prosecuting attorney. The first term of the Supreme Court was on the 11th of October, 1803 and was composed of Judges Samuel HUNTINGTON and Samuel SPRIGG; Arthur ST. CLAIR , Jr. as prosecuting attorney; and William McCLELLAN, sheriff. John REILY was clerk, and so continued until May 3rd, 1842.

Judge DUNLEVY was a man of great strength of character, and possessed wide influence. He had not originally been intended for the bar; nor, indeed, does it seem that he ever studied law in the way most persons do. He acquired his knowledge while expounding the principles of jurisprudence from the bench. There were, indeed, few regularly bred lawyers in the country. Judge DUNLEVY’s family were originally from Spain, and having become Protestants, fled from that country to France, where they remained until the revocation of the edict of Nantes. From there they went to Ireland, and one of the family, named Anthony, emigrated to the United States in 1745, settling near Winchester, Virginia. He was the father of Francis DUNLEVY, who was born in 1761. The family were rigid Presbyterians, and intended to bring up their son to the ministry, but, on the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, move further West, near Washington, Pennsylvania. There were many dangers in the backwoods then, and the young man took his turn in defending the settlements. When he was fourteen he volunteered to take the place of a neighbor who had been drafted, and who could not well leave home. From 1776 to 1782 he was almost continually in the service of his country. In the latter year he was in Crawford’s defeat.

As soon as peace permitted DUNLEVY was sent to Dickinson College to prepare for the ministry, and afterwards studied divinity under his uncle, the Rev. James HOGE. Close examination of the Scriptures at that time made him a Baptist, a faith to which he ever afterwards adhered. He gave up his plan of preaching, believing that he had no special call in that direction, and became a teacher. He taught a classical school for some time after in Virginia. In 1792 he came to Columbia, in Hamilton County, this state, and in connection with Mr. John REILY, opened a classical school, the first good one in the country.

"Judge DUNLEVY", says his son, from whose account of the Miami Baptist Association we abridge this narrative," was twice a member of the Legislature of the Northwest Territory, afterwards a member of the convention which formed the first constitution of Ohio. He was also a member of the first State Legislature and was then elected presiding judge of the Court of Common Pleas, whose circuit then included at that time all the Miami Valley, from Hamilton to Clermont Counties on the south, to Miami and Champaign counties on the north. Here he served as judge for fourteen years, and though he had time he had to cross both Miamis at every season of the year, then without any bridges, in all that time he only missed one court. He often swam these rivers on horseback, when very few others would have ventured to cross them. In his various campaigns and extensive travels in new countries he had become so expert a swimmer that he thought nothing of swimming the Ohio at its greatest floods.

On the bench he was distinguished for diligence and attention. He bent all the faculties of his mind to discover the truth, and make his decision conform to it. He wan not a patient man to technicalities, and had an imperious way about him that would not have been tolerated in a weaker man. At the close of his service as presiding judge, being poor, and having been involved himself as security for some of his friends, he felt compelled to engage in the practice of law for the means of supporting his family. For more than ten years he rode the circuits for four of five counties, but about eight years before his death withdrew from business, and studied those books which he had previously been prevented from doing by lack of time. These were mainly religious. He was a friend of liberty and an enemy of American slavery. His death occurred on the 6th of November, 1839.

The name of Daniel SYMMES appears as that of the first prosecuting attorney. He was at that time and ever after, a resident of Cincinnati, and was appointed to this position because there was no resident lawyer here. He was the son of Timothy SYMMES, and a nephew of Judge John Cleves SYMMES, and was born in Sussex County New Jersey, in 1772. He was a graduate of Princeton College, and came west with his father. He was married to Elizabeth OLIVER in 1795. He was appointed clerk of the territory northwest of the Ohio River, and while holding this position studied law, and was admitted to the bar. He was elected a member to the Senate of the State of Ohio, and served as its speaker during the second and third sessions. He was subsequently appointed a judge of the Supreme Court of Ohio, on the resignation of Judge MEIGS, in 1804, and on expiration of his term became register of the land office at Cincinnati, holding this position until a few months previous to his death, which occurred May 10th, 1817. Mr. SYMMES was also sheriff of Hamilton County in 1795 and 1796.

Arthur ST. CLAIR , JR. , succeeded him. He was the son of General ST. CLAIR, and a man of considerable attainments and means. Before coming out here he had run away with a Quaker lady, who made him a good wife and bore him several children. He was a candidate for territorial delegate, at the very beginning of the history of Ohio, but was defeated by William Henry HARRISON, then a captain in the army, but who had the powerful support of the SYMMES family. He was possessed of considerable wealth, but lost it by endorsing for a friend. When shown by a lawyer that there was an informality in the document that would release him, he said, " No, when Arthur ST.CLAIR puts his name to a piece of paper, he means it." As a result, all of his property was swept away. A son of his, Arthur ST.CLAIR 3rd, came up to Hamilton and began the practice of law with Jehiel BROOKS, in 1823. They did not stay long , however. Their card ran thus:

Having formed the partnership in the practice of law, inform the public
that they may be found at present in the lower corner room of Colonel
George VANDERGRIFF'S hotel at any hour of the day, where they will
attend to the various duties of their profession.  They intend to make
permanent arrangements for an office elsewhere, and when that shall be
effected due notice will be given of the place of removal.
Hamilton, October 27, 1823

Mr. ST. CLAIR died in 1833 or 1834, in Indiana. His family afterwards settled here, and remained in Hamilton for a long time. Arthur ST. CLAIR 2d, died somewhere about 1825.

William McCLELLAN, the first elected sheriff, was the son of a pioneer farmer, who, at the time of the Revolutionary War, lived near where Mercersburg now is, in Pennsylvania. On reaching suitable age he obtained employment as a pack-horse man. By these horses all goods were brought over the Alleghany Mountains. In this occupation he was engaged until several years after the Revolutionary War, and soon after 1790 left for Ohio, in 1792 coming to Fort Hamilton. He remained in this employment until the close of the war, when he married 'Miss Mary STERRET, of Mercersburg, and opened a house of entertainment. In 1803 he was elected sheriff of the county, and two years after was re-elected. He was then ineligible by the constitution of Ohio, and was succeeded by John TORRENCE. After Mr. TORRENCE had held two years Mr. McCLELLAN again became a candidate, and was chosen sheriff, being re-elected in 1811. In that year he removed from Hamilton and settled on his farm on Two-mire Creek, in St. Clair Township, still keeping an office in Hamilton, and attending to his business by deputy. He remained in agricultural pursuits until the time of his death, October 2, 1827. He was then sixty years of age. He was a man of a kind and genial disposition, and had troops of friends. His wife survived him, dying November 10,1842, aged seventy-one. One of the sons still lives on the old homestead in St. Clair Township.

Mr. McCLELLAN was the brother of two other men well known in the history of Hamilton, to one of whom Washington IRVING gives a large space in his "Astoria." He was an excellent scout, hunter, and spy, and was possessed of prodigious muscular power and activity. He could leap over a pair of oxen or the tallest Conestoga wagon. He went out to the Rocky Mountains and acted as a hunter for parties there for a long time. Of his exploits IRVING's "Astoria" and McBRIDE’s "Pioneers" give a full account. John, his younger brother, was also a pack-horseman, hut did not come out to the Miami country until 1800, then taking up his abode with his brother William, and engaging in trading with the Indians. In 1814 he set out for an expedition among the red men, but was waylaid and killed by them, his goods being taken.

William CORRY was the first lawyer who located himself at Hamilton. He was born near the Holstein River, in Washington County, Virginia, on the 14th of December, 1778, and received a liberal education at Parson Duke's academy, in Tennessee. In 1798 (then a minor) he came to the Northwestern Territory and studied law with William MC for the State, which office he held until his removal from Hamilton in the year 1810. In the Fall of 1807 he was elected a member of the General Assembly for Butler County, and served during the ensuing session of the legislature.

In March, 1810, Mr. CORRY was married to Eleanor FLEMING, a daughter of Thomas FLEMING, an old settler who had emigrated from Maryland, and lived on the south side of Butler County. Mr. CORRY then determined to abandon the practice of law, and in September following removed from Hamilton and settled on his farm near Cincinnati. But in May, 1811, he removed to the city, where he again resumed the practice of law. He was subsequently elected and represented the county of Hamilton in the General Assembly. He was appointed by the town council to the office of mayor, then first created, and held it until 1819 by appointment. He died in that city on the 16th of December, 1833.

Mr. CORRY, from a natural timidity and modesty, which he was never able to overcome, did not appear conspicuously at the bar as an orator, but he was highly esteemed as a thoroughly read lawyer and good counselor. As a member of the bar, legislator, mayor of the city, and private citizen, he maintained a high character. He was distinguished for purity of motive and moral firmness in the discharge of his public and private duties.

David K. ESTE was the second lawyer who settled in Hamilton. He was born at Morristown, New Jersey, on the 21st of October, 1785, where he received the rudiments of his education. He afterwards entered Princeton College, where he graduated in September,1803. In the Spring of 1804 he began the study of law, and was in due time admitted to the bar by the Supreme Court of New Jersey In May, 1809, he left that State and came to Ohio, and in June following settled in Hamilton, commenced the practice of his profession, and made his maiden speech in the court-house of this county. In 1810 he was appointed prosecuting attorney in the place of William CORRY, who had removed to Cincinnati, holding this office until April, 1816, about which time he left Hamilton and went to Cincinnati. There he continued practice until 1834, when he was appointed President Judge of the Court of Common Pleas. He held the office until February, 1838, when he was appointed judge of the Superior Court of Cincinnati for seven years. In 1845, when his term of service expired, he declined being a candidate for reappointment, and retired to private life.

Mr. ESTE was a fine classical scholar and a well read lawyer, and by his regular habits and strict attention to business acquired a large fortune. Among the pioneer member of the bar contemporaneous with the above was John C. MCMANUS, His knowledge of the law and his information on other subjects was limited, but by his bustling manner and his attendance at crowds and public meetings he acquired a

MILLAN, of Cincinnati, to whom he was distantly related. In 1803 he removed to Hamilton and began practice. In 1807 he was appointed prosecutor. considerable share of practice. He was a candidate for a seat in the Assembly from Butler County, but failed in his election. In 1817 he retired from the bar and removed to Preble County, where he resided until his death, which occurred in the early part of 1851. Joseph S. BENHAM was horn near Lebanon, Warren County, and was the son of Robert BENHAM, one of the pioneers of the western country, whose name is identified with its early history. In 1808 and 1809 he was a boy attending school in Hamilton. He lived with his sister, Mrs. TORRENCE, afterward Mrs. WINGATE, who then kept a tavern. He studied law with David K. ESTE, was admitted to the bar, and commenced practice in Hamilton. Mr. BENHAM devoted much of his time to the acquisition of the graces of oratory. He paid particular attention to elocution, and his voice and manner of speech were captivating. Few men could address a jury more eloquently or effectively; and as a popular speaker, fewer yet surpassed him. He remained at the bar of this county until 1821, when he removed to Cincinnati. He practiced in Cincinnati until 1831, when he went to Louisville, Kentucky, and thence to St. Louis, where he remained until 1837. In that year he returned and settled in Covington, Kentucky, and took the professorship of commercial law in the Cincinnati Law School. About this time he became the owner and editor of the Ohio and Kentucky Journal, a weekly Democratic paper, which he published in Cincinnati for about a year, but in August, 1838, sold out. The Winter of 1838-9 he devoted to the study of the civil law at his residence (Elmwood) in Kentucky, opposite Cincinnati, and then removed to New Orleans, where he settled again in the practice of law. The ensuing summer he was on his way from New Orleans to New York, when he died at the Pearl Street House, Cincinnati, on the 15th of July, 1840. Mr. BENHAM was twice married; first, to Isabella GREEN, of Hamilton, who died in October, 1829, and the second time to Maria L. SLOCUM, of the District of Columbia. In the year 1815 Benjamin COLLETT came from Lebanon, Warren County, opened a law office in Hamilton, and began the practice of his profession. He was a graduate of Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and he studied law at Lebanon with his brother, Joshua COLLETT, and with Judge John MCLEAN. He was a thorough classical scholar, and his information on all subjects extensive for a man of his age. As a well read lawyer he was excelled by none in the State. In declamation he was not eloquent or flowery, but he always understood his subject well and expressed himself in a systematic and logical style, which commanded the attention the court and jury. He soon acquired a very respectable practice. In April, 1816, he was appointed prosecuting attorney for the county of Butler, and held the office until 1~2(). A year or two afterwards he re turned to Lebanon, where he lived and died, loved and lamented by all who knew him. George SARGEANT, a native of Vermont, came to Hamilton in the year 1816, and studied law with Joseph S. BENHAM. He was admitted upon the completion of his course of study, and began practice immediately after- wards. Although he had not the advantage of an early education, his native Yankee shrewdness and wit, with a ready flow of words, enabled him to succeed tolerably well at the bar. Where sarcasm or ridicule were admissible he excelled. He continued to practice until about the year 1826. His habits for a number of years were very intemperate, though he Was seldom seen drunk in public. In the evening he would purchase a bottle of whisky and take it to his office, where he would indulge himself during the night, and the next night repeat the same performance. A continuance of this habit finally impaired the faculties of his mind, and in September 1827, he became so much deranged that he was strictly confined. The Masonic Fraternity, of which he was a member, appointed a committee of their members to see to his condition. He was supported and cared for by the society for &bout a year, when he was delivered over to the county commissioners. He was afterwards taken to a lunatic asylum in Cincinnati, where he remained several years chained to the floor, and was then removed to the lunatic asylum at Columbus. He never recovered from his derangement, dying somewhere about 1852. Among those who frequented the courts here in their earlier days were Jacob BURNET, an accomplished lawyer, afterwards judge, who at a very early age made his mark in the institutions of Ohio: Nicholas LONGWORTH, who became the largest property owner in this region, and was distinguished far and wide for his growth of American wines; George P. TORRENCE, a man of great grace and dignity; Elias GLOVER and Ethan STONE of Cincinnati; Thomas FREEMAN and Thomas R. ROSS from Lebanon, and last but not least, John MCLEAN, afterwards a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Joshua COLLETT was also in frequent attendance. "Important cases," says Mr. MCBRIDE, "were advocated in an elaborate and masterly manner."

Mr. REILY became sheriff in 1813, his position lasting till 1817. During his administration of office occurred the only punishment by whipping ever inflicted in this county.

A boarder at the tavern of William MURRAY, on Front Street, went one morning to the stable of the tavern to see to his horse. He found the stable and the stall, but the horse was missing. The sheriff was informed of the facts, and the officers were put upon the scent. After a few days' search horse and thief were found at Lebanon, and at once brought back to Hamilton. The thief, whose name was William GRAY, was taken before the court, Judge DUNLEVY presiding, and his guilt plainly proved. In those days Ohio had no penitentiary, and punishment of criminals was generally a public cowhiding. Judge DUNLEVY sentenced GRAY to thirty-nine lashes on his hare back, to be inflicted by the sheriff in the court-house square, allowing the culprit a few days to prepare himself for the ordeal. Mr. MCBRIDE, after hearing the sentence, took his prisoner to the jail, and then purchased a cowhide. In those days cowhides were the only whips in use, and could be found in bunches of twenty-five and fifty hung up for sale in every grocery. Selecting a good stiff whip, the sheriff returned home and laid it by. His wife, however, began to feel some sympathy for the culprit. She thought the punishment excessive and anti-Christian, and thought she could devise some method to render the punishment less painful. She thought that if the stiffness should be taken out of the cowhide the blows would be less painful, and the idea no sooner reached her brain than she put it into execution. The cowhide was placed in a pan of grease and thoroughly soaked and then tied up and placed away in greasy rags. The day before the culprit was to undergo his punishment, Mrs. MCBRIDE turned over the doctored cowhide to the sheriff. The news of the sentence had been carried for many miles, and the day before it was to be put into execution people began flocking into the village from all points within a radius of sixty miles. They came in wagons and on foot from Connersville, Liberty, and Brookville, Indiana, and from Warren and Montgomery Counties, Ohio. On the morning on which the sentence was to be carried out, Sheriff MCBRIDE arose from his bed before it was light and hastily made all the arrangements necessary, and before the sun was fairly up William GRAY was tied to a scaffold post on the south side of the court-house, which at that date was not finished. The doctored cow- hide was brought out, and the horse thief received his thirty-nine lashes while yet half the people were in their beds. Several of the blows brought the blood to the surface, but owing to the wit of Mrs. MCBRIDE the punishment was by no means as severe as it could, and perhaps should, have been. Notwithstanding the early hour, however, the punishment was witnessed by a large number of persons who had reached the square early, anticipating such a move on the part of the sheriff. The strangers, after their hard work in reaching the city, slept late in the morning, and on waking and finding the whole affair ended made the air sulphurous with their curses.

GRAY, after his whipping, was taken back to the old jail and kept there several days for his back to heal, when he was discharged, and ordered to leave the county, which it is safe to presume he did at once. Sheriff MCBRIDE and his successors were spared the repetition of such duties, and thus GRAY was the only man cowhided by order of court in old Butler.

The leading member of the Butler County bar, from its beginning down to the present time, probably was John WOODS. He came to this county in 1819, and his progress here was facilitated by the fact that his habits were good. He attended assiduously to business, did not drink, and could always be depended upon. In 1824, when but twenty-seven years of age, he was chosen to the national Legislature, and was probably the first native of the Northwestern Territory who was elected to either house of Congress. Mr. WOODS was an extraordinary lawyer. He was engaged in nearly all the great causes that came up in his time, and was usually successful when the affair was at all evenly balanced. He had a rough, earnest eloquence, which carried much weight. It was not polished, but correct. He was strong as a special pleader and chancery lawyer. A fuller account of him is given elsewhere.

The bar held a meeting on the 20th of September,1824, in honor of Thomas C. KELSEY, one of its members. The meeting was attended by the officers of the Court of Common Pleas for the county of Butler, the lawyers, and the students at law. John WOODS presided, and Jesse CORWIN acted as secretary. Resolutions were passed deploring his death, and declaring that the members would attend his funeral. Mr. KELSEY was a native of New England, and was for many years a respected merchant of Hamilton, making and saving in his calling a handsome fortune. In prosperity his friends were numerous and ardent, but many of them vanished with his wealth. When he could no longer continue business as a merchant, and after he had yielded up his last farthing to his creditors, he was enabled by the kindness of a few friends to read law and gain admission to the bar. For this calling he possessed respectable talents, and would undoubtedly have succeeded had his life been spared. He died on the 18th of September, and was buried with Masonic honors. His wife died on the preceding Sunday, the 12th. They left four little children.

Among the earlier sheriffs was William SHEELY. He was a man of prodigious size, and well liked by his fellow citizens. While he was sheriff he was called upon to make preparations for an execution, but after all his labor was done the criminal had his sentence commuted to imprisonment for life. This was in the Summer of 1835. The prisoner's name was SPONSLER. He lived in Madison Township, and had a quarrel with his son-in-law, finally killing him by shooting. For this he was arrested and lodged in the county jail. When he was brought to trial John WOODS, one of the most skillful members of the bar, was assigned to defend him, and did so with all his powers. But the accused was found guilty of murder in the first degree, and was sentenced to be hung on Friday, June 10, 1836. No efforts to have a new trial or for an arrest of judgment were successful, and Mr. SHEELY proceeded to get ready his scaffold. Mr. WOODS, however, did not cease his exertions in behalf of his client, and finally procured a commutation of sentence to imprisonment for life. The public, however, were not made acquainted with the matter, and on the day assigned the town was full of men from this and other towns. When they found that the affair would not come off they rebelled, and proposed to tear down the jail. They were full of whisky and full of fight. But Mr. SHEELY did not propose to be treated thus. He organized a large body of men, and placed himself at their head, dispersing the mob.

Before SPONSLER could be taken to Columbus to undergo the penalty of life imprisonment, he managed to commit suicide by cutting his throat in a cell. He had become discouraged. A writer in the Cincinnati Times says that Mr. WOODS was so much chagrined at scenes through which he had been passing that he the and there made a vow that so long as lie lived there should never be a man hung in Butler County. We doubt the truth of the story, but no one was hung until after his death, when GRIFFIN was executed.

Michael B. SARGEANT was an early and brilliant member of the bar, who was in partnership with Mr. WOODS for some time. He was a fine classical scholar, and conversant with elegant literature as well as a thorough lawyer. His qualifications and strict attention to business, while Mr. WOODS was absent attending Congress, were of great advantage to the latter. Mr. SARGEANT died suddenly on the night of the 19th of April, 1830, aged thirty-three years. He was found in the morning dead in his bed, in the room adjoining their law office, and is supposed to have expired by apoplexy or a similar infection, of which, it is said, he had discovered some previous symptoms. He lies buried in the Fourth Ward burying-ground, now the park. He was a man of large capacity, and had he lived would have had a fame coextensive with the State.

Elijah VANCE, for many years judge of the District Court, and an attorney and counselor-at-law, was born in Bel Air, Harford County, Maryland, on the 1st of February, 1801, and came to Ohio in 1816, procuring a situation as clerk in a dry goods store in Cincinnati. After four years of steady labor, and saving his money, he went to Lebanon and began the study of law with Judge DUNLEVY, graduating at the bar in June, 1826. He then removed to Hamilton and began practice. He was shortly after elected prosecuting attorney of the county, and was next elected a State Senator, and afterwards re-elected for several terms, and made speaker of the Senate. In 1843, when judges were yet appointed, he was selected as Common Pleas Judge of the judicial district composed of the counties of Greene, Clinton, Warren, and Butler, and held this office for seven years. In 1850 he was appointed a member of the convention which met in Columbus for the purpose of framing a new constitution for Ohio. On account of the cholera, which was then raging in Columbus, the convention adjourned till the Winter of 1851, when it met at Cincinnati. During the sitting of this convention, Judge Vance took a prominent part in the debates which arose on certain questions, and on one in particular he took ground against his Democratic friends in convention. His conduct was severely denounced by them, and among his constituents at home an indignation meeting was held asking him to resign. He immediately yielded to the stern request, came home, and upon the ordering of a new election, went before the people again, and was returned to the convention by an overwhelming majority. He served as president, pro tem., of this body, several times.

From this time until within a few days of his death he practiced law in Hamilton, having, within the last few years, again served for two terms as prosecuting attorney for Butler County, and holding, at the time of his death, the office of city solicitor. He was frequently a director of the Hamilton Board of Common Schools, and was for a number of years a trustee of the Miami University.

He died full of honors and labors, after exhibiting the rare example of a long public life without a single stain of dishonor upon it, and of an unobtrusive, peaceful, useful, and virtuous private life, on the 11th of January, A. D. 1871, aged seventy years, eleven months, and eleven days.

He was married in June, 1844, to Emily A. MORRIS, who was born in Bethel, Clermont County, in 1815. By this marriage he had two daughters. His father was a Revolutionary soldier, and his brother was in the Mexican war.

The lawyers resident in Hamilton, in 1842, were WOODS & RIGDON, BEBB & REYNOLDS, CORWIN & THOMAS, VANCE & MILLIKEN, WELLER & RYAN, Oliver S. WITHERBY, Ezekiel WALKR, and Thomas H. WILKINS. Major John M. MILLIKIN and Lewis D. CAMPBELL had retired, and of this list only Thomas MILLIKIN, the senior of the bar, remains in practice. REYNOLDS and WITHERBY are still living, the one in Chicago and the other in San Francisco. BEBB was a strong and effective jury lawyer. He was a really eloquent man, and it was his speaking capacities that made him governor of the State. He never took a case in which he did not soon feel in warm sympathy, and his appeals to the jury were very touching. He could weep at any time. Apart from his merits as a jury advocate he was not strong, although safe. In his set addresses he had a redundancy of ornament, more so than in his extemporaneous speaking. He was a large, good-looking man, of pleasant and sympathetic address, and was of spare build.