Clark County Sheriff was felled by federal marshals

Updated June 02, 2013

The announcement that Clark County Sheriff John E. Layton had been added to the list of fallen officers to be honored May 20 on Springfield’s Law Day failed to mention two details:

1. That Layton had been felled by other law enforcement officers, the deputy U.S. Marshals who had severely beaten him.

2. That the violent confrontation between civil authorities took place 24 years before Layton died — and as the whole nation was sliding toward Civil War.

In his detailed account in the January 1907 “Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly,” Clark County Historical Society president and Wittenberg College professor of history and political science Benjamin Prince called the episode “The Rescue Case of 1857.”

People now associate it with the name of the escaped slave: Addison White.

Prince writes that during the time when slave catchers were coming north of the Ohio River, “the most timid and fearful” escaped slaves “did not stop in their flight until they had crossed into Canada.”

But White, who had escaped from his Kentucky owner, Daniel White, in 1856, apparently felt safe outside of Mechanicsburg working for Udney H. Hyde. Prince reports that Hyde had “helped 513 slaves in their race for freedom” as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

As the controversy swirled, allegations surfaced that Springfield Post Master William K. Boggs had alerted federal authorities of White’s whereabouts while handling letters from his wife in Kentucky.

Also under suspicion, Prince writes, was “a man by the name of Edward Lindsay (who) came to the home of Mr. Hyde and sought work” about two weeks before federal marshals arrived, “disappeared the morning of the first visit of the marshals and was never heard of again.”

Deputy U.S. Marshals B.P. Churchill and John C. Elliott arrived May 21, 1857, to take White back to his owner under terms of the Fugitive Slave Law that Congress had adopted in an attempt to keep the nation from splitting apart.

Although White himself was able to get off a shot that glanced off the barrel of Elliott’s shotgun and Prince says “made a mark on his cheek and took a nip of his ear,” the deputies successfully arrested him.

But they held him only temporarily.

Hyde’s daughter was able to outrun the marshals, escape to her brother’s nearby house and summon Mechanicsburg residents to the scene.

“Carrying all kinds of weapons from guns and pistols to pitchforks and clubs,” Prince writes, “they soon filled the yard where the officers stood wondering what next to do.”

Ordered to leave, the marshals did — without their prisoner.

By the time they returned six days later, White was in hiding and Udney Hyde had fled, so the marshals arrested four others, including Hyde’s son, Russell, for resisting their authority.

Soon, another chase began.

Champaign County Probate Court issued a writ of habeas corpus for the return of the arrested men to Champaign County, and the county sheriff and Urbana town marshal set out to serve it.

They were not alone.

Writes Prince: “Every horse and vehicle that could be secured were put into use to overtake the officers of the United States.”

Meanwhile, a copy of the same writ was delivered to Clark County Sheriff Layton by State Sen. J.C.Brand, an indication of the political nature of the case. Writ in hand, Layton, Deputy Sheriff William Compton and well wisher caught up with the marshals in South Charleston.

While trying to serve the writ, Layton “was resisted and knocked down by a stroke made with a Colt revolver and then so badly beaten that he suffered all his after life the rough treatment he then received,” Prince writes.

Testimony later established the federal and local officers exchanged fire. And again, Prince reports, a crowd gathered: “The pursuers from Urbana, among whom were Ichabod Corwin, a noted lawyer, and later a prominent judge, and many others of prominence arrived.”

For a second time, “in the face of such a gathering and excited throng Churchill and his party thought it wise to depart.”

Because they still had their prisoners, the pursuit continued into Greene County and then Clinton County. The locals, with fresher horses, overtook the marshals, arrested them for the assault on Layton, and returned them to South Charleston for arraignment and binding over to Clark County Common Pleas Court.

The wranglings then passed from the hands of posses and citizens to lawyers and judges, first in a series of hearings in Springfield, then in Cincinnati.

On July 16, Judge Humphrey H. Leavitt of the U.S. District Court for Southern Ohio ruled that because the federal marshals were properly discharging their duties during the entire episode, they could not be held to account by state authorities.

That didn’t prevent a number of criminal and civil actions brought against those on both sides of the case, most of which were dismissed when a compromise was reached.

Writes Prince: “It was proposed that if $1,000 were secured and paid Mr. White for the loss of his slave Addison all the cases both civil and criminal would be withdrawn.”

For some, the settlement seemed a bitter pill.

But in the end, Prince writes, “Mr. Udney H. Hyde, who was long in hiding, and his special friends, agreed to raise the money needed for this purpose.”

Five years later, President Abraham Lincoln would offer a similar deal to the Confederacy, proposing that federal bonds be sold to compensate owners for their slaves in order to end slavery and stop the violence that had erupted into a war that had started its march or carnage.

But by then, the North and South were beyond compromise.

A freed Addison White would fight for two years in the Union Army, be honorably discharged, and lived out his days in Mechanicsburg. And like a nation debilitated by war, Sheriff John Layton would suffer on until his death on April 1, 1881.