Ragersville site of only lynching in county's history

By JON BAKER, Special to The T-R

For many years, Ragersville was known as “Hangtown,” because it was the site of the only lynching in Tuscarawas County history.

In 1873, the enraged citizens of the town strung up a notorious criminal named Jeff Davis who was on trial there for attempted rape, less than a year after he was released from prison after serving a sentence on the same charge.

Jeff Davis was one of the many aliases adopted by a Swiss emigrant named Miller who came to Stark County with his parents several years before the Civil War. He was a large, muscular man who weighed nearly 200 pounds.

Davis spent much of his life in and out of the Ohio Penitentiary at Columbus. He served three terms for grand larceny in the 1850s and 1860s, and in 1868 was sentenced to four years in the penitentiary from Tuscarawas County for assault with intent to commit rape on a woman who lived near Ragersville.

When he was released from prison in September 1872, he returned to this area and his criminal ways. He also returned with vengeance on his mind. “He threatened vengeance upon every one who bore testimony against him upon his trial in this county; he threatened to cut out the heart, lungs and liver of the men who arrested him, and he never met a female of any age, alone and unprotected, but what he subjected them to insults of the basest description,” the Tuscarawas Advocate wrote after his lynching.

In the summer of 1873, Davis was arrested in Wayne County on a minor offense and lodged in the Wooster jail. He didn’t stay in jail for long.

The Wayne County sheriff went into Davis’ cell one evening to bring him his meal, leaving the keys in the door. Davis seized the opportunity. While the sheriff’s back was to the door, Davis slipped out of the cell and locked the door behind him. He then made his escape, while the sheriff was locked in the cell. It took three blacksmiths several hours before they were able to free the sheriff.

Davis made his way to Tuscarawas County, stopping at Dover on July 12, where he threatened the man who had arrested Davis back in 1868. He also threatened to kill the Ragersville constable the first time he saw him. From there, Davis went down to Stone Creek, where he attempted to rape an 8-year-old girl. The girl’s father then made a complaint before Levi Travis, the justice of the peace at Ragersville.

Davis was arrested at Bakersville in Coshocton County on the morning of Saturday, July 26. That evening, the Ragersville constable arrived at Ragersville with Davis, who was to have a preliminary hearing before the justice of the peace in the town hall.

A large, angry crowd had gathered at the hall to witness Davis’ hearing. Before the hearing, Davis was defiant, using obscene and threatening language in the presence of the crowd.

According to the Tuscarawas Advocate, a man whose wife had been insulted by Davis walked up to the prisoner before the trial. The man told Davis that he had insulted the man’s wife. The man then punched Davis twice.

Almost immediately, someone hit Davis over the head with a poker. The lights went out in the town hall, and the lynching began.

The crowd dragged Davis by the heels out of the town hall and down the street to the edge of town. Amid cries of “shoot him” and “feed him to the hogs,” Davis was shot several times, including three times in the head. But these injuries didn’t kill him. The criminal pleaded for mercy as he was dragged through the streets, but the mob ignored him. He was taken to a tree at the intersection of what is now Ragersville and Crooked Run roads, a rope was thrown over the tree and Davis was hung. The story of Jeff Davis doesn’t end with his death. Davis’ body was buried in some woods near Sugarcreek, but it didn’t remain there long. A doctor there dug up the body and put it in his attic, but was later forced to rebury it. Eventually, Davis’ skeleton ended up in the possession of Dr. Herman Peters of Ragersville. He kept the skeleton until he died, and then his son traded the bones to a doctor in Lorain for a box of cigars.

In the past few years, Davis’ bones – or what is left of them — have returned to Ragersville and are now on display in a glass case in the Ragersville Historical Society’s museum, along with the poker allegedly used to hit him during his trial.

The Ragersville Historical Society museum, housed in the old Emmanuel Lutheran Church in the center of town, is open Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. The old town hall, where Davis’ trial took place, is still standing, across the street from the museum.