Anna Godman (Skinner) Stariha, wife of my Uncle Charlie, was a genteel, Southern lady. It wasn’t just her North Carolina accent, it was everything about her. She was kind, she was accepting, she was bright, she was a great entertainer, and she knew how to make people feel good.
She asked me to work on her family genealogy, and that was a treat because she came from a long line of special people.
Her grandfather, William Davis Godman, was born in a hewn-log house in September 8, 1829 near Marion, Ohio. The family moved into town when it was time for the children to go to school. A station of the Underground Railroad was in Marion, Ohio. The following story is William’s recollection of an event of the times.
It was in the early forties, & the anti-slavery sentiment was steadily increasing, while Garrisonian abolition was generally abhorred & dreaded. The growth of antislavery sentiment in the northern states resulted in an increasing exodus of slaves from the South – particularly from Virginia & Kentucky – & in an enthusiastic, but undemonstrative, establishment of “underground railroad” stations, by aid of which escaping Negroes were forwarded by way of Sandusky & Lake Erie to Canada.
A very important station of that line was the house of Simon & Daphne Pierce (ex-slaves who had bought their freedom), in the town of Marion, my native place. We boys knew nothing of the “Underground Railroad”; but we wondered at many colored newcomers, some tarrying at Simon’s only for a short time, & some sickening & tarrying for a long time. One case of hydrophobia – a woman became quite notorious; & some of us boys – the school-house being next to Simon’s residence – gained the privilege of standing at the open door & witnessing the frantic action of the sufferer. I remember that we wondered if it was the work of the Devil.
One of the most important of the arrivals was “Bill”, a brother of “Aunt Daphne”, a man of athletic proportions. My father & Judge Thomas J. Anderson – both Virginians, & intimate friends – were always in the secrets of Simon’s many friends. “Niggahs” said Simon, whacking away at his razor-strop in his barber shop – “Niggahs, a-a, mind ye –a, a, allus has friens’ dey knows em.” He was an inveterate & incurable stutterer, & a picturesque object of our gaze, being short, somewhat stout, with a wide-awake countenance, a voluble mouth, & a glib tongue. “William, ye mus’ try hard to be as smart as a-a, yer fadder.”
Bill, Daphne’s brother, was in my father’s employ, for a year or more, doing general service, & caring for horse & cow. Suddenly Bill disappeared; & our father said some persons from Va were pursuing him & he had fled. Not very long afterward came another “Bill,” who was not a brother of Daphne. He too came into my father’s employ. He was not so attractive to us boys as was his predecessor; but he was stalwart, active & faithful, & let us sometimes ride the horse in the pasture under his guardianship. But he was destined to remain less than a year. Virginians were becoming more generally aware of Simon’s U.R.R. Station & had their spies in Marion & Marion Co. One morning early, when Bill emerged from Simon’s dwelling he was arrested & confined until the Court could determine whether he was a man or a chattel. The law gave the slave-owner the right to prove property. Whether he received his property, after proving it, depended on the judges & the people. Some judges were in sympathy with slaveholders & ruled that they should take their property. Others, falling back on the Ordinance of 1787, which constituted the Northwest Territory & declared that no State or States which might be formed out of said Territory should ever legalize or establish human slavery – ruled that when a human being set his foot on soil which belonged, or had belonged, to the Northwest Territory, he was, thereby & thereafter, free, & could not be returned to slavery.
This case excited intense interest. It was delayed a while for the coming of the regular session of the Circuit Court of Common Pleas, when all the judges could be present. This delay gave time to arouse the interest of a large part of the State of Ohio. When the time came, the Judges President, Orson Bowen, a native of Maine & one of the ablest jurists in Ohio – at a later date Supreme Justice of Ohio – Associates, Thomas J. Anderson, a native of Virginia, & a man of intelligence & sterling integrity; & Robert Gray a native, I think, of Pennsylvania, & a most worthy citizen; – I’m not quite sure that Gray’s name was Robert, but that is the best of my recollection.
These were all in their seats on the Bench when the trail opened. The Court Room was crowded with interested & excited people, many of them Quakers from Marion & adjoining counties; some from remoter parts of the State & some Virginians, friends of the claimant. The claimant was a Mr. McClenahan, from Va, who presented a bill of sale from the former owner of “Bill” to himself. A coadjutor was a Mr. Goshorn. Other names who figured in the case I do not now recall. The sympathizers & cooperators of the Virginians were prominent citizens of Marion & M. Co. The claimant engaged for prosecuting Attorney Mr. Cooper K. Watson, who was, at the time, probably the most famous “criminal lawyer” in Ohio, or in any western state; a man whose tall form, bushy black hair, penetrating black eye, as keen as a hawk’s – & shrill, high-keyed voice constituted an appropriate & effective medium for conveying the electric shock of the most incisive wit & articulate invective. The Court House always filled when it was known that he would speak.
The defendant’s lawyer, James H. Godman, was no mean orator, & a man skilled in the law. [Note: he is also the writer’s father. During the Civil War, he was a Lieutenant Colonel for the Union Army.] The courts knew that he would correctly & honestly expound the law. The juries knew that it was always safe to follow his advice; if they aim at justice; & the people knew that if a litigant had not a just cause Godman would advise him not to prosecute, but to settle it; & that when he plead, it was for the right.
The case continued three days. On the third day, the writer of these lines was attending the Marion Academy. At about two p.m., having finished the studies of the day, he bethought himself to go around by the Court House, & see how his friend “Bill” was faring in the hands of the Court. He reached a point in the courtroom favorable for observation. The Judges were in their seats; the overcrowded assembly was intent upon the words of the Presiding Judge delivering the opinion of the court. The sentries were in their boxes. “Bill” said in the prisoner’s dock awaiting the crack o’doom. The Judge slowly & emphatically declared, “The man who steps on the soil of Ohio is that moment free: the Court rules for the defendant.” Instantly, as a clap of thunder, Bill was seized by a gang of ruffians, who had stood just behind the prisoner’s dock, whirled into the air head downward, feet uppermost, then revolved so as to be erect & rushed in the arms of his captors – like Trojan fighters – out into the chamber of the vestibule, down the stairs to the first landing, down to the lower floor laid with brick, out into the open courtyard, thence into the open street, & on for a block or more to the Post Office which stood in an alley back from the main street. The P. M. was a partisan of the Virginians, & all their partisans were Democrats. This locality was favorable to the captors. A crowd of men could not conveniently act in so narrow a space. There were not less than 500 men armed with muskets, their bayonets glittering with a dazzling fury. The State furnished the militia of each county a stand of arms. The people took matters into their own hands, opened the armory, & appeared in defense of the laws of human rights to secure a black man his liberty. I reached the scene with the crowd. Mr. Mcclenahan, revolver in hand, & brandishing a bowie-knife, stood in the door to the little P.O. bidding defiance to the crowd. Between the wall of a large hotel on the one side of the alley, & the postmaster’s high fence enclosing his large yard on the other side, few persons could stand in the alley. Mr. McClenahan, in defense, was equal to a hundred of his antagonists since he knew they would not fire on him. They were not the kind of people to fire without sanctions of law. But Judge Anderson came through the crowd. Mr. McClenahan recognized him, & dared not do him violence. The judge demanded admission, & McClenahan raised his arm & allowed the judge to slip under. I stood where I could see the inner side of the P.O. – next to & inside the P.M. lot. I saw a window quickly thrown open & a white man – one of the Quakers jump out. Instantly “Bill” appeared running through the lot for the gate, which opened to the main street. The Quakers – a number of them – were running with “Bill” & helping him on, while the captors closely followed. All ran toward the North in Main St., the prisoner & his friends keeping to the sidewalk & the captors at their heels. A Quaker, seeing that a pursuer was dangerously near to Bill, turned & knocked him down, thus obstructing the pursuit. “Bill” ran for dear life & his friends with him. The great crowd with arms kept good pace in the middle of the street. After nearly half a mile run, Bill was safe with his friends in a Quaker carriage drawn by Quaker horses, & escaped his pursuers. The secret of the escape was that Judge Anderson, once inside the P.O. with his stalwart foot broke down a locked door & told Bill to go. The Quakers kept him concealed in a corn-field until the darkness of the night enabled them to start for Sandusky. The captors were arrested for contempt of Court, were confined in jail for a week: & then, on payment of a fine, were allowed to go to their “native hills & valleys fair.”
This was a characteristic scene of the times. It marked one of the throes of the titanic conflict between freedom & slavery that marked more than a quarter century of our national existence. . . . Men like Fred Douglass on the run for Freedom, & their friends of the U.R.R. will yet be immortalized along with the Puritan Pilgrims.
William D. Godman manuscript, given to his grand-daughter, Anna Stariha. Copy in possession of Connie Lenzen.