It was like nature knew where I was headed and had decided to provide the perfect atmosphere. The roads snaked through dry cornfields and hills covered in autumn trees, a thick fog turned familiar places into spooky landscapes. I couldn’t think of a more fitting setting for the dark tale I was tracking down.
My trip took me to Ragersville, Ohio. A small quiet town nestled in the backroads of Amish country.
But this sleepy little village has another name, Hangtown, and I was here to see the skeleton in the community closet, literally.
One hundred and forty-four years ago a man called Jeff Davis was lynched in this town, and it happened right here as you enter Ragersville. The story is like many tales of 19th-century vigilante justice, but the difference here is that the town of Ragersville still has Davis’s skeleton.
Local historian, Ray Hisrich, met me at the Ragersville Historical Society to show me Davis’s bones, which now reside in the basement.. I followed him down a set of creaking stairs to a glass case which holds the remains. “There’s Jeff,” Ray said pointing to the skeleton. “He’s around 5’6”, 5’7” and when you stretch his bones out and everything he’s just about the right size.”
The story goes that Jeff Davis was a vagabond that came through Ragersville. Davis had been in legal trouble in Ragersville before and folks said he was back in town to get even with the men who had put him behind bars. This time around, he assaulted several women and a little girl in this sleepy little town, and a warrant was put out for his arrest.
Davis was apprehended and brought to Ragersville on the evening of July 26, 1873. The newspaper recorded what happened later that night.
While Davis was in the Justice’s office, in the custody of the officers, and waiting for the witnesses to arrive, a crowd of unknown men from the country, seized the prisoner with great violence, first blowing out the lights, then knocking him down with a poker; then after firing seven pistol shots into his body, dragging him from the office by a rope attached to his heels some distance through the town to a tree, and there hung him up by the neck until dead. The Democratic Press (Ravenna, Ohio), August 14, 1873
Details on the lynching are sometimes unclear because the residents of Ragersville were tight-lipped about the matter.
“Way back, you couldn’t get information from the people,” Ray said. “They still weren’t giving out information. Their grandparents were in on it, and they were always told ‘we don’t talk about that.’ There was an old lady up the road, we tried to get her to tell the story. She said ‘no, we don’t talk about that.’ She was about a hundred. Her dad would’ve been in on it, dad and grandpa, her dad would’ve been real young. She would not talk about it.
And then we have documents here, the criminal documents of this township, and when it comes to that date there’s nothing there. Blank. No one ever went to jail, no one was ever tried. everyone was in on it. I think law enforcement just looked at it and said, there’s no family here, he had no family.”
Over the course of the visit, I worked up the nerve to ask Ray a question I’d thought of while he was telling the story. “Do you have any ancestors that would’ve been around for that?”
“I think my great-grandfather probably could’ve been involved,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to say, but they had just about all of the head family members in on this thing. They all got together and they said, ‘listen, it’s all of us or none.’ And so, as they questioned people, they questioned everybody, and no one knew anything. Nothing.”
So how did the skeleton come to be in the basement of the Ragersville Historical Society? It was in large part due to Ray’s efforts.
“Well, so they threw him over the county line, buried him in a sawdust pile. They thought, get him to Holmes county, instead of Tuscarawas County. At that time doctors could take a body that wasn’t claimed and use it for study. A Dr. Miller got him in Shanesville… ended up over here in Ragersville with a Dr. Peters. And Davis was in his doctor’s office for sixty years or better. My dad said as kids they’d go by that doctor’s office and it was haunted, they didn’t want to go by there at night because they were afraid of that skeleton in there.
And then Dr. Peter’s son sold it to a fellow in Sugarcreek, he traded him for a box of cigars. They wanted this skeleton to hang int he woods to scare the coon hunters that came down. Different guys came down from the city wanting to hunt coons all the time. But the fellow’s wife said ‘no way!’ So he took it to an undertaker. The undertaker kept it for years, he gave to his daughter who became a nurse, she used it for study. Her husband was a doctor, he used it for study. I had talked to them years back and said, ‘if you ever want to get rid of it let us know.’ So she called one day, and my dad and I went over and picked him up. ”
If you’re ever near Ragersville, I recommend stopping in and touring the museum with Ray. He’s a great local historian and has a sense of humor well suited to the subject matter.
“I always tell everybody that since that hanging, we really haven’t had many problems here.”