Friday, April 20, 2012

This Date in Fayette County History: The Execution of James Collett

On this date in 1945, the final chapter in a Fayette County tragedy was written at the Ohio Penitentiary when James Collett was executed in the electric chair for murdering three members of his family.

The story begins on the farm belonging to Collett's brother-in-law, Elmer McCoy, located north of Washington Court House on the Lewis Road.  On Thanksgiving eve, 1943, Collett shot his brother-in-law in a dispute over money and then also killed McCoy's wife, Forrest and their daughter, Mildred, most likely to cover up the crime.  The bodies were discovered the next day by a neighbor.

Collett's trial began in February 1944 and lasted about one month.  The jury found him guilty on all three counts of first degree murder.  And the judge, my grandfather Harry Rankin, pronouced the death sentence.  Collett was to be executed July 26th of that same year.  Through several failed appeals, including a last minute appeal to Governor Frank Lausche, Collett maintined his innocence.  He was the 243rd person to die in the electric chair which came to be known as "Old Sparky" on Friday, April 20th at approximately 8 p.m.

Eyewitnesses including Sheriff W.H. Icenhower, the man who arrested Collett.  Also present were Police Chief D.V. Long and Sheriff Orland Hays, who succeeded Icenhower.  Their accounts, as reported in the Columbus Dispatch the next day, contained gruesome details of smoke and hissing coming from the body as "1800 volts of electricity coursed through Collett's body." 

The editorial page of the Dispatch that day said, "Justice was done in one of the most reprehensible crimes in the state's history."

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Glimpses of World War II Florida

I’ve been immersed in learning about World War II from my father-in-law’s perspective for the past three years. 

Jay, a B-25 bomber pilot who served in the South Pacific during the last year of the War, has been dictating his memories of those times and I have been editing them into a book.  More than any big overview of the War, I have enjoyed the little details he’s told me about:  like the fact that the nickname for corned beef in tin cans was “bully beef” and how he and his squadron buddies became sick of eating it.  And when the war was over, many servicemen, including my father-in-law, went to a base in Miami Beach to be reassigned or separated from their military duties.

Then, just this week, I came across three letters that my grandmother, Maude Rankin, wrote to my grandfather, Harry, during the winter of 1943.  They were tucked inside a dark brown folder with the return address of “Clerk of Courts, Fayette County, Washington C.H., - Ohio;” not unusual as my grandfather was judge of the Common Pleas court at that time. 

Maude was staying at the Hotel Normandy Isle on Miami Beach with friends.  My grandfather’s work and his position on the War Bond committee in Fayette County prevented him from going with her.  The two images above are from the stationery she used.  I love the ‘Old Florida’ style and the various planes including bombers, fighters and tankers. 

She shares her glimpses of World War II with him:

February 13, 1943

 … We see the Goodyear Blimp way out over the ocean patrolling every day up and down.  A few days ago a huge convoy of soldiers and equipment left Key West for Africa.  Someone here in the hotel saw them go.  The Government has taken over Key West and fixed it up, and has made it a port of embarkation.(sic)  The Biltmore hotel over at Coral Gables, remember we went in with the Junks one time? has been made a Gov’t hospital and they are flying the wounded in there from Africa.  The big transport planes come in and land on the golf course.  Each plan has a doctor and 2 or 3 nurses.

February 15, 1943

 … We have a French woman rooming next to us.  She and her husband left Paris when the Germans took over.  She and her husband got separated and didn’t find each other for 3 months and then located each other through newspaper advertisements.  The Germans took everything they had, their home and all, allowed them only what they could carry.  They are in Minnesota now, but she has been having pneumonia and he sent her down here to get well.  She is lonely and enjoys talking to us.

What I love about these letters is that they are an intimate glimpse into those world events through one person’s eyes.  Can you imagine planes landing on the golf course at a luxury resort today?  I try to. 

As with my father-in-law’s memories, I find that sometimes they are more powerful and profound than anything any expert or scholar could tell me.  Perhaps I learn more because these little ‘tidbits’ spur my already strong curiosity on to further research.   I did want to know - just what effect did World War II have on Florida?  

Perhaps the most dramatic impact of the war on Florida was the many military bases established throughout the state.  The tremendous migration of military personnel into the area took place along with civilian workers who came to work in the various camps and bases increasing the population by over 40%.   By 1943 approximately 172 military installations of varying sizes were in existence in Florida, compared to only eight in 1940.   This military expansion set the stage for Florida’s continued growth after the War as a tourist and retirement mecca.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

One of My Dad's Favorite Things: Locomotive No. 2776 at Eyman Park

Locmotive No. 2776 at Eyman Park
Photo by Senath Rankin, 2010

Almost thirty years before Julie Andrews made the phrase popular with the song she sang in The Sound of Music, my Dad, Richard Post Rankin, put together a photo album he titled, “My Favorite Things.”

Dad was an Ohio State law school student in 1937 and an avid photographer, and in this album of his own photographs he captured three things: planes, trains and Ohio State football.

(Oh! And just for good measure, he added a few shots of Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous striptease artist, as she appeared on the Palace Theatre stage with her fans of feathers. But that really is another story!)

It’s hard for me to say which one of these things he loved the most. Dad was a pilot and part owner of a private plane. He attended all of the home and many away games of the Ohio State football team, from his student days until his death in 1971, and some of my happiest and strongest memories of him have something to do with OSU football.

But today, September 16th, is the 50th anniversary of the dedication of Locomotive No. 2776 in Eyman Park. And this blog post is about commemorating Dad’s love of trains and specifically how this man’s passion was the impetus behind No. 2776 finding its final home in Washington Court House.

In a 1990’s article in the Columbus Dispatch about restoration efforts for No. 2776, reporter Don Baird wrote that one day Dad called Earl Dunaway, who worked for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, to ask if an old locomotive he’d seen at a Columbus railroad yard could be secured for Eyman Park. And Dunaway is quoted as saying, “When they released that thing to Washington Court House, I caught all kinds of h-e-double-l from railroaders in Columbus.” They were upset because they hoped Engine No. 2776 would end up on display in Goodale Park.

The dedication for No. 2776 (Friday, September 16, 1960 at 2 p.m.) was considered by many to be the signature event during the weeklong 1960 Sesquicentennial celebration in Fayette County. As emcee for the dedication, Dad said, “It would be impossible to thank everyone who assisted in securing the locomotive and placing it in the park.”

Here’s thanks to you, Dad, for sharing one of your favorite things with the whole county.

I would love to have readers post their memories of the train being moved into Eyman Park: how temporary tracks were built from the regular railroad tracks across the street and into the park to move the engine into its present location; any memories or photos from the dedication ceremony; or photos of the train.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

1976 Tour Stop #1 - The Court House

Judge Harry Rankin
Photo property of Senath Rankin
It's the county's icon.  The center of the city.  The reason that the town of Washington evolved into being called Washington Court House: to distinguish it from another Ohio town by the same name.  When the four SCOPS/Fayette County Historical Society members organized a tour of landmarks around the county, to commemorate the country's Bicentennial in 1976, they started off here. 

But in their handout they don't have any comments about the court house.  They simply wrote that once the tour guests were inside the building, its history would be told.  So I can only speculate that they viewed the famous murals, discussed the various offices housed there and most likely toured the court room.

As I thought about what I could write that would anything new to the history of this building, I realized it would have to be something personal.  And, to me and my family, the court house was my grandfather's office. 

Harry Rankin was appointed by Governor Cooper to be the judge of Common Pleas on February 1, 1930 and held the office until his sudden death in April 1953.  This photo is pretty close, or may be identical, to the one that still hangs in the court room.

Before he was judge he was in private practice with his father, Lee Rankin. The offices of Rankin & Rankin were located on the second floor across the street at 107 1/2 Court Street. He also served two terms as City Solicitor and two terms as County Prosecutor.

In his first few months in office, Harry was faced with presiding over the liquidation of many banks that had failed in the county following the stock market crash of 1929.   One of his first court dockets also listed cases involving bootleggers and a domestic dispute.  His decisions ran the gamut from custody battles to bankruptcies to applying the death penalty.  

In his obituary, which was on the front page of the Record-Herald on May 1, 1943, it stated that his record as judge was remarkable in that only one of his cases in 23 years was overturned by a higher court.   His career was also praised for the cases which established legal precedents in Ohio law; notably the triple murder case of James Collett in 1945.

One of my strongest memories of the court house happened when I was a 7th grader at Eber School. 

Photo by Senath Rankin, September 2010
I had decided to create my own field trip.  I went home one day and told my father that I was bored and asked if there was a trial going on that I could observe.  He told me there was but that I would probably be bored sitting in the gallery. 

Being the outspoken girl I was, I replied, "Well, not as bored as I am in school right now!" 

So, in a day or two Dad drove me to Eber and waited while I ran in to give my teacher, Mrs. Wilson, an excuse note.  I ran back to the car and off we went to town.  At that time Dad's office was across the alley from the court house; one he shared with  his partner, Rollo Marchant.  (138 East Court Street now part of Advantage Bank). I was familiar with the court house and he had no problem sending me off on my own.

I don't recall the trial I watched that day; it wasn't that memorable.  But I do remember, very vividly, looking at my grandfather's portrait hanging behind the bench and wishing I'd had the chance to know him.

Harry, (or Papo as the family called him) died the year before I was born.  But I always enjoyed hearing stories about his ironic sense of humor (which my father inherited); how many people still referred to him as "the judge" long after his death; and how well respected he was in his profession. 

The court house has been renovated and an observance is planned this month. 


Monday, July 19, 2010

Fayette County Fair

In the history pamphlet published in 1953 for Ohio's Sesqui-centennial, the Fayette County committee researched the beginning of the county's fair. 

They wrote that the original fairground was located on the east side of the city in 1859.   After the grounds were no longer used for fairs, shows and circuses were held there including 'Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show" with William F. Cody and Annie Oakley. 

In 1886 a new fair was begun on the present location and was held Tuesday through Saturday, October 5-9 that year.

This postcard shows the fairgrounds in 1909.  My grandmother, Maude Post Rankin, identifies herself and friend, Bertha Briggs, in the foreground towards the left under the black umbrella. 

The 1953 history identifies three main buildings on the grounds: the Grand Stand, the Art Hall, and the Fruit Hall and that only the Grand Stand remained by that year. 

The building in the left background is not known to me but perhaps to another reader.  Please leave your comment if you can identify this building.

And good luck to this year's exhibitors!!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The 1976 Tour of Fayette County

In 1976 four members of the South Central Ohio Preservation Society* organized a tour of Fayette County homes and landmarks. They borrowed a bus from the Boy Scouts and headed out to show 40 locations to those who signed up to join them.

Those four people were  B.E. Kelley, Kenneth Craig, George Robinson and my mother, Jane Rankin. **

I knew them all, some better than others, and I can imagine them that day as the most entertaining tour guides, telling anecdotes and answering questions from their vast, collective knowledge. They handed out a listing of the tour sites and a hand-drawn map (shown above) with comments; in some cases detailed and in others just a short note about each stop along the route that they had worked together to create.

They started at the court house, of course. They ended up at the Fayette County Museum where guests were served cider and cookies. They looked at homes and cemeteries. Their notes say they stopped at the last remnants of an old toll house (sadly not marked on the map), an old barn (also not marked), a schoolhouse converted into a motel, and pointed to locations where structures were long gone such as the double covered bridge that was torn down in the 1930’s.

I plan on re-tracing their tour route to see if I can find all their landmarks and in future postings will list all 40 tour stops. Please add your comments about these or any sites you feel should be part of a tour of Fayette County landmarks.

If you have old photos that you would like to have posted on this blog, please e-mail your submission to

*Founded in 1966, the mission of SCOPS is to preserve the natural and cultural history in the South Central Ohio area.

** At the time, Mr. Kelley, Mr. Craig and Mr. Robinson were Fayette County Historical Society board members and my mother would also later become a board member. However, for this tour, it appears they were organizing this tour as a SCOPS project.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy Independence Day 2010

This photo of my grandfather Rankin is from the June 1902 issue of the Washington High School literary publication, the Argus. 

That year Harry was a senior, editor-in-chief of the Argus, and member of the track and debate teams.

His contribution to the Argus was a long political and social essay on the rise and fall of various countries concluding with his fervently felt patriotism:

" ... Courage in war, and a love of personal freedom have always been a noticeable characteristic of the American people and this alone has been her dream.  It was germinated by oppression, cherished by the liberty-loving people, rocked in the Mayflower and firmly planted on the stern bosom of Plymouth Rock. 

We may search the pages of ancient history; we may study the motives of contemporaries, we may prophesy the future of any nation and we will fail to find any with higher ideals, with nobler efforts or with a brighter future than those of the United States, and her dream is Freedom!"