Worldwide attention was focused on a small community near Dayton back in 1994 when it was reported that an 18-year-old high school senior, Michael Fay, who called Kettering home, was arrested in Singapore and found guilty of acts of vandalism, including spray painting an automobile.
What set off the international uproar was the Singapore judge’s verdict: the Ohio boy was to receive, in addition to a short prison sentence, six lashes with a bamboo cane.
Even President Bill Clinton got into the controversy, urging the government of Singapore to reconsider. It did, and the sentence was reduced from six lashes with the bamboo cane to only four. Fay received his caning, was eventually released, and came back home to America and massive media coverage.
That story set me to wondering how long it had been since anyone in Ohio had been publicly whipped for a crime. Turns out it was not so long ago as you might think. And it happened in one of the least likely places: a peaceful Holmes County farm community.
It was Tuesday, July 5, 1932.
Two brothers, 51-year-old Jesse Wynn and 48-year-old William Wynn, were arraigned before Holmes County common pleas judge Robert Putnam in the Millersburg, Ohio, courthouse. They were both charged with petit larceny. They had stolen a refrigerator and sold it to a Mansfield secondhand dealer for three dollars.
At the time they were arrested, they had been living in an unoccupied farmhouse that they had apparently broken into. Several unsolved robberies had occurred in the neighborhood. Neither of the men had a job or any source of income. William Wynn claimed that he had a family in Ashland, but he had not seen them in several months. His brother Jesse said he was from New York and had come to Ohio looking for work, then accidentally ran into his brother in Cleveland.
This was 1932, the height of the Great Depression, and thousands of people were out of work; it was not an uncommon sight to see men roaming the countryside.
Crime in Holmes County was on the rise. Judge Putnam was fuming over the increased caseload in his small court. He was quoted in the local paper as saying, “Holmes County is being inflicted with the crime wave prevalent throughout the country out of all proportions with its population.” He added, “This condition must cease.”
The Wynn brothers had the misfortune to have been arrested at about the same time the judge was venting his spleen. The brothers were held in the old county jail next door to the courthouse for twenty-eight days while the grand jury met. The grand jury decided that, because both the men were penniless and charging them with grand larceny would only cost the county more money for a trial, it was better and less expensive to bring a finding of petit larceny, which could be quickly handled by the judge.
So on July 5 the Wynn brothers were brought before Judge Putnam. There they quickly made a mistake when responding to his questions. How were the conditions in the jail? How was the food? the judge asked.
“Very good,” they replied.
“Perhaps they are a little too good,” the judge observed. “You boys might like it in jail. You are both older men and know better than to steal.”
The fact was, both of the brothers had bragged to Holmes County sheriff John “Peg” Stevens that they didn’t care how long they stayed in jail because they were better off there than on the outside.
Judge Putnam then asked the brothers how they pleaded to the charge of petit larceny. They both said “guilty.”
The judge paused for a moment and then gave the brothers a real jolt as he announced his sentence.
He ordered them each to serve twenty days at hard labor in the workhouse on a strict diet of bread and water.
“And I mean hard labor,” added the judge.
Onlookers said the Wynn brothers, who apparently had been counting on just serving time in a cozy jail with good food, appeared to be stunned by the sentence.
But the judge wasn’t done.
“Or, you can each take twenty lashes of the whip and be escorted out of this county.”
The two brothers immediately said in unison, “We’ll take the stripes.”
The judge repeated his offer, making sure the brothers understood the penalty. They said that they did and that they would rather be whipped than spend twenty days at hard labor with a diet of bread and water.
Then Judge Putnam directed that the following order be carried across the park to the jail and given to Sheriff Stevens:
These prisoners have elected in open court to take 20 lashes in lieu of 20 days in jail at hard labor on bread and water: you are instructed as follows:
You will proceed publicly at 4 p.m. Tuesday, July 5, 1932, in the front of the north door of the county jail to administer 20 lashes each to William Wynn and Jesse Wynn in the following manner:
1. Lashes to be applied with buggy whip or equivalent instrument by you;
2. Lashes to be applied to the back;
3. Prisoner to have no clothing on back except undershirt;
4. Lashes to be severe enough to raise welts but not to cut or bring blood—not to be unusually cruel—but yet, no “pink tea.”
5. Prisoners to be taken by you to the edge of the county and turned loose.
(Signed) Robert B. Putnam, Judge
By 4 p.m. word of the unusual sentence had spread around the town and over telephone wires to surrounding communities. There was a crowd of nearly three hundred people gathered in the center of town, outside the jail.
Sheriff Stevens was not happy about the job he had been ordered to do. As he went to the cellblock, he told William and Jesse Wynn, “Gosh, I hate to do it.”
He opened the cell door and asked which of the brothers wanted to go first. William, the younger of the two, came out of the cell grinning at the sheriff.
When they walked outside, Stevens had a deputy tie a rope around the bars in a nearby jail window and then, with William facing the brick wall, use the rope to draw his handcuffed arms over his head.
Both brothers had on bib overalls and white shirts but no underwear, so the sheriff elected to let them leave on their shirts.
The sheriff didn’t own a whip and had to send a deputy to a nearby hardware store to purchase a buggy whip.
It was a few minutes after 4 p.m. when the deputy finally returned with the brand-new buggy whip. It was obvious to the crowd that the sheriff’s heart was not in what he was about to do. He took several deep breaths and then, with a sigh, turned his back on the crowd, raised the whip, and brought it down on William Wynn’s back.
When the whip arrived, there had been a few “boos” from the crowd, but now all was silent. All they could hear was the steady, slow crack of the whip striking William Wynn and the labored breathing of the sheriff.
At the tenth lash the buggy whip suddenly broke. The sheriff continued to lay on the lashes, but on the sixteenth another section of the whip broke off, leaving only about a foot-long section in Sheriff Stevens’s hand. The sheriff seemed frustrated by the broken and useless whip, but he had the judge’s order to carry out. He took another deep breath and administered the final four strokes with just the butt of the whip. William Wynn had stood stoically through the first sixteen lashes, sometimes twisting his head to look at the crowd, but he was seen to wince as Sheriff Stevens laid on the last four blows. However, he seemed to quickly recover as he was cut down from the jail wall.
His shirt was not cut and there was no evidence of blood. He actually seemed to be in high spirits.
Then his older brother, Jesse, was brought out and tied up against the same jail wall. Someone had come up with a well-worn, old eight- to ten-foot “blacksnake” type of whip to replace the broken buggy whip. This was the kind of whip that could cut and do some damage to a man.
But perhaps Sheriff Stevens was physically tired from the first whipping, or maybe he was just tired of the whole idea. In any event, he followed the court’s order and laid twenty lashes on Jesse Wynn’s back, but none of them seemed to have any force. In fact, Jesse Wynn stood silently, showing no emotion through the whole ordeal.
When he was released from the wall to join his brother, they were seen smiling and talking to the sheriff as he loaded them into a sheriff’s car for the ride to Loudonville and the Holmes County line. There they were let out of the car and told to leave Holmes County and to not return. They were last seen walking away and waving to the sheriff.
Judge Putnam did not attend the whipping, although he could have seen it if he had wanted to from his window in the courthouse, which overlooked the lawn by the county jail.
The incident released a firestorm of publicity. The story of the whipping, the first in more than fifty years in Ohio, swept the state and the nation. Judge Putnam was both hailed and criticized. A Cleveland Press editorial called him a “cheap tyrant of the bench” and said, “Judges who are bent on restoring the torture system for their private entertainment should be retired to private life as soon as the electorate can get at them.”
But there were also those who praised the judge for trying to do something to stop the perceived coddling of thieves and burglars that was on the rise in America because of the Depression.
The judge responded to his critics by writing a letter to the local newspaper explaining his reasons behind the unusual sentence and hinting that he might do it again. He wrote, “This court is determined to do all in its power to restore this community to normal conditions and to halt crime in Holmes County.” Quoting Thomas Jefferson, he said he was “prepared to stretch all the laws until they crack” if it would help end the crime problem.
The majority of Holmes County residents apparently approved of Judge Robert B. Putnam: he served nearly thirty years on the bench, retiring in 1960 as a judge of the appeals court.
Sheriff Stevens only held office for one term. He was defeated in his attempt at reelection.
The Wynn brothers seemed to disappear after being released at the Ashland–Holmes County line
[ The county jail where the whipping took place is now home to the Holmes County Commissioners. The building is on the National Register of Historic Buildings. It is located at the intersection of State Routes 83 and 39 in Millersburg. ]
Excerpted from the book Strange Tales from Ohio 2nd Edition, copyright © Neil Zurcher. All rights reserved.
This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.
by Neil Zurcher
Ohio history can get pretty strange! From the author of the popular offbeat travel guide “Ohio Oddities”, here are 75 equally odd tales of Ohio’s most remarkable people, places, and events.
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Neil Zurcher logged more than a million miles on Ohio’s roads over 25 years as a TV travel reporter. He was the original host of the One Tank Trips travel report, which aired on Fox8 Television in Cle . . . [ Read More ]One Tank Trips Blog