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Underground Railroad Research Forum

Re: Piatt of Ohio
In Response To: Piatt of Ohio ()

Hi everyone! I need some help with tracking down some documentation. This is about the lawn jockey again. A couple years ago I queried the list-serv regarding documentation for the Piatt family of West Liberty, Logan County, Ohio. It was on their property, supposedly, that a lawn jockey was positioned with a flag in its outstretched hand to indicate it was safe to approach the house, and no flag meant it was not safe. This attribution first appeared in Siebert’s 1951 “Mysteries of Ohio’s Underground Railroad”. On page 145 Siebert has a photo of a lawn jockey with a flag stuck in its hand. The flag itself is a post 1908 flag; the lawn jockey is a post 1880, and most likely a 20th century statue design. More importantly, however, in checking Siebert’s collection, it appears that during his research for his first volume in 1898, all the primary documents – letters and interviews – reveal that there were plenty of UGRR agents in West Liberty, mostly black, and that the Piatts were pro-slavery and had in fact tried to turn over several fugitives. The following is a transcription of Siebert’s discussion in his 1951 Ohio book claiming Elizabeth Piatt was an UGRR agent, followed by the sources from his original research in the 1890s. No where in his collection did I find updated information suggesting Elizabeth Piatt was an agent. I used Harvard’s original collection of letters -

In Siebert’s "The Mysteries of Ohio’s Underground Railroads", 1951, he writes:
p. 144 “…There were three outgoing routes: (1) a trail running twenty miles north to Bellefontaine, the seat of Logan County, a halfway village where conductors and teams were changed being West Liberty.

A couple of handlers of underground traffic through West Liberty were: Davis Hunt and Asa Williams. A little above the village was the home of Federal Judge Benjamin and Mrs. Piatt, in front of which stood a cast-iron manikin with its right hand extended, evidently for the purpose of holding some horse’s hitching strap. The Piatt place was a little more than a dozen miles north of Urbana and a little less [p145] than ten miles south of Bellefontaine two lively centers of underground traffic. It was therefore in an excellent location as a station, but the Piatt barn may be described as an interrupted station, a condition silently advertised to underground conductors and their parties by the flag in the manikin’s hand, or its absence. As an ardent abolitionist, Mrs. Piatt saw to it that that flag was in its [p. 146] outside socket when she was at home alone to welcome the wayfarers and hide them in the barn, but she respected her husband’s official status by having the emblem removed from the tireless outstretched hand at intimation of his return.” [On page 145 is a picture of a lawn jockey, outstretched hand with WWII era American flag, with illustration notes: “when the iron manikin in front of the Piatt house, just north of West Liberty, Logan county, held a flag, Mrs. Piatt welcomed wayfarers and hid them in the barn. When the flag was missing, Federal Judge Benjamin Piatt was at home, and fugitives must pass on.”]

Oddly, in Siebert’s 1898 book, he mention’s the Piatt family slaves from Kentucky. Looking for the source for this story and the above 1951 version, I looked at the microfilm guide for the Siebert Collection (compiled by the Ohio State Archives). There I located the materials for Logan County, and specifically Bellefontaine, Urbana, and West Liberty and surrounding area. I then looked at Siebert’s papers at Houghton Library at Harvard (a sister collection to the Siebert collection in Ohio). The collections share the great majority of material (Ohio has mostly copies of the originals held at Harvard). I located all the materials listed in the finding aid associated with Logan County, Ohio, etc., in the Harvard collection, in addition to more material that was not listed in the Ohio guide or collection. What I discovered is that the only interview/letter/source that mentions the Piatts is the following interview listed in the

Wilbur Siebert Collection
MS Am 2420

(30) The Underground Railroad in Ohio: vol. 8. 1 v. Includes Lake through Lorain counties.)

“Release of Slaves at Bellefontaine, November, 1852.” Interview with William H. West of Bellefontaine. By W. H. Siebert. Aug. 11, 1894.

“In November we had a very interesting case here. Three slaves belonging to some of the Piatts in Kentucky got on a train somewhere between here and Cincinnati and were recognized by Don Piatt the son of Col. Benjamin M. Piatt a relative [of] the Kentucky Piatts living several miles west of West Liberty. Don Piatt took the negroes off the train and took them to his father’s house to await the arrival of their owner or his agent. Oliver Ash – an old colored man discovered them there and failing to get access to them, applied to me for papers to release them. James Walker and myself got out the papers- (West and Walker was the firm name.) habeas corpus – and brought the case before the Probate Court. The old gentleman Piatt resisted the discharge of the negroes and talked against time, stating whose slaves they were, but the proceedings were hurried and the fugitives were discharged before the coming in of the train bearing the marshall. William Johnson – a negro - had a carriage prepared, word having been received that the U.S. Marshall was on his way to arrest the fugitives. Upon their discharge they were hurried into the carriage and driven eastward into the mormon(?) valley and were there placed on the U.G.R.R. I afterwards learned that they had reached Canada, and that’s all I know about them. (See Logan County Gazette for Nov. 1852 for outside particulars.) The funds to pay the sheriff and the court expenses, and the livery hire were raised by five persons – John Miller, Cornelius Slicher, a terrible Democrat, James Walker, a freesoiler, John Kirkpatrick, a Democrat. This was not known till after the death of these parties. Judge James Walker a lawyer of strong conviction at once proceeded to put out a writ of habeas corpus and brought the matter before Judge E. Bennett, and a hearing was had. The Piatts present attempted by all means within their power, to delay the proceedings until the arrival of their Ky. relatives on the incoming train due within a few hours, but the persistence of Mr. Walker, and the possible favor of a sympathetic Probate Judge, would permit of no delay, and as no one present could identify them, they were discharged under the writ, and were quickly conveyed to a carriage already waiting, the driver of which was one Wm. E. Johnson a colored barber of much activity in this direction and then the race began.
The train due in a very few moments was expected to bring the pursuing masters from Ky., and the purpose was to get them within the Quaker settlement before the Ky. Piatts could over take them. I was but a boy of twelve years old, and yet I can recall the scene as distinctly as if it were but yesterday, as like all abolition boys I was an interested looker on, I earnestly enthused with the hope of their escape. The town was all excitement, and while it is probable that the majority of those present sympathized with the negroes, but very few were willing to take an active interest and assist in their escape. James Walker, Wm. Thomas, John Miller, and a few others only taking any real part in the matter – Mr. Walker being the one whose activity and leadership upon such occasions were always looked for. I can see that carriage now with its closely drawn curtains and its two horses, going at the top of their speed, moving up the hill and disappearing out of sight toward the mecca of all escaping slaves the “Quaker bottoms”.

Hunt and Williams would receive ‘em and take ‘em right into their houses. Sometimes the neighbors would splice in and furnish a couple of horses – sometimes four if the load demanded it and they would take them on. The next main headquarter was at Oberlin. That was along stretch and maybe they had some stop between. They couldn’t drive at night. Sometimes five or six in a squad hardly ever one at a time. All the time that I was living there they’d be going through that way at times.” END OF LETTER

I have determined that Benjamin Piatt was not a practicing judge during the 1850s. By 1860, I think they are living with their son in his home. There are so many holes in this story, and I would like to finally set the records straight. Has anyone seen the mid 20th century documentation that Siebert used to make his 1951 claim that the Piatt home was a safe house using the lawn jockey figure? Once I finalize this last detail, I will publish all my research, including the design, development and manufacturing of the lawn jockey (not called that originally – that came in the 20th century) in America.

Thanks,
Kate Larson


18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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