"To the Sheriff of Cuyahoga County. Whereas at a term of the Court of Common Pleas, begun and held at Cleveland . . . "

White Men's Justice:
The Burlesque Demise of John Omic (1812)

The early settlement and growth of Cleveland was a fitful business at best. Native-American claims to the West Side (what became Brooklyn Township and, eventually, Ohio City) were not extinguished until almost a decade after Moses Cleaveland's 1796 survey, and Clevelanders lived through the early years of the new century in nervous proximity to Native Americans still living amongst them. Possession of the Great Lakes region was still fiercely contested with the British, and incidents of conflict and even murder often punctuated relations between white settlers and Native Americans. And, apparently, one of the Indians who made Clevelanders most nervous was John Omic.

Variously called Omic, O'Mic, O'Mick, Omeek, Devil Poc-con, Pochokow, Po-Kee-Kaw, Po-Ke-Kaw and Poccon, Omic probably acquired the name John to distinguish him from his father, an elderly man known simply as Omic. Omic the elder had belonged to the Massasauga band of Chippewa living near Pymatuning Creek in what became Jefferson County, but by the early 1800's was living with John on the west bank of the Cuyahoga in the area that later became the "Angle," Cleveland's most notorious Irish slum. Omic was well-regarded by area whites but John, born about 1790, seems to have from youth acquired a reputation as a boy of "evil disposition and reckless temper." So Crisfield Johnson, Cuyahoga County's first serious historian, would have us believe, who also alludes to further but unspecified crimes committed by the "hardy and athletic" Indian youth. But Mrs. David Long, the wife of Cleveland's first physician, offers a different view of the young John in her memoir written years after his hanging. She knew both John and his father and had played with John during her childhood in the Painesville area near the Grand River. Whatever other whites said about John, she recalled that he "was not a bad Indian towards the whites."

That was not the view of Major Lorenzo Carter, Cleveland's leading citizen, whose home stood northwest of what is now the intersection of Superior Ave. and West 9th St. One day in 1805 John walked uninvited into Carter's vegetable garden there and began harvesting its produce for himself. Soon surprised by the outraged Mrs. Carter, the fifteen-year-old John drew his knife and chased her three times around her house until the arrival of another white made him flee for his West Side home.

The redoubtable Major Carter did not suffer such slights without retaliation. Securing a suitable length of rope, he soon paid a visit to the residence of Omic the elder across the crooked Cuyahoga. Informing the aged parent of his son's delinquency, Carter drew the rope out of his pocket and told Omic he was going to hunt his son down and hang him from the first available tree. Eventually, however, Omic dissuaded Carter from his terrible purpose, promising that John would never again cross the Cuyahoga to show his face on the East Side. We are indebted to the credulous Crisfield Johnson for the parting dialogue that allegedly ensued on that memorable day in 1805:

Carter: Now remember, if I ever catch him on that side again, I'll hang him up to the first tree in five minutes.

Omic: He no come, he no come.

Seven years went by. On April 3, 1812, the bones of two white fur trappers named Buel and Gibbs were found in the ashes of their burnt cabin near Sandusky. The hue and cry for their killers, who had stolen their furs and burnt the cabin down around them, soon ran a party of three Indians to earth in the Maumee swamp area. (There is an alternative story that Omic was captured near Tinker's Creek in Bedford--but that seems highly unlikely.) One was released because of his youth (who repaid such mercy by killing two more white men four years later) and the second, named Semo, effectively obstructed justice by pulling the trigger of a convenient gun with his toe and blowing his head off. Which left the third captive to the tender mercies of frontier justice, our old friend John Omic. As Huron County then remained part of Cuyahoga County's judicial realm, Omic was removed to a Major Clarke's Cleveland dwelling, where he was confined in an upper ballroom by means of hefty leg-irons attached to a nearby joist. Unless, of course, one prefers an alternative version in which Omic was thus confined in an upper room of Major Carter's on Spring Street.

However justice may have been denied, it was never much delayed in pioneer Cleveland. Held under a large oak tree in a lot at Superior and Water Sts., Omic's trial transpired less than a month later on April 29 and appears to have been a brief formality. Defended by Peter Hitchcock, Omic was prosecuted by Alfred Kelley (the only actual lawyer in Cuyahoga County) with William W. Irvin and Ethan Allen Brown acting as judges. Having been caught red-handed with the stolen furs in his possession and, perhaps, having no co-defendants left upon which to turn states' evidence, Omic was quickly found guilty of Buel's murder ("with a certain tomahawk made of iron and steel") and sentenced to hang on June 26, 1812.

There was much apprehension in Cleveland as the day for Omic's execution loomed.

Rumors of violent Indian plots to rescue him were rife throughout the Western Reserve and white fears climaxed one afternoon, shortly before the execution, when John Omic's father walked into the house of Dr. David Long on Water St. The only persons there were Mrs. Long and her infant daughter, and Mrs. Long feared the worse when the elder Omic picked up a gun standing in the room. Grabbing her baby, Mrs. Long fled in terror up Water St., screaming that she was about to be butchered by Indians. Close at her heels came old Omic, vainly trying to explain in imperfect English that he had only been trying to demonstrate how Semo, his son's unfortunate confederate, had met his death. Eventually the matter was threshed out by the inevitable Major Carter, who spoke Indian languages fluently, and even Mrs. Long herself recalled that they "all had a hearty laugh" over her misapprehension.

The great day came at last. Commencing with a religious ceremony held by the Rev. Darrow of Trumbull County in front of Major Carter's house, the proper business of the day commenced with the arrival of Omic at the gallows erected by Deputy Sheriff Levi Johnson (who conveniently doubled as Cuyahoga County Coroner) on the northwest quadrant of Public Square. Suitably attended by an officious Major Samuel Jones and his battalion of militia, Omic was brought there in a black-painted wagon. It is said that Omic occupied his time by beating upon the side of his coffin the measure of the tunes played that forenoon by the militia band. If so, he must have enjoyed a lengthy musicale, as Major Clarke's inability to give coherent or correct orders to his troops much delayed the progress of the day's dreadful protocol. In any case, by the time the critical moment came a large crowd, gathered from all over the Reserve, was assembled to see the taking off of Omic, who had bragged frequently during his incarceration that he would "show the pale faces how an Indian could die" by cheerfully hurling himself to eternity at the proper time.

Alas, Omic's stoic intentions proved inadequate at the dramatic moment. Escorted to the gallows by Major Carter and Sheriff Samuel S. Baldwin, Omic submitted passively up until the moment the traditional black cap was placed over his head. Now, overcome by panic, Omic, whose hands were quite loosely tied, lunged for one of the uprights of the square gallows. He was, as Elisha Whittlesey, an eyewitness, later recalled, the most frightened man "rational or irrational" that Whittlesey ever saw. Clinging desperately to his gallows post, he refused to relinquish its security until Major Carter spoke to him of his promised bravado and agreed to furnish him with a half pint of whiskey. That beverage was duly proffered and consumed, Omic stood still once more as the black cap was again drawn over his head. Just before the signal to open the drop came, however, he again lunged for the safety of the uprights and clung to them with all his strength, meanwhile bellowing threats in broken English that he would return in two days and take terrible vengeance on his white tormentors. Another tense colloquy with Major Carter followed, another half pint of Old Monongahela was sent up and again Omic quaffed the soothing fluid and repeated his erstwhile vows to die like a man. This time, however, Carter was taking no chances, and while Sheriff Baldwin bound his arms tightly the second glass was held to the terrified Indian's lips. But Omic wasn't about to give up yet. Even as the drop opened beneath him, he somehow managed to get his right hand free and slip it between the rope and his neck. Not that it did him much service -- he dutifully dropped the length of the rope, swung back and forth several times and was still forever. It is possible he died happy: in his account of Omic's hanging, Cleveland historian George Condon quotes a Cleveland pioneer's wistful description of Old Monongahela as being so good that "an old settler would almost be willing to be hung, if he could now obtain the like." Then again, maybe not: those who later examined the corpse determined that Omic's neck had not been broken, which implies that his demise came by the more prolonged and painful method of slow strangulation. One spectator who failed to witness the final act of Omic's life was the tender-hearted Mrs. David Long, who decided at the last minute that she had no "wish to see my old play-fellow die" and fled the grisly doings at Public Square.

The farcical tone of the hanging persisted through its aftermath. With a severe thunderstorm brewing up, it was decided to rush Omic's burial. But as the hangman's rope was drawn up, it parted, and Omic's lifeless body thudded to the ground. Even as the first drops of rain started falling, it was hastily interred in a shallow grave as the sated crowd fled the damp scene. But that wasn't quite the end of it. Virtually every physician in the Western Reserve was present that day in the Square, and every single one of them, it is said, lusted after the body of Omic for dissection purposes. So, while Sheriff Baldwin obligingly turned a blind eye, Omic's body was disinterred by an interested party of physicians. Dr. Peter Allen of Trumbull County generously volunteered to carry the corpse of the corpulent Omic but proved unequal to his ghastly burden when he fell down in the middle of the street with the dead Indian on top of him. It is said much smothered laughter ensued but the body was eventually spirited away and its flesh permitted to rot off in a temporary grave near Spring St. There it lay for a year until Dr. Long came for it and it is said that he employed it for some years as a handy instructional aid in the education of Western Reserve physicians. Some time later, it made its way to a Dr. Israel Town's office in Hudson and thence to Pittsburgh, where it disappeared forever. But not before further disquieting one more frightened white man. There is a story that a certain Captain Sholes was put to bed with the ague while stopping one evening at Dr. Long's house. Awakening in the middle of the night, he looked over the side of his bed to find himself staring at the gruesome remains of the late John O'Mic, which had just fallen out of a cupboard on to the floor. It is said that Mrs. Long apologized fervently to her affrighted guest. An even more disgraceful tale affirms that Major Carter, fearing a rumored rescue attempt by John's father and a band of Indians based in Willoughby, led a party of whites who kidnapped the old man, got him soused on Old Monongahela, weighted him with irons and secretly drowned him at night in the Cuyahoga River.

And so concluded Cuyahoga County's first experiment in capital punishment. It is believed that Omic's execution did much to prejudice Indians towards the British side in the War of 1812, news of its outbreak reaching Cleveland only two days after John Omic's death. And it may well have been Omic's grotesque denouement that the Ohio General Assembly had in mind when in 1885 it mandated that executions be private "on account of the real or supposed damaging effects of such punishment in proportion to the number of spectators."


Chapter II

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ã Copyright 2000 by John Stark Bellamy II and Cleveland State University. All rights reserved.