“OH MURDER, I AM SHOT!”: THE TRAGIC DEATH OF CLEMENT VALLANDIGHAM

Sometimes when you frequent an establishment you can take its historical significance for granted. It is especially easy to do in a picturesque, small town with great architecture and an idyllic main street to enjoy. I am reminded of this when visiting The Golden Lamb. While I’ve not been recently, this place has been our family go-to spot for decades. Lunches, drinks, birthdays, funerals, that’s where we go. Pre Covid-19 we visited so often we even had a code phrase we used when we wanted to meet up, “Let’s go on the lamb!” we’d say.  So when I saw Hometown Haunts was doing a story on haunted happenings at The Golden Lamb, I had to reach out and share some of my experiences there. In this post we’ll dive into the rich history of Ohio’s Oldest Inn and a particularly peculiar event that launched many a ghost story. 

Let’s start with a bit of history about the establishment. The Golden Lamb Inn was built by Jonas Seaman, a gentleman originally from New Jersey. In 1803 he paid exactly $4 for a license to open and operate a “house of Public Entertainment” in what was then the new, bustling village of Lebanon, Ohio. The inn was originally called The Lebanon House but quickly became known as the Golden Lamb because of the image of a Golden Lamb on the sign out front.  It was essential to have something people could remember and associate with a business since many could not read or write. By the time 1805 rolled around, the first courthouse in Lebanon was built right across the street and The Golden Lamb quickly became a popular resting place for lawyers, political types and weary travelers traveling to and from Cincinnati. In its more than two centuries of operation the inn has hosted twelve U.S. presidents and countless other historical figures.

John Quincy Adams, Van Buren, both Benjamin and William Henry Harrison, Grant, McKinley, Hayes, Garfield, Taft, and Harding have all  stayed in the inn. Other notables include: Barbara Bush, Mitt Romney, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Alex Haley, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Horace Mann, Harriett Beecher Stowe and American legends Neil Armstrong and Annie Oakley just to name a few.

You can imagine an inn so rich in history has had its fair share of strange happenings and paranormal occurrences, and after more than 215 years in business, the Golden Lamb offers up almost as many ghostly spirits as they do the potable types behind the bar. The story I want to share today of one such spirit is that of Clement L. Vallandigham, a rather notable Ohio congressman and the leader of a group known as The Peace Democrats. A little backstory: It was 1863 and The Peace Democrats (oft referred to as Copperheads) were a faction of Democrats woefully opposed to the civil war and wanted President Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans ousted from power. 

Needless to say, this approach was not a very popular stance with many military leaders and government officials actively engaged in the war effort.  Enter General Ambrose Burnside (commander of the Department of the Ohio) and Union army leader who noticed many residents around these parts were harboring antiwar sentiment. He wasn’t wrong, Vallandigham had just led a public rally in Mount Vernon, Ohio where he called President Lincoln a “tyrant” and accused him of trying to abolish the Constitution and set up a dictatorship. Upon learning about the rally (thanks to several moles the General sent to take notes) Burnside issued General Order No. 38, which declared that “any person found guilty of treason will be tried by a military tribunal and either imprisoned or banished to enemy lines.”

His first target – the politician named Clement Vallandigham.  With the “evidence” sent over by the moles in the crowd that day, the General declared that was sufficient grounds to arrest Vallandigham for treason. Not long after his speech at the rally, a group of soldiers came to Vallandigham’s Dayton home in the middle of the night, busted down the door and dragged him out of the house. His arrest sparked a series of violent civil rights protests in the area. His supporters even burned down the offices of Dayton’s Republican newspaper.  Vallandigham was found guilty in a Cincinnati military court of “having expressed sympathy” for the enemy and of having uttered “disloyal sentiments and opinions.” President Abraham Lincoln opted for banishing Vallandigham rather than sentencing him to death by firing squad. In carrying out the alternative, he was escorted by several cavalrymen to the southern border near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. 

After a bit of travelling around, even venturing as far north as Canada, Vallandigham eventually returned to Ohio and in what was presumably an attempt to resuscitate his political career.  He ran for seats in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on an anti-Reconstruction platform. He lost both elections.

Ok ok, enough history. Fast forward to 1871 and it’s been several years since Vallandigham returned to the Buckeye State and in addition to running for a couple political seats he had also set up a successful law practice in Dayton. So how does Vallandigham tie in with The Golden Lamb? Clement Vallandigham was staying in Lebanon for a murder trial because he was heading up the defense team for a Hamilton area man named Thomas McGehean. McGehean was accused of shooting his former business partner, Thomas Myers. The trial had been moved out of Hamilton as a change of venue had been granted on the case. The shooting of Thomas Myers occured around 9 p.m. in a Hamilton gambling parlor called the American Saloon on Christmas Eve, 1869. Reportedly, McGehean had come to the saloon with a friend named Jackson Garver specifically to “teach Myers a lesson.” While several witnesses offered up their version of events on that fateful night, it was the one that the shooter’s sidekick Garver told during the trial that helped Vallandigham really finalize his defense strategy. According to court transcripts, Garver testified he “saw McGehean shoot Myers by holding a gun in his astrakhan overcoat pocket.” He even went as far as saying McGehean showed him the hole in his coat after shooting the concealed weapon through the fabric. Vallandigham staunchly believed Myers shot himself so he put Garver through his paces on the witness stand asking him if he would recognize McGeehan’s coat if he were to see it today. Vallandigham asked Garver, “Will you know that coat if you see it now?” 

“Yes.” 

“And if you see it and there is no hole in the coat, will you still swear there is?” There was no answer. Vallandigham said, “You will see the identical coat, and you will see that there is no hole in it.” 

Being known as a very smart and exacting attorney, Vallandigham decided to do a bit of early gunshot residue testing in hopes of countering Garver’s testimony and, in the end, assist him in leveling a solid defense for his client McGehean. Little did he know the events about to unfold would seal his own fate.  

On the evening of June 16, 1871 Vallandigham and two other members of the defense team headed to the outskirts of town to conduct their own version of ballistics testing. Vallandigham used a .32 Smith and Wesson revolver which was the same type as the murder weapon. He fired three shots at varying distances into pieces of fabric in an attempt to discern how much gunpowder residue was deposited. Knowing his client’s coat had no bullet hole, one would presume the intent of this test was to analyze the bullet hole in the dead man’s clothing. You see Vallandigham fully believed his client was innocent and thought Thomas Myers had accidently shot himself. After the testing concluded, the men headed back into town. It has been reported it was at this point co-counsel Millikin suggested that the remaining shots be unloaded from the gun and that Vallandigham responded with a “Never mind.” 

Once back at the Golden Lamb, Vallandingham and ex Lieutenant Governor McBurney, another member of the defense team, returned to Vallandigham’s room to finalize closing argument strategies. The pair were in Room No. 15, which is a front room, facing Broadway Street, on the second floor. Vallandigham placed the loaded revolver (which he used in the impromptu ballistics test) on the table alongside an unloaded weapon (which he intended to use in court to bolster his argument that Thomas Myers had indeed shot himself).  In what seemed to be some type of dramatic reenactment, Vallandigham stated to McBurney “I will demonstrate to you in a moment the absurdity of Follett’s (opposing counsel) argument that Tom Myers did not shoot himself.” It was at this point Vallandigham took one of the pistols lying on the table, and put it in his right pants pocket, demonstratively. “Now here is the way Tom Myers had his pistol in his pocket….” As he picked up what he thought was an empty revolver and placed it in his right pocket, he proceeded to draw the weapon out just far enough to keep the muzzle barely touching his body and snapped the hammer. The weapon that was supposed to be an empty gun used for demonstration purposes exploded and shot a bullet directly into Vallandigham’s abdomen. Mr. Vallandigham exclaimed, “Oh murder, I am shot!” and that he had “taken up the wrong pistol.”

At once a telegram was issued to Vallandigham’s doctor in Dayton to come immediately, it was 9 p.m. “Dr. Reeve—I shot myself by accident with a pistol in the bowels. I fear I am fatally injured. Come at once. —C.L.”

Vallandigham was reportedly calm and lucid while awaiting the arrival of his physician. Fortunately there were two other doctors in the house and they attended him until Reeve arrived. Drs. Scoville and Drake were unable to retrieve the projectile that remained lodged somewhere near his bladder. Witnesses and reports claim he was placed on a white sheet and laid on his right side. While all reports state he remained positive and in good spirits, it was after midnight when Dr. Reeve finally arrived from Dayton that he was told the gunshot wound “was of a most serious character.” Vallandigham’s only son Charles had traveled with Dr. Reeve to see his father on what was inevitably determined to be his deathbed. The teen was able to speak with his Dad one final time before opiates were administered to relieve any pain. It was then that Dr. Reeve shared with his patient the dire nature of his wound and began dispatching for his wife and other family members. 

Needless to say, there was much excitement and a flurry of activity throughout the overnight hours at the Golden Lamb. And as morning came Valladingham’s hands and feet had grown cold due to lack of blood flow. A Reverend Haight arrived, but Vallandigham told him that “he had too much faith in the Calvanistic doctrine to believe that he would not get safely through this misfortune.” You gotta hand it to Vallandigham. Total positivity until the end. 

By 3:30 a.m. many family members and friends had arrived at his bedside. From that point on Clement Vallandingham’s condition rapidly deteriorated and at 9:42 a.m. he passed away at the Golden Lamb surrounded by loved ones and law colleagues. He was just 50 years old. Dr. Drake said his patient was the coolest man under such circumstances he had ever seen. 

It was a shot heard round the world really, as the news of Vallandingham’s untimely and bizarre death became front page news.

The Spirit of Democracy wrote of the event: “The whole country has been startled and shocked by the tragic death of C. L. Vallandigham. The universal interest felt in his recent political movements had drawn toward him the attention of men in every part of the Union. No death since that of President Lincoln has produced such a profound sensation.”

So there you have it. In a profoundly meta moment, Vallandigham accidentally shot himself at 9 p.m. with a .32 Smith and Wesson trying to prove Thomas Myers accidently shot himself at 9 p.m. with a .32 Smith and Wesson. So tragic and so odd. The room where he accidently met his maker is now aptly named for him and while I’ve never witnessed any sort of activity there specifically, I have witnessed a few seemingly paranormal happenings at the Golden Lamb. Be sure to tune into Hometown Haunts, which drops tonight at midnight to hear a few of the strange happenings I’ve experienced at The Golden Lamb! I will drop the link to the show in the comments. 

As for the fate of Tom McGehean, the man Vallandigham was defending, he had a guilty verdict thrown out and was later acquitted of the murder of Thomas Myers. His good luck ran out on June 13th, 1875 when he was shot through the window of his saloon by an unknown assassin.

SOURCE CITATIONS

Casper, Teri and Smith, Dan. “Ghosts of Cincinnati: The Dark Side of The Queen City” 2009. The History Press Charleston,SC.

Dawson, Gladys “The Mystery of the Hole in the Coat” February 24, 1985 Dayton Daily News. Dayton, Ohio

Kappell, Jean. “Ghostly Pistol Shot Echoes in Room of Tragedy.” July 11, 1971. Dayton Daily News. Dayton, Ohio

“Lesson for Today’s Dissenters In Clement Vallandigham Story.” January 31, 1971. Dayton Daily News. Dayton, Ohio

“Vallandigham: Full Details of the Accident Resulting in his Death.” JUne 19, 1871Chicago Tribune.  Chicago, Illinois

 Monday, June 19, 1871

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