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From Catholic Record Socitey Bulletin, Diocese of Columbus, Vol. VIII, No. 7, July 1982

(John Elder is 2nd G-Grandson of William Elder and Elizabeth Finch of Prince George Co., MD)

The Case of the United States vs. John Elder

In last month’s “Abstracts from the Catholic Telegraph” we included a paragraph announcing the innocence of John Elder of Somerset, Postmaster, of charges brought against him by the Postmaster of Zanesville. That account left many questions unanswered, such as the basic one, of what was Mr. Elder accused? The article below has been extracted from Somerset’s The Flag of ‘76, F. Hickman editor and proprietor, dated December 30, 1842 (courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society). This answers many questions about the case.

John Elder was a native of Pennsylvania, born between 1805 and 1810, and came to Somerset before 1820. He and Miss Maryann Snider, daughter of Nicholas and Mary Ann (Eckhart) Snider, an immigrant farming couple of near Somerset, were married at Holy Trinity Church in 1833. They had nine children, of whom the third was an infant at the time of the incident. While Postmaster, Mr. Elder also was agent for the Catholic Telegraph. John later supported this large family by making cabinetry in Somerset. He seems to have died inthe 1 860s.


On Wednesday the 23d inst. this cause came on for hearing before the United States district Court in Columbus, on an indictment found by the Grand Jury against the Deft. for delaying, and willfully detaining, viet armis, a certain mail pack, not designed for his office, while officiating as Postmaster, on the 15th Dec. 1841, at Somerset, Ohio. --The indictment was procured on the testimony of Israel Hoge, Postmaster at Zanesville, 0., who testified in substance, that-- for certain reasons he enclosed two ten dollar counterfeit bills, and one fifty cent shinpiaster, in a letter or pack, sealed and mailed the same from
Zanesville west, for the purpose of laying a trap or snare for the Postmasters, on the western line, and then come on inthe stage to Somerset, --that after the driver stopped to exchange mails at the Post office kept by Deft., the driver proceeded west of the town to the bridge, stopped the stage, and witness opened the mail, when he found that the pack (trap) was missing. He then returned to Somerset, and reported a mail robbery, - that he called on Josiah Lovell Esq. who accompanied him to the office of Deft. when prosecuting witness asked Deft. if a pack had been detained in distributing the mail, not belonging to his office, on that day, -- that Deft. said there had not. This was the evidence on which the prosecution was based.

IN DEFENCE, Josiah Lovell Esq. testified, that he was called upon by prosecuting witness, in reference to the alleged robbery and went with him to the office of Deft., - that the prosecutor asked deft. if there had been any mistake made in the mail that day -- that deft. frankly replied, that
THERE HAD, THAT A PACK THAT OUGHT TO HAVE WENT TO LANCASTER BY MISTAKE WAS RETAINED,--that he deft., had mistook the endorsement for “Somerset,”--that the mail had come an hour earlier than usual,--that he was at dinner and came out in a hurry to make up and distribute the mail, and that he was hurried by the driver &c. --that prosecuting witness, asked for the pack which deft. delivered him, directed in a new envelope, to “Lancaster,”--that it was laying in the proper place--he saw it opened, the seal was unbroken, and it contained two $10 bills said to be counterfeit, and a fifty cent shinpiaster,- that the prosecuting witness had told him that he had enclosed the same, and put in the mail to entrap or ensnare, the deft. and that he had hurried the mail along an hour earlier than usual for that purpose, so that if he, deft., should make a mistake, it should not be rectified, until after the mail was gone. --that he stopped the stage west of Somerset, on the bridge, opened the mail, and found the package missmg.--that he returned to the village, and reported that he had CAUGHT DEFT. ThT A MAIL ROBBERY. -- that at the interview at the Post Office, deft, referred the prosecuting witness, to persons who were in the office at the time of the transaction, and who could give him, the declarations of him the deft., when the mistake occurred, that the prosecuting witness afterwards admitted to witness, that he called on the persons whose names were given him by the deft. and after hearing their version of the affair. he said he believed it was AN HONEST TRANSACTION in the deft.,--further stated, he had known deft. some 7 years and that he sustained a good character, &c.

WILLIAM E. FINK, stated he came into the Post office, at the time the mail arrived, on the day the offence should have been committed,--that deft. was at dinner,--came out in a hurry, opened the mail, and distributed it, during the whole of which time the driver was hurrying him, that he saw the pack in question, and took the endorsement to “Somerset,” that after the mail was gone,---deft. took off the wrapper, and observed that he was mistaken, that, THAT PACK should have gone on to Lancaster, that he laid the pack away in the desk. in the presence of himself and others.

JOHN RITCHEY, (Senator,) had known deft. from a boy, had dealings with,--and believed him an honest man, and sustained a good character.

JACOB BRECHBILL. In answer to the question if he believed deft. to be an honest man? He did. Interrogated by the Court as to his answer,--that he believed deft. to be as honest as any man in the house or out of the house, had known him for 20 years.

SAMUEL MURDOCK,--was present, when prosecuting witness called at the deft’s office, as alluded to by Mr. Lovell, that prosecutor, asked deft, if there was a mistake in opening the mails, that day, deft. said there was. Interrogated by counsel if he knew Burroughs, a driver then in custody, on charge of robbing the mail,-- answered he did. Did he drive on the western route from Zanesville through Somerset, answered. he did for some two years previous, up to the time when the deft. was arrested. Did he know of Burroughs having certain keys in his possession, here counsel was interrupted -- that the testimony was improper &c. Deft. counsel remarked, that he only sought by this evidence to show that, others might have access to the mail as well as Postmasters, to offset some extraneous evidence that had been introduced, as to monies lost on that line, at this stage of the examination the Prosecuting Attorney entered a nolle prose qui, remarking that the evidence did not sustain the indictment, that it was useless to spend further time with it &c.

Thus ended a persecuting prosecution, which should never have disgraced a Court of Justice with its malevolent front. Our conclusions are drawn from the testimony as given which we have taken in substance from the Defendant who is responsible, if there is misstatement in the case. We think there is in this instance, as much rule- working, systematic maliciousness brought to bear, as could be exercised in the nature of the transaction. In giving the case to the public, we have been actuated from a sense of justice to the defendant, Mr. Elder, that the shadow of suspicion, might no longer linger over him, to tarnish his good name or blight a well earned reputation.

But while we applaud a faithful and fearless discharge of duty in an officer, we must condemn the means made use of to ensnare and ruin the defendant in this case, the solemnities of the oath of Office, do not impose dishonorable and minded finesse, in order to guard the trust confided to carry out its duty. The law regulating Postmasters, if we are rightly informed, requires them to keep an office, and in that office to perform certain duties, beyond its confines, he sustains the humble relation to the department, of aprivate citizen. This being the case, the enquiry naturally suggests itself; by what authority Mr. Hoge, could STOP THE MAIL ON THE PUBLIC HIGHWAY, unlock and examine its contents, after it had legitimately passed from his jurisdiction, through four Post Offices. Can he vainly hope, that this incredulous world will accord to him, for the part he bore in this transaction, merely that of an honorable and zealous disinterestedness for the public welfare? Can he be justified in setting a precedent that would inevitably involve in doubt and suspicion the character of those against whom suspicion had never dared to breathe her baleful slanders! Suspending on his ipse dixit, the personal liberty, and what is dearer by far, the reputation of his fellow citizens! Is it not a fearful stretch of privilege, to pursue such a plan even under the specious pretext of jealously [ for public interests, UNAUTHORIZED by PRECEDENT or LAW? One designing man, if this be sanctioned, might ruin the fairest fame, and break down the best fortified reputation! If a Postmaster be admitted to such unheard ofprivileges, then, it is only necessary for the infallible immaculate, to perpetrate robberies, by plundering and rifling the mails of their contents, and then follow them beyond the office of his victim, stop the mail, examine it in presence of his driver, declare the theft and on his testimony the guilt of the alleged offender would be fully confirmed.-- If Mr. Hoge did not outstep his privileges, by stopping the mail, and opening it on the highway, where no Post Office had been established, then why do other sections of the law require, the Post Office to be locked or otherwise secured, while mails are being opened and distributed and that they be only opened, and distributed in the presence of the Postmaster, and his deputy. But Mr. Hoge 18 or 20 miles from his office, is found under mysterious influences, exercising the functions of Postmaster, in another county that is to say, he is acting as a kind of locomotive Postmaster, doing what under some circumstances might entitle him to a less agreeable title. In what attitude, does Mr. Hoge, place himself before community, by stopping and opening the mail on the highway, outside of the privileges of his office! Alas! for the gallows of Hamon, it would not long have wanted its victim, if JOHN ELDER had been as well skilled in the finesse of low cunning as was the adroit loco-motive Postmaster. It will be recollected that Mr. Hoge testified when he called on the defendant, &c., told him there had been no mistake in distributing the mail that day. While Messrs Lovell, and Murdock, state that defendant told Hoge frankly, there had been a misstake [ and when defendant, refers Mr. Hoge to those present when it occurred, after seeing them & hearing their version of the affair, upon which he pronounced the defendant honest in the transaction, yet still, with sleepless vigilance, actuated by a zeal worthy of a better cause, he is found in the privy chamber of the Grand Jury, and thence confronting on the trial, the accused, until the Prosecuting Attorney himself; from a sense of Justice to Mr. Elder, in the midst of the examination, abandons the prosecution. If the resgesta of the case had involved a suspicion, then could the prosecuting witness plead an extenuation for the prosecution; but what does the evidence disclose? but innocence, made more innocent, by the inquisitorial fires of a malicious Pro secution. Secrecy, is the hand maid of guilt, yet this offence was committed in the presence of a number of witnesses, all of which were made cognizant of the affair at once, one of whom, testifies, he was misled in the direction of the pack, under the same impression with defendant, as to the place of its destination. In making the above comments we have no ill feelings to gratify towards Mr. Hoge -- holding ourselves ready at all times to render to him that justice we require for others. Our motto is “Let Justice be done if the Heaven’s should fall.”

[This last is, of course, the inscription over the doorway of the courthouse in Somerset and is to be read, “even if the heavens should fall.”]



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