History Thursday: The vindication and downfall of Col. John P. Slough

State Rep. John P. Slough is pictured years after his Ohio legislative career in uniform during the Civil War.

Note: This is the second of a two-part history series about one of Ohio’s most controversial lawmakers. You can read Part 1 here.

Two weeks after Rep. John P. Slough planted a sockdolager between a colleague’s peepers, as one newspaper put it, lawmakers gathered at the brand-new Ohio Statehouse for an expulsion vote.

The Republican supermajority in the Ohio House of Representatives was a bit wary about the choice. Voting to banish the Cincinnati Democrat from the chamber would lead to a special election, and nothing prevented Slough from running again for his own seat.

In the end, though, members felt Slough’s punch on the House floor — and the non-apology that followed — demanded a full legislative rebuke. The vote on Jan. 29, 1857 was a near party-line result, with all but three Republicans voting to remove him and all but one Democrat voting against.

Slough remains the last lawmaker to be expelled from the Ohio General Assembly. 

The (Warren) Western Reserve Chronicle report on Slough’s expulsion vote: “So Mr. Slough has sloughed off, and the health of the body politic will be improved thereby.”

Cincinnati Democrats gathered for a lengthy meeting to figure out which special election candidate should get the party’s backing. Slough and a half-dozen others wanted the nomination. Some wanted to move on from Slough, but others viewed him as a martyr and thought his immediate return would right the injustice of his banishment.

Slough got the nod and faced off against Republican businessman Robert Hosea. The results came back almost dead even, with widespread confusion over which candidate had won.

Before long, Slough was recognized as the victor and he headed to Columbus to be sworn back into office.

Only then did election officials learn there were counting mistakes in several Cincinnati wards. In a controversial move, they ordered those wards to hold recounts.

The House Committee on Elections eventually issued a report showing evidence that Hosea earned a very narrow victory over Slough after all. In a bit of irony, this committee was led by Rep. Darius Cadwell — the Republican who Slough had punched.

The Democratic papers were infuriated about all of this. For his part, Slough took the reversal in stride and decided against contesting the results.

Slough wrote in a concession letter that he respected the will of the people. Any politician who sought “legal forms and technical construction” in order to earn an election victory, he wrote, “mistakes the character of this government, and is totally unfit for the place he would occupy.”

A few months later, Slough announced plans to close his downtown Cincinnati law and real estate office in order to move out west.

The Cincinnati Enquirer, a political ally to the end, lamented the departure of an “enterprising young man of good abilities and untarnished character.”

It does not appear Slough ever returned to Ohio during his lifetime.

Heading west, east, then west again

Slough opened a new law office in his new home of Leavenworth, Kansas and quickly got involved in politics. Kansas was then a U.S. territory, not a state, one that grappled with issues of slavery and civil rights to such a violent extent that the era became known as “Bleeding Kansas.”

The newcomer was named a delegate to the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention, in which members debated Kansas laws as it approached statehood. It was a rough-and-tumble convention at times. The gathering nearly broke out into mass commotion at one point, and a newspaper correspondent noted seeing Slough rolling up his sleeves in preparation for another bout.

He was the Democrats’ nominee for Kansas lieutenant governor in 1859, but was unsuccessful. He lost an election for mayor of Leavenworth a year later and decided to move even further west to Colorado. 

Then the Civil War began and Slough was named colonel of the Colorado First Regiment (nicknamed the “Pike’s Peakers”). Perhaps his life’s most noteworthy accomplishment came when he took the Pike’s Peakers to New Mexico, where Confederates tried making an ambitious push toward capturing America’s western territories. 

Slough’s leadership is thought to be instrumental in getting Confederates to abandon New Mexico and the region. The Cleveland Daily Leader complimented the former Ohio lawmaker for “exhibiting his belligerent propensity in a more useful field.”

John P. Slough, a colonel and later brigadier general, was a Union Army leader throughout the Civil War.

From there he moved to the east coast, serving as military governor of Alexandria, Virginia through the end of the war. He briefly returned to practicing law — this time in the nation’s capital — until being appointed chief justice of the New Mexico territory court.

Slough joined a group of other appointees traveling west to their new posts. Ten soldiers on horseback aided the train of wagons moving south from Denver toward Santa Fe.

The party soon reached an area near Colorado Springs known as “The Garden of the Gods,” navigating a narrow passageway between magnificent shafts of sandstone. The reddish stone contrasted with vibrant evergreen trees, a view that one traveler called “more strange and picturesque than any which the imagination can conceive.”

John P. Slough, then still only 37 years old, had already navigated an eventful life. A decade earlier, he was an expelled lawmaker. A martyr. He’d since worked as a lawyer, a constitutional convention delegate, a Union colonel and now was about to lead a court system for a territory still decades away from statehood. 

Would this be an opportunity at a fresh start, a chance at carrying out a life of dignified service? 

Slough’s time in New Mexico could less be analogized to The Garden of the Gods and more-so to the next ecological wonder the group passed: Fontaine qui Bouille, so named for the nearby boiling springs. Slough was a man who lived with a temper that always seemed to be near the boiling point.

An unravelling

Judge Slough’s reformist tendencies made him a target for criticism in Santa Fe. It was his conduct away from the bench, however, that led to his downfall.

The chief justice position was tasked with swearing-in members of the territory’s legislature, one Slough very much looked forward to. When lawmakers requested someone else for that honor, Slough directed his anger at the state official he thought was responsible.

Slough reportedly assaulted the official, leading to him getting brought before the justice of the peace. The chief justice found the hearing beneath him and walked out.

A lawmaker named William Logan Rynerson introduced a joint resolution declaring Slough unfit to hold the position of chief justice. The resolution called for Slough’s removal.

When the Senate promptly passed the resolution, Slough issued public statements accusing Rynerson of being a liar, a coward and a thief.

Rynerson, a former Civil War sergeant, did not take kindly to those remarks. Soon after, the two came across each other at a hotel bar and Rynerson demanded Slough retract his statements.

Slough refused. Witnesses later testified they saw Rynerson pull out a revolver and again told him to take it back.

The assassination of New Mexico Chief Justice John P. Slough made news across the country.

Slough refused again and reached toward his pocket, which held a concealed Derringer pistol. Rynerson shot the judge in the hip.

Slough died the next morning.

Supporters of Rynerson said the statements by Slough left no alternative but to vindicate himself in the way he sought most fitting. Rynerson was later acquitted of murder.

The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote of the assassination: “Judge Slough was a man of generous impulses and a noble spirit, which, added to a fine social disposition and a commanding personal presence, had secured to him many friends and admirers in this town and every other community where he was known.”

The Ohio History Connection is hosting a presentation on Thursday, May 6, 2021 entitled “No Man Calls Me A Fool: The 1857 Ohio House and the Slough-Cadwell Alteration.” The online program will detail “the political tensions that eventually tore the country apart in 1860.” Tickets and more information are available here.

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