“In a desolate house on a corner, lived three wealthy men all alone.
For years they had lived there together in the secluded spot they called home.
No mother or sisters had they. Their father had long been dead.
For years they had labored together, cheerfully winning their coppers and bread.
Faithfully they clung to each other, did Loren, Jarvis and John.
And no less than 1,000 acres composed the farm, which they lived on.
In a dark little room apart from the others, stood an iron bound safe firmly locked.
Here was the hoarded gold of the brothers, no stranger allowed on the spot.”
So begins the 1903 song, Jarvis Meach, by Miss Coral J. Irish that sets the stage for the notorious Meach robbery that occurred a year earlier. I recently got to meet with Jarvis Babcock and his sister, Catherine (Babcock) Leary about their family’s Century Farm. And, while every family from an Ohio Century Farm has some great stories to tell, I have never heard any that rival their tale of the Meach Robbery of 1902. Their great-great uncles’ story is a bizarre and ultimately satisfying story of the adventure, heroism and triumph of an underdog. The story was documented in newspapers around the country (including the New York Times) in its day and has since been the subject of songs, folk stories and a chapter in the book The corpse in the cellar and other tales of Cleveland woe by John Stark Bellamy.
The three elderly bachelor Meach brothers, Loren, John and Jarvis, were rumored to have a fortune in cash and gold buried around their Lorain County property and in a safe. They all had long white beards and had, on numerous occasions, been generous with loans to others in need in the community. They are even reported to have quietly loaned local banks as much as $25,000 to help them through tough times in the late 1800s.
Of course, the rumors of their great wealth attracted the attention of those with ill intent. Six criminals, a group comprised of professional safe crackers and some local thugs, got off at the nearest train station and set out for the Meach home in search of riches.
Wearing handkerchiefs to conceal their faces, they first encountered John Meach, 68 years old at the time, who was returning home from an errand. They beat, bound and gagged him and tied him to a tree. One man stayed behind to guard him. The other five continued to the house.
Jarvis, 65 years old, answered the door and the pet bulldog leapt at the intruders as they forced their way in. They shot and killed the dog later described by John Meach as, “the best dog man ever had. He was faithful, kind and loved us. He never got nothin’ but his feed an’ he was killed by ‘em damned scoundrels.”
The criminals hit Jarvis on the head with the butt of a pistol and then drug him to the kitchen and beat him severely. They tied and gagged the unconscious man and left two men to guard him in the kitchen. The remaining three men went to the rumored location of the safe and the bedroom of 74-year-old Loren, who was bedridden and senile. The eldest Meach brother put up no fight as they tied and gagged him with his torn bed sheets. He later noted that the intruders kicked his trousers under the bed without checking them to find the $3,500 in the pockets.
With all three brothers detained, the safe crackers went to work. The two men watching Jarvis were suspicious of their fellow criminals and became uneasy about what was happening upstairs. They went up to see what was happening and left Jarvis alone, still unconscious. This was their mistake.
Jarvis regained consciousness, pulled out his pocketknife and used it to cut the ropes holding his hands and around his chest. With his feet still bound, he found one of his favorite weapons, “Old Bunty,” a shotgun that had just been cleaned and loaded by his neighbor.
Hearing a noise from the kitchen, two of the intruders went to investigate. Jarvis greeted them with his feet still bound and Old Bunty in his hand. As the door swung open, Jarvis fired his first barrel into the chin of one man. As he fell, the second barrel’s blast took off much of the top of the second man’s head.
After this, the remaining three men were on the run upstairs. The Meach brothers apparently really enjoyed shooting guns and were reported to have one or more weapons in each of the 15 rooms in the house. Jarvis untied his feet and grabbed another shotgun, “Little Pet.” He ran outside to catch the other three robbers jumping to the ground from the second floor roof. Jarvis shot one man in the hand and leg as he fled to a nearby orchard. He put 57 pieces of shot into the thigh of the second man and the third escaped unharmed. Jarvis then rang a large bell outside to alert the neighbors of a problem and collapsed on the ground. So ended the Meach robbery attempt.
After the last of the Meach brothers died, $70,000 was retrieved from their safe and went to the children of their two deceased sisters. No trace of any other treasure on the property has ever been found.
Miss Coral J. Irish concludes her song about the robbery with:
“All glory to the man who aimed to kill, and whose aim so deadly true
All glory to the man who by his skill, defended his home and his brothers too.
Yes Uncle Sam calls you a hero, and his people pronounce you a peach,
All glory to you, you grand old man, to you Jarvis Meach, Jarvis Meach.
Then let every man purchase a shotgun. Keep it loaded both night and day.
For who knows what moment the robbers may chance to pass your way.
Keep it near you and know how to use it. If need be, give it full sway.
At the first signal of danger stand ready, then blaze away.”
For more on this most notorious Ohio Century Farm, see the Mid-September cover story in Ohio’s Country Journal.