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By Bob Kostoff

George Washington Batten was a second-generation Niagara County sheriff in the 19th century who rose to prominence in the statewide Democratic Party.

He was born in Lockport on Feb. 22, l856, son of Joseph and Anne Hawkins Batten. His father was Niagara County sheriff from 1875 to 1878. He was the first Democratic sheriff in the county since formation of the Republican Party.

The late Niagara Falls city historian Edward T. Williams, himself a tireless worker in the Democratic Party, called George Batten "a true blue loyal friend" who "never said an unkind word to me."

George Batten went through the Lockport public school system, then served as a mechanical apprentice for three years, then was appointed a deputy sheriff by his father.

Sheriff Joseph Batten had a couple of notable cases -- one in apprehending Youngstown murderer Patrick Donovan, who dispatched his wife and wounded his grown daughter with an axe, and another case stopping a near-riot in the Tonawanda railroad wars.

But the biggest thorn in his side was pistol-packing, petty career criminal Byron Day, a burglar and thief who was guilty of assault and twice escaping from Auburn Prison. Deputy George Batten aided his father by capturing Day after he first escaped from prison and was firing a pistol at pursuing Lockport police officers along the Erie Canal.

Batten arrived with a contingent of deputy sheriffs. While shots were being traded, he stealthily circled around behind Day and put a double-barreled shotgun against the back of his head. Needless to say, Day surrendered.

George Batten later served as undersheriff under Sheriff Thomas Stainthrope, then successfully ran for the post himself. As turnabout is fair play, George Batten named his father as undersheriff.

One interesting case that occurred under George Batten's watch as sheriff would have given modern pro-choicers and pro-lifers fits.

On May 26, 1885, Myrtie Campbell, of Pekin, only 23 years old, became violently ill, went into convulsions and died. She was engaged to farmboy William Kidder.

After she was buried, rumors spread about her condition. Witnesses claimed they smelled oil of cedar near her deathbed. Sheriff Batten arrested Kidder and had the body exhumed. An autopsy turned up a lethal dose of oil of cedar in her stomach. The oil was used in those days to induce abortion.

The Lockport Daily Union reported, "As to the further condition of the unfortunate girl the doctors refuse to make any public statement, but nevertheless there appears to be no doubt but what she was in a delicate condition and had been so for several weeks."

Kidder was tried but got off after a hung jury.

He and Williams were backers of William Jennings Bryan for president. Williams said he was only a few feet away from Bryan in the 1896 national convention when Bryan gave his famed Cross of Gold speech.

The silver-tongued orator said, "You cannot press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you cannot crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

He advocated basing the money system on silver rather than gold, which would aid poor farmers and laborers.

The then-Democratic state committeeman W. Caryl Ely resigned his position rather than support Bryan for president. Williams then maneuvered to have Batten assume the state committeeman post. He later was appointed deputy state treasurer and ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state in 1898.

When Democrats took control of the state again in 1910, Batten was returned to his deputy treasurer post. He was then made deputy state compensation commissioner, with headquarters in Buffalo. His political career climaxed when he was appointed postmaster of Lockport.

After he died on Sept. 14, 1922, he was eulogized by Williams, who wrote, "A great oak has fallen in the forest. In the zenith of his fame, his power and his usefulness, George W. Batten has come to his journey's end."

Batten held the state committeeman post for about 20 years, and Williams said of him, "During all that time and since, he has been the recognized leader of the Democratic Party in Niagara County."

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 12, 2011