The beginning of 1872 found another instance of the 54th Regiment being calling upon for service. Rather than the Governor, the service of the regiment was requested by Monroe County Sheriff Campbell to thwart a riot and possible lynching at the jail.
On Saturday, December 30, 1871, a young girl named Cecelia Ochs had been to church at Ss. Peter and Paul on West Main Street, and following services there she attended festivities in the church school. Starting home to with her younger sister and a neighbor girl, she was accosted by a black man at the corner of Cady St. and Frances St. (now Jefferson Ave.). She went with him under the pretense of he needing directions to a friend's house. Reaching the Commons, the "scoundrel" threw her down and "Committed a most horrible outrage upon her."
The assailant, William Edward Howard, was finally found near the "Dugway" in Penfield and brought to the Police Station on Monday morning, New Year's Day, 1872. In order for Cecelia to identify Howard as her attacker, police took him to her home for the identification. Hearing of the arrest of Howard, a large crowd had gathered there. Loud cries by the crowd were head to lynch him, and he was struck a number of times in the face. With guns drawn, police quickly put Howard into a carriage and he was driven to the jail, where large crowds had already gathered there. The crowd, embittered toward the police for not allowing their access to Howard, cried "a lamp-post in the Eighth Ward should yet be decked with the corpse of the guilty wretch."
Sheriff Campbell realized that his force was not sufficient to prevent the mob from storming the jail and, as a result, he contacted General Charles H. Clark, at that time commanding the 25th Brigade, and asked that he call out the military.
At Gen. Clark's request, Lt.-Col. Westcott brought out two companies of the 54th: Co. G, under Capt. F. C. Lauer, and Co. D., under Capt. John Swartz. The two companies, comprising approximately one hundred men, relieved police forces at the jail at 5:30 p. m. on Tuesday, the 2nd. Co. G took the east end of the Court St. bridge, and Co. D was stationed at the Mill Race bridge, near Exchange St.
At about 9:00 p. m., as the crowd in the vicinity of the jail increased and the danger of an attempt on the jail seemed imminent, Companies E, A, and B were moved from the armory to the area of the jail. The addition of these three companies brought the total of troops there to about two hundred men. Still at the armory as a reserve were two batteries of the Union Grays.
Prior to the arrival of the 54th, there was a crowd of between two and three hundred on Court St. leading to the jail. They were ordered to dismiss but—although most obeyed the order and left the area—by 7:30 p. m. they had returned and their number had increased substantially, possibly reaching two thousand. Yells were heard from the obviously agitated crowd demanding Howard with cries of "Hang him," and occasional revolver shots rang out.
Although there were reports of shots being directed at the troops stationed at the race bridge, those were not confirmed, but there was no question that the troops were being pelted by stones thrown by the mob and one or more of the Co. D troops were hit. By nine o'clock large crowds were standing along Exchange St. from the Swing Bridge up to Court St. within a few feet of the soldiers. As the front ranks of the crowd moved in on the troops, the soldiers fired two shots into the air. Rather than calming the mob, the shots only seemed to increase its intensity, and the troops became uneasy so the order was given to disperse the crowd.
Co. G was ordered forward but the crowd held its ground so Co. D was ordered up and they fell in at the right of Co. G. Finally, faced with the two companies with bayonets, the crowd began to fall back. At that moment a shot rang out from among the troops, followed by two volleys and the crowd broke and ran. Whether or not an order to fire was actually given was never determined, but the result was two dead (John Elter and Henry Merlai) and at least six wounded (John Nolan, Louis Hamp, Elias Swanton, John Hillbert, Joseph Kohle, and an unidentified young boy).
Following the shooting most of the crowd fled but a few still remained in small groups on Exchange St., Buffalo St., and other of the central streets. One group on Exchange St., spotted Lieut. George Begy, Adjutant of the 54th Regiment, in uniform and gave chase but he was able to escape into the Clinton Hotel. Near midnight several additional shots were fired by the troops but these were warning shots, and the rest of the early morning hours of Jan. 3rd was quiet.
Mayor Charles W. Briggs issued a proclamation urging citizens to remain home and off the streets, and to assist the police in keeping the peace. His proclamation also ordered the city police to assist the Sheriff in his efforts to prevent lawlessness and violence. At the same time that Mayor Briggs was issuing his proclamation, orders were given by the 1st Battalion, Light Artillery, for members of both Batteries A and B to report immediately "in full uniform, with side arms." The two Batteries responded and their howitzers were placed on Court St.—one facing east and the other toward Exchange St.—thus commanding the bridge over the river and the one over the race. In addition to the artillery, Sheriff Campbell directed that the remaining six companies of the 54th be on duty that evening (Wednesday, Jan. 3), and if that was not sufficient he would order out the veteran companies and possibly request aid from the Governor. As a result of the precautions made by Sheriff Campbell, Wednesday night and the early morning hours of Thursday were calm.
William Howard, the target of the crowds' wrath, remained in jail until Thursday when he was brought before the court where he entered a plea of guilty for raping the young girl. He was sentenced to twenty years a hard labor, and immediately transported to the state prison in Auburn.
Based on news articles found in the Rochester Union & Advertiser of 1872.