EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another article on Findlay-area history adapted from a series written from 1959 to 1974 by the late R.L. Heminger, publisher and editor of The Courier.
By R.L. HEMINGER
Findlay was often visited many times in the late 1880s and early 1900s by an unusual individual who went by the name of “The Immortal J.N.”
The story is an interesting one and the Hancock County history of Dr. Jacob A. Kimmell describes the strange traits of the “Immortal J.N.” Additionally, a scrap book of newspaper clippings belonging to Mrs. Miles Miller, of Marion Township, provides much information.
He was born at Chambersburg, Pa., June 19, 1828, the son of the Rev. and Mrs. John W. Free, a cousin of John Henry Newman, the English religious leader who became famous as the author of the well-known hymn “Lead, Kindly Light.”
There were eight children in the family of the Rev. Mr. Free. Seven of them taught school and some were lawyers. Jacob N. Free, who became “The Immortal J.N.,” received a college education in western Pennsylvania. He was precocious and mastered several languages when yet a child.
When he became 21, he decided to join the great gold rush to California and became a “Forty-Niner,” making the difficult journey to the Pacific Coast in search of gold. A group of Findlay men also made the trip, it is recalled.
“J.N.” found some gold, but it disappeared and he accused his partner of stealing it. He followed him to New York and sued him, but he could not prove his case. The loss disturbed him so much that, as Dr. Kimmell says, “he became a wanderer throughout the length and breadth of his native land for 56 years.”
The Free family had moved from Pennsylvania to Mansfield, Ohio, and subsequently to McCutchenville, a village of the Wyandot-Seneca County line, eight miles directly north of Upper Sandusky. “J.N.” made his home in McCutchenville for a number of years.
“Once or twice a year,” says the Kimmell history, “he would send word in advance that he would be in Findlay on a certain night and he would lecture at the courthouse. His subject, he said, would be: ‘Lift and Veil and Disseminate the Truth.’ If he appeared he would wait outside until the audience was seated and there were generally plenty of seats to spare. Then he would enter the room, walk up the aisle in a dignified manner, ascend the platform, reach in his pockets and pull out a couple of Colt revolvers, a couple pairs of handcuffs, and after slamming them down on the desk before him with some violence and some offhand remarks about them, would then commence his desultory and incoherent address.”
After the Civil War, a favorite theme was: “The North thought the South was wrong and the South thought the North was wrong. Both were wrong, both were right.”
He liked to ride the railroads and usually was able to convince the officials he ought to ride free of charge. Once a railroad gave him a pass, as a joke, allowing him to walk over its ties from place to place. Once when on a train he continually walked up and down the aisle and when he was asked for his ticket by the conductor, he replied that he had a pass to walk over the ties and he was actually “walking over the ties” as his pass said he could.
After Jefferson Davis, the Confederate leader, had been confined in prison at Fortress Monroe, N.J., “J.N.” paid him a visit and contrary to all strict orders that Davis was to have no visitors, he managed to gain entrance.
One of the favorite stories told of him is related in the Kimmel history as follows:
“The writer remembers of hearing him tell a story of his stopping at a hotel for three days at $2 a day. When “J.N.” remonstrated about paying at all, the landlord, not wishing to lose the whole bill, thought of a compromise by offering to throw off half and take $3 instead of $6. “Very charitable,” said “J.N.,” it would be ill-bred of me not to return the favor by throwing off the other half of bill. I never allow a man to excel me in favors.”
His death occurred June 26, 1905, and he is buried in the McCutchenville Cemetery. “Peace to the memory of the kind old philosopher,” said Dr. Kimmel in closing his historical account.