Betty Bennighof Justice of the peace

Betty Bennighof became the youngest Justice of the Peace in Ohio in 1946.

ASHLAND -- If there was ever a woman from Ashland who was on the fast track to success in the 1940’s and 1950’s it was Betty Geraldine Bennighof.

Betty was born in Ashland on July 23, 1924 and graduated from Ashland High School in 1942. She grew up at 126 Lincoln Ave. After high school, she graduated from Wooster Business College and for about 2½ years, she held a civil service position at Wright Field in Dayton.

But being a secretary for a business executive like many women did in those days was not part of Betty’s master plan.

Although she once received awards for perfect shorthand and speed typing, Betty was more interested in the law. She once shared an office with Attorney J.L. Mason at 23½ West Main Street and performed duties as a public stenographer. Betty also worked at probate court and Judge Boffenmyer often teased her about how much time she spent studying matters of the law.

Betty in 1942

Betty Bennighof worked in Ashland’s probate court after graduating from Ashland High School in 1942.

All of Betty’s studying paid off because in 1946 she became the youngest and one of the first females to serve as a Justice of the Peace in Ohio. She was only 22 years old.

Ashland’s attorneys felt she was a good fit for the vacant position available in Montgomery Township. They were so confident in her abilities that they even paid her bond for the first year. She achieved this without a law degree but she possessed vast knowledge from continuous self-study and no law degree was required for the position at that time.

The duties of a Justice of the Peace in Ohio were to perform minor legal duties. Betty’s duties included handling traffic citations that occurred outside of the city limits but in Montgomery Township, performing marriage ceremonies, hearing evictions and small claims lawsuits, and serving as a notary public. She even processed preliminary actions in felony cases before they went to the grand jury.

Betty was then elected into a four-year term in 1947 and won again in 1951 by write-in vote, but she still wasn’t satisfied. She maintained full-time jobs as she worked as a justice of the peace but also attended law school in the evenings. Betty enjoyed music, dancing and roller skating in her spare time. On April 1, 1951, she appeared in an episode of “What’s My Line” where panelists tried to guess someone’s occupation. Betty was also a member of the First Christian Church and the Daughters of America. She once stated she only slept about four hours a night.

Law degree

Betty Bennighof graduated from Cleveland-Marshall Law School in 1957 but died before taking the bar examination.

During her tenure as justice of the peace, Betty was faced with the challenges of being a women in a traditionally male role. She often received correspondence addressed to “Dear Sir.” Once in an interview, she told the story of a new police officer in Mansfield who came to see the justice of the peace to discuss a case. He just sat in the office saying nothing and finally asked when he could see the justice of the peace. She advised him he was there to see her and he responded, “Oh, I thought he’d be an old man!”

In 1950, Betty stated she had only performed three shotgun weddings and handled one divorce. By Aug. 24, 1952, Betty had performed her 1,000th wedding ceremony. She stopped counting after that. The fee was $3 but a couple was permitted to give her more if they wished. She performed 90% the weddings on the sunporch of her parents’ home on Lincoln Avenue and used a phonograph to play appropriate music.

As a young adult, Betty also had a passion for politics and hoped for a woman to one day to be elected as Governor of Ohio or President of the United States. The courts were transitioning away from justice of the peace positions for townships and changing to a municipal court system. Betty was very involved in Ohio Justice, Inc. and the Ohio Magistrates Association.

On June 14, 1957, Betty graduated from Cleveland-Marshall Law School with a Bachelor of Laws degree. She planned to take the bar examination in the fall and become an attorney for starters. Intelligent and driven, she had the world at her feet.

On Aug. 3, 1957, Betty was tragically killed in a car accident at the intersection of US42 and SR89 while returning home from Wooster. She was only 33 years old and had served Ashland as the justice of the peace for 11 years. She was survived by her parents, Ralph and Florence Geier Bennighof and her sister, Portia who was a passenger in the vehicle.

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