200 years ago, a killing stopped the York Fair for 38 years


Almost exactly 200 years ago, Michael Hahn stabbed Robert Dunn to death, incidentally bringing about an end to the York Fair for 38 years.

The program from the 1978 York Fair, around the time when the fair sought and received a historical marker saying it was the oldest fair in the country, detailed the history of the event and mentioned the fairless gap between 1815 and 1853.

By the 50th anniversary of the then-semi-annual fair, there had been for some time been grumblings from the locals about how the area became a "roistering bedlam" during fairtime, according to the 1978 program. Drawing crowds from far and wide, the fair by 1815 had begun to attract some of what the program called, in quotes, "objectionable people."

Dunn's killing was the "final straw." The slaying didn't happen right at the fair — it took place at the home of someone named Mr. Wampler — but it happened on one of the fair days of that year, according to a much-yellowed original copy of the Nov. 1, 1815, edition of the York-area German-language newspaper Der Wahra Republicaner that was being kept in the library of the York County Heritage Trust.

Hahn stabbed Dunn to death with a pocketknife, and three men were later convicted of manslaughter, according to the newspaper. Dunn, who was "about 24," left behind a wife and three young children.

Various records from the Heritage Trust archives disagree about quite when it happened — one set of church-based records says Sept. 25, 1815, while other church records say he died Oct. 26, 1815, and the Republicaner says "Thursday," which in all likelihood agrees with the date of Oct. 26, the Thursday before the issue came out.

But what happened afterward isn't much in question: Seizing on the incident, the locals successfully petitioned the state Legislature to ban the fair. It did so a few months after the killing, and York would be without a fair for almost the next four decades.

History: York Fair president Gene Schenck said he's heard about the incident but doesn't really know many details.

"The story has been passed around," he said. He didn't know it had been a killing — he thought it had just been a big fight.

He said he doesn't know of anything else like that that's happened during the fair's history.

The York Fair began in 1765, according to the charter from the next year from Thomas Penn, the chief proprietor of what was then the British colony of Pennsylvania. The charter reads that the people of the "Town of York" shall have a semi-annual fair, "as this Town lies extremely convenient for this purpose" of selling cows, chickens and the like.

It restarted in 1853, the fair has only missed a few years — one in the 1850s, when a fair in Harrisburg around the same time made the organizers deem the York one unnecessary, a few during the American Civil War during the 1860s, and the final one in 1918 during the Spanish Flu epidemic.

Newspaper clippings from the time call the 1853 and 1854 fairs the first and second annual county agricultural fairs; the broader history of the fair was adopted later, and by the mid-20th century, programs were again talking about the history of the York Inter-State Fair.

The fair proclaims it's the oldest in the country. It holds the trademark for "America's First Fair."

— Reach Sean Cotter at scotter@yorkdispatch.com.