This week’s notable Hoosier obit focuses on one of Indiana political history’s most important, and slightly controversial, public figures. Schuyler Colfax, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and vice president under Ulysses S. Grant’s first term, was a major player within the Republican Party during the late nineteenth century. However, his political career ended in controversy when news broke that he was a minor player in the Credit Mobilier scandal that also threatened Grant’s tenure in the White House. News of Colfax’s death on January 13, 1885 was somewhat inconspicuous.
Schuyler Colfax was born on March 23, 1823 in New York City. He and his family moved westward in 1836, settling in St. Joseph County, Indiana. As the Indianapolis Sentinel reported in his obituary, the “earlier years of his life were spent as a clerk in a county store, but when eighteen years of age he was appointed Deputy County Auditor, at South Bend, by his stepfather, who was Auditor.” This was the start of his life-long involvement in politics.
In 1850-51, Colfax served as one of the delegates to the Indiana Constitutional Convention, where he staunchly “opposed by voice and vote the clause prohibiting free colored persons from coming into the State.” Defeated as a Whig party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1851, he eventually won election to the House as a member of the newly-formed Republican party in 1854. He served in this body for the next 14 years. After the election of 1860, President-elect Abraham Lincoln gave Colfax some consideration for a cabinet post, before he settled on Indianan Caleb B. Smith. In 1863, during the height of the Civil War, House members elected Colfax as Speaker of the House. During his time leading the House, he helped secure congressional passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ending slavery, on January 31, 1865. The states ratified the amendment on December 18, 1865.
In 1868, while still serving as Speaker, the Republican Party nominated him to be General Ulysses S. Grant’s running mate. They won the election on November 3, 1868. Colfax would serve only one term in Grant’s administration. In 1872, Colfax announced that he was retiring from politics. The Republican Party nominated Henry Wilson to replace Colfax on the 1872 reelection ticket. However, there was a practical reason for Colfax’s retirement and the party replacing him as vice president nominee.
During 1868, Colfax became involved in a railroad shell corporation called Credit Mobilier of America, investing his own money into the scheme and receiving a $1,200 dividend check from Oakes Ames, a Congressman who roped some of his colleagues into it. After the New York Sunbroke the story, Colfax was later implicated in the scheme and nearly impeached. The impeachment proceedings stalled because Wilson replaced Colfax on the ticket. (Consequently, Wilson also became implicated in the scandal, but died of a stroke in 1875.) After nearly 20 years of success in public life, Colfax left Washington in 1873 a defeated, slightly tarnished man.
He spent the remaining years of his life rebuilding his reputation as a public speaker, traveling around the country sharing his memories of President Lincoln during the Civil War. On January 13, 1885, Colfax arrived in an extremely cold Mankato, Minnesota on another lecture tour. As the Greencastle Times reported, Colfax “walked from the Milwaukee [Railroad] depot, the distance of half a mile, and it is presumed the exertion superinduced an attack of heart of disease. He fell forward from the seat in the waiting room and died without uttering a word.”
The Indiana press’s reaction to Colfax’s death balanced its respect for the fallen leader but also acknowledged his Credit Mobilier foibles. The Greencastle Timesdescribed the scandal as the “wrongs and embitterments that wore put upon him through the hatred and malice of his enemies,” but that his reputation was left “unscathed in the estimation of his home constituency and all those who knew him best.” The Indianapolis News wrote that, “Of his connection with the “Credit Mobilier” nothing need be said now, for the country knows it all. It is alluded to here because, in nearly thirty years of public life in his state or in congress, this is the only imputation on his integrity.”
On the other end of responses, the Terre Haute Expressdid not even mention the affair. Finally, on the day of his death, the Indianapolis News published a column that fully defended Colfax against accusations of impropriety. “The case against him, wrote the News, “as having received $1,200 in an ‘S. C. [presumably for Schuyler Colfax] or bearer’ check from Oakes Ames was a strong one circumstantially but lacked direct conclusive proof, and against it Mr. Colfax put a private life without stain and a long and honorable public career to that time unsullied.” The Odd Fellows, of which Colfax was a member, attended to Colfax’s remains, and escorted the body back to Indiana via train within a few days. He was buried on January 17, 1885 at City Cemetery, South Bend.
Despite Colfax’s involvement in one of the nineteenth century’s most explosive political scandals, his career in the House of Representatives, especially his help in passing the thirteenth amendment, deserves some level of recognition. Like many leaders of the Gilded Age, Colfax involved himself in an unsavory business arrangement that ruined his chances for higher political office. Nevertheless, he tried to rehabilitate his reputation and enjoyed a few years of success on the lecture circuit. While most Americans may not think of Schuyler Colfax when discussing the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, he was one of Indiana’s statesmen that left an indelible, and slightly infamous, mark on political life during the times.
When the “Grand Arsonist of the Republic,” General William Tecumseh Sherman, addressed a room full of cadets at Michigan Military Academy in 1879, he coined a famous anti-war quote. There are different versions of Sherman’s speech, where he chides young soldiers eager to find “glory” in carnage. One goes like this:
I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here. Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars [the Mexican and the Civil] and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!
Like Hoosier writers Ambrose Bierce, who survived Shiloh, and Kurt Vonnegut, who witnessed the Dresden firebombing as a POW and helped pile civilian corpses onto crematory pyres in its aftermath, Sherman despised romantic images of war — written, he knew, by fools. With his Catholic religious faith destroyed by what he’d seen in the Civil War, the general would have relished such anti-war movie classics as Cold Mountain, Apocalypse Now, The English Patient and even (yes!) Jaws. (Spielberg’s first major hit came out in June 1975, just two months after the Fall of Saigon brought the Vietnam War to a close, and carried a subtle anti-war message.)
History repeats itself in strange ways. Take the famous, eerie monologue of Quint, the professional shark-hunter played by Robert Shaw in Jaws and partly modeled on the obsessed Captain Ahab. Quint’s chilling monologue, sometimes called “The Indianapolis Speech,” tells of how he sailed aboard the doomed USS Indianapolis in the last days of World War II. On July 30, 1945, just after the vessel delivered the components of Little Boy — the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima — a Japanese torpedo sent the Indianapolis to the blue depths. Out of 880 sailors who went into the water, over 500 died of hypothermia, starvation, dehydration and the scariest death of all: shark attacks. World War II came to an end just two weeks later.
Horrible as the loss of the Indianapolis was, it wasn’t the worst tragedy in American maritime history. That event happened after a war was over, at 2:00 a.m. on April 27, 1865, when the wooden steamboat Sultana — loaded with exhausted, traumatized ex-POWs, many of them headed home to Indiana — exploded on the Mississippi River seven miles north of Memphis. Most investigators and historians blame overheated boilers for the blast, but one intriguing theory has it that the real culprit was a Confederate terrorist. Other strange parallels evoke the loss of both the ill-fated Titanic and the Indianapolis.
The Sultana, built at John Litherbury’s boatyard in Cincinnati and launched on January 3, 1863, plied the Ohio and Mississippi during the worst days of the Civil War. At a time when steamboats carried cargo and passengers faster and more comfortably than slow-moving trains, the Daily Evansville Journal kept track of riverboat passages. Though midwestern river towns feel abandoned today, in the 1860s they were teeming with life and activity.
The Sultana mostly transported passengers and agricultural wares. Yet travel on the Mississippi River past Memphis had been cut off by the Civil War. Only when U.S. Navy gunboats helped capture that city in June 1862 did river travel start up again, finally brought back to life by the fall of Vicksburg on the Fourth of July, 1863, after an epic siege. That August, the Sultanacarried furloughed soldiers north from Vicksburg. But the wartime dangers of river travel weren’t over yet. Nocturnal Confederate guerrillas shot at the steamboat near Waterproof, Louisiana, in December 1863. Another boat traveling alongside it was hit with artillery shells and musket fire, provoking a Federal gunboat to fire indiscriminately into the dark woods.
On April 15, 1865, just days after the Civil War ended, the Sultana was docked in Cairo, Illinois. Telegraph wires that morning were shooting out news from Washington, D.C. — Abraham Lincoln had died from a gunman’s wound at 7:22 a.m. The Sultana’s captain, J. Cass Mason of St. Louis, knew that since wires had been cut all over the South, Southerners wouldn’t get the news of the assassination quickly, so he grabbed an armload of newspapers and headed for Vicksburg, arriving downstream a few days later.
Vicksburg’s corrupt Union quartermaster, Lt. Col. Reuben Hatch, wanted to make Captain Mason a deal. With the war over, the Federal government was offering steamboat captains $5 for each enlisted man and $10 per officer they agreed to take back north. With the South in ruins, even former Confederate soldiers from Kentucky and Tennessee found it easier to get home by going up the Mississippi to the Cumberland River, which flows into the Ohio across from southern Illinois. Hatch and Mason agreed on a deal, whereby over 2,000 soldiers — mostly former Union POWs staying at a Vicksburg parole camp — would be carried back to their homes in the Midwest. About two-thirds of them were from Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois, though others had served in Union regiments from Kentucky. Captain Mason would have netted about $10,000, a small fortune. Mason agreed to give Quartermaster Hatch a kickback.
The freed POWs waiting to go home had already experienced some of the worst conditions war can offer. Most had been incarcerated at the notoriously cruel and unsanitary Confederate camps at Andersonville, Georgia, and Cahaba, Alabama, where Union POWs regularly suffered and died from diarrhea, exposure, scurvy, frostbite, dysentery, hookworm, and had to contend with abuse by prison guards and even dog attacks. By the time they made it west to Vicksburg and onto the Sultana, many ex-POWs were still recovering from hunger, disease, PTSD, and physical exhaustion — and surely excruciating homesickness, as well. Yet the worst was still to come.
The Sultana had paddled down to New Orleans before returning to Vicksburg on April 24. When it backed out of port, it carried about 2,100 ex-soldiers and civilians, alongside a few women and children traveling on the river. Some of the women were serving with the United States Christian Commission, a medical relief organization that also provided religious literature to Union troops and helped army chaplains.
Passengers were crammed into virtually every open space on the boat, whose legal carrying capacity was just 376. Decks sagging under the weight even of emaciated men had to be supported with emergency beams. Yet if Captain Mason could get his boat upriver safely, he was bound to strike it rich.
As the over-burdened boat chugged desperately north, it had to fight a huge spring flood on the Mississippi, which had burst the levees and spilled out for as much as five or six miles in some spots. The river, always treacherous to steamboats, had reached the canopy of trees along the banks and ran icy cold with snowmelt. The weight of the passengers caused the Sultana to roll from side to side, which probably caused hot spots in its boilers, as the water that produced steam to power the paddles and keep the boilers from exploding under heat and pressure sloshed back and forth and spilled out. Sudden pressure surges were probably the culprit of the explosion that came at 2:00 a.m. on April 27.
The steamboat had just passed Memphis that night, where it unloaded a cargo of sugar. Seven miles farther upriver, still fighting the massive current, the enormous blast occurred, followed by a fire that hit the coal and wood furnace boxes and rapidly turned the wooden Sultana into a blazing inferno. Some thought lightning had struck the boat.
Passengers who weren’t thrown into the river were faced with a horrible choice: burn to death, or fight for their lives in the frigid, raging Mississippi.
Weakened by incarceration, trauma and disease, many soldiers stood no chance. They drowned or burned, or gave out to hypothermia while clinging to debris and fighting a brief struggle in the water. The Tennessee and Arkansas riverbanks were hard to find, shrouded in darkness and high floodwaters. Survivors told of the stench of burning flesh coming off the boat. Decomposing corpses would be found along more than a hundred miles of the river for months — including Captain Mason’s, who never made his fortune. Bodies had to be picked out of trees as far south as Vicksburg. Many victims were never found.
When survivors and the dead began to float past Memphis, citizens and riverboat crews hurriedly paddled out in skiffs and recovered as many as they could. (It is fascinating to reflect that labor activist Mother Jones, who lived in Memphis during the war, was probably a witness.) The city hospitals filled up with men and the few women and children who were on board, victims of severe burns from steam and fire, exposure and hypothermia. A large number of Hoosiers were among the wounded and dead.
Around 1,800 people died, a bigger toll than the Titanic. Yet newspaper accounts of the horrors on the river gave surprisingly few details. Like another devastating blast — the Allegheny Arsenal explosion in Pittsburgh, which blew up 78 ammunition workers, mostly young women, on the day of the Battle of Antietam in 1862 –and like the USS Indianapolis sinking in 1945, which was overshadowed by the atomic bomb, the news got drowned out by bigger events: the end of the Civil War, coverage of Lincoln’s funeral train, and the death of John Wilkes Booth, who was shot to death in a burning barn in Virginia the night before the Sultana exploded.
The St. Louis Republican — a river-town paper, like the Evansville Daily Journal — provided some of the scanty coverage that made it into the press. The stories are hair-raising and gloomy.
William D. Snow, U.S. Senator-elect from Arkansas, had been awakened by the boiler explosion. Opening his door, he was confronted by “a large volume of steam” careening through the cabin and many scalded passengers. Snow said that as he prepared to jump ship and swim almost a mile to the Arkansas shore, the river presented itself as “a sea of heads, so close together that it was impossible to leap without killing one or more.” Amazingly, in those days before government safety regulations, Snow saw “several husbands fasten life-preservers to their wives and children, and throw them overboard into the struggling mass below.” The Senator washed up, alive, among “overflowed cottonwood lands” at about 4:00 in the morning. He was rescued by a passing steamer.
One of the Hoosier survivors, Uriah J. Maverty, came from Lebanon, Indiana, west of Indianapolis. Maverty, who survived incarceration at Andersonville and Cahaba, was an invalid in a wheelchair when he wrote a graphic account of the disaster before his death in 1910. He remembered that “several times was I pulled under water by others drowning,” but a love of his mother in Indiana helped him hang on. “If you ever longed to see your mother, even in the prison-pen or on the battlefield, you know the feelings which came over me were too deep to be described.”
Maverty watched an Irish soldier, whose face had been crushed by “flying missiles,” cry out in loud prayer, but he died just after they were dragged to shore. Grown men were seen weeping profusely as they floated among dead comrades and severed body parts. Veterans of Gettysburg and Chickamauga thought the sight was worse than things they had seen on the battlefield.
Though no one was ever prosecuted for the disaster and investigations pinned the explosion on carelessness, one theory sprouted up right away: a coal torpedo or bomb planted by a disgruntled Confederate had destroyed the boat. The website Civil War St. Louis even presents a lengthy, detailed (though skeptical) case for-and-against the sabotage of the Sultana.
Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay, a native of Belfast, Ireland — where the Titanic was built and launched in 1912 — had immigrated to St. Louis in 1844, aged 22, and also lived around Vicksburg. Ironically, Courtenay sold fire and marine insurance in St. Louis and even served as sheriff of St. Louis County in 1860. The Irish immigrant’s loyalties were to the Confederacy, and early in the war he joined up with the Confederate Secret Service as a clandestine agent.
In 1863, Courtenay invented the coal torpedo, a hollow iron casting loaded with explosives and disguised inside a clump of hardened coal dust. Hidden in Union coal piles by Confederate saboteurs, coal torpedoes were meant to be shoveled unsuspectingly into the boilers of vessels, where they would heat up, cause the boiler to burst and lead to a larger, catastrophic secondary explosion. Confederate President Jefferson Davis approved a plan to target Union gunboats with Courtenay’s secret bombs. Several U.S. Navy vessels were actually blown up by coal torpedoes, including one in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1864.
After the war, Courtenay traveled overseas and tried to sell his deadly invention to foreign governments, with no success. To protest the British occupation of Ireland, the Fenian Brotherhood, radical Irish nationalists based in the U.S. and Australia, reportedly considered putting coal torpedoes into furnaces in New York City hotels and aboard English transatlantic steamships. Fenian coal bombs were blamed for the explosion of a British Navy vessel in Patagonia in 1880, which inspired a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, inventor of Sherlock Holmes.
As bodies started to float in, a mate aboard the Sultana told a writer for the Memphis Argus that he suspected a bomb. And during a yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans in 1867, Robert Louden, a Confederate agent and “terrorist” who sank several Union vessels on the waterfront in St. Louis, claimed on his deathbed to have planted a bomb on the Sultana — probably while its crew were unloading sugar at Memphis. Louden may have been bluffing, and the evidence is not totally convincing, especially since some of the passengers aboard the steamboat were ex-Confederates headed home to Kentucky and Tennessee.
The ruins of the Sultana floated downstream a few miles, burned to the waterline, and sank in a mud bank. In 1982, archaeologists discovered what may be the steamboat’s remains — but they aren’t in the river. The ever-meandering Mississippi has moved two miles east since 1865, placing the site of the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history square in the middle of an Arkansas soybean field.
Survivors’ reunions were held well into the 20th century. The last two survivors — one from the North, one from the South — were still alive in the 1930s. Though the memory of many was consigned forever to the restless river, the lights finally went out on January 9, 1936, with the death of 94-year-old Albert Norris. A private in the 76th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Norris, aged 23, had been lying directly above the boilers and fell down onto the hot furnace as men came raining down around him from the hurricane deck. Though he was one of the closest to the blast, he lived the longest to tell the tale.
The “religion vs. science” debate has been a hot media sensation since 9/11. Syria’s refugee crisis is causing further argument over why some believers haven’t helped people obviously in need, though many have. But venomous debates over religion and refugees aren’t new to American history.
Black History Month reminds us that religious voices have played a profound role in American struggles for justice — with many of the most religious Americans being treated as criminals for their pains on behalf of others. Some historians have even remarked that the Civil Rights movement was “primarily a religious and spiritual movement.” The work of Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, William Wilberforce, David Livingstone, and many others drew powerfully on their interpretation of faith. In fact, you could even argue that the African and African American encounter with Christianity — and vice-versa — eventually unlocked religion for many Europeans and Americans who were only nominally Christian to begin with.
Whatever the truth there may be, radical Christianity rang out loud and clear during one of America’s (and Canada’s) first refugee crises — the exodus of fugitive slaves seeking asylum under “the North Star.” That exodus took thousands of refugees across the rural Midwest.
Abolitionist history is certainly full of iconic Christian imagery. When a slave from Virginia, Henry Brown, experienced a “heavenly vision” and decided to mail himself out of bondage in 1843, he had himself concealed inside a 3-foot by 2-foot dry goods box or “pine coffin.” Lined with wool and containing only a few biscuits and some water, the box and its occupant were carried north, delivered after a week on the road to the office of Passmore Williamson, a Quaker merchant active with the radical Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. Like a well-known Byzantine icon of Jesus, “the Man of Sorrows” — which shows Jesus rising from the dead and an equally tiny box — Henry “Box” Brown climbed out in front of a group of Philadelphia abolitionists and asked “How do you do, gentlemen?” A fabulous engraving of the event was given the name “The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown.”
(Passmore Williamson, a Pennsylvania Quaker, at Moyamensing Prison in 1855, where he was jailed for helping Jane Johnson and her two sons escape from slavery. Williamson was also an early advocate of voting rights for women.)
Several major “routes” of the Underground Railroad passed through Indiana, leading to farmhouses and barns in the Wabash Valley, the fields around Quaker-dominated Richmond and Fountain City, and the swamps and prairies north of Indianapolis. Yet Hoosiers — like other Americans — were deeply torn over whether to obey the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, a controversial law that made it illegal for any citizen to assist a runaway slave and exacted harsh penalties for helping refugees. The federal law was absolutely designed to protect humans defined as “property” and even as “livestock.”
Many Christians, of course, were slaveholders themselves, though their views often depended on whether they lived in the North or South. Northern and Southern Baptists, for example, had sharp differences of opinion on slavery. Though Methodism’s founder John Wesley wrote against human bondage in 1778, Southern Methodists often owned slaves. Ministers who didn’t take their congregation’s — or government’s — line on slavery were sometimes kicked out of the pulpit or physically attacked. At least a dozen chapels built by anti-slavery Baptists and Methodists in Jamaica were burned down by white settlers.
The religious situation was never simple. The Jesuits, whose famous South American missions were admired by Enlightenment philosophers as an experiment in earthly utopia, had long owned slaves. Just two years before Pope Gregory XVI spoke out against the slave trade in 1839, Jesuit priests in Maryland were putting slaves to work on plantations to support Georgetown University, a Catholic school built by slave labor and where students brought their slaves to class. (In 1838, the Jesuits sold thirty of them to the ex-governor of Louisiana, whose son was a student of theirs.) One Maryland priest used the Bible to defend slave ownership. Yet the Jesuits were no more guilty than the religious freethinker Thomas Jefferson, who along with forty other signers of the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves while announcing “All men are created equal.” Jefferson used a blade to create a famous Bible of his own, cutting out the miracles and superstition to focus on Jesus’ ethics and morals. Jefferson, however, went to his grave a slave-owner, having thought about it for fifty years.
(The cutting-room floor of Jefferson’s Bible. Though he included Luke 12:48 — “To whomever much is given, of him much shall be required” — the master of Monticello must have been uncomfortable with the next passage, “I am come to cast fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! …Do you suppose that I am come to send peace on earth? Nay, but a sword.” Jefferson sliced it out. As the English critic of slavery, Dr. Samuel Johnson, put it, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negros?” Contemporary science was no help to Africans. Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, the most famous American scientist of his time, commissioned the best-known daguerreotypes of African slaves to provide evidence for the old theory of “polygeny,” or “separate creation” of the human races. Originally a heretical religious theory, the scientific version was given credence by the atheists Voltaire and David Hume. Voltaire believed that whites and blacks were different species.)
Not all American Christians appreciated the politicizing of the pulpit. Under the pen name “Q.K. Philander Doesticks, P.B.,” humorist Mortimer Thomson satirized their reaction to “politico religious hash” — i.e., hyper-political sermons. “Doesticks,” who grew up in the Midwest, wrote for Horace Greeley’s anti-slavery New York Tribune and even did a famous undercover report on a huge slave sale in Savannah, Georgia, where he posed as a potential buyer to get the full scoop. Thomson received death threats for his exposé of slave auctioneering. As a satirist, he was much admired by Mark Twain.
Indiana was no stranger to this religious battle. In 1855, the year Passmore Williamson went to prison in Pennsylvania, the Reverend Thomas B. McCormick got into hot water with congregations and the law in Princeton and Mechanicsville, Indiana, two small towns between Evansville and Vincennes. Gibson’s flock were Cumberland Presbyterians, a branch mostly centered in Kentucky and Tennessee.
Princeton lay on a main line of the Underground Railroad running up the Wabash Valley. Unlike most “agents” and “stationmasters” on the Railroad, Rev. McCormick made no secret of his hatred for the Fugitive Slave Act. He actively aided runaways from Kentucky and preached on the topic of slavery and its sinfulness. A native Kentuckian himself, McCormick had been a minister in southern Indiana for fourteen years when he ran afoul of the law.
At a session of the Indiana Presbytery of the Cumberland Presbyterians, who met at Washington in Daviess County in 1855, church elders passed a resolution (17-3) stating “That it is not expedient to discuss the subject of American Slavery from the pulpit.” McCormick had just preached an anti-slavery sermon. He ignored the elders.
When the Cumberland Presbyterians tried to silence Thomas McCormick from preaching, the reverend left and joined the Congregationalists — a denominational cousin of the Presbyterians but who were more united in their condemnation of slavery. McCormick’s activity piloting fugitives north toward Michigan and Canada, however, soon got him indicted by a Kentucky grand jury.
Under the 1850 federal law, Kentucky Governor Lazarus Powell was authorized to request the governor of neighboring Indiana — a technically “free” state, though many Hoosiers were pro-slavery — to extradite any Hoosier caught helping refugees evade slave catchers, who often traipsed onto Indiana soil. Governor Joseph Wright (namesake of Wright Quadrangle at Indiana University) complied with the noxious law. Like those he helped, Rev. McCormick himself had to flee to either Ohio or Canada, as “a large sum of money was offered for his body.” McCormick ran for the governorship of Ohio in 1857 on “the Abolition ticket” and wasn’t able to return to Indiana until 1862, when Governor Oliver P. Morton assured him he would be safe here. He died in Gibson County in 1892.
Calvin Fairbank, an abolitionist and Methodist minister who ferried slaves over the Ohio, was less fortunate than McCormick. For over a decade, Fairbank helped at least forty runaways slip into the interior of Indiana, many of them making it to the farm of Levi and Catherine Coffin in Fountain City, just north of Richmond. Coffin, a Quaker from North Carolina, was called the “President” of the Underground Railroad.
In 1851, with the complicity of Governor Wright and the Clark County sheriff in Jeffersonville, Fairbank was arrested on the way to church by Kentucky marshals, who extradited him across the river to Louisville. (Some versions say he was “kidnapped.”) Fairbank eventually spent thirteen years at the old Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort, where guards mercilessly beat him and lashed him with whips, by some accounts a thousand times, by others 30,000 times. With his body broken, he moved to western New York, where he died in poverty in 1898, an almost forgotten hero of American freedom.
The great abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, who lashed out at American hypocrisy, once proclaimed: “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.” The Anti-Slavery Bugle, a newspaper published in Lisbon, Ohio, quoted Douglass’ words on the fervently Baptist Newton Craig, cruel superintendent of the Kentucky State Penitentiary and Fairbank’s torturer.
According to an 1860 history of the prison, written by a friend of Captain Craig’s, the jailer’s ancestors had been imprisoned in colonial Virginia “for preaching the gospel” as dissenting Baptists, against the Anglican state church. In spite of his fervent religion, Craig, as abolitionists said, nevertheless had “the most inveterate hatred” toward “negro-stealers.” The jail-master earned a small fortune during his eleven years in charge, using convicts on nearby plantations, and is said to have “delivered long sermons to the inmates in his care.” According to a story mentioned by Frederick Douglass, he broke an expensive cane on Calvin Fairbank’s head:
(Frederick Douglass on Newton Craig. Anti-Slavery Bugle, Lisbon, Ohio, April 12, 1856.)
(Kentucky State Penitentiary. The note reads: “This is some Bird Cage. Looks like a church.” Frederick Douglass once wrote of America: “The church and the slave prison stand next to each other… [T]he church-going bell and the auctioneer’s bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneer’s block stand in the same neighborhood.”)
Not long after Fairbank’s arrival behind bars, several other resisters joined him, including Delia Webster (a Vermont-born schoolteacher from Lexington and the only woman at the prison) and former slave Lewis Hayden. A lesser-known inmate was the Irish immigrant Thomas Brown, who with his wife Mary McClanahan Brown had posed as a traveling merchant and “notions pedlar” downstream from Evansville, Indiana. Operating on the Kentucky side of the river near Henderson, the Browns smuggled refugees under curtains in their wagon to the riverbank. Brown was arrested by marshals near the mouth of the Wabash and sentenced to a prison term in Frankfort, where he witnessed the murder of a free black man from Evansville by guards. Released in 1857, Brown wrote an exposé of the wardens, published in Indianapolis that year as Three Years in Kentucky Prisons.
By the end of the 1850s, anti-slavery voices had grown stronger than ever. The religious undertones were clear: from the fascinating dream-visions and out-of-body experiences of Harriet Tubman to the fiery Old Testament furor of John Brown. While the actions of Christians like prison warden Newton Craig and many more made Frederick Douglass’ suspicion of the churches a fair criticism, the “voice in the wilderness” was now crying strong.
A statement from a Senate report arguing that the Underground Railroad would be cause for war with a foreign nation, Evansville Daily Journal, January 23, 1861.
A reprint from the New York Express, written during the Civil War, mocking abolitionists as part of a procession leading the American people toward “the Limbo of Vanity and the Paradise of Fools,” Daily State Sentinel, October 17, 1862.
When the fiery abolitionist John Brown, “The Meteor” who tried to ignite a slave rebellion in the South, was hanged for treason, authorities turned the body over to his family. In December 1859, Brown’s remains traveled north by train from the hanging grounds in Charles Town, Virginia, to the family farm in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Around Christmastime, he was laid to rest next to a huge chunk of Appalachian granite.
Twenty-three years later, a Hoosier geologist who studied such rocks for a living helped ensure that one of John Brown’s fellow raiders at Harper’s Ferry — his son Watson, who was gunned down during the raid — would finally be buried next to his father. In the meantime, Watson’s bones went on a long odyssey out to the Midwest.
Watson Brown was born October 7, 1835, in Franklin Mills, Ohio. His father, the great abolitionist, moved back and forth between northern Ohio and his native New England several times. After John Brown went out to “Bleeding Kansas” to fight the extension of slavery into the West, Watson left home, too, though he apparently didn’t join in the combat on the Plains. His father and brothers, however — considered terrorists by some — waged war on pro-slavery factions with guns, fire and on one occasion, with broadswords used to hack their enemies to death. A letter from Watson to his mother Mary, written in Iowa in 1856, mentions that on his own way west with a team of emigrants — armed with “Sharp’s rifles and cannon” — they met with ex-slave Frederick Douglass and the reformer Gerrit Smith. Smith, a failed presidential candidate, secretly financed the later raid on Harper’s Ferry. Watson himself may have helped carry caches of firearms out to the Great Plains, guns paid for by New England anti-slavery committees.
John Brown traversed the Midwest many times on trips back East to win the support of reformers like William Lloyd Garrison, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and even Henry David Thoreau. In 1859, Brown and a small band of followers — sixteen white and five black — tried to pull off their most spectacular assault on slavery yet, an attack on the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry, where the Shenandoah flows into the Potomac. The target: 100,000 muskets, to be handed over to slaves for use in a massive insurrection.
Optimistic supporters in the U.S. and Canada originally planned for 4,500 men to participate in the raid. Instead, just twenty-one attacked Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859. After cutting telegraph wires and taking hostages on nearby farms, Brown’s band moved into town. Local militia, farmers and shopkeepers, opening fire, quickly pinned down the abolitionists, driving them into a brick engine house. Under siege, John Brown sent his son Watson and another man out with a white flag. The crowd shot them. Watson, aged twenty-four, with a bullet just below his stomach, struggled back to the engine house, fatally wounded. He begged his father and comrades to “dash out his brains,” then tried to commit suicide.
The outbreak of the Civil War was still a year and a half away. In fact, the raid was put down by Colonel Robert E. Lee — of the U.S. Army. John Brown was hanged for treason in December. Spectators at his execution included Stonewall Jackson, John Wilkes Booth, and the poet Walt Whitman.
Ten of Brown’s men died in the raid, including two sons. What became of their mortal remains is a fascinating and rarely told part of the tale.
Eight of the bodies were gathered up by townspeople of Harpers Ferry. The locals, understandably, didn’t want the raiders buried in the town’s cemetery. They gave a man named James Mansfield five dollars to take care of the corpses.
Packing eight men into two large wooden store boxes, Mansfield buried them along the Shenandoah River about a half-mile from town. The grave, half forgotten, remained there until 1899, when Dr. Timothy Featherstonehaugh, Captain E.P. Hall, and Orin Grant Libby, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, exhumed the corpses for transfer to the Brown family farm in upstate New York. Professor Libby took femur notes while examining the skeletal remains, comparing them for size against his own leg. On August 30, 1899, the mingled raiders’ bones were re-interred at the Brown plot — in a single silver-handled casket.
This wasn’t the first time, however, that a box of old bones was brought to North Elba, New York, to lie next to John Brown’s. Two of his followers were never initially buried at all. One of them was his son Watson.
Remarkably common in the nineteenth century, body-stealing was a feature of reality at a time when medical schools had trouble acquiring corpses for anatomy classes. Rarely able to do so legally, they had to steal them, giving rise to the “resurrectionists” who nabbed the dead out of fresh graves.
Yet other examples of body-theft involved mere curiosity seekers and bogus scientists. During the heyday of phrenology — the long-discredited study of bumps on the skull, which, it was believed, actually determined one’s personality, creative genius, or propensity to crime — “cranioklepty” (the theft of skulls) was far from rare.
The more famous the head, the better. When the composer Joseph Haydn died in Vienna in 1809, wealthy robbers paid a cemetery attendant to open up the new grave and cut off his head. “Scientists” then boiled off the flesh or used acid to remove the skin and muscle in order to examine Haydn’s cranial bumps. Until 1954, the famous skull remained on display in a glass case in Vienna, when it was reunited with the rest of Haydn’s bones. After the coffins of Beethoven and Schubert were exhumed for relocation in the 1860s, their skulls were also examined, as was the entire mummified body of American naval hero John Paul Jones, unearthed in subterranean Paris in 1905 — a hundred-and-thirteen years after he died.
Watson Brown and Jeremiah Anderson — two Midwesterners gunned down at Harpers Ferry — were considered “fine physical specimens.” Southern doctors took them to Winchester Medical College in Virginia, where, like Joseph Haydn, they had (most of) the flesh stripped off them. John Brown’s 24-year-old son, who had left behind a widow, Isabella, and a young child who died in 1863, was turned into a model skeleton for the instruction of future Southern medical men.
Yet Winchester, Virginia, just thirty miles from Harper’s Ferry and the Potomac River, changed hands several times during the Civil War.
In the spring of 1862, two and a half years after Watson Brown’s death, the 27th Regiment of Indiana Volunteers marched into town with the Union Army. Among them was regimental surgeon Dr. Jarvis Jackson Johnson. Born in Bedford, Indiana, in 1828, Johnson practiced medicine in Martinsville, half way between Indianapolis and Bloomington. He would have been 34 when he walked into Winchester Medical College and found out what doctors had done to the remains of Watson Brown — an action for which, Virginians believed, Union troops burned down the college, the only case of arson during Winchester’s military occupation.
In 1882, the Indianapolis Journal printed the most widely-accepted version of the tale. It came in the aftermath of a visit by John Brown, Jr., who visited Morgan County, Indiana, with several other investigators to examine a set of human remains there.
Dr. Johnson had stated that while serving as commander of a military hospital in Winchester, he acquired Watson Brown’s body from the museum of the medical college — then shipped it on a train to Franklin, Indiana, the nearest railroad depot to his home in Martinsville. Like the Virginia doctors, Johnson kept the body in a case at his medical office. For twenty years, the raider’s bones were a strange part of the life of a Hoosier country town.
In 1882, word of the skeleton’s whereabouts came to John Brown, Jr., Watson’s elder brother and the abolitionist’s oldest son, after Jarvis Johnson put a notice in the Chicago Tribune looking for family members. The doctor claimed, probably disingenuously, that he hadn’t realized any of the Brown brothers were still living, and he hadn’t wanted to upset Watson Brown’s mother. Though John Brown, Jr., had fought in “Bleeding Kansas,” he in fact wasn’t part of the raid on Harpers Ferry. During the Civil War, he helped recruit troops for the famous “Jayhawk” border fighter James H. Lane. (Before Lane became an anti-slavery senator from Kansas and a famous target for Confederates, he had been the lieutenant governor of Indiana.)
Brown, Jr., visited Indiana in September 1882, having already moved back east to Ohio, where he grew grapes for the wine business on South Bass Island in Lake Erie and took an interest in geology.
The other main forensic investigator to come to Martinsville that September was one of Indiana’s most prominent scientists, the impressively-bearded State Geologist John Collett. Remembered as a beloved “Santa Claus” figure, Collett was a Wabash Valley native who lived in Indianapolis and often weighed in on scientific and agricultural questions — from the study of caves and killer meteorite hoaxes to how to improve celery crops. Collett traveled to Martinsville with several doctors to look over the badly-treated remains of the bygone Harpers Ferry raider.
The Indianapolis Journal printed this description of the scene at Dr. Johnson’s office:
The body has received careless treatment during the last few years. It has been carted about from place to place, and has been doing duty in all the anatomical exhibitions about town. During the first few years it was in the possession of Dr. Johnson it was in a remarkably fine state of preservation, but ill usage has ruined it. For several years, it has been lying in the Knights of Pythias hall, and, it is whispered, was used in the mystic ceremonies of the order. The best of care had not been bestowed upon it, and it was infested with worms and insects. Knowledge of its ill-usage was sedulously kept from Mr. Brown. When he intimated that he would like to see the body, he was considerately kept in waiting until it could be removed from the lodge-hall to the residence by way of a back street, and there placed in better condition for the examination.
At the time, it wasn’t clear whether the skeleton was that of Watson or 22-year-old Oliver, John Brown’s other son killed in October 1859. Watson and Oliver looked alike. Both stood six feet tall.
An office assistant of Dr. Jarvis’ showed John Brown, Jr., a “coffin-shaped box standing against the wall.” Then he removed a cloth covering, exposing “a bare and hideous skeleton.”
“Gentlemen, if it is either of my brothers, I am now inclined to think that it is Oliver,” Brown exclaimed after picking up and poring over skeletal fragments and examining the shape of a half-missing skull. Yet the more he looked, the more he came to think he was looking at his other brother, Watson.
Geologist John Collett wasn’t a qualified expert in forensic facial reconstruction, a process that would actually be pioneered in the next decade. (When Johann Sebastian Bach’s bones showed up at a church in Leipzig, Germany, in 1894, Swiss anatomist Wilhelm His reconstructed a face from the skull, which resembled an old painting of Bach — who became an unwitting helper in the baby science of crime-scene forensics.) After comparing all the forensic evidence available, however, including written descriptions of Watson Brown’s gun wound, it was John Collett’s opinion that the cadaver standing before him in Martinsville, Indiana, was, in fact, the man in question.
True to the often bogus science of the time, though, some of the “professor’s” statements expose how ludicrous phrenology was.
Then came a fascinating insight. Dr. Jarvis Johnson’s written affidavit, notarized by Morgan County lawyers, also shed light on why doctors in Virginia wanted to preserve Brown’s corpse in the first place.
When he was put in charge of local Union Army medical operations, “A number of the prominent citizens of Winchester called upon me at the hospital, and each and all declared that [these were] the remains of a son of John Brown.” Amazingly, the doctor who “prepared” the body, whom Johnson never identifies by name, also stopped by — and pleaded with Johnson to give him back this “exceedingly valuable piece of property.”
Like the medieval Europeans who condemned criminals to be drawn-and-quartered, Virginia doctors held up the corpse as a warning to their state’s enemies. Sic semper tyrannis?
Who was this doctor, then?
He was surely on the faculty list — and it’s a small one. Founded by Dr. Hugh Holmes McGuire, Winchester Medical College had only four instructors in 1859, including the founder’s son, Hunter Holmes McGuire (1835-1900). At age 24, Hunter McGuire, already a professor anatomy at his father’s school, would have been an exact contemporary of the “fine specimen” killed at Harpers Ferry.
Hunter McGuire, however, was probably not the culprit. In late 1859, he was studying medicine in Philadelphia. The young doctor was even there during the famous walk-out of Southern medical students, which occurred after John Brown’s body was paraded through the streets by Northern admirers. Insulted, McGuire led an exodus of about three-hundred Southern students from Jefferson Medical College, who dropped out, went down to Richmond, and re-enrolled at the Medical College of Virginia. Some sources say that he financed the trip of all these students with his own savings.
Dr. Hunter McGuire later enlisted in the Confederate Army and even served as Stonewall Jackson’s personal surgeon, amputating the general’s arm after Chancellorsville. He went on to become the president of the American Medical Association. In the 1890s, McGuire would contribute to the debate over eugenics, racial purity, and the castration of rapists, especially African Americans — arguments that eventually led to Virginia’s “Racial Integrity Act” of 1924, a major victory for the controversial eugenics movement and one of the worst misapplications of science in history. He also strove to ensure that Southern school textbooks “would not poison the minds of Virginia schoolchildren” by teaching a northern revisionist history of the Civil War.
The Medical Pickwick (1918) states that Watson Brown was “dissected by students.” McGuire, as stated, was in Pennsylvania in the aftermath of Harper’s Ferry. But did he have anything at all to do with this man’s bizarre fate?
It seems that he did. Mary Greenhow Lee, a famous diarist in Winchester during the Civil War, wrote that when Union soldiers torched the medical school on May 16, 1862, “They buried in the yard what they supposed were [Oliver Brown’s] bones, but the genuine ones had been removed by Hunter McGuire, thus foiling their malicious designs.” Were the bones buried those of Jeremiah Anderson, a native of Wisconsin who fought with John Brown? Lee might have been mistaken about the identity of the bones. It’s harder to believe she was mistaken about Dr. McGuire. After all, he was fighting in northern Virginia and may have been the doctor who approached Jarvis Johnson.
Twenty years later, Johnson willingly handed over to the Brown family the cadaver he claimed to have shipped by train from the Shenandoah Valley to the Midwest. In October 1882, Watson Brown’s strange post-mortem odyssey finally came to an end. On an autumn day in the Adirondacks, he was laid to rest in a patch of soil near his famous father, who — as the old Union song put it — had long lain “mouldering in the grave.”
Isabella Thompson, aged just 22 when the Harpers Ferry raid left her a widow, married Watson’s cousin, Salmon Brown. For decades, the couple lived in Kilbourn City, Wisconsin — later renamed Wisconsin Dells. Isabella may have died near Traverse City in northern Michigan in 1907. Her second husband died in neighboring Antrim County, Michigan, in 1921. “Bella” was buried at North Elba, New York, near her first husband, his final whereabouts pinned down at last.
John Collett passed away in March 1899 and was buried in Terre Haute. Dr. Johnson died that September, just a few weeks after the mass re-interment of Brown’s other missing men, among whom was his son Oliver, who had lain in a merchant’s box on the Shenandoah for forty years. Johnson rests at East Hill Cemetery in Morgantown, Indiana.
Exactly 150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln, who spent part of his rail-splitting boyhood in Spencer County in southern Indiana, fell victim to the bullet of the 26-year-old actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater. Soon, the president’s body headed west by train, stopping in Richmond, Indiana, for a public viewing at 2:00 in the morning on April 30, then on to Indianapolis and Michigan City, with short stopovers at small Hoosier train stations along the way.
In a downpour, possibly fifty thousand Hoosiers viewed Lincoln’s open casket in the rotunda of the old State House. (At a time when the population of the capitol city was less than 40,000, the crowd of black-draped mourners must have been a spectacle in itself. Many were African Americans clutching copies of the Emancipation Proclamation.) Just before midnight, a carriage brought the president’s coffin through the rainy streets of Indianapolis, lit by torches and bonfires, to Union Depot, where it departed north by train for the south shore of Lake Michigan, en route to Chicago and eventually to Springfield, Illinois.
An exhibit running through July 7 at the Indiana State Museum, So Costly a Sacrifice:Lincoln and Loss, includes some actual “relics” of that fateful Good Friday in 1865 when Booth shot Indiana’s favorite son. Among the artifacts are a few that seem like medieval religious relics: clothing with spots alleged to be the blood of Honest Abe, and a piece of the burning barn in Port Royal, Virginia, where the assassin met his own fate at the hands of a Union soldier, the eccentric street-preacher Boston Corbett.
One of the most interesting things to me about the Lincoln assassination and the funeral that came after is the apparent curse on the people and even the physical things involved in it. Poe’s Raven could be telling the story, and the bird of death keeps on talking, quawking not “Nevermore” — just “More.”
What happened to Booth and Corbett is pretty bizarre and appalling. Basil Moxley, a doorman at Ford’s Theater who claimed that he served as one of Booth’s pallbearers in Baltimore in 1865, fed a conspiracy theory in 1903 when he asserted that another man is buried in the plot and that Lincoln’s murderer actually escaped to Oklahoma or Texas. A mummy hoax brought the assassin back to life as a sideshow attraction in the 1920s. But perhaps the moody English-American actor would have been thrilled to know that the morbid tragedy he let loose wasn’t over yet.
For instance, Booth’s own killer probably went down surrounded by flames. It is thought that Boston Corbett died in the massive forest fire that consumed Hinckley, Minnesota, in 1894. And oddly enough, the very train car that carried Lincoln’s corpse west to Illinois from Washington also burned in Minnesota. In March 1911, while in storage in the northeastern outskirts of Minneapolis, the historic Lincoln funeral car perished in a “spectacular prairie fire.”
In 1893, a year before the inferno in the North Woods probably claimed Corbett’s life, news readers followed the ghastly story of Ford’s Theater’s own doom. On June 10, the Indianapolis Journal ran this especially sentimental, tear-jerking news piece on the front-page:
Hundreds of men carried down by the floors of a falling building which was notoriously insecure; human lives crushed out by tons of brick and iron and sent unheralded to the throne of their Maker; men by the score maimed and disfigured for life; happy families hurled into the depths of despair. . . Words cannot picture the awfulness of the accident. Its horrors will never be fully told. Its suddenness was almost the chief terror. . . Women who kissed their loved ones as they separated will have but the cold, bruised faces to kiss to-night. . . In the national capitol of the proudest nation on earth there has been a catastrophe unparalleled in the annals of history, and in every mind there is the horrible conviction that its genesis is to be found in the criminal negligence of a government too parsimonious to provide for the safety of its loyal servants by protecting its property for their accommodation.
At 9:30 a.m. on June 9, the front part of Ford’s Theater, a notoriously rickety and rotten old structure then being used as a government office building, collapsed, sending beams, iron, and over a hundred employees plummeting toward the basement. Twenty-eight years after Abraham Lincoln was shot here, twenty-two men were killed and sixty-eight injured in one of the deadliest disasters in Washington, D.C.’s, history. (In a twist of irony, the same day the theater collapse made national headlines, John Wilkes Booth’s brother, the great American actor Edwin Booth, was laid to rest at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many said that Edwin Booth’s life and death were overshadowed by two different tragedies and the curse of Ford’s Theater.)
Collapsing structures were a major news item in the 1890s. Almost every week, American papers reported mass casualties at overcrowded factories and apartment buildings, especially in Chicago and cities back on the East Coast, where poor construction and dry rot led to the deaths of thousands of industrial workers and tenants — often women and children. During the Progressive Era, such tragedies inspired reformers like the photographers Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine (who documented child workers in Indianapolis in 1908) to illustrate the real peril of shoddy, dilapidated buildings in the workplace and at home.
In 1893, Ford’s Theater was probably one of the most dangerous structures in America. Built in 1863 by the 34-year-old entrepreneur John T. Ford, the building occupied the site of a Baptist Church-turned-theater that had burned down a year earlier. John Ford’s business was a victim of Booth, too. After the Lincoln assassination, public opinion and the U.S. government both decided that it was inappropriate to use the site of the nation’s great tragedy for entertainment. Ford wanted to re-open his theater, but received arson threats from at least one Lincoln mourner. The Federal government appropriated the playhouse, compensating its owner with $88,000 in July 1866.
Even before the government actually paid for the building, renovations were underway. In December 1865, the suitably morbid Army Medical Museum moved onto the third floor. “A far cry from the once jovial theater,” the famous local landmark now housed an array of skeletons in glass cases, body parts, surgical tools, and other gory reminders of military medicine. The Library of the Surgeon General’s Office soon occupied the second floor.
The other floors of the former theater housed the War Department’s Office of Records and Pensions. The unstable, visibly bulging building was the workplace of several hundred employees and was further imperiled by probably a few tons of heavy paperwork, the red tape of veterans’ pensions.
After the building succumbed to gravity and rot in 1893, American public opinion was almost as outraged as at the assassination of Lincoln. The Indianapolis Journal wrote:
As long ago as 1885, this building. . . was officially proclaimed by Congress an unsafe depository for even the inanimate skeletons, mummies and books of the army medical museum, for which a safer place of storage was provided by an act of Congress. But notwithstanding the fact that in the public press, and in Congress, also, continued attention was called to the bulging walls of the building, its darkness and its general unsuitability and unsafety, it continued to be used for the daily employment of nearly five-hundred government clerks of the pension record division of the War Office.
According to a riveting coroner’s inquest that whipped up public excitement, workers at what the Indianapolis Journal dubbed “Ford’s death trap” had been intimidated and cowed into silence by their tyrannical boss, former army surgeon Col. Fred Ainsworth. Afraid of being fired, the endangered clerks didn’t protest the condition of the building and later testified that Ainsworth’s assistants had told them to tip-toe on the stairway to keep from falling through. Investigators determined that the “old ruin’s” collapse finally came while a low-bidding contractor, George W. Dant, was making repairs to the building. (A support in the basement gave way.)
Court testimony relayed in the Journal resonated with public opinion. “The government did not want skilled men to execute its contracts, and it would not pay fair prices for good work. . .” the paper claimed. “An architect testified that the cement used in underpinning the piers supporting the old building was ‘little better than mud.’ A builder said the manner of the work was suicidal.” Another report said that for years the decaying structure also suffered from “defective sanitary conditions.”
One of the public figures who weighed in on the federal investigation was Indiana Congressman William S. Holman. A Dearborn County native, Holman sat in Congress from 1859 to 1897 and was once ranked as the longest-serving U.S. Representative. He was also a notoriously frugal hawk on government spending. (Yet far from being a total naysayer, Holman passionately advocated the Homestead Act that tried to break up the domination of Western public lands by big railroads. He also indirectly helped establish the U.S. Forest Service by providing for Federal timber reserves.)
As chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, the curmudgeonly Holman oversaw a lot of government funding. On June 23, 1893, the Jasper Weekly Courier reported that after Ford’s Theater collapsed, even the arch-fiscal conservative was ready to “deal liberally in the matter of providing safe public buildings, and enact such legislation as would look to the preservation of human life.” The Indiana Congressman supported moving the U.S. Government Printing Office — ranked with the old theater as one of the worst potential death traps in Washington, D.C. — to a new location. (The weight of printing equipment housed on upper stories was part of the problem.)
Yet once it was rebuilt after the 1893 collapse, Ford’s Theater returned to government use — oddly enough, as a storage warehouse for the Government Printing Office. The building narrowly survived being condemned for demolition by President Taft in 1912. From 1931 until renovations in the mid-1960s, the historic structure housed a government annex and a first-floor Lincoln museum. Restored to its 1865 appearance and now run by the National Park Service, it opened as a public museum in 1968.
Nature lover, friend of dogs and underdogs, journalistic joker, and shooter-up of men he considered his enemies, George C. Harding once edited newspapers from Cincinnati to Houston but was always most connected with the Indianapolis Journal and the Indianapolis Herald, which he edited in the 1870’s. Part Mark Twain, part Ambrose Bierce, part proverbial “man gone postal,” Harding was called “the most picturesque man in Indianapolis journalism” by city historian J.P. Dunn.
Since he wielded a pistol several times in the capitol city and may have suffered from a mental illness, it’s hard to know exactly how to see him today. But since he’s also been mostly forgotten, here’s a bit of his story.
Born in Clinton, Tennessee, in 1830 to a family of thirteen kids, the future editor of the Indianapolis Journal lived in Knoxville until age seven. In 1837, the family moved to Edgar County, Illinois, where his father, Jacob J. Harding, eventually edited the Prairie Beacon in Paris, twenty miles west of Terre Haute, Indiana. At fourteen, Harding ran away to St. Louis, but came back “penniless and disheartened” and probably worked in a brick factory.
A long obituary published in the Indiana State Sentinel in 1881 says that “When about fifteen or sixteen years of age [Harding] went to Terre Haute and learned the printing art in the office of the Terre Haute Express.” When the Mexican War broke out, he enlisted as a private but got sick (either in St. Louis or New Orleans) and never made it to Mexico. Around 1848, he was co-editing his father’s paper just over the Illinois state line.
George Orwell famously said in 1946 that “Bad writers – especially scientific, political, and sociological writers – are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones.” When the Indiana State Sentinel published a piece that praised Harding for shooting the alleged seducer of his teenage daughter Flora in 1874, the paper curried public sympathy by praising everything about the man. “His letters at this time, written in strong, sensible, and positive Anglo Saxon,” it said, reminiscing on Harding’s early days in the news business, “without redundancy, attracted considerable attention among readers of the Beacon.”
In the 1850s, he grew restless and floated down the Mississippi to New Orleans, where he may have gotten work as a newspaper correspondent for the Cincinnati Commercial. Before the Civil War, Harding also edited the Courier in Charleston, Illinois, founded the Coles County Ledger in Mattoon, and did editorial work for papers in Louisville, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Houston.
During the Civil War, the itinerant news man served as Lieutenant in the 1st Indiana Heavy Artillery, the so-called “Jackass Regiment.” (The name came from the Hoosier regiment’s use of mules to haul cannon and supplies.) He saw action at the Battle of Baton Rouge and Port Hudson, Louisiana, before being captured by Confederate cavalry, allegedly while stumbling drunk over a fence. While held as a POW at New Iberia, Louisiana, Harding and two other Indiana captives drank from gourd cups and used ox-shoulders as silverware. Because he had given his word of honor not to attempt an escape, he was freed during a prisoner exchange at Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1863.
(Harding served with “The Jackass Regiment” in Louisiana.)
Harding’s knife-sharp prose is best when he’s telling the hard truth, though he could occasionally flip on the sentimentality switch if he had to, to sell papers.
One of the best things to come from his pen is this priceless description of U.S. Grant reviewing new recruits in Mattoon, Illinois, in 1861. Watching Grant inspect the dirty “ragamuffins,” who “looked as if they had been run down with hounds in the wilds of Effingham County,” Harding found it hard to escape “the infernal odor of cabbage [wafting] right into my face” as the slovenly, smelly commander (not yet a famous general) smoked a cigar. Originally published in the Indianapolis Mirror, the passage was syndicated in the Memphis Public Ledger in 1869, a paper Harding had connections with. The passage reads like something his fellow Hoosier, the cynical skeptic of war Ambrose Bierce, might have written. (Bierce grew up in Warsaw and Elkhart.)
Resigning his lieutenancy in 1864, Harding took an editorial position for six months on the New Orleans Times and the True Delta. Some of what he wrote down South was reprinted after his death, including a humorous piece called “Duck Shooting in Louisiana.” At war’s end, he came north to Cincinnati to work on the staff of the Commercial, then moved to Indianapolis. Several dailies and weeklies that he wrote for or edited after the war include the Mirror, the Journal, the Saturday Herald, and the Sentinel.
Historian J.P. Dunn said that “Harding’s great forte was as a paragrapher. . . The public really enjoyed seeing a victim squirm when he gigged him.” He often attacked public figures whom he considered a fraud. The Rev. Myron Reed, who delivered his eulogy at Central Avenue Methodist Church in 1881, said: “Every abuser of money or official power, every masked man, every man who writes anonymous letters, will sleep more peacefully tonight because George Harding is dead.”
Yet the popular editor published several fraudulent stories on purpose as practical jokes, as George S. Cottman remembered in a 1922 op-ed piece on famous Hoosier hoaxes.
“Many remember the Charley Ross abduction, which took place on July 1, 1874,” Cottman wrote, referring to a famous Philadelphia kidnapping that was never solved. (Dunn called the ensuing hoax Harding pulled off “a very plausibly written story.”)
Nearly two years later, or, to be exact, on April 1, 1876, there appeared in the Indianapolis Saturday Herald, edited by George C. Harding, a three-column article with this heading sensationally arranged in display type:
Charley Ross, the long lost boy, recovered at last. He is found with Italian organ grinders on Potomac alley [in Indianapolis], dressed as a girl and called Telsla. How Detective Hollywood worked up the case. The father and the child at the Grand Hotel.
. . . As a consequence, within half an hour after the Herald appeared on the street, people began to throng the lobby of the Grand Hotel. The hotel clerks, overwhelmed with questions, were at first bewildered, then “tumbling” to the situation, hung a few placards about, displaying the simple legend, “April fool!”
(The Grand Hotel at the corner of Maryland and Illinois Streets, seen in 1889, witnessed one of the city’s great April Fool’s jokes. Today, this is the site of Circle Centre Mall. )
Harding himself was hoaxed by a fake space rock in 1879, as told in Wednesday’s post.
Whether the meteorite really killed a farmer named Grover or not, Harding himself tried to kill several men in the 1870s.
In 1879, he got into a hot mudslinging dispute with Calvin A. Light, a radical leader of the Knights of Labor and editor of a rival newspaper called The Democrat. (Light had played a big role in the Railroad Strike of 1877.) As Dunn put it, “Harding took an intense dislike to Light, and on one occasion ordered him out of the Herald office — with variations. . . On May 4, he went to Light’s house and tried to shoot him, but after one ineffective shot, was dragged away by neighbors. The next day he went to The Democrat office and shot at Light three times, but only succeeded in wounding a printer named Lizius. He was duly arrested and tried, and got off on a plea of insanity.“
In 1917, a writer named David Gibson remembered another shooting, or mixed up two shootings entirely, claiming that Harding also once shot at Sol Hathaway, editor of the “spicy”Independent. In the midst of a raving editorial feud, “Harding printed an item in the paper alluding to Hathaway as ‘the long-nosed dead beat editor that loafed about hotel lobbies and slipped into the dining room when the manager was not looking.'” As Gibson narrated it in a trade magazine, The Inland Printer:
Hathaway responded with a series of buck type interrogations, for in those days you could evade libel in Indiana by putting a charge in the form of a question. . .
The following Friday, Hathway was seated in his office at an old cherry desk with a flap that let down in front, with his back to the door, which certainly was a breach of the most ordinary editorial precaution.
Suddenly the door opened. Harding appeared in a “beastly state of intoxication” and began showering the place with bullets as big as birds’ eggs from an army horse-pistol. Hathaway jumped under the imposing table at the first shot. Two printers, setting type at the front of the room, leaped out the open windows at their sides, lit on an awning over an undertaking establishment and rolled off onto the roof of a hearse that was standing at the curb. The horses of the hearse proceeded to run away and started a stampede of other horses.
Gibson made the claim (I haven’t been able to verify this) that one of Harding’s bullets grazed a printing machine with type ready to go to press. Later on, Hathaway “set up in large Gothic type an account of the affray, tore out a lot of type paralleling the furrow and set in two brass rules and a line of type: ‘The track of the would-be assassin’s bullet!'” Harding kicked the Independent’s editor down the stairs, but Hathaway survived. He committed suicide in 1911, aged eighty-two.
Five years before his assault on labor leader Calvin Light, a tragic suicide had driven George Harding to his most celebrated shooting. Perhaps he was, in fact, mentally insane, but the family tragedy that drove him to seek revenge was very real, and his gun was aimed at another man named Sol.
In 1874, Solomon Moritz was a 36-year-old merchant tailor in Indianapolis. Born in Germany, he emigrated to Cincinnati at about age fifteen, then moved to Indiana in 1868. The Sentinel wrote that “Mr. Moritz is well known in the city, and is one of the most prominent of the Jewish citizens of Indianapolis.”
A version of the events published in the Daily Record of the Times in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, says of Harding and Moritz:
These gentlemen have been warm friends and very intimate in their social relations. Moritz, who is a Hebrew, aged about forty years and married, took advantage of this intimacy and succeeded in seducing Harding’s daughter, who is about eighteen years of age. This was accomplished last March, and improper relations have been maintained by the parties since that time. . . Mrs. Harding, [the girl’s stepmother] has stated that Moritz had also made improper proposals to her.
Flora Harding, the editor’s eighteen-year-old daughter, was a talented writer and translator who taught German in the Seventh Ward district school. “During the absence of her father to the Hot Springs [Arkansas?], she filled the editorial chair and most ably,” said the Sentinel.
Flora probably also suffered from lifelong depression and feared the ruin of her reputation. If Moritz had in fact taken advantage of her, she would likely have become an outcast in those days of a strict female “honor” code.
On August 20, Harding’s daughter poisoned herself by taking “twenty-four grains of opium.” Death was a few hours coming, and her father discovered her in her bedroom before she died. She confessed to him that she had been having sex with Solomon Moritz. Then, as he wrote in a tribute in his newspaper, “two great tears came from the filmy eyes and rolled over the face, across which was stealing the shadow of the Death Angel.”
She often jested on the subject of suicide, and, on one occasion, being reproved and told that God frowned on self-murder, she said, “Papa, I am not afraid of God.”
While walking to get a doctor, at about 1:30 in the afternoon Harding met Moritz “at the junction of New Jersey and Vermont Streets with Massachusetts Avenue.”
“Mr. Moritz’s first exclamation was ‘George, what are you doing here?’ Mr. Harding made no answer, but pulling out a pistol, began firing at Mr. Moritz.”
Harding chased Moritz up Vermont Street, toward an alley behind Roberts Park Methodist Church, sinking two bullets into him, and tried to get in two more, “the blood meanwhile flowing from [Moritz’s] mouth and nose.” Luckily for his target, Harding’s fourth shot jammed his revolver and the alleged seducer escaped by hailing a wagon. (Moritz supposedly lost an arm, but lived to see Harding go on trial. When questioned by police, he denied that he had seduced Flora, instead blaming “a Jew liquor dealer on South Meridian.”)
Though the bereaved gunman was taken to jail that night, public opinion was overwhelmingly in his favor. When Harding went to trial, one of his lawyers, Major Jonathan W. Gordon (profiled on this blog during his grave-robbing days), defended Harding on the basis of common law.
The whole community have fully approved and justified the act for which my friend Harding stands indicted. . . It is the common law of the West, and, indeed of the whole country, that he who seduces an innocent female
MAY BE SLAIN
by her father, brother, or husband with impunity, and in the case at bar the grand jury have, in effect, already said so by returning a bill of indictment for a simple assault and battery.
Harding was acquitted, and as the judge announced the verdict, “the pent up feeling of the large crowd broke forth in applause, which was both loud and protracted.” Perhaps this free pass from the state criminal court made the editor consider other public shootings in the future.
In 1880, Harding moved to Minnesota, where he had bought the Lanesboro Journal. But “his active brain required more scope,” says the Fillmore County history. Tragically, in May 1881 George C. Harding had an odd death back in Indianapolis.
Dead! How suddenly he went out! Two weeks ago last Wednesday, he was walking along a street in Indianapolis, and stepped aside to allow some ladies to pass. He stepped on a cellar grating, just as a man was raising it. His right foot went into the opening, and the flesh of his leg was cut to the bone. He died at six o’clock last Sunday morning, of congestion of the brain and blood poisoning, resulting from the accident.
In the death of George C. Harding, Indiana journalism has lost one of its oldest, most familiar and rarely original characters. . . We know of no one who can take up the pen which Harding has dropped, never to pick up again. . .
Dying at the age of 51, his life was cut off in the very midst of his powers. . . there is not another George C. Harding any more than there is another Charles Dickens.
In a previous post about “ghoul busters,” I mentioned the body-snatching problem that was a major issue in turn-of-the-century Indianapolis and throughout the U.S. for most of the 1800s. Driven by the need for “fresh material” on dissecting tables at American medical colleges, the longstanding problem of body thievery was widespread and decades-old.
Originally allowed by law to bring only executed felons and the unclaimed poor into the classroom for anatomical study, doctors facing increasing enrollment at nineteenth-century medical schools were forced to prey on ordinary citizens even after “Anatomy Acts” made legal acquisition easier. Though such data hardly show up on the census records, physicians nabbed tens of thousands of bodies from poorly-guarded graves in city and country alike. Tragically, providing bodies for classrooms was a burden that fell disproportionately on African Americans, who play into American medical history both as the robbers and the robbed, the main instruments and victims of grave robbery and desecration into the 1940s.
Ghouls (grave robbers in 19th-century speak) often ignited civil disturbances, like the “Anatomy Riots” that rocked New York City in 1788. (Twenty people were killed on that occasion.) An English robber kept a laconic but harrowing record of his thefts in 1811-12, published in 1896 as The Diary of a Resurrectionist.Often overlooked as a cause of violence on both sides of the Atlantic, the ghouls supposedly unearthed many of the specters that still haunt America.
Indiana was no stranger to this mostly forgotten practice. In the 1860s, well-substantiated fears of the “Resurrection Man” led to the creation of Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery, now one of the largest in the U.S., designed partly to ward off desecration of the dead by needy medical faculties. Staffed by pistol-toting guards at the turn of the century, Crown Hill ensured that families would no longer have to stand watch over their loved ones’ final resting place until decomposition rendered the remains useless to science.
Further digging into Hoosier newspapers turns up a vast trove of journalism and folklore on this bizarre aspect of medical history. One of the wilder and more entertaining tales from the heyday of the “resurrectionists” comes from Andrew Jackson Grayson, a veteran newspaperman of Madison, Indiana, and is set just before the Mexican War.
In the annals of Hoosier journalism, Grayson had a knack for recognizing a good story. Born at Sandcreek in Decatur County in 1838, at age three he moved sixty miles south with his family to the old Ohio river town of Madison. He later described Madison as a “queer old town. . . the Mecca of Indiana, the gem of the Ohio Valley.” In 1861, the 21-year-old enlisted in the 6th Indiana Infantry and fought in the first land battle of the Civil War at Phillipi, Virginia. (While the war was still on, he published a humorous memoir of the regiment’s role in the Virginia campaign.) Mustered out in 1862 due to varicose veins that developed in his left leg after a forced march to Shiloh, he came back to southern Indiana and at age 22, went to work for the Madison Courier. Grayson worked in the printing trade for the rest of his life.
Like the old river town itself, his grave-robber story comes from before the war and is a sort of “crossroads” of Hoosier history. It also taps into a confusing vein of folklore.
Madison had one of the few medical colleges in antebellum Indiana. Consequently, even small towns nearby often had surprisingly qualified (and interesting) doctors. One of the doctors was Charles Schussler, a German immigrant. Educated at the universities of Tübingen and Vienna, he came to New York in 1828, fought in the Texas Revolution, lived in New Orleans for a while, prospected in California during the Gold Rush, then came back east in the early 1850s to set himself up in medical practice in Madison, where he helped found the Madison Medical Institute. (Though the institute went out of existence long ago, the physician’s house is a bed-and-breakfast today.)
For instruction purposes, Schussler often had to steal bodies. According to one story, on a secret grave-robbing operation he and a band of “ghouls” were forced to contend with a “human icicle” they dug up one frigid winter night, probably in a country graveyard. As the frozen body bounced around the wagon while the team sped away from the cemetery, the stiff smashed into Schussler’s foot. The doctor reportedly cried out in agony, then attacked it in a temporary fit of insanity, screaming “Hurt my foot, will you?!”
One of the protagonists of the anonymous doctor’s tale later recorded by Grayson was thought to be with Schussler that night. Part of a trio of fascinating brothers who practiced medicine in southeastern Indiana in the mid-1800s, Dr. John W. Mullen was born to an Irish family in Pennsylvania. Like Schussler, he went to Texas around 1830, where he served as a page to Sam Houston and almost died of yellow fever. Tiring of Texas, Mullen went back to Philadelphia, trained as a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania, then moved to Madison.
Mullen’s elder brother, Alexander, was also a protagonist in Grayson’s story. Born in Ireland in 1813 but raised near Philadelphia, Alexander Mullen ran away from home to join the American Merchant Marine, first training as a doctor on a ship, then at Louisville Medical College in Kentucky. His Irish pioneer family had moved west to Ripley County, Indiana, in the meantime, hence his own move to the Hoosier State around 1840. Alexander served as Prison Physician at the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City, the regimental surgeon of the 35th Indiana Infantry (the “Irish Regiment”) in the Civil War, and finally moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he died in 1897. In the 1840s, he was practicing medicine in the small town of Napoleon. He also trained country doctors at the nearby Versailles Medical Seminary, which once sat on the courthouse square.
(Irish-born Alexander Mullen, left, gave medical lectures in Versailles. His brother, the pediatrician, soldier, and Irish-American radical B.F. Mullen, right, was also a grave robber.)
The folklore begins to come fast and furious, but around 1846, when Alexander was in his early thirties, his other brother, Bernard Mullen, was either studying medicine or practicing alongside him in Versailles or Napoleon.
If there is anyone who dispels the eerie, Hollywood stock image of a grave robber, it is definitely B.F. Mullen. One of the earliest pediatricians in the Hoosier State, when the Mexican War broke out in 1847, the 22-year-old enlisted in James Henry Lane’s 3rd Indiana Regiment and became the youngest surgeon ever to serve in the U.S. Army, being appointed to that post at the General Hospital in Jalapa, Mexico. (As Grayson’s story will show, Mullen was probably driven into the army to avoid the scandal of being labeled a grave robber back home.) In the 1850s, Mullen, an Irish Catholic, became a vocal opponent of the nativist “Know Nothing” Party, which tried to prevent immigration, especially from Ireland. Acclaimed as an orator, Mullen eventually became active in the Fenian Brotherhood, a fraternal society that was a forerunner to the global Irish Republican Brotherhood whose last leader was Michael Collins.
During the Civil War, B.F. Mullen would serve as Colonel of the 35th Indiana “Irish” Regiment, where his brother Alexander was surgeon. Col. Mullen, former ghoul, led the 35th Indiana into the “Battle Above the Clouds” at Missionary Ridge in Tennessee and helped ward off John Hunt Morgan’s raid on Madison itself. After the war, the colonel practiced medicine in Madison until 1871, then moved to Terre Haute. In January 1879, Mullen was Democratic candidate for Indiana State Librarian, but died of tuberculosis in an Indianapolis hotel a month later.
On to the story.
According to Grayson’s version of the tale in the Indianapolis Journal, Alexander and Bernard Mullen were teaching a medical class at Versailles, probably in 1845. More likely, Bernard was the third student who got entangled with a “posse” at the Cliff Hill Cemetery above Laughery Creek (now Versailles Lake). The other two students were John B. Glass, who may have ended up in Missouri or Colorado, and Jonathan W. Gordon, the eponymous origin of the Versailles landmark called “Gordon’s Leap” since the 1800s. Originally from Pennsylvania, Gordon had come to town in 1844 to practice law. He afterwards fought in the Mexican War, served as a major in the Civil War, entered Hoosier politics, and helped future President Benjamin Harrison get started in the law when Harrison first came to Indianapolis.
But as the story shows, around 1845 the lawyer-doctor was a famous local lawbreaker.
(Major Jonathan W. Gordon, soldier-doctor and occasional “ghoul,” went on to become speaker of the Indiana House, Prosecuting Attorney for Marion County, and the “most prominent criminal lawyer” in the state. He died in 1887 and was buried at Crown Hill. A vintage postcard shows Bluff Springs near the site where Gordon and/or his companion John Glass allegedly jumped to avoid being lynched.)
“‘The sensational instances of grave-robbing that have just come to light in Indianapolis remind me of a similar event in which the late Maj. Jonathan W. Gordon figured when he was a young man,” said Andrew J. Grayson, of Madison. “The incident occurred near Versailles in Ripley County, the place made famous in recent years by the lynching of five men simultaneously. [Five “desperadoes” were killed just outside the Cliff Hill Cemetery in 1897 at a spot called “The Hanging Tree.”] Oddly enough, Major Gordon and his companions came near figuring in a lynching bee themselves. They only escaped an untimely and shameful death at the rope’s end by making one of the most thrilling leaps ever attempted by a human being. The spot at which the perilous jump was made by the young men in question is known to this day as ‘Gordon’s Leap.’
“I obtained the full particulars of the grave-robbery in which young Gordon participated from a veteran physician of Madison,” continued Mr. Grayson. “I was sitting in the old doctor’s office one day chatting pleasantly with him when I asked him suddenly if he had not in his long career had some experiences that were of more than passing interest. ‘I have had quite a few,’ he replied, with a smile.
“Upon being pressed to narrate some of his experiences he consented, and the first story he told was that of ‘Gordon’s Leap.’ ‘Nearly fifty years ago,’ said the veteran physician, ‘the town of Madison could boast a medical institute. I was a student in the school, together with a number of other young sprigs that were desirous of receiving their initial instruction in that primitive academy of science.
“‘About that time Jonathan W. Gordon, who afterwards turned to the law and became one of the most brilliant advocates of the Indiana bar, was a medical student. He and a young man named John Glass attended a course of private medical lectures given by Drs. B.F. and A.J. Mullen at their office in the town of Napoleon, not far from Versailles, in which Gordon resided.
“‘Dr. J.W. Mullen, a brother of the Napoleon physicians of the same name, came one summer from a Philadelphia medical college, in which he was taking a course of instruction, to visit his brothers. He met and formed a close friendship with young Gordon. One day he received from Gordon a note saying that a body that would be an excellent subject for dissection had just been buried in the cemetery near Versailles and proposing that the trio, Gordon, Mullen, and Glass, make arrangements to lift the corpse from its resting place. The recipient of the note entered heartily into the ghoulish scheme and arrangements were made to carry it out.
“‘It seemed, however, that a Dr. [William] Anderson of Versailles was suspected of entertaining body-snatching proclivities and the people residing in the vicinity of the cemetery made preparations to give him a warm reception if he should make an attempt to secure the subject in question.
“‘At the appointed time Gordon, Mullen and Glass set out for the lonely burial ground, and when they reached the place they began without hesitation the work of disinterring the coffin containing the coveted body. They had dug clear down to the box and were raining blows on that with a pick in order to force it open when the enraged citizens in ambush descended upon them with a fierce rush. The young fellows knew well that to be caught meant nothing short of lynching. There was but one way of escape.
“‘A few yards away was a precipice about one hundred and twenty feet in height, the top of which looked down upon Laughery Creek. Fully fifty feet of the cliff was a perpendicular wall. To the young men was presented the alternative of dying surely, but disgracefully, at the hands of the mob or of risking a less shameful death and possibly gaining liberty by leaping over the frowning precipice. With Gordon to think was to act. Hurling himself like a cannonball towards the precipice and shouting to his comrades to follow, the daring youth leaped without hesitation over the face of the cliff. Fired by their leader’s amazing courage, Glass and Mullen jumped after him. Down the trio plunged for, it seemed, an interminable length of time, clutching frantically at branches of trees projecting from ledges, until at last they fell in one quivering, panting heap of humanity into a tangled mass of brush at the bottom, which served to prevent them from being instantly killed.
“The leap would have been pronounced suicidal by anyone not under the stress that weighed on these young men. They, however, escaped serious injuries and what was better still, vengeance of the mob. Young Glass sustained a dislocation of an arm, while Gordon and Mullen were simply shaken up and bruised.
“The trio of daredevils were afterward arrested and brought to trial on a charge of grave-robbing, but fortunately made good their escape through the astuteness of Judge Miles Eggleston, father of the famous author [Edward Eggleston], who discovered a flaw in the indictment against the young men. . .”
The doctor’s version of “Gordon’s Leap” that Grayson heard probably had a couple of serious errors. The Mullen brother who accompanied Gordon and Glass to the graveside was almost definitely Bernard, who would have been about twenty if the jump happened in 1845. (Gordon was about twenty-five.) Several sources suggest that both Bernard Mullen and Jonathan Gordon were forced to run away and join the army during the Mexican War due to the fallout from their “ghoulish scheme.”
As long ago as 1884, the truth or falsehood of the leap was hotly debated. On May 15, a piece appeared in the Versailles Republican. The writer said that he had asked Gordon himself about the location of the famous jump:
We asked him if we had been correctly informed as to the locality. As he had visited the spot the day before, he was certain as to the place from which he leaped. But he says he jumped from a tree that stood upon the verge of the bluff and now that tree is not only gone but ten or more feet of the bank is gone. At all events, it was a fearful leap. One of the men, who was with him, also jumped and received severe injuries…
As to the identity of the coveted corpse that night, the Versailles Republican claimed: “A black man had just been buried there, and it was his body the students were after.”
The story of the leap stayed alive in folklore but varied from telling to telling. The location became a famous Ripley County landmark. In 1941, the WPA’s travel guide to Indiana mentioned it. (WPA writers collected a large amount of Hoosier folklore during the Great Depression, though sadly not much of it made it into the WPA guides.) The author makes no mention of any of the Irish Mullen brothers, claiming instead that Gordon and Glass were studying with the Dublin-trained physician Dr. William Anderson — who was, in fact, practicing in Versailles around that time. In the WPA writer’s abbreviated telling, when the lynch mob showed up, Glass escaped through the foliage, while Gordon jumped over the cliff, broke a leg, and dragged himself to a cabin, where he got hold of a horse and fled the county.
More variations are told. Ripley County in Vintage Postcards states that “Glass ran the wrong direction and fell over the precipice.” Alan F. Smith, author of Tales of Versailles, insists that the “leaper” was John Glass. Smith also adds: “Dr. Gordon lost a patient and could not understand why. He was quite interested in performing an autopsy on the body, but the family of the deceased would have nothing to do with the desecration. . . In the darkness, Glass ran over the cliff. . . but, perhaps because Gordon was the dead patient’s doctor, the general public always held the belief that it was he who had jumped.”
Folkorist Ron Baker caught one more elaboration of the tale, which shows up in his classic anthology Hoosier Folk Legends (1982).As someone told Baker: “There was a Dr. Gordon in Versailles. There had been a strange death. Gordon thought an old man’s wife had poisoned him and wanted an autopsy. The family wouldn’t let him. One night real late, he dug up the body. When he got the casket open, the cops and the family came out. Gordon took off running. There’s a 200-250 foot drop cliff at the edge of the cemetery. At the foot of the cliff is Versailles Lake. Gordon fell off and broke a leg. He swam away, and no one ever saw him after that. Now this is called Gordon’s Leap.” (This is certainly false. Versailles Lake, a reservoir, was constructed by damming Laughery Creek in the 1950s.)
Unfortunately, the story wouldn’t be complete without the harrowingly sad coda Grayson appended to it in 1901.
Lest Gordon be considered a hero rather than a grave robber, it’s important to remember that the bodies stolen from rural and urban cemeteries by “resurrection men” were, more often than not, African American. (So were many of the resurrectionists themselves.) White doctors were rarely prosecuted for theft, however, especially if the body was black, whereas African American “ghouls” in their employ often went to court and were sometimes shot and killed by police on the spot.
At one time (1884) the Versailles Republican mentioned that the town’s citizens were considering putting up a monument to Gordon “the leaper.” (In fact, the Ripley County Historical Society erected a historical marker at the Cliff Hill Cemetery in 2013). It is worth noting that no such marker exists to memorialize the thousands of African American bodies robbed from Indiana cemeteries over at least a century.
But I’ll leave it to the doctor from Madison to tell this tale. The date isn’t mentioned, but he claims the event happened before the Civil War:
There is but one authenticated instance of body-snatching in the Madison cemetery, the body taken being that of an old colored man named Taylor. The reason body-snatching was rare in Madison was that we usually got our subjects from rural graveyards. But to return to the Taylor case: A son of the old man was employed as a messenger in the office of Dr. H., in Madison, and after his father died the lad suspected his employer of having stolen the remains. This suspicion, I remember, was aroused by a remark the youth overheard Dr. H. make. The poor boy suffered intensely from his suspicions of his employer, for in those days a negro’s word was worthless against that of a white.
One day, when the doctor was out of his office, the boy decided to put into effect a plan he had evolved. He knew that the doctor had in his closet a skeleton that he used for purposes of study and demonstration. He also knew that his father, when living, had struck himself on the ankle bone with an ax, chipping off a piece of the bone.
Gaining entrance to the closet, the youth peered long and earnestly at the grewsome object suspended therein. Oddly enough one ankle bone of the skeleton had had a piece chipped from it. To the mind of the imaginative young darky the skeleton of his father, as he verily believed it to be, seemed to curse the ruthless hand that had dragged it from its peaceful place in the City of the Dead.
Years rolled by and the doctor disappeared from our midst, entering the Confederate army and becoming a surgeon in the Civil War. The colored office boy grew to manhood, married and had offspring gathered about him. Death visited his little home one day and took from him one of the little ones. The hideous vision he had had in the doctor’s office before came back to him suddenly and with wonderful distinctness. Here was his opportunity to satisfy himself as to the truth of his surmise formed at that time. Accordingly he requested the sexton of the cemetery to permit the body of the child to be buried in the grave of its grandfather. The official assented and the old grave was re-opened. When the bottom was reached there was found, true to the long-entertained belief, the remnants of a coffin, but no trace of the body it once contained.
One of the earliest newspaper references to Hoosiers celebrating Ireland and its patron saint appeared on April 1, 1837, in the Vincennes Western Sun. On March 17, a “large company” got together at “Mr. Jewel’s Ball Room” in Vincennes. A writer (probably not the paper’s publisher Elihu Stout, who was notoriously pro-slavery and anti-immigrant), wrote that “The utmost harmony and good feeling prevailed; Irishmen, descendants of Irishmen, persons from different nations and all parties, united to do honor to the Illustrious Bishop and Saint of the Emerald Isle.”
A list of toasts drunk in Ireland’s honor took up about half of the front page of the Western Sun that April 1. One toast reads touchingly: to “Ireland, the Land of Love and Beauty.”
In the spirit of republicanism, Patrick Doran, who had immigrated from Ireland to Boston in 1799 at age fifteen and moved to Vincennes in 1836, just a year before he served as toastmaster at Jewel’s Ball Room, offered a tribute to “The human family. No distinction on account of clime or soil.”
Though anti-Catholic feeling in America was strong, hostility was less in Vincennes, an old French town and the cradle of Catholicism in Indiana. The Vincennes group toasted Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell, father of Catholic Emancipation, which restored civil rights to Catholics in Britain and Ireland. “May his efforts to throw off the galling yoke of Britain be so crowned with success, that the sight of an English hireling may be as rare as that of the Snake or Toad in our favored land.”
For all their occasional hypocrisy regarding slavery in the U.S. itself, early Indiana papers almost always took the side of oppressed nations, especially if they were fighting against Great Britain. Ireland’s long struggle for independence, accomplished only in 1921, was one of the major subjects in American newspapers in the 1800s. Hoosier papers, such as the Indiana State Sentinel and the Evansville Daily Journal, enthusiastically supported the idealistic and underequipped Irish revolutionaries who launched rebellion after rebellion against Britain, including a major one in 1848.
When the Famine struck Ireland in the mid-1840s, and starvation and emigration halved its population, the U.S. began to teem with emigrants and exiled revolutionaries fleeing death and persecution in the Emerald Isle. Hoosier papers were naturally drawn into the hot political debates surrounding Ireland’s fate and the great Irish exodus to America.
Indiana was a top destination for the Irish in the 1830s and ’40s. One of the major engineering projects of the day, the construction of the Wabash & Erie Canal, which promised to link Evansville to Lake Erie, required an enormous amount of labor. Thousands of Irish workers dug miles of canal ditches through pestilential marshes and helped drain off ancient wetlands, drastically altering the Hoosier landscape. The Indiana Journal and other papers drew Irish workers here with advertisements of wages and cheap land.
Often paid in whiskey, Irish laborers frequently succumbed to alcoholism, yellow fever, and malaria along the disease-ridden canal. Scottish foremen called “jiggers” often dispensed whiskey in ladles from buckets — perhaps not an altogether bad health move, since whiskey, unlike water, was distilled and not so laden with bacteria. Its long-term effects, however, were of course deadly.
Irish laborers brought some Old World rivalries to America, leading to the little-known “Indiana Irish Wars” of the mid-1830s. Gangs that probably had their roots in longstanding disputes back in Ireland divided off into “Corkonians” and “Fardowns.” Fights erupted that threatened to destroy the canal. The Hoosier “Irish wars” took place mostly around Logansport and Lagro in northern Indiana.
Irish workers eventually saw the result of their backbreaking work abandoned after just a couple of decades, as railroads eclipsed the canal and turned it into a worthless ditch not long after the end of the Civil War.
In an 1890 lecture, Indiana State Geologist John Collett shared a fascinating anecdote from natural history that he had learned from the surveyor Perrin Kent. Kent helped lay out part of the Wabash & Erie Canal near Williamsport in Warren County in the 1830s. As he told Collett, during the heyday of canal construction he ran across some “Irishmen working in the swamp” along the Wabash River. The Irish had discovered the fossilized bones of a mastodon. The surveyor watched as they “extracted the marrow, which had changed to adipocere” — “grave wax” formed from fatty tissues — and used it as grease for their boots. Perhaps the Irish had been doing this for generations with bones found in the rural peat bogs of Ireland. (Before 1883, there used to be a cranberry marsh in Medina Township, Warren County, where settlers harvested cranberries before the swamp was drained. From 1957 to 1972, the Milburn Peat Company of Chicago harvested peat from what was left of the old cranberry bog.)
At a time when a major American political party, the “Know-Nothings,” thrived on anti-immigrant attitudes, some Hoosiers were openly against the Irish influx. Yet nativism was never as bad here as in the East Coast cities, where ethnic riots often broke out. (One of the worst was the bloody 1849 Astor Place Riot in New York City, sparked by a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.) Though the Know-Nothings were the most outspoken opponents of non-Anglo-Saxon immigration, the Whig Party, which disappeared from American politics during the 1860s, was often notoriously “nativist.”
Antebellum midwestern papers, frequently run by European political refugees, were huge supporters of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, which tried to topple the old monarchies. “Young Ireland” was a major revolutionary movement led in part by a man who later played a critical role in the American Civil War.
Thomas Francis Meagher, best known in the U.S. as the commander of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade (decimated at Antietam and Gettysburg), was one of the world’s most famous revolutionaries in 1848. Born in Waterford, Ireland, in 1823, Meagher came from the oppressed Catholic majority. Educated by Jesuits in England, where he learned to speak with an upperclass English accent that his supporters sometimes hated him for, Meagher almost entered the Austrian army but got involved in Irish politics during the dark days of the Famine. As one of the leaders of the failed 1848 rebellion, he was nearly sentenced to death by a judge, but received a mercy verdict and was deported for life to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), at that time a British penal colony at the far end of the world.
Papers in Indiana and Ohio avidly followed Meagher’s fate and were thrilled to report in early 1852 that he had escaped from Tasmania on an American whaling vessel and made a surprise appearance in New York City that May. On June 3, the Indiana Legislature gathered in a committee of “friends of Ireland” headed by James Henry Lane of Lawrenceburg. (Lane soon became the fiery U.S. Senator from Kansas and one of the major fighters in the guerrilla warfare that laid “Bleeding Kansas” waste from 1854 to 1861.) “Jim” Lane’s committee invited Meagher to Indiana and resolved to show solidarity with “the glorious cause for which he was branded and exiled as a felon.” A public letter from Hoosier legislators addressed to the Irish rebel in New York proclaimed “We love Ireland” and congratulates him on his “almost miraculous escape from the myrmidons of British oppression.”
Meagher came west in 1852, but didn’t make it to Indianapolis. He may have stopped in Evansville, since he was in Louisville on December 20 and left for St. Louis on the steamboat Pike the next day. Meagher made another trip to the Midwest in 1858. At 8 o’clock at night on February 19, he gave a speech at the Universalist Church in Terre Haute. His subject: “St. Patrick’s Day and National Anniversaries.” Admission to hear the famous Irish patriot was 25 cents. (The Universalist Church once sat at the corner of 4th & Ohio Streets near the old Vigo County Courthouse. ) Sadly, no transcript or any further mention of Meagher’s talk was published in Terre Haute papers.
Meagher became an American citizen and went on to become the editor of two anti-British newspapers in New York City: the weekly Irish News and (with fellow rebel John Mitchel, who supported the Confederacy) the Citizen. He went to Costa Rica just before the Civil War to explore the possibility of Irish immigration there. Though he had previously supported the South, in 1861 Meagher helped recruit the 69th New York Regiment, the core of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade, a fighting body made up mostly but not entirely of Irish volunteers. Under Brigadier General Meagher’s command, the Irish Brigade bore the brunt of fighting along Bloody Lane at Antietam and was almost entirely wiped out at Gettysburg. Today, a huge monument to Meagher and the Irish volunteers — most of whom were from New York but with many Hoosiers among them — stands next to the lookout tower on the Antietam Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland.
Meagher survived the war, went west as Territorial Governor of Montana, and drowned in the Missouri River near Fort Benton in 1867 when he fell off a steamboat.
One of the notable “Hoosier Irish” who served with distinction in the Civil War was Father William Corby (1833-1897), a Holy Cross priest from Notre Dame and an army chaplain attached to the Irish Brigade. Before the mostly Catholic Irish brigade went into battle on the second day of Gettysburg, Corby famously gave the unit absolution from their sins. Pictured here in 1862 with two other priests who served in the Union Army, Corby went on to become the president of the University of Notre Dame and wrote a bestselling memoir of his experiences in the war.
For all their occasional hostility to the Irish (who were frequently considered an “inferior race” in the nineteenth century), American papers often celebrated Irish wit and humor. In 1883, the Jasper Weekly Courier printed a tale about an elderly Irish woman who showed up at a railroad station just a few seconds too late. Trying to sprint down the platform to catch her train, “she of course came to a halt, when she began to abuse the unaccommodating engine, adding with a ‘nate’ brogue: ‘Faugh! The great black ugly lump! When she gets as old as me, she won’t run so quick!”
One more interesting story that made it into the papers is worth sharing. On St. Patrick’s “Eve”, 1892, sky watchers saw a strange event in several parts of the Midwest.
On March 18, the Indianapolis Journal reported the remarkable atmospheric occurrence. A white cross was hovering around the moon.
For two or three days, in parts of Illinois, the superstitious people have been brought almost to the verge of insanity by curious phenomenal displays that have found their way into the heavens without any apparent business there and without having, so it seems, been heralded by either the Weather Bureau or scientific gentlemen in general. The phenomena has assumed various forms and to the different classes of people who have been sightseers has spoken a various language.
During the past twenty-four hours the papers have contained dispatches from Bloomington and Springfield, Illinois, Fort Dodge, Iowa, and other cities, describing in hectic terms phantasmagoric spectacles seldom before seen except in “hyper-borean” regions. If these dispatches are to be believed, in some cases the empyreal display has been cut bias, in others diagonal, and at all times conveying a mundane idea that the sprites of the heavens, robed in regal costumes of variegated colors, were enjoying a ball masque on the “milky way.”
It remained for Luna, however, to confer her choicest favor upon Indianapolis and vicinity upon St. Patrick’s night. At 11:30 o’clock last night, when the moon was at her best, she appeared in the center of a perfectly formed and perfectly visible cross of milky whiteness. This wonderful display was visible for about thirty minutes, when it gradually merged into a sort of a hazy pale. Such a phenomenal display is attributed entirely to atmospheric conditions. Why the moon should appear in the center of a cross on St. Patrick’s day, however, is something that the atmosphere does not explain.
If the cross had been green, the “Sons of Erin” would have had extra cause to “jollify”:
Volunteers at a booth on Wabash Avenue in Terre Haute, Indiana, around 1922 support freeing Terre Haute native Eugene V. Debs from jail. Five-time Socialist candidate for the U.S. presidency, Debs was imprisoned by the Wilson administration during World War I for opposing the military draft. The sign reads “Ireland is Free — Why Not Debs? Help Bring Debs Home for Christmas.” (Martin Collection, Indiana Historical Society.)
An “eccentric” Sullivan County resident — the Hermit of the Wabash, journalists were calling him — had just survived a winter flood on the river. A late-January thaw sent at least two feet of ice water into the hut he called home. Unable to get to higher ground, the 74-year-old recluse passed two frigid days and nights without heat or food, cooped up under his roof, waiting for the flood to recede. The man was “greatly prostrated by this terrible experience.” Doctors were treating him for exposure.
Many readers around Sullivan and Merom knew this “hermit,” or at least of him. He read and wrote poetry, looked like Tolstoy or John Muir, and lived in a remote rustic shack, like his near-contemporary Henry David Thoreau.
Ruth Eno Durham, a Graysville historian of half a century ago, who probably met the hermit when she was a girl, wrote in 1959: “He was a naturalist, a philosopher, a man of culture and refinement living the life of a mussel man, fisherman and outdoorsman.”
Sullivan County historian Tom Frew even believes the “Hermit of the Wabash” is at the center of one of the great photographic mysteries of the Civil War era. Frew may be right. While identifying the “quiet philosopher” as the mystery man of 1859 is uncertain, he was undoubtedly nearby when that iconic image was made, during one of the meteoric events that led up to the war.
How did this ex-Confederate, nature lover, and happy recluse get to a remote corner of the Hoosier State?
Back in 1885, as Ruth Durham recalled, a “small boat with a lone occupant” came up the Wabash and landed at Merom, next to some men out fishing the river for mussels. Midwestern rivers then were full of these creatures. The meat provided food, while their glistening shells were shipped to thriving button factories in Cincinnati. Several small Indiana river towns prospered in the button industry in those days. Mussel harvesting was not banned until 1991.
The lone stranger announced himself. He was “Captain Roland Smythe,” a pseudonym. “He went up the ferry road,” Durham writes, “got some supplies and rowed on up the river.” Easing into the mouth of Turman’s Creek where it flows into the Wabash, the strange boatman met Ruth’s father-in-law, Dr. John L. Durham, “who was standing there and owned the land.”
Smythe and the doctor became friends right away. Durham let him build a two-room hut, christened “Solitude,” on the property he owned with his wife, Mary Mann Durham. The mysterious newcomer lived there for more than twenty years. “Solitude” sat on a high bank of the Wabash, a spot less prone to flooding — though in 1904, his luck ran out.
George Bicknell, a minor Hoosier poet from Sullivan, went out to meet the hermit at Turman’s Creek one summer. His article in Craftsman magazine (September 1909) describes the visit.
Bicknell and others reported that the fascinating hermit was intensely religious, though (like John Muir) unconventionally so. A graduate of the University of Virginia, Smythe was “able to express his thought brilliantly [and] has often been urged to write for publication, but he always refuses . . . [He] says always he prefers to live his song rather than sing it.”
Like Thoreau, who “traveled a great deal in Concord,” discovering the multitude of life in a small place, Captain Smythe was not always solitary. “Hundreds of people visit him every year,” Bicknell wrote. “Many unusual and curious questions are asked him . . . His understanding and knowledge of the classics is unusual. He probably has not seen a set of Shakespeare in forty years, yet there are whole passages from any of the plays which he can give you word for word . . . “
Hundreds of visitors came to “Solitude” to see how he lived the so-called “simple” life. Eventually, the hermit’s own children came. Around 1900, a daughter who lived back East “followed his trail” out to Indiana. Two years after the flood, a 1906 article in the Hutsonville Herald claims:
this daughter, a member of the wealthy inner social circles of New York, found him cooking a meal on his broken-down stove. There was a pathetic scene. She sat on the river banks pleading his return to ‘civilization’ . . . It was then he declared that the ‘wilderness of houses’ and the cramped life held nothing out to him. ‘I will stay near to nature and live with her,’ he declared.
The true identity of “Captain Roland Smythe” was probably not known to anyone in Sullivan County then. He was born Robert Alexander Caskie in Richmond, Virginia, in 1830. The Hutsonville Herald writer mistakenly thought he came from an aristocratic Old Virginia family, “blue bloods . . . whose forefathers dwelt in mansions on the James.” Caskie’s father, in fact, was an immigrant from Ayrshire, Scotland.
The future hermit was educated at the University of Virginia, one of the greatest southern universities during the period. On December 20, 1859, he married Amanda Gregory, daughter of a former Virginia governor, John Munford Gregory. When the Civil War broke out, Caskie went on to serve as captain of Caskie’s Rangers, a mounted company in the 10th Virginia Cavalry. He fought in many of the major battles of the war, including the last one, at Appomattox, where he was mustered out, having been promoted to colonel in February 1865.
A broken man at war’s end, Robert Caskie went back to his family’s tobacco business. But with the South in ruins, he eventually took his family west, becoming one of the biggest tobacco merchants in Missouri. In the late 1870s, the Caskie family was living at Rocheport, on the Missouri River, just west of Columbia.
Bankrupted by a lawsuit back in Virginia, around 1884 the desperate tobacco dealer abandoned his family. On the verge of being driven into poverty, he seems to have chosen it on his own terms. It was then that he rowed up the Wabash, seeking (it seems) a remote place to hide from creditors and his family alike. Durham thought he was too proud to live on his wife’s money.
Robert Caskie had become “Captain Roland Smythe.”
Whatever else his visitors knew about his life, it was an event he had witnessed back in 1859, just a few weeks before he married the daughter of the ex-governor of Virginia, that really stuck in their minds.
In October of that year, the radical abolitionist John Brown tried to spark and arm a massive slave revolt by raiding the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry on the Potomac. Brown’s raid failed catastrophically, inducing anxiety among Virginians. Considered the greatest “terrorist” of his time, the much-hated Brown was scheduled to be hanged on December 2.
To increase security while Brown languished in a Charlestown prison a few miles from Harpers Ferry, Virginia governor Henry Wise had organized several militia companies. One formed in Richmond was known as the “Richmond Greys.” Robert Alexander Caskie appears in their roll book and, as he told the poet George Bicknell, he went to Charlestown that November.
Stopping at the jail where John Brown was being held, Caskie managed to strike up a conversation and friendship with the condemned abolitionist. The 29-year-old Caskie even got permission from Brown’s guard to bring him the newspapers. He also claims that it was he who finally convinced Brown to send a telegram to Philadelphia for his wife.
On December 2, 1859, Caskie watched as Brown stepped up to the gallows, his body on the way to “mouldering in the grave,” as the famous enemy of slavery was memorialized in a Civil War song. Many years later, Caskie described what he saw to George Bicknell:
The wagon was driven through the line and up close to the gallows. John Brown jumped to the ground and skipped up the steps to the platform as though he were a mere boy.
The gallows was unusually high, giving a view of a landscape unsurpassed for its beauty and grandeur. The sun shone with all its brightness, the grass was still green.
It is possible, even likely, that Robert A. Caskie appears in two of the most famous images taken at the time of that event. These are two ambrotypes — a “relative” of the daguerreotype — that languished in obscurity until 1911. Historians generally agree they depict the Richmond Greys and were made in Charlestown just before Brown’s execution. The first one, known as “RG #1,” has become one of the iconic images of the Civil War era. (It was featured in Ken Burns’ famous documentary and book.)
Robert A. Caskie, the “Hermit of the Wabash,” might be the man with the mustache and goatee standing in the middle of “RG#1.” Comparing this to the few other images we have of him, including in old age, the faces are similar.
“RG #1” is a famously contentious image. At least three of the men depicted here — including the one now thought to be Caskie — have been “forensically” examined and identified as John Wilkes Booth. The other two men stand in the left corner.
Lincoln’s assassin, in fact, saw John Brown’s hanging. It is thought that Booth was leaving a theater in Richmond when the Richmond Greys marched by, and the 21-year-old Shakespearean actor bought a uniform from them. Booth definitely witnessed Brown’s last moments.
Booth, too, has a surprising connection to Indiana. His father, the English actor Junius Brutus Booth, fell ill and died on a riverboat on the Ohio River across from southern Indiana in 1852, while en route from New Orleans to Cincinnati, probably after drinking river water.
Under pressure from his children, and “after he became too old to stand the rigors of the river,” Robert Caskie finally left the Wabash Valley around 1910.
In June 1931, a writer for the Sullivan Union remembered that after he left “Solitude,” “Captain Smythe” lived with Ed Salee’s family in Sullivan, then moved off to Indianapolis with the Salee family. One of Caskie’s sons eventually came out to Indianapolis from New York or Philadelphia. “This was the last that was ever heard of the old hermit of the Wabash by the Salees or anybody in this community.”
But the hermit’s adventure was not done. In 1922, aged 90, he applied for a passport and traveled to France and Switzerland, where he lived with a daughter.
Aged 98, Col. Robert Caskie died of heatstroke in Philadelphia in August 1928 and was buried there. In later years, “The Hermit” was reburied at Richmond’s historic Hollywood Cemetery, near many of the honored Confederate dead.
From the late 1800’s into the early years of the 20th century, Indiana’s capital city had a body problem. How to protect people who were already dead?
Around 1900, even supernatural visitors to the city’s cemeteries would not have been surprised to find “the quick” prowling among the dead. For decades, grave robbers and vandals regularly stalked Indianapolis’ burial grounds – until the city took bold steps to stop them.
An early description of how big the “body-snatcher” problem was comes from an article in the Indianapolis Journal, published just before Halloween on October 27, 1899. The story concerns a shocking discovery at the Greenlawn Cemetery.
You’d be hard pressed to find any trace of Greenlawn today, but for most of the nineteenth century, this was one of the major city cemeteries. Founded in 1821, while Indianapolis was first being laid out, Greenlawn was the original city burying grounds. Situated along the White River just north of what became Kentucky Ave., the cemetery is thought to have been the oldest in Indianapolis. (Tiny family cemeteries may have existed in the area before then, but no trace of them has been found.) Today, the once hallowed 25-acre spot is occupied by the Diamond Chain Company, just west of Lucas Oil Stadium and just north of where I-70 crosses the river. (The company once manufactured about 60% of the bicycle chains in America.)
Over 1100 Hoosier pioneers were interred at Greenlawn. Vermont-born Indiana governor James Whitcomb (1795-1852) lay there until his daughter ordered his body moved to massive, prestigious Crown Hill Cemetery in 1898. Among those who also found their first, but not final, resting place by the White River were 1200 Union soldiers and over 1600 Confederate POW’s who died of illnesses and battle wounds at the U.S. Army’s Camp Morton or in city hospitals nearby.
Greenlawn, however, shared the fate of all those who came to call it home in the nineteenth century. The cemetery, too, died. Indianapolis’ downtown burying grounds faced all the normal cemetery problems, such as vandalism of tombstones by youth and overcrowding, especially after the numerous Civil War interments. Spring and winter floods on the White River were also a major factor behind its closure to new burials in 1890.
But another cause also drove the city to declare Greenlawn itself “defunct”, and was far more disturbing in nature. As Indianapolis newspapers reminded their readers in 1899, the problem had been around for decades.
While performing some of the earliest removals out to Crown Hill, families and city officials unearthed the grisly fact that “in reality, few if any bodies” buried at Greenlawn prior to the 1890’s were still in their graves.
Robbing a grave for jewels and other valuables is a tale as old as time. Preventative measures against the desecration of graves and theft of items meant to stay with the dead had actually led to the creation of some of the greatest mortuary art, including Egypt’s pyramids. Even daring archaeologists were technically glorified grave robbers. The plot of William Faulkner’s great novel Intruder in the Dust (1948) centers around a spinster and a teenager trying to clandestinely remove a body from a fictional cemetery in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, to prove a man innocent.
Outright theft of bodies themselves, however, was something that really only emerged after the 1500’s, when the more accurate study of human anatomy initiated the emergence of modern medical science. In the early days of modern medicine, however, the primary provider of bodies for anatomical study was the public hangman, not the grave robber. Rembrandt’s famous painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp shows doctors-in-training gathered around the body of a Dutch thief, Aris Kindt, who had been strung up on a rope just a few hours before he went to the dissecting table.
Before many centuries were out, though, doctors began to find that live thieves were also useful. In the 1800’s, medical faculties often had trouble finding enough bodies for their students to dissect in classrooms. Families were reluctant to donate their loved ones to science. Tragically, the bodies that medical instructors typically got hold of came from the most victimized and outcast members of society. When available, corpses for the dissecting room were found at poorhouses, jails, and mental asylums, for the simple reason that those who died there had often been abandoned by their families.
While many vocal opponents tried to stop the dissection of the poor, if none came to claim a body as a “friend,” medical faculties were legally allowed to use such corpses for the education of future doctors. Most states passed so-called “Anatomy Acts,” modeled on Britain’s of 1832.
It should come as no surprise that the largest number of bodies dissected by medical students from the 1800’s into the 1930’s were those of African Americans. A high number of those paid or encouraged to do the grave-robbing were also black. African Americans often served as medical assistants to white students, as many turn-of-the-century photographs of dissections show, but rarely became doctors then.
The clandestine pilfering of Indianapolis’ unguarded cemeteries stemmed from a constant need for fresh “instructional material” at central Indiana medical schools, including Indiana Medical College, the Physiomedrical College of Indiana, and Greencastle’s Asbury College (now DePauw). Indiana University in Bloomington did not offer courses in anatomy or physiology until September 1903.
The Central College of Physicians and Surgeons, at 212 North Senate Avenue, was built in 1902 and immediately showed up in lurid news stories about illegal body snatching. (The college was an early forerunner of IU Medical School.) Readers of stories in the Indianapolis Journal could easily have formed an image of the college’s medical faculty scouring obituary notices and hiring thieves to steal fresh bodies as soon as the last family member left the cemetery after a funeral. One such story was reported on September 22, 1902. Mrs. Rosa Neidlinger, recently buried at Pleasant Hill Cemetery between Traders Point and New Augusta, was recovered at Central College a few days later. Investigators returned her to her husband, a miller, for a second burial.
The preferred word in newspapers for grave robbers was “ghouls” (a word that comes from Middle Eastern folklore.) At least one story shows that ghouls and their employers were sometimes caught red-handed.
On February 26, 1890, the Journal reported that three prominent Louisville physicians had been apprehended and indicted for body-thievery at a New Albany, Indiana cemetery. Four “ghouls”, all African American, employed by the Kentucky doctors were involved. One ghoul, George Brown, was shot through the heart by policemen in the cemetery.
The Journal article from October 1899 describes the bizarre dimensions of the problem at Greenlawn in Indianapolis. Families who ordered exhumations of their relatives at Greenlawn were discovering an astonishingly high rate of empty coffins — or to put it more accurately, coffins with only empty clothes left in them. No bones, no hair. Only shrouds and clothing. Were robbers stripping the bodies at graveside?
A man presumably on trial in Marion County for grave-robbing explained this odd fact to the writer for the Journal, who reported:
At first it was customary to open a grave and take the body out, clothes and all, and either strip it naked on the ground or double it up in a sack and remove the clothes after taking it to a safe place.
This practice was discontinued when one day the city was thrown into an uproar over the finding of a girl’s slipper in the snow beside her newly made grave. She had been buried one afternoon in winter when snow was falling and her relatives came back the following day to look at the grave. Between visits the grave robbers got in their work, and, following the usual custom, did not remove the clothing from the body, but doubled it up and put it in a sack. In doing so one of the dainty slippers fell from one of the feet, and, being white, was not noticed in the snow. During the following morning the snow melted and the relatives, returning to the grave, saw the slipper, and, recognizing it, raised a hue and cry. This made the grave robbers change their methods, and thereafter opening the boxes they stripped all bodies of their clothes and put the garments back in the caskets.
This when related to the authorities explained why in opening the graves within the last few months nothing was to be seen in the caskets but piles of discolored clothes thrown in heaps, with slippers where the head ought to have rested. . .
It has come to be generally understood by the city officials that while Greenlawn has all the outward signs of being a cemetery, there are in reality few, if any, bodies there, and that in view of this fact there should be no opposition to its being transformed into a park.
The Journal writer may not have been exaggerating. Grave robbers and doctors were possibly reluctant to disturb the honored Union dead, who were removed to Crown Hill National Cemetery as early as 1866. Can the same be said of the Confederate dead? Greenlawn’s 1600 Confederate soldiers were the last bodies removed once the city decided to exhume every remaining coffin in Greenlawn for reburial at Crown Hill. This process began in 1912, and was sped up by the fact that the area around Greenlawn had become an unattractive industrial area, which it still is today. The Confederate soldiers were left here until 1931. Buried in a damp area by the river, few of their remains likely would have survived 70 years after the Civil War. Could some of them have been sent to medical schools just after burial?
One of the most fascinating criminal cases in Indianapolis history is the story of Rufus Cantrell. An African American who had moved north from Gallatin, Tennessee with his family and settled in Indianapolis, he was prosecuted for extensive grave-robbing in 1903. When pressed, and perhaps enjoying the media attention, Cantrell came clean, taking investigators around cemeteries all over the city where he and his “gang” had removed corpses. Lawyers tried to prove their client insane, even getting his mother to testify that he had preached and talked to God when he was a teenager.
Cantrell was found guilty and sent to the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City, where he “lay dying of typhoid fever” in June 1904. He survived and later was transferred to the Jeffersonville Reformatory near Louisville. Though few if any white doctors who paid ghouls for their services ever got such sentences, Dr. Joseph C. Alexander, who allegedly worked with Cantrell, went on trial in Marion County in February 1903. When the court failed to convict him, angry farmers in Hamilton County hanged and burned effigies of Dr. Alexander and the judge in the middle of a street in Fishers, shouting “Death to the grave robbers!” When they inspected the graves in a rural cemetery on what became Indianapolis’ North Side, half of the coffins there were found empty.
In 1878, there had occurred the well-publicized heist of Benjamin Harrison’s own father from the family cemetery in North Bend, Ohio. Former Congressman John Scott Harrison, son of Indiana territorial governor and U.S. President William Henry Harrison, was found hanging naked from a rope in an air shaft at Ohio Medical College in Cincinnati, shortly after his son Benjamin came from Indianapolis to oversee his secure burial in a secret grave. Amazingly, John Harrison, Jr., armed with a search warrant, had discovered his father’s body while investigating the disappearance of yet another corpse, that of Augustus Devin, a young tuberculosis victim who had been buried next to the Harrison plot just days earlier. Devin’s body turned up in a vat of brine at the University of Michigan.
All this considered, a major factor driving the surge in burials at Crown Hill at the turn of the century was the increased security taken there to ward off robbers. Modeled on Louisville’s famous (and equally massive) Cave Hill Cemetery, Crown Hill was the resting place of most of Indianapolis’ elite. It eventually became the third largest private burial ground in the country.
As a lengthy article in the the Journal reported on October 5, 1902, surveillance at Crown Hill was extensive. Security involved call boxes for quick communication. It also featured a curious system of “time stamps”. Revolver-toting guards were forced to clock in at different corners of the cemetery every 20 minutes, thus ensuring they didn’t fall asleep or shirk their duties as they monitored every part of the park-like necropolis, which in 1902 housed over 32,000 graves. If they encountered prowlers, the guards were ordered to shoot to kill, and they patrolled the cemetery in all weather. The northwest section, near the future site of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, was considered Crown Hill’s “most dangerous district.”
Body-thieving never totally disappeared. (The actor Charlie Chaplin was stolen from his grave in Switzerland in 1978.) The public also feared other reasons for desecration. When Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was buried with his family at Terre Haute’s Highland Lawn Cemetery in 1926, no individual headstone was placed there. Though Debs’ body had been cremated, the Debs family and his supporters feared that unfriendly vandals or “souvenir”-snatchers, perhaps funded by his political enemies, would try to steal the urn.
Such stories are troubling to read, but a vital part of the city’s history, involving race, science, and medicine. Ultimately, it is a strange fact, surely part of the terror and beauty of the human predicament, that many a grave robber, who almost certainly came from the margins of Indianapolis society, ultimately did help advance medicine and the public welfare.