On September 30, 1902, the Indianapolis Journal reported on “one of the most remarkable cases of grave robbing ever known” in Indianapolis. Authorities arrested a ring of grave robbers who were supplying corpses to Dr. Joseph C. Alexander, an anatomy professor at the Central Medical College.
In 1885, neighbors of James and Mary McMullen recovered their smoldering bodies from their burning house near Elmdale. Examination of their corpses revealed that they had been physically assaulted. Authorities arrested 23-year-old John Coffee for the murders. A jury subsequently convicted Coffee of the double homicide, and the judge sentenced him to be executed by hanging. Coffee became the first person executed in Montgomery County on October 16, 1885.
The execution was held in the courtyard of the Montgomery County Jail, a building which still stands and exists as a museum today. A newspaper account of the execution described it as “one of the most horrible affairs of the kind ever witnessed. When the drop fell, the rope broke and the body dropped to the ground. The neck was not broken, but the shock caused the blood to spurt from the wretched man’s ears.” The executioners carried him back up the scaffolding, readjusted the noose, and Coffee was dropped a second time when the rope broke again. After a third try, the executioners succeeded with their grisly task in front of a throng of admission-paying citizens who were “nearly overcome with horror.”
It wasn’t long thereafter that stories about Coffee’s ghost began circulating in newspapers. Do you believe everything you read in the papers? Or not? Happy Halloween reading!
Today in history, on October 25, 1916, American Impressionist William Merritt Chase died. Chase was born in 1849 in Williamsburg (now Ninevah), Johnson County, Indiana. He spent some of his youth in Indianapolis before pursuing an art career in New York City, St. Louis, and Europe.
Two of his obits can be accessed in Chronicling America below.
The 1900 U.S. Census reported that Plymouth, Indiana, located in a rich agricultural area in north-central Indiana, had a population over 3,600. The town had supported two major newspapers, the Plymouth Republicanand the Plymouth Democrat, since the 1850s. With the rise of Populism in the 1890s, another newspaper debuted in Plymouth in 1894, the Marshall County Independent.
Albert R. Zimmerman started the Independent as an eight page weekly. He took on A. D. Smith as a partner in July 1895, changed the paper to a semiweekly titled the Plymouth Semi-Weekly Independent, and began issuing a daily edition, the Plymouth Daily Independent. Reported circulation for the Independent was 750 in 1897, barely half the respective circulations for its in-town rivals. In 1896, Smith sold his interest to Zimmerman who then sold the paper to Silas H. Joseph and Clinton H. Grube. The new owners split management and editing duties, but after a year they sold the Independent to Clay W. Metsker.
In 1897, Metsker changed the title back to the Marshall County Independent and by 1900 returned to a weekly publication schedule. By then, the Independent was faring well in terms of circulation with its chief competitors, the Republican and Democrat. In March 1902, Metsker purchased the Plymouth Democrat and continued issuing the daily edition as the Daily Independent, but he switched the title of the weekly edition from the Independent to the Weekly Democrat. The acquisition of the Democrat nearly doubled the Independent’s weekly circulation from 1,650 to 3,200. Metsker retired the Independent name completely in 1909 when he started issuing the daily edition as the Plymouth Daily Democrat. Metsker sold the paper in March 1931. The new owners changed the daily title to the Plymouth Daily News and discontinued the weekly edition of the Democrat in 1941.
Click on the links throughout this essay to access digitized issues of the Sentinel through Chronicling America
After shuttering the Wabash Enquirer in Terre Haute, the Chapman brothers, George A. and Jacob P., moved to Indianapolis and purchased the Indiana Democrat, and Spirit of the Constitution in 1841. The Chapmans renamed the newspaper the Indiana State Sentinel and produced its first issue on July 21, 1841. The Sentinel was a Democratic paper and displayed on the masthead the party mascot, a rooster, with the motto, “Crow, Chapman, Crow!” The majority of Indiana’s elected officials throughout the 1840s and 1850s were Democrats, and the Sentinel became the preeminent Democratic organ in the state during these decades and the major foil to the city’s Whig and later Republican voice, the Indianapolis Journal. The Chapman brothers issued the Sentinel as a weekly but produced a daily edition while the Indiana General Assembly was in session from 1841 to 1844. In 1845, the newspaper inaugurated the twice-weekly Indiana State Sentinel. A tri-weekly edition also appeared during legislative sessions. After 1853, the weekly version was called the Weekly Indiana State Sentinel.
Austin H. Brown acquired complete control of the paper in 1850 and made it a year-round daily on April 28, 1851. The Sentinel changed hands at least six times during the next decade, which partly contributed to the paper’s loss of influence and subscribers. During the Civil War years, the Daily State Sentinel and the weekly Indiana State Sentinelwere vocal critics of the Republican-controlled government.The Sentinel’seditor, Joseph J. Bingham, was arrested by the army for treason and conspiracy. Bingham ultimately turned government witness in the Indianapolis trial by military commission in 1864 of Harrison H. Dodd and others accused of involvement in a Copperhead conspiracy. This turmoil contributed to the decline of the Sentinel. In July 1865, Charles W. Hall and a partner acquired the paper and changed its name to the Indianapolis Daily Herald. Fifteen months later, the newspaper went into receivership. In 1868, its name reverted back to the Indianapolis Daily Sentinel, and there also appeared a weekly edition, the Indiana State Sentinel. The paper continued to change hands until 1872 when it was acquired by the Sentinel Company, which dropped “Daily” from the title. Circulation figures for the daily edition averaged about 6,000 between 1869 and 1888. The name was changed several more times over the next few years before finally returning to the Indianapolis Sentinel in 1880. The Sentinel’s weekly edition, with a strong readership among Indiana farmers and stock-raisers, enjoyed a circulation of 12,000 during this period.
In February 1888, Samuel E. Morss purchased the paper and helped to return the Sentinel to the level of influence it had enjoyed back in the 1850s. Morss came to the Sentinel after editing the Fort Wayne Gazette and Fort Wayne Daily Sentinel and co-founding the Kansas City [MO] Evening Star. According to a contemporary source, the Sentinel under Morss “has been constantly progressive and eminently the advocate and champion of clean politics, good government and civil service reform.” During Morss’s tenure (1888-1903), circulation averaged 18,091 for the daily (which was issued as the Indianapolis Globe for a few weeks in 1903), and 49,389 for the weekly edition. Despite these impressive figures, the Sentinel faced growing competition and financial difficulties. The paper had failed to take a stand on the dominant political question of 1890s regarding free silver and consequently lost subscriptions and advertising revenue. In an effort to lure back readers and to compete with cheaper papers, the weekly subscription rate was dropped from a dollar to fifty cents in 1898, causing circulation to spike to 100,000 in 1901-05. The daily’s yearly subscription was also reduced from six dollars to three dollars. Morss died unexpectedly on October 23, 1903. A group led by Democratic National Committee Chairman Thomas Taggart took over the Sentinel for a few months before Frank T. Baker purchased it. Under Baker, the Sentinel adopted a more sensationalist tone associated with the yellow press. The Indianapolis Sentinel ceased publication on February 25, 1906.
 The motto “Crow, Chapman, Crow!” reportedly originated in reference to Hancock County, Indiana politician Joseph Chapman, and not the Chapman brothers.
On February 16, 1868, John Baer left his home in Thornhope, Pulaski County, Indiana. He had $3,000 on his person to buy livestock at Star City. Baer was never seen or heard from again. Unless, of course, you believe the testimony of one of his neighbors, Gabriel Fickle, who contended that on the 30th anniversary of Baer’s disappearance his ghost appeared to him. What did Baer’s ghost say? You can read about the spooky encounter in the Marshall County Independent by clicking below.
October is here, and soon it will be Halloween. Halloween celebrants may be interested to discover what can be found in historic newspapers, including tales of ghosts and hauntings. I stumbled across the following article (see image) yesterday about a haunting near Big Lake, better known as Lake of the Woods, near Bremen in Marshall County.
As a historian, I immediately wanted to know if there was primary source evidence of the person and event the paper referenced. I found Gottlieb Haslinger in the 1870 U.S. Census. He was born about 1826 in Württemberg, Germany. He immigrated to the United States in 1854. In the 1870 census, the census taker listed him as a hotel keeper with his brother, William.
Gottlieb Haslinger did in fact exist, but the paper was recounting events from two decades earlier. Was Haslinger really murdered, or was it local lore that started circulating? Then I found this article reporting his death in the January 7, 1875 issue of the Marshall County Republican. The article also recounts another mysterious death that occurred at the same place a year before.
Was the area really haunted or not? Does Haslinger’s ghost still roam the area? Only a team of ghost hunters could presume to answer the questions. As for historical researchers like me, it is interesting to find primary sources for a person and event that might just as well be dismissed as fanciful fiction and folklore concocted to drive newspaper sales.
The Marshall County Democrat debuted on November 15, 1855, in Plymouth, an agricultural community in north-central Indiana. The paper originated not long after the Kansas-Nebraska Act divided the Democratic Party. While the Marshall County Democrat declared, “Slavery is wrong, either North or South of the Missouri Compromise line,” it also endorsed popular sovereignty stating, “All territory is free until it becomes a State, and then the people alone can control the institutions.” Thomas McDonald co-founded the paper, and he and his sons, Platt and Daniel, and grandsons, John and Louis, would intermittently own the Democrat over the next 47 years.
During the Civil War, Daniel E. VanValkenburgh acquired the newspaper, which the Union Army suppressed in May 1863. Early that month, General Ambrose Burnside issued General Orders No. 38 which permitted military commissions to try any private citizen who expressed opposition to the Lincoln administration or sympathy for the Southern rebels. VanValkenburgh editorialized on what he viewed as Lincoln’s abuses of power, and lamented, “It may be that our liberties are ‘clean gone forever.’” The last straw was VanValkenburgh’s criticism of Burnside’s lieutenant, General Milo S. Hascall. The Democrat wrote, “Brig. Gen. Hascall is a donkey, an unmitigated, unqualified donkey, and his bray is long, loud and harmless.” A few days later, Union soldiers arrested VanValkenburgh and brought him before General Burnside in Cincinnati to answer charges of treason. Burnside ultimately released VanValkenburgh but cautioned him to be more careful of his criticisms in the future.
After several changes in ownership, the McDonalds reacquired interest in the Democrat in 1869. By 1877, Daniel McDonald had become complete owner, and with the exception of an interruption in 1879-81, he owned and edited the paper until 1902. By 1894, the Democrat had expanded to eight pages. It reached its peak circulation around that time with a reported 1,650 copies.
Clay W. Metsker, the owner of the Marshall County Independent, acquired the Democrat in March 1902. He merged the two publications but continued issuing them under separate titles as daily and weekly editions respectively until 1909 when the Democrat replaced the Independent as the daily edition. Metsker sold out to Roland B. Metsker and Heyward P. Gibson in March 1931. The new owners renamed the paper the Plymouth Daily News. They also retained the Democrat title for the weekly edition until discontinuing it in January 1941.
It’s a sad day for digitized historic newspapers today. The federal government shutdown has stopped access to over 6 million pages of newspapers on Chronicling America! Gasp!
Fortunately, we have new content to share, and maybe reading the funny pages from 1903 will help cheer you up. Below are pages from the first comics insert to appear in the Indianapolis Journal on September 6, 1903.