Category Archives: African-American History

The Intriguing Tale of Pogue’s Run: A Civil War “Battle,” Ghosts, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin

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When you dig through old newspapers for a living, you find out pretty fast that almost every street corner has an entertaining story and sometimes a haunt or two.  Like the once-wild Pogue’s Run, a harnessed underwater ghost that trickles through subterranean Indianapolis, most of these stories are “out of sight, out of mind.”

Here’s a glimpse of the spectral history of the capitol city’s Near East Side.

Pogue’s Run, which in 1914 was re-channeled underground just north of New York Street before it flowed through downtown in tunnels, owes its name to a man who also vanished from sight.   Generally considered the first permanent white settler in Marion County, George Pogue, a “broad-shouldered,” dark-haired South Carolinian and blacksmith, was also, according to some accounts, the first recorded murder victim and the only man ever killed by American Indians in Indianapolis.

Settling in this isolated part of the new Hoosier state in March 1819, Pogue built a cabin for his family of seven, roughly where Pogue’s Run goes underneath today’s Michigan and Market Streets.  The family’s cabin sat near the old swamp that used to occupy most of the northeast outskirts of downtown.  Also called Perkins Run after another early settler who left the area “on account of loneliness,” the old stream in 1819 was wild and often flooded, not the sad open ditch and sewage channel it had become just a few decades later.


Indianapolis Journal January 5 1890


As an Indianapolis Journal article from January 5, 1890, reported, around the first of April, 1821, a Delaware or Wyandotte Indian known to whites as “Wyandot John” showed up at the Pogue family’s cabin.  Rumor had it that the wanderer was an outlaw among the Delawares.  He was probably also a horse thief — one of the worst offenses in those days.

Mrs. Pogue objected to Wyandot John being around the cabin, but the blacksmith gave him breakfast.  Some of Pogue’s horses had gone missing, and the visitor told him to go over to a Delaware  camp on Buck Creek twelve miles away.

Striking out into the woods, George Pogue, like the creek that still bears his name, never came back.  His murdered body may have been sent floating downstream.  (In 2013, a jaw bone showed up at Garfield Park, prompting investigators to ask if it was George Pogue’s.)

Indianapolis Journal January 5 1890 (2)

As the young city grew, the often rampaging creek rapidly came to be considered a “source of pestilence.”  Before legislators moved the Indiana capitol north from Corydon in 1825, they allotted $50 to rid Pogue’s Run of mosquitoes, which bred the malaria that killed off many infant towns on the Midwestern frontier.  Even as late as the Civil War, what became the Near East Side was thought of as remote from downtown and practically wild country.

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On May 20, 1863, the creek became the site of the so-called “Battle of Pogue’s Run.”  At the Indiana State House, approximately 10,000 Democrats — including Copperheads and suspected members of the pro-Confederate Knights of the Golden Circle — gathered to protest the Lincoln administration.  Two months before the Battle of Gettysburg, the war was going badly for the Union, and Lincoln had just passed the Emancipation Proclamation, which angered Southern sympathizers.  With tensions running high, a large military force kept an eye on the Democrats downtown.  (Under the leadership of Dr. Thomas Bowles, the founder of French Lick, Indiana, the Knights eventually plotted to kidnap Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton and violently overthrow the state government).

That May, as Union soldiers confiscated pistols from Democrats at the Legislature, the crowd boarded trains to get out of the city.  Stopped on the tracks, one train car was raided for weapons.  On another, passengers (including many women, whom the Democrats believed wouldn’t be searched) threw somewhere between 500 and 2,000 pistols, rifles, and knives out the train window into the creek.  Republicans lampooned it as the “Battle of Pogue’s Run.”

A ghost story from the era appeared in the Indianapolis News on January 29, 1889:

Pogues Run Elm - Indianapolis News January 29 1889 (2)

Traditions of a Haunted Elm Tree in the Pogue’s Run Bottoms.

Nowhere on Hoosier soil has nature nourished such giant trees as in the Pogue’s Run bottoms.  In the days when trees were not appreciated the hand of the destroyer felled nearly all the great elm, walnut and sycamore peculiar to this district, but here and there a few remain, stately testimonials of the old-time forest grandeur.  There are elm trees here and there along the run that are wonders in this day.  On East Michigan street, beyond the creek, is one monarch whose branches have a diameter of over a hundred feet, and close to this one is the stump of a burnt-out sycamore, still showing signs of life, in which a family could comfortably live.  The interior of the hollow tree is eight feet across in the clear.

But one tree belonging to this group is better known than all the rest.  It is sometimes called “hangman’s elm,” sometimes “the gallows tree,” and occasionally the boys of the neighborhood speak of it as “the home of the ghost.”

The neighbors don’t believe in spooks, but somehow or other tradition has handed down a ghost story that will not die.  The public records and the memory of the “oldest inhabitant” furnish no evidence on this point, but there is a story in the air to this effect:  During the war, one day when there was bloody news from the front, and when human life was cheap, the body of an unknown man was found hanging from this particular tree.  Soldiers who climbed the tree to cut down the body found a curiously concealed opening in the tree.  It was instantly concluded that the hollow interior of the elm should be the place of sepulture.  The body was lowered into the hollow tree, but apparently it struck no bottom.  Certainly it gave forth no sound in falling.

It may have been that the dust and accumulation of rotted particles of the tree’s heart had made a soft, deep bed within so that no sound of the falling body came forth.  Or was it possible that the spreading roots of the elm walled in a deep “cave of the winds” or well?  At any rate nothing was heard when the body tumbled to its uncertain grave.

The spot where the supposed burial tree stood long ago became part of the city.  The site is beautiful.  Lots have been sold and houses built all about it.  A stranger bought the lot on which the tree stands.  But he will never build there.  One of the neighbors says:

‘From the swaying branches of the old elm come mournful sounds of distress, and many a man passing that way has been horrified at the footfalls of invisible pursuers.  Dim figures are sometimes seen in the neighborhood, but these always retrace their cloudy way to the tree and are, as it were, swallowed up by it . . .’


elm tree


By the 1890s, much of the eleven-mile course of Pogue’s Run was an open, festering sewer pit, clogged with industrial, animal and human waste.  Newspaper accounts from the time suggest that one of the most polluted sections of the creek was in the Cottage Home neighborhood just west of the federal arsenal (the building later became Arsenal Tech High School.) In 1897, Indianapolis city commissioners were already considering turning the de facto sewer into a controlled sewage conduit, as the creek “pulled pranks” in the form of deadly floods, doubly disastrous considering the amount of bacterial waste in the water.  In 1890, the Journal spoke of its appalling and unsanitary “odoriferous waters,” which boys who “Worked Like Beavers”  dammed up to make a swimming hole in 1903 — “for bathing purposes.”

The idyllic landscapes painted by pioneer Hoosier artists Jacob Cox and Christian Schrader show the creek before it was fouled up in the late 1800s.


pogue's run swimming hole - jacob cox 1840

(Pogue’s Run Swimming Hole by Jacob Cox, 1840s.  This spot is now the site of Indianapolis Union Station.)


Pogue's Run Covered Bridge 1850s Christian Schrader

(This drawing by Christian Schrader shows the Pogue’s Run Covered Bridge, which once sat on the National Road near the intersection of College Avenue and East Washington St.)


Several old-fashioned bridges, made of stone and wood, crossed Pogue’s Run  in the 1890s.  Stories circulated that at least one of these, at the intersection of Highland Avenue and what used to be called Campbell Street, had a ghost.

The Indianapolis Journal ran the story in 1896.  (Campbell was renamed East North Street that September, three months before “The Pogue’s Run Ghost” came out on December 11.)  This Gilded-Age paranormal site is at 603 N. Highland Ave., less than a block west of Arsenal Tech’s tennis court.

Pogue's Run Ghost 1

Pogue's Run Ghost 2 Pogue's Run Ghost 3

Pogue's Run Ghost 4

Could the “specter” have been the fog of the creek — or was it the spooky miasmas of sewage elevating into the air?  (That sounds sinister enough to me)!

As far as I can tell, this piece of ghost-lore never showed up again in the city’s newspapers, and might have dropped out of memory altogether when a modern concrete bridge was put here.  But maybe Google’s Nine-Eyes sees what we can’t see?  Like this blurry spot on the new bridge, captured here in June 2014:

564 N Highland Ave (6)


564 N Highland Ave (5)


Pogues Run Bridges - Indianapolis News May 13 1905

(The Indianapolis News portrayed some of the old stone bridges that once crossed Pogue’s Run in May 1905, on the eve of a dramatic re-engineering project that sent it through tunnels downtown.)


One last, and arguably far more amazing, story :

A few steps south of the “ghost bridge” is a parking lot at 564 N. Highland Avenue.  For decades, this was the site of a small shotgun house owned and occupied by Louisa Magruder, daughter of Thomas Magruder, whom many believe to be the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom.

As Joan Hostetler has shown over at HistoricIndianapolis.com, Louisa Magruder lived next to the so-called ghost bridge from the 1870s until her death in 1900 at age 92.  The elderly woman must have heard these spooky stories, since she was probably the phantom’s closest neighbor.


Louisa Magruder


Louisa’s land along Pogue’s Run had once been part of a farm and orchard owned by Indiana Governor Noah Noble, whose father kept the Magruders in slavery back in Virginia and Kentucky.  The Magruders were freed when the Nobles moved north to Indiana around 1820, though they continued to be employed as servants in the governor’s family.  Louisa, who had been a nanny for the Nobles, lived along the creek for almost thirty years after the Civil War.

What might have been the real inspiration for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — her father Thomas’ house at the corner of East Market St. and North College Ave. — sat barely a mile southwest of her house in Cottage Home.  The novelist Harriet Stowe’s brother, abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, was a Presbyterian minister in Indianapolis in the 1840s and often visited the Magruder cabin, where he must have known her, and Stowe herself lived in Cincinnati.  As pioneer historian J.P. Dunn writes in his 1910 History of Greater Indianapolis: “It is the testimony of the Noble family that ‘Mrs. Stowe was a frequent visitor at Uncle Tom’s cabin, and wrote much of her book there’. . . Uncle Tom had but two children, Moses and his younger sister Louisa, and they were middle-aged people when Mrs. Stowe knew them.”


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Concat: staylor336 [at] gmail.com

Fletcher’s Swamp and Bacon’s Swamp

ethel miller

Spring is here, which means it’s getting muddy.  Check out these stories from the soggier part of town:

You might never guess that several parts of Indianapolis lying well inside the city limits are built on old swamp lands.  Turn back the clock to the 1940s and new homes and roads in southeast Broad Ripple are literally sinking into the earth.  Turn it back another century still, and the hoot-owls and swamp creatures who easily outnumber humans in Marion County are living practically downtown.  (In fact, the whole county was named for Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox” of Revolutionary South Carolina.)

Two old wetlands, sometimes called bogs or sloughs, played a fascinating part in the capitol city’s history.

Fletcher’s Swamp is long gone but used to sit just east of the Old North Side, between Cottage Home and Martindale-Brightwood.  A couple of hundred acres in size, the swamp occupied an area more or less centered around the future I-65/I-70 interchange.  Pogue’s Run flowed just to the south.

An article in the Indianapolis Journal on December 15, 1889, describes the setting.  The author, probably the young journalist and historian Jacob Piatt Dunn, writes about an area northeast of Ninth Street and College Avenue:

To the boys of twenty-five years ago [circa 1864] this area was known as Fletcher’s swamp, and was a famous place for black and red haws, fox grapes and other wild fruits that only a youngster would think of eating.  Fifty years ago [the 1830’s] this place was a verible dismal swamp, impenetrable even to the hunter except in the coldest winter, for it was a rare thing for the frost to penetrate the thick layer of moss and fallen leaves that covered the accumulated mass of centuries, and which was constantly warmed by the living springs beneath.

Today the old swamp area is within easy walking distance of Massachusetts Avenue, but you won’t find a trace of it.  “About on a line with Twelfth Street” near the center of the swamp “was an acre, more or less, of high land,” a spot “lifted about the surrounding morass.”  The writer — again, probably J.P. Dunn — thought that this high, dry spot had once been a “sanctuary” for “desperadoes and thieves who preyed upon the early settlers.”  (Northern Indiana swamps, like the one around Bogus Island in Newton County, were notorious hideouts for counterfeiters and horse thieves.  Elaborate hidden causeways were said to give entrance to remote islands on the edge of the vast Kankakee Swamp, the “Everglades of the North.”)

In the 1830s, Fletcher’s Swamp became one of the slushier stops on the Underground Railroad. Calvin Fletcher, a Vermont-born lawyer and farmer whose 1,600-acre farm once included most of the Near East Side, was an active lawbreaker during the days of the Fugitive Slave Act.  For several decades, many Hoosier opponents of slavery, primarily Quakers, funneled hundreds if not thousands of African American fugitives toward Westfield in neighboring Hamilton County.  (Westfield was a major Quaker settlement before the Civil War, and other “stations” around Indianapolis focused on getting fugitives there.)  Wetlands, usually hard to penetrate, were an ideal hideout, since the bloodhounds that bounty-hunters used to track fugitives lost their scent here.  And like the counterfeiters on Bogus Island, refugees from slavery used retractable wooden “steps” across the swamp to help avoid detection.

Although not Quakers themselves, Fletcher and his family helped many African Americans flee north to Michigan and Canada.


calvin and sara fletcher
Calvin and Sara Fletcher. This daguerreotype was made at Weeks’ Daguerran Gallery at College Hall downtown, January 1856. Joan Hostettler tells the story here.

Fletcher also owned the swamp the fugitives hid in.  In the language of 1889, the writer for the Journal recalled one story about the place:

Calvin Fletcher, Sr., became the owner of this swamp, or the greater part of it.  Spring, summer, and autumn he was in the habit of riding horseback all around it. . .  Mr. Fletcher delighted in the study of nature, especially in birds (and in the quiet of this swamp was bird life in sufficient variety for an Audubon or a Wilson), and he knew every flier and nest on its borders.

A tenant of a cabin near this swamp told the story that his attention was often attracted to Mr. Fletcher, for the reason that he rode out that way so early, and usually with a sack thrown over the horse’s neck.  The curiosity of the dweller in the cabin was excited to that degree that, one morning, he furtively followed the solitary horseman.  It was about sunrise, and he saw Mr. Fletcher hitch his nag to a sapling, take off the sack (which for some reason the narrator supposed to contain corn-bread and bacon), walk a little way into the covert, and then give a call, as if calling cattle.  There was, in answer, a waving of elders, flags and swamp-grass, with an occasional plash in the water, and finally appeared the form of a tall, muscular negro, with shirt and breeches of coffee-sacking.  He came silently out to the dry land, took the sack from the visitor’s hand, spoke a few words inaudible to the straining ears of the listener and hastily disappeared in the recesses of the swamps.  So, after all, Mr. Fletcher’s favorite bird, and a very unpopular one in that day, too, was the blackbird.

The swamp might have had strange bedfellows during the Civil War.  The dense thickets and morasses here were an ideal hideout for Confederate POW’s who escaped from the Union Army’s Camp Morton, which sat just west of here, near the future intersection of 19th Street and Central Avenue.  Calvin Fletcher’s son, Stephen Keyes Fletcher, claimed in 1892:  “During the war the swamp was this great hiding place for escaped prisoners from Camp Morton.”

The original Butler University, which sat at 13th and College until 1875, was another neighbor of Fletcher’s Swamp.  When a fugitive, aided by local abolitionists, escaped from jail downtown and fled on horseback, trying to get to the swamp, he ended up at Northwestern Christian University, as Butler was called, and was arrested on campus.  “The capture of the negro brought on a heated battle among the students of the university, some of whom were from the South,” the anonymous Journal writer claimed.  “A pitched battle followed between them and the black Republican students, which resulted in nothing more serious than some blackened eyes and ensanguined noses.  The scene of this battle is now the playground for the children of the Indianapolis Orphan Asylum.”

What happened to Fletcher’s Swamp?  Stephen Fletcher, who apparently inherited the property after Calvin’s death in 1866 — he ran a nursery nearby — told some of the story using terminology not employed today.

About this same time the negroes began flocking over from Kentucky and other Southern states.  My father, being a great friend of the colored man, was inclined to provide them with homes and work as far as possible.  After filling up everything in the shape of a house, I then let them build cabins at the edge of the swamp, on high ground, just north of the Belt railroad, and about where Baltimore Avenue now runs.  I soon had quite a settlement, which was named by my brother, Dr. W.B. Fletcher, “Monkey Jungle,” and the location is known to this day [1892] by that name by those familiar with it then.

The 1889 writer for the News concurred:

The clearing of the swamp was an accident of President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation.  Hundreds of colored men, with their families, came from the South to this city.  It was a class of labor new to Indianapolis, and for a time there was a disinclination to employ them.  Mr. Fletcher, however, gave every man with a family the privilege of taking enough timber to build a cabin, and of having ground for a “truck patch,” besides paying so much a cord for wood delivered on the edge of the swamp.  Quite a number of the negroes availed themselves of this offer of work and opportunity for shelter…

Calvin Fletcher, Jr., drained what was left of his father’s swamp in the 1870s by dredging it and connecting it to the “Old State Ditch.”  Thus it shared the fate of thousands of acres of Hoosier wetlands sacrificed to agriculture and turned into conventional cropland.


bacons swamp - butler herbarium
Fern collected in Bacon’s Swamp, August 1922. Friesner Herbarium Collection, Indiana Memory.

An 1891 Journal article on the “State Ditch” calls Fletcher’s Swamp one of two “bayous” that threatened valuable property on the then-outskirts of Indianapolis.

The other “bayou” was the fascinating Bacon’s Swamp. Today, the area that used to be covered by this large Marion County bog is part of Broad Ripple.  Although Google Maps still shows a lake there called Bacon’s Swamp, this is really just a pond, re-engineered out of what used to be a genuine freshwater wetland.

Like its neighbor a little to the south, Bacon’s Swamp was created by the melting Wisconsin Glacier.  About 20,000 years ago, the ice left an indent on the land that filled with water.  As limnologists (freshwater scientists) describe, the process of swamp formation, lakes age and die like living creatures, filling up with sediment and plant matter and gradually losing the oxygen in their depths.  Bacon’s Swamp evolved into a peat bog, one of the southernmost in the United States.

Like Fletcher’s Swamp, it took its name from a prominent local farmer active as a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad.  A native of Williamstown, Massachusetts, Hiram Bacon moved to this remote spot with his wife Mary Blair in 1821.  (Bacon was 21 years old, had studied law at Williams College, but due to poor health joined a government surveying expedition to the Midwest at age 19.  He liked Indiana and stayed.)  Presbyterians, the Bacons became friends with Henry Ward Beecher, brother of the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, when he served as minister of Second Presbyterian Church downtown.  Beecher often came out to Bacon’s Swamp in the 1840s, when this was a remote part of Marion County.


Henry_Ward_Beecher_daguerreotype
This daguerreotype of abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher was probably taken in Indianapolis, where he served as a Presbyterian minister in the early 1840s. Beecher baptized Fanny Vandegrift, Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife, in the White River when she was a child growing up in the Hoosier State.

Hiram and Mary Bacon actively helped fugitive slaves escape through the area.  A 1931 article in the Indianapolis Star claimed that “The Bacon house stands on the east side of the road [now the paved Keystone Avenue], and the large barn was on the west side.  In it was a wheat bin, which could be entered only from outside by a ladder.  It was usually concealed by piles of hay.  Here and in the bin in the cider house, the fugitives were hidden and conveyed after dark to the next depot . . . The matter was never discussed in public.” At night, fugitives hid out in the peat bog across from the Bacon dairy farm.

The 400-acre family farm was located approximately where Glendale Mall sits today.  (Most of east Broad Ripple would have been deep in the morass back in the mid-1800s.)  Empty in the 1930s, the site of the Bacon farmhouse is occupied today by The Donut Shop at 5527 N. Keystone.


hiram bacon house


donut shop - bacon's farm


Around 1900, this area, now considered part of Broad Ripple, was called Malott Park.  Not to be confused with today’s Marott Park, Malott Park was a small railroad town later annexed by Indianapolis.  Barely a century ago, it was one of the last stops on a railroad line that connected northern Marion County with the Circle downtown.  Until World War II, Glendale was a far-flung place out in the country.

Walter C. Kiplinger, a chemistry teacher and tree doctor for Indianapolis public schools, wrote a fascinating article about the peat bog for the Indianapolis News in 1916.  The part of the bog he described was about a mile north of the State Fairgrounds, near 50th Street and Arsenal Park.  Now a major residential neighborhood, a hundred years ago it sounds like GPS coordinates were the only thing we’d recognize about the place:

You can reach it very easily if you have a machine [car] by taking the White River road to Malott Park, but when the spring rambling fever comes it is much more easy to go cross-country.  It is just a pleasant afternoon’s hike there and back. . . If common courtesy is observed in closing gates and keeping off fields where the crops might be injured, the owners of the farm lands usually do not enforce their trespass notices. . .

How much peat there is in Bacon’s slough or how thick the bed is, no one seems to know. . . Whatever the average depth, it is as truly a peat bog as any in Ireland.

Serious proposals to harvest peat in Indianapolis were mentioned in the press from 1905 until the 1920’s, when the idea was apparently dropped.  Other parts of Indiana, especially up north, also explored the possibility of using peat as a substitute for coal.  During World War I, the U.S. and Canada exported sphagnum moss from North American peat bogs to Europe, where a cotton shortage had led army doctors to experiment with peat bandages on the Western Front.  The moss served as a kind of natural antibiotic and was a success when used to dress wounds.  (The story made it into the South Bend News-Times in 1918.)


peat - south bend news times 1918


Use of peat has always been widespread in Europe.  Not a fossil fuel, it emits an odorless, smokeless heat and an “incredible ambiance.”  For millennia, it has served as a cheap heat source in rural Ireland and Britain (where it also gives the “smoky” flavor to Scotch whisky.)  The Indianapolis News ran an article about “inexhaustible” Irish peat in 1916, informing Hoosiers that “Mixed with crude molasses from sugar mills it is also used as a forage for cattle, while semi-successful efforts have been made to convert the vegetable fibers into a cheap grade of paper.”  In 1929, a massive 40% of the Soviet Union’s energy came from peat, but today, large-scale industrial harvesting is only common in Ireland and Finland.


Peat stacks and cutting Yorkshire 1905
Peat stacks and cutting, Yorkshire, England, 1905. Alexander Eric Hasse, photographer.

peat indianapolis 1905 2


As an alternative fuel source, peat nearly became a reality in central Indiana in the early 1900s.  E.H. Collins, a “scientific” farmer from Hamilton County, touted that the “earth that would burn” in the summer of 1905.

Collins owned a farm a mile north of the State Fairgrounds, in the vicinity of Bacon’s Swamp.  An article on August 19 in the Indianapolis News refers to the 30-acre peat bog he “discovered” as the “Collins Bog.”  The farmer estimated that it held about 400,000 tons of the fuzzy stuff.

The 1905 article is a strange flashback, envisioning a grand future that never really came about.

The announcement that a good fuel deposit has been found at the city limits and can be drawn on in case Indianapolis gets into a fuel pinch is of great importance to a city that, thus far, has been left out of practically every fuel belt in Indiana in recent years — in fact, since she was the very center of the stove wood belt.  Too far west to be in the gas belt, too far east to be in the coal fields and outside of the oil territory, Indianapolis, since the old cordwood days, has been a negative quantity in the state’s fuel supply. . .

The discovery of good peat deposits around Indianapolis calls attention to the fact that Indiana sooner or later is to come to the front as a peat-producing state.

Obviously, this never happened.  Peat was briefly harvested in Bacon’s Swamp in the mid-20th century, as it was in a few other spots throughout northern Indiana, but the resource was mostly used for gardening, not as a rival to coal.

As Indianapolis’ economic downturn and white flight led to the explosion of Broad Ripple as a suburb in the 1950s, the swamp was more and more threatened.  Conservationists were mostly ignored when they argued that the swamp protected creatures who keep insect populations in check and therefore help farmers and gardeners.  In February 1956, three children drowned trying to save a puppy who had fallen through the ice in one of the lakes here, prompting residents in the area to push for “condemning” and obliterating the “deadly swamp.”

While the squishy, “bottomless” ground was a constant problem for developers — devouring roads in 1914 and 1937 — gradually only a tiny remnant pond was left, just west of Keystone Ave and a block south of Bishop Chatard High School. Yet the tree doctor Walter Kiplinger did remember one man who kept himself warm with a satisfying peat fire in Indianapolis back in the day.

“There used to be one from the ‘ould sod’ [Ireland] who lived in a shack near the hog pens east of the slough,” Kiplinger remembered during World War I.

His name was Michael O’Something-or-other, I’m not certain what, but he was a gentleman in the highest sense of the word.  There was nothing hyphenated about his Americanism, but is a man any the worse American for having a bit of sentimental feeling for the old country in his makeup?  Surely when one has a bit of Ireland’s own bog land in his own back yard, you might say, he has a perfect right to dig and use the peat for fuel. . .

Bacon’s Slough will probably go the way of similar places;  but one should not be too pessimistic.  The Irish may mobilize some St. Patrick’s Day, and go out and save it just for the sake of that peat bog.  You can never tell.


peat scotland


Contact:  staylor336 [at] gmail.com

Gordon’s Leap: A Tale from the Heyday of the Resurrectionists

dissecting room valparaiso indiana 1915

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.


andrew jackson grayson family
Andrew Jackson Grayson, seated center, with his family circa 1900.

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.


alexander mullen      bernard f. mullen

(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.


     jonathon w. gordon  gordons leap

(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.)


Though we shouldn’t take the following tale at face value — it probably contains several major factual errors — let’s turn it over to Grayson.  The wild story was printed in the Indianapolis Journal on November 17, 1901:

THE ROBBING OF GRAVES

“‘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. . .”


gordons leap frank hohenberger(Gordon’s Leap, Versailles, Indiana, seen on August 21, 1928, by Brown County photographer Frank Hohenberger.  Frank M. Hohenberger Photograph Collection, Indiana University.)


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.”

gordons leap 3

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.)


louisville medical students with cadaver
Medical students at a dissection in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1890s.

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.

Ghoul Busters: Indianapolis Guards its Dead (or Does It?)

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.)


Greenlawn Cemetery map


Diamond Chain Company


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.

Photography, whose own invention was fueled by a desire to accurately explore and record the human form — in a way, to cheat death — also came into the dissection room, as John Harley Warner and James M. Edmonson show in Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine, 1880-1930.


2

(“A Student’s Dream”, R.A. Robinson photographer, 1906.)


Medical students and an African American assistant, University of North Carolina Medical Department, Raleigh, circa 1890. “The seated man is the janitor; the overturned bucket he’s sitting on was usually kept at the foot of the dissection table, and was used to collect waste.”

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.


Indianapolis Journal, June 28 1884
(The “self-locking” Boyd Grave Vault “keeps out Vermin as well as Burglars.” Indianapolis Journal, June 28, 1884. The Flanner in this ad is Frank W. Flanner, whose mortuary firm Flanner & Buchanan went on to become early promoters of cremation.)

Central College of Physicians and Surgeons - N Senate Ave Indianapolis
The Central College of Physicians and Surgeons was built in 1902 and sat at 212 North Senate Avenue in Indianapolis. It became affiliated with the Indiana University School of Medicine in 1906.

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?

Indianapolis Journal October 14 1902
Indianapolis Journal, October 14, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

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.


Indianapolis News, April 23, 1903
Indianapolis News, April 23, 1903

Rufus Cantrell was even accused of plotting to steal the body of ex-President Benjamin Harrison, who died in 1901. The ghouls might not have been bluffing here.  The fear that struck Hoosiers in those years, and especially the Harrison family, was great and well-founded.

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.


JSHarrison
John Scott Harrison, son and father of U.S. presidents, was snatched in 1878.

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.”


Crown Hill patrol


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.

Groundbreaking Ceremony for The Multimillion-dollar Levi Coffin House Interpretive Center, Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A special groundbreaking ceremony for the multimillion-dollar Levi Coffin House Interpretive Center will be facilitated by the Indiana State Museum & Historic Sites and the Levi Coffin House Association on Wednesday, October 29, near the Levi Coffin House at 113 U.S. 27, Fountain City, Wayne County.

The new 5,156-square-foot facility will commemorate Levi and Catharine Coffin, conductors on the Underground Railroad, as well as the thousands of men and women who came to the couple’s home following the “mysterious railway tracks” to freedom.

According to Tom King, president and CEO of Indiana State Museum & Historic Sites, the Levi Coffin House “stands as a reminder of courage and conviction – not just that displayed by Levi and Catharine, but also of those whose desire for freedom and dignity led them to escape the burden of slavery.”

Levi Coffin House Historic Site
Levi Coffin House Historic Site

The budget for the new center, which includes the cost of repairs to the house, is $3.2 million. Nearly 70 percent of commitments for that amount have been received to date.

Model of the Future Levi Coffin House Interpretive Center, 2016
Model of the Future Levi Coffin House Interpretive Center, 2016

The projected completion date for the new interpretive center is sometime in 2016, which will coincide with Indiana’s Bicentennial celebration.


“I think the good Lord’s been watching over this building and given it all the right owners down through the years,” said Janice McGuire, president of the Levi Coffin House Association.

Read about the Wayne County Historical Society’s efforts to preserve the Levi Coffin home in 1899.

on_the_way_capture
The Indianapolis Journal, July16, 1899. Hoosier State Chronicles.

News Releases

Sheeley, Rachel E. “Levi Coffin House center to break ground.” October 25, 2014. http://www.pal-item.com/story/news/local/2014/10/25/coffin-house-center/17946033/

Indiana State Museum & Historic Sites. Immediate Release: “Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites move forward with Levi Coffin House Interpretive Center.”  October 14, 2014.

Links

Levi Coffin House Historic Site: http://www.indianamuseum.org/levi-coffin-state-historic-site.

Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites : http://www.indianamuseum.org/

Archeological Dig at the Future Levi Coffin Visitor Center: http://www.waynet.org/waynet/spotlight/2009/090330-levicoffin-visitor-dig.htm.

The “Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World:” Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor (1878-1932)

Major Taylor, courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

In Print and On the Map: Articles in the Indiana Digital Historic Newspaper Database and Corresponding State Historical Markers

“Taylor was a marvel on a bicycle. Riding against the fastest bicyclists of America, Europe and Australia, he won national and world championships against racial prejudice, unscrupulous tactics of riders and unfair decisions of officials.” Chicago Defender, July 2, 1932

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the sport of bicycle racing had the same feverish popularity as the Indianapolis 500 race and the cyclists the same international celebrity status as contemporary major league sports starts. The fastest of all of those star cyclists in America and Europe was Marshall Walter Taylor, a Hoosier and African American.

Marshall was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1878, one of eight children. He and his family lived in a rural area on the fringes of the city. His grandfather had been enslaved in Kentucky, and his father, Gilbert Taylor, was a Union soldier in the Civil War, after which he was employed by the Southards as a coachman. The Southards were a wealthy family and they gifted a young Marshall with his first bicycle. Soon he was bicycling along his long paper delivery route and practicing stunts when he was not working as a paperboy. Sometime between when Marshall was 10 to 13 years old, the Hay and Willits Bicycle Shop started to pay him to perform bicycle stunts in front of their store while dressed in a military uniform as a promotional draw.

According to an article published in the Washington, D.C. paper The Evening Star dated February 1, 1902, Marshall got his nickname “Major” from those performances, which eventually became his full-time job. The title would follow him into his prominent career as the famed cyclist Marshall W. “Major” Taylor. (Issues of the Courier are accessible via the Chronicling America website.)

Marshall also started to work as a repairman and instructor in a bicycle shop where Louis D. “Birdie” Munger was one of the managers. Munger had raced as a cyclist before he retired and started manufacturing bicycles in Indianapolis. He befriended Marshall, recognizing in the young teenager the potential to become a champion cyclist.

Despite being barred from being a member of bicycle riding clubs in the city and coming up against white cyclists who did not want to compete against an African American in a road race, Marshall did participate in a race that stretched 75 miles from Indianapolis to Muncie to Matthews. A blurb published in The Jasper Weekly Courier dated July 12, 1895, reported that “Marshall Taylor, a colored lad” was the winner of “one of the hardest road races ever run” from Indianapolis to Matthews. The writer wrote that Marshall was 18 years old at the time but he was actually only 17 in 1895. (Issues of the Courier are accessible in the Indiana Digital Historic Newspaper database.)

In the fall of that year Marshall accepted an invitation from Louis Munger to move to Worcester, Massachusetts, where the former shop manager planned to establish another bicycle shop.

Louis D. “Birdie” Munger
Louis D. “Birdie” Munger, courtesy of majortayloronline.com.

Marshall talked about his friend’s decision to move in his 1928 autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World: the Story of a Colored Boy’s Indomitable Courage and Success against Great Odds, which he dedicated to Louis D. “Birdie” Munger, his “True Friend and Advisor.” He wrote the following lines about Munger’s move to Massachusetts:

“… members of the [bicycle] firm [in Indianapolis] objected strenuously to Mr. Munger’s befriending me simply because of my color, and I was inadvertently the cause of Mr. Munger’s severing relations with the firm and his decision to establish a bicycle factory in Worcester, Massachusetts. Before our train pulled out of Indianapolis Mr. Munger informed a group of his friends that someday I would return to that city as champion bicycle rider of America.” Marshall Taylor, 1928

On living in Worcester Marshall said, “I was in Worcester only a very short time before I realized that there was no such race prejudice existing among the bicycle riders there as I had experienced in Indianapolis.”

Marshall returned to Indianapolis in September 1896 to test his speed on the Capital City Cycling Club’s track in the city. Munger, who was at the time the founder of the Worcester Cycle Manufacturing Company, had signed Marshall up to be one of the participating cyclists, and as the event was whites-only, he also smuggled Marshall into the Capital City Track, located at 30th Street (38th Street today) and the Monon Railroad (the Monon Rail-Trail today).

The roaring crowd of spectators marveled as Marshall set two new records racing around the track, first in the one-mile and then in the one-fifth-mile. But, cycling officials did not recognize his record-breaking times as official. The officials and other cyclists at the track were also angry at Munger for smuggling in a black cyclist who had rocketed pass the record times previously set by white cyclists. Marshall was banned from racing on the Capital City Track following the event.

He persevered on to win his first official professional race three months later. Between 1896 and 1904 he reached the climax of his career as a cyclist, setting world records at various distances between one-quarter mile and two-miles. He participated in races in Chicago, Connecticut, and New York.

Marshall not only had to overcome competitors but also extreme racism during his races. Racing events in the South barred Marshall from participation, and when organizers did allow the foremost cyclist to participate he was met with violence such as having ice and nails thrown at him by spectators and white cyclists eager to jostle, box in, and shove him during a road race. Marshall was even pulled to the ground and choked by a competitor during a race event in Massachusetts.

In his autobiography, Marshall reflected on experiencing racially motivated violence during his career. He came to the following conclusion:

“Life is too short for a man to hold bitterness in his heart, and that is why I have no feeling against anybody … In fact, I have never hated any rider that I ever competed against. As the late Booker T. Washington, the great Negro educator, so beautifully expressed, ‘I shall allow no man to narrow my soul and drag me down, by making me hate him.’” Marshall Taylor, 1928

Marshall also competed in Australia, New Zealand, and throughout Europe, where black athletes encountered comparably less racist-charged violence. In August 1899 he won the world championship in the one-mile race in Montreal, becoming the second African-American to win a world championship in a sport. (George Dixon, a Canadian bantamweight and featherweight boxer, was the first African American to win a world championship title after defeating his opponent in the 1887 world bantamweight boxing match that was held in England.)

Marshall won the national championship in September 1900, becoming the American sprint champion in front of a crowd that numbered more than 10,000 people. His victories were chronicled in cycling journals and newspapers in America, including the Indianapolis Recorder and the Chicago Defender,and especially in periodicals in Europe. Fans as well as newspaper and magazine writers dubbed the Major the “colored Sprint Champion of America” and the “Black Cyclone.”

Marshall Taylor in the French press, ca. 1900
Marshall Taylor in the French press, ca. 1900, accessed Jazz Riffing on a Lost Worchester.

In 1901, Marshall traveled to Europe to compete in racing events. He did so only after promoters in France rescheduled races that had originally been set on Sundays out of respect to Marshall, who had up until then refused to participate in races on Sundays because of his religious convictions. Marshall was a committed Baptist who was known to not drink and compete fairly.

Marshall Taylor in Paris, 1901, accessed dandyhorsemagazine.com.

Between 1901 and 1904 Marshall defeated the best cyclists in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, winning most of the races that he participated in and proving his reputation as a world champion cyclist. He married Daisy V. Morris in March 1902 and also took briefs respites in Worcester during the last two years of competing. Marshall’s and Daisy’s daughter, Sydney Taylor, was born on May 11, 1904, in Sydney, Australia.

Marshall Taylor and his wife, Daisy, and daughter, Sydney, ca. 1906 or 1907
Marshall Taylor and his wife, Daisy, and daughter, Sydney, ca. 1906 or 1907, accessed historicindianapolis.com.

Marshall retired in 1910 at 32 years old. His post-racing career was beset with unsuccessful investments and the Wall Street Crash of 1929. By 1930 Marshall, who was at that time staying at a YMCA in Chicago, was estranged from his wife and had lost the earnings that he had made as one of the best-paid athletes during his prime. In poor health, he worked to sell copies of his autobiography, which he published in 1928.

Marshall “Major” Taylor died on June 21, 1932. He was 53 years old. His body was moved from Cook County Hospital’s charity ward to be buried at Illinois’ Mount Glenwood Memory Gardens. His grave went unmarked until 1948 when a group of former cyclists solicited money from Frank Schwinn, owner of Schwinn Bicycle Company, for the funds necessary to exhume Marshall’s remains and have them reburied in another area of the cemetery with a gravestone.

 

Marker for Marshall Taylor's grave at Mount Glenwood Memory Gardens, Illinois
Marker for Marshall Taylor’s grave at Mount Glenwood Memory Gardens, Illinois, accessed CBS Minnesota.

Marshall’s and Daisy’s only child, Sydney, remembered her father as “‘a good man, a good father and a good husband … very gentlemanly.’”

While not faster than a speeding bullet, Marshall “Major” Taylor was, according to a writer for the African-American Registry, one of “the fastest humans on earth,” and certainly the fastest man alive on two wheels during the peak of his racing career between 1898 and 1910. The nicknames that followed him—the “Worcester Whirlwind,”the “colored Sprint Champion of America,” and especially the “Black Cyclone”—demonstrated the superhero status that Marshall reached through breaking world records and racial barriers in America and abroad.

The state marker recognizing his accomplishments was installed at the intersection of 38th Street and the Monon Trail in 2009 by the Indiana Historical Bureau as well as the Central Indiana Bicycling Association Foundation and Indiana State Fair Commission.

Taylor marker

Taylor marker side 2
Visit the Indiana Historical Bureau’s marker dedication page.

Taylor’s legacy of sportsmanship and courage was also honored with the erection of the Marshall Taylor Velodrome (MTV) in 1982 and a memorial at the Worcester Public Library on May 21, 2008.

The Indianapolis Department of Parks and Recreation accepted a recommendation from the Mayor’s Bicycle Task Force to name the $2.2 million dollar velodrome (a track with banked curves for bicycle racing), built with public funds, after champion cyclist Marshall Taylor. The construction of the velodrome was financed with public funds. It was the first building with that type of financial backing in Indianapolis to be named in honor of an African-American individual, and is one of only 29 or so velodromes in the country.

The plan for the building was developed through a partnership between Indy Parks and the Lilly Endowment, which included building a track stadium, natatorium, and the MTV in time for the 1982 National Sports Festival, which was hosted in Indianapolis that year. At that time Indy Parks Director F. Arthur Strong said the MTV “could possibly be the fastest velodrome in the country,” pointing out the track’s smooth surface and natural protection from wind due to being build into a hillside.

The dedication ceremony for the MTV was held on July 15, 1982. Marshall’s daughter, Sydney Taylor Brown, was presented with a key to the city at the event.

Since its establishment the MTV has hosted numerous national competitions and an invitational for Olympic gold medalists as well as men’s and women’s national/world sprint champions from America, Mexico, and Zealand.

During the 1980’s the velodrome was also utilized as a public venue for bicycle riding classes and amateur cyclist races. Then-manager Chuck Quast credited the MTV with giving the opportunity to kids to come “out of the woodwork” and train to become world-class athletes.

In April 2011 Marian University, in partnership with Indy Parks, became the manager of the MTV. The facility became the Indy Cyclopex: Home of the Marshall Taylor Velodrome. The velodrome still functions as a venue for cycling races and community programs.

Learn more about Marshall W. “Major” Taylor:

Newspapers:

Evening star. (Washington, D.C.), 01 Feb. 1902. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1902-02-01/ed-1/seq-9/>

Jasper Weekly Courier. 12 July 1895. Indiana Digital Historic Newspaper Program. Indiana State Library. < https://newspapers.library.in.gov/cgi-bin/indiana?a=d&d=JWC18950712.1.2&srpos=2&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN-%22Marshall+Taylor%22—–# >

Collections:

Clipping File, “Bicycles, 1980-89,” Indiana State Library, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Clipping File, “Biography, Taylor, J.—Taylor, O.,” Indiana State Library, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Major Taylor Collection, Indiana State Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Donated by daughter in 1988).

Books:

Balf, Todd. Major: A Black Athlete, a White Era, and the Fight to Be the World’s Fastest Human Being. New York: Crown Publishers, 2008.

Ritchie, Andrew. Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer. Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Taylor, Marshall Walter “Major.” The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World: the Story of a Colored Boy’s Indomitable Courage and Success against Great Odds. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1971. Reprinted from a copy in the Fisk University Library Negro Collection; first published. Originally published in 1928.

Websites:

African-American Registry. “George Dixon, an Early Champion Boxer.” Accessed August 14, 2014. https://aaregistry.org/story/george-dixon-the-first-black-boxing-champion/

African-American Registry. “Marshall Taylor, Cyclist and Sports Trailblazer.” Accessed August 14, 2014. https://aaregistry.org/story/marshall-taylor-cyclist-and-sports-trailblazer/

Indiana Historical Bureau. “Marshall “Major” Taylor.” Accessed August 11, 2014. http://www.in.gov/history/markers/MajorTaylor.htm#2 ; http://www.markinghoosierhistory.org/search-our-marked-history/?ihb_marker_details_viewer=333

Indy Cycloplex. “About.” Accessed August 14, 2014. http://indycycloplex.com/about/.

King, Gilbert. “The Unknown Story of ‘The Black Cyclone,’ The Cycling Champion Who Broke the Color Barrier.” Smithsonian magazine, September 12, 2012. Accessed August 14, 2014. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-unknown-story-of-the-black-cyclone-the-cycling-champion-who-broke-the-color-barrier-33465698/?no-ist .

Levin, Steve. “Obituary: Sydney Taylor Brown / Psychiatric social worker from Schenley Heights.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 18, 2005. Accessed August 14, 2014. http://www.post-gazette.com/news/obituaries/2005/05/18/Obituary-Sydney-Taylor-Brown-Psychiatric-social-worker-from-Schenley-Heights/stories/200505180219.

Major Taylor Association, Inc. “May 21, 2008: Major Taylor statue dedication.” Accessed August 14, 2014. http://www.majortaylorassociation.org/events/2008may21.shtml.

“Who Was Major Taylor?” Major Taylor Association Inc. Accessed August 14, 2014. http://www.majortaylorassociation.org/who.shtml.

9 Weeks a Fugitive Slave: The 1853 Fugitive Slave Case of Mr. John Freeman

In Print and On the Map: Articles in the Indiana Digital Historic Newspaper Database and Corresponding State Historical Markers

Historical Marker 2–John Freeman, 1099 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, Indiana 46204

“By far the most exciting case under the fugitive slave law of 1850, in the state of Indiana, was that of John Freeman, which was begun on Tuesday, June 21,1853, in the court of Squire Sullivan, commissioner of the United States for Indiana, in the city of Indianapolis.”

–Charles H. Money, Historian

The Fugitive Slave Case of John Freeman, a free black man, was widely covered and heatedly criticized in Indiana newspapers at the time. For those who opposed slavery, the execution of cases similar to that of John Freeman demonstrated the failure of the fugitive slave law to protect free blacks as well as the evil of an institution that treated enslaved and runaway blacks like chattel.

The Fugitive Slave Law, which abolitionists labeled the “blood hound fugitive slave bill,” was a component of the Compromise of 1850 that was adopted as a concession to the slave states of the South who feared losing the persons their prosperity depended upon to northern states where the authority of state officials to assist reclaiming supposed runaway slaves was questioned and unreliable.

It legitimized a custom that was carried out since before the Revolutionary War, which was the practice of returning slaves and fugitives to the colony/state from which they ran away. According to the fugitive slave clause, “No person held to service or labor in one state under the laws thereof escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”

The 1850 law also amended the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law through giving U.S. Commissioners the authority to determine fugitive slave cases and ultimately issue a certificate to have fugitive slaves removed out of the state they had fled to and returned to their owners. Commissioners were paid $10 for each person they returned to his/her owner ($5 if the removal of the fugitive slave was contested), and owners or claimants were only required to have an affidavit as proof that they had owned the person as a slave. Alleged fugitive slaves were not afforded a jury trial and those who tried to stop the removal could face criminal charges and jail time.

From June to August 1853, John Freeman was the center of the most notorious fugitive slave case in Indianapolis.

Originally from Georgia, Freeman moved to Indianapolis in 1844 and deposited about $600 in a local bank. He painstakingly worked as a painter and soon acquired approximately four acres of land in Lot 4 between Meridian and Pennsylvania Streets (today that location is the southeast corner of Capitol and Michigan Streets) and a restaurant on Washington Street. By 1853 the property that he owned was worth about $6,000. Freeman was also an active member of a colored Baptist church and at the time of his trial was married with three young children.

The life that he had made for himself through hard work and community service was interrupted when he was arrested by a Deputy Marshal on June 20, 1853. The federal officer had an affidavit sworn by a man named Pleasant Ellington, a slaveholder and self-professed Methodist minister from St. Louis, Missouri, who claimed to be Freeman’s old Master. According to Ellington, John Freeman was actually a fugitive slave named Sam who had run away from him seventeen years ago when he lived in Kentucky.

When Freeman’s friends learned of his arrest they persuaded Squire Sullivan, U.S. Commissioner for Indianapolis, Indiana, to allow him to have legal aid. The lawyers who formed Freeman’s defense were John L. Ketcham, Lucian Barbour, and John Coburn, all leading Indianapolis attorneys. Ellington retained the services of attorneys L. D. Walpole and J. A. Liston.

Ketcham, Barbour, and Coburn petitioned for the time to build their case and Commissioner Sullivan granted them a postponement period of nine weeks to do so. They also requested that their client be let out on bail during those nine weeks. The bail bond included a $1,600 note signed by prominent community leaders, such as Judge Blackford, and made payable to the State Bank of Indiana in sixty days, as well as a $4,000 bond also signed by leading citizens.

Freeman’s defense additionally offered to match any amount Ellington named to ensure Freeman’s appearance at the hearing after the nine-week postponement period. Commissioner Sullivan did not grant the request for Freeman’s bail though, agreeing instead with Ellington’s attorneys that the U.S. Commissioner did not have the authority to release Freeman on bail.

Consequently, Freeman was forced to pay $3 per day to a guard who was selected by John L. Robinson, U.S. Marshal and three-time representative of the third congressional district of Indiana, to make sure that Freeman did not attempt to break out of jail.

The case progressed for 68 days under the attentive scrutiny of the public and extensive newspaper coverage.

Under Freeman’s direction, Ketcham, Barbour, and Coburn located witnesses in Georgia who knew John Freeman, confirmed his status as a free man when he was a resident there from 1831 to 1844, and agreed to come to Indianapolis to testify on Freeman’s behalf. Moreover, Freeman’s counsel found Sam, or the fugitive slave who Ellington claimed Freeman was, living in Canada. By then Sam had changed his name to William McConnell. While it was too dangerous to have McConnell return to Indianapolis, witnesses who met him were prepared to testify at the trial that there was no physical resemblance between McConnell and Freeman.

Meanwhile Ellington found three witnesses to back his false claim that Freeman was the runaway slave Sam. They agreed with Ellington’s sworn statement after being allowed to examine Freeman’s naked body.

The carrying out of that examination by the Deputy Marshal was deterred once by Freeman’s legal counsel. Shortly afterwards, one of Ellington’s attorneys asked U.S. Marshal Robinson to conduct the examination, which took place regardless of protests by Freeman’s lawyers. During the “examination,” Robinson forced Freeman to strip naked in front of Ellington’s witnesses so that they could identify physical similarities between him and the man they professedly knew as Sam.

Robinson’s conduct was condemned in newspapers across the state. He was branded as “Ellington’s watch dog” among other names. Similar insults and criticisms directed at his role in Freeman’s examination dogged the “watch dog” for the duration of his career. An article in the Plymouth Banner newspaper published on March 30, 1854, even reported that there had been an attempt to burn an effigy of Robinson in Crawfordsville.

By the end of the nine-week postponement period, seven witnesses had arrived from Georgia to testify on behalf of John Freeman. They did not give their testimonies though on account of Ellington fleeing Indianapolis before the trial. In other words, Freeman’s trial was over before it even happened. Commissioner Sullivan dismissed Ellington’s claim and released Freeman from jail after nine weeks.

John Freeman Side 2
Historical marker courtesy of the Indiana Historical Bureau.

John Freeman Side 1

While a trial did not deprive Freeman of his freedom, preparation for one did cause him to lose his life savings. While his lawyers did not make any charges against him, Freeman was still financially responsible for paying to have witnesses transported from Georgia and Alabama to Indianapolis as well as for covering the jail guard’s fee of $204. In totality, Freeman owed $1,288 with interest.

In order to recoup his losses in proving his innocence in the face of a dishonest claim, Freeman brought civil suits against Pleasant Ellington for $10,000 and federal marshal John Robinson for $2,000. He specifically charged Robinson with assault, forcing the prisoner to strip naked, and extortion of the jail guard’s fee.

The court sided with Freeman over suing Ellington, but reduced the amount to $2,000. An article in the Indiana American newspaper published on May 19, 1854, prematurely reported that Freeman was able to “recover $2000 from Ellington.” The writer of the article also triumphantly concluded, “When he recovers about twice that amount from … Robinson, negro hunters and negro catchers will be careful how they fool with freemen in Indiana.”

In reality, Ellington, who had already fled Indianapolis, further escaped payment by selling his home in St. Louis, Missouri, and leaving without notice. The Indiana Supreme Court sided with Freeman against Robinson in December 1855, but dismissed the suit on a technicality. (Robinson lived in Rushville, Rush County, Indiana but the suit was filed in the Marion County Circuit Court.)

Ultimately, Freeman retained what he could, which comprised of his home and garden plot, with the help of donations from churches in both Indiana and Georgia. (An appeal to ministers and churches in both Indiana and Georgia was published in an issue of the Indiana American on January 20, 1854.) He also sold off most of his real estate. Still, Freeman fared better than other African-Americans who were at the center of fugitive slave cases. As Indiana historian Emma Lou Thornbrough pointed out, “No one will ever know how many anonymous Negroes were carried off into slavery without the benefit of counsel or a fair hearing simply because they were without friends or money.”

When the Civil War started, Freeman and his family left Indianapolis for Canada.

The Fugitive Slave Case of John Freeman and other such cases that laid bared the inherent injustice of the fugitive slave clause in the constitution received intense public interest. Fugitive slave cases also served to swell the general wave of disgust and horror at the slave catching system and thus escalated the rising conflict between free states and slave states over the institution of slavery.

Visit the State Historical Marker for John Freeman On The Map.

 

Follow the Fugitive Slave Case of John Freeman In Print

Sources:

Indiana Historical Bureau. “John Freeman.” Accessed July 22, 2014.

Money, Charles.“The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 In Indiana.” Indiana Magazine of History [Online] (1 June 1921): 180-198. Also refer to the Conclusion.

Nicholas, Stacey. “Freeman, John, Fugitive Slave Case of (1853).” In The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, ed. David J. Bodenhamer and Robert G. Barrows, 601-602. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Thornbrough, Emma Lou. “Political Developments: The Fugitive Slave Law in Operation.” In Indiana History: A Book of Readings, edited by Ralph D. Gray, 145-148. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church: The Longest-Standing Black Church in the City

  In Print and On the Map: Articles in the Indiana Digital Historic Newspaper Database and Corresponding State Historical Markers

Historical Marker 1–Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 414 West Vermont Street, Indianapolis, Indiana 46202

Bethel Early Image
Bethel A.M.E. Church

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Indianapolis’s oldest African-American church, has steadfastly served its community since before the Civil War. The church was founded in 1836 by a group of African-American Methodists. Members built a small church building on Georgia Street in between the Central Canal and Senate Avenue five years later. In 1857 members purchased Christ Episcopal Church and moved the building to their church’s site on Georgia Street. The role of Bethel AME Church, which was originally known as the Indianapolis Station, grew along with the black population of the city.

That black population made up approximately less than 3 percent of the total population in Indianapolis before the Civil War. Out of the total population of 1,338,710 in the state of Indiana in 1860, only 11,428 were African American. As the Civil War progressed though, the number of blacks coming to Indianapolis from the South as well as rural areas around the state only grew higher and higher.

Such an increase in the number and needs of the city’s black population, as well as its own membership, most likely prompted Bethel AME Church members to purchase a lot on West Vermont Street in 1867 for the construction of a new church building. By 1869 members had approved the name Bethel and moved to the new building on 414 West Vermont Street.

The new place of worship also became a place for social activism as well as a venue for organizing and implementing services in the black community. Those services included providing money, clothing, and temporary lodging to African-Americans immigrating to the city from the South after the Civil War.

Extending a helping hand to blacks coming to Indiana from the South was the subject of an article published in the Indianapolis Leader on January 24, 1880. (The Indianapolis Leader was the first black newspaper published in the city. You can read the blog post about the newspaper and its publishers and access digitized issues of the newspaper in the Indiana Digital Historic Newspaper Database for more information.)

In the article the writer included a transcript of an interview with Reverend W. C. Trevan, who was the Pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church at that time, concerning the activities of the Immigrant Relief Board since November 24, 1879, when a meeting was held to organize the committee at Bethel. Reverend Trevan was appointed as a member of the Immigrant Relief Board at that meeting along with several other pastors and community leaders including R. W. Wells, Charles Webb, E. Outland, W. H. Woods, J. S. Hinton, and L. E. Christy. Robert B. Bagby, cofounder of the Indianapolis Leader newspaper, served as board chairman.

The writer of the article explained that he met with Reverend Trevan to find out how many African Americans had traveled to Indianapolis from the South. In response to the writer’s questions Reverend Trevan first said, “I am in a position to know. To the last arrival I think it was about 438.” The writer also asked about the relocation of immigrants throughout the state. Referring to his notes, Reverend Trevan answered, “Eleven families have gone to Union City, 10 to Crawfordsville, 70 to Greencastle and 23 persons, among who were two men, to Shelbyville.” He also confirmed that several families were relocated to homes in other towns and cities in the state, like Spencer, Greenfield, and Terre Haute.

On the subject of where in the South African-Americans were emigrating from and in what numbers Reverend Trevan explained that the particulars varied. “Some 50 of the last lot came from Kentucky,” he said, “and they are coming in all the time from different points, and settling over the State. It is nothing new, [accepting] the large numbers in a lot. There has been a steady stream of colored emigration into the State for several years—particularly since the [Civil] war began and ended.”

By 1900, African Americans comprised about 10 percent (or 15,931) of the total population of the city. White realtors and segregationist groups worked to confine African Americans to heavily concentrated “colored” neighborhoods to the northwest of downtown Indianapolis as well as on the near east side and south side of the city in spite of the 1885 state civil right law that prohibited racial discrimination.

The article is followed by the Immigration Relief Board’s appeal to the public that was prepared by Robert Bagby, board chairman and cofounder of the Leader. (The issue also includes an interview with Rigdon Herring, an elder African-American man who came to Indiana from Lenoir County, North Carolina.)

Appeal Paragraph 1   Appeal Paragraph 2

Bethel AME Church continued to be an important thread in the fabric of the black community located to the northwest of Indianapolis’s downtown area, functioning as a space of racial solidarity and fulfilling a role that was interwoven throughout civil rights struggles and community outreach services for African Americans in the city. The church also served as a venue for the organization of local associations that were instrumental in the push to achieve better housing, education, and equal rights for African Americans. Both the Indianapolis NAACP chapter and Indiana State Federation of Colored Woman’s Clubs were established at Bethel.

Members renovated the church building and adjoining parsonage in 1974 in order to make more space for outreach activities. Bethel AME Church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. It is the only African-American church building in Indianapolis to receive that recognition.

Indianapolis’s oldest African-American church is still active in 2014, occupying the same site it did in 1869.

Bethel 2009 Image
Bethel A.M.E. Church in 2009

 

Marker Side 2
The state Historical Marker for Bethel AME Church, which is located across from the building on West Vermont Street, was dedicated on Saturday, June 20, 2009. Image courtesy of the Indiana Historical Bureau.

Marker Side 1

Reverend Carey A. Grady was assigned to Bethel AME Church as the Senior Pastor by John R. Bryant, Presiding Bishop of the Indiana South District AME Church, on October 24, 2009. The church has 313 members as of July 2014. Bethel facilitates several community-centered activities, including the Back-To-School Giveaway and Adopt-A-School Program, which supplies school materials for the entire student body of Flanner House Elementary School as well as $15 gift cards to teachers, and the Homeless Program, which provides free lunches for homeless individuals every Tuesday. The church is also a member of the Indianapolis Congregation Action Network (IndyCan) and has served as headquarters for IndyCan’s Mass Transit Campaign since 2013.

Newspaper Article

“Colored Immigrants in Indiana: Their Character and Location.” The Indianapolis Leader, January 24, 1880. Pages 1-2. Accessed July 7, 2914. https://newspapers.library.in.gov/ 

Interviews

Brown, Emma, member of Bethel A.M.E. Church. Interview by Melissa Burlock, 18 July 2013. Audio recording, IUPUI Special Collections and Archives, e-Archives, https://archives.iupui.edu/handle/2450/6957.

Grady, Carey A., Senior Pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church. Phone conversation with Melissa Burlock, 14 July 2014.

Kitchen, Inez, member of Bethel A.M.E. Interview by Melissa Burlock, 19 July 2013. Audio recording, IUPUI Special Collections and Archives, e-Archives, https://archives.iupui.edu/handle/2450/6959.

McConnell, William, World War II veteran and member of Bethel A.M.E. Church. Interview by Melissa Burlock, 21 July 2013. Audio recording, IUPUI Special Collections and Archives, e-Archives, https://archives.iupui.edu/handle/2450/6958.

Books

Hale, Michelle D. “Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.” In The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, ed. David J. Bodenhamer and Robert G. Barrows, 318-319. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Hyatt, Susan B., Benjamin J. Linder, Margaret Baurley, and others. The Neighborhood of Saturdays: Memories of a Multi-Ethnic Community on Indianapolis’ South Side. Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing, 2012. http://indiamond6.ulib.iupui.edu/cdm/ref/collection/NOS/id/2352.

Pierce, Richard B. Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis, 1920-1970. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2005.

Thornbrough, Emma Lou. “African-Americans.” In The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, ed. David J. Bodenhamer and Robert G. Barrows, 5-14. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Warren, Stanley. “The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.” Traces (Summer 2007): 32–36.

Websites

“Above the Underground Railroad: Bethel AME Church.” Accessed July 8, 2014. http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/underground/in1.htm.

“Forged Through Fire: Bethel AME Church, Indianapolis Station AME Church, 1836-1869.” Accessed July 7, 2014. https://forgedthroughfire.wordpress.com/.

Indiana Historical Bureau. “June 20, 2009 – Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.” Accessed July 8, 2014. http://www.in.gov/history/BethelDed.htm.

NUVO Editors. “IndyCAN heralds mass transit bill passage.” Accessed July 14, 2014. http://www.nuvo.net/indianapolis/indycan-heralds-mass-transit-bill-passage/Content?oid=2784803#.UyJoWeddUQY