WTH 2016 Project, Part Two

Paris Avenue was lined with stores, houses and saloons through much of its day.  As I have mentioned before it was once the most important street in West Terre Haute.  Like the town it was once vibrant but now its decay reflects what happened to the town over the last five decades.


Saloons have always been a part of West Terre Haute.  Indeed, the first building erected there in 1837 was a saloon/store catering to the workers building the National Road.  I can not recall a time when there was not a bar on this corner of 3rd (Market) St, and Paris Avenue.

The storefront immediately to the right of the tavern once housed Ernie Lane’s barber shop. I went to Ernie for my (increasingly infrequent) haircuts during my junior high and high school years.  Ernie open this shop upon being released from prison after serving a short term fo, I believe, was some sort of financial crime.

I especially remember three of my visits to his red leather barber’s chair.  One was the time that Ernie convinced me that I would feel much better in the hot summer if he gave me a “butch” cut.  His powers of persuasion overcame my usually strong will and I acquiesced, immediately regretting the decision as the clipper burrowed onto my scalp.  I regretted it even more when I walked back into the house on McIlroy Avenue.  My mother practically shrieked at my scalping.  Her disappointment was even keener than mine at shearing Ernie gave me.

Like most barbers of that time Ernie was fluent in talking politics, crops and sports.  He was never bereft of opinions.  I remember his outrage at Cassius Clay for adopting his Muslim name of Muhammed Ali and proclaiming he had no quarrel with “them Viet Cong.”  His reaction was succinct but strong.  “they ought to draft that nigger, send him straight to Viet Nam and lead a squad.  That way he could be shot in the back by our own troops like he deserves.

The best day I ever had at Ernie’s was that November 1968 Saturday when IU beat Purdue which meant John Pont’s team  would be going to the Rose Bowl.  I had not wanted to get a haircut that day, instead wanting to stay home and listen to the game.  But because some event was coming up (school picture time, maybe) Mom insisted I go see Ernie.  At halftime I fairly sprinted to Paris Avenue hoping to get it over with.  Of course there were at least three others ahead of me with staked claims to Ernie’s chair.  But it actually turned into a wonderful communal experience as the five of us listened to the game.  The other customers stayed behind after their cuts (as did I) to share the experience. 

pan2See the windows on the second floor? Then as now, I believe, the second floor had apartments.  It was behind one of those windows that Kenny Wayne Lowe met his early death.  Kenny and his family lived down the hill from my grandparent’s house.  I played with him and his brother Norman on occasion.  Kenny Wayne always brought to mind Huck Finn for me.  Lanky, tousled hair, he was a nice kid, though I believe he had what we would now call a learning disability.  In those days the general pronouncement about Kenny Wayne was that “not too bright.”  I lost track of Kenny, but learned he had been drafted and went to Viet Nam.  The word around the neighborhood was that he survived the jungle, but came home with wounded psyche and a drug habit.  Perhaps those are the reasons he found himself living on that second floor and  fell into such a stupor that he did not notice his cigarette  falling onto the bed.  At least not until it was too late.


Houses also once crowded Paris Avenue.  Frankly I am always surprised that more than a few still stand, some after more than a century.





Two buildings that have memories for me.  The white building was once, I think, Farr’s Grocery, later Mama Joy’s Restaurant.  Even Terre Hauteans would venture into West Terre Haute to dine on the down home fare at Joy’s.  I remember the yeast rolls were good, not up to my Garandma’s but good.


The Young Men’s Club was home to dances, men’s stag smokers (sometimes bawdy events rumored to include what we would now call vintage porn viewed through the smoky haze), club meetings, and pool parties.  It was the only indoor pool in town.  Readers of previous blogs will remember it as the place my Uncle Dave Chrisman saved my mother from drowning.  Hence my fear of water.



And finally….


I was really surprised when I returned for a visit a few years ago to find West Terre Haute had its own strip club, opened after those dim-lit edifices like it in Terre Haute had been shut down.  Checking around a bit I heard that it had quite a reputation.  Many of even the most hardy Terre Haute Bawds are said to be leery of venturing across the river for their entertainment (though they desperately wish to).  Perhaps that is why (in addition to worries about drunk driving) that the club offers a shuttle service on weekends.  After all, this is the age of good customer service….


“Awful Crimes” Part Two


The looters who scavenged what little remained of George Ward had barely made off with their ghoulish souvenir before word of the lynching spread. Thanks to the telegraph and phone news of the “event” appeared in newspapers across the country. Even the New York Times reported the actions of a mob in Terre Haute. Rumor and hearsay were swift currents flooding the streets and dirt roads of Vigo County.

It was said that Ward had spent time in an insane asylum or perhaps was responsible for the earlier murder of a white man found in a Terre Haute alley. But who was George Ward, who went from being just another ignored Black man to infamy? There is very little to go on. It was said he was born in Kentucky. Estimates of his age ranged from 27 to 40. He could have been the George Ward who was born in Kentucky, but one report said he confided to a jailer that his name was really Robinson.

At some point he or his family moved to Circleville, Ohio. His Sunday School teacher there recalled that he was a good boy and she was shocked at what he had become. He came to Terre Haute around 1896. He was once a servant for the Erlich family in Seelyville. He was fired when he was found lurking under the bed of one of their young daughters. He claimed, oddly, that he was under the bed because he was looking for a drink of water.

It was likely around this time that he met Ruth Roberts. Ruth was from the free black settlement in Lost Creek Township. That settlement, along with the more famous Roberts Settlement in Hamilton County, Indiana, was the result of Quaker-aided outmigration of free blacks from North Carolina. Ruth (she may have been the sweetheart that others later noted George had been abusive to after church services) had married George in 1897 or 1898. At the time of the lynching the couple had a three year-old son and infant daughter. The 1900 city directory listed them as living at 1610 Spruce Street and George as a laborer at railroad car works in Terre Haute.

George had never had any serious trouble with the police, outside of minor larceny charge. Some said he was a petty thief. A storekeeper where Ward traded said they kept an eye on him when he was in the store and always made him pay for purchases. Co-workers at the car shop viewed him as good –natured, but things were wont to disappear when he was around. They also noted he was “a fool for women” and was always talking about them. She reported that he seemed quite normal the night after the murder. He ate a hearty supper and went to bed. It was not until the next day that she heard of the arrest. She avowed that he had never been in an insane asylum.

The lynching occupied the news for weeks afterwards. One newspaper reported that Ruth Ward was going to auction of her husband’s hunting suit and shotgun. Another noted that some of the items would be displayed at a local store. These reports were later denied, but others sought to profit from the tragedy. One young boy was said to be selling Ward’s toes he had scavenged from the scene. The going price was $1.00 per toe. James Huffman, a railroad conductor and a spectator at the lynching, proudly showed a piece of the rope as proof he was there. This too might be for sale.

Outrage against Ward mingled with sympathy for Ida Finkelstein and her family. Ida’s mother who lived in Chicago, prostrate with grief had taken refuge with her brother Meyer Levin. It was noted that Ida’s death left the family destitute. Benefits for the family were held in Lafayette and Terre Haute. Citizens contributed to the fund. Within weeks over $500.00 dollars were raised for the family. One man offered that if every one of the 2,000-3,000 people who reportedly witnessed the lynching contributed a dollar the family would be well cared for.

Also destitute, according to her father, were Ruth Ward and her children. No benefits were staged for them.

The tragedy continued to reverberate. George Wood, a man who had witnessed the lynching, reportedly went insane from the vicious spectacle. Crazed, he turned himself in to the Vigo County jail. Warders there soon transferred him to an asylum. African Americans feared even more White retribution for Ward’s crime. It was noted that many were quietly leaving Terre Haute for Brazil, Indiana, or other safer havens. Whites also feared more trouble when word spread that Ward’s brother had arrived in Terre Haute on his own personal search for revenge.


One of the more absurd aspects of the lynching was the official dithering over what, if anything, remained of George Ward’s body. Vigo County Coroner James Willis announced that he could not as yet determine the location of Ward’s death. Was it Harrison Township, where Terre Haute was located, or Sugar Creek Township, containing West Terre Haute. The decision was an important one it seemed, because where he died would determine which township would be charged with burial costs. As there was said to be almost nothing of Ward’s body that had not been burned or looted, it seems a moot point. I found no further information about what decision was made. What may have happened was that the slim remains were buried in Terre Haute’s potter’s field, or irony of ironies, burned in the city crematorium located along the river, just yards from where the lynching took place.

And other costs?  Taxpayers soon learned that the mob did over $10,000.00 damage to the jail.

And what of justice for Ward’s lynching? It was announced that the grand jury would convene on March 11th to look into the case and “to undertake to learn the names of the lynchers.” There was hope that the ringleaders would be identified and punished. After meeting, the jurors returned no indictments. Some were disgusted that the crime would go “unsolved,” but others were glad to have the ordeal at some sort of official end. Still others thought that that the fix was in. It was said that two men who were added late to the grand jury had already made public statements supporting the lynching.

Of course, reaction to the lynching was headline news. Editorials and newspaper stories from around Indiana and the nation condemned the savagery of lynching. There were calls to strengthen Indian’s anti-lynch law. An editorial in the Indianapolis Sun posited that one of the reasons the lynching occurred was that the people of Vigo County had so little faith in the county’s leaders or justice system.
The opinion of local leaders was eagerly sought by the newspapers. Most actively condemned the lynching as inhuman and a blight on the city. But as the Terre Haute Gazette printed ‘”Ifs” and ‘”buts’” were used.

But those who thought justice had been done were plentiful, and vocal. One E.W. Leeds noted that “When sure of his man Judge Lynch is a wise and just judge.” A former city councilman named Hebb was of the opinion that “the mob did right. The only mistake was killing the wretch before they burned him.” There were many who shared that opinion. Among them, curiously, was Rev. A.M. Taylor of the A. M. E. Church in Rockville, Indiana, who believed that “hell-deserving wretches” like Ward deserved their fate.

Much ink was spread over the Ward Lynching, but one that statement that catches the eye was printed the night of the lynching. The Terre Haute Gazette opined that “Terre Haute is the chief victim of the murder of the Negro murderer Ward.”

Not Ida Finkelstein, not George Ward…..

West Terre Haute 2016 Project


Over the next 16 months I hope to document as many of the extant buildings in West Terre Haute as possible. I am calling this the West Terre Haute 2016 Project. I hope to leave behind a time capsule of the time for the future (though future historians will probably just look back at Google Maps, etc, than this project). My hope is that others who live or once lived in West T. will contribute to the project by sending me their stories and photos.

As I was taking these photos today, even my historian’s memory was failing me a bit. So if anyone reading these can fill in my gaps of memory of some of these buildings or what are now empty spaces, I would appreciate it.

I start today with some “panoramic” views of the south side of Paris Avenue, with a few comments. In future blogs I will look at some of the individual structures.

Looking West from Sumner Avenue


The old gas station building is one of my favorites.  I cannot quite remember if it was still serving as a gas station, or just a tire place whne I was very young.


Not sure what once stood here.  I am a little vague on buildings that were east of McIlroy Avenue


The building in foreground is the famous Snack’s cafe (see the McIlroy Avenue post for details).  To the east  was a Ray’s Barber Shop, which had the huge painting of Custer’s Last Stand that fascinated me.


The small building was Tavern’s Variety store.  I spent a lot of time there.  They were nice people.  Once went in there, and after much debate, spent $1.98 of the $2.00 I had to by a miniature metal safe with combination lock.  Of course, that left me only .2 to put in it.


The building on the corner was Berry’s Drugstore, where 8 comic books could be had for .96.  It was also here that I began my romance with the satire of Mad Magazine (explains a lot my friends, doesn’t it?)


The empty lot held several buildings, including Lucien’s Liquor Store, an occasional stop on walks with Gramps.


This was one of most vital blocks on Paris Avenue.  On either side where this church stands once stood a bank, theater, grocery, telephone exchange (where my Grandma worked before marriage) and a miner’s company store.


On this now grassy corner stood a wonderful hardware store filled with damn near anything you might need.  Originally Splaty’s, it was bought by the Gropp family, ardent Catholics and friends of the Chrismans.


The Grade, the Bottoms and a Yellow Dog


I took one of my semi-sentimental sojourns west today. I tend to do this on less than the brightest of days, and hovering today was a grey, mottled sky. I crossed the Wabash on the “new” bridges. Which always seems strange to me as I was used to the ancient bridge that once stood in their place. I have ever been wary of bridges. Mainly because expanses of water bother me. If water reaches the level of my chest I feel my lungs constricting and breath shallowing. Possibly this is because my mother was saved from drowning by my uncle Dave as a girl, and her terror was somehow transferred to me by memory or fear-altered genes. I think I always have moments of bated breath while crossing a bridge.


Across the bridge I entered “the grade,” at least that is what I and others my age or older know it by. It is the road that runs to West Terre Haute. It is, or was, called the grade because a roadbed was graded up from the bottom lands that separate Terre Haute and West Terre Haute. Terre Haute (French for high land) was located on a high bank east of the Wabash. This hank of land high above the river is the very reason that the town was located there.

This not so on the west bank. The land is much lower and the flood plain of the Wabash formed a two mile stretch of swampy bottom lands. They began “grading up” a path through the bottoms in the late 1860s or 1870s. Eventually the road would rise, I suppose, 10 or 12 feet above the bog. Even in the driest times you can see water standing along the way. How many times I have gone across the Grade? Quite literally thousands of times in my years.

Just as I reached the point where the Grade curves a little to the left I saw a man walking inside the guard rails. He was, I guess, in his thirties. He carried a white trash bag in one hand, some sort of gig in the other. Like the ragpickers I wrote about in an earlier blog he was harvesting the detritus of others, likely picking up soda or beer cans to sell to a recycler. How many trips, I wondered, how many cans would he have to pick to make a dollar? How demoralizing must it be to take on such a job to help feed him or his family?

I was stopped by the light at 7th & National. I saw two hands sticking out of the backseat windows of the car in front of me. As we pulled away from the light, the two hands became gliders buffeted by the wind s of a moving car. My god, how many times did I do that as a kid? Let the wind swirl and take my hand to flight as if it were not part of my body.

I drove “old 40” into Illinois, eschewing the quicker interstate route. Speed and reflections are inimical to each other, I think. I passed Dunlap. A left turn and a few miles would have taken me to the wreckage of the first house we lived in after moving to Illinois. I did go that way, but thought about the great fun we had using a storm-downed tree as fort and airplane when living there. I also remember my Uncle Danny hiding his car there as a 19 year-old when he feared thr bank would find and repossess it.

Now one of the oldest clichés (and I have used it myself more than once) is that when you return to childhood scenes they all look much smaller than the world you remember. But the stretch from Dunlap to Dennison gave the opposite impression. So little had changed. And the trees lining each side of the road seemed taller, thicker than in my youth, as if they defied greed to even try to usurp their place to make way for a convenience mart or dollar store of some ilk.

I don’t much like recalling Dennison. We lived there for several years when I was in high school, hard by the railroad tracks and catercorner from the one-armed former race car driver and mechanic. To me it signifies the period when my family went into a severe economic decline. The house, long since gone, was home to the only sad Christmas I have ever known. So I did not even glance to the right as I went by.

I angled my way off 40 into Marshall. I suppose you could call Marshall my “other” hometown after West Terre Haute. Even now after it as suffered mightily at the hands of the economy over the last two decades, Marshall is a different world from West T. I vaguely remember it being named by the Chicago Tribune as one of the finest small towns in Illinois. It is still, for the most part, a pretty town with neat house, trimmed lawns and tree-shaded street. At the intersection of Route 1 (by the Archer House, once host to Lincoln, and still operated as the oldest inn in Illinois) I turned south and headed to Lincoln Trail State Park.

Lincoln Trail is a small treasure, a vast winding, hilled, forested park. I find it hard to believe I used to ride my ten-speed bike (purchased at the Topps department store in Terre Haute) the 10 or 12 miles from our house north of Marshall to there.

I turned off the highway onto the park access road. Barely 500 yard along the road I saw the skeleton of a decades old barn slowly being flattened by Newton’s thumb. I drove up and down the many, many hills before I saw a spot that I seemed to remember. I grabbed my notebook and camera from the car and headed to a picnic table.


Forty years ago I sat at that table, or its predecessor, after the long bike ride. I would kick back and try to write poems and short stories (about themes I had yet to experience anywhere but in my perfervid mind) in my head and hope to remember by the time I rode home.

Sense memories immediately flooded back. The quiet. The feeling of isolation, aloneness, society of and kind being far away. I scribbled some notes, took some photos. Above me thunder rustled the lofted treetops. Peace and thoughts. I stayed about an hour, just thinking.

On the way out I came upon an ebon crow so intent upon his carrion that I had to apply the brakes. He did not fly away until I was about five feet from him. I am sure he returned as soon as I drove on.
I retraced my path to West Terre Haute. My only conscious destination of the day was to revisit the bottoms. Just outside of West Terre Haute is a spot called the Wabashniki fishing and game preserve? It was meant to be part of a much larger effort to help revitalize West Terre Haute, I am told. At one point, it was hoped it would include a library and small museum. Dreams long gone now, I suppose.

The view of the Bottoms from Wabashniki is much more prettified and sterile than the ones I grew up with. The Bottoms were just down the hill from Grandma and Grampa’s house. Before the levee was built in the early Seventies you could walk right into it. It was a dark, swampy morass of a place as I remember, West Terre Haute Haute’s version of the Old Dismal. It was home to creaking trees, snakes, and odd sounding bird voices. Most of my uncles played there. My mother forbade 4 year-old Tim from going there (I seem to write about her fears and mine, often). But one summer when I was about 4 or 5 my two youngest uncles, Kenny and Danny, hied me away when she was not home and took me to the fort they had built. Whether it is an actual memory, or one that has been ingrained by it retelling, I do not know, but I have in my mind a scene of them lifting me over the top logs and sitting me inside. That I think I remember.
They left me there as a joke. When they went back up Riggy to the house my mom was home from work. At first they sad they did not know where I was, maybe Grandma took me to the store. But their laughter soon gave them away. They finally confessed to my “kidnapping.” My mom babied her younger brothers, but on this day… She grabbed a switch from the mulberry tree in the backyard and chased them back down the hill to the edge of the bottoms. I was retrieved forthwith amid apologies and supplications that she not thrash them. I cannot remember if she did switch them, but I know they suffered the wrath of my Grandpa when he got home from the concrete plant.

I left the Bottoms and headed home. I was barely back on the Grade when I saw an old, old man riding a child’s bike toward West Terre Haute. A yellow bag was strung on the handlebars as he strained to make his way in the rain. The sight caused a quicksilver sadness in me. Made worse when I saw that just behind him was a big yellow dog trotting behind him. I imagined the dog as his best companion and friend. It left me with an ineffable sadness, but also a hopeful thought. No matter how tough things may be, if you have a dog who loves you, life cannot be all bad.

“Awful Crimes” Part One

wardbruteAs I mentioned in an earlier blog, my site host offers a package that shows various statistics, referrers and some of the search engine terms that refer visitors to the blog. A month or so ago one of the search terms was “hanging a nigger on West Terre Haute bridge.” As I noted then the term was a dispiriting one, and one that said a lot about West Terre Haute’s (deserved) reputation as a “sundown” town that did not welcome African Americans. What the searcher was seeking was information about a lynching. In 1901 a Black man named George Ward was lynched, the only lynching in Vigo County’s history.

Ida Finkelstein was a young teacher. At this time in American history the role of women as teachers of the young was well established. Such young women were underpaid, but dedicated and often admired for what they did. She taught at the Elm Grove School in northeastern Terre Haute. Originally from Lafayette, she had taken the teachers course at Indiana State Normal. Ida, slender, longhaired, only 20, boarded with a local family. She made $45.00 a month during the school year, sending all but $5.00 a month to Chicago to help her mother and sisters.

February 25th, 1901 was an ordinary Monday for her. The first part of the school day was spent getting her students to focus again on their work after the weekend break. She settled in to teach her young students. After the children had gone home for the day, she stayed behind to tidy up the school. Around 4:00pm she left the school. She always rode the interurban to and from school. The track was about a mile from the school, through a wooded area. She set off for home.
Earlier in the day a man had gone to a doctor’s office to get medicine for his child. The doctor thought the man was acting strangely, as if he was “on the verge of mania of some kind.” At 2:30pm the man put on his hunting jacket and boarded the interurban, riding to the Fruitridge Avenue stop near the Hulman farm. He headed into the woods.
Around 5:30 Ida was found crawling to a nearby house. She was bloodied. Dr. Weinstein was called and rushed to the scene. She was taken to Union Hospital where she died. Before she died she was able to describe her attacker as a tall, light-skinned negro wearing a hunting coat.
By the next morning Terre Haute police were frantically searching for the killer. Blacks across the city were questioned. Every man of color encountered was looked at with suspicion. Finally, a local “colored man” told police he knew who the killer was. Deputies went to a local car works and arrested George Ward, a 40 year-old laborer. Ward protested his innocence, but was visibly shaken. He was taken to the county jail, hard by the Wabash River.
Even as the police and sheriff were questioning him, word of Ward’s arrest was a wildfire sweeping the streets. A “nigger” had raped and killed that poor teacher. On street corners and alleys groups of men gathered. Something should be done about that black bastard.

Meanwhile at the jail Ward soon confessed to the crime. He had come across Ida about 5:30. He was walking behind her. Sensing him, he said, the fearful young teacher turned and called out, “Don’t walk behind me. If you are going my way walk in front of me.” Ward said he was doing as she asked, but as he came abreast with her Finkelstein called him a “dirty nigger” and slapped him on the face. She began to run away. Enraged, Ward raised his double-barreled shotgun and shot her in the back of the head. She crumpled face down on the ground. He walked to her trembling body and, pulling out his hunting knife, raised her head and cut her throat. His knife blade broke off in her neck.

The idle men and fevered talk on the streets of Terre Haute soon turned into a mob with vengeance on its collective mind. Shortly after noon a few of the mob forced there their way into the jail. They were repelled, but it was now certain that reinforcements were needed. All deputies and volunteers were called in to help with a possible siege of the jail. Sheriff Fasig contacted Indiana Governor Durbin. The governor agreed the situation was perilous and ordered elements of the Indiana National Guard to proceed to Terre Haute.

Ward was taken to a cell as plans were made to transfer him to Indianapolis for his safety. It was too late. As Ward sat in his cell, smoking his corncob pipe, he could hear the howling mob. People assembled from all over the county near the jail to watch the scene. The crowd, in possession now of a heavy, timber surged forward. The two seeming leaders were strangers, cripples with crutches. The doors were battered open. A vanguard of angry men spewed into the jail and headed for the cells.

They found the terrified Ward hiding in a bathtub, a hammock drawn over him formed a feeble hiding place. Angry arms reached for him, pulling him out of the hiding place. One of the leaders shouted “Hurry up; your time is short and you ha better pray for your soul. As they pulled him out of the cell Ward tried banging his head on the wall in a vain attempt to commit suicide before the crowd could do their worst to him,
As he was pushed into the jail office could see a rabid crowd of men and boys, Some of them held hammers. A local blacksmith stepped forward, his fearsome hammer in hand, and struck Ward’s head as he would do when shaping a piece of iron. The blow (he was also knifed in the face) likely killed Ward instantly, but his death was not enough punishment for the crowd. They wanted more and more in retribution for Ward’s sin.

Two rope halters had been obtained from Chisler’s stable (the men who took them generously told Chisler they would be returned to him later). Ward was taken to the Wabash River drawbridge. A piece of chain was pulled from the bridge. The chain and ropes were fashioned into a gallows and noose. Ward’s dead body was hung from the bridge. A crowd estimated at over 2,000 people (including prominent citizens and, later, school girls) watched Ward dangle in the winds across the Wabash. At times his scarred face looked toward West Terre Haute.

Still it was not enough. A few hardy souls pulled Ward down from the bridge. Fuel was obtained. A funeral pyre was made for Ward along the river bank. People surged forward to watch his body burn down to its essence.

Eventually, those sated by savage end of George Ward, satisfied that elemental justice had been done, drifted back to their homes.

A few diehards remained behind scurrying for mementos. One enterprising man was selling Ward’s skeletal toes for a dollar apiece,
A twelve year-old boy proudly showed off his treasure: a shred of Ward’s clothing, a charred bone, and a piece of the hangmen’s rope.

In the next entry I will look at the aftermath of the lynching. Including Ward’s widow and others try to profit from the tragedy, the outrage from some, and the inane argument over which township would be charged for burying what little remained of George Ward’s body.



Murder at St. Mary’s, or Railroaded, Part Two


The anxious shouts, roiling steam and, and billowing smoke from the sprawled train had barely faded into St. Mary’s’ sky when word of the crash spread. People were used to train accidents and derailments (The death certificate of one of my Chrisman ancestors noted his cause of death as “Cut into pieces (railroad accident)). They happened all the time. It was a rare issue of a newspaper that did not report the collisions of trains or some sort of death on the rails.
But a derailment like the one at St. Mary’s, purposeful, willful, caused by a criminal hand, was an event to be noted. The St. Mary’s’ crash, known as the “Great railroad wrecking case” would be a story that would reverberate for nearly three years. The Terre Haute Evening Gazette, the town’s liveliest newspaper likened it to Banquo’s Ghost as the case would not “lie down.”

The morning after the wrecking, the usual quiet of the village of St. Mary’s was a thing of other days. The area was abuzz. People went to the station to gawk at the fallen train. One of a more philosophical bent, might have likened it to the skeleton of a great beast. Uproar was everywhere. Two of those milling around were Oliver Wilson and William Kahoe. Wilson, who worked at the Eagle Iron Works in Terre Haute, was among the first to arrive at the wreckagee the night before. He had carried water to minister to the train’s stricken crew. Wilson and Kahoe walked to the home of neighbor and friend William McClain Chrisman.
Chrisman had been born in Kentucky, but like many upland southerners he made his way north. By 1878 he was a sometime farmer, sometime laborer, sometime worker on the railroad. He had settled in St. Mary’s with his wife Nancy and their seven children, among them his 4-year old son William. The three discussed the wreck, but what was said exactly is unknown. Still, some later saw a dark motive to their meeting.
The case was brought before the grand jury during the October, 1878 term of the Vigo Criminal Circuit Court. After being presented the evidence it affirmed that it believed that Wilson, Kahoe and Chrisman did “then and there unlawfully, feloniously, purposely and maliciously kill and murder one James Murray” by “throw[ing] of and from the track of a certain railroad” the brakeman. On November 20, 1878 Court Clerk John Durkin issued a writ ordering the County Sheriff to arrest forthwith Wilson, Kahoe and Chrisman and hold them until they could be tried for second degree murder.
The next day, a Thursday, Sheriff Louis Hay the same tracks threw off James Murray to St. Mary’s. He knocked on the door of the Chrisman home and took William Chrisman to Terre Haute and away from his wife and seven children. Chrisman and his fellow defendants Wilson and Kahoe, were forced into the jail hard by the Wabash River. Hay later turned in paperwork to be reimbursed for the $1.50 roundtrip fare.
While they sat in the dank cells, their families were left without their breadwinner. Their names bruited about by gossip and newspaper reports were tarnished. To many, smoke denoted fire, and all but their families expressed at least a fleeting doubt of their innocence. Chrisman must have wondered how these dark days came to pass. How had he ended up here? What had he done? What forces beyond his control, what hidden hands had drawn him to his cell? How would his wife and children survive without him?
It was to be months before he would know why.
The three obtained lawyers. Into December they waited for the proceedings. They did not know that the case against them continued to be debated. Accusations and counter-accusations were weighed. Rumors of money changing hands, of old vendettas, of naked self-protection eddied around them.
Then, for William Chrisman and William Kahoe, the nightmare ended. Prosecutor A.J. Kelley decided he did not have enough evidence to take them before a jury. He issued a writ of Nolle Prosequi. The term, literally translated as “be unwilling to pursue.” meant he was unwilling to prosecute the pair. Chrisman and Kahoe were freed. Back to their families they returned, confused, angry, but exultant at being free again. Oliver Wilson, the man accused of actually throwing the switch, would stand trial for the crime. But after hearing the evidence, the jury acquitted him.
But that was not the end. If Wilson, Kahoe, and Chrisman were not responsible for Murray’s death who was?
Well, it turned out, the pair next prosecuted for the crime were the star witnesses for the prosecution, George Jackman and James Knight!. Remember them. The eager witnesses turned detectives? The two had already earned well-deserved reputations as “villains of low order.’
The two, called “knowing and eager witnesses” at Wilson’s trial, were arrested in early 1879, but let go. A few weeks later, with new evidence in hand, the sheriff arrested the pair again, Jackman at at relatives house near St. Mary’s, Knight at a “doggery” (sleazy saloon) in Sandford. Their trial began on February 8th. The most compelling evidence was the testimony of two policemen who said they heard the two confess to the wrecking and blamed Wilson, Kahoe and Chrisman to divert suspicion from themselves.
Jackman and Knight were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Their lawyers immediately appealed the case, but by early Apri, 1879 l they were aboard a train to the state prison in Jeffersonville. Oddly, the prosecutor, A.J. Kelley, accompanied them part of the way, listening to the two of them praise Sheriff Hay for his kindness and damn their defense attorney, Sant Davis, to the deepest corners of hell. A newspaper article noted that they also hinted that the whole about the wrecking was yet to be told, but they were following the advice of their attorney to keep their gaping mouths shut until the Indiana Supreme Court ruled on their appeal. The paper also reported the pervasive feeling around Vigo county that they were “only scoundrelly tools of a deeper villain and that the whole crime is a conspiracy embracing others who have so far escaped punishment.” In closing. The article said “There is evidently a ragged edge left in the St. Mary’s wrecker cases and other hearts will be doomed to ache.”
With their departure, many now thought the wrecking case over. But that was not to be. In the Fall Wilson filed suits against the I & St.L RR for false imprisonment and malicious prosecution. Im March, 1880 Wilson’s was the first to go to trial. He was asking for $50,000.00 in damages.
Some of the evidence Wilson’s attorney brought out included:
 The railroad, not confident that local authorities could handle the case, hired various people as detectives in the case. In essence, i was the railroad using its vast influence that drove the prosecution.
 That railroad and the county prosecuted Wilson, Kahoe and Chrisman “not for the purpose of finding them guilty, and not with any hope or expectation of proving them guilty, but for the purpose of finding who were the guilty parties.”
 Agents of the railroad contracted with Jackman and Knight, and paid them $500.00 to convict the trio.
 Even before the trio’s arrest the railroad and prosecution knew they were not guilty, and were so suspicious of Jackman and Knight, that thgey had them separated (taking Jackman to Chicago and keeping Knight in Terre Haute) to compare their stories to see if they held up or would incriminate each other.
 That both Jackman and Knight had confessed to the crime while sitting in the back of Peter Staff’s saloon.
 That Staff himself was hired as a “detective” in the case and later told railroad officials that Jackman and Knight had confessed.
The trial lasted four days. The jury declared itself unable to reach a verdict several times. Each time the judge sent them back to deliberate. Finally, they returned a verdict for the defendants. Wilson may have been vindicated in the murder charge, but was not compensated that had been done to his life and livelihood.
William Chrisman went on with his case, filing suit in the November term of 1879, but his case was not scheduled until 1881. His lawyers’ (who also represented Wilson in his suit) case filing was essentially the same as Wilson’s, echoing the same reasons for the filing. Newspapers reported the case would begin soon, yet another chapter in the “wrecker” saga. Their next report said that the suit had been settled out of court. Kahoe, too, decided to settle before going to trial.
As for Jackman and Knight, their first appeal to overturn their conviction (base on the incompetency of a witness) was denied by the court in January 1881. They tried again and in April, 1881 the state Supreme Court granted them a new trial.
The I&St.L Railroad declined to prosecute them again.
One of the longest, strangest cases in Vigo County was now officially closed.
Why did the railroad decide against further prosecution? Perhaps there was, as local gossip averred, a sinister, hidden hand behind the wreck. Railroading was a cutthroat business in the 19th century. Competing companies often sabotaged other lines, bribed official for right-of-ways, recruited each other’s staff to gain some sort of competitive edge. Perhaps Jackman and Knight really did have further evidence that could have damaged the railroad.
Why did Wilson lose such a hard fought suit against the railroad? Partially, perhaps, because railroads were powerful entities and not to be trifled with. Losing such a suit might have set important precedents and the railroad hired the better lawyers. I checked the background of as many of the jurors in his case as I could and found no obvious ties to railroading. The first and second jury votes stood 6-6, clearly a split ballot. But “arguments were brought to bear” and after at least 5 more ballots, the holdouts for Wilson succumbed to the wishes of the others.
Wilson’s trial was certainly disheartening for William Chrisman and William Kahoe. Did their lawyers (again the same as who represented Wilson) continue the suits only with hope that a settlement could be reached. Or did they hope that Jackman and Knight really would drop bombshells that the railroad did indeed knowingly use Wilson, Chrisman and Kahoe, and thus ensure their cases? In any event Chrisman and Kahoe settled for very much less than the $50,000.00 they originally sought. How much less is not known. Was it enough to make up for their damaged lives? Did they use it to build a better life for their families? Did William Chrisman pay off bills, build a new home, sat a new career? There is no evidence that whatever sum he received from the railroad made a significant change in his fortunes.
And James Murray, the innocent victim of a tragic crime? In an early story about the crime, the Saturday Evening Ledger, commenting on the twists and turns of the case hoped that crime “would not go unwhipped of justice.” Indeed, it seems, their desire went unrequited.



Murder at St. Marys, or Railroaded, Part One


BrakemanBackground Note: Railroads were primary drivers of the US economy in the last half of the 19th century. This made them powerful institutions. They were also the prime beneficiaries of “corporate welfare.” Not only did the government give them free land for their right of ways, but millions upon millions of acres of land along their routes were doled out to them free. Thus, railroads made huge profits by selling what originally was public land. Fortunes, like the Harriman family’s, were made due to government largesse. They had considerable political clout, and often acted as a law unto themselves, or took the law into their own hands. (Remember the scene in Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid where a posse of horsemen leapt from a train car? Those were Pinkerton agents, hired by the railroad)
On Saturday night, June 8, 1878, an Indianapolis & St. Louis Railroad train sat in the old Union Station in Terre Haute. The crew stepped out of the depot at 10th & Chestnut readied the train for another trip west. Climbing onto the caboose after checking the couplings on the cars was James Murray, the brakeman. His was one of the most dangerous jobs in railroading. Brakeman had to climb upon railroad cars to operate the brakes, even in the worst of weather. A slip or misstep could be fatal. But the weather appeared to pose no problems this June night. The way ahead seemed clear. They would cross the railway bridge across the Wabash River, turn northwesterly and head to the big city on the Mississippi.
A little earlier that evening, less than three blocks away men gathered at Peter Staff’s Saloon at 9th & Wabash. Staff was from a family of saloonkeepers and an inveterate inventor with many patents to his credit. He ran a respectable saloon as Terre Haute saloons went. Two men sat near the bar leaning into their drink and plotting quietly, they thought. They crossed the railway trestle an hour or so before Murray and the train.
After midnight figures lurked near the St. Mary’s depot as most of the village and the sisters and students at St. Mary of the Woods slept to await a Sunday morning. As the I & St.L steamed north of Macksville to St. Marys, darkened figures scuttled across the tracks.to change the switch and move the fasteners. Murray and the train did not have a chance. The engine jumped the track, taking with it its load. James Murray was thrown from the caboose. He was crushed by the wreckage. Awakening came early for St. Marys that morning as the terrible sounds of the derailing pieced the calm night. As they scurried to their doors and windows James Murray lay dead along the tracks.

The railroad company was incensed. They saw this incident as yet another of the “villainous attempts to destroy human life [and the railroad] by its enemies.” Not having great faith in local authorities, perhaps, the management of the I & St. L looked to hire “Agents, Attorneys & Detectives” to investigate the case.
Two of the “detectives” they engaged were denizens of Staff’s saloon. George Jackman and James Knight, many who knew them might have said, were two men more likely to be investigated by detectives than assume those roles themselves. But the railroad seemingly knew what they were doing and set the two often-sotted bloodhounds on the trail of the killers of James Murray.
By Fall, Jackman and Knight reported their “findings” to the railroad. Interestingly, they averred, they had been witnesses to a string of events that culminated in them witnessing the train’s derailment. They spotted a man named Oliver Wilson in Terre Haute that night. For reasons they never adequately explained, Jackman and Knight then decided to walk across the Wabash trestle. Just enjoying the fime night for a walk, one assumes.
While on their sojourn, the pseudo-detectives say they came upon Oliver Wilson and his companion William Kahoe, in excited conversation. Jackman said he clearly heard Wilson say “I’ll tear the damned ‘road to hell before morning.” Jackman claimed they passed Wilson and Kahoe, pretending not to have noticed them or the overheard threat.
They then paused at McQuilkin’s coal bank just north of Macksville. They saw Wilson and Kahoe approach and hid from their view. Being good citizens who had overheard threats, they shadowed the pair all the way to St. Marys. There, they saw the foul deed done.
They witnessed Wilson going to the depot. He crossed the track and began working on the switch. The “detectives” sensed foul play was afoot. From not far away came the shrill of a whistle. A train was approaching St. Marys. At that point William Chrisman of St. Marys and employed by the very railroad whose train was nearing the depot jumped out of the shadows and shouted, “Don’t do that, Oliver.” It was not the train that “held treasure.
Jackman and Knight took their findings to the I & St. L officials. The railroad reported their finding to Terre Haute officials. In the October, 1878 term of the Vigo County Circuit Court the grand jury indicted Oliver Wilson, William Kahoe and William Chrisman for the murder of brakeman James Murray in the 2nd degree.
William Chrisman, accused murderer, was my great-great grandfather.
In the next installment the results of the trial and its twisting aftermath.




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