Book News

Many have asked when my book on the history of West Terre Haute, Til the Coal Train Hauled It Away:  The Rise and Demise of a Small Town, will be published.  I am very happy to announce that if all goes according to plan the book will be published in October, 2017.

In the meantime I want to share news of another publication.  A collection of my short fiction, A Sky Held Captive, will be published on May 10.  Included in it are three stories either set in, or featuring characters from, West Terre Haute.

It will be available on Amazon and other book outlets after May 15, but if you wish to purchase an advanced personally inscribed, autographed copy, please contact me via the blog site or my email address ( and I will tell you how to order a copy.

Thank you all for your continued interest.

The Handsome Killer on Death Row: Preacher’s Kid, Part Three

No one knows exactly how Cozzie Jones managed his escape from the Indiana State Prison in 1960.  A retired guard said according to prison lore an assistant warden, who became close to Jones, had aided his escape.  It seemed odd that a man who had spent almost half his twenty years in solitary for various infractions was allowed to work on the prison honor farm.  What is known that Jones managed to slip away and acquire clothes, cash and a car, and flee the state.

Jones headed west, stopping long enough to murder a hitchhiker in Missouri, settling in Arizona.

Settling isn’t really the correct word.  He slid from place to place, the right move for an escapee.  He was known to have lived in Casa Grande, Tucson, Florence and Phoenix.  He adopted the name Steve Palmer for his new life.  Jones was an accomplished pianist and lived the life of an itinerant musician, playing in bands and working as a solo act.  The owner of the Quick Draw Club in Casa Grande acknowledged Jones’ skill but said he was a strange character.  Along the way he picked up a woman he sometimes introduced as his wife.

One think did not leave behind was a most horrendous trait.  Cozzie Merrill Jones was a pedophile.

He was a small man with “hard dark eyes and a smirk when he spoke,” but he could also be charming. He appears to have been adept at what is now called grooming his potential victims.  Several women still recall with a shudder their encounters with him six decades ago.

Laura Dey’s father was a band leader who hired “Steve Palmer” through the musicians union.  She remembered he played beautifully, but would sometimes disappear for days.  Once he returned looking worse for wear and with his car re-painted.  Even as a sever year-old she did not like him.

Marie Johns came very close to becoming a victim.  Her family lived near Jones and his “wife,” who just disappeared one day never to be heard from again.  Jones would take her places when she was six.  He even stayed close to her after they moved away from the neighborhood.  He would appear at their new house and ask to take young Marie with him.  He followed her home from schools one day  The last time she saw him was the day he knocked on the door and wanted to take her to visit Colossal Cave.  Her father, leery of Jones, refused the invitation.  Later that night they learned Jones had been arrested.

Jones was living in Tucson when he met Lucinda Hutcherson and her mother met Jones and his “wife” in a local drugstore.  Jones later invited them to his home, where he seemed much more interested in 13 year-old Lucinda than her single mother.  Jones was constantly asking Lucinda to come hear him play the piano.  Her mother was wary of “Steve Palmer” and did not allow him alone with her daughter.  He persisted by visiting their home.  When he did Lucinda and her mother turned out the lights and pretended not to be at home.  She remembers him peeking over a concrete wall when she was having a slumber party with her friends.  She also saw him peeking through her bedroom window on several occasions.

Time finally ran out on the escapee in December 1962.  Two men saw Cozzie trying to pull a young girl into his car near Florence, Arizona.  They intervened and Jones sped away.  In a chase that sometimes reached 90 MPH they cornered him at a dead end.  He jumped out the car and fired shots from a pistol at them.  A 62 year-old retired rancher Carl Quast happened to be cleaning his hunting rifle in his carport when Jones ran up and pointed a gun in his face.  He forced Quast to be his getaway driver.  After Quast drove him out of harm’s way, Cozzie murdered him, leaving his body in the desert.

The Pinal County, Arizona Sheriff’s Department tracked Cozzie down and arrested him for the Quast murder on December 8th.  They learned that “Donald Steve Palmer” was wanted by the Tucson police for making “improper advances” toward an 11 year-old girl there.  Armed with this information they interrogated Jones for hours.

Jones quickly confessed to Quast’s murder.  The police were suspicious that he was also involved in the murder of an 8 year-old Tucson girl the year before.  He was given a lie detector test that proved inconclusive.  The technician giving the test told police that Cozzie was “a man who knows a great deal about lie detectors and human reactions produce certain reactions.  Jones also continually moved his   arm to throw off the machine.  The detectives also suspected he was the killer of a young couple in the desert earlier in the year.

A few days later Jones finally admitted he killed young Marguerita Bejarano.  He stated “woke up with an uncontrollable desire to see and talk to a young girl.  He drove by the Tucson Sports Center and “saw a little girl walking by herself.”  He pulled over and offered her a ride to school.  Marguerita began to cry when she noticed they had driven past her school without dropping her off..  He drove several miles and then stopped to “comfort” her.  He asked her if she would tell on him to anyone if he let her go.  The terrified girl’s fate was sealed when she said she would tell “her mother, police and her teacher” on him.

When she told him she was thirsty he pulled over and let her out to drink from a brook.  Instead Marguerita began to run away.  Jones pulled out the pistol he always kept with him and shot her in the head.  He pulled her body into the bushes under a bridge near a stream.  The scene was eerily reminiscent of Jones leaving young Edith Barton’s body in Sugar Creek twenty-one years before.  As he was leaving he heard Marguerita moan.  He turned back and shot her again, to “put her out of her misery.”

In a ghastly postscript Jones told the police he had later attended the young girl’s funeral.

When asked why he did such things Cozzie seemed to paint himself as the victim of uncontrollable circumstances.  After all he was a man who loved children:

“I had no intention of hurting her.  I’ve taken kids on picnics, bought them ice cream and things like that.  I just like kids, that’s all. Oh there isn’t anything I can say.  I couldn’t help it.  I would have these impulses come over me.  I would be shaving and then would have to go out and find one.”


He estimated he had been with over 100 kids since coming to Arizona.

At his trial he said “I just want to die and get it over with,” implying they should just send him to the gas chamber.

His wish was granted on January 22, 1963 when he was given the death sentence.  He was sent to the Arizona State Prison‘s Death row in Florence to await his meeting with the gas chamber.  There he joined 14 other killers awaiting their own fate.

Cozzie’s execution was set for April.  They didn’t fool around with that sort of thing in the Arizona of the early ‘sixties.  But just days before his execution date he was given the first of what would be several stays, so his lawyers could appeal the decision.  After the appeal was denied a new date was set for January 1964.

All this came as a rising sentiment to abolish the death penalty came to his rescue.  In December groups gathered outside the prison to protest again capital punishment.  A local minister who was spearheading the movement said that Cozzie Jones was a “victim” of a human life taken “in the name of society.”  The story shared the same page as the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr.

Jones received another stay.  This time until November 1964.  This time it looked like he would take his seat in the gas chamber.  Instead of a last meal he ordered a last feast to be served three days before the execution.  He asked for barbecued spare ribs, fried chicken breasts, baked macaroni and cheese, French fries with catsup, cottage cheese, creamery butter and raisin toast, creamed slaw, sweet pickles and cherry pie a la mode.

This time sentence was stayed because of a new appeal saying Cozzie was not given a lawyer for over a week (This was two years before the Miranda Ruling) and was denied changing his initial plea to not guilty.  The case dragged on for nearly a year before it was found he was denied due process.

In April 1966 Jones was removed from Death Row and sent back to Pinal County Jail. The court ruled he had indeed been denied due process because he was not allowed to change his plea.   In essence, the ruling stated he had to either be set free or re-arraigned on the charges.  All of a sudden there was a fear that Jones would soon be back on the streets menacing children, It was decided to retry him.

Interestingly, Jones was never charged with Marguerita Bejarano’s death, even though they had found her blood stains in his car and ballistic evidence tied his gun to the killing.  But a potential case charging him with the girl’s death was weakened when it was discovered that the Tucson Police had lost the murder gun.  They tried to substitute another gun in its place, but were caught in their scam.

So, in January 1967 a new member joined Cozzie’s defense team.  Controversial lawyer William Morgan, known for getting men off Death Row because their rights had been violated, took over the case.  The huskily built Morgan was a crusader for his clients.  He hired a psychiatrist and private detective to aid in the case.

A few months earlier two court appointed psychiatrists had ruled that Jones was a “hopeless paranoiac.”  Interestingly, one of them had ruled Cozzie was sane and fit to face trial after his arrest.  The new shrink agreed that Jones was “hopelessly insane” and should be put in a mental hospital instead of a prison cell.  There had always been a furious debate in Arizona newspapers about Cozzie, but this latest news led to angry letters to editors and editorials.  Many took up pens filled with outrage over the “animalistic” Jones getting off easy.

It looked like the case might drag on for many more years.  Finally, in 1967, Cozzie agreed to plead guilty to both murders in exchange for a life sentence in the prison hospital in Florence.  He died in the Maricopa Hospital on August 17, 1973 when an aorta ruptured as he was undergoing surgery for prostate cancer.

His death did not come soon enough for an editor of The Tucson Daily News.  The editor avowed that Cozzie Jones was “a good, strong case in support of capital punishment.”  Jones should have died in the gas chamber ten years earlier, not in a hospital.  The writer had visited Jones on Death Row in 1964.  During the interview Jones talked casually about murdering the hitchhiker and Carl Quast.  He even bragged about “killing an Indian” outside a Tucson bar, a crime for which he was not charged.  As for Jones’ mental condition, that was a con.  He played games with people, like poking pins in a voodoo doll that was supposed to represent the local sheriff.

Deputy Sheriff Charles Barber dealt with Cozzie Jones for over a year.  He never forgot the killer’s hard, dark eyes and noted he was a “con man.”

Cozzie Merrill Jones did not receive any mail or visitors during his final years.  He was always afraid to go into the prison yard because he knew what other prisoners thought of child molesters.  All it would take was for a guard to look in the other direction and fellow inmates would take pleasure in killing him. Instead he died on an operating table.

No one came forward to claim his body.


  1. His years in prison left “The Handsome Killer” a bloated old man.

The Kaiser’s Terrorist?



Much too often, particularly in times of national unease or war, mere suspicion will trump common sense and fact.  In such time freedom no longer rings, but xenophobia and jingoism will sound loudly throughout the land.  To be “other” is sufficient to have many hands raised against you.  This was amply illustrated in incidents that took place in West Terre Haute in 1918.

Many in Sugar Creek took closely to heart a warning issued by President Woodrow Wilson three years earlier.  “Hyphenated Americans,” he declared, were not real Americans.  “They inject the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life.”  Some in West Terre Haute thought that disease was spreading and the carrier was one Joseph Berger, an Austrian-American living in West Terre Haute.

In the early morning of July 11th two workmen at the Deep Vein coal mine north of town, M.C. Allen and Kenneth Marley, brought a struggling man pinned between them into the Terre Haute police station.  They told the police they had found him hiding under a coal crib at the mine.  Clutched in his hands were 8 sticks of dynamite.  They figured the foreigner was about to sabotage the mine.  It was enough dynamite to destroy the mine completely.  His name was Joseph Berger.

The police department’s best detective, Frank Fedderson, was called in to interrogate the prisoner.  As he sat down in Berger’s cell the “terrorist” told him a much different story.  It was all a lie he said.  He was being framed.  Berger said he was walking down the street in West Terre Haute minding his own business when two men drove up, grabbed him and shoved him into their car.  He did not know them.  They drove aimlessly around the area for a while and then they took him to the mine.  They shoved him to the ground and placed dynamite sticks around his body.  Berger said he was terrified as he thought they intended to blow him up.

Then they pushed him back into the car and drove across the bridge to Terre Haute.  And now he was sitting in jail for no reason.  It was all because he was a foreigner he said.  Berger told Fedderson he was Austrian-born and had emigrated to the United States in 1912.  He was a peaceable man.  He worked in various coal mines around Vigo County until a mine accident left him with injuries.  No longer able to work in the mines he became a laborer in several brickyards.

During his subsequent investigation Fedderson discovered Berger had been involved in an earlier “plot” in March 1918.  Then West Terre Haute Town Marshall C.W.Frost had arrested him for allegedly trying to sprinkle “poison” on the fruit and vegetable bins in several West Terre Haute groceries.  The “poison” found on Berger was sent to Indianapolis for testing.  It was determined that it was powdered magnesia, one of which uses was as a laxative.  It would not have killed anyone, but would send those who consumed it running for their outhouses.

With the poisoning charge no longer an option, Berger was found guilty of petty theft and sentenced to 60 days at a state penal farm.  He had only been free about 6 weeks when he was re-arrested. The Terre Haute police turned the Berger case over to the feds.  Berger was taken to the Marion County Jail on July 15th.  Under questioning by federal prosecutors, Berger changed his story, saying he had been sleeping under the corn crib when Allen and Marley found him.  But he did not have dynamite and did not plan to destroy the mine.

In August Berger was found guilty and sentenced to an internment camp for enemy aliens.

The Berger case was the biggest example of the rampant xenophobia of the time, but not the only one in the area.  Two days after the US entered WWl a Russian immigrant named William Polonius was falsely accused of demeaning the flag.  His fellow miners at the Speedwell Mine refused to work with him and about to mob Polonius when cooler heads prevailed.  The mine general manager had to intervene after Polonius told him that he had served three years in the Russian Army (Russia was on the Allied side) and loved America.  Tempers did not completely cool down until the next day, after Polonius’ neighbor in West Terre Haute came to his defense and said the Russian had always displayed the American flag on his porch.

This was an era when anything “German” was suspect.  Sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage” and East Germantown, Indiana sought to change its name to Pershing, after the American general.  West Terre Haute High School (Valley) had earlier ordered perhaps its finest teacher, Miss Piepenbrink to stop conducting the German language class at the school.  This was especially disappointing to my grandmother, who loved Miss Piepenbrink and her class.  She still rued the cancellation decades later. Across the river one of the few PhDs at Indiana State Normal School, and one of its finest scholars was fired for untrue charges that he supported Germany.  (The professor, John J. Schliecher, and his case became the subject of my first major scholarly article published in 1990).

Was Berger a terrorist  in the modern sense.  Quite likely not.  Did he really intend to destroy the mine, or was he a victim of over-eager patriot?.  There are no definitive abswers to that question. What happened to Joseph Berger after the war is uncertain.  It seems likely he was deported during the first major example of communist witch hunts begun by Attorney General Mitchell Palmer in 1919.  (The movie No God. No Master starring David Strathairn is an excellent depiction of the Palmer era.}


Clinging to Rooftops: The Great Flood of 1913


The Hants Family, 1913. The Girl in the bow standing next to her father Will, is my grandmother Hilda (Hildy) Hants Chrisman.


The people of West Terre Haute could almost taste and smell the coming spring during late March 1913.  There had been warmer days.  60 degrees on Thursday.  It would not be long now.

Looking out the back window of her house on National Avenue, Lulu Hants was heartened by the thought that the pear trees would be budding out before she knew it.  Eleven year-old Hildy, always her little helper, peeled potatoes, while the other girls scurried around the house.  Easter was just two days away and she had been getting the girls Sunday dresses ready.  She looked forward to the short walk to the Congregational Church for the Easter Service, hoping for nice weather.

It was raining when she rose at 5:00 on March 23rd, Easter Sunday morning.  It had rained throughout Rev. Rogers’ service.  Outside activities were cancelled.  She, husband Will and their five girls walked home through the steady rainfall.  In early afternoon the rain finally stopped.  Temperatures rose all afternoon and by evening it was over 70 degrees.  The heavy air seemed shroud the house.  Will sat reading the Sunday paper.  Many of Terre Haute’s clothing stores were toting their spring sales.  Burlesque houses were offering fare like the Millard Brothers Burlesque of Bicycle Phiends in a Cyclone of Funny Stunts and Rosers Aerial Dogs.  The American Theater was showing a three-reeler called Fools of Society

Will folded the paper and peered through the windows.  He told Lulu to tuck the girls in tight.  Weather like this always brought on terrible storms.

By 9:00 the whole family was sleeping fitfully as thundered road above them and lightning etched sharp shadows across the rooms.  As they tried to rest they were unaware that a horrible force of nature was birthing along the Wabash south of town.  Rain was falling at a rate of an inch an hour.  Around 9:45 a funnel cloud crossed from the west bank of the Wabash to the east, heading for the southern part of Terre Haute.

The tornado rampaged for two and a half minutes.  Its swathe of destruction ranged from 200 to 500 yards wide.  Later, when all the counting had been done, 300 homes were obliterated or damaged.  250 people were injured, another 21 would be buried.

Next morning the news of the catastrophe spread through West Terre Haute.  Will Hants ventured along National Avenue to the Rogerson Funeral Parlor where he sometimes worked.  Men gathered there and shared stories and rumor.  One Terre Haute woman reported that the storm had de-feathered her chickens.  Another told how her bed clothes had been sucked up her chimney and out into the storm.  Toothpicks had been driven into a hardwood buffet as if they were hammer and nail.

“That could have been us” were the words on many lips all through West Terre Haute.  Thank god we were spared.  But their trials would soon be upon them.

It continued to rain throughout Monday.  On Easter morning the Wabash water level stood at seven feet, about normal for that time of year.  The rains just would not stop.  By Monday evening it was at 19 feet, 3 feet above flood stage.  Heavy rains upriver had swollen the Wabash at Terre Haute.

By Tuesday evening Taylorville across the river was under water.  More than 300 people there slogged across the bridge to seek shelter in Terre Haute.  The waters rolled west along the grade to West Terre Haute.  A sister tide had inundated southern Sugar Creek Township.  Toad Hop, only a mile west of the town, was soon underwater.  Half of the fifty families there moved in with neighbors who lived on slightly higher ground

The waters rolled inexorably into West Terre Haute overnight and the next morning.  It was clear that this was no ordinary flood.  Will Hants

Tuesday afternoon saw a reverse flood of people to Terre Haute.  More than a thousand people from Toad Hop and West Terre Haute crossed the flooded grade to seek shelter with relatives or friends.  A call went out from West Terre Haute for anyone with a boat to come to the rescue.  Taylorville had all but disappeared under a wet, murky brown blanket of water.

Will Hants had begun moving some furniture and belongings to the second floor of the house. The whole family pitched in and Lulu and Hildy tried to keep the younger girls calm.  At first the rising water had seemed a bit of an adventure to the little ones, Mable, Jeanette and the twins Eva and Iva.  But soon they sensed the rising fear of their parents.

Daybreak on Wednesday saw the entire town covered in water.  Even Paris Avenue, which had seldom been touched by flooding, was under six inches or more of water.  The two-storey Ruddell Furniture store opened its doors and allowed refugees a place to stay on the second floor.

Water soon drowned the clay plant and mine shafts, forcing closures.  Over 2,500 men were without work.  But that was secondary to the men who were now more concerned about protecting their families.  The phone service finally succumbed to the flooding by Wednesday morning.  The poles carrying its wire had actually been planted below the grade and the floodtide toppled the poles or broke the lines.

People who did not flee town found shelter wherever they felt safer.  Some went to the Methodit Church, while many more flocked the larger and taller Congregational Church.  As many as one hundred people or more sought their refuge where three days before the Hants family and others had celebrated Easter.  Another thirty were housed at St. Leonard’s Catholic Church.

By Wednesday evening West Terre Haute was virtually an island cut off from the rest of its world.  Boats were the only way in or out. All over town houses were pushed off their foundations by the tide and became unwieldy ships careening about in rough seas.  Many watched in awe as the firehouse on Paris Avenue was lifted from its mooring and pushed three blocks south to National Avenue.  Its new location could be seen from the Hants’ house.

Fears about immediate safety were replaced by concerns of food shortages and disease.  Deadly outbreaks of Typhus in particular often followed the receding flood waters.  Food could only be brought in by boat.  A Terre Haute bakery had sent a wagonload of bread Tuesday but that was not enough.  Among the areas most affected by the food shortage were north of town.  Whitcomb Heights and Ferguson Hill were essentially cut off.  Word went out that there was likely only enough food left there to last until Friday, and that was with everyone rationing and sharing what they had left in their pantries.  The McIlroy family opened the doors to their grocery store to all, giving away what little was left on the shelves.

Further tragedy struck in Whitcomb Heights.  The home of 17 year-old John Schwam was completely surrounded by floodwaters.  He died of measles during the flood.  The word was that the undertakers would not be able to reach there for days.  They family was told to temporarily bury him on high ground as soon as possible. The undertakers wagon would come for him as soon as possible later.The opposite event occurred at the Congregational Church where the baby of Mr. and Mrs. William Kennedy was born during the flood.

There was not an inch of dry land in West Terre Haute by Thursday, but that afternoon the flood had crested and waters were beginning to slowly recede.  There were some efforts to alleviate the flood.  Some enterprising fellows, with the help of miners familiar with dynamiting attempted to create a large crater south of town on Cherry Grove road (in the area of the current Wabashniki Wetlands) to siphon off some of the floodwaters.  It was akin to digging a mine shaft with a thimble, not much use, but it can still be seen as a pond on the site.

The worst was over by Friday.  People began returning to their homes, or what was left of their homes, by Saturday.  The Terre Haute Police department offered its patrol wagons, which had earlier carried refugees to Terre Haute, to carry people back across the bridge.  People pitched in to help.  A farmer named Winter Rogers slogged the five sodden miles from west of town to bring 25 bushels of turnips to the people of West Terre Haute.  Other help was on its way.  The Sugar Creek Trustee began raising relief funds.  Thousands of Terre Hauteans  responded, setting up a fund for those in Taylorville and West Terre Haute.

On Saturday morning a boat named the Eclipse, captained by an intrepid man named Joe Jeffers, finally made it to Ferguson Hill.  He carried food, medicine and hope to the sodden, bedraggled folks living there.

The Sunday after Easter saw many trying to reclaim as much as their lives and homes from the flood as possible.  Will Hants, like his neighbors the Scotts, Hankins and Brother south on Riggy Avenue, began shoveling the mud from his home.  Lulu, Hildy and the little ones began cleaning and hanging clothes and linens to dry on the backyard clothesline.

In the aftermath of the flood some looting had been discovered.  There are those always willing to take advantage of a situation for their own good.  Some of them walked the streets of West Terre Haute with the neighbors who had been their victims.

The flooding left behind huge piles of debris of furniture, clothing and household goods.  People went from pile to pile trying to salvage any of their belongings it could.  What was left was “finders-keepers” to be claimed by the rivermen and others.

On Sunday the Hants returned to the Congregational Church (in which a family of six refugees would remain for another week or so) as they had gathered the Sunday before.


The Great Flood of 1913 was indeed a Hundred Year Flood in the Midwest and East.  Over 650 people died in the flood.. It is estimated that over 300 million dollars in damage was left behind its torrents.

Photos below courtesy of the Vigo County Historical Society




“Colored Pugilists” in Macksville


Baseball was undoubtedly the king of sports in late nineteenth-century America– and Macksville.  It had few rivals in attracting fervid fans.  But in the 1880s another “sport” was also making headlines—at least partly because it was illegal.

Boxing, or prizefighting, had a long history, but was often considered so barbaric that many states, including Indiana, made it illegal.  It was rightly felt that the boxing realm was populated by the less desirable elements in society, gamblers, thieves and the ne’er-do-wells.  Opponents pointed out that boxing matches were often held in saloons, gambling dens or brothels.

These views changed only slightly after the advent of the Marquess of Queensbury rules for prizefighting in 1867.  Still, boxing had grown in popularity by the 1880s.  Newspapers were filled with the exploits of John L. Sullivan and other prizefighters.  Their bouts were often front page news.   This led many to call for the legalization—and regulation—of professional boxing matches.  Doing so, noted an article in the Terre Haute Express, would help alleviate “what is objectionable in it.”  By that it meant the unsavory characters most associated with the sport.  The writer could have just as well have named one Frank Trombley of Terre Haute as one of those unsavory elements.

The Canadian-born Trombley appeared in Terre Haute in the 1870s..  He soon built his reputation as a bad man.  He was known as an inveterate gambler who too often resorted to violence as his solution of choice for any disagreement.  By 1880 he was married to Cora Lee, a Terre Haute madam, helping her run their brothel while organizing illegal gambling in the area.  Lee later divorced Trombley, closed the brothel, and  moved to Chicago to escape his wrath.  That same year he was charged with the attempted murder of Stephen Osborne.  The unlucky Mr. Osborne had travelled from Sullivan, Indiana with a friend to taste the nightlife of Terre Haute.  While in a Tip Top saloon Osborne drew the attention of Frank Trombley. 

Osborne said that Trombley approached him the back room and tried to kiss him.  His advances rebuked, Trembley later confronted Osborne on the street and attempted to kill him.  After several mistrials, Trombley, called a “wretch and Terror,’ was sentenced to prison.

He was not long out of prison when he was again in trouble.  Trombley, who then lived on a houseboat on the Wabash, was apparently hosting the wife of a Mr. Cooper.  Finding his wife absent from their home, Cooper made his way to the river bank with ideas of retrieving his errant spouse.  He was met by a load of buckshot with his name on it.  Trombley later claimed that the unfortunate Mr. Cooper had blundered into his gunsight as he was attempting to shoot a pigeon and it was a terrible mistake.


After a failed suicide attempt using morphine in 1885, Trombley, who fancied himself pugilist, became increasingly involved in boxing.  In 1886 he announced he would take on all comers in a prizefight, using hard gloves.  His hard glove challenge was taken up by Terre Haute Policeman Tom Connelly.  They agreed to fight in a 24 foot ring on a boat in the Wabash (such illegal bouts were often held in the middle of rivers because many were uncertain which entity had jurisdiction.)  Eventually, the boat was floated to a location further below Terre Haute.  It was attended by a barge holding spectators and a bar.  Who won the bout was a point of contention afterward.

Trombley continued to be the center of ilicit boxing in the area.  In 1888 he spread word that he was staging a bout between two “colored pugilists” Black Star Johnson and “Thompson, the iron jawed man” in Macksville.  Fights between African American fighters seem to have been prevalent during the era.  To the many who viewed African Americans as less than human, it was akin to cockfighting or bear-baiting.

Spectators, who paid $2.50 (equivalent to $60.00 today, were not told the location of the fight until early evening to prevent law enforcement from shutting down the bout.  Finally word spread that the bout would take place in a barn along the Vandalia Railroad west of Macksville.  Terre Haute’s sporting fraternity headed west.  The bout began at 10:30 April 5, 1888, after it was announced it would be fought under Marquess of Queensbury rules using 4 ounce gloves.  It was forecast as a grudge match between Johnson, the “scientific fighter”, against Thompson’s raw power.

The bout was barely a minute old when Johnson’s powerful right hand collided with Thompson’s supposed iron jaw.  Thompson hit the floor.Thompson rose and continued the fight, which seemed even until the fifth round.  Johnson’s powerful blow sent Johnson staggering, sprawling to the floor.  Johnson lay on the floor in a fetal position.  He raised his hand saying he “had enough.”  He finally struggled to his feet.  Evidently Thompson did not agree enough was enough and proceed to pummel the slumping Johnson until he knocked him out of the ring.  There the beaten Black man crumpled at the feet of the sweating, screaming, fervid fans.  He made $25.00 for his beating.

For a very brief moment Macksxille was the center of illegal prizefighting in Vigo County

 Trombley continued to promote illegal fights, being indicted for them and paying his fines with his profits.  Prizefighting in Indiana was not legalized until the 1920s.

Working to be Poor

cabin good

A short excerpt based on a fascinating report.  Though this deals specifically to miners in the 1890s, much the same was true for any of your ancestors who were laborers.

The 1893-94 biennial report of the Indiana Bureau of Statistics offered a stark portrait of the lives of miners and their families in the state.  The bureau had undertaken a rather comprehensive study of the mining industry.  Surveys were taken at 71 mines throughout the state (and particularly Vigo County).  Both mine owner/operators and the miners were questioned.  The report, which was surprising open-minded for the age, detailed what life was like for a miner and his family.  It showed that they were, indeed, working to be poor.

The report divided miners into four categories, hand pick and machine miners, helpers and loaders.  Despite working a job that provided the fuel for America and featured a workday so hazardous that the threat of injury or death was ongoing, miners in the state averaged only $1.81 per day in wages. The cost of the tools they needed, squibs, gun powder, oil, were deducted from their wages.  After these deductions the “take home pay” of miners was actually $1.39 a day.

Though Indiana law forbade mine companies requiring workers to shop at the company store, there was an element of coercion.  Nearly 20 % of miners said they were “expected” or urged to buy from the company store.  Many miners noticed that those who did frequent the store were employed longer and worked more often.  Operators loved the idea of company stores as, in effect, miners were giving back a chunk of the wages to the company.  Owners said the wages were so low because they were working on a very slim profit margin.  Many were indeed struggling with the bottom line, but that was because they were purposely keeping the price of coal down to better compete and seize a larger market share.  Thus the miners were paying a high price for low wages.

As the report stated, miners were a “class… underpaid… and suffering privations.”  Their average wage was only $287.00 a year.  But, as miners only worked 161 days a year, that $287.00 had to cover 365 days of living.  That came out to .78 cents a day to support their household which was “wholly inadequate for the support of a family.”

Of the 961miners studied, only 271 owned their home, and 101 of them were struggling to make their mortgage payments.  A work-related injury that kept a miner from working could easily find his hard earned home under foreclosure.  So nearly two-thirds of miners rented their homes, at an average of $4.58 a month.  You did not get much house for that.

Typically, miner’s homes were ill-furnished cabins containing only the barest of bare necessities.  Most had rough-sawn bare wood floor (those some others had only a dirt floor.) A few of those rough floors were covered in cheap rag or hemp rugs.  Furnishings were rudimentary, a few wooden chairs, cheap bedsteads or pallets covered with worn linen for sleeping, a small rickety table for eating.

When rent of $54.96 was deducted, most miners were engaged in a Sisyphean struggle just to keep their families from hunger and clothed against the cold.  It was the sort of grinding poverty that taxed the human spirit and made miners fear for their children and their future.



The Battle of Macksville


Macksville, at times, took on the aura of a Wild West town.  It was a mini Dodge City without the steely gaze of a Matt Dillon coolly surveying its streets for bad guys through a haze of gun smoke.  Being unincorporated it had no local law enforcement.  The town had to rely on the Terre Haute police department for protection.  That is one reason that some Macksvillians had petitioned as early as 1873 to be annexed by Terre Haute.

Criminals from Terre Haute on the lam from police often hid in Macksville or the bottoms, knowing there was little chance that pursuers would come looking for them across the river.  They frequented the saloons initiating brawls or committed petty theft.  This was a bane to upright citizens like the Mcilroys, Castos and Cassadays.  Especially when the brawl led to gunfire.

In the early 1880s the village was plagued with outsiders bent on trouble.  Rival groups of traveling horse traders brought an end-of-the=cattle-drive mini-riot in 1884 that was dubbed the Battle of Macksville.

For several months Macksville had been bedeviled by the horse traders.  They were a brawling, drunken lot who came to town acting as if it were their own.  Townspeople did not want them, but they were too intimidated to ask them to depart for other horse pastures.  Macksville “lived in fear” of that the village would be ransacked and their homes burned.

The traders would get drunk and race their horses up and down the streets.  Anyone venturing out onto the street was risking their lives.  The races were inevitably accompanied by drunken brawls.  Even a band of gypsies camped west of town decided it best to load their caravans and move to less dangerous places.  Gypsies of this period were also known for horse trading and an additional incentive to head out may have been a fear that competition for the trade heightened the chances of conflict.


In the looming twilight of June 24th men gathered in Webb Bayless’ Paris Road saloon (funny how often Webb’s name came up during troubles).  In a scene that presaged hundreds of Westerns, a rowdy crowd gathered in the dimly-lit, hovering smokehaze that shrouded  Webb’s place in a grey mistc.  All around men clutched beer and whiskey glasses close to their chests.  The twittering of cards being shuffled competed with a cacophony of laughter and drink-fueled boasting.

Among those being dealt cards at one table were rival traders named Fred Weiser and a certain Mr. Bryant, aka “Dude” Cooper.  Both men were so bleary-eyed from whiskey it was hard to focus on what their hands held.  Words were spoken.  Both men looked up from their cards.  Weiser took deep offense at something Dude said and reached slowly under the table.  Up came a “loaded” club studded with nails.  Cooper seemed unimpressed by Weiser’s stick.  Dude’s eyes told Weiser he was not afraid of the man across from him.

Weiser laid down his club as those watching the scene hushed to see what would happen next.  When Weiser’s hand reappeared it brandishing a knife pulled from his boot.  In seconds he lunged across the table.  The knife cut through the haze and Cooper’s arm.  Deep slashes erupted blood that stained the cards. Cooper’s brother John rushed to help him.

All hell, indeed, had broken loose in Macksville.

Soon the dirt streets of Paris Road were filled with angry, shouting men as the brawl grew too large for Bayless’ saloon.  Fists flew and the retorts of every reeay guns filled the dark.  Pushing and shoving let to a dozen little fights.  Weiser was the chosen opponent of many.  His young nephew, Fred Smith tried to come to his rescue and pull him away.  His attempt failed as a multitude of gunshots rand around him and forced Smith to retreat to whence he came.

A trader named John Crank ran to his wagon and pulled out an ancient rifle.  He was going show the mob a thing or two.  His only [problem was that he did not have the caps need to fire the weapon.  Crank went to Field’s drugstore and and the McIlroy and Hodgers’ groceries in search of caps.  All three merchants rightly chose peace over profit and refused to sell the drunken man caps.

Meanwhile hundreds of townspeople cautiously stepped out into the street to see what the hell was going on.  Many of the brawlers, upon hearing a messenger was sent off to bring the Terre Haute police, began to slink off to their hiding places in the bottoms.  No sense chancing being caught.  Town doctor James Hunt was called to Bryant’s, aka Cooper, tent.  He found the man gushing blood and set about his work.

Five policemen, including Chief Vandever, sped across the bridge to Macksville.  Must of the tumult had subsided by the time they arrived.  They found nearly the whole town awaiting them.  Now was the time, many argued, to drive out these criminals with the backing of the police.  The police arrested a brawler named Joe King and Crank.  King’s brother John, Fred Weiser and John Cooper were long gone.  They headed to Bryant’s tent to arrest him.  What they found was a man with his head bandaged and a large chunk of ice on his arm wounds.  Bryant was so drunk and wouldede they left him to recover, returning the next day to arrest him.

The policemen began to “mop up” the scene.  Traders still hanging around were ordered to leave town.  They were surprised to find that John King and John Copper had not fled town.  Instead they had merely their venue.  They were arrested in John Snack’s saloon just up the block and sent on their way.

Crank had a child living with his sister in Terre Haute.  He asked the police to inform her that he had been arrested and the child was now all hers/  He wanted no more to do with “it”  Those arrested paid fines and were sent on their way.  Weiser was gone.