Sundown Town

West Terre Haute has always had the (deserved) reputation of being something of a “sundown town.”  In other words, if you were Black you might dare venture there, but “you best be out of town by sundown” if you knew what was good for you.  In all my years of living in or visiting West Terre Haute, I do not recall ever seeing an African American walking its streets.  One of my mother’s best friends was an absolutely delightful woman named Bert (Sister Bertha) Phillips who happened to be African American.  It was accepted that Bertha was most reluctant to cross the bridge and come to West T.  Usually it took a funeral to get her there.  In fact, as late as 2005, our second family, the Muyumbas, upon coming to my grandmother’s funeral expressed wariness of being anywhere in West Terre Haute other than with us at the funeral home or in their car heading back east.  I remember my grandfather telling me that once a “colored” family attempted to move into a house on the far southern edge of town (never the most hospitable or welcoming part of town no matter what your color).  They spent one night in their new home and moved out the next day.  It is unclear whether they were actually burned out, or if the threat of arson was sufficient.  In the summer of 1989 I was census worker doing pre-census canvassing.  At the first crew meeting the leader announced that it was preferable if someone “big, male and White” be assigned to canvas West Terre Haute (guess who volunteered for the assignment?).

Thus I was somewhat surprised to find that a few African Americans did indeed live in Sugar Creek Township and West Terre Haute, if only for a short while.  The 1850 census revealed 3 Blacks and one mulatto in the township.  The Black farm family was named Crenshaw.  Mr. Crenshaw was originally from North Carolina, while his wife was a native Hoosier.  So far my search has revealed little other information on them, but I suspect, due to the name and North Carolina connection, that Crenshaw was part of the Quaker-aided migration of free Black agriculturalists who moved to the state and set up small Black enclaves in the 1830s and 1840s.  Indeed there were two such settlements in eastern Vigo County, one near Riley known as the Lost Creek Settlement and the Underwood Settlement near Pimento.  The ‘Mulatto” was ten-year old Rebecca Simons, who lived with the family of White brickmaker Nelson Coltrin.  All four were gone from the area by the time of the 1860 census.   No others followed for forty years.

The 1900 census shows that Blacks became at least a small part of the in-migration, mostly foreign-born, who flocked to the town due to the growth of coalmining.  There were twenty Blacks listed in the 1900 census, all of whom clustered on Johnson Avenue in the northern part of town.  There were four families and their occupations were listed as cook, farm laborers or teamsters.  Eleven African Americans still lived in West Terre Haute in 1910, but there appears to have been a turnover.  The only family that seems to have spanned the decade were the Bradys, although Mr. Brady had died or been divorced and his wife Amanda was now married to Martin Russell.  The family heads worked at the local brick plant or as teamsters in the coal mines.  All were still clustered in the northeastern section of town.  The 1911 school enumeration for West Terre Haute showed 1098 children of school age, 9 of whom were Black.

By 1920 they were all gone.  And I have found no record of any other African Americans living in West Terre Haute since.


The Lost Doctor

Another physician-related story I have encountered during my research is that of Dr.  Edwin Boots.  Born in 1900, Edwin (seen above on a photo from the 1924 Indiana University Arbutus)
was a West Terre Haute success story.  The son of a timberman in a West Terre Haute coalmine, he strove for achievement.  After attending Indiana State Normal (now ISU) he graduated from Indiana University and later the medical school.  He  set up a practice on North Market (3rd) Street in West Terre Haute.  Married and living in Terre Haute he seemingly had a quite respectable career as small-town doctor ahead of him.  But by 1940 something had gone wrong.  Perhaps his practice was failing.  Perhaps his life was unraveling in some way.  Early in 1940 a patient came to his office looking to buy narcotics.  Obviously he went there because Dr. Boots had developed a reputation on the underground for dealing in drugs.  The man, an undercover federal agent, purchased morphine tablets from Booth. 

Soon there were headlines that a West Terre Haute doctor had been arrested and charged with selling dope.  On September 25, 1940 Boots pled guilty to the charge in federal court in Indianapolis.  He was ordered to appear in court at Terre Haute on October 7 to hear his verdict.  Dr. Boots did not appear at the hearing.  Court officers were sent to bring him in.  They found him in his office, dead from suicide, a gun lay beside him.

The Good Doctor

The small town or country doctor has become an archetype for the very good reason that he (and they were overwhelmingly male) was a vital part of the community.  Everyone knew him, and he knew everyone, and sometimes the things they hid from the rest of the world.  They were trusted.   In West Terre Haute, that doctor was Vernon Shanklin.  Old Doc Shanklin practiced in the town for decades.  I vaguely remember going to him as a six-year old.  Perhaps it was because I had a sore throat or merely went with Grandma when she had a checkup, but I recall a large wrap-around porch at his office that fascinated me.

But if he knew them, they also knew him and many aspects of his life.  It could be a double-edged sword and in the summer of 1916 it led to the most bizarre incident of his life.

It began one Sunday afternoon with a phone receiver being knocked of its hook in his office.  An operator at the phone company office on Paris Avenue said she heard what she thought was a commotion at Doc’s office. She called the West Terre Haute marshal.  A deputy was dispatched and reported that a woman was lying prostrate on the floor and the office was in disarray.  The result was that doctor and patient were both arrested.  Shanklin was charged with performing an illegal operation, an abortion, and the women with agreeing to the procedure.

And then the intrigue and rumors began.

Within a few days formal charges were preferred  and the attorneys began the battle, using a blend of fact and rumor to argue their cases.  Defense attorneys posited a conspiracy theory that the whole affair was begun by Shanklin’s fellow West Terre Haute physicians, Dr. Mapes, and was meant to harm Shanklin’s practice.  Mapes denied the charge, but added, perhaps vindictively, that he had heard that  Shanklin and the woman were “acquainted.”  The gossips took it from there.

Both Doc and the woman, Viola Boatman, a piano player in the local movie theater, had been recently divorced (tho in the 1920 census Shanklin listed himself as still married, but lived alone in a rented apartment in Terre Haute).  It was said that Shanklin’s “attentions” to Viola were the reason his wife left him.  The supposed cognoscenti nodded their heads with a raised eyes and an “aha.”

Shanklin refused to comment except to say that the charges were unfounded and that he had merely been treating Boatman for stomach pains at his office when an attack had caused her to cry out, and that was what the operator heard.  It was all an innocent misunderstanding of the circumstances.

So what happened?   Was it all innocent?  Was the doctor performing an abortion?  I did not have time to follow the case through on my last research trip, but I will continue to follow it up.  Certainly the case was dropped or Shanklin was found innocent.  That is the only way he could have retained his medical license and continued his long career in West Terre Haute.  Whatever, Shanklin put it behind him for as a neighbor reported later, he was a man of contagious spirit and good humor who lived his life by a simply philosophy that “I make the most of all that comes and the least of all that goes.”

Preacher’s Kid, Part One

Cozzie Merrill Jones was a classic case of the Preacher’s Kid Gone Bad, in the extreme.  The errant PK syndrome was one I first encountered at about age ten.  My best friend (also named Tim) was the son of a lay minister who preached at several country churches in Clark County, Illinois.  Tim’s oldest brother was the classic rebel against his father and his upbringing and became well known to local police as a drinker and troublemaker.

Young Cozzie took the syndrome to a higher—or perhaps lower– plane.

Born in 1916 Cozzie was one of five children of Cozzie Montana  and Daisy Jones.  His father was a Pentecostal minister who had preached in West Terre Haute since at least 1910.  C.M. Jones could not support the family as a preacher, so his primary occupation for years was as a butcher in various grocery stores in Terre Haute and West Terre Haute.  The family lived on South 4th Street in West Terre Haute.  Cozzie, described as good looking and a flashy dresser, was a musician. He married Lula Berry of Terre Haute in 1938.  On the original marriage license, Lula’s age was listed as 22.  Later the license was emended to show that she was actually just over 16 at the time of the nuptials.   Thus, it seems evident that Cozzie had a proclivity for younger women.

Just when young  Cozzie’s  rebellion began, or what early forms it took are unknown, but by April, 1941 he was on parole from the state reformatory for auto theft and back on S. 4th Street with his parents.   One their neighbors  was the Edith Idelle Barton, daughter of Mrs. Mack Rogers.  The 24 year old Cozzie and twelve-year old Edith became friends.  One of their meetings led to a “petting party” and death.

According to Cozzie they agreed to meet after Edith attended a church service on Saturday, April 19th.  His story was that Edith slipped out the backdoor of her home after her mother had gone to bed.  She was wearing only a nightie.  Using his father’s car he drove her to Sugar Creek west of town.  There he had consensual sex with her.  When they heard a car, Edith, fearing it was her father looking for her, panicked and fell into the water.  Strong, 24 year old Cozzie said he was unable to save her and fled.

When Edith was discovered missing the search began.  Her “nude and battered body” was found in the creek on Sunday afternoon.  The search for the “killer” soon turned toward Cozzie Merrill Jones.  Rev. Jones told police his panicked son returned  home early Sunday morning and alluded to what happened.  The minister begged his son to turn himself in and tell his side of the story.  Young Cozzie, seemingly seldom one to take responsibility, yelled, “Hell, no,  this will mean either the hot seat or blue hole for me.”  He then tossed the car keys on to the porch of the house on S. 4th and fled on foot.  He was later picked up as he walked along the road to Paris, Illinois.

He was taken to jail in Terre Haute where extra security was put in place.  Police feared  that West Terre Haute citizens still mindful of the horrific unsolved mystery of a ten-year old West Terre Haute girl in 1929, might try to lynch young Cozzie.  Two days before Pearl Harbor, a jury needed only 31 minutes to convict him of 2nd degree murder, convinced  that Cozzie had raped and then murdered Edith when she tried to escape him.  He was sentenced to life in the state prison at Michigan City.  Meanwhile another West Terre Hate family grieved the brutal loss of a child.

There he stayed until he escaped in 1961.

His escape would lead him on a cross country rape and murder spree.    But that is the second part of his story.