Godseyville

 

In the summer of 1989 after grad school I spent the summer as a pre-census canvasser for the 1990 census.  My job was to confirm addresses from the 1980 census and add any new ones.  I was assigned to West Terre Haute, as the policy was that canvassing West T. should be undertaken by a “white male, preferably large.”  Actually, I would have requested the assignment anyway as it would give me the opportunity to explore every nook and cranny of the town.

On my first day, a sweltering June Wednesday, I stumbled upon Godseyville.  Even though for a time I lived literally just across the street, I did not know Godseyville (nicknamed after the man who platted an eraly addition to West Terre Haute) still existed.  Godseyville is set between Paris Avenue and the railroad tracks on West Terre Haute’s northernmost border.  After checking the addresses of a couple of mobile homes tiger-striped by rust, I headed west along an alley.  I came up a heavy clump of trees.  Like an unexpected mirage, there in a hidden clearing sat two shambling houses.  They were of the old two or three room shotgun house-type that I thought had long been torn down, but they were, like tumbling relics of the past. The second house had a rusty screen door with holes es in it just enough big enough to allow enough flies and gnats in to bedevil the occupants, an old couple sitting in the kitchen.  The man wore an old strapped t-shirt like my grandpa wore outside on hot days.  The woman was in a faded, over-large muu-muu.  A fairly new looking fan did little more than stir the fetid air.  I knocked and told them what they were doing.  They invited me with the earnest eagerness of people who seldom receive company, but I told them I just needed to check their address against the book.  I thanked them for the offer of a cool drink and moved on.

As I walked away I was struck by their simple dignity, which rose above and belied their circumstances.  I have thought of them, long gone now, since.

I bring this up because Godseyville was the site of the first noted incident in West Terre Haute history.  In the first expansive history of Vigo County, published in 1880, West Terre Haute (then alternately Maxville or Macksville) was barely given a scant page in a 300 page book.  And most of that was devoted to the case of Eva Peters of Godseyville.

Eva Peters was a Dutch immigrant.  She was described as an old maid of fifty, very poor and “extremely homely.”  After working many years as a nurse for the prominent Sedam family of Terre Haute, she had purchased a squalid one-room house and lot in Godseyville in 1873for $150.00 so that she might finally have a home of her own.   She was extremely poor, eking out a living by weaving hair switches.  Her neighbors found her industrious and kind, but she could never seem to escape her poverty.  Despite this, one Friday in mid-March, she had gone to Terre Haute to draw out her meagersaving to pay for a Christian burial and  gone back to Macksville.  On Sunday,  March 15, 1875 she went to a church function and returned to her “miserable house” in Godseyville.

She was not seen the next day.  Fearing she was ill, on Monday afternoon a neighbor checked on Eva and found her dead body.  She was bound by ropes and a chain,  and died among boxes of hair waiting to be woven.  A suspect came immediately to mind.  One who a day earlier had threatened to “settle with Peters.”  The search was on for Cal (Talma) Jones.

Cal Jones was the Sedam’s grandson.  Born in New Orleans, Jones was raised in Terre Haute.  Eva Peters had been his nurse.   Young Cal had a wild reputation as an “unusually bad, mean boy.”   He was sent briefly to the Indiana Boys School in 1870 for petty larceny.  Since then he had roamed around the country, but had returned to the Terre Haute area earlier in the week.  He was soon found and brought to the Peter’s house.  Witnesses reported that upon seeing the body of the nurse who had helped raise him he was unemotional, only quietly saying “Jesus” when looking at her body.  Authorities noted that he had blood stains on his underwear.  He was immediately arrested and taken to jail in Terre Haute.

On March 16th a coroner’s inquest was held.  Peters’ neighbor and friend Julia Shephard testified that she had encountered Jones near Peters’ house.  He old her had left New Orleans and then hopped a train in St. Louis for Terre Haute.  He had come, she reported, to “come settle with Peters” for writing his father in New Orleans saying that Talma had stolen money from his grandmother.  She said he had shown her a pair of forceps he was carrying to pull out Eva’s teeth and leave his mark on her.  In the end, Shepard testified, Jones denied he wanted to harm his old nurse.  Another witness, Michael Kennedy, said Jones had come looking for Peters to give her a “blowing up” for lying about him.

Jones denied the accusations.  The coroner’s jury decided that Eva Peters had indeed been raped and murdered and that Cal (Talma) Jones should be bound over for trial.  His Grandfather Sedam claimed young Talma was innocent and would spend every dime he had to prove it.

The trial began May 18th.  The prosecutor laid out the case graphically, telling the jury that Peters had be violently raped and then bound and murdered.  Using witness testimony from the inquest averring that Jones had made threats, visited Peters, killed her and left his forceps behind.

A reporter from the Terre Haute Evening Gazette who had gone to school with Peters visited him in his cell at the Terre haute jail, a “dark and unpleasant place.”  He described a tearful shaking Jones, who recounted his story of wandering across the country seeking work after a falling out with his grandparents.  In order to help him, his grandfather had bought a wagon for Talma to use in a haulage business.  The wagon, though, was put in his grandmother’s name.  As his venture failed, his grandmother allowed Talma to sell it and split the proceeds with her.  This he did not do.  He admitted that after selling the wagon for $80.00 he decided he needed new clothes and other things and never gave his grandmother her share.  He also admitted stealing and selling her watch.  This led to his fall from grace with his family and leaving Terre Haute.

He said the reason he had returned to the area was to make amends to his family.  Knowing that his old nurse Eva Peters would be sympathetic he decided to enlist her aid in bringing about the reconciliation.  He had visited with her on Saturday.  She was pleased to see him and made him breakfast and mended his vest.  She agreed to contact his grandparents and told him to return the following Saturday to hear the results.  That, he averred, was the last time he saw her.  He then returned to work at Mr. Wyatt’s slaughter house where he worked once before.

On the day of the defense’s rebuttal to the case, he told the same story and explained that the blood was not Eva’s, but came from the butchering and tallow making for Mr. Wyatt.  After work, he had retired to sleep in Wyatt’s barn on the night of the murder.  Wyatt and others confirmed his alibi.  He also told the court that emotions in the area were so fevered that he feared being taken from the jail by a lynch mob. He had even asked a jailer for his gun so that he could commit suicide.

Jones was acquitted.  The Gazette even ran an editorial later saying the prosecution had jumped into the case without seeing if there was due cause, thus harming an innocent man.  A free man again, Jones joined the US Army within six weeks.  By July he was stationed at Fort Lincoln, Wyoming.  He served his six year enlistment and was discharged in 1881.  Apparently find nothing better, he enlisted again in 1882, this time with the famed 7th Cavalry, just six years after Custer’s Last Stand.  This time his army career was shorter-lived.  He deserted on July 20, 1883.

Jones turned up again in Terre Haute a few years later. In 1886 he was sent to the Indiana State Prison for two years after being convicted of petty larceny.  By December of 1888 when he married Anna Louise Ward in Perry County, Mississippi.   My last scent of his trail was the 1900 census, where he was listed as a machinist in Lumberton, Mississippi.

Eva Peters’ murderer was never caught.  Was it a transient who found out she had drawn out her savings?  Was it a neighbor?  Did she receive her decent Christian burial?   That is unknown.  I have yet to find a burial record.  She is not listed in the county cemetery records.  She could have been interred in an unmarked pauper’s grave or her body consigned to the lapping fires of the city crematory.

Who mourned the life a an “unattractive” but hardworking women who was born in Holland but emigrated to America to find her new life?  A life that ended in horror in Godseyville.