As you know, coal mining made and broke West Terre Haute. And the Chrisman side of my family were miners. The family saw the changeover from the small owner-operated mines of the nineteenth century to the company mines after the turn of the century, complete with “the company store” to which so many “owed their soul,” like the one located on Paris Avenue in West Terre Haute.
Hard on the western edge of West Terre Haute, just across Sugar Creek, rises a series of hills. It was here, around 1847, that a Welsh immigrant spotted an outcropping of coal and began the mining industry in West Terre Haute.
George Broadhurst was born in Taxal, County Cheshire, England around 1813. That area was a coal mining region so it is likely he was a miner before emigrating to the Untied States in the mid-1840s. He likely was accompanied or joined by his brother Richard and cousin James Broadhurst. They settled in Vigo Couunty, where George is credited with operating the first mine in Sugar Creek Township in 1846/1847. Coal mining became the family business.
The first “mines” were not underground shafts. Using a variation of the slope method, Broadhurst dug into the side of the hill to extract the coal. Shaft mining came later.
That was the start.
In 1875 the Terre Haute Gazette gave a rare view of early mining operations in Indiana. They sent a reporter (who appears to have been rather full of himself) to the Barrick and Sons mine in West Terre Haute. The mine, less than one hundred yards from Broadhurst’a original mine, was just across the Sugar Creek bridge was sunk in 1874. Barrick employed 21 men on the site, including African Americans (or darkeys as the reporter called them). His first sight was of a small upright steam engine surrounded by outbuildings. The pump used to siphon water from the mine.
A potbellied horse was slowly turning a drum wound with rope lowered into the shaft. One miner worked the engine, another wheeled away the coal hauled up from the mineshaft. The reporter was lowered into the mine in a “box.” As he descended the sky grew smaller. He was headed deep beneath the surface.
The shaft was about 30 feet deep. The mine was apparently using a version of the room and pillar in which the shaft was sunk and miners dug “cross streets” at right angles from the main shaft. “Rooms” were dug, their roofs supported by beams and pillars of coal. The bottom of the shaft was about 12 x five feet and divided into 3 small compartments of wooden partitions, the smallest one to provide air and water for miners.
He climbed out of the bucket and was shown into one of the “streets.” Miners, black and while scurried around with their hand lamps, flickering across, barely illuminating, the black walls. The room was supported by wooden pillars. The space was cramped and close with hunched over men (old miners could often be instantly recognized by their perpetual stoop brought on by years of seldom standing erect in the mines.)
Two miners were bent over drills, pushing slanting holes into the coal seam, their bodies the motive power for the drills. in which “squibs” of blasting powder could be pushed. The purpose was not to blast a wall of coal into the room, but to open narrow cracks in the coal face. It was the work of strong men with picks to pry the coal from the face.
Miners were paid by the ton of coal they dug out, not by hour or day. So any action not directly connected with digging out the coal was “dead work.” They got paid nothing for the preparations to digging. (Dead work would become a contentious issue between miners and management during labor troubles in the twentieth century.) The coal was then shoveled into cars where the Black miners pushed (in many areas Blacks were only allowed to do the hauling and shoving instead of working as miners) it to the shaft to be hoisted up in the bucket powered by the potbellied old horse.
Miners often worked with partners or small groups, but one explained to the reporter he preferred working alone, alternating between drilling and picking. He was originally from the anthracite mines in Pennsylvania and found he could make more money by going solo. When the coal made it to the surface, the work of each miner was tagged as his output and weighed. He was paid by the ton.
Though aspects of mining would be “modernized” over the next half century, the basic work of these miners, the same dangerous conditions (over 50,000 miners would be killed at their work from 1875 to 1914) would continue for several generations of West Terre Haute miners. A hard life.
The Dierdorf family gathered at Highland Lawn Cemetery on East Wabash Avenue in Terre Haute on April 10, 1929 to say goodbye to their little girl. The funeral arrangements were made by West Terre Haute undertaker Frank Rogerson. “Doc” Rogerson had been burying the mourned of West Terre Haute for decades. All the costs of Edythmay’s funeral had been paid for by donations from the people of West Terre Haute.
Driving a Buick touring car along that same street that same day, perhaps as Edythmay’s interment was taking place, the drifter was returning to Terre Haute to be reunited with his own little girl. He had left his daughter in the keeping of boarding house owners on North 13th Street when he fled the area after Edythmay’s death. After some adventures in Ohio the drifter was returning.
He had left Terre Haute two months earlier. Then he was driving the 1927 grey Ford which he had traded for in Terre Haute, the same vehicle into which he had lured Edythmay. Around 1:30 AM one morning he fell asleep at the wheel near Montpelier Ohio, rolling it over several times in a field. Nursing an injured left shoulder he made his way to a nearby farmhouse, where a kindly farmer let him spend the night. At first light the next morning he trudged back across the fields to retrieve his belongings from the car. While grabbing his suitcase he noticed Edythmay’s blood had stained the back seat of the car. Fearful of arousing suspicion he panicked until he remembered he had a bottle of blue coloring in the car. He spread it over the bloodstain, hoping to disguise it.
After bouncing around Ohio and Michigan, buying and selling radios and jewelry he decided to return to Terre Haute for his daughter. An acquaintance told him of the continuing manic search for Edythmay’s killer. He stayed a few days then, looking over his shoulder the whole time, headed east with his daughter. The 30 year-old drifter had been in and out of jails since he was 16. He had been jailed for rape in 1928 and did not want to face bars again. Luckily for him he was a nondescript looking man who seldom left an impression on peoples’ minds.
The drifter’s friend was right. Police were frantically checking leads in search of the child-slayer. A prime clue, a bloodstained auto found near Sullivan, was soon ruled out. Stories were checked and re-checked, alibis held up, blind alleys searched and went nowhere. Clairvoyants continued to offer useless mental meanderings. Nothing panned out.
The Dierdorf family faced a string of new days without Edythmay.
In August, 1929, six months after the murder, hope flared briefly when a convicted wife-killer named Ogden Whitfield said he knew the killer’s identity and would trade the information for leniency. Terre Haute police detectives went to the Danville, Illinois jail where Whitfield was being held, but it was just the case of a prisoner concocting a tale to serve his own needs.
Detectives resumed their investigations.
Enter the Perfumed Slugger
Lloyd Fathers was a one-time Hoosier who drifted across the country, strewing mayhem in his wake. He was suspected of a series of attacks and rapes in the Pacific Northwest. His nickname came from the fact that most of his victims recalled a strong smell of perfume (he preferred heliotrope) rising from their attacker. He was finally arrested in Janesville, Wisconsin after a series of attacks in the area. Fathers was caught in December, 1929 when police were notified of a man seeking aid for a gunshot wound in his hand. He told police he had been shot in northern Indiana while stealing a bottle of milk. Of course, he strongly professed his innocence.
He was not implicated in Edythmay’s death until a Sullivan resident, hearing of the arrest, claimed he had seen Fathers in the area around the time Edythmay disappeared. Once again, Terre Haute police sought information, but they had not found the killer. Father’s victims were young women. He had no history of molesting young girls. He was extradited to Washington where he eventually confessed and was sentenced to 15-40 years in prison for the attacks on over 25 women.
The case flared again in March, 1930 when Philadelphia police informed Terre Haute detectives of a possible break in the case.
Herman Niece, once a Terre Haute resident, was visiting a friend in Philadelphia. Drunk, while in the midst of a “maudlin conversation,” he revealed he had killed a young girl in Terre Haute the previous year. He boasted he did it without a “breath of suspicion” falling on him. In his rambling stupor he gave intimate details of the murder, saying it did not bother him to admit the killing as he felt he had less than a year to live due to a failing heart.
His companion, a man whose name went unsaid because he was a prominent contractor, called the police. Detectives watched the house, finally arresting Niece. He recanted the confession while in custody, saying he was drunk and rambling. But Terre Haute detectives went east just in case. After interrogating him, they decided he was just a drunk who had nothing to do with the death of Edythmay. When finally cleared of the charge, Niece paused as he exited the court room to say, “I have always had a big mouth and it has gotten me in a lot of trouble. This time it was a serious jam and I am glad to be out of it.”
Evidently, Herman’s heart was stronger than he thought as he lived to age 79.
So, after a year and several “breaks” in the case, the Dierdorf family still did not know who killed Edythmay.
In 1933 the drifter was arrested in Springfield, Illinois for “impersonation.
In 1934 he was arrested for vagrancy in Peoria.
After the Niece case detectives only faced dry wells. Though the case was kept open, no further evidence was found and it began to fade into the background.
But Edythmay’s story still lingered. In 1936 the researcher hired as part of the WPA Writers Project wrote a piece about the case for inclusion in Vigo County section of the project. In a telling hand written note attached to the story that shows the cloud of suspicion and horror that gripped Terre Haute immediately after the murder, he noted, “Two well known Terre Haute men committed suicide when the possibility of their being questioned [in the case] arose. Their names, of course cannot be mentioned here.”
In 1937 the drifter was arrested for assault in Austin, Texas.
The Dierdorf family persevered. Though she was often on their minds, apparently Edythmay and her tragedy were seldom spoken of within the family. Her parents, Fred and Marie, focused on Edythmays’s eight siblings. Having only gone as far as the eighth grade, the parents concentrated on their childrens’ education. All eight of the kids went to college.. One of Edythmay’s brothers, Fred, became a prominent doctor in Terre Haute. Another became a pharmacist.
Upstate New York saw a series of assaults and attempted assaults on young girls in late 1946. A twelve year old girl in Rochester accepted a man’s offer of $5.00 to babysit for his daughter. The man gave her little brother a $1.00 and dropped him off at a store, saying he would return to get him when his sister was finished babysitting. He drove the girl into the countryside and attacked her. He then drove into Batavia and pushed her, crying, out of the car and sped off. Reports of similar cases followed.
A description of the man and the Plymouth coupe were circulated. On March 16th, 1947 a girl the man had assaulted earlier recognized him in a local store in Brocton, New York with two young girls. She contacted police and the man was taken to the police station. While there he escaped but police had his address and his long criminal record. He was finally caught and arrested in May, 1947. He admitted his crimes, was convicted of kidnapping, sodomy and assault, and sentenced to life in Attica Prison.
During his trial he admitted he had attacked many young girls over the years as he drifted across the country. Some of them he could barely recall.
Nineteen years after the murder the case remained unsolved and seemed unlikely ever to be. In a weird sidelight to the crime the case was briefly reopened in 1948 when the ex-wife of a distant Dierdorf relative claimed her former husband had admitted to killing Edythmay. He was pulled in but passed a lie detector test and it was written off as the bitter aftermath of an acrimonious divorce. Once again, the case was closed.
Marie Dierdorf was named Indiana Mother of the Year in 1949.
In the late winter of 1950 a drifter who would drift no more sat in a dank lifer’s cell in Attica Prison. He had a lot of time to think about his life.
On February 13th, 1950, the authorities in Terre Haute were shocked to notified by Attica officials that a lifer in their prison had confessed to slaying Edythmay Dierdorf twenty one years earlier. The man’s name was Charles Russell Dow. He was 51 years old. His photo showed a thoroughly ordinary man, yet with a face that central casting might offer up to play the role of a creepy, creeping villain in a movie. He had a weak chin, lifeless eyes, thinning hair, protruding ears. His face was blank. He looked almost like a caricature of the banality of evil.
The Attica warden was unsure if the confession was sincere. He had known other lifers who confessed to crimes in hope of breaking the monotony, of being temporarily released from Attica to travel to the scene of the alleged crime (and later stated Dow was very depressed when he was told he would not be sent to Terre Haute for questioning). But they contacted Terre Haute detectives. Two were sent to Attica.
It was soon apparent that Dow was the killer. He told detectives that “along 1927 or 1928 I began having a feeling to pick up little girls and fondle over them.’ He gave them details about Edythmay. He had come to Terre Haute with his daughter in 1928 after his wife had left them in Canton, Ohio. He went under the name Charles Meyers. On that Sunday he watched Edythmay as he sat in his car in front of the Wards store at Sixth and Wabash.
He enticed her into the car with the promise he knew where she could sell a lot of newspapers. He took her to central Terre Haute near a school and a park. He tried to fondle her and undress her, but she fought back. He reached for a ballpeen hammer under the car seat. He bound her. Frightened, he drove around Terre Haute, finally heading south to the Sullivan area as it grew dark. He threw her body from a bridge over Busseron Creak. On the way back to Terre Haute he threw out her paper bag and clothes.
He drove back to the boarding house on 13th Street and went to sleep.
Everyone was convinced he was indeed the killer. The case of Edythmay was finally closed.
Charles Dow died in Attica Prison.
Fred Dierdorf died in 1959, almost exactly 30 years after the day Edythmay was buried.
Marie Dierdorf died in 1969. Her eight children survived her.
According to family members, the tragedy of Edythmay was seldom discussed by her parents or siblings after her death. The heartbreak and memories were too much to bear for them.
In August, 2012 I went in search of anything of Edythmay that might remain in West Terre Haute. He house was long gone. So was her school. The streetcar tracks that took her to her fate had long been paved over. I thought of her last terror-stricken hours. I looked around the corner of 8th and National. A building or two were still there that she would have seen. It struck me that the strongest trace memory of Edythmay left in West Terre Haute was the one I carried with me. And now…. yours.