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.