As I mentioned in an earlier blog, my site host offers a package that shows various statistics, referrers and some of the search engine terms that refer visitors to the blog. A month or so ago one of the search terms was “hanging a nigger on West Terre Haute bridge.” As I noted then the term was a dispiriting one, and one that said a lot about West Terre Haute’s (deserved) reputation as a “sundown” town that did not welcome African Americans. What the searcher was seeking was information about a lynching. In 1901 a Black man named George Ward was lynched, the only lynching in Vigo County’s history.
Ida Finkelstein was a young teacher. At this time in American history the role of women as teachers of the young was well established. Such young women were underpaid, but dedicated and often admired for what they did. She taught at the Elm Grove School in northeastern Terre Haute. Originally from Lafayette, she had taken the teachers course at Indiana State Normal. Ida, slender, longhaired, only 20, boarded with a local family. She made $45.00 a month during the school year, sending all but $5.00 a month to Chicago to help her mother and sisters.
February 25th, 1901 was an ordinary Monday for her. The first part of the school day was spent getting her students to focus again on their work after the weekend break. She settled in to teach her young students. After the children had gone home for the day, she stayed behind to tidy up the school. Around 4:00pm she left the school. She always rode the interurban to and from school. The track was about a mile from the school, through a wooded area. She set off for home.
Earlier in the day a man had gone to a doctor’s office to get medicine for his child. The doctor thought the man was acting strangely, as if he was “on the verge of mania of some kind.” At 2:30pm the man put on his hunting jacket and boarded the interurban, riding to the Fruitridge Avenue stop near the Hulman farm. He headed into the woods.
Around 5:30 Ida was found crawling to a nearby house. She was bloodied. Dr. Weinstein was called and rushed to the scene. She was taken to Union Hospital where she died. Before she died she was able to describe her attacker as a tall, light-skinned negro wearing a hunting coat.
By the next morning Terre Haute police were frantically searching for the killer. Blacks across the city were questioned. Every man of color encountered was looked at with suspicion. Finally, a local “colored man” told police he knew who the killer was. Deputies went to a local car works and arrested George Ward, a 40 year-old laborer. Ward protested his innocence, but was visibly shaken. He was taken to the county jail, hard by the Wabash River.
Even as the police and sheriff were questioning him, word of Ward’s arrest was a wildfire sweeping the streets. A “nigger” had raped and killed that poor teacher. On street corners and alleys groups of men gathered. Something should be done about that black bastard.
Meanwhile at the jail Ward soon confessed to the crime. He had come across Ida about 5:30. He was walking behind her. Sensing him, he said, the fearful young teacher turned and called out, “Don’t walk behind me. If you are going my way walk in front of me.” Ward said he was doing as she asked, but as he came abreast with her Finkelstein called him a “dirty nigger” and slapped him on the face. She began to run away. Enraged, Ward raised his double-barreled shotgun and shot her in the back of the head. She crumpled face down on the ground. He walked to her trembling body and, pulling out his hunting knife, raised her head and cut her throat. His knife blade broke off in her neck.
The idle men and fevered talk on the streets of Terre Haute soon turned into a mob with vengeance on its collective mind. Shortly after noon a few of the mob forced there their way into the jail. They were repelled, but it was now certain that reinforcements were needed. All deputies and volunteers were called in to help with a possible siege of the jail. Sheriff Fasig contacted Indiana Governor Durbin. The governor agreed the situation was perilous and ordered elements of the Indiana National Guard to proceed to Terre Haute.
Ward was taken to a cell as plans were made to transfer him to Indianapolis for his safety. It was too late. As Ward sat in his cell, smoking his corncob pipe, he could hear the howling mob. People assembled from all over the county near the jail to watch the scene. The crowd, in possession now of a heavy, timber surged forward. The two seeming leaders were strangers, cripples with crutches. The doors were battered open. A vanguard of angry men spewed into the jail and headed for the cells.
They found the terrified Ward hiding in a bathtub, a hammock drawn over him formed a feeble hiding place. Angry arms reached for him, pulling him out of the hiding place. One of the leaders shouted “Hurry up; your time is short and you ha better pray for your soul. As they pulled him out of the cell Ward tried banging his head on the wall in a vain attempt to commit suicide before the crowd could do their worst to him,
As he was pushed into the jail office could see a rabid crowd of men and boys, Some of them held hammers. A local blacksmith stepped forward, his fearsome hammer in hand, and struck Ward’s head as he would do when shaping a piece of iron. The blow (he was also knifed in the face) likely killed Ward instantly, but his death was not enough punishment for the crowd. They wanted more and more in retribution for Ward’s sin.
Two rope halters had been obtained from Chisler’s stable (the men who took them generously told Chisler they would be returned to him later). Ward was taken to the Wabash River drawbridge. A piece of chain was pulled from the bridge. The chain and ropes were fashioned into a gallows and noose. Ward’s dead body was hung from the bridge. A crowd estimated at over 2,000 people (including prominent citizens and, later, school girls) watched Ward dangle in the winds across the Wabash. At times his scarred face looked toward West Terre Haute.
Still it was not enough. A few hardy souls pulled Ward down from the bridge. Fuel was obtained. A funeral pyre was made for Ward along the river bank. People surged forward to watch his body burn down to its essence.
Eventually, those sated by savage end of George Ward, satisfied that elemental justice had been done, drifted back to their homes.
A few diehards remained behind scurrying for mementos. One enterprising man was selling Ward’s skeletal toes for a dollar apiece,
A twelve year-old boy proudly showed off his treasure: a shred of Ward’s clothing, a charred bone, and a piece of the hangmen’s rope.
In the next entry I will look at the aftermath of the lynching. Including Ward’s widow and others try to profit from the tragedy, the outrage from some, and the inane argument over which township would be charged for burying what little remained of George Ward’s body.