“Awful Crimes” Part TwoPosted: September 1, 2014
The looters who scavenged what little remained of George Ward had barely made off with their ghoulish souvenir before word of the lynching spread. Thanks to the telegraph and phone news of the “event” appeared in newspapers across the country. Even the New York Times reported the actions of a mob in Terre Haute. Rumor and hearsay were swift currents flooding the streets and dirt roads of Vigo County.
It was said that Ward had spent time in an insane asylum or perhaps was responsible for the earlier murder of a white man found in a Terre Haute alley. But who was George Ward, who went from being just another ignored Black man to infamy? There is very little to go on. It was said he was born in Kentucky. Estimates of his age ranged from 27 to 40. He could have been the George Ward who was born in Kentucky, but one report said he confided to a jailer that his name was really Robinson.
At some point he or his family moved to Circleville, Ohio. His Sunday School teacher there recalled that he was a good boy and she was shocked at what he had become. He came to Terre Haute around 1896. He was once a servant for the Erlich family in Seelyville. He was fired when he was found lurking under the bed of one of their young daughters. He claimed, oddly, that he was under the bed because he was looking for a drink of water.
It was likely around this time that he met Ruth Roberts. Ruth was from the free black settlement in Lost Creek Township. That settlement, along with the more famous Roberts Settlement in Hamilton County, Indiana, was the result of Quaker-aided outmigration of free blacks from North Carolina. Ruth (she may have been the sweetheart that others later noted George had been abusive to after church services) had married George in 1897 or 1898. At the time of the lynching the couple had a three year-old son and infant daughter. The 1900 city directory listed them as living at 1610 Spruce Street and George as a laborer at railroad car works in Terre Haute.
George had never had any serious trouble with the police, outside of minor larceny charge. Some said he was a petty thief. A storekeeper where Ward traded said they kept an eye on him when he was in the store and always made him pay for purchases. Co-workers at the car shop viewed him as good –natured, but things were wont to disappear when he was around. They also noted he was “a fool for women” and was always talking about them. She reported that he seemed quite normal the night after the murder. He ate a hearty supper and went to bed. It was not until the next day that she heard of the arrest. She avowed that he had never been in an insane asylum.
The lynching occupied the news for weeks afterwards. One newspaper reported that Ruth Ward was going to auction of her husband’s hunting suit and shotgun. Another noted that some of the items would be displayed at a local store. These reports were later denied, but others sought to profit from the tragedy. One young boy was said to be selling Ward’s toes he had scavenged from the scene. The going price was $1.00 per toe. James Huffman, a railroad conductor and a spectator at the lynching, proudly showed a piece of the rope as proof he was there. This too might be for sale.
Outrage against Ward mingled with sympathy for Ida Finkelstein and her family. Ida’s mother who lived in Chicago, prostrate with grief had taken refuge with her brother Meyer Levin. It was noted that Ida’s death left the family destitute. Benefits for the family were held in Lafayette and Terre Haute. Citizens contributed to the fund. Within weeks over $500.00 dollars were raised for the family. One man offered that if every one of the 2,000-3,000 people who reportedly witnessed the lynching contributed a dollar the family would be well cared for.
Also destitute, according to her father, were Ruth Ward and her children. No benefits were staged for them.
The tragedy continued to reverberate. George Wood, a man who had witnessed the lynching, reportedly went insane from the vicious spectacle. Crazed, he turned himself in to the Vigo County jail. Warders there soon transferred him to an asylum. African Americans feared even more White retribution for Ward’s crime. It was noted that many were quietly leaving Terre Haute for Brazil, Indiana, or other safer havens. Whites also feared more trouble when word spread that Ward’s brother had arrived in Terre Haute on his own personal search for revenge.
One of the more absurd aspects of the lynching was the official dithering over what, if anything, remained of George Ward’s body. Vigo County Coroner James Willis announced that he could not as yet determine the location of Ward’s death. Was it Harrison Township, where Terre Haute was located, or Sugar Creek Township, containing West Terre Haute. The decision was an important one it seemed, because where he died would determine which township would be charged with burial costs. As there was said to be almost nothing of Ward’s body that had not been burned or looted, it seems a moot point. I found no further information about what decision was made. What may have happened was that the slim remains were buried in Terre Haute’s potter’s field, or irony of ironies, burned in the city crematorium located along the river, just yards from where the lynching took place.
And other costs? Taxpayers soon learned that the mob did over $10,000.00 damage to the jail.
And what of justice for Ward’s lynching? It was announced that the grand jury would convene on March 11th to look into the case and “to undertake to learn the names of the lynchers.” There was hope that the ringleaders would be identified and punished. After meeting, the jurors returned no indictments. Some were disgusted that the crime would go “unsolved,” but others were glad to have the ordeal at some sort of official end. Still others thought that that the fix was in. It was said that two men who were added late to the grand jury had already made public statements supporting the lynching.
Of course, reaction to the lynching was headline news. Editorials and newspaper stories from around Indiana and the nation condemned the savagery of lynching. There were calls to strengthen Indian’s anti-lynch law. An editorial in the Indianapolis Sun posited that one of the reasons the lynching occurred was that the people of Vigo County had so little faith in the county’s leaders or justice system.
The opinion of local leaders was eagerly sought by the newspapers. Most actively condemned the lynching as inhuman and a blight on the city. But as the Terre Haute Gazette printed ‘”Ifs” and ‘”buts’” were used.
But those who thought justice had been done were plentiful, and vocal. One E.W. Leeds noted that “When sure of his man Judge Lynch is a wise and just judge.” A former city councilman named Hebb was of the opinion that “the mob did right. The only mistake was killing the wretch before they burned him.” There were many who shared that opinion. Among them, curiously, was Rev. A.M. Taylor of the A. M. E. Church in Rockville, Indiana, who believed that “hell-deserving wretches” like Ward deserved their fate.
Much ink was spread over the Ward Lynching, but one that statement that catches the eye was printed the night of the lynching. The Terre Haute Gazette opined that “Terre Haute is the chief victim of the murder of the Negro murderer Ward.”
Not Ida Finkelstein, not George Ward…..