The macabre discovery of the severed foot still laced in a woman’s shoe caused heads to swirl. Coroner Drought immediately made plans to cross the Wabash once more. Perhaps this was the clue he had hoped for. He climbed onto his wagon, clattered across the wooden wagon bridge, and pushed his way through the rutted path that was the “grade” leading to Macksville. Passing the McIlroy store, where the crime was being endlessly haggled over by the customers, he tugged on the reins and turned north onto the Paris Road heading to the crime scene near St. Mary’s.
He pushed through the woods looking for the stump acting as a makeshift bier for the foot. Nothing was there. The foot was gone.
What had happened? Was Goetzinger lying? And if so to what purpose? Was he a thrill seeker just wanting a few moments of fame? Had animals once again carried away a prize? He cursed softly into the autumn air. Briefly he wondered if some ghoulish resident of the area had taken it hoping for a reward? It could have been anyone. Drought knew that gawkers had poured into the area seeking some sort of vicarious thrill at being near a “place that could not be any gloomier or better adapted for such a foul deed.”
Frustrated and angry, Drought could do no more than return to Terre Haute to begin the process of solving the murder.
Meanwhile, word spread of the grisly murder. Rumor chased gossip, gossip followed speculation, speculation hied its way throughout the area. Seemingly everyone whispered their own particular theory of events. Some were sure the victim must be a stranger. Others believed the killer had to be local. Only someone familiar with the area would know it was the perfect, secluded place for a murder and disposal of the body.
More than a few were certain that the woman was a prostitute. After all, there had been a bagnio (brothel) not far from the murder scene. It was a place, they recalled, where “lewd women found an abiding place” that catered to the woodchoppers, miners and farmhands. Remember, they said, it was run by that awful madam who came over the river from “Happy Alley,” a brothel strewn street in Terre Haute’s notorious west end.
Older residents dredged up the seedy past of the area. There was always something shady going on in that area around St. Mary’s. They remembered that during the Civil War some boys found a corpse hanging from a tree near the present murder scene. His feet had been chewed off by wild dogs and hogs. And they never figured out who he was or why he was killed. And that damn family named Trader had terrorized the area. One of them was always stirring up trouble, including one who committed murder. They were a lying, stealing bunch of outlaws. The whole lot of them. They were a scourge.
And there was the murder of poor Eva Peters in Godseyville (https://wthhistory.wordpress.com/?s=godseyville). And a few years back those fellows wrecked a train at St.Mary’s that killed the brakeman (https://wthhistory.wordpress.com/?s=murder+at+st+marys).
As the gossip flew, Drought and the police tried to piece the facts together. A local doctor named Morehead served as sort of a pioneer Crime Scene Investigator. A fractured skull was the cause of death. He affirmed to the coroner court inquest his initial thought that because of the strands of grey hair left on the skull and bonnet the woman was in her 50s. Her clothes indicated that she was a “woman of at least ordinary means” and the fact that she was wearing a bonnet likely proved that she was not murdered in her home, but near the scene of the crime.
As the victim’s false teeth were found he consulted with a local dentist. The upper plate was older than the lower. The dentist believed that because the work was not of the highest order it was done by a “country dentist.” The teeth were discolored which showed she was a smoker (a relative rarity among women of that age). The teeth were made by an east coast firm named Just’s and were shipped throughout the nation. In today’s world that fact may have led to further clues as to her identity, but not in 1883. All the evidence pointed to the victim being a “country woman.”
Dr. Morehead, affirmed that he believed the woman had been dead 6-9 weeks before her body parts were discovered.
Meanwhile a sort of rudimentary investigation continued as officers tried to gather information. Three citizens came forward with information. A couple named King and a man named Davis lived just across the river from the murder scene. All three reported that about two months earlier the pitiful screams of a woman were heard wafting across the Wabash. They made a horrible, terrifying sound, they said. At that time they reported the screams to the police, who reportedly went to Sugar Creek but found nothing.
One wonders why, if the screams could be heard across the river, no one near the scene told of hearing them. Was it just the air currents carrying the horrifying sounds east toward Terre Haute, or were Sugar Creek residents just too indifferent or scared to seek the source of a woman’s death throes?
Who was the victim? People were asked to report any women who might be missing. A Mrs. Jaycox contacted police to say that her sister, Mrs. Moore, matched the description of the dead woman and had been missing for weeks. Hope flared briefly because police knew that identifying the victim was a key step forward to identifying the slayer. But soon a telegram arrived from Mrs. Moore to her sister, saying she was alive and well and visiting relatives.
On November 3 the Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail reported that police sources were leaking the information that they thought the victim might be Ida Nichols of Sugar Creek. A year earlier she had filed a suit for bastardy (fathering her child out of wedlock and refusing to acknowledge he was father or support the child) against a man named Mickleberry who lived near the scene. The suit was hotly contested and required several changes of venue due to its notoriety. On the day the case was to be tried she had disappeared. Some thought she left home that very day. Reportedly, she left with a man named Cole who had agreed to marry her and adopt the baby. Neither was heard from again.
The Nichols story had a certain ring of possibility, except for one key feature. I checked census records and the only Ida Nichols listed in area was twenty years old. She certainly did not fit the description of a woman in her fifties with grey hair.
That was the last real “break” in the case. Interest in the murder began to die away. There was little hope of solving the case, as an article in a Terre Haute paper noted:.
“There does not seem to be the remotest thought that the guilty parties will be brought to justice. The crime was committed beyond the city limits, and the city will pay no expenses for police work in that direction. The county commissioners do not seem to feel they are called upon to do anything to the matter. If any person felt inclined to work up either case he knows that [he] must do it at his own expense and reap as his reward the glory that is in it. Under such a state of affairs it does not seem probable that either mystery will be solved this side of judgement day, and until the day of reckoning comes the guilty parties seem to have clear sailing and immunity from punishment.”
But about a week after everyone thought it was to become just another “cold case” in the police files, another horror without solution, a clue appeared out of thin air.
On a stump at the scene (possibly the same one that once held the severed foot) someone had placed an insurance policy containing the name of an older woman.
To be concluded in part 3,,,