America is a land of interchangeable parts.
Eli Whitney, celebrated inventor of the cotton gin, is often credited with introducing the concept and practice of interchangeable parts to the United States. Working for a military armory, Whitney worked to make parts or components to identical specifications. They then could be easily assembled by almost anyone, regardless of skill. Prior to that, each gun was unique and painstakingly made by talented gunsmiths. That took time, and was expensive. If one could provide interchangeable parts, then in essence any old pair of hands could do it. Thus manufacturing products became easier and cheaper, and more profitable. In the early twentieth century Henry Ford married interchangeable with the assembly line and a new industrial revolution began.
Those parts were made of metal or wood, but long before that, centuries before the birth of the United States, there had always been interchangeable parts. These parts were made of flesh and bone. They were called workers. If your job called more for brawn than brains, hard labor more than advanced skills, then you were merely a human interchangeable part to business owners. A coal miner killed in a slate fall or explosion could easily be replaced by another human interchangeable part. Work would continue with your replacement part. If you were a laborer on a construction site, or laying track for a railroad, and you fell to your death or were crushed, well, a new part would soon be seamlessly fitted into your place.
And if you did die, or lost and arm or leg, good luck to your family. They might be offered a pittance in compensation (how much was that guy’s leg worth, again?) Then again, they might not. I have spent years combing through newspapers from the area. From 1890 to 1920, in particular, seldom a week went by without a story, or stories, about industrial accidents. Usually followed by notices of the families of the victims having to sue owners to get some sort of compensation. How much was that human part worth was the calculation.
I offer the following, the story of the Larimer Hill Shootout, as an example.
The Railway Shopmen’s strike of 1922 spread across the nation, ultimately involving over 400,000 railroad workers. It was the largest strike against the incredibly powerful railroad owners since the great Pullman Strike of 1894. It was the outgrowth of railroad workers growing anger about wage cuts following WWI (during which the government actually nationalized the country’s railroads). In addition, railroad owners increasingly “hired” outside “contractors” to circumvent legally negotiated labor contracts and their provisions that protected the workers, rights. The final blow was the owners demanding a second pay cut in less than two years. That pay cut of seven cents an hour may seem paltry today, but in 1922 it meant a loss of 12 % of the workers income. And, said the owners, if they don’t like it we can always replace them.
So, the shopmen called a strike. Shopmen were the boilermakers, machinists and laborers who maintained the rolling stock of railroads. They were the men who kept the rails humming. A union report after the strike summed up the workers’ view:
Brotherhood leadership had hoped to hold fast to standards of wages, hours and working conditions as stipulated in the National Agreement, in a belief that somewhat decreased living costs would result in that agreement providing fair remuneration . But the first wage reduction was followed by a decision on August 11, 1921, dealing with overtime, eliminating time-and-one-half for Sunday and holiday work and modifying other sections of the overtime agreements.
The effect of this decision was electrifying. To the Brotherhood membership it was a piecemeal decision on one part of the National Agreement indicating what was to come as other decisions were handed down. Moreover, these actions in Washington were directly responsible for an increasingly hostile attitude toward workers on the part of railroad management, particularly local subordinates, who appeared to adopt a manner of treatment calculated to stir the workers to drastic action.
The Pennsy Yard in Terre Haute was then one of the largest repair sites in the country. The workers there joined in the strike on June 30, 1922. The management decided they could then replace the union workers with non-union men. After all, they would work cheaper and did not have the benefits prescribed for the union workers under their contract.
This use of “replacement workers” was an insidious part of management’s treatment of workers. They knew that interchangeable human parts were available and eager for work. In effect they were setting worker against worker. There were always men who would be “scabs.” I use scabs because it was the accepted term in those days. Others might say “strikebreakers.” But strikebreakers were really those who were brought in the physically break the strikers. Owners hired private armies of desperate men who thuggishly arrived on the scene to break a few strikers’ heads, or backs or knees. But often owners did not have to resort to that. The governments, particular state governors, feared that strikes. Often beholden to owners for their political support, and fearful of damaging the economy, governors would call out the state militia, supposedly to maintain order. Often the militia’s guns were turned on the strikers.
So the Pennsy yard began to hire scabs. Many men were eager to hire on.
Frank Easterday was a thirty-year man from Marshall, Illinois, with a wife and young son to support. He had spent most of his life as a farm laborer around Clark County. He knew there might be difficulties take a job at the yard, but working for the railroad was a coveted job. He hired on.
Easterday drove the 20 miles to Terre Haute along the National Road with a fellow laborers including Ralph Beabout and Russel Hill. They could thus share expenses and did not have to travel alone. If trouble happened you always felt a bit safer to have friends with you, and if you carried a little protection under the seat. Each day as they drove into the huge yard they faced a picket of strikers. Jeers were shouted, perhaps stones or decaying vegetables at their car. It was an intimidating scene to start, and end, your workday. But it was worth it to Easterday to have a steady job that paid more working on a farm.
Seeing the scabs take their jobs infuriated the strikers. During long days on the picket line the strikers talked angrily among themselves. Those scabs were taking food out of the strikers’ families mouths. Bastards. Something should be done about them. They were as bad as the big shots that ran the railroad.
On Tuesday, September 5th Easterday and his buddy hurried to their car at the end of their shift. Another day of work over they wanted to get home. They headed south to Wabash Avenue to head home to Marshall.
As Easterday drove out of the yard, five strikers in two cars watched them leave. Let’s follow the bastards. Put a scare in the son-of-a-bitches. In the lead strikers’ car were Lawrence Huffman, Herman Clugston and George Huebel. They tailed Easterday’s car until they reached 14th and Wabash where they passed it. They knew where he lived and the route he would take home. They kept just ahead of Easterday’s car as they drove west on Wabash Avenue and crossed the bridge. At the end of the grade east of West Terre Haute the strikers slowed down and let Easterday pass them. They wound slowly along National Avenue.
Seeing the strikers’ car, Easterday, who must have been suspicious now had his fears realized. Leaving West Terre Haute he hit the accelerator pushing his car up Larimer Hill. Seeing that Huffman also sped up. The cars were abreast as they neared the top of the hill. Shots rang out from both cars. The cars veered off the road in the mayhem. Residents reported they heard at least ten shots. It was like a shootout from the movies.
It was over in minutes. Two strikers, Huffman and Clugston, were slightly wounded. Three bullets pierced Easterday’s side and legs. Blood filled the front seat. His buddies, who were uninjured, watched in horror. The strikers fled, running through a field to reach the tile plant Huffman and Clugston stopped there to get a drink of water and await the police.
Ambulances arrived. Easterday was immediately taken back across the grade to St. Anthony Hospital. It did not look good.
Huffman was taken to Dr. Kunkler’s office in West Terre Haute where the good doctor dressed his wound. Clugston was taken to Terre Haute, was fixed up and went to one of his haunts, a pool room at 15th and Locust. It was there he was later arrested.
One of Easterday’s companions drove his car home to Marshall after talking to the police. Easterday’s wife Cora and 5 year-old Eugene were waiting for Frank to get home, When the car finally pulled up to their rented house and their husband and father did not step out as usual, their world changed. Frank Easterday died the following day.
Six strikers were charged with murder after Easterday’s death. Easterday’s five companions were charged with shooting with intent to kill. Ultimately, with both sides saying the other started the shootout, the Vigo Circuit Court did not bring in indictments. All eleven were set free. The railroad, which had pushed hard for the strikers to be tried and convicted of murder, got a little bit of revenge afterwards. They pushed for a federal judge to charge Huffman, Clugston and the others for violating a court ordering strikers not to harass the replacement workers. They spent a few weeks in Jail in Indianapolis.
There is no evidence that any of the strikers returned to the railroad shop they once worked. They found other jobs. They weren’t missed by the railroad. Like the dead Frank Easterday, who was one of 11 people nationwide to die in the strike, it was easy to find replacement parts.
There was something not quite right about Vernie Alfonso Lewis. At least that is what some thought. Maybe it was his eyes some said. Something about those eyes. Maybe it was the way he acted, sort of goofy or slow. But there was something. Anyway, he was known as that “little, deformed, abnormal looking fellow.”
Vernie was born in 1880 in Needmore, Indiana, just south of Clinton, to Franklin and Elizabeth Hull Lewis. Elizabeth was originally from Marshall, Illinois. His father was a miner, as was a brother. He was not that good in school. He left after the 3rd grade and went to work in the coal mines, including some in Sugar Creek. His father died when Vernie was only thirteen years old.
Life was a struggle for Vernie. He shuttled between jobs as a miner or laborer, lived sometimes in Needmore, and at other times in West Terre Haute or Terre Haute. He married 17 year-old Ida Shepherd in 1902. They had a sone named Vernie. Preferring the company of another man, she divorced him in 1905 taking their son with her. A year later he remarried, this time to Frances Chunn. Things did not go well for the couple. Like Ida, Frances found Vernie hard to deal with and left him for another man. By 1915 Vernie Lewis was living in Terre Haute.
Lizzie Blacketer lived in a shotgun house on North 17th Street in Terre Haute, just south of Lost Creek. The Murray and Balding families lived north of her. As usual, Lizzie woke early on Monday, March 15, 1915. The papers carried news of the war raging in Europe. As she went outside her modest home she was a bit surprised how quiet the Balding home was. Usually there was a whirlwind of activity there as the children got ready for school or play. Not wishing to pry, but worried that something was wrong, Lizzie went reluctantly to the too quiet house. Stepping on the porch she saw 8 year-old Merion Celeste Balding on the front room floor. She lay in a pillow of her own blood.
By now Lizzie was frantic. She ran next door to tell her friend Mamie Murray of what she saw. They rushed to a neighbor who called the Terre Haute police. Officer Smith hurried to the house on his bicycle, When Smith arrived he stepped into a horrific scene. The police had seen some bad things in their time, but this was just about the worst.
He was greeted by the sight of the dead young girl. Near her was the body of her brother Clifford. Smith could see into the bedroom of the shotgun house. There were more bodies there. There in the bed was the mother, Mary Balding, her baby Clifford was in her arms. Beside her was 3 year-old Irene. At their feet, sprawled across their feet was another son, Thomas, who was dead. Smith rang for an ambulance and detectives. Looking around he saw two flat irons covered in blood.
The ambulance attendants found Mary Balding, Clifford, Irene and Walter were still alive. Mary and Walter subsequently died at St. Anthony Hospital.
Fedderson was a well-known and accomplished detective. He and his colleagues did what all police should do. They began interviewing the neighbors. They learned that husband and father William Balding worked as a lineman for Bell Telephone. He had been in Centralia, Illinois for nearly a month, but was expected home soon. As usual they asked if there had been any problems between the Baldings and others. Did they have any reason to believe that the Baldings had enemies who might wish to harm them?
The neighbors immediately cast suspicion upon two men, Ira Tobey and Garley Stevens. They were well-known troublemakers and rowdies who often roamed drunkenly through the neighborhood. Tobey was immediately arrested. Stevens could not be found. When they heard he might be in Whitcomb Heights and headed across the Wabash to find him. Told he was not there, but was expected back, they left a message that they were looking for him. The next day Stevens dutifully called the police and was told to go to the jail. When he arrived the detectives had a series of fresh cuts on his hand. The police were hopeful that they had their murderers.
That same day the name Vernie Lewis who was known to visit the Baldings came out. Vernie, they learned was Lizzie Blacketer’s son. They returned to N. 17th Street to interview Lizzie. She told them that Vernie had gone to bed with the rest of the family around 7:00. As far as she knew he had not left the house. They tracked Vernie to the Cloelle mine and he claimed that his mother was telling them the truth. He had gone to bed early and slept all night. The detectives continued to investigate the crime. By Friday they concurred that Tobey and Steven’s alibis were genuine.
Police carried on. Later Friday they were told by someone that two men who lived a few blocks away might have important information for them. First thing Saturday morning Fedderson interviewed George Wheatstein and James Unsel told him that contrary to what Vernie Lewis had said, he had been in their homes after 7:00pm. Unsel noted that Lewis, who was normal a happy, cheerful person, was acting very strangely. He left Unsel’s house about 10:00 pm. It cast doubt on Vernie’s testimony and immediately made him the prime suspect for the atrocities.
Saturday morning the detectives returned to the mine. They asked the mine boss to get Vernie for them under some pretext that would not alarm him. The boss said that would be no problem as he had already “jacked up” Lewis because Vernie had been acting very oddly and shirking work. The boss descended into the mine, returning to the surface about fifteen minutes later with Vernie in tow.
They arrested Vernie. He said he stuck by his alibi, but would be glad to go to the jail and tell them everything he knew about the case. The suspect and the detectives exchanged uncomfortable small talk on the long drive to the Terre Haute jail.
Lewis continued to proclaim his innocence throughout the morning. He finally did admit that he had left his house without his mother knowing and had visited Wheatstein and Unsel, Returning Lewis to his cell, Fedderson and his colleague drove up to the Blacketer home. They found blood on the side door of the house. They searched the home. They found Vernie’s pants and suspenders. They too were bloodstained.
On Sunday Fedderson again interviewed Lewis. Again, Vernie swore he was not guilty. Fedderson was frustrated but had an idea. On Monday he had Lewis locked in a cell in the jail’s hospital ward. He had himself locked alone in the cell with Vernie, telling the jailer not to let anyone else near them. He found Vernie sobbing uncontrollably on the bed. Fedderson spoke with him softly, but persistently, quietly hammering questions at him about the crime, not allowing Vernie time to himself.
Around 1:30 pm Vernie just hung his head, saying nothing for minutes. Then he looked up and began crying again. Finally, without looking at the detective, Vernie said, “Oh god, it was awful. It was awful.” Fedderson tried to calm the prisoner, and asked him to make his confession. Vernie looked up, his face ashen and pallid, but said nothing.
Fedderson leaned back and asked Vernie to imagine it was his family, his wife and children, who had been brutally slain while he was out of town. How would he feel?
Lewis sobbed and cried out “Oh, don’t say anymore. My God, don’t let the mob get to me, for I know they will if they find it out. They will tear me to pieces and, oh, I don’t want to go to the electric chair but I can’t help it now.” And then he cried out his “motive” for the bloodshed. “…. I could not bear to see them move away from the neighborhood. It preyed on my mind as long as I could stand for it to.”
Again Fedderson asked him to make a formal confession. Lewis said he would, but only if the police got him out of Terre Haute so he would not be lynched. Fedderson that he would tell only his partner and the prosecutor and would immediately get Lewis away from town. Lewis then launched into his confession.
After visiting Wheatstein and Unsel, he returned to N. 17th around 9:30 or so. Going to the Baldings’s he pushed aside a piece of carpeting covering a broken window. He picked up two flat irons from the kitchen and went to the bedroom. Mary Balding was still awake, but before she could speak he began battering her with blows. How many, he could not remember. He then struck Thomas and Irene. Moving to the front room, Clifford spoke to him but Vernie could not recall what he said. He then killed Clifford and Celeste.
He then returned to the kitchen to wash his hands and climbed back out the window to his own home and snuck into his bed. It was over. Fedderson then left him alone to make arrangements.
Fedderson knew that Vernie’s concerns for his safety were real. They both remembered the story of Negro George Ward being taken from the jail by a mob and hung from the Wabash River bridge. (https://wthhistory.wordpress.com/2014/08/16/awful-crimes-part-one/). After telling Armstrong, the two went to Deputy Sheriff Katzenbach who gave them a car to transport Lewis to Indianapolis for his protection.
The detectives took off along US 40 to drive to Indianapolis with Lewis cowering in the back. They constantly looked over their shoulders to see if they were being tailed. Just as they passed Greencastle a tire blew out. It took over an hour to fix the puncture, an hour that seemed endless as they scanned the road for signs of a
lynching party. But they made it, depositing Lewis in jail and returning to Terre Haute without incident.
Lewis gave out further information. He loved Mary Balding. In his fevered mind she loved him too. He was “insanely jealous” of her. He wanted her all to himself. His love for her was driving him mad. He also told that he had been struck in the head in a mine accident. Since then, he said, thoughts of murder had preyed on his mind. That is why an innocent family was brutally bludgeoned by a pathetic, delusional man.
As Vernie confessed there was not a jury trial. The courts had psychiatrists interview him to determine he was insane. There were mixed reports. Eventually, Vernie Lewis accepted a verdict of 1st degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison on September 17, 1915.
The next day he was taken to the Michigan City State Penitentiary. His mother and accompanied on his trip to prison.His admission record showed he was 35 years old, of medium stature and in fair health. His mental condition was described as feeble minded and a sexual pervert. It noted he was a Methodist and had left home at age 16. His only previous arrest had been in Clinton on a charge of intoxication. Lewis began his life sentence.
After serving 25 years he applied for parole, but it was denied. From 1943 to 1945 he was admitted at least ten times to Robert Long Hospital in Indianapolis to be treated for various illnesses. In 1945 he was given parole by the Governor, with the stipulation that he must live in Missouri. Missouri was likely chosen because his brother lived in Poplar Bluff and Lewis was paroled in his care.
Vernie Lewis died in 1961. He lived 46 years longer than his four innocent victims.
And of those bereaved left behind after the murder? Father and husband William Balding eventually remarried twice. He died in 1967. Clifford died in the same year as his mother’s killer. Irene died in 1973, leaving behind a loving family.
The real beginnings of the coal and clay industries that were to soon remake Macksville and Sugar Creek began after the Civil War.
Perhaps the first real underground mine was begun by Stunkard and Barrick along Sugar Creek just west of Macksville. Their operation foreshadowed the future of Sugar Creek mining in many ways. They were absentee owners who never lived west of the river. They worked the miners hard. Their mine was a scene of early labor strife.
David C. Stunkard was born to a roving family in Ohio in 1824. After moving to Illinois, the family settled near Brazil, Indiana around 1839. Stunkard served as a sergeant in the Mexican War. He started as a farm laborer around Vigo and Clay counties. Energetic and clever with money he soon became a successful businessman. He was a man with many interests. He was credited with opening the first coal mine in Clay County north of Brazil in 1858, later adding an iron smelting furnace there to his holdings.
He had an interesting Civil War. He evidently had some Southern sympathies. Though it is sometimes overstated there was a strong Copperhead faction in Indiana, particularly the southern third of the state. Copperheads were pro-South and against the war. He sided with the anti-Lincoln, anti-Emancipation Proclamation parties in the 1864 election. Sometimes known as Peace Democrats or Union Party, these dissidents wanted a negotiated peace with the Confederacy that did not include freeing slaves. The leader was a much despised (during the time) senator from Ohio, Stunkard’s home state, Clement Vallandingham.
His views did not deter Stunkard from eventually joining the Union Army. In 1864 he enlisted as a “Hundred Day Man.” With enlistments and the draft unable to fill the manpower needs of the army, the idea was to form volunteer regiments from state militias. Hurriedly and poorly trained, these regiments were to provide rear echelon support, as laborers or guards, to free up regular troops for contact. Few Hundred Day Men saw any real combat. Stunkard joined the 133rd Indiana Regiment, some of them sent to guard rail crossing in the South, as a 2nd Lieutenant and served his time.
After the war he moved to Terre Haute. In 1868 he bought the Buntin Hotel and looked into other business opportunities.
William Barrick was a fascinating character. Born in North Carolina in 1821, his family moved to Vermillion County Indiana when he was six. By 1860 he was a hotel keeper in Terre Haute, which is likely how he later met his future business partner. He was a vibrant entrepreneur with many interests. He was a steam ship captain who owned several ships plying the Wabash River. He served in several county offices, including sheriff. He diversified by opening grist mills and sinking that first shaft just outside Macksville in 1870.
In August, 1870, Barrick’s partner, DC Stunkard announced they had sunk a shaft along Sugar Creek that was 7×15 feet wide and 60 feet deep. In doing so they had discovered a rich vein of high quality coal. It was free of sulfur, they said and was thus suitable for any use, including smelting ore. It promised to be the most extensive mine between Terre Haute and St. Louis.
The Slunkard-Barrick partnership ended suddenly and tragically in 1871. On July 15th Slunkard awoke early and was strolling the streets by his hotel. He had absentmindedly put a Smith & Wesson revolver in his pocket, because, some said, he was worried there might be trouble due a rowdy group of circus men who would be staying at his hotel. He returned to the hotel porch at 5:00 am. As he sat down “…. the right pocket of his pants exploded, inflicting a painful and mortal wound.” For some reason the gun barrel was sticking up. As Stunkard sat down the gun’s hammer hit the chair rail and fired. Taken to a hotel room, he died within six hours.
Ironically, Stunkard’s one time political leader, Clement Vallandingham died in a similar manner. While defending an accused murderer, Vallandingham was keen on proving that the victim had accidently shot himself. The night before the trial Vallandingham gathered friends in his hotel room and was showing friends how it might have occurred. As he tried to pull the gun from his pants pocket the gun discharged, killing him.
David C. Stunkard died at age 47, leaving behind a small fortune, many friends and business colleagues, and a rich widow who remarried the next year,