As the World Turns was my Grandmother’s favorite soap opera. Every day after the noon news on Channel 10 she would watch (well, listen as she was always bustling about) the lives, loves, and losses of those folks in Oakdale.
But Grandma’s soap was tame compared to the scandals that washed over Sugar Creek in the early 1880s, where tongues happily wagged themselves into exhaustion over the stories of near bigamy, illicit love and a spurned woman with a gun.
There was the story of that nice farmer named B.F. Brown in St. Mary’s. Rising as usual one morning Farmer Brown suddenly told his wife that he had to go to town and might not return for a day or two. She was not to worry. He hitched the wagon and headed to Terre Haute. There he sidled into a rooming house.
Mrs. Brown rose the next morning and went about her duties. In the back of her mind she wondered when her husband would get home. Hearing a noise she went to her door. And, as in many a fairy tale, she looked down upon the baby squirming on her doorstep. The little thing was wrapped only in a “wisp of hay.” Next to it was a note. Later, people could not remember exactly what was written on the missive, but that it was signed by a “Most Worshipful Master.” Mrs. Brown looked all around her, even to the sky, seeking a clue as to why this little package had found its way to her.
The Browns were a childless couple, and Mrs. Brown much loved children. She took the baby girl into her arms. Soon she was joyfully showing it to her neighbors. She could hardly wait until her husband returned so she could tell him all about the morning’s miracle. He soon returned. He was staggered by the news, but happy. They must raise the child as their own. All seemed set for a fairy tale ending.
But then there came the matter of an unpaid bill. A Dr. Taylor sent farmer Brown a bill. It went unpaid. Frustrated, Dr. Brown finally sued the new “father.” And then it all came out. When Mr. Brown climbed the stairs of the boarding house he was going to see his young unmarried niece, Julia Brown. Oddly, she had signed herself into the boarding house as Mrs. Jones. She had just given birth. Mr. Brown arranged for the doctor to care for “Mrs. Jones” and her baby daughter. After recovering, she and the baby took their leave of Terre Haute.
Conjecture laced with gossip eddied through Sugar Creek. Was it really Farmer Brown’s baby? Oh my god, had he committed incest? Do you remember that family a few miles west in the township? The one where the old man had made his daughter pregnant? Or was Mr. Brown just being a good man by shielding his young niece from scandal and giving his wife the child she always wanted? Answers were not forthcoming.
And poor Ida Gamron. Ida was the picture of the naïve farm girl. She lived on a farm in Sugar Creek with her widowed mother and her siblings. One day a young farmhand named James Elliott caught her eye. It soon turned into a courtship that turned into a marriage proposal. A preacher was spoken to. Ida excitedly had her wedding dress made by a local woman and dreamily awaited her long hoped for wedding day. Just days before the wedding Elliott suddenly left town, leaving Ida alone with her wedding dress, shame and tears. But naïve Ida was not to be trifled with. Soon after she marched to Terre Haute and filed suit against her footloose fiancé for seduction.
A year later James was found living in Hartford, Kansas. There he had proven himself to be a fast working swain, for he had already married another. His new wife was the daughter of a Vigo County family that had moved west. He was arrested and brought back to Terre Haute to face the jilted Ida. He was fined and sent on his way. As for Ida, she married a man from Paris, Illinois named Charles Cummins a few years later. Her second proposal had indeed turned into marriage, one that produced eight children. Ida eventually returned to Sugar Creek and died in West Terre Haute in 1937.
Mary Joab Mickleberry was a young widow. Called Molly, her husband had died after only three years of marriage. Molly was an attractive woman. She was blonde (or appeared to be), had a “well rounded figure” and outgoing personality. Needing a job to support herself, she went looking for work in Terre Haute. She went into the store of George Arbuckle at 6th and Wabash. Arbuckle was the son of Irish immigrants, and sure did he inherit a dose of the old blarney. George was a man in his sixties. His store sold general merchandise, but also offered custom made dresses for women. She went in and applied for a job.
Molly liked the gregarious Mr. Arbuckle and felt the interview had gone quite well. She was offered a job, or so she thought. But Arbuckle, she said, kept putting her off. What he did offer, Molly said, was a place in his bed. Soon they were repairing to Arbuckle’s hotel just around the corner from his shop. There, Molly swore, they made love. Soon, she believed, they fell in love and were engaged. Apparently not satisfied to be the wife of a merchant, she also wanted to be his employee. Eventually she went back to the store and claimed the job she thought had been on offer. George told her she was much too beautiful to be his shopgirl.
But Molly was not one to be daunted by rejection (or, seemingly, reality). As she later recounted to a newspaper writer: “
I went in in when we were engaged to be married, George saying he would rather marry me than have me accept a place in his store I very often wanted to leave saying ‘George, I don’t think you intend to marry me,’but he said he did and induced me to stay.”
She then said something that may not have been a threat, but eventually rang true:
“I told him that sometime he would regret marrying me… ‘
In her version George then said it was not so and he was too old a man to regret loving her. But following that encounter their meetings became fewer. Arbuckle later went to Indianapolis for a while, possibly in unrealized desire to escape the young woman that had come into his life. Molly nearly went crazy without him, she said. She followed him there, where, she said, he lovingly took her sleighriding and showed her a marvelous twelve-room house that would be their love nest. But it was not to be as the wedding date was never set.
Things had seemingly cooled down after they returned to Terre Haute. But Molly could not let her man go. In March, 1881, just as winter seemed to be waning finally, Molly got her gun and went to town. Arbuckle was taking a walk on a fine day when he realized Molly was behind him. When he turned she pulled a gun and shot at him. She missed. Instead the bullet meant for her lover lodged in the innocent arm of a Jane McMurtrie, who had not expected gunfire while shopping.
Not yet ready to take his last resting place, Arbuckle hurriedly ducked to the relative safety of Greiner’s Shoe Store. Molly pursued him, once again sighting the revolver on the man who spurned her. When Arbuckle saw that she had not cocked the pistol, he reached out and took her gun. He stared at Molly in shock and disbelief. Meanwhile, Mrs. McMurtrie watched her blood seep onto the sidewalk
Molly was not arrested. The situation was defused, though Mrs. McMurtrie later sued her.
Seeing it was no use to attempt reason with Molly, Mr. Arbuckle decided to put a state line between him and his unstable former lover. He moved to Paris, Illinois. After a while he felt safer. But then one day that following September he got word that Molly was on her way to Paris. Though he might be old, Arbuckle spryly mounted his horse with alacrity, leaving a message that if Molly came to look for him, he was “in the country.”
Molly strode off the train at the Paris station that morning clad in a blonde wig and a heavy waterproof coat. When she found that her “lover” was not at the hotel she returned to Terre Haute. But, Molly being Molly, went back to Paris that evening. This time she spied a man who looked like Arbuckle and sprang forward. The hotel clerk reached her just as she realized she was mistaken. She went away.
Deciding the hotel was a waste of time, Molly went to Arbuckle’s new store in Paris. Perhaps alerted by Arbuckle, a clerk stopped her as she entered the store. She proclaimed that Arbuckle had some letters she had written him and wanted them back. When she opened a small handbag the clerk saw a gun. The police were called.
A few days later Molly was back in Terre Haute ladling out her heart to a newspaper.
Her relationship with George, she said, had ruined her reputation because of the late night hours and sneaking around. But she loved him, even more than she did her late husband. She had not meant to kill him, only to make him suffer as she had for month after long month. And finally, “I always thought I would detest an old man as a lover, but George completely won my heart. He flattered me and called me his angel, his own little love.”
After settling the suit with Mrs. McMurtie Molly’s name all but disappeared from the newspapers. She likely was referred to an asylum. Whether she actually sought help is unknown. She disappeared afterwards. No one knows where she went, how she lived, or when she died
May met December in a house in western Sugar Creek in 1883. John Caldwell was a lifelong bachelor. He had lived in his father’s house all his life. After his father’s death he remained in the house with his sister and a niece who took care of him as he tended to their successful farm. But his sister Eleanor died in 1882. He began to take his meals at the home of his tenant Sam Misner. Mrs. Misner was a good cook and enjoyed Caldwell’s company, despite their age difference.
Each day they sat at the Misner table, eating together and talking. Then one day Sam came back from the fields. His children were there, but not his wife. There was no food on the table. Nowhere to be found was John Caldwell. The couple had run off together.
It did not take long for the tale to be told. Everyone talked about old man Caldwell running off with his tenant’s young wife. And leaving that poor man and and his babies all alone to fend for themselves. And that Caldwell had recently sold his farm and made a lot of money.
Caldwell’s long-time lawyer told the papers that it was not true. Caldwell he said had moved to Illinois. He had sold his house, but not to support a relationship with Mrs. Misner. He was forced to sell the farm to pay off the debts that were no fault of his own. He had had signed as security for other peoples’ loans and loaned out to much to neighbors in need. Caldwell’s own goodness had led to his downfall. As for Mrs. Misner, that she was also gone was a mere coincidence or that she had followed him without Caldwell being aware of her scheme.
The lawyer was soon taken to task by a woman from Sugar Creek who wrote a letter to the editor. She was not a lawyer, she said, but she knew a few things about life. Caldwell was a neighbor and she knew he was careful of his money. To those who might blame the young wife they should perhaps instead focus on a a man of so little honor that he “would steal into a neighbor’s home and take a wife from a husband and a mother from her children.” She reminded the lawyer and others that they should withhold judgment until both sides of the story were known.
Soon the story was known. Sam Misner filed a suit against Caldwell seeking $5,000.00 in damages. The errant couple returned together to Terre Haute to settle the case. A lesser sum was offered and accepted. A writer blithely noted that Caldwell and his lover would “head out west and grow with the country.”
John Cramer lived in Macksville with his wife and three children. He was an industrious man, and hard working. His dream was to save enough money to buy a small farm to support his wife of 14 years and their three children.. He found a suitable place near Effingham, Illinois he liked. On Christmas Eve, 1883, while he worked he sent his wife and one of their there children with a fifty dollar payment on the farm. She boarded a train that morning saying she would be home by evening.
Though the train went to Effingham Mrs. Cramer did not. Instead she stepped off the train just across the border in Marshall. Who should be waiting for her, but a Macksville neighbor named Belcher. Now Mr. Belcher, no matter what his other qualities, did not look like a ladies’ man. He was ungainly, with a face described as one “that would scare a women nearly to death rather than impress her.” But there he was along with two of his children. The group bought tickets to Terre Haute. Once there the newly formed couple went to the Crapo Hotel. There Belcher signed the register as “Belcher, wife and two children.”
Meanwhile John Cramer was growing worried about his wife. They should have been home by now. Then a friend whispered that she was not coming home and why. Cramer left his two remaining children with a neighbor and went to Terre Haute. He met with his wife and Belcher. He was willing to forget and forgive the whole thing if his wife would come back home. It was not to be.
In reviewing the Cramer scandal, a writer who thought he was much funnier than he was opined that if he wanted understanding and commiseration he should meet with Sam Misner.
Tune in tomorrow, same time same station…
As farmers continued to prosper, other things were happening in Sugar Creek. In the decade leading to the Civil War several factors were coalescing that were essential to community formation. These would change the township from an expanse of often isolated people and farms to a broader “community.
Churches both bonded the township and divided it, particularly over liquor and slavery.
All the early churches were established in the township, Macksville not having a sufficient number of any single faith to warrant a church. The first church in Sugar Creek was located southwest of Macksville. Called the New Hope Presbyterian Church it was erected in 1824. Each family in the congregation provided a log of black poplar for the building. A lecture forcefully delivered at the church in 1828 was the opening shot in a social war that would echo throughout Sugar Creek for the next century.
Samuel Baldridge, the second Presbyterian minister in Indiana, was born in North Carolina in 1780. He, himself, was a product of a religious “schism.” When he chose to become a Presbyterian his father disowned him. His father was a Scots-Irish immigrant and a strict adherent of the Covenanters, a strict sect of Presbyterians born in 17th-century Scotland to combat their perceived interference of the Stuart kings in Presbyterian affairs. When Samuel chose the more mainstream Presbyterian Church, His father William would have none of it and chose his brand of faith over his son.
With that past trailing him Baldridge strode boldly to the pulpit of the tiny log church in Sugar Creek and set afire the brimstone of his holy wrath. His subject was Temperance. Drink, perfidious alcohol, was a defiler of the flock and an affront to God and all those who feared him. Some in the log pews nodded their heads or added a chorus to his booming voice. Still others emphatically shook their heads no and headed for the door.
The battle between “wets” and dries” was to be fought on a regular basis for the next nine decades. It was a war that never seemed to end and its battlefronts were scattered across the township. This first confrontation literally brought down the church. So incensed by the temperance sermon some of the original families would later return to the church with teams of horses and chains and literally tore out the logs they had offered for the church building. Not to be deterred from his self-ordained mission, Baldridge left behind Sugar Creek’s first temperance society, 101 members strong.
A Methodist Church, Pisgah, opened in the northwest part of the township in 1840. Built of hewn logs, it was covered in whipsaw weatherboarding to make it more attractive. Bethesda, another Methodist Church was built a mile west of Macksville from 1849 to 1852. The church was a simple frame building and its burial ground became the resting place of a great many. These churches and the others that followed not only brought together congregations, but also became part parts of a larger community.
New Hope, which had to be physically rebuilt after the exodus of non-temperance and their sundering of the walls of the church, seemed to be particularly prone to conflict. This time the internal strife was over that most divisive element in American society, slavery. Presbyterian orthodoxy held that slavery was a “divine institution” approved by God. This doctrine did not sit well with some of the more thoughtful in the congregation, especially the Goodman brothers.
John and William were the sons of Sugar Creek pioneer Micajah Goodman. John was among the very first children born in the township, thus laying claim to being a native son. Both brothers came to see slavery as an “immoral and wicked institution” that was “a barrier… to progress of the christian religion.” Finding themselves increasingly at odds with the church’s doctrines, they and a splinter group of ten other members left New Hope. In 1849 they founded the West Vigo Congregational Society and built the church four years later.
Of course the most unusual church “founding” in Sugar Creek was the one “established” far away across the Atlantic Ocean, St. Mary of the Woods. It was the first Catholic church across the Wabash. Most are aware of the story of Mother Theodore Guerin’s arduous journey from France along with five other members of the Sisters of Providence. Their mission was to establish a school for girls. The small, but hardy, group arrived in Sugar Creek in the Fall of 1840.
The school and its church would become a magnet for Catholics and a small village grew around it, including my Chrisman ancestors. It was at the village church that the Chrisman’s were born baptized, lived, married and buried. Two generations worked there or in the coal mine owned by the Sisters. My grandmother scrubbed the school’s floors and was quite proud when her grandson taught there seventy years later.