The Battle of Macksville


Macksville, at times, took on the aura of a Wild West town.  It was a mini Dodge City without the steely gaze of a Matt Dillon coolly surveying its streets for bad guys through a haze of gun smoke.  Being unincorporated it had no local law enforcement.  The town had to rely on the Terre Haute police department for protection.  That is one reason that some Macksvillians had petitioned as early as 1873 to be annexed by Terre Haute.

Criminals from Terre Haute on the lam from police often hid in Macksville or the bottoms, knowing there was little chance that pursuers would come looking for them across the river.  They frequented the saloons initiating brawls or committed petty theft.  This was a bane to upright citizens like the Mcilroys, Castos and Cassadays.  Especially when the brawl led to gunfire.

In the early 1880s the village was plagued with outsiders bent on trouble.  Rival groups of traveling horse traders brought an end-of-the=cattle-drive mini-riot in 1884 that was dubbed the Battle of Macksville.

For several months Macksville had been bedeviled by the horse traders.  They were a brawling, drunken lot who came to town acting as if it were their own.  Townspeople did not want them, but they were too intimidated to ask them to depart for other horse pastures.  Macksville “lived in fear” of that the village would be ransacked and their homes burned.

The traders would get drunk and race their horses up and down the streets.  Anyone venturing out onto the street was risking their lives.  The races were inevitably accompanied by drunken brawls.  Even a band of gypsies camped west of town decided it best to load their caravans and move to less dangerous places.  Gypsies of this period were also known for horse trading and an additional incentive to head out may have been a fear that competition for the trade heightened the chances of conflict.


In the looming twilight of June 24th men gathered in Webb Bayless’ Paris Road saloon (funny how often Webb’s name came up during troubles).  In a scene that presaged hundreds of Westerns, a rowdy crowd gathered in the dimly-lit, hovering smokehaze that shrouded  Webb’s place in a grey mistc.  All around men clutched beer and whiskey glasses close to their chests.  The twittering of cards being shuffled competed with a cacophony of laughter and drink-fueled boasting.

Among those being dealt cards at one table were rival traders named Fred Weiser and a certain Mr. Bryant, aka “Dude” Cooper.  Both men were so bleary-eyed from whiskey it was hard to focus on what their hands held.  Words were spoken.  Both men looked up from their cards.  Weiser took deep offense at something Dude said and reached slowly under the table.  Up came a “loaded” club studded with nails.  Cooper seemed unimpressed by Weiser’s stick.  Dude’s eyes told Weiser he was not afraid of the man across from him.

Weiser laid down his club as those watching the scene hushed to see what would happen next.  When Weiser’s hand reappeared it brandishing a knife pulled from his boot.  In seconds he lunged across the table.  The knife cut through the haze and Cooper’s arm.  Deep slashes erupted blood that stained the cards. Cooper’s brother John rushed to help him.

All hell, indeed, had broken loose in Macksville.

Soon the dirt streets of Paris Road were filled with angry, shouting men as the brawl grew too large for Bayless’ saloon.  Fists flew and the retorts of every reeay guns filled the dark.  Pushing and shoving let to a dozen little fights.  Weiser was the chosen opponent of many.  His young nephew, Fred Smith tried to come to his rescue and pull him away.  His attempt failed as a multitude of gunshots rand around him and forced Smith to retreat to whence he came.

A trader named John Crank ran to his wagon and pulled out an ancient rifle.  He was going show the mob a thing or two.  His only [problem was that he did not have the caps need to fire the weapon.  Crank went to Field’s drugstore and and the McIlroy and Hodgers’ groceries in search of caps.  All three merchants rightly chose peace over profit and refused to sell the drunken man caps.

Meanwhile hundreds of townspeople cautiously stepped out into the street to see what the hell was going on.  Many of the brawlers, upon hearing a messenger was sent off to bring the Terre Haute police, began to slink off to their hiding places in the bottoms.  No sense chancing being caught.  Town doctor James Hunt was called to Bryant’s, aka Cooper, tent.  He found the man gushing blood and set about his work.

Five policemen, including Chief Vandever, sped across the bridge to Macksville.  Must of the tumult had subsided by the time they arrived.  They found nearly the whole town awaiting them.  Now was the time, many argued, to drive out these criminals with the backing of the police.  The police arrested a brawler named Joe King and Crank.  King’s brother John, Fred Weiser and John Cooper were long gone.  They headed to Bryant’s tent to arrest him.  What they found was a man with his head bandaged and a large chunk of ice on his arm wounds.  Bryant was so drunk and wouldede they left him to recover, returning the next day to arrest him.

The policemen began to “mop up” the scene.  Traders still hanging around were ordered to leave town.  They were surprised to find that John King and John Copper had not fled town.  Instead they had merely their venue.  They were arrested in John Snack’s saloon just up the block and sent on their way.

Crank had a child living with his sister in Terre Haute.  He asked the police to inform her that he had been arrested and the child was now all hers/  He wanted no more to do with “it”  Those arrested paid fines and were sent on their way.  Weiser was gone.


Bad Lot of Scoundrels


 General opinions about the Trader family ranged from the bad to worst.  They were poor white trash to a “bad lot” to “one of the worst set of scoundrels ever to infest any locality.”  It all depended on who was speaking ill of them.  They had a history of drunkenness, violence, theft and, some said, prostitution.

The family seemed to bounce back and forth between Sugar Creek and  Terre Haute, usually living near the river in the poorest areas. It is difficult to pinpoint them because they always seemed to evade the census, or the census man thought it was more than his job was worth to tarry too long in some areas. James Trader, the patriarch of the family, listed his occupation as basketmaker, though petty thieving and other crimes claimed a lot of his time.  His young son John followed the family path and he was sent to prison in 1872 for grand larceny.  He was about 16 years-old when he entered the Indiana Penitentiary at Jeffersonville.

John was released in 1874 and returned to live with his family.  At that point they were living in a tumbledown log cabin east of St. Mary’s.  Whether the reunion was a happy one or not is hard to say.  It probably depended on the moods of his parents, James and Mary, and how much alcohol was in the house.  But it is evident that the mood in that hovel was not good in early August, 1874.

On August 11th James Trader was in a foul mood.  He was roaring drunk by early afternoon.  At some point he decided he could no longer stomach his son John.  Shouting he ordered John out of the house, his shouts slurred by drink.  Fearing trouble, John stepped out of the house, but turned back.  He insisted that he must at least be allowed back in to get his few clothes.  He pushed aside his father and stepped into the house.

An enraged James followed his son into the house and a violent scuffle took place.  He pushed James onto a hot stove, burning the young man’s hands.  With the pain rising in his arms John ran out of the house.  James followed, a shotgun in his hands.  Looking for a way to defend himself from his drunken, wild-eyed father,  John grabbed an axe handle.  It did not take long for John to realize that the handle he was clutching was not a viable weapon agaist a drunk with a gun.  Thinking it best to go away and let his father sleep it off, perhaps to return the next day, John turned to leave.  He had not even made a full turn when the shotgun blasted a hole in he stomach.  He quickly crumpled to the ground gasping for air and blood spurting from his wounds.

Wife and mother Mary watched as it all unfolded.  Did she hurry to hold her son?  Possibly for a minute or two, but realizing her husband was so drunk as to be insensible she turned her attention to him.  She shouted to the oblivious  James that he must get away.  People might come running soon to see what happened.  Unable to make him completely understand the situation, she prodded and pushed him deeper into the woods.  Finding a hollow log she helped James squirm his way into it as a hiding place.

Mary Trader was right.  The shot soon brought neighbors rushing the house.  Along the way many of them must have wondered what the hell was going on with those damned Traders now. It was always something with that cursed clan.

While someone went off the fetch the doctor and inform the police in Terre Haute, others searched for James.  It did not take long to find the snoring drunk in a log.

They pulled him back to the log house and guarded him until the doctor arrived.  Seeing James’ condition he set about cleaning the blood and dressing his would as best he could.  James being a thin, delicate boy with a hole in his stomach, the doctor did not hold out much hope that he would survive the night.  Eventually John was moved to the the poor asylum in Terre Haute to either die or recover.

James was taken to the Terre Haute jail to await trial, possibly for murder.  He sat there until John made an unexpected recovery.  He did not file charges against his father.  All’s well that ends well.  The traders went home. Jailers must have thought good riddance, along with thoughts that the Traders would end up killing each other anyway.

Some thought the real cause of the argument between father and son was a woman.

That woman may have been Catharine Miller, later called a “:notorious prostitute” (and there was seldom a shortage of those in Terre Haute).  He choice in husbands  made for an interesting life.

Catharine was the daughter of William Irwin a farmer living in Sugar Creek.  She married Andrew Miller in 1870.  Miller was average height, about 5’8”, with dark complexion and brown eyes and hair.  Like many, he had a smattering of small pox scars on his face. Later, a prison warder described him as having “a small scar on his throat and the initials MVM, AM and AEM  [tattooed] on his right forearm.”   His right arm was adorned by an American flag, the number 73 and other marks too faint to read.   Presumably her family, including a half-brother named James Martin, witnessed the ceremony at the Justice of the Peace office.

Catharine’s father did not care much for his new son-in-law.  The two seemed to be continuously sniping at each other with words.  And once or twice Irwin allowed as how he would not mind shooting his father-in-law.  On Tuesday, September 26th, 1872 the happy family was gathered at home.  Irwin and Miller spent the day the day drinking hard cider (or so Miller later claimed).  A thought percolated through Miller’s hazed brain, possibly after another of Irwin’s taunts.  Seizing the moment and an axe, Miller proceeded to fell his father-in-law with a clean chop into his lower back, severing Irwin’s spinal chord.  The old man was dead before he fell “upon his own threshold.”  Andrew Miller was sentenced to life in prison.

It is not known how soon after her husband was carted off to prison that Catharine took up with John Trader.  They were certainly together by early 1875.  They married in August, 1875.  Whether she was actively exchanging her favors for the money of excited strangers can only be speculated upon. At any rate, they were living with Trader’s parents in another “squalid hovel,” this time on the east side of the river in Terre Haute.

On the first Sunday in November, 1875, James Martin, who worked as a farm laborer, decided to visit half-sister at the Traders.  His mother lived near the Traders  in another hovel in area derisively known in Terre Haute as “Happy Hollow.”  So, he would get to see them both, something he looked forward to.

Martin never made it past the Trader’s front gate.  James and John Trader stopped him as soon as he arrived and a heaving quarrel took place. Martin’s mother hurried over to intercede and quiet them down.  She convinced her son to just go away to prevent further trouble.  Martin agreed and turned to leave, but he stopped at the top of the hill of the hollow and stopped.  He was shouting his parting words at the Trader’s.  He may have been brandishing a knife, but that was never proven..

In a flash the Traders were up the hill, John with a brick and a knife, his father with the trusty shotgun he had shot his son with two years earlier.  John threw the brick and hit Martin on the head.  When Martin fell they began kicking and stabbing him.  Martin rose haltingly and staggered away.  He managed to make it to the house where his mother was living before dying.

This time James Trader was more aware of what he done.  No one had to implore him to run from justice.  He and John ran down to their house, grabbed a few things, and lit out across the river on a skiff.  John got out as soon as they hit the Sugar Creek shore.  James turned at headed back to the middle of the Wabash.  Abandoning the boat he hid on a sandbar for a few minutes.  He then set off through the swampy bottoms trying to elude anyone chasing him.

John and James must have hurriedly decided on a rendezvous point.  James was captured in Clinton on Monday morning.  John managed to hide another day before being caught near Clinton, not far from where his father was snared by the police.  James escape through the swamps took its toll.  He died while awaiting trial.  John was sentenced to life in prison.

Later a newspaper writer noted the irony that James Trader and James Martinn were buried almost next to each other in the pauper graveyard.  The body of an infant was the  only thing separating them in death.

Eighteen months into his sentence John Trader wrote an open letter to the people of Vigo County.  He acknowledged his crimes and all but wept onto the page his lament that he was confined in the narrow walls of a prison.  He asked that they obey the laws of god not man, and forgive him.  He also wanted them to start a campaign to have him pardoned.  His epistle was not well received.

Who knows what washing thoughts go through the mind of a prisoner facing a life sentence, penitence, anger, sorrow?  Something went through John Trader’s mind.  In 1879 he told the warden that he had information about an unsolved murder.  He wanted to confess to the murder of an old maid named Eva Peters in Macksville years before.  And he would tell who helped him.  And, he said, his wife Catharine would back him up.  He also wrote to Macksville merchant Daniel Bayless saying he had important new information about the murder.  He confessed to the murder but said he was abetted by three other men Oliver Perry, Frank Smith and John Evans.  And to top it off he said Catharine had also helped.

Trader was returned to Terre Haute and he and Catharine unspooled their tale.


Catharine and Trader testified at Oliver Perry’s trial (by this time Smith was dead and Evans had long ago left town for places unknown) that the scheme began because they needed money (Perhaps her return on selling herself had diminished.).  John and Oliver Perry, who was living with them at the time, told her they had a way to raise a stake from “an old man” in Macksville.  Smith and Evans would go along with them.

The group (which Catharine said included her and John’s month-old baby) crossed the grade that Sunday night.  They arrived about 9:00.  The men forced open Eva’s door.  She had barricaded her door with her bed and it was a struggle to get into the house.  Catharine and the baby followed them in.  According to John his wife helped them stuff a handkerchief into Eva’s mouth.  They bound her hands to her bed with a dog chain and tied her head back with rags. She was raped and then was choked to death.  Catharine seemed particularly displeased that the murder only yielded the gang $30.00.  She also said she and the baby had stayed outside when the door was forced.  Trader denied that, saying his wife had stayed long enough to push the gag in Eva’s mouth.

Oliver Perry maintained his innocence, but it looked like a sure conviction and prison sentence awaited him.  But on the day the trial was set to go to jury, John Trader suddenly announced he had lied.  He had Killed Eva.  Wilson had not been involved.  The testimony he and Catharine had given was all a lie.  Wilson was let go and John Trader went back to the narrow walls at Jeffersonville.  Catharine was not charged,

Why did they do it?  Perhaps it was to settle some long festering score with Wilson. Perhaps it was a scheme cooked up by John and Catharine to get him out of prison for a while.  Some prisoners were so desperate to step outside the prison walls, even for a few days, that they would say anything.

Oliver Perry did not stay out of jail for long.  Less than three months after his release he was arrested and convicted of attempting to assault a young Macksville woman along the National Road.

Catharine disappeared from the newspaper pages.

John Trader died in prison of consumption in 1886.  The final entry on his record noted he had large scars near his spine (caused by his father when he tried to kill him) and his arms, like James Martin’s,  were covered in tattoos likely done while in prison.  John’s featured a dancing girl, star, cross, cross two hearts with arrows through them, a flag, and the initials JT with the date 1872 in red and black india ink.

The nest of scoundrels had finally been cleaned out.