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.



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1 thought on “Bad Lot of Scoundrels

  1. I’m enjoying your stories

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