The Sugar Creek Horror: Conclusion


By early November most had lost all hope that the dismembered body found near St. Mary’s would be identified or the killer brought to justice. The Sugar Creek Horror looked to be yet another “cold case,” a hideous murder without solution. Just another instance where justice was but a forlorn and empty word.

But then, on a stump, appeared an insurance policy taken out to insure household goods. On it was a name, Susannah Nelson and an address in Anderson, Indiana. How did it suddenly appear, and who put in there? Was it someone involved in the murder who had been cut out of their share of the loot? Did someone just find it, but not want to get involved? Why wasn’t it found before? A spiritualist later even claimed that someone from the spirit world had placed it there to ensure the victim’s soul could find peace.
And thus began the spinning of an elaborate tale of prostitution, alleged matricide, spiritualism and a “so-called preacher.”
Nonetheless it was there. It was found by Webb Bayless, a tall man with a black moustache well known saloonkeeper in Macksville. He had gone to see the murder scene with a blacksmith friend named David Henry. In the hollow of a stump beneath dirt and leaves Bayless and Henry said they found torn pieces of paper. Several pieces were stained with blood. Bayless and Henry noticed a stick pushed into the ground near the stump. Upon pulling it up they found it was wrapped in a woman’s hair.

Bayless took the grisly find to Vigo County Sheriff Cleary. The torn papers were an insurance policy covering the household goods of one Susannah Nelson of Anderson, Indiana. Anderson police were contacted in an attempt to find out what they knew about the victim. It turned out she and her family were well known to them.
Susannah Nelson was 69 years old. Widowed since 1869, she had four sons. She came from a family of Madison County farmers named Bronnenberg, five of her brothers were prosperous land owners. But Susannah had taken a different path and was estranged from her family. The Anderson authorities were contacted and reported that Susannah had a long history of prostitution and was the madam of a brothel. Her reputation was characterized as “disreputable” by many who knew her.
Terre Haute detectives went to Anderson where the local sheriff took them to Nelson’s brick house on Main Street in search of evidence. One of tantalizing clues was a letter from her youngest son, Jasper Nelson reportedly asking her to come visit him in Brazil, or possibly Terre Haute as he was ill. Another letter was mentioned in which Susannah wrote to a “friend” asking if she thought Kansas City or Omaha, Nebraska (near where another of her sons lived) either place was a good location to open a brothel.
Detectives (including Webb Bayless, amateur detective) interviewed numerous people in Anderson try to piece together Nelson’s movement. They established that she had taken a train to Indianapolis on September 6th. She was in the company of a man named Perry Manis. They appear to have left Indianapolis on a west bound train the next day. Unconfirmed reports said she was seen in Brazil with her son. She spent at least one night in Terre Haute where she “put up” at a seedy “hotel” that had a bar and a back alley. It was known as a place where “girls could go with company and get rooms.” The next day she was seen heading west in a buggy with a man (rumors flew that she visited a home in Macksville and was known there as a wealthy woman, but that is almost certainly just gossip).
Then, Susannah just disappeared from sight, until her scattered skeleton was found in the murky ravine in Sugar Creek.
With her identity confirmed the focus turned to finding her killer. It was not long before Susannah’s youngest son, Jasper, became the prime suspect. Jasper was a ne’er-do-well, wastrel son who often turned to his mother to bail him out of difficult situations. Jasper was known as a “bad character.” He most often contacted her when he needed money That was likely the case when he wrote her the letter claiming illness and asking her to come to Brazil. Speculation was rife that his motive was that his mother had finally shut her purse to him and refused to come to his rescue yet another time, And, if she would not give it to him he had to take it at any cost.
The search for Jasper Nelson began, with telegrams crossing the country for information about him. It was learned he might be in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Sheriff Cleary and his deputy named Vandever headed west of the Mississippi. The detectives stopped by Renfro’s Saloon in Cape Girardeau to buy cigars. And there in the bar sat Jasper Nelson.
The train carrying the detectives, Nelson and his wife arrived at the depot to find a throng of curiosity seekers waiting to set eyes upon a supposed “mother murderer.” Nelson and his wife were bundled into a wagon and driven off with the crowd surging behind them. The first stop was the police headquarters on Ohio Street, where Mrs. Nelson was dropped off. It was but a short drive to the county jail where Jasper Nelson where he was to “rest[s] in the bosom of the Vigo County Jail.”
Jasper was a talkative sort who seemed happy to talk to reporters. One described him as “having the appearance of a person of a generous open bearded fellow,” though one exhibiting signs of recent dissipation.” A man of about 40, Jasper wore an overcoat and slouch hat as he spun his tale. He had left Anderson on August 30th and stayed in Brazil for about ten days. From there he went to Marshall, Illinois and Casey. He returned to Terre Haute briefly on September 12 to see P.T. Barnum’s Circus. He turned to Terre Haute a short time later to attend a séance at Pence Hall.
Like his mother, Jasper was a Spiritualist, who believed that “spirits of the dead have both the ability and the inclination to communicate with the living. The afterlife, or “spirit world”, is seen by Spiritualists, not as a static place, but as one in which spirits continue to evolve.” Spiritualism was a prominent force to many in 19th-century Indiana and the rest of the country. It had many adherents (Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame was an ardent believer) who attended séances to commune with departed family or be guided by the spirit world,
Jasper said he did not know his mother had died until the detectives arrested him. When Vandever told him to tell the story about his visit from the spiritual world, Nelson demurred, but the detective told them that Jasper had recounted a visit in which spirits came to him to tell him of his mother’s death. Jasper was about to jump off the steamboat taking him and his jailers to St. Louis when a spirit cane to him. The spirit told him that she was killed by a blow to the head by a club, and then two men doubled up her body and placed in a wagon. It was then taken to a hill and dumped in a ravine. Later, Jasper said it was not a spirit visit, but was the result of a dream he had while experiencing delirium tremens while drunk.
Evidence against him included money he could not explain and that one of the three trunks found after he was arrested included one belonging to his mother.

There were also reported sightings of him back in Anderson after the murder and flashing money around. It was averred that he was trying to sell some of her goods around Madison County.
The prosecution felt there was more than enough evidence to take before the grand jury when it convened on November 26th. There was little doubt in the minds of most that Jasper Nelson, bad, drunken character that he was, had committed matricide. But Jasper had hired A.J Kelley, Terre Haute’s finest defense attorney. Kelley assured the jury that the evidence was all circumstantial and no witnesses had placed Nelson at the crime scene. The jury agreed. Jasper Nelson was set free.
Many were still convinced that Jasper Nelson was indeed involved in his mother’s death, some how, some way. He was a “fiend incarnate” whoslew his own mother! But detectives had to continue their search. They already had another suspect that they felt had colluded with Nelson, one who was very familiar with Susannah Nelson.
Jasper celebrated his release by getting drunk ina Terre Haute Saloon and ebgaging in a brawl there.
Perry Manis was from a good family in Madison County, but like Susannah he had strayed upon shadowy streets. Manis was originally a farmer. At some point he became a “sort of preacher,” a preacher with a shady character avoided by many. How he became acquainted with Susannah is hard to say. Most likely it was through her “business.” But by 1883 they were on “intimate terms” and he was sort of her advisor in matters both spiritual and corporal. He was the man who left Anderson and traveled with her on the interrupted and lethal journey.
It was Manis who urged Susannah to sell up in Anderson and start a new life in the west. He was seen with her in Indianapolis and Terre Haute but then quietly disappeared. Back in Anderson after Susannah went missing, he was carrying over $600.00 in his wallet, quite a sum for a man not known to have much. There he bought a new buggy for himself and showered family and lady friends with gifts. One of the gifts was a lap robe belonging to Susannah that he courteously gave to a lady to warm her during rides to the country in his new wagon.
It was more than enough evidence for Terre Haute detectives to have the Anderson police arrest and hold Manis until they could move him to Terre Haute. A prisoner who shared a cell with Manis in Anderson averred that the sort of preacher had confessed to the killings. Manis told him, he said, that he and Susannah had gone to Indianapolis, staying one night at a house on George Street there, them went on to Terre Haute. There, he and Jasper Nelson killed Susannah and paid two men who knew the area to secretly bundle the body across the Wabash and bury it.
Jasper denied Manis’ story.
Eleven witnesses from Anderson made their way to Terre Haute to testify in the murder trial. Manis was not a pretty sight to the jury. One reporter thought him “as ugly a looking customer as ever beheld by humans.” As the evidence mounted, Manis broke down and admitted his guilt. The trial was over and a killer brought to justice. The trial was over,
But leave it to Jasper Nelson to steal center stage. In what one witness called “irreverence and melancholy satire,” Jasper, perhaps thinking he was evoking Hamlet or was just plain drunk, grabbed his mother’s skull from a table and shouted that he “should hunt up the rest of the body and have it buried together.”
Manis was sentenced to life in prison in January, 1884. Inhis case, life was only three years as he died in 1887.

There is little doubt that others were involved as Manis alleged, but they were neither found or punished.

Jasper Nelson would reappear in Terre Haute in 1891, this time as a traveling salesman peddling electrical supplies. He told those who asked that he had been “out west” for a while. He did not speak of his mother.

The rest of Susannah Nelson’s body was never found.

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The Sugar Creek Horror, Part Two


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 ( And a few years back those fellows wrecked a train at St.Mary’s that killed the brakeman (
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,,,

The Sugar Creek Horror


The woman prepared carefully before going out. Under her blue dress were a muslin underskirt with five rows of fine embroidery, another plain underskirt, red petticoats and a muslin chemise. She adjusted her hoop, placed a band of white lace, and reached for her old style bonnet. Her waist length hair was done up carefully. She tied her bonnet tightly about her before stepping out of her house. It was the fall of 1883. Her house was located in a notorious area near St. Marys. Her destination was unknown, and she may have gone to meet a man. Whatever her destination she did not arrive there, or not that anyone seemed to notice.
Saturday, October 6, 1883. With winter coming on it was time to stack up with firewood for the cold months ahead. Wood-chopper and farmer James Porter lived on the Calvin Fuller farm about three miles east of St. Marys, along the Wabash bottom lands. With him were his son Joseph, and friend Henry Ishmel and they headed into the woods, a dog prancing at their heels. They were looking to cut new axe handles and maybe do a little hunting. They cut a branch or two that looked likely to make a sturdy handle. There was still a little light left for a more pleasurable task.
They set the dog upon the hunt. The hound’s barking told them it had flushed out a rabbit or two. They hurried after the scampering dog, spied his prey, but their aim was faulty. The rabbit scampered away deeper into the brush. Not to be denied the dog pushed on after it. Soon the woodsman-turned-hunters heard another yelp and saw the dog returning with another treasure.
In its mouth was a human skull.
Horrified, Porter snatched the skull from the teeth of the dog. He looked around at his companions. What was going on? Though unnerved they decided they had just could not flee the scene. They pushed tentatively on into the ravine from which the dog had emerged not knowing what they might find. Their eyes were drawn to a piece of blue cloth. It was ablue dress, and not far from it other items of woman’s clothing. Not far away were a few human bones lay scattered in the leaves.
Frightened by what he had found, James Porter rushed back onto the Clinton Road looking for help. He spied a man walking along and breathlessly shared the news of the horrible discovery. The man refused to help and stepped lively along his way. Porter started to head to his house when neighbor Thomas Beauchamp, on his way home from work, stopped. Porter told him what he found and Beauchamp, of more intrepid spirit, agreed to go back to the scene. About 75 yards east of the Clinton Road they descended further into the dark ravine. Searching in the growing dusk they found a human backbone and ribs. Nearby they saw more clothing.
Knowing something must be done, they discussed what to do. Beauchamp said the first thing was to contact the coroner and police. He agreed to return to Terre Haute and spread the news. Beauchamp located Coroner Drought. It was about 9:00 pm before Beauchamp, Drought and a clerk named Duncan could return to the seen. Beauchamp, carrying a lantern, lead them into the hollows a place later called “a place, of all other dark and lonely sports in Vigo county, most adapted to the commission and concealment of some desperate crime.”
Drought noted that no one had disturbed the scene since Porter’s discovery. Nestled in some logs was the woman’s clothing. There were no bones in them. It was speculated she had been stripped naked during or after the crime. The lateness of the hour and darkness of the night forced the coroner to call a halt to the search until morning. He placed the bones in a box he had brought with him. He returned to Terre Haute, dropping off the box at the Katzeubach undertaking parlor.
With Sunday morning’s light Drought returned to Sugar Creek Township. The night before he had asked Beauchamp to gather a search party for Sunday morning. Curiosity or concern had energized over 35 searchers in response. When drought arrived he found them fanned out across the hollows. They brought him a handkerchief full of small bones and a set of false teeth. He spurred them on to look for more evidence. They found a scrap of a local newspaper and a business card. Would these lead to the identity of the killer?
The coroner ordered that shovels be brought forth to dig for more clues. Beneath thre crisscrossed logs they found a morass of decayed flesh and more teeth. The body had been buried in a grave so shallow that it allowed rooting hogs and dogs to tear away at the flesh. Dr. Moorhead, the county physician, arrived with the skull. His examination led him to determine that the woman’s skull had been fractured by heavy blows. Hair discovered nearby caused the doctor to believe the victim was between 50 and 54 years of age. The searchers were polled and none could think of any woman that had gone missing from the area.
Drought soon learned of yet another discovery. On Monday a man named Goetzinger who ran a gun shop in Terre Haute came to his office. Goetzinger told Drought that while hunting along the river bottoms near the murder scene on Sunday he had found a woman’s shoe. In it was a woman’s severed foot…..
To be continued…

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Of Mushrooms and Manure

Mushroom Plant, ca. 1939 (courtesy Vigo County Historical Society)

Mushroom Plant, ca. 1939 (courtesy Vigo County Historical Society)

To my six year-old, more literal, mind the idea of a “Mushroom Factory” did not make sense. Factories were those things that featured on “Industry on Parade,” a series of short films that Channel 10 seemed to show continuously when I was young. They were places of steel and iron, and boiling cauldrons of liquid metal. Not a place to “manufacture” something like mushrooms. Mushrooms grew out in the soggy woods, and were the things that Grandpa and Uncle Wayne and I would tromp though late Spring afternoons looking for.
For that reason, the “mushroom plant” between West Terre Haute and Toad Hop seemed a rather dark and mysterious place to me whenever we drove past it. But, indeed, there was a mushroom “factory.”
The Indiana Mushroom Corp was a subsidiary of the Michigan Mushroom Company. The company took over the defunct clay tile plant west along the National Road in 1938. It spent the early part of 1939 refurbishing the plant and making it ready for the first “planting” In April the plant manager V.E.Pederson told the local press that “all the raw materials” were in place and the growing would soon begin. The first crop would be ready for harvest in in 6-8 weeks. He noted that five railroad car loads of manure were being delivered each week. The manure was then treated with chemicals to prepare it. The initial workforce numbered 25, but would increase to over 100 employees. This was exciting news for an area still wracked by the Great Depression.
True to his word, the first crop was harvested and canned by the first week of June. The initial crop was sold locally, but soon mushrooms from West Terre Haute were shipped across the country under the “Dawn Fresh” label. The company was indeed a boon to the local economy. Eventually it would also can tomatoes from local farmers in season. By the 1950s, the plant was approaching a quarter of a million dollars in sales.
But how did one “manufacture” mushrooms? The best description I have found is the one below. It comes from a 1945 lawsuit filed to determine which of the four unions that claimed members at the plant would be named the primary bargaining agent for the workers in future labor negotiations.
“The Company is engaged in the growing, packing, and canning of
mushrooms on a large scale, and in the seasonal canning of tomatoes.
In its operations, the Company uses buildings formerly occupied by
a title Company, where it grows all of its mushrooms and where all of
its packing and canning processes are performed. Mushrooms are
grown; processed, canned, and packed on the premises, whereas tomatoes-
are obtained from surrounding farms and canned on the premises.

The growing of mushrooms is a highly specialized and scientific
business. The entire process is conducted in sheds and buildings by
employees, each of whom is trained to perform a particular operation.
The first step is the preparation of a compost from horse manure,
straw, and chemicals. This compost is then placed in growing
boxes and put in a dark room which is called a growing room. The
room is then closed tightly and live steam is turned on in order to
sterilize the air and soil and to kill all rodents and bugs. Thereafter,
spawn is planted in the growing boxes and from 12 to 21 days after
the planting, casing soil is placed in the growing boxes. Approximately
57 days after the growing boxes are filled, the first mushrooms
are ready for picking. After these are harvested the holes left by
the stems of the extracted mushrooms are filled and more mushrooms
continue to grow in the same mushroom beds. Several crops or flushes
of mushrooms are thus obtained from one filling, the cycle lasting
approximately 90 days from the time the first growing boxes are filled
until they are ready for a new filling. The filling of the growing boxes
in the various growing rooms is staggered at such intervals that the
Company obtains a constant supply of mushrooms throughout the entire
year. In order for mushrooms to grow, the temperature in the
growing room must be controlled and the growing boxes watered daily.

Growing rooms are kept at temperatures between 55 and 65 degrees
Fahrenheit. This is done by heating the rooms in the winter and
artificially cooling them in the summer.

The plant continued to be a prime employer in Sugar Creek Township. It was not the most glamorous of work. Jack D Flowers’ job “was to stick a thermometer in that chicken poop to take the temp.” In addition to those working there, it benefitted local farmers who sold tomatoes to it during the season. Howard R. Baugues recalled that his dad used to haul chicken manure to the plant back in the late 40’s/early 50’s. While Arthur Hall remembered that local farmers and gardeners were allowed to go into the tunnels and dark rooms of the plant to shovel compost for their home gardens.

The beginning of the end for the plant was a massive fire that took place in August 1964. It took over 50 firemen to control the blaze, but not before the plant suffered over $150.000.00 in damages.


This is much the same daunting view that the first pioneers into Sugar Creek Township faced as they crossed the Wabash.

This is much the same daunting view that the first pioneers into Sugar Creek Township faced as they crossed the Wabash.

Pioneer is a powerful, image-provoking word in the American lexicon. The ideal/myth of the pioneer is one of the bedrock foundations of how United States views itself. We are descended, says the sentiment, from the sturdy individualists who tamed the ever-moving frontier.

The Terre Haute of 1818 looked less like a town and more of a few clearings in the woods. Stands of tall oak trees dominated the vista, beneath them thick undergrowth had to be cleared to ease passage for residents and travelers. Ii was founded in 1816 by the Terre Haute Land Company, a group of investors mainly drawn from southern Indiana and Kentucky. They purchased “thirteen tracts of land on the River Wabash, in the vicinity of Fort Harrison.” One of the “proprietors” was Abraham Markle, a former distillery owner in Canada. Markle was a fascinating character originally from the Niagara Falls area who once served in the Canadian Parliament. After being imprisoned for treason and then released, he switched sides and fought for the Americans in the war of 1812. He then made his way to Indiana, settling on the prairie near Fort Harrison. Markle was the only investor who viewed their purchase as a future home. The land was to be sold for a profit.

Accordingly the town of Terre Haute was platted in October, 1816, with the first sales coming within a month. The tracts were covered by timber interspersed with prairies. Early naturalist David Thomas, who spent part of 1816 exploring western Indiana wrote that “the blackness and depth of the soil excite our admiration.

The first settlers in Sugar Creek crossed the river from Terre Haute in 1818. Among them were Henry Kuykendall, Henry Middleton and John Crews,
Crews migrated to Indiana from Knox County, Tennessee. He was the son of James Madison Crews, a Quaker who was read out of the faith for serving in a Virginia regiment during the Revolutionary War and later moved to Tennessee. There he further distanced himself from his Quaker upbringing by owning a slave.

The "Bottoms" between Terre Haute and West Terre Haute.  Until a road was "graded up" this was what pioneers had to cross to get to Terre Haute.

The “Bottoms” between Terre Haute and West Terre Haute. Until a road was “graded up” in 1855-56 this was what pioneers had to cross to get to Terre Haute.

Like the majority of early Indiana pioneers, John Crews was from the upland south. This was a simple fact of geography and access. There was a tall barrier for prospective settlers from the north and east, the Allegheny Mountains. It was much easier for southerners to cross into the state. Many roads and waterways provided jumping off points for those from Tennessee and Kentucky and they took advantage of them. For these reasons Indiana was settled from the bottom up, like a glass (which the outline of the state resembles).

Besides personal factors there were “attracting” elements drawing settlers into the state. Indiana had been subjugated and their lands were now open to newcomers. There had also been an “advertising” of the state. Travelers like proto-scientist David Thomas had explored Indiana and wrote glowing reports of the richness of the land. Land was cheaper and could be purchased on credit. Some lands were offered as bounties to veterans of the War of 1812. Some took advantage of it, but many simply sold the land for a quick profit.

In 1820, 84% of the population resided in the lower third of Indiana.
Crews and the others all faced certain aspects of life that came with being a pioneer, as one who is among the first to try to settle the new lands. One was isolation. They were often far from their neighbors, so that they might not see another neighbor for days on end. Town might be quite distant and road were usually little more than rutted pathways through the wilderness. Streams or rivers without bridges had to be crossed. Getting to Terre Haute meant a slog through the bottoms, if the waters were not so high and roiling to make the journey a lost cause.

He was hundreds of miles from the family and friends her left behind in KY?. It was not just physical isolation. They were in an information vacuum. They were unaware. What was going in the country? What was the news? Was there a war, who had been elected to what? More important, what was the news from home? Who died, or was born, or got married? Because of this distance post offices kept mail nearly forever, and would post lists of names of those who had mail waiting for them,. Not knowing made life all the more alone, the sense of separation acute. For some, loneliness was a cloak they donned each day.

Being isolated also meant that Crews and the others had to be self-sufficient. Each day they had to provide their own food, no markets awaited down the road. Food could be ample in season once they had a harvest or two, but before that they relied on the land, the streams and whatever animals they brought with them. Their diet would make the modern health conscious person cringe at the thought. It was unbalanced, heavy on starches and fats. Cornbread, peas, potatoes, and pork (prepared over an open fire) were the staples.

They also had to provide their own shelter. Contrary to what many might think about the emblematic log cabin, it was not the first thing on the minds of pioneers. Their first priority was getting the land ready for planting. Some pioneers might visit their land in the fall so they could girdle tree on their forested acres. Girdling, or cutting around the bark, would cause the trees to begin to die and make them easier to chop down upon their return.

Even with the strongest of backs and sharpest of axes, the pioneer usually could only clear one to four acres of land a year. Only then did the settler look to build a permanent home. There are many accounts of early pioneers in Indiana living in caves, if available, or even in hollow tree trunks. Henry Kuykendall’s family, for instance, lived for nearly a year in a lean-to tent as they prepared their land.  It is believed that their son, Daniel, the first white child born in Sugar Creek, came into the world as they were still living in the crude tent.

Oh, the life of the pioneer….

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As West Terre Haute was building itself up in the first decade of the 20th century it was briefly home to a man dedicated to building his own body.
Louis Rudolph Yanske was the son of Austrian-Bohemian immigrants Emmanuel and Fransceska (Fanny) Borovy Yanske. Emmanuel, a tailor, migrated to the United States in 1867. Fanny followed the next year. Young Louis was born in Vigo County in 1875.
Louis was a precocious child who early on showed startling capabilities and determination. Early on he decided to dedicate himself to building his small body. By the age of eight he was able to lift over 200 pounds, nearly 100 pounds more than his own body weight. Within ten years he had pushed himself so hard that increased to 600 pounds, even though he was only 5’4” and weighed only 114 pounds.

But how could his Samsonian strength serve him? Bodybuilding, the idea that one could sculpt your body to near perfection, had a long history, as exemplified by the Olympics. Modern bodybuilding in which men showed off their crafted bodies and performed feats of strength began to take shape in the late 19th century. This movement was spearheaded by the Great Sandow, a German who performed throughout Europe and was very popular in the US (He was featured in one of the very early films by Edison.)

The Great Sandow

The Great Sandow

So, Yansky followed Sandow’s lead and began performing as a strongman in 1896. He travelled the country appearing in fairs, circuses and the vaudeville circuit. He lifted weights, took on challengers, and posed in positions to show off his sculpted body. People came to marvel at his physique, gasp as he lifted 900 pounds, or simply to stare at what some perceived as a “freak.”

Yansky was a natural showman who had a knack for self-promotion. If he thought his name was too long unmentioned in the papers, he would issue challenges to other strong men to garner publicity. In 1901 he took to the newspapers to challenge two particular Terre Haute strongmen, policeman Steve Clark and Herman Prox, who worked for Hulman & Co:
“I hereby challenge any man in the city of Terre Haute to a strength contest, weight not barred, at any place within the city limits. The contest to consist of (1) 2-hand grip lift; (2) hand grip lift; (3) 3-finger lift; (4) 1-finger lift; (5) 1-hand raise over head; (6) 2-hand raise over head; (7) bending nails, etc., with hands unassisted; (8) bending iron or soft steel rods over bare forearm; (9) tearing playing cards; (10) pulling new horseshoe apart; (11) money bending; (12) shouldering with one hand; (13) holding out with one hand; (14) swinging overhead with one hand. The gate receipts to be donated to charity. I herewith deposit $20 with the sporting editor of the Gazette.
The challenge must be accepted within one week. Details to be arranged later.
Louis R. Yansky
Challenger of the World at Weight of 114 Pounds or in Proportion.”

Yansky’s challenge was accepted by Clark—partially. Clark said he would accept part of the tests of strength, but not all them. Yansky would have done of that. He responded that he was already giving the 200 pound Clark a weight advantage and his motto was “all or none” and re-issued the original challenge. Clark demurred.

Two weeks later Yansky headed to California to perform at a fair, but before he left he reminded everyone he was still willing to face-off with Clark and Prox, with the wagers to go to Union and St. Anthony hospitals.


Interestingly, the day Yansky departed, a small man from Brooklyn, NY arrived in Terre Haute with another sort of challenge of strength. H. Mack weighed only 110 pounds but he proclaimed himself a man of a remarkable power, no man could lift him off his feet into the air! His secret power of gravity was that not one, not two, not even three men could lift him off the earth. As if that was not enough, he could transmit his special power to any object he touched.
Planting himself firmly on the floor of Keith’s saloon on the west end of Wabash Avenue he took on all challengers. Among them was the saloonkeeper Keith, a strapping 200 pounder and another Hautean man of strength, Charles Denning. They could not move him. Mack announced he would remain in town for several more days, and perhaps Steve Clark might try his hands at lifting him. From whence did this special power emanate? The Gazette posited that perhaps Mack’s power regulated his weight and controlled his pulse. A more likely explanation can be found in the fact that Mack “places his fingers on the lifters neck; that seemingly roots him to the floor.” But the lifters claimed it in no way lessened their strength. Mack had departed town before Yansky returned, so the strongman did not have a chance to test his strength against the diminutive Brooklyn-ite.

As his trip to California showed, Yansky’s “job” required a lot of travel. After nearly a decade of touring, Yansky decided to step away from his performing career and start a business career. By 1906 he was living in West Terre Haute.
He was also a man possessed of a sharp, inventive mind. In 1907 he announced he had received a patent on an extension device to be attached to a gas line to produce heat and light. The device was attached to the ceiling, but was adjustable so that it could be pulled down to anywhere when in use. He said he was looking for a company to mass produce his invention. That did not happen. It was to be just one of several patents he would receive.

yansky patentBut he did start the business that was very successful. In 1907 he formed the Louis R. Yansky Reporting System, a type of early credit bureau. He issued credit reports on individuals and businesses to merchants wishing to know if potential customers were a credit risk. The agency also served as bill collectors. One can imagine the look on a late-payee when the strong man showed up at his door seeking to collect. The agency grew into a thriving, important firm for Terre Haute area businesses.
Not all went smoothly in his personal life though. 1908 Yansky sued Crawfordsville farmer Samuel Hutton for $100.000.00 for alienation of his wife’s affection. The court decided that he was wronged, but to that extent and ordered that the damages be settled for $5,000.00. Evidently his wife’s affection were not totally alienated, as it would be a dozen more years before he filed for divorce.
Though he seldom “performed,” Yansky continued to devote himself to fitness. In 1949 the 74 year old strongman recounted his daily routine to a reporter from the Saturday Spectator. He rose at 4:45 every morning to begin his two hour exercise regimen. The two hours were filled with 100 chinups, 70 pushups, weight lifting, and running 100 yards in 11 seconds, he said. It was all followed by a nice long hot bath. Still weighing only 130 pounds he credited his long life and health to “clean living, regular hours, exercise, and proper food.” No alcohol, stimulants like coffee or tea, or tobacco ever passed his lips. His diet consisted of fresh fruit, and fruit juices and “lots of milk.” He kept a daily record of his exercise.
On March 24, 1952 Louis turned on the gas water heater to prepare for a hot bath. The man who so devoted himself to health and fitness, who had received two patents for gas lighting devices, was overcome by a silent killer, carbon monoxide, when the unvented water heater in his house leaked. He was found in his bathtub, rushed to St. Anthony’s but died there

Dammit, will you people make up your minds?

macksville sign

Depending on how one viewed the size of Macksville, it was called either a hamlet or a village. Those were the designations of unincorporated areas. Bering unincorporated meant that the village or hamlet had little control over the laws it operated under, the taxes or fees the citizens, and how its lands used or organized. For Macksville it meant that Vigo county or Terre Haute exerted some type of control over its taxes, law enforcement and land use. For example, the area that is now McIlroy Avenue and runs from the National Avenue to Riggy and east to the levee was a gravel pit for the Terre Haute and if an individual or city of Terre Haute wanted to dig up other areas in Macksville not already platted it could do so.
That is just one of the reasons that some of Macksville’s leading citizens began to seek incorporation as a town in the 1880s. Some were worried that Macksville was just another town to most, one without a geographic or economic identity (there was another Macksville in Randolph County, Indiana). These were same folks pushing for not only incorporation, but a name change to West Terre Haute. This, they believed, would firmly “locate” Macksville in peoples mind and associate it with the robust Terre Haute economy. They hoped it would help encourage businesses to locate in Macksville. Still others wanted more control of the life in the village.
So, they set out to make it happen. Incorporation had to be led by individual citizens, not by a government entity. It usually began with getting enough signatures on a petition. In some cases a vote was scheduled. Then a committee was formed to put together a town charter spelling out government structure, law enforcement and fire protection services. When all that was done they applied to the county commissioners. If approved a “town was born.”
Most sources state that Macksville was incorporated as West Terre Haute in either 1888 or 1892. I do not believe that is entirely true, at least not “officially.” Here is why.
The first petition for incorporation was presented to the Vigo County Commissioners in early 1888 and was approved. The village was to have a one year trial period to test being a town. The Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail trumpeted that “Maxville [the name was often spelled that way] is immediately to be incorporated and re-christened “West Terre Haute.” The county surveyor is now preparing a map of the little city.”
There were still those in Macksville not happy with this change of name or status. They worried it might mean an increase in their taxes. As so often happens, some just were not comfortable with change or did not want another layer of government over their lives. Discontent boiled over as many viewed the new town charter as unworkable.
Eventually, a vote on whether to discontinue the incorporation’s charter and revert to village status was set for June, 1889. Interestingly, though debate over the issue was heated, the vote showed that many just did not seem to care one way or another. Only 83 people bothered to vote. The anti-incorporation forces “won” by a single vote, 42 to 41. As one editor noted “The life of West Terre Haute was [as] short as it was uneventful.”
Another meeting was called to “wind up” the affairs of “West Terre Haute.” From the results of the meeting it appears that only the “antis” appeared. It was resolved that all bills owed by the town be paid, and any surplus be “divided pro rata among those entitled to it.” It did not say who those people were. The vote was unanimous.
So things were a muddle. In January, 1890 a meeting was again called to settle once and for all the village/town’s status. But the required 2/3 of citizens were not present. Still another. Same result. Seeming things were in limbo.
That setback did not mean the incorporation boosters went quietly away in the sleepy village. In 1892 they again petitioned the commissioners to incorporate Macksville as West Terre Haute. But this time the board refused the petition due to inaccuracies in the descriptions of what land should be part of the new town. Charter proponents appealed the decision to the Vigo Superior court. In September the judge held that the descriptions should be accepted with the consent of qualified voters. An election was set for October. Evidently, it was voted down.
Another attempt was made in August, 1894. The somewhat frustrated county auditor noted this was at least the third time the incorporation had come up. Would the citizens west of the river finally make up their mind once and for all? Finally, success. “West Terre Haute, if you please. Don’t
call it Macksvllle. The citizens of the little western suburb got together on
Tuesday and voted that they were tired of being a piece of Vigo county, merely,
and wanted to be a town. And a town she Is,” noted a newspaper. The editor wondered why there had been “much trouble about West Terre
Haute putting on long pants.” He decided to cross the bridge and find out.


He talked to several people in the “new” town of West Terre Haute, heard many different views. But the one that struck him as most true was given by a older citizen of Macksville. “An old voter told me that there are four saloons
over there, and as they are within two miles of Terre Haute, they each have to
pay $250.00 city saloon license. That is good for T. H. but rough on West T. H.
The anti-saloon people over there liked it because it kept down the number of
bar-rooms; the saloon keepers did not relish paying $250 to a city a mile
away when they did not have city benefits, and then they would only have to
pay $100.00 license to a town, and receive more benefits. That is the whole thing
in a nut shell.”
Ah, much then became clear.
So, Macksville officially became West Terre Haute in 1894. But one more thing. It would take five more years before the US postal department officially recognized the name and West Terre Haute replaced Macksville as the officialostal address.


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