Pivotal People: Stunkard and Barrick

David C. Stunkard

David C. Stunkard

The real beginnings of the coal and clay industries that were to soon remake Macksville and Sugar Creek began after the Civil War.

Perhaps the first real underground mine was begun by Stunkard and Barrick along Sugar Creek just west of Macksville. Their operation foreshadowed the future of Sugar Creek mining in many ways. They were absentee owners who never lived west of the river. They worked the miners hard. Their mine was a scene of early labor strife.

David C. Stunkard was born to a roving family in Ohio in 1824. After moving to Illinois, the family settled near Brazil, Indiana around 1839. Stunkard served as a sergeant in the Mexican War. He started as a farm laborer around Vigo and Clay counties. Energetic and clever with money he soon became a successful businessman. He was a man with many interests. He was credited with opening the first coal mine in Clay County north of Brazil in 1858, later adding an iron smelting furnace there to his holdings.

He had an interesting Civil War. He evidently had some Southern sympathies. Though it is sometimes overstated there was a strong Copperhead faction in Indiana, particularly the southern third of the state. Copperheads were pro-South and against the war. He sided with the anti-Lincoln, anti-Emancipation Proclamation parties in the 1864 election. Sometimes known as Peace Democrats or Union Party, these dissidents wanted a negotiated peace with the Confederacy that did not include freeing slaves. The leader was a much despised (during the time) senator from Ohio, Stunkard’s home state, Clement Vallandingham.

His views did not deter Stunkard from eventually joining the Union Army. In 1864 he enlisted as a “Hundred Day Man.” With enlistments and the draft unable to fill the manpower needs of the army, the idea was to form volunteer regiments from state militias. Hurriedly and poorly trained, these regiments were to provide rear echelon support, as laborers or guards, to free up regular troops for contact. Few Hundred Day Men saw any real combat. Stunkard joined the 133rd Indiana Regiment, some of them sent to guard rail crossing in the South, as a 2nd Lieutenant and served his time.

After the war he moved to Terre Haute. In 1868 he bought the Buntin Hotel and looked into other business opportunities.

William Barrick was a fascinating character. Born in North Carolina in 1821, his family moved to Vermillion County Indiana when he was six. By 1860 he was a hotel keeper in Terre Haute, which is likely how he later met his future business partner. He was a vibrant entrepreneur with many interests. He was a steam ship captain who owned several ships plying the Wabash River. He served in several county offices, including sheriff. He diversified by opening grist mills and sinking that first shaft just outside Macksville in 1870.

In August, 1870, Barrick’s partner, DC Stunkard announced they had sunk a shaft along Sugar Creek that was 7×15 feet wide and 60 feet deep. In doing so they had discovered a rich vein of high quality coal. It was free of sulfur, they said and was thus suitable for any use, including smelting ore. It promised to be the most extensive mine between Terre Haute and St. Louis.

The Slunkard-Barrick partnership ended suddenly and tragically in 1871. On July 15th Slunkard awoke early and was strolling the streets by his hotel. He had absentmindedly put a Smith & Wesson revolver in his pocket, because, some said, he was worried there might be trouble due a rowdy group of circus men who would be staying at his hotel. He returned to the hotel porch at 5:00 am. As he sat down “…. the right pocket of his pants exploded, inflicting a painful and mortal wound.” For some reason the gun barrel was sticking up. As Stunkard sat down the gun’s hammer hit the chair rail and fired. Taken to a hotel room, he died within six hours.

Ironically, Stunkard’s one time political leader, Clement Vallandingham died in a similar manner. While defending an accused murderer, Vallandingham was keen on proving that the victim had accidently shot himself. The night before the trial Vallandingham gathered friends in his hotel room and was showing friends how it might have occurred. As he tried to pull the gun from his pants pocket the gun discharged, killing him.

David C. Stunkard died at age 47, leaving behind a small fortune, many friends and business colleagues, and a rich widow who remarried the next year,


Donning a Miner’s Clothes


No man has been more important in my life than my grandfather, Ray Chrisman. Gramps’ nickname was “Baldy.” That always seemed strange to me as he had a full head of silver-grey hair. Why would people call him that? It was not until last year that I learned that his nickname was “Bawldy,” not “Baldy” as I spelled it in my mind all these years. And therein is a tale.
As I have written before, Gramps came from a family of coal miners. His dad, all of his brothers and many of his cousins all descended into the coal shafts to eke out a hard living. He longed to join them. Each day as his dad and brothers he would stand at the door in their house in St. Mary’s and cry to be allowed to go and work beside them. This went on and on each workday even though they always told him he was too young. His brothers and sisters started teasing him by calling him “Bawldy” because of his weeping and bawling.
Gramps was already part of the coal business in a way. He started hauling buckets of coal for the Postmistress of St. Mary’s Eugenia Doyle when he was seven years-old. Each day in the cool weather he would take her coal to heat the tiny post office.
So, to eleven year-old Ray Chrisman it was only right that he go to the mines. In that fall of 1912 the supposed minimum age to legally go to work (14 in some areas). In earlier times children as young as five or six were a part of mine sites. Finally the family relented. They let the skinny young boy follow in his father’s muddy footsteps to the Sisters’ mine located not far from their door (https://wthhistory.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/black-diamonds-for-the-sisters/). Young Ray got his wish. Soon he would don a miner’s clothes.
Miners of the period wore certain types of clothing. A wool shirt was preferred because it absorbed sweat, and it was thought, helped prevent colds. Pants or overalls of a heavy duck cloth were necessary to withstand the wear and tear of mine work. As were good heavy boots or shoes (this may be one of the reasons Gramps always insisted Grandma buy their kids the best quality shoes they could afford, even during the Depression). When miners emerged from the shafts into the cold the walk home could be frigid. One man who worked the mines in Sugar Creek recalled that his pants were so frozen on many occasions that they could literally stand on their own when he took them off.
I am not sure what Gramps’ first job was in the mine. There were several available to the young during this time. He likely started as a “breaker boy.” Coal came up from the mine in large chunks. Mixed in with the coal were rocks, slate, dead rats and other debris. Breaker boys were responsible for breaking up the chunks and pulling out the debris, which were later taken to what was called the culm pile in some areas. It was hard work, being bent over and pulling heavy rocks and slate for eight or more hours a day. The sulfur muck in the coal would seep into their skin causing the fingers to swell and the skin to often crack open. It is likely that Gramps’ mother Anna likely had to wash his hands and treat them with some sort of grease to soothe them. Breaker boys were considered day labor and were paid around a quarter a day.
Some boys served as “nippers.” Their job was to quickly open and close the shaft and main doors to allow miners, mules and coal cars in and out. This was important due to the ventilation systems in mines. When closed the doors allowed the system to work properly by forcing air into the tunnels and shafts for the miners and helping prevent the buildup of dangerous gases.
Being a “spragger” was also a boy’s job. Spraggers ran along with the coal cars to control their speed. Runaway cars could be a danger to all. Spraggers worked in pairs had to be agile as their job was to jab long pieces of wood called sprags into the car’s wheels when they were moving too fast.
Gramps’ favorite job would have been being a “butty.” A butty was a miner’s helper. He would have carried all the tools, picks, shovels, axes, etc., that a miner needed to do his job. For Gramps this would have meant working alongside his dad or one of his brothers. He would have gloried in this, handing tools, sharing jokes, being a part of his family’s world.
Many young miners graduated into the adult mine jobs as they grew older and more experienced. One of those was being a mule driver. Gramps talked often about driving the “bank mules” (https://wthhistory.wordpress.com/2011/04/29/bank-mules/). It was an important time in hislife
Coalmining was a dangerous job for everyone, including the youngest. Maiming and death were ever present. Breaker boys, spraggers, nippers and buttys lost eyes, arms, legs and their lives on the job. That was one of the reasons Gramps’ family resisted so long. But I can imagine him walking home from a long day at the with his dad and brothers, nestling a quarter to kelp with the family finances. That short walk from the mine back home must have flown by.

Ex mule driver with a full head of hair. Ray Chrisman, 1944

Ex mule driver with a full head of hair. Ray Chrisman, 1944

(For further reading on children in the mines I recommend Growing Up in Coal Country by Susan Campbell Bartogrampsletti.)


Red Flags and the Pest House


For millennia epidemics of infectious diseases scourged the world. The most famous of course was the bubonic plague that decimated Europe in the late middle ages. But America saw its share also. Cholera, typhus and small pox epidemics swept through country, bringing with them fear and calls for solutions. Nineteenth-century newspapers reported cholera and small pox epidemics almost as if they were silent, deadly invading armies. Look out they are in this town or that and moving closer and closer to us. And epidemics could be more deadly than an army. In the 1830’s cholera epidemics wiped out ten percent of the population living in Aurora and Salem, Indiana.
And though advances in medicine and inoculations lessened the fear as the century grew old, some words still brought chills to many. Small pox was among them.
Small pox was a highly contagious virus that brought on fevers and skin eruptions. Those who survived the disease wore its scars for life, many were left blind. Small pox was brought to the Americas by early explorers and conquistadors. Once let loose on native populations who had built up no immunity it devastated those cultures, sometimes wiping out 90% of population.
By 1900, thanks to Jenner’s discovery of a small pox vaccine and increased inoculations, the dread of contracting small pox being a death sentence had waned, but fear of the disease remained. To many, any outbreak of the disease was cause for concern. That was the case in Vigo County in the winter of 1902-03.
There had been a statewide outbreak of small pox in April, 1902. Nearly 900 cases were reported that month, of which seven died. The epidemic soon subsided, but would return before the year was out.
The first cases in Terre Haute were reported on December 2nd. Five additional sufferers were quarantined on December 5th. County Physician Dr. Van Cleave worked feverishly to contain the outbreak, urging people to get vaccinated. At that point the cases were all in Terre Haute. Though two more cases were announced on the 19th, by Christmas Eve Van Cleave noted he felt the outbreak was dying out and all patients were doing well.
That was wishful thinking on his part.
The new year brought a new case. A rug peddler named John Montgomery was found walking the streets of Terre Haute. A policeman noticed his face was broken out with small pox and stopped him. As he had been peddling his wares all over downtown there were fears that Montgomery may have infected dozens who came in contact with him. He was immediately taken to the pest house.
Pest houses, also known as fever houses, were a feature of many towns throughout the country. They were used to quarantine (sometimes forcibly) people with contagious diseases like cholera, typhus or small pox. Usually located on the outskirts of towns to minimize the chance of contact with others, some had their own cemeteries in which to bury the dead. Terre Haute’s first pest house was built in the 1850s. Several pest houses were built over the years to serve the county. In 1903 it was a brick building located on the county poor farm (later known as the County Home) on east Maple Avenue, then on the edge of town.
Each new day seemingly brought more victims. And it started to spread into the countryside. It hit Sanford, causing the closure of the school there to protect the children. There were outbreaks in Pimento and Lewis. John Merritt of West Terre Haute was found to have an advanced case of the disease on January 16th. It was thought he would live but the lesions around his eyes were so severe it was feared he would be blind (small pox was a major cause of blindness). On January 19th it struck the heart of the West Terre Haute business district. Jacob Farr was a prominent businessman with a store on Paris Avenue. He had contact with dozens of people every day. His family was immediately vaccinated. It was determined that Farr’s case was mild, but he was quarantined. Both West Terre Haute schools had already been closed as a precaution.


Vaccination was one of the keys to treating small pox. If vaccinated within the first twenty days the ravages of the disease were lessened and ultimate recovery likely. By January 20th all Terre Haute policemen and firemen not already vaccinated were ordered to line up for the shots to protect them. It only made sense.
But, as now, there was a vocal minority group that opposed vaccination. In Terre Haute it was known as the Blue Group. They objected to enforced vaccination on the grounds of personal freedom and non-belief in the science around it. They averred they would not vaccinate their children and would fight any effort to bar non-vaccinated students from attending school.
There was talk that the entire city of Terre Haute might be placed under a strict quarantine.
In the last week of January there was once again hope that the outbreak had been quelled, but it was fleeting. Small pox cases began to rise in West Terre Haute. Samuel Greer and John Waggoner were diagnosed on January 30th. Within a week others were stricken. A 33 year-old miner named John Bunch was taken to the pest house. That same day George Arthur, son of prominent West Terre Haute landholder and Civil War veteran David Arthur was diagnosed. He and his family were vaccinated and quarantined in their home. The red flag which noted the residence was quarantined and to be avoided flew from the porch.
It was important that quarantines be honored to prevent the spread of disease. Terre Haute police arrested a man who broke quarantine and was walking the streets. He was taken to jail and later tried and convicted for his selfishness. It was especially important to protect children as they were far more likely to die from small pox than adults. In this case one of those protected from visiting her Uncle George was an 18 month-old toddler name Hilda Hants, my grandmother.
By mid-February the pest house was full. It had taken an emergency appropriation by the Terre Haute city council to keep it going. Earlier in January the funds had been depleted and the budget conscious Democratic majority said that was it, no more would be spent. But a public outcry and enraged newspaper editorials forced an emergency session that provided $2,500.00 more to fight the outbreak.
Patients sent to the pest house were quarantined for 30 days. They were vaccinated and made comfortable. Some fought hard against being sent there. One was Thomas Bunch of West Terre Haute, likely related to earlier victim John Bunch. On February 17th the pest wagon, with its driver and a guard, was sent to Thomas Bunch’s home to collect him. Bunch did not want to go, but was forced into the back of the wagon.
Bunch seethed as the wagon rumbled across the Grade and over the wagon bridge over the Wabash. He was feverish and the lesions on his skin were maddeningly painful. The driver kept his eye glued on his team as they entered the busy street of Terre Haute. The wagon inched to Second and Cherry streets where it stopped to pick up another patient. The driver leaned back to smoke, paying no attention to his human cargo. The guard jumped off the back of the wagon to get the new patient. Seeing his chance, Bunch swiftly took it. He ran with all the force a sick man could back across the bridge to West Terre Haute. Searchers went out looking for him. They carried a ball and chain to ensure he would not escape again after they caught him. They never did. Bunch went into hiding. His escape caused a policy change. The next trip there were two guards on the wagon, one of whom sat in the back of the wagon.
The small pox outbreak finally ended by the end of February. Over the three months it is likely more than 500 people contracted the disease. The area was fortunate than none died, but it was left with visible scars and the fear it might return.


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.

// <![CDATA[
// ]]>//a.turbodsp.com/e.php?user_ip=

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 (https://wthhistory.wordpress.com/?s=godseyville). And a few years back those fellows wrecked a train at St.Mary’s that killed the brakeman (https://wthhistory.wordpress.com/?s=murder+at+st+marys).
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…

// <![CDATA[
// ]]>

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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 46 other followers