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.)
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.
But 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
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.
If you look at gazetteers, plat maps, or county histories from the late 19th century you will run across many small villages or hamlets that no longer exist. These were often places that sprung up along railroad stops or crossroads. Some were platted by ambitious town makers who were hoping to make a profit from their landholdings, while others just naturally grew around a business like a mill or store. They were places that mostly drew upon the trade of nearby farmers. But exigencies of life like the economy or re-routing of a road or rail line stalled their growth and stranded them on untraveled paths that left them to die on the vine. These villages just could not reach a “critical mass” to achieve growth and became ghost towns.
We tend to associate ghost towns with the old west, with tumbleweeds scurrying through the empty, dusty streets in an area where a gold mine had been played out and the merchants, miners and saloon girls moved on to the next boomtown. But Sugar Creek Township has it own examples of “ghost towns”
A prime example is Bloomtown. It was located about five miles west of West Terre Haute along what we now call the Old Paris Road. It was platted in 1858 by a young Pennsylvania native named Hiram Bloom. By 1870 it showed some promise of growth. It had a saw mill, gristmill and two stores, which did a nice business among the local farmers. Its sawmill provided work for some in the area, and lumbering joined corn and hogs as the area’s major “exports.”
In its short life Bloomtown had its small share of excitement. Perhaps because it was isolated, it became the site of several robberies. One Sunday night in September, 1870 some enterprising thieves slinked their way into town on a wagon. While the good folk of Bloomtown slept, they broke into Samuel Bloom’s store and proceeded to make off with almost $800.00 of his goods. They then headed off in the direction of Terre Haute.
When Bloom discovered the robbery he raised the alarm and a small posse of Bloomtonians joined him on the trail of the thieves. They followed the wagon tracks for a mile or two, but the villains had turned their load of stolen goods off the road into a farm field and the pursuers lost their trail. They were never caught, and Mr. Bloom’s goods were probably offloaded to an unscrupulous Terre Haute merchant.
1874 saw another robbery, but one in which the felon was eventually caught after a nearly 70 mile chase. A good looking 19 year-old West Virginian named Charles Brown who had lived in New Orleans worked his way up the Mississippi as a roustabout to St. Louis. He then set out for Cincinnati, walking across the breadth of Illinois. Tired and broke, for he said he could not find work along his path, he flopped himself down in the barn of a farmer named Ellsworth in Bloomtown. As he spread himself a bed of hay, her espied a wagon and a fine team of horses who were the pride of farmer Ellsworth.
Brown “got to studying how he would like to have them and ride to Cincinnati to start into the express wagon business.” A planned formed in his mind, and action soon ensued. He hitched up the team and headed east through Macksville and across the wagon bridge to Terre Haute and beyond.
Mr. Ellsworth went out the following morning to feed his prize team. And wagon missing. Believing the thief had headed east he telegraphed the police in Terre Haute to be on the lookout. Just to make sure, Terre Haute Police Chief Shewmaker telegraphed towns east and west along the National Road, but headed east toward Brazil with three other men in buggies in hot pursuit.
Just west of Brazil, the chief and his posse learned that their hunch was right. Witnesses told of seeing a man driving the buggy and team rapidly east. Shewmaker had to return to Terre Haute but sent one of his men, Officer Vandever, onward. With the scent of his prey in front of him, Vandever drove hard and fast. He had to change teams several times and once even climbed on a train in search of the felon. By the time he reached Plainfield he discovered another hunter had caught his game.
J.R. Painter, an ex-Marshall of Brazil, had read the telegram about the fugitive and mounted his own pursuit. Changing horses six times along the way, he stopped in Stilesville where a local blacksmith told him he had just shod a horse matching the description of the team. Of Painter went again on through Plainfield. Finally, about three miles beyond Plainfield he spied his quarry.
When Brown refused to stop, Painter pulled out his pistol and shot twice wounding him. Brown pulled the reins so hard that the horses turned over the buggy and fled across the fields. After stopping to calm the frightened horses and tie them to a fence, Painter went after the fleeing Brown. The chase did not last long. Brown, tired from his night and day of flight and wounded, finally surrendered. Painter later handed him over to Vandever, who took him back to face Vigo County justice.
The team and buggy were returned to Bloomtown. Brown went to the state prison at Jeffersonville.
By WWI, Bloomtown had all but disappeared, its buildings gone and its streets overtaken by farm fields from which they had first been carved.
The hamlet of Larimer Hill stood briefly along the National Road on the bluff jest west of West Terre Haute. It was named after W.H. Larimer, who owned a coal mine nearby. Larimer also opened a store and platted out a few lots from his farmland. The people mostly farmed and worked in the mine until it played out. For a brief period in the 1880s it even boasted a town brass band.
My family lived on Larimer Hill in the early 1960s. About the only vestiges from its heyday were a small grocery store and Zelma’s, a much loved ice cream parlor.
Liggitt grew around a railroad stop four miles west of Macksville along the [Old] Paris Road, just about a mile from Bloomtown. It appears it was never much more than a crossroads where farmers brought goods to load on the trains or to pick up mail. There are few mentions of it in history. By 1924 it seems to have only been the site of a small grocery.
Nelson, the Town That Never Was?
There was a “town” called Nelson. It appeared on a few maps in the 1870s. But was there a there really there. I have found virtually nothing about it. Old records only record it as a mail stop. The earliest maps show that a small district school was there, and that was likely the “post office.” It bewildered me a bit until I found an obscure reference that its postmaster in 1859 was Hiram Bloom, the man who platted Bloomtown. I also noted that it was it was located in Section 16, the same 640 acres as Bloomtown. Possibly Nelson was subsumed within Bloomtown, or never really became more than a crossroads with a school.
So why did these towns disappear? Many reasons. They were just too small and fragile. They were often built around farming or a mill or mine that went out of business. As travel became easier those who might have had to be content with doing business there could just as easily travel to Terre Haute or Paris. In the end they lost their “anchors,” as did Toad Hop when the mines closed, as well as the canning plant.
And would we be listing St. Mary’s as a “ghost town” without it anchor, St. Mary-of-the-Woods?
As many readers know, of all the stories I have researched and written about the history of West Terre Haute, none has haunted me like the horrendous story of the kidnapping and murder of Edythmay Caroline Dierdorf. For those who have not read it, see the links at the end of this entry.
Over the years I have tried to piece together as much of the story as possible. It has not been easy. The Terre Haute police told me they had no records prior to 1950 in their files. I searched through 20 years of newspapers from around the country, sought out books on Sing Sing and crime in New York, scrolled through census records. Over the years members of Edythmay’s family have contacted me to offer what they could, but all said it was just something her parents and siblings did not wish to talk about.
It has been much harder to find any real information about her killer, Charles Russell Dow. About a month after the Edythmay stories appeared a woman contacted me to say that she believed Dow was her father, but her mother would never talk about it. She mentioned her mother getting a packet from a New York prison, but refusing to reveal what it was about. I arranged to call her, but there was no answer.
I spent about three years trying to get access to Dow’s prison records. During email and phone conversations I was told they did not have his records, or some just never bothered to reply (I consoled myself by knowing how busy and understaffed state archives are). About a month ago I made one more try and, to my surprise, received an immediate reply. The New York State Archives held four pages of Dow’s records. I arranged to get them sent to me. Four pages of bare prison records, but enough that I think I can put a little flesh on the bones of a serial pedophile and murderer.
Charles Russell Dow was born in Hamburg, NY on February 26, 1898 to an English immigrant father and American mother. He was a small child. He left school at age 14 having only completed the fourth grade. His mother died when he was 19. He had two younger brothers. From his later job history he must have been good at math. He likely took on odd jobs and became something of a drifter. I could find no draft or military records of service in WWI. Sometime in the mid-1920s he married a woman named Hazel from Connecticut. They had a daughter. He had his daughter with him when he came to Terre Haute and ugly fate brought him and little Edythmay on that Sunday, January 27th, 1929.
He had been travelling the Midwest buying and selling radios and other small items. He headed back to the Cleveland and Detroit areas after the murder, returning to Terre Haute briefly later to pick up his three-year daughter, whom he had left at a boarding house.
I believe he and Hazel might have settled in Detroit the year after Edythmay’s murder, where he worked as an office manager and accountant for a construction firm. By 1941 they had moved to a rural area around Silver Creek in upstate New York.
Just when Dow began his long terror reign as a pedophile is unknown. Edythmay was not his first victim. Dow had been briefly jailed for rape the previous year. How many more were there over the years? But it ended two days before Christmas, 1946. He was finally caught after a series of attempted abductions and abductions in Rochester and Batavia, NY. After being convicted of 2nd degree kidnapping, sodomy and assault, he was sentenced in Genesee County Court to life in prison. It was his fourth conviction for rape. He then spent the next 23 years housed in three state prisons.
Hi first stop was the notorious Sing Sing Prison. It was there that he then confessed to killing Edythmay. He was transferred to Clinton Prison in Dannemora, NY in 1959. His mug shot reveals an ordinary looking man, but one who looks “creepy,” but that may because it is a mug shot and we know his story. The records show that he was 5’4” and weighed 150 pounds. An intelligence test placed him at the average range IQ level of 106. He was a moderate drinker but did not use drugs.
Immediately upon arriving at Clinton he requested a job with as few other inmates nearby as possible. It was well known that other inmates, even the most hardened killers, detested child molesters and they were subject to beatings or killings. He was a reader and in 1962 he requested to mail some of his books home. He sought permission to purchase a guitar from another inmate in 1964, but the request was denied. Later that year he accused two other inmates named woods and Martinez of stealing a can of salmon, coffee, milk, cigars and 3 cans of spam from his cell. Prison guards who were present during the supposed theft said it did not occur. Dow then requested another prisoner, a jailhouse lawyer, draft a writ for him, but that too was denied.
Those may have been factors in Dow’s last transfer in 1964. This time to Attica. There he was “Discharged by Death” on April 9, 1970, one year before the famous inmate riots there, and exactly 41 years and two days after Edythmay’s body was found.
If West Terre Haute and its people were looked down upon by many (and they were), there was no place more reviled in Vigo County than Taylorville. Taylorville was quite literally built on a dump, and most viewed those who lived there as little more than human debris. It and its people were seen as the flotsam that washed up along the west bank of the Wabash across from Terre Haute. According to many, Taylorville was merely the home to ragpickers, thieves, whores and the diseased. It was 60 acres of hell.
Taylorville is located south of the National Road along the bottom lands between Terre Haute and West Terre Haute. It was sometimes also known as Dresser and Central Terre Haute. It is unknown whether it was called Central Terre Haute because it was along the center of Terre Haute or because it lay between Terre Haute and West Terre Haute. But Taylorville is the name that stuck. It was supposedly named after a “Capt.” Taylor, a farmer who lived on Ferguson Hill near West Terre Haute. What exactly was Taylor’s connection to the hamlet that bears his name, or how he became a “Captain,” is unknown.
The first settlers were squatters, people looking for some kind of home. The place left to them was near the Terre Haute dump. They built their crude houses from whatever scraps of wood, tin or brick that washed up on the river bank. They scrounged the dump for food to feed their children and scraps of metal, rags or other items they could sell to eke out a sort of living.
Taylorville’s plight was highlighted by the Indiana State Board of Health in March, 1913, shortly after the Great Flood of 1913.. It called the place “The Peril of Terre Haute.” The article described the “hovels” in which people lived and how they were often driven from those ramshackle homes several times a year by flooding. The people, it said, “were of the American gypsy type” who subsisted as “ragpicker, push-cart, slop-wagon driver” types.
To eat, they gathered anew with each new dumping of discards from restaurants and stores. “It is a familiar sight when the dump has received a new supply of garbage to see men, women and children…. delving arm deep in such material for food for their tables. Half-rotten oranges, and other fruits, pieces of bread soaked in the slops from some hotel, decaying scraps of meat—all are seized with avidity and carried away to the filthy places, their homes, where they eat, live and have their living.”
In short, they lived amid filth and squalor. People and animals often lived under the same shaky roofs, sharing the spaces with “countless billions of flies.” Sanitation was all but unknown. Their water came from the river or fetid wells. Disease was their constant companion. The report particularly noted widespread gonorrhea and syphilis, even among the young, in these “derelicts of humankind.”
Interestingly, though the authors of the report felt badly about the people of Taylorville and how they lived, they seemed almost more concerned about how the “derelicts” might effect, or infect, the good people of Terre Haute. Taylorville was a “constant menace to the public and a positive disgrace.”
The article ended on the “hopeful” note that there was even a movement afoot to condemn all of Taylorville, move its people out and the land turned into a park. Indeed, there was discussion of creating a riverside park there at the time, but nothing came of it.
The condition of Taylorville was noted by many in Terre Haute, and some charitable organizations sought to help. Mainly driven by women, these organizations tried to do what they could by teaching hygiene, getting medicines to the area, and offering advice to mothers. But they were hamstrung by an indifferent society and government which somehow saw the conditions merely as the fault of those who lived there.
But there were those who take advantage of Taylorville. Politicians eager to rig elections always visited the area to buy votes and the voter fraud was so rampant that it would have made a Chicago ward boss blush. There was scarcely an election in Terre Haute that was not followed by accusations of cheating by the losing side. Pimps prowled the street seeking young women. Those who could not afford the prices of Terre Haute brothels would slink to the tawdrier dens in Taylorville.
Prohibition was a boon to Taylorville, and may have helped spur its economy. Officials estimated that over 100 bootleggers cooked up their brew there, likely accounting for more than half of the illicit booze concocted in Terre Haute. Money follows crime as surely as crime follows money, and some of it trickled down to the people of Taylorville. In a previous blog on bootlegging I mention “peck” Anderson. Peck, who moved from Taylorville to buying and selling houses in west Terre Haute (and bootlegging),. His brother Joe ran a store and was known as the “Mayor of Taylorville.”
By the 1930s conditions had improved a bit in Taylorville. After all, they could not have gotten any worse than they had been earlier.
The WPA Federal Writers Project hired unemployed writers and others to, among other things, do reports on each county, its towns, and its history. Taylorville, noted one such report, was peopled those who were “entirely American. And are noted by their hatred for negroes. No colored person is allowed in the town under any circumstances.” Teachers there felt they could not teach the Civil War history because of having to mention Emancipation.
The report, written in 1936, expounded on the sad history of Taylorville, but noted that some residents were now being employed in factories in Terre Haute or in other WPA works projects. Conditions were improving.
It listed the bare essentials of life in the hamlet. There were no monuments or parks. There was an elementary school, five grocery or general merchandise stores, three churches. The only “industries were the Valentine Meat packing plant and an auto wrecking yard. About 700 people lived there.
What all these reports failed to see were the real people. They saw conditions. They saw diseased bodies, but not the person. They saw the struggles, not the causes. They did not look into the faces and see people who were trying their best despite poverty, lack of education and resources. They did not see, or take note, of those trying to better themselves, or helping others, as the grocer who carried people and their bills so that their families might eat.
Do you have stories of Taylorville to show the fuller story? If so, please Email me.
It was warm for early March as the evening shift reported for work at the Viking mine. It was a Thursday. March 2, 1961. Temperatures in the 60s may have given some fleeting thoughts of an early Spring. Others might have been thinking ahead to the weekend. The new Elvis movie, G.I. Blues, was playing at the Garfield, and there was a Tony Curtis film at the Grand. Maybe a fight with their wives was still gnawing at them, or how far the next paycheck would go? One thought they all likely had pushed deep into their minds was that, being a miner, this might just be the day they would not walk back out of the dark pits in which they worked. Some may have taken one last deep breath redolent of the Wabash River just 200 yards away.
The Viking had opened in 1948. The coal that the miners blasted, hauled and loaded was sent by conveyor belt to feed the ravenous maw of the power plant nearby. Though a bit “gassy” it was considered a relatively safe mine, with only one fatality in its 13 years. It was already a sort of relic though. Where there had once been 35 deep-shaft mines in the Vigo County area, there were now only two.
It must be understood that mines, especially deep-shaft mines, were often a catacombs of underground rooms. Abandoned, played-out room or shafts often lay dormant next to active ones. In the old shafts methane gas, sometimes called “green devil gas” by some miners could seep and build-up. The wall, floors, ceilings that separate these rooms can be thin and prone to crumbling, thus making them an ongoing hazard that might collapse and trap miners. That sort of thing happened in the mines of West Terre Haute in the past. Or, if miners are lucky, the walls can be a fortress against a collapse or disaster in another shaft.
The miners were divided into two crews. Twenty-two sent into one shaft, the other 22 into another. Into one shaft went Burl and Jack Gummere, father and son miners from Terre Haute. Jack normally worked the third shift, but requested a change when another second shift miner failed to show. And Joseph Sanquenetti of Rosedale, whose brother John was a trained member of one of the mine rescue teams. And James L. Norton from West Terre Haute, an army vet who, with wife Lyda, had a small daughter named Julia Ann. Also in the crew was David Hale, who had had lost his father 30 years earlier in a mine explosion. They began their work.
Their work proceeded normally for hours. Then, at about 7:45 on that March evening, the first omen appeared when an air gauge chart showed a drop. Supervisors rang the phones down in the shaft. No one answered.
There had been an explosion nearly two and a half miles down the shaft. The shock wave from the blast hurtled northward, a flash fire rose and quickly flamed out. The explosion tore tons and tons of coal and earth from their banks, twisting metal and filling open spaces. Amid the debris lay 22 miners, alive seconds before, now dead. So fast and violent had been the explosion that nearly all lay where they had stood a second before. A few may have crawled a step or two away, but that was all.
Upon realizing what happened the emergency calls went out. Ambulances and doctors were called, mine rescue teams summoned. As always happened in mine disasters word spread quickly and terrified, fearful families rushed to the mine. Whose fathers, sons or brothers had survived, whose did not? The news was grim.
John Sanquenetti went in with a rescue team, knowing his brother might be in there. He had been working in the other shaft and did not know what happened until he and the others miners were ordered to return to the surface. “It was like a tomb,” he wrote later, “Everything was charred and covered with coal dust.” The explosion tossed around coal moles, ventilator shafts and shuttle cars around like they were so much confetti. It did not take long for the realization that to sink in that they would find only the dead.
And so began the soul-torturing process of making the mine give up its dead. One by one the victims were brought out. So charred and twisted the bodies that only one miner was recognizable by sight. For the others, it would be the belt buckles or wallets or other personal items that would speak their name for them.
Finally, around midnight, the last body was brought out. Twenty-two bodies in all. The Viking Mine explosion took its unwanted, grim place as the second worst mining disaster in Indiana history. The grieving began.
The next week would bring investigations, incriminations, sorrow.
And 22 funerals which would be attended by 22 widows and 29 now fatherless children and many, many other mourners.
Among the mourners were the survivors who had to stop and ponder the meaning of chance or fate. Who asked the question of why. Men like Linton Fisher of Clinton who was off work that week on doctor’s orders. Or Robert Forbes of Shelburn who was alive because a spat with his wife had caused him to miss work. Or Norman Price of West Terre Haute who was shifted away from the fatal shaft into the other.
Families were left to try to figure out how to live through the future they always hoped would never come. Among them was Rose Ann McGaughy who told how her husband Max had only recently returned to work. She had been working part time to help save money for a new house for the family, which included a son and daughter, but “Now the plans mean nothing.”
It would be wrong to say that there was a bootlegger on every street in West Terre Haute. But the town that prior to Prohibition had many more saloons than churches had its fair share, and more. It was, after all, a thirsty town. Even before Prohibition there did not seem to be enough legal hours in the day to slake the town’s thirst. Town marshals were constantly on the prowl to enforce closing laws, as in 1904 when Marshal Ramsey Gess went on a crusade to dry up illegal sales.
The subject of bootleggers (the term is thought to originate from the days when sailors would hide contraband in their tall boots to spirit a little comfort onto their ships for the long sea journey) came up during a recent oral history with C. Joseph Anderson. Joe, as he is known, is a prominent attorney, legislator and judge from West Terre Haute. He readily talked about his father “Peck” Anderson being a noted bootlegger. Peck was something of an entrepreneur. He owned several businesses, including a saloon, and was an early example of a house flipper.
Though I had long heard that Peck distilled and sold his own booze, I was a little shocked to hear about one of the town’s other noted bootleggers, Acle Ellingsworth. Acle, you see, was father-in-law to both my uncle Art Chrisman and my aunt Eileen Ellingsworth. I knew Acle as only a man sitting quietly at gatherings. To hear that this taciturn man had an “infamous” past was quite a surprise.
I had planned to visit Aunt Eileen anyway, but I drove immediately to see her. Now you must understand that my aunt is one of the sweetest ladies on earth. She is loath to speak or think ill of anyone. I assumed she would say little about it, or even deny it.
Almost my first words to her were, “Aunt Eileen, you never told me you were a bootlegger’s daughter-in-law!” To my surprise, she did not look surprised or embarrassed. Instead, she almost beamed as she replied, Yes, didn’t you know that?”
She told me the story with a certain amount of relish. Acle, indeed, was a bootlegger. Being a tinsmith, it was nothing for him to whip up a still in his shed and set about being a minor Jack Daniels. He was not a gangster she averred. He made and sold small batches of whiskey, mainly to sell or give to his neighbors, or for his own consumption. He was not one who distilled great amounts to sell to rumrunners or supply a string of speakeasies, of which there were many in Vigo County. Some just up the street from his Paris Avenue home. And she proudly said, “He never used any money he made bootlegging for himself. He would use it to help out neighbors or family in need.” I almost thought she was describing a latter day Robin Hood, but if my Aunt Eileen tells you something, you know she believes it to be true.
There were other small time “leggers” in West Terre Haute. Several times a month local papers would tell of another arrest of a West Terre Haute bootlegger. There was Andy Harper, who was sentenced to 30 days in jail for concocting his own potent potables, Leonard Hollobaugh who arrested for selling alcohol to 3 teenagers, one of whom was shot and killed as they raced down Fruitridge Avenur in attempt to evade the police, and even a woman, Helen Kintz.
Like Peck and Acle, the small timers were mainly being entrepreneurial. But there was a much darker side to Prohibition.
Regular readers know that I believe Prohibition to have been an ill-conceived, benighted, stupid and foolhardy attempt at social engineering. Foisted upon the majority by oft-times honestly concerned, but by a sometimes holier-than-thou vocal minority, it was not only an abject failure, but a disaster for the nation. (At this point do you get the feeling I do not think much of Prohibition?).
There are many reasons that, as a professional historian, I take this view. One is that the amendment immediately made millions of Americans, those who drank and those who made booze, criminals. Millions who had previously respected the law, became instant lawbreakers. Debates still rage as to how much this taste of disdain for the law effected future generations. If one winked at prohibition laws as one sipped a cocktail, what laws would one disregard in the future?
The other major reason Prohibition was a disaster was the role in played in the rise of organized crime as we know it today. Yes, there were loosely organized gangs throughout America before Prohibition. But they were local. Prohibition was the crazy glue that cemented local gangs into a national web of organized crime. Of course, there were gang rivalries and untold slaughter along the way (for a fine history of this in Chicago see the excellent new book by Jonathan Eig, Get Capone), but ultimately the cooler gangland bosses learned to divide territories and work together. Thus was born modern organized crime (which, by the way only got worse nationally because J. Edgar Hoover did not believe existed until too late because he was too busy chasing supposed Commies).
And this fitful rise of gangs and violence also played out on the street of West Terre Haute during Prohibition.
In July, 1926, two West Terre Haute bootleggers, Oscar Moore and Alek Leclerq, were snatched off South Seventh Street. They were released the next day but returned home mum about what happened. They knew silence was not only golden, but their key to survival. Speculation was that they may have hijacked a load of booze belonging to a powerful, terroristic St. Louis gang known as the Egan Rats.
In August, the still breathing Moore was speeding along a road in south Chicago with two companions, a Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Ronan. When police stopped them they found two pistols and a shotgun. They also found 60 gallons of illegal booze that the trio admitted they were transferring from Indiana (from the West Terre Haute area?) to gangs in Chicago.
Ronan, it was quickly leaned, was an alias for longtime criminal Joseph Roman. Roman’s criminal career began with a stint in an Ohio reformatory in 1908. He was a well-known safecracker (he was credited with teaching that art to “Henry Fernekes, midget bandit”) who took up rum-running. His wife, Josephine Edna Akers, formerly a waitress in Terre Haute, claimed she did not know of his past as they had only been married a scant time before in Sullivan. Moore told police he lived at 20 S. Sumner in West Terre Haute. Jail awaited the trio, whom Terre Haute police claimed were part of a gang of “rum runners and hi-jackers whose activities have been numerous here in recent months.”
Thus was West Terre Haute a minor pivot point in the gangland empires.