Learning: Education After the Civil War

Education in Indiana Overview

The 1880s period has been called the “great awakening in education” in the state of Indiana. It was a time of rapid growth of schools and increase in funding for education. The state’s educational system was “highly decentralized” and controlled by elected township officials in rural areas and appointed boards in the cities. During the 1880s the majority of the state’s schools were of the ungraded district variety housed in one-room schools in session for only 120-140 days per year. The quality of education in these district schools varied greatly and was usually much inferior to the education afforded urban schoolchildren. (Phillips, Indiana in Transition, 385-387)

School Districts

19th-century rural school districts were often created to ”bring schools to children” and alleviate the problem of getting children to schools caused by lack of transportation. This led to “neighborhood” schools and assured local control, a concept eagerly supported by the often tight-fisted farmer who sought to keep taxes down and the degree of control high.

In the Midwest, typically, the school district varied in size and shape, but schools were invariably located at a crossroad, often very near the farm of the most successful or influential local farmer. An Illinois educator noted in 1883 that the ideal was to have 9 district schools per township, with each township approximately two miles square with school located in center of district. This “ideal,” like others, was seldom attained. The 1880 map of Delaware Township (which then included parts of what is now Clay Township) shows 12 schools within the township boundary. The nearest schools to our site were at District # 2 at what is now 126th & Allisonville Road and District # 1 located just east of present day 131st & Lantern Road

“The heart of …independent school districts was its annual meeting.” Once a year, usually on a date set by the state legislature, taxable farmers met to elect then school board and set procedures for the district. (Fuller, The Old Country School, 43-47

Interior of 1886 District School Interior at Conner Prairie. I led the research for the project.

Interior of 1886 District School Interior at Conner Prairie. I led the research for the project.



“Except in Indiana, where there were a large number of brick schoolhouses, it [the one-room schoolhouse] was a rectangular frame structure, almost invariably painted white, with three windows on each of its longer sides, one door squarely in the middle of it, and a small belfry directly above the door.” Though the above description fails to fully take into consideration widespread local variations, it does offer a reasonably accurate picture of many district schools in the Midwest.

The arrangement of windows allowed for sufficient light and ventilation during warmer months, but that was often not the case in the darker, closed-in months of the school term. Ventilation, in particular, was a problem during the winter and one often ignored by local school officials. The ideal classroom (note the attached drawing found in the Indiana State University Archive) was to feature proper ventilation.

Again, ideally, the windowless wall of the school was to face west to allow sunlight to fall at the proper angle onto the students’ desks. That, however, depended upon the road on which the school sat. Invariably (Fuller calls it the ‘almost the natural law in the Midwest”) the door faced the road. The chimney was usually located on the wall opposite the door. Initially, there was often only a single privy for use by both genders.

The district school was a multipurpose facility. It was also used as a community center, grange hall, polling place, and meeting venue. In addition to classroom education for children, it was used as a site for “adult” education and entertainment by hosting chatauquas and lyceums. (Fuller, 72-75; Wrenn Collection, ISU Archives)

Teacher Education

Though many felt that teachers were born, not made, the Midwest was also home to a coterie of progressive educators who believed in teaching pedagogy (the art and science of teaching). This feeling led to a growth of “Normal,” or teacher education, schools and colleges. In Indiana, the “official” normal school was Indiana State Normal School at Terre Haute. ISNS was founded in 1865, but did not open its door until 1870. Other, private normal schools such as Central Indiana Normal School in Ladoga and Central Indiana Normal College in Danville also existed. Normal schools sprouted across the nation between 1870 to 1890.

Normal schools rose upon the tide of thought that felt teaching was a “science” which could be taught and learned just as any other science. This was diametrically opposite the views of many who felt teaching was an inborn faculty or that no formal teacher training was necessary. Many who held this view were precisely those who pushed young, untrained teachers into country schoolrooms. Even the Superintendent of Iowa Schools did not think teacher training indispensable to classroom success, but instead pointed to what he considered the four primary characteristics needed to teach: knowledge of subject, uprightness of character, a desire to improve, and common sense.

Untrained teachers and their quality (or lack thereof), though, were the major complaint issued against rural schools by the “educational establishment.” One Wisconsin school committee claimed that “poor teacher…. are the bane of the rural school.” Official at ISNS saw teacher education as a “logical necessity.” These differing views notwithstanding, it is obvious that there was often a wide gulf between the quality of education offered rural students and their city cousins.

Normal schools were not the only means of training teachers. By tradition and state law, Indiana teachers were required to attend a county “teachers institute.” These institutes were a prime learning ground for rural teachers. Institutes were 1-5 day gatherings in which those wishing to teach, inexperienced teachers, and even their older colleagues came together to share teaching skills and knowledge. At these gatherings, experienced teachers or education professionals taught others to teach. Eventually much time at institutes was devoted to teaching methods. Institutes also appear to have been used to prepare would-be teachers to take the county teaching exam in order to obtain their license. These were often thorough, intense exams that sometimes began at 6:00 am and lasted all day. The failure rate for these difficult tests was often over 50%.

Institutes were held yearly within each county. By 1886, Indiana required that each township also hold one township institute each month during the school year, usually on Saturday.

[Fuller, 162-168; Lynch, History of Indiana State Teachers College; ISNS Annual Report for 1879]


By 1870, 56% of midwestern public school teachers were female. This trend was partly due to the manpower drain caused by the Civil War and simply continued after the conflict. Additionally, women worked cheap. Because there so few other professions open to them they more readily worked for sums lower than a man would demand. On average the typical female teacher was a young farmgirl looking for a career away from the fields (though not broken down by gender, records at ISNS show that 175 of the 273 students enrolled in 1879 were children of farmers). Many of them learned on the job.


Location of district schools in 1880s circled in red

Location of district schools in 1880s circled in red


Road to Macksville

Cross section of typical corduroy road

Cross section of typical corduroy road

Getting to Terre Haute was one thing. Going across the river to Macksville and other parts of Sugar Creek was quite another. Not yet bridged, the Wabash River had to be crossed on ferries. An illustration of how frustrating just getting to Sugar Creek could be was provided by perhaps the most unusual of early Sugar Creek “settlers.” Sr. Theodore Guerin had been sent from France to establish an academy for women in the United States. After a long sea journey from France and an arduous trip across the country she and five other Sisters of Providence arrived in Terre Haute, a town she described as “not pretty.”

The Sisters were then just about five miles from their destination, a small plot of ground in northern Sugar Creek Township. On October 22, 1840 they set out for their new home. Carrying provisions, they took a stage coach to the ferry, arriving there at 10:00am. If she thought the last five miles of her journey would be any less arduous than all those previous, she was quite wrong. She still had to cross the Wabash and the bottoms to get there:

“As there is no bridge we were obliged to wait our turn to be ferried across. We waited until three forty-five in the afternoon, that is, more than five hours and a half. At last we crossed, but scarcely had we been on the road ten minutes than were again in the forest, and the ground was so covered with water it was like a small pond. The plank road having disappeared, it became dangerous to travel on account of the trees that had fallen here and there. No matter! The horses were whipped up and they rushed into the water. At every moment we were on the point of being overturned, although Father Buteux went ahead with a pole to sound the road. At length, unable to go any farther, the water being too deep, wet to the skin he had to get up with the driver. Once the carriage struck a stumbling horse, and a wheel went over the trunk of a tree, and lo! The carriage was again thrown on its side. The water entered the coach and the horses were swimming rather than walking. It was like being in the middle of a sea, but in a sea surmounted by a thick forest; for the trees are so near together that it required all the experience of American drivers to be able to get through. There was imminent danger for us and we had two miles to cover in this way.”

What Sr. Theodore called a plank road was likely a corduroy road. It is hard to describe just how terrible dirt roads could become in wet weather. Nearly every account left by those who traveled the Midwest spoke of the horrible conditions of the roads. They were little more than quagmires in wet weather or rutted with deep furrows in dry times. Tree stumps often littered the pathway (The specifications for National Road only required that stumps be no higher than 18 inches, a height over which wagons could safely pass over without damaging an axle.).

As in many areas, attempts to make roads more passable in Sugar Creek focused on an abundant natural resource, trees. Logs were split in half to make puncheons, the same technique used as floors in early log cabins. The puncheons were laid perpendicular across other puncheons used as a base, rather like floor joists. The logs were held in place by lath-like strips of wood that also acted as curbs. Corduroy roads were often used to traverse low spots or swampy areas. That is why the Sisters encountered them as they crossed the bottoms west of the Wabash. They were also used in other such areas throughout Sugar Creek. The roads caused a jarring ride for those using them and soon deteriorated due to the ravages of traffic and nature.
Roads, whether of gravel, dirt or wood, were helpful to those living in Macksville and Sugar Creek, but there were still obstacles to making the area easily accessible. Most important was the lack of a bridge over the Wabash. Ferries still had to be used to get wagons, people and livestock across the river. The long waits at the ferry docks often caused traffic jams on both sides of the river. Ferries were vital but inefficient.

A bridge was needed. Most everyone said that (with the notable exception of the ferry keepers, one assumes). But, where was it to be located and who would pay for it? Vigo County did not have the money for it. No one wanted the city Terre Haute to foot the bill. Sugar Creek Township certainly couldn’t afford such an expenditure. That left it up to private enterprise. Some sort of company was needed to build the bridge. That company was indeed formed. In January, 1845 the Indiana Legislature passed a bill authorizing the formation of the Terre Haute Drawbridge Company. It was authorized to sell stock in the company in order to “erect and maintain a bridge across the Wabash river at any point within 500 yards of the National road, on the southside thereof or downstream.” The act fixed the tolls to be charged to bridge users.

The bridge was completed and opened to traffic in December, 1846. It became the focal point of local Christmas festivities that year. Hundreds strolled over and back across the bridge led by a band playing martial tunes, which seemed particularly apt as the country was at war with Mexico. At one point 500 people crowded the bridge and its approaches singing, dancing and Huzzah-ing the new structure that meant so much to the area.

The Wabash Express, a leading Terre Haute newspaper, was effusive over the bridge, calling it “an excellent and useful structure.” No structure,” it noted, “of a public character about Terre Haute, does more credit or will add more to the prosperity of the place, than the Wabash Bridge….” It noted that Ohio Street had been finely graded for an easily accessible approach to the bridge from the Terre Haute side. So, too, had been the western approach. Already livestock, goods and people were passing more easily across the river. Tellingly, the article stated the improvement most needed now was “to improve the road through the bottom to the bluff land at Macksville.”

And that was the crux of the problem still plaguing easier access to and from Sugar Creek Township. The bridge was a great addition, but the bottoms were still a barrier to movement. Muddy and rutted in the best of times, during high water the bottoms became little more than a bayou or swamp. Travelers crossed it with trepidation even in good weather. But a snow melt or heavy rains made it impassable. During those times the area was literally cut off from the east side.

This was not only a transportation dilemma, but had serious effects on the local economy. This worried many in Terre Haute who feared unless something was done that towns to the west or north of Sugar Creek would become an economic hub for the area instead of the growing city just two miles east of Macksville. An 1851 newspaper editorial in the Wabash Express took note of the potential problem and called for the building of plank or gravel roads to remedy the problem. It noted that those in the townships west of the river were already turning their attention and trade to Illinois, Paris in particular. They were doing so even those towns were more distant than Terre Haute. The paper called for something to be done about the bottoms.

It took four years but finally progress was made. In 1855 and 56 the “grading up” of the bottoms took place. Tons of rock, gravel and soil were hauled. Luckily there was a gravel pit on the southeastern edge of Macksville so it did not have to be hauled very far. Soil was dug from the bottoms or hauled in. Months of back breaking labor slowly built up a road across the bottoms. Inch by inch, layer by layer was compacted until the grade rose more than fifteen feet about the bottoms. It would be a major step for Macksville.


Interchangeable Parts: Shootout at Larimer Hill


America is a land of interchangeable parts.
Eli Whitney, celebrated inventor of the cotton gin, is often credited with introducing the concept and practice of interchangeable parts to the United States. Working for a military armory, Whitney worked to make parts or components to identical specifications. They then could be easily assembled by almost anyone, regardless of skill. Prior to that, each gun was unique and painstakingly made by talented gunsmiths. That took time, and was expensive. If one could provide interchangeable parts, then in essence any old pair of hands could do it. Thus manufacturing products became easier and cheaper, and more profitable. In the early twentieth century Henry Ford married interchangeable with the assembly line and a new industrial revolution began.
Those parts were made of metal or wood, but long before that, centuries before the birth of the United States, there had always been interchangeable parts. These parts were made of flesh and bone. They were called workers. If your job called more for brawn than brains, hard labor more than advanced skills, then you were merely a human interchangeable part to business owners. A coal miner killed in a slate fall or explosion could easily be replaced by another human interchangeable part. Work would continue with your replacement part. If you were a laborer on a construction site, or laying track for a railroad, and you fell to your death or were crushed, well, a new part would soon be seamlessly fitted into your place.
And if you did die, or lost and arm or leg, good luck to your family. They might be offered a pittance in compensation (how much was that guy’s leg worth, again?) Then again, they might not. I have spent years combing through newspapers from the area. From 1890 to 1920, in particular, seldom a week went by without a story, or stories, about industrial accidents. Usually followed by notices of the families of the victims having to sue owners to get some sort of compensation. How much was that human part worth was the calculation.
I offer the following, the story of the Larimer Hill Shootout, as an example.

The Railway Shopmen’s strike of 1922 spread across the nation, ultimately involving over 400,000 railroad workers. It was the largest strike against the incredibly powerful railroad owners since the great Pullman Strike of 1894. It was the outgrowth of railroad workers growing anger about wage cuts following WWI (during which the government actually nationalized the country’s railroads). In addition, railroad owners increasingly “hired” outside “contractors” to circumvent legally negotiated labor contracts and their provisions that protected the workers, rights. The final blow was the owners demanding a second pay cut in less than two years. That pay cut of seven cents an hour may seem paltry today, but in 1922 it meant a loss of 12 % of the workers income. And, said the owners, if they don’t like it we can always replace them.
So, the shopmen called a strike. Shopmen were the boilermakers, machinists and laborers who maintained the rolling stock of railroads. They were the men who kept the rails humming. A union report after the strike summed up the workers’ view:
Brotherhood leadership had hoped to hold fast to standards of wages, hours and working conditions as stipulated in the National Agreement, in a belief that somewhat decreased living costs would result in that agreement providing fair remuneration . But the first wage reduction was followed by a decision on August 11, 1921, dealing with overtime, eliminating time-and-one-half for Sunday and holiday work and modifying other sections of the overtime agreements.
The effect of this decision was electrifying. To the Brotherhood membership it was a piecemeal decision on one part of the National Agreement indicating what was to come as other decisions were handed down. Moreover, these actions in Washington were directly responsible for an increasingly hostile attitude toward workers on the part of railroad management, particularly local subordinates, who appeared to adopt a manner of treatment calculated to stir the workers to drastic action.
The Pennsy Yard in Terre Haute was then one of the largest repair sites in the country. The workers there joined in the strike on June 30, 1922. The management decided they could then replace the union workers with non-union men. After all, they would work cheaper and did not have the benefits prescribed for the union workers under their contract.
This use of “replacement workers” was an insidious part of management’s treatment of workers. They knew that interchangeable human parts were available and eager for work. In effect they were setting worker against worker. There were always men who would be “scabs.” I use scabs because it was the accepted term in those days. Others might say “strikebreakers.” But strikebreakers were really those who were brought in the physically break the strikers. Owners hired private armies of desperate men who thuggishly arrived on the scene to break a few strikers’ heads, or backs or knees. But often owners did not have to resort to that. The governments, particular state governors, feared that strikes. Often beholden to owners for their political support, and fearful of damaging the economy, governors would call out the state militia, supposedly to maintain order. Often the militia’s guns were turned on the strikers.
So the Pennsy yard began to hire scabs. Many men were eager to hire on.
Frank Easterday was a thirty-year man from Marshall, Illinois, with a wife and young son to support. He had spent most of his life as a farm laborer around Clark County. He knew there might be difficulties take a job at the yard, but working for the railroad was a coveted job. He hired on.
Easterday drove the 20 miles to Terre Haute along the National Road with a fellow laborers including Ralph Beabout and Russel Hill. They could thus share expenses and did not have to travel alone. If trouble happened you always felt a bit safer to have friends with you, and if you carried a little protection under the seat. Each day as they drove into the huge yard they faced a picket of strikers. Jeers were shouted, perhaps stones or decaying vegetables at their car. It was an intimidating scene to start, and end, your workday. But it was worth it to Easterday to have a steady job that paid more working on a farm.
Seeing the scabs take their jobs infuriated the strikers. During long days on the picket line the strikers talked angrily among themselves. Those scabs were taking food out of the strikers’ families mouths. Bastards. Something should be done about them. They were as bad as the big shots that ran the railroad.
On Tuesday, September 5th Easterday and his buddy hurried to their car at the end of their shift. Another day of work over they wanted to get home. They headed south to Wabash Avenue to head home to Marshall.
As Easterday drove out of the yard, five strikers in two cars watched them leave. Let’s follow the bastards. Put a scare in the son-of-a-bitches. In the lead strikers’ car were Lawrence Huffman, Herman Clugston and George Huebel. They tailed Easterday’s car until they reached 14th and Wabash where they passed it. They knew where he lived and the route he would take home. They kept just ahead of Easterday’s car as they drove west on Wabash Avenue and crossed the bridge. At the end of the grade east of West Terre Haute the strikers slowed down and let Easterday pass them. They wound slowly along National Avenue.
Seeing the strikers’ car, Easterday, who must have been suspicious now had his fears realized. Leaving West Terre Haute he hit the accelerator pushing his car up Larimer Hill. Seeing that Huffman also sped up. The cars were abreast as they neared the top of the hill. Shots rang out from both cars. The cars veered off the road in the mayhem. Residents reported they heard at least ten shots. It was like a shootout from the movies.
It was over in minutes. Two strikers, Huffman and Clugston, were slightly wounded. Three bullets pierced Easterday’s side and legs. Blood filled the front seat. His buddies, who were uninjured, watched in horror. The strikers fled, running through a field to reach the tile plant Huffman and Clugston stopped there to get a drink of water and await the police.
Ambulances arrived. Easterday was immediately taken back across the grade to St. Anthony Hospital. It did not look good.
Huffman was taken to Dr. Kunkler’s office in West Terre Haute where the good doctor dressed his wound. Clugston was taken to Terre Haute, was fixed up and went to one of his haunts, a pool room at 15th and Locust. It was there he was later arrested.
One of Easterday’s companions drove his car home to Marshall after talking to the police. Easterday’s wife Cora and 5 year-old Eugene were waiting for Frank to get home, When the car finally pulled up to their rented house and their husband and father did not step out as usual, their world changed. Frank Easterday died the following day.
Six strikers were charged with murder after Easterday’s death. Easterday’s five companions were charged with shooting with intent to kill. Ultimately, with both sides saying the other started the shootout, the Vigo Circuit Court did not bring in indictments. All eleven were set free. The railroad, which had pushed hard for the strikers to be tried and convicted of murder, got a little bit of revenge afterwards. They pushed for a federal judge to charge Huffman, Clugston and the others for violating a court ordering strikers not to harass the replacement workers. They spent a few weeks in Jail in Indianapolis.

There is no evidence that any of the strikers returned to the railroad shop they once worked. They found other jobs. They weren’t missed by the railroad. Like the dead Frank Easterday, who was one of 11 people nationwide to die in the strike, it was easy to find replacement parts.


Flat Iron Murders

vernie parole0001crop

There was something not quite right about Vernie Alfonso Lewis. At least that is what some thought. Maybe it was his eyes some said. Something about those eyes. Maybe it was the way he acted, sort of goofy or slow. But there was something. Anyway, he was known as that “little, deformed, abnormal looking fellow.”

Vernie was born in 1880 in Needmore, Indiana, just south of Clinton, to Franklin and Elizabeth Hull Lewis. Elizabeth was originally from Marshall, Illinois. His father was a miner, as was a brother. He was not that good in school. He left after the 3rd grade and went to work in the coal mines, including some in Sugar Creek. His father died when Vernie was only thirteen years old.

Life was a struggle for Vernie. He shuttled between jobs as a miner or laborer, lived sometimes in Needmore, and at other times in West Terre Haute or Terre Haute. He married 17 year-old Ida Shepherd in 1902. They had a sone named Vernie. Preferring the company of another man, she divorced him in 1905 taking their son with her. A year later he remarried, this time to Frances Chunn. Things did not go well for the couple. Like Ida, Frances found Vernie hard to deal with and left him for another man. By 1915 Vernie Lewis was living in Terre Haute.

Lizzie Blacketer lived in a shotgun house on North 17th Street in Terre Haute, just south of Lost Creek. The Murray and Balding families lived north of her. As usual, Lizzie woke early on Monday, March 15, 1915. The papers carried news of the war raging in Europe. As she went outside her modest home she was a bit surprised how quiet the Balding home was. Usually there was a whirlwind of activity there as the children got ready for school or play. Not wishing to pry, but worried that something was wrong, Lizzie went reluctantly to the too quiet house. Stepping on the porch she saw 8 year-old Merion Celeste Balding on the front room floor. She lay in a pillow of her own blood.

By now Lizzie was frantic. She ran next door to tell her friend Mamie Murray of what she saw. They rushed to a neighbor who called the Terre Haute police. Officer Smith hurried to the house on his bicycle, When Smith arrived he stepped into a horrific scene. The police had seen some bad things in their time, but this was just about the worst.

He was greeted by the sight of the dead young girl. Near her was the body of her brother Clifford. Smith could see into the bedroom of the shotgun house. There were more bodies there. There in the bed was the mother, Mary Balding, her baby Clifford was in her arms. Beside her was 3 year-old Irene. At their feet, sprawled across their feet was another son, Thomas, who was dead. Smith rang for an ambulance and detectives. Looking around he saw two flat irons covered in blood.

The ambulance attendants found Mary Balding, Clifford, Irene and Walter were still alive. Mary and Walter subsequently died at St. Anthony Hospital.

Fedderson was a well-known and accomplished detective. He and his colleagues did what all police should do. They began interviewing the neighbors. They learned that husband and father William Balding worked as a lineman for Bell Telephone. He had been in Centralia, Illinois for nearly a month, but was expected home soon. As usual they asked if there had been any problems between the Baldings and others. Did they have any reason to believe that the Baldings had enemies who might wish to harm them?

The neighbors immediately cast suspicion upon two men, Ira Tobey and Garley Stevens. They were well-known troublemakers and rowdies who often roamed drunkenly through the neighborhood. Tobey was immediately arrested. Stevens could not be found. When they heard he might be in Whitcomb Heights and headed across the Wabash to find him. Told he was not there, but was expected vernie scans0001cropback, they left a message that they were looking for him. The next day Stevens dutifully called the police and was told to go to the jail. When he arrived the detectives had a series of fresh cuts on his hand. The police were hopeful that they had their murderers.

That same day the name Vernie Lewis who was known to visit the Baldings came out. Vernie, they learned was Lizzie Blacketer’s son. They returned to N. 17th Street to interview Lizzie. She told them that Vernie had gone to bed with the rest of the family around 7:00. As far as she knew he had not left the house. They tracked Vernie to the Cloelle mine and he claimed that his mother was telling them the truth. He had gone to bed early and slept all night. The detectives continued to investigate the crime. By Friday they concurred that Tobey and Steven’s alibis were genuine.

Police carried on. Later Friday they were told by someone that two men who lived a few blocks away might have important information for them. First thing Saturday morning Fedderson interviewed George Wheatstein and James Unsel told him that contrary to what Vernie Lewis had said, he had been in their homes after 7:00pm. Unsel noted that Lewis, who was normal a happy, cheerful person, was acting very strangely. He left Unsel’s house about 10:00 pm. It cast doubt on Vernie’s testimony and immediately made him the prime suspect for the atrocities.

Saturday morning the detectives returned to the mine. They asked the mine boss to get Vernie for them under some pretext that would not alarm him. The boss said that would be no problem as he had already “jacked up” Lewis because Vernie had been acting very oddly and shirking work. The boss descended into the mine, returning to the surface about fifteen minutes later with Vernie in tow.

They arrested Vernie. He said he stuck by his alibi, but would be glad to go to the jail and tell them everything he knew about the case. The suspect and the detectives exchanged uncomfortable small talk on the long drive to the Terre Haute jail.

Lewis continued to proclaim his innocence throughout the morning. He finally did admit that he had left his house without his mother knowing and had visited Wheatstein and Unsel, Returning Lewis to his cell, Fedderson and his colleague drove up to the Blacketer home. They found blood on the side door of the house. They searched the home. They found Vernie’s pants and suspenders. They too were bloodstained.

On Sunday Fedderson again interviewed Lewis. Again, Vernie swore he was not guilty. Fedderson was frustrated but had an idea. On Monday he had Lewis locked in a cell in the jail’s hospital ward. He had himself locked alone in the cell with Vernie, telling the jailer not to let anyone else near them. He found Vernie sobbing uncontrollably on the bed. Fedderson spoke with him softly, but persistently, quietly hammering questions at him about the crime, not allowing Vernie time to himself.

Around 1:30 pm Vernie just hung his head, saying nothing for minutes. Then he looked up and began crying again. Finally, without looking at the detective, Vernie said, “Oh god, it was awful. It was awful.” Fedderson tried to calm the prisoner, and asked him to make his confession. Vernie looked up, his face ashen and pallid, but said nothing.

Fedderson leaned back and asked Vernie to imagine it was his family, his wife and children, who had been brutally slain while he was out of town. How would he feel?

Lewis sobbed and cried out “Oh, don’t say anymore. My God, don’t let the mob get to me, for I know they will if they find it out. They will tear me to pieces and, oh, I don’t want to go to the electric chair but I can’t help it now.” And then he cried out his “motive” for the bloodshed. “…. I could not bear to see them move away from the neighborhood. It preyed on my mind as long as I could stand for it to.”

Again Fedderson asked him to make a formal confession. Lewis said he would, but only if the police got him out of Terre Haute so he would not be lynched. Fedderson that he would tell only his partner and the prosecutor and would immediately get Lewis away from town. Lewis then launched into his confession.

After visiting Wheatstein and Unsel, he returned to N. 17th around 9:30 or so. Going to the Baldings’s he pushed aside a piece of carpeting covering a broken window. He picked up two flat irons from the kitchen and went to the bedroom. Mary Balding was still awake, but before she could speak he began battering her with blows. How many, he could not remember. He then struck Thomas and Irene. Moving to the front room, Clifford spoke to him but Vernie could not recall what he said. He then killed Clifford and Celeste.

He then returned to the kitchen to wash his hands and climbed back out the window to his own home and snuck into his bed. It was over. Fedderson then left him alone to make arrangements.

Fedderson knew that Vernie’s concerns for his safety were real. They both remembered the story of Negro George Ward being taken from the jail by a mob and hung from the Wabash River bridge. (https://wthhistory.wordpress.com/2014/08/16/awful-crimes-part-one/). After telling Armstrong, the two went to Deputy Sheriff Katzenbach who gave them a car to transport Lewis to Indianapolis for his protection.

The detectives took off along US 40 to drive to Indianapolis with Lewis cowering in the back. They constantly looked over their shoulders to see if they were being tailed. Just as they passed Greencastle a tire blew out. It took over an hour to fix the puncture, an hour that seemed endless as they scanned the road for signs of a

Vernie Lewis at age 65 at time of his parole.  There is still something about those eyes in the photo.

Vernie Lewis at age 65 at time of his parole. There is still something about those eyes in the photo.

lynching party. But they made it, depositing Lewis in jail and returning to Terre Haute without incident.

Lewis gave out further information. He loved Mary Balding. In his fevered mind she loved him too. He was “insanely jealous” of her. He wanted her all to himself. His love for her was driving him mad. He also told that he had been struck in the head in a mine accident. Since then, he said, thoughts of murder had preyed on his mind. That is why an innocent family was brutally bludgeoned by a pathetic, delusional man.

As Vernie confessed there was not a jury trial. The courts had psychiatrists interview him to determine he was insane. There were mixed reports. Eventually, Vernie Lewis accepted a verdict of 1st degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison on September 17, 1915.

The next day he was taken to the Michigan City State Penitentiary. His mother and accompanied on his trip to prison.His admission record showed he was 35 years old, of medium stature and in fair health. His mental condition was described as feeble minded and a sexual pervert. It noted he was a Methodist and had left home at age 16. His only previous arrest had been in Clinton on a charge of intoxication. Lewis began his life sentence.

After serving 25 years he applied for parole, but it was denied. From 1943 to 1945 he was admitted at least ten times to Robert Long Hospital in Indianapolis to be treated for various illnesses. In 1945 he was given parole by the Governor, with the stipulation that he must live in Missouri. Missouri was likely chosen because his brother lived in Poplar Bluff and Lewis was paroled in his care.

Vernie Lewis died in 1961. He lived 46 years longer than his four innocent victims.

And of those bereaved left behind after the murder? Father and husband William Balding eventually remarried twice. He died in 1967. Clifford died in the same year as his mother’s killer. Irene died in 1973, leaving behind a loving family.

Flat Irons, sometimes called sad irons, were meant for ironing clothes.  They were very heavy and made for a lethal weapon.

Flat Irons, sometimes called sad irons, were meant for ironing clothes. They were very heavy and made for a lethal weapon.


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.



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