Clinging to Rooftops: The Great Flood of 1913


The Hants Family, 1913. The Girl in the bow standing next to her father Will, is my grandmother Hilda (Hildy) Hants Chrisman.


The people of West Terre Haute could almost taste and smell the coming spring during late March 1913.  There had been warmer days.  60 degrees on Thursday.  It would not be long now.

Looking out the back window of her house on National Avenue, Lulu Hants was heartened by the thought that the pear trees would be budding out before she knew it.  Eleven year-old Hildy, always her little helper, peeled potatoes, while the other girls scurried around the house.  Easter was just two days away and she had been getting the girls Sunday dresses ready.  She looked forward to the short walk to the Congregational Church for the Easter Service, hoping for nice weather.

It was raining when she rose at 5:00 on March 23rd, Easter Sunday morning.  It had rained throughout Rev. Rogers’ service.  Outside activities were cancelled.  She, husband Will and their five girls walked home through the steady rainfall.  In early afternoon the rain finally stopped.  Temperatures rose all afternoon and by evening it was over 70 degrees.  The heavy air seemed shroud the house.  Will sat reading the Sunday paper.  Many of Terre Haute’s clothing stores were toting their spring sales.  Burlesque houses were offering fare like the Millard Brothers Burlesque of Bicycle Phiends in a Cyclone of Funny Stunts and Rosers Aerial Dogs.  The American Theater was showing a three-reeler called Fools of Society

Will folded the paper and peered through the windows.  He told Lulu to tuck the girls in tight.  Weather like this always brought on terrible storms.

By 9:00 the whole family was sleeping fitfully as thundered road above them and lightning etched sharp shadows across the rooms.  As they tried to rest they were unaware that a horrible force of nature was birthing along the Wabash south of town.  Rain was falling at a rate of an inch an hour.  Around 9:45 a funnel cloud crossed from the west bank of the Wabash to the east, heading for the southern part of Terre Haute.

The tornado rampaged for two and a half minutes.  Its swathe of destruction ranged from 200 to 500 yards wide.  Later, when all the counting had been done, 300 homes were obliterated or damaged.  250 people were injured, another 21 would be buried.

Next morning the news of the catastrophe spread through West Terre Haute.  Will Hants ventured along National Avenue to the Rogerson Funeral Parlor where he sometimes worked.  Men gathered there and shared stories and rumor.  One Terre Haute woman reported that the storm had de-feathered her chickens.  Another told how her bed clothes had been sucked up her chimney and out into the storm.  Toothpicks had been driven into a hardwood buffet as if they were hammer and nail.

“That could have been us” were the words on many lips all through West Terre Haute.  Thank god we were spared.  But their trials would soon be upon them.

It continued to rain throughout Monday.  On Easter morning the Wabash water level stood at seven feet, about normal for that time of year.  The rains just would not stop.  By Monday evening it was at 19 feet, 3 feet above flood stage.  Heavy rains upriver had swollen the Wabash at Terre Haute.

By Tuesday evening Taylorville across the river was under water.  More than 300 people there slogged across the bridge to seek shelter in Terre Haute.  The waters rolled west along the grade to West Terre Haute.  A sister tide had inundated southern Sugar Creek Township.  Toad Hop, only a mile west of the town, was soon underwater.  Half of the fifty families there moved in with neighbors who lived on slightly higher ground

The waters rolled inexorably into West Terre Haute overnight and the next morning.  It was clear that this was no ordinary flood.  Will Hants

Tuesday afternoon saw a reverse flood of people to Terre Haute.  More than a thousand people from Toad Hop and West Terre Haute crossed the flooded grade to seek shelter with relatives or friends.  A call went out from West Terre Haute for anyone with a boat to come to the rescue.  Taylorville had all but disappeared under a wet, murky brown blanket of water.

Will Hants had begun moving some furniture and belongings to the second floor of the house. The whole family pitched in and Lulu and Hildy tried to keep the younger girls calm.  At first the rising water had seemed a bit of an adventure to the little ones, Mable, Jeanette and the twins Eva and Iva.  But soon they sensed the rising fear of their parents.

Daybreak on Wednesday saw the entire town covered in water.  Even Paris Avenue, which had seldom been touched by flooding, was under six inches or more of water.  The two-storey Ruddell Furniture store opened its doors and allowed refugees a place to stay on the second floor.

Water soon drowned the clay plant and mine shafts, forcing closures.  Over 2,500 men were without work.  But that was secondary to the men who were now more concerned about protecting their families.  The phone service finally succumbed to the flooding by Wednesday morning.  The poles carrying its wire had actually been planted below the grade and the floodtide toppled the poles or broke the lines.

People who did not flee town found shelter wherever they felt safer.  Some went to the Methodit Church, while many more flocked the larger and taller Congregational Church.  As many as one hundred people or more sought their refuge where three days before the Hants family and others had celebrated Easter.  Another thirty were housed at St. Leonard’s Catholic Church.

By Wednesday evening West Terre Haute was virtually an island cut off from the rest of its world.  Boats were the only way in or out. All over town houses were pushed off their foundations by the tide and became unwieldy ships careening about in rough seas.  Many watched in awe as the firehouse on Paris Avenue was lifted from its mooring and pushed three blocks south to National Avenue.  Its new location could be seen from the Hants’ house.

Fears about immediate safety were replaced by concerns of food shortages and disease.  Deadly outbreaks of Typhus in particular often followed the receding flood waters.  Food could only be brought in by boat.  A Terre Haute bakery had sent a wagonload of bread Tuesday but that was not enough.  Among the areas most affected by the food shortage were north of town.  Whitcomb Heights and Ferguson Hill were essentially cut off.  Word went out that there was likely only enough food left there to last until Friday, and that was with everyone rationing and sharing what they had left in their pantries.  The McIlroy family opened the doors to their grocery store to all, giving away what little was left on the shelves.

Further tragedy struck in Whitcomb Heights.  The home of 17 year-old John Schwam was completely surrounded by floodwaters.  He died of measles during the flood.  The word was that the undertakers would not be able to reach there for days.  They family was told to temporarily bury him on high ground as soon as possible. The undertakers wagon would come for him as soon as possible later.The opposite event occurred at the Congregational Church where the baby of Mr. and Mrs. William Kennedy was born during the flood.

There was not an inch of dry land in West Terre Haute by Thursday, but that afternoon the flood had crested and waters were beginning to slowly recede.  There were some efforts to alleviate the flood.  Some enterprising fellows, with the help of miners familiar with dynamiting attempted to create a large crater south of town on Cherry Grove road (in the area of the current Wabashniki Wetlands) to siphon off some of the floodwaters.  It was akin to digging a mine shaft with a thimble, not much use, but it can still be seen as a pond on the site.

The worst was over by Friday.  People began returning to their homes, or what was left of their homes, by Saturday.  The Terre Haute Police department offered its patrol wagons, which had earlier carried refugees to Terre Haute, to carry people back across the bridge.  People pitched in to help.  A farmer named Winter Rogers slogged the five sodden miles from west of town to bring 25 bushels of turnips to the people of West Terre Haute.  Other help was on its way.  The Sugar Creek Trustee began raising relief funds.  Thousands of Terre Hauteans  responded, setting up a fund for those in Taylorville and West Terre Haute.

On Saturday morning a boat named the Eclipse, captained by an intrepid man named Joe Jeffers, finally made it to Ferguson Hill.  He carried food, medicine and hope to the sodden, bedraggled folks living there.

The Sunday after Easter saw many trying to reclaim as much as their lives and homes from the flood as possible.  Will Hants, like his neighbors the Scotts, Hankins and Brother south on Riggy Avenue, began shoveling the mud from his home.  Lulu, Hildy and the little ones began cleaning and hanging clothes and linens to dry on the backyard clothesline.

In the aftermath of the flood some looting had been discovered.  There are those always willing to take advantage of a situation for their own good.  Some of them walked the streets of West Terre Haute with the neighbors who had been their victims.

The flooding left behind huge piles of debris of furniture, clothing and household goods.  People went from pile to pile trying to salvage any of their belongings it could.  What was left was “finders-keepers” to be claimed by the rivermen and others.

On Sunday the Hants returned to the Congregational Church (in which a family of six refugees would remain for another week or so) as they had gathered the Sunday before.


The Great Flood of 1913 was indeed a Hundred Year Flood in the Midwest and East.  Over 650 people died in the flood.. It is estimated that over 300 million dollars in damage was left behind its torrents.

Photos below courtesy of the Vigo County Historical Society





“Colored Pugilists” in Macksville


Baseball was undoubtedly the king of sports in late nineteenth-century America– and Macksville.  It had few rivals in attracting fervid fans.  But in the 1880s another “sport” was also making headlines—at least partly because it was illegal.

Boxing, or prizefighting, had a long history, but was often considered so barbaric that many states, including Indiana, made it illegal.  It was rightly felt that the boxing realm was populated by the less desirable elements in society, gamblers, thieves and the ne’er-do-wells.  Opponents pointed out that boxing matches were often held in saloons, gambling dens or brothels.

These views changed only slightly after the advent of the Marquess of Queensbury rules for prizefighting in 1867.  Still, boxing had grown in popularity by the 1880s.  Newspapers were filled with the exploits of John L. Sullivan and other prizefighters.  Their bouts were often front page news.   This led many to call for the legalization—and regulation—of professional boxing matches.  Doing so, noted an article in the Terre Haute Express, would help alleviate “what is objectionable in it.”  By that it meant the unsavory characters most associated with the sport.  The writer could have just as well have named one Frank Trombley of Terre Haute as one of those unsavory elements.

The Canadian-born Trombley appeared in Terre Haute in the 1870s..  He soon built his reputation as a bad man.  He was known as an inveterate gambler who too often resorted to violence as his solution of choice for any disagreement.  By 1880 he was married to Cora Lee, a Terre Haute madam, helping her run their brothel while organizing illegal gambling in the area.  Lee later divorced Trombley, closed the brothel, and  moved to Chicago to escape his wrath.  That same year he was charged with the attempted murder of Stephen Osborne.  The unlucky Mr. Osborne had travelled from Sullivan, Indiana with a friend to taste the nightlife of Terre Haute.  While in a Tip Top saloon Osborne drew the attention of Frank Trombley. 

Osborne said that Trombley approached him the back room and tried to kiss him.  His advances rebuked, Trembley later confronted Osborne on the street and attempted to kill him.  After several mistrials, Trombley, called a “wretch and Terror,’ was sentenced to prison.

He was not long out of prison when he was again in trouble.  Trombley, who then lived on a houseboat on the Wabash, was apparently hosting the wife of a Mr. Cooper.  Finding his wife absent from their home, Cooper made his way to the river bank with ideas of retrieving his errant spouse.  He was met by a load of buckshot with his name on it.  Trombley later claimed that the unfortunate Mr. Cooper had blundered into his gunsight as he was attempting to shoot a pigeon and it was a terrible mistake.


After a failed suicide attempt using morphine in 1885, Trombley, who fancied himself pugilist, became increasingly involved in boxing.  In 1886 he announced he would take on all comers in a prizefight, using hard gloves.  His hard glove challenge was taken up by Terre Haute Policeman Tom Connelly.  They agreed to fight in a 24 foot ring on a boat in the Wabash (such illegal bouts were often held in the middle of rivers because many were uncertain which entity had jurisdiction.)  Eventually, the boat was floated to a location further below Terre Haute.  It was attended by a barge holding spectators and a bar.  Who won the bout was a point of contention afterward.

Trombley continued to be the center of ilicit boxing in the area.  In 1888 he spread word that he was staging a bout between two “colored pugilists” Black Star Johnson and “Thompson, the iron jawed man” in Macksville.  Fights between African American fighters seem to have been prevalent during the era.  To the many who viewed African Americans as less than human, it was akin to cockfighting or bear-baiting.

Spectators, who paid $2.50 (equivalent to $60.00 today, were not told the location of the fight until early evening to prevent law enforcement from shutting down the bout.  Finally word spread that the bout would take place in a barn along the Vandalia Railroad west of Macksville.  Terre Haute’s sporting fraternity headed west.  The bout began at 10:30 April 5, 1888, after it was announced it would be fought under Marquess of Queensbury rules using 4 ounce gloves.  It was forecast as a grudge match between Johnson, the “scientific fighter”, against Thompson’s raw power.

The bout was barely a minute old when Johnson’s powerful right hand collided with Thompson’s supposed iron jaw.  Thompson hit the floor.Thompson rose and continued the fight, which seemed even until the fifth round.  Johnson’s powerful blow sent Johnson staggering, sprawling to the floor.  Johnson lay on the floor in a fetal position.  He raised his hand saying he “had enough.”  He finally struggled to his feet.  Evidently Thompson did not agree enough was enough and proceed to pummel the slumping Johnson until he knocked him out of the ring.  There the beaten Black man crumpled at the feet of the sweating, screaming, fervid fans.  He made $25.00 for his beating.

For a very brief moment Macksxille was the center of illegal prizefighting in Vigo County

 Trombley continued to promote illegal fights, being indicted for them and paying his fines with his profits.  Prizefighting in Indiana was not legalized until the 1920s.

Working to be Poor

cabin good

A short excerpt based on a fascinating report.  Though this deals specifically to miners in the 1890s, much the same was true for any of your ancestors who were laborers.

The 1893-94 biennial report of the Indiana Bureau of Statistics offered a stark portrait of the lives of miners and their families in the state.  The bureau had undertaken a rather comprehensive study of the mining industry.  Surveys were taken at 71 mines throughout the state (and particularly Vigo County).  Both mine owner/operators and the miners were questioned.  The report, which was surprising open-minded for the age, detailed what life was like for a miner and his family.  It showed that they were, indeed, working to be poor.

The report divided miners into four categories, hand pick and machine miners, helpers and loaders.  Despite working a job that provided the fuel for America and featured a workday so hazardous that the threat of injury or death was ongoing, miners in the state averaged only $1.81 per day in wages. The cost of the tools they needed, squibs, gun powder, oil, were deducted from their wages.  After these deductions the “take home pay” of miners was actually $1.39 a day.

Though Indiana law forbade mine companies requiring workers to shop at the company store, there was an element of coercion.  Nearly 20 % of miners said they were “expected” or urged to buy from the company store.  Many miners noticed that those who did frequent the store were employed longer and worked more often.  Operators loved the idea of company stores as, in effect, miners were giving back a chunk of the wages to the company.  Owners said the wages were so low because they were working on a very slim profit margin.  Many were indeed struggling with the bottom line, but that was because they were purposely keeping the price of coal down to better compete and seize a larger market share.  Thus the miners were paying a high price for low wages.

As the report stated, miners were a “class… underpaid… and suffering privations.”  Their average wage was only $287.00 a year.  But, as miners only worked 161 days a year, that $287.00 had to cover 365 days of living.  That came out to .78 cents a day to support their household which was “wholly inadequate for the support of a family.”

Of the 961miners studied, only 271 owned their home, and 101 of them were struggling to make their mortgage payments.  A work-related injury that kept a miner from working could easily find his hard earned home under foreclosure.  So nearly two-thirds of miners rented their homes, at an average of $4.58 a month.  You did not get much house for that.

Typically, miner’s homes were ill-furnished cabins containing only the barest of bare necessities.  Most had rough-sawn bare wood floor (those some others had only a dirt floor.) A few of those rough floors were covered in cheap rag or hemp rugs.  Furnishings were rudimentary, a few wooden chairs, cheap bedsteads or pallets covered with worn linen for sleeping, a small rickety table for eating.

When rent of $54.96 was deducted, most miners were engaged in a Sisyphean struggle just to keep their families from hunger and clothed against the cold.  It was the sort of grinding poverty that taxed the human spirit and made miners fear for their children and their future.



The Battle of Macksville


Macksville, at times, took on the aura of a Wild West town.  It was a mini Dodge City without the steely gaze of a Matt Dillon coolly surveying its streets for bad guys through a haze of gun smoke.  Being unincorporated it had no local law enforcement.  The town had to rely on the Terre Haute police department for protection.  That is one reason that some Macksvillians had petitioned as early as 1873 to be annexed by Terre Haute.

Criminals from Terre Haute on the lam from police often hid in Macksville or the bottoms, knowing there was little chance that pursuers would come looking for them across the river.  They frequented the saloons initiating brawls or committed petty theft.  This was a bane to upright citizens like the Mcilroys, Castos and Cassadays.  Especially when the brawl led to gunfire.

In the early 1880s the village was plagued with outsiders bent on trouble.  Rival groups of traveling horse traders brought an end-of-the=cattle-drive mini-riot in 1884 that was dubbed the Battle of Macksville.

For several months Macksville had been bedeviled by the horse traders.  They were a brawling, drunken lot who came to town acting as if it were their own.  Townspeople did not want them, but they were too intimidated to ask them to depart for other horse pastures.  Macksville “lived in fear” of that the village would be ransacked and their homes burned.

The traders would get drunk and race their horses up and down the streets.  Anyone venturing out onto the street was risking their lives.  The races were inevitably accompanied by drunken brawls.  Even a band of gypsies camped west of town decided it best to load their caravans and move to less dangerous places.  Gypsies of this period were also known for horse trading and an additional incentive to head out may have been a fear that competition for the trade heightened the chances of conflict.


In the looming twilight of June 24th men gathered in Webb Bayless’ Paris Road saloon (funny how often Webb’s name came up during troubles).  In a scene that presaged hundreds of Westerns, a rowdy crowd gathered in the dimly-lit, hovering smokehaze that shrouded  Webb’s place in a grey mistc.  All around men clutched beer and whiskey glasses close to their chests.  The twittering of cards being shuffled competed with a cacophony of laughter and drink-fueled boasting.

Among those being dealt cards at one table were rival traders named Fred Weiser and a certain Mr. Bryant, aka “Dude” Cooper.  Both men were so bleary-eyed from whiskey it was hard to focus on what their hands held.  Words were spoken.  Both men looked up from their cards.  Weiser took deep offense at something Dude said and reached slowly under the table.  Up came a “loaded” club studded with nails.  Cooper seemed unimpressed by Weiser’s stick.  Dude’s eyes told Weiser he was not afraid of the man across from him.

Weiser laid down his club as those watching the scene hushed to see what would happen next.  When Weiser’s hand reappeared it brandishing a knife pulled from his boot.  In seconds he lunged across the table.  The knife cut through the haze and Cooper’s arm.  Deep slashes erupted blood that stained the cards. Cooper’s brother John rushed to help him.

All hell, indeed, had broken loose in Macksville.

Soon the dirt streets of Paris Road were filled with angry, shouting men as the brawl grew too large for Bayless’ saloon.  Fists flew and the retorts of every reeay guns filled the dark.  Pushing and shoving let to a dozen little fights.  Weiser was the chosen opponent of many.  His young nephew, Fred Smith tried to come to his rescue and pull him away.  His attempt failed as a multitude of gunshots rand around him and forced Smith to retreat to whence he came.

A trader named John Crank ran to his wagon and pulled out an ancient rifle.  He was going show the mob a thing or two.  His only [problem was that he did not have the caps need to fire the weapon.  Crank went to Field’s drugstore and and the McIlroy and Hodgers’ groceries in search of caps.  All three merchants rightly chose peace over profit and refused to sell the drunken man caps.

Meanwhile hundreds of townspeople cautiously stepped out into the street to see what the hell was going on.  Many of the brawlers, upon hearing a messenger was sent off to bring the Terre Haute police, began to slink off to their hiding places in the bottoms.  No sense chancing being caught.  Town doctor James Hunt was called to Bryant’s, aka Cooper, tent.  He found the man gushing blood and set about his work.

Five policemen, including Chief Vandever, sped across the bridge to Macksville.  Must of the tumult had subsided by the time they arrived.  They found nearly the whole town awaiting them.  Now was the time, many argued, to drive out these criminals with the backing of the police.  The police arrested a brawler named Joe King and Crank.  King’s brother John, Fred Weiser and John Cooper were long gone.  They headed to Bryant’s tent to arrest him.  What they found was a man with his head bandaged and a large chunk of ice on his arm wounds.  Bryant was so drunk and wouldede they left him to recover, returning the next day to arrest him.

The policemen began to “mop up” the scene.  Traders still hanging around were ordered to leave town.  They were surprised to find that John King and John Copper had not fled town.  Instead they had merely their venue.  They were arrested in John Snack’s saloon just up the block and sent on their way.

Crank had a child living with his sister in Terre Haute.  He asked the police to inform her that he had been arrested and the child was now all hers/  He wanted no more to do with “it”  Those arrested paid fines and were sent on their way.  Weiser was gone.

Bad Lot of Scoundrels


 General opinions about the Trader family ranged from the bad to worst.  They were poor white trash to a “bad lot” to “one of the worst set of scoundrels ever to infest any locality.”  It all depended on who was speaking ill of them.  They had a history of drunkenness, violence, theft and, some said, prostitution.

The family seemed to bounce back and forth between Sugar Creek and  Terre Haute, usually living near the river in the poorest areas. It is difficult to pinpoint them because they always seemed to evade the census, or the census man thought it was more than his job was worth to tarry too long in some areas. James Trader, the patriarch of the family, listed his occupation as basketmaker, though petty thieving and other crimes claimed a lot of his time.  His young son John followed the family path and he was sent to prison in 1872 for grand larceny.  He was about 16 years-old when he entered the Indiana Penitentiary at Jeffersonville.

John was released in 1874 and returned to live with his family.  At that point they were living in a tumbledown log cabin east of St. Mary’s.  Whether the reunion was a happy one or not is hard to say.  It probably depended on the moods of his parents, James and Mary, and how much alcohol was in the house.  But it is evident that the mood in that hovel was not good in early August, 1874.

On August 11th James Trader was in a foul mood.  He was roaring drunk by early afternoon.  At some point he decided he could no longer stomach his son John.  Shouting he ordered John out of the house, his shouts slurred by drink.  Fearing trouble, John stepped out of the house, but turned back.  He insisted that he must at least be allowed back in to get his few clothes.  He pushed aside his father and stepped into the house.

An enraged James followed his son into the house and a violent scuffle took place.  He pushed James onto a hot stove, burning the young man’s hands.  With the pain rising in his arms John ran out of the house.  James followed, a shotgun in his hands.  Looking for a way to defend himself from his drunken, wild-eyed father,  John grabbed an axe handle.  It did not take long for John to realize that the handle he was clutching was not a viable weapon agaist a drunk with a gun.  Thinking it best to go away and let his father sleep it off, perhaps to return the next day, John turned to leave.  He had not even made a full turn when the shotgun blasted a hole in he stomach.  He quickly crumpled to the ground gasping for air and blood spurting from his wounds.

Wife and mother Mary watched as it all unfolded.  Did she hurry to hold her son?  Possibly for a minute or two, but realizing her husband was so drunk as to be insensible she turned her attention to him.  She shouted to the oblivious  James that he must get away.  People might come running soon to see what happened.  Unable to make him completely understand the situation, she prodded and pushed him deeper into the woods.  Finding a hollow log she helped James squirm his way into it as a hiding place.

Mary Trader was right.  The shot soon brought neighbors rushing the house.  Along the way many of them must have wondered what the hell was going on with those damned Traders now. It was always something with that cursed clan.

While someone went off the fetch the doctor and inform the police in Terre Haute, others searched for James.  It did not take long to find the snoring drunk in a log.

They pulled him back to the log house and guarded him until the doctor arrived.  Seeing James’ condition he set about cleaning the blood and dressing his would as best he could.  James being a thin, delicate boy with a hole in his stomach, the doctor did not hold out much hope that he would survive the night.  Eventually John was moved to the the poor asylum in Terre Haute to either die or recover.

James was taken to the Terre Haute jail to await trial, possibly for murder.  He sat there until John made an unexpected recovery.  He did not file charges against his father.  All’s well that ends well.  The traders went home. Jailers must have thought good riddance, along with thoughts that the Traders would end up killing each other anyway.

Some thought the real cause of the argument between father and son was a woman.

That woman may have been Catharine Miller, later called a “:notorious prostitute” (and there was seldom a shortage of those in Terre Haute).  He choice in husbands  made for an interesting life.

Catharine was the daughter of William Irwin a farmer living in Sugar Creek.  She married Andrew Miller in 1870.  Miller was average height, about 5’8”, with dark complexion and brown eyes and hair.  Like many, he had a smattering of small pox scars on his face. Later, a prison warder described him as having “a small scar on his throat and the initials MVM, AM and AEM  [tattooed] on his right forearm.”   His right arm was adorned by an American flag, the number 73 and other marks too faint to read.   Presumably her family, including a half-brother named James Martin, witnessed the ceremony at the Justice of the Peace office.

Catharine’s father did not care much for his new son-in-law.  The two seemed to be continuously sniping at each other with words.  And once or twice Irwin allowed as how he would not mind shooting his father-in-law.  On Tuesday, September 26th, 1872 the happy family was gathered at home.  Irwin and Miller spent the day the day drinking hard cider (or so Miller later claimed).  A thought percolated through Miller’s hazed brain, possibly after another of Irwin’s taunts.  Seizing the moment and an axe, Miller proceeded to fell his father-in-law with a clean chop into his lower back, severing Irwin’s spinal chord.  The old man was dead before he fell “upon his own threshold.”  Andrew Miller was sentenced to life in prison.

It is not known how soon after her husband was carted off to prison that Catharine took up with John Trader.  They were certainly together by early 1875.  They married in August, 1875.  Whether she was actively exchanging her favors for the money of excited strangers can only be speculated upon. At any rate, they were living with Trader’s parents in another “squalid hovel,” this time on the east side of the river in Terre Haute.

On the first Sunday in November, 1875, James Martin, who worked as a farm laborer, decided to visit half-sister at the Traders.  His mother lived near the Traders  in another hovel in area derisively known in Terre Haute as “Happy Hollow.”  So, he would get to see them both, something he looked forward to.

Martin never made it past the Trader’s front gate.  James and John Trader stopped him as soon as he arrived and a heaving quarrel took place. Martin’s mother hurried over to intercede and quiet them down.  She convinced her son to just go away to prevent further trouble.  Martin agreed and turned to leave, but he stopped at the top of the hill of the hollow and stopped.  He was shouting his parting words at the Trader’s.  He may have been brandishing a knife, but that was never proven..

In a flash the Traders were up the hill, John with a brick and a knife, his father with the trusty shotgun he had shot his son with two years earlier.  John threw the brick and hit Martin on the head.  When Martin fell they began kicking and stabbing him.  Martin rose haltingly and staggered away.  He managed to make it to the house where his mother was living before dying.

This time James Trader was more aware of what he done.  No one had to implore him to run from justice.  He and John ran down to their house, grabbed a few things, and lit out across the river on a skiff.  John got out as soon as they hit the Sugar Creek shore.  James turned at headed back to the middle of the Wabash.  Abandoning the boat he hid on a sandbar for a few minutes.  He then set off through the swampy bottoms trying to elude anyone chasing him.

John and James must have hurriedly decided on a rendezvous point.  James was captured in Clinton on Monday morning.  John managed to hide another day before being caught near Clinton, not far from where his father was snared by the police.  James escape through the swamps took its toll.  He died while awaiting trial.  John was sentenced to life in prison.

Later a newspaper writer noted the irony that James Trader and James Martinn were buried almost next to each other in the pauper graveyard.  The body of an infant was the  only thing separating them in death.

Eighteen months into his sentence John Trader wrote an open letter to the people of Vigo County.  He acknowledged his crimes and all but wept onto the page his lament that he was confined in the narrow walls of a prison.  He asked that they obey the laws of god not man, and forgive him.  He also wanted them to start a campaign to have him pardoned.  His epistle was not well received.

Who knows what washing thoughts go through the mind of a prisoner facing a life sentence, penitence, anger, sorrow?  Something went through John Trader’s mind.  In 1879 he told the warden that he had information about an unsolved murder.  He wanted to confess to the murder of an old maid named Eva Peters in Macksville years before.  And he would tell who helped him.  And, he said, his wife Catharine would back him up.  He also wrote to Macksville merchant Daniel Bayless saying he had important new information about the murder.  He confessed to the murder but said he was abetted by three other men Oliver Perry, Frank Smith and John Evans.  And to top it off he said Catharine had also helped.

Trader was returned to Terre Haute and he and Catharine unspooled their tale.


Catharine and Trader testified at Oliver Perry’s trial (by this time Smith was dead and Evans had long ago left town for places unknown) that the scheme began because they needed money (Perhaps her return on selling herself had diminished.).  John and Oliver Perry, who was living with them at the time, told her they had a way to raise a stake from “an old man” in Macksville.  Smith and Evans would go along with them.

The group (which Catharine said included her and John’s month-old baby) crossed the grade that Sunday night.  They arrived about 9:00.  The men forced open Eva’s door.  She had barricaded her door with her bed and it was a struggle to get into the house.  Catharine and the baby followed them in.  According to John his wife helped them stuff a handkerchief into Eva’s mouth.  They bound her hands to her bed with a dog chain and tied her head back with rags. She was raped and then was choked to death.  Catharine seemed particularly displeased that the murder only yielded the gang $30.00.  She also said she and the baby had stayed outside when the door was forced.  Trader denied that, saying his wife had stayed long enough to push the gag in Eva’s mouth.

Oliver Perry maintained his innocence, but it looked like a sure conviction and prison sentence awaited him.  But on the day the trial was set to go to jury, John Trader suddenly announced he had lied.  He had Killed Eva.  Wilson had not been involved.  The testimony he and Catharine had given was all a lie.  Wilson was let go and John Trader went back to the narrow walls at Jeffersonville.  Catharine was not charged,

Why did they do it?  Perhaps it was to settle some long festering score with Wilson. Perhaps it was a scheme cooked up by John and Catharine to get him out of prison for a while.  Some prisoners were so desperate to step outside the prison walls, even for a few days, that they would say anything.

Oliver Perry did not stay out of jail for long.  Less than three months after his release he was arrested and convicted of attempting to assault a young Macksville woman along the National Road.

Catharine disappeared from the newspaper pages.

John Trader died in prison of consumption in 1886.  The final entry on his record noted he had large scars near his spine (caused by his father when he tried to kill him) and his arms, like James Martin’s,  were covered in tattoos likely done while in prison.  John’s featured a dancing girl, star, cross, cross two hearts with arrows through them, a flag, and the initials JT with the date 1872 in red and black india ink.

The nest of scoundrels had finally been cleaned out.



The Lurking Spy


John Castleman in later life

Unknown to all but a few, Sugar Creek was only fifteen miles from the center of a Confederate spy ring that was operating in Marshall, Illinois in 1864.  It was a part of what is now known as the Northwest Conspiracy

The Conspiracy was a series of efforts in 1864 and 1865 to destabilize the North by committing acts of sabotage, fomenting insurrection by copperheads and butternuts and, ultimately, free Confederate prisoners in the North, particularly those in Camp Douglas in Chicago and Camp Morton in Indianapolis.  The idea was the brainchild of Thomas Hines, a dashing Confederate cavalryman complete with flowing mustache.  Hines had made an earlier raid into Indiana in 1863 to gauge support for what later became Morgan’s Raid.  Captured along with Morgan and his remaining forces, he had helped engineer their escape from an Ohio Prison.

After pitching his conspiracy plan to Confederate leaders, Hines travelled to Canada, a refuge for Southern sympathizers and spies.   Posing as a civilian, he crossed the border back into the United States to carry out his plan in 1864.  One of his operatives was another soldier named John B. Castleman.  Things did not go well in Chicago and his scheme failed for several reasons.  Perhaps chief among them was that hoped for support from the Butternut crowd did not materialize.  This should not have surprised Hines or Castleman.  Though southern sympathizers in Indiana were quite vocal in their support for the Confederacy, they tended to go silent and fade away whenever they were actually called upon to put their beliefs, and bodies, into action.

Undeterred, Hines and Castleman moved on to further plots in Illinois and Indiana.  Calling himself Clay Wilson, Castleman set up headquarters in Marshall, Illinois.  He may have lodged at the Archer House Hotel in Marshall, where earlier a circuit riding lawyer named Lincoln stayed, but most likely he was housed by sympathizers.  The stretch between Sugar Creek and Marshall was considered one of the most hardcore Butternut areas in the region.  It was an enclave that gleefully hid deserters and those fleeing the draft.  The “headquarters” was a stone house along Big Creek known locally as Castle Fin.  It may have been there that plots were plotted.   He began making connections with Butternuts in the area, quite possibly with some in Sugar Creek.  In a report to the Confederate government he said that Hines was operating out of Mattoon, Illinois

Hines and Castleman’s little “guerrilla network” did actually pull off some acts of sabotage, including blowing up some Union storehouses.  But they wanted to do more.  They still wanted to lead a band of Illinois and Indiana sympathizers to attack Camp Morton and enlist the prisoners in their little army.  Travelling undercover once again, he rode to Sullivan to arrange for some dynamiting to take place there and then returned to Marshall.  On September 29th Castleman left Marshall and rode across Sugar Creek to Terre Haute.  Those along the National Road or in Macksville would have taken little note of handsome man riding by them  At the Terre Haute depot  he boarded a train to Sullivan, presumably to initiate the planned sabotage spree.

Quite unknown to him the braggadocio of some of Hines’ men in Mattoon about the plans was overheard and reported to authorities.  Castleman and two co-conspirators were captured soon after stepping down from the train.  It all seemed over for the man calling himself Clay Wilson. 

But Thomas Hines, who was known for daredevil escapes from danger, had other ideas.  He rushed to Terre Haute with some of his men with the idea of freeing Castleman when the train taking him to prison in Indianapolis  stopped at Terre Haute.  Hines and his men were ready as the train chugged in from the south.  As later recounted by Vigo County Historian Mike McCormick in an excellent article about the event: “Strategically placed around the Terre Haute Depot, Hines’ spies awaited a cue to gun down the guards.   Moments before the signal, a train loaded with Union soldiers chugged into the station.  Castleman, flanked by sentinels, saw the infantrymen arrive.  Hines did not.  Attentive to the insurgents designs, Castleman hastily requested ca well-dressed man standing nearby to warn Hines to ‘back off.’  The man obliged; the warning averted a major incident in Terre haute on September 30, 1864.”


Thomas Hines

The train carrying Castleman and his men steamed east to Indianapolis.  No one on it but Castleman was aware how close they came to bloodshed.  Castleman was charged.  The complaint read that he “did secretly and covertly lurk and travel about as a spy in the dress of a civilian.”  He was convicted and sent to prison.  After the war he was exiled to Europe until President Andrew Johnson pardoned him in 1866.

Young Men and War

Uniform of the 11th Indiana

Uniform of the 11th Indiana

It was going to be a long, long war.

But men from Sugar Creek continued to don the blue uniform.  Many of them were naïve young farm hands eager for adventure, only vaguely aware of the swirling currents that swept them into the coming whirlwind.  They traded chores for the heady perfume of glory.  Their enlistment papers were tickets to a different world beyond Sugar Creek and the Wabash.  A nice uniform, a gun, money in their pockets, a little taste of glory, and then back home by Christmas as laureled heroes.  It would be a grand reunion with loved ones, the hero striding back into a swell of admiration.


They would learn, though, and all too quickly. And they would mourn, and suffer, and watch as life ebbed out of friends on some hazed battleground. The whirlwind they marched into would define them, taunt them, haunt them for the rest of their lives.  They would learn what millenia of soldiers before them realized all too late, that the declarers of wars, old and far from a battlefield,  depend on the gullibility of young men.


But those were lessons still to be learned.  Nearly a thousand Vigo County men enlisted in the two weeks after Fort Sumpter.  That number grew ever larger over the summer.  One of them was William Ray.  He was 16.  William and his older brother worked their widowed mother’s farm southwest of Macksville.  You can also hear his pleas echo still, just like those of other boys over the centuries.  “It will be okay, Ma.  Nothing will happen to me.  Lee can still run the farm, and little George is old enough now to help out more on the farm.  You and the girls will be fine.  Besides I’ll be home before you even miss me.”  He enlisted May, 1861 as a Hundred Day Man in the 11th Indiana Infantry.  After he was mustered out he returned alive and well as he had promised his mother.  But he would go off to war again very soon.  His next return home would be very different.


William joined the reorganized 11th Indiana Infantry.  The 11th had originally been a regiment of 100 day men like William.  When their enlistment was up and the men mustered out the unit was organized anew as a three year enlistment regiment.  The 11th was led by Lew Wallace of Crawfordsville.  Long before he wrote Ben Hur Wallace was a military man.  He fought in the  Mexican-American War as a teenager.  He styled the regiment after the Zouaves, French infantry units known for their colorful uniforms.


Wallace chose their uniform which consisted of  “a grey jacket with red trimming, a grey kepi with red braiding, a dark blue zouave vest, and grey pantaloons.”  William must have looked grand in the uniform as the regiment was feted in Terre Haute and en route to Indianapolis.  He was in Company “D” which was primarily made up of men and boys from Vigo County.  Ray and the others were soon sent to the Paducah, Kentucky area to guard against Confederate troops heading north.


But young William was not to find the glory of war that may have inspired him.  On November 11, 1861 he died, not by shell or bullet, but by disease.  That day William and two other men in Company D perished.  The cause was typhus, which took so many during the war.  William died as the majority of those killed in the Civil War.  240,000 men died of diseases, more than double the number o those killed in action.


William Ray was brought back to Sugar Creek on November 22, 1861.  Several of his buddies from the 11th were there to honor him.   Along with his family they silently watched as his body lowered him into his grave at New Hope Cemetery.


There are some promises to their mothers young men are not allowed to keep.