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Early Parke County Indiana Homicides

Special thanks to Tim Phipps who transcribed and shared this article




Wed., August 9, 1883, p. 5




The Work of Pistol, Knife and Bludgeon – Homicides in Parke: 1820 to 1870

      The valley of the Wabash was, no doubt, like all this western country, infested at an early day by reckless and blood-stained men.  No doubt these wild hollows and dense forests afforded refuge for the bogus-coiner and horse-thief; no doubt a lone traveler or land-hunter was occasionally robbed, and there is little doubt that life was unlawfully taken here as elsewhere in the west.  But beyond the general report, and the fact published in the Terre Haute papers that one Indian had killed another at Dazneys and another Indian had killed his squaw near Roseville, we have no record.  We shall therefore concern ourselves only with those homicides which have occurred since the county was organized.  We shall give the list, including all grades of homicide, and endeavor to distinguish justly between murder and justifiable killing.



In Parke county excited less general notice than any subsequent one – so little indeed that the names of the slayer and the victim are alike forgotten.  They had just located in the tract north of Sugar Creek; they quarreled and fought, as pioneers do.  After an ordinary fight one stabbed the other, inflicting a mortal wound.  The citizens there arrested the slayer and sent word to Sheriff Henry Anderson, who brought him to the county-seat with his legs tied under the horse.  This was thought to be the regular thing for murderers in those days.  The prisoner’s appearance gained the good will of most who saw him; he was quite fair, frank and pleasant looking, and the evidence showed mitigating facts.  He was therefore sentenced for a short term (as people then considered it) served his time and never returned to Parke.  Neither slayer nor victim left family or property, the records are destroyed, and only a faint memory remains in the minds of the oldest citizens.  The affair took place as is believed, in 1824.

      Not long after this occurrence


Was killed, by what was long suspected to be murder, but in the abscence of any conceivable motive on the part of his slayer, was finally decided to be by accident.  Col. Bell was very widely known and as generally liked; while the lad, Archer by name, who killed him, was of a very peculiar temper.  He was reared with no education of any kind, his father being densely ignorant, very unattractive in person and of a rather dangerous temper.  Col. Bell was stealing upon a deer one day in the thick woods, when he received a shot and fell mortally wounded.  Col. Bell himself, before dying, concluded it was an accident, and the boy was never prosecuted.  Opinions divided, of course, the boys friends insisting on the absence of all motive, his enemies having much to say about his gloomy and malignant temper.

      In the year 1826 or ‘7, a still more mysterious event occurred in Jackson township.  At a very early day a man and wife, named Staggs, from Ohio, built and occupied a cabin of buckeye logs.  After they had resided there some four years, the report circulated that they had a considerable sum of money they were saving to buy land.  One night the cabin was found to be on fire, and neighbors being few and remote, it was consumed before they collected.  Neither of the Staggs was ever seen again; but among the ashes were found the


Of two persons.  It is barely possible that they were first suffocated by the smoke and then burned; but the universal opinion at the time was that they had been murdered and the cabin burned to destroy evidence of the crime.  No clue whatever was discovered, but suspicion at length fixed upon one man – for no reason whatever as far as we can learn, except that he was of a gloomy temper and not popular.  Years after he became insane, and then the suspicion suddenly revived.  But there is every reason for thinking it was unjust, and the fate of the Staggs must take its place among the many fearful mysteries which await their only solution at the Judgment Day.

      The killing of “Johnnie Green,” the last Delaware Indian in Parke county, ends the list of homicides in that early time.  “Old Johnnie” was, in his youth, a great warrior, fought the whites with undying hatred and long after the country was settled, he used to tell how he had tomahawked white women and dashed their little babies against the trees.  He was repeatedly warned to keep still on that subject, but always boasted of it when he got too much “fire-water.”  He was very old, for an Indian.  Sitting one day on a rock over-hanging Sugar Creek, he received a shot from a hollow on the opposite side of the stream, and fell dead into the water.  The shooting was charged at various times to three different men among the pioneers, but no legal inquiry was ever made.


Has been the scene of at least three murders, and probably four; and those who assert that “murder will out”, might profitably study these cases; for in none of them was justice brought home to the guilty.  The first was a case of infanticide – a crime which excites intense horror in a new country, among a pioneer people, but becomes less and less an exception as increasing luxury brings increasing licentiousness.  At this day there are probably more cases of child murder (including fetal murder) than of all other kinds of killing combined.  While Liberty township was still almost an unbroken forest, a girl named Smith came there to live with her married sister and soon showed evidence of approaching maternity.  One morning she left the cabin; in the evening she came back with evidence of a change.  Two days after, William Slocum, a hunter, came upon a wild-cat which was dragging an infant’s body through the brush.  Having killed the cat, he gave notice to the ‘Squire; inquiry was made and the Smith girl suspected.  She rose from her bed, dressed herself in man’s clothes, walked to the Wabash and hailed a passing steamer, was taken on board, and that was the last Liberty township ever saw of the unwedded mother.  Like all other waifs of humanity she doubtless “went to her place,”

      Far more mysterious was the


In the spring of 1837.  Mead was an elderly man with a younger wife, of whom he was jealous, his rage being directed particularly against Lewis Thomas; and on this subject Mead was abusive when in liquor.  Thomas and Mead met in Lodi, now Waterman, when Mead was slightly intoxicated, and the two had a savage quarrel, starting home soon after by different routes.  The road leading to Lodi at that time turned straight west from the “State Road” the entire way was through a dense thicket, where hazel brush and vines bounded the view to a rod or two in any direction.  Two days after the above-named quarrel, James Thompson, passing along this road, was astonished at sight of a stream of green flies crossing it in a direct line.  Curiosity led him to follow their line, and in a few rods he came upon the swollen corpse of Luke Mead.  By his side lay a broken whisky bottle, and under his thigh a dead rattlesnake.  On his person were a few scratches, and on his throat a dark ring which might have been made by the grip of a very strong man.  Universal suspicion fixed upon Lewis Thomas, who was a large, muscular man, Mead being small and feeble.  The inquest brought a large crowd, Thomas among them; and some of the jury insisted that every man present should


      This was probably the last case in Indiana of this old English custom.  It was the old idea that whenever a murderer touched the corpse of his victim, the blood would start afresh, as expressed in the “Dream of Eugene Aram”:

      “O, God! it made me quake to see

            Such sense within the stain;

      For when I touched his cold, cold corpse,

            The blood gushed out again –

      For every clot, a burning spot

            Was scorching in my brain!”

      It is needless to add that no blood flowed; but when Thomas touched the corpse, with every neighbor’s eye on him, and suspecting himself to be suspected, he changed color and trembled violently.  Soon after, he was arrested, and had his examination before Esquire Reynolds, Gen. Tilghman A. Howard being his attorney.  The Justice said the evidence was not sufficient to hold; but the people exclaimed loudly against this, and the conviction of guilt was universal.

      The subsequent life of Thomas was miserable, indeed.  If innocent, he must often have cursed the injustice of man.  But one man in the settlement “neighbored” with him.  Children fled from him in terror.  This writer well remembers going with his cousins along Mill Creek, and making a wide detour to avoid his house.  I have seen school children suddenly abandon their play and flee in terror to the school house when “Old Thomas” was seen coming down the road.  Nothing prospered with him.  He lost flesh, and became a steady drinker.  At length, he abandoned the unequal contest, and in 1840, went to California.  There he died a year or two after; but no particulars of his last hours ever reached us.  Liberty township was unanimous in belief of his guilt; but if it should prove that he was innocent, he will certainly have a good case against mankind in the Court of Infinite Justice.


      Ashford Saxton ran a ferry-boat on the Wabash near Montezuma, and Owen Craig established another near it.  A quarrel naturally followed, which resulted in a compromise: they were to divide the business and profits on certain agreed conditions.  In a short time Saxton charged Craig with violating the contract.  The parties met at Craig’s ferry, George Saxton and James Mowbray accompanied Ashford Saxton as friends; but after a few hot words Ashford seized a club and at one blow broke the skull of Craig, who died in a short time.  This was some time in the year 1841.  Popular feeling ran very high against Mowbray and the Saxtons, and all three were indicted for murder.  It was shown that Ashford Saxton was a hot-blooded and contentious old man; the court records show that both Saxtons were engaged in many law-suits about that time, and they were convicted of manslaughter.  At the next term, 1842, they obtained a new trial, Wright & Howard being their attorneys; Ashford Saxton took a venue to Covington, and on a more thorough presentment of facts Mowbray and George Saxton, indicted as accessories, were acquitted.  From Covington Ashford Saxton’s trial was changed to Newport; there the court on a technicality sent it to Crawfordsville, where it was finally determined by his acquittal.  But his constitution was ruined (he was old) and he died a few months after, in poverty, having spent a considerable fortune in his defense.

      During all these removals of the trial, and frequently when Saxton was out on bail or coming back to court, Deputy Sheriff Gabriel Houghman and a young man in his employ attended Saxton, stopped for hours at his house and allowed unusual liberties without danger of losing him.  Great amusement was therefore created when the Sheriff of Fountain summoned a guard of twelve armed men to take him to Newport!  Sheriff Houghman ridiculed the proceeding, and offered to take the old man down in his buggy for nothing and give bond for his safe delivery; but the Fountain Sheriff said he couldn’t risk it.  Before his final trial came on, Saxton couldn’t have run – in fact he could barely walk.

      John Phipps killed John Barnett by a blow with a brick, in Rockville, Dec. 7, 1844.  In April, 1848, Phipps had his final trial and was acquitted.  Full details are not now obtainable.  This Phipps was the uncle of John L. Phipps, who killed Catterson and a near relative of Hiram Phipps, mentioned in the Willis Hart case.


On the 12th of April, 1850, at a log-rolling in Jackson township.  This was another shocking case of family quarrel ending in manslaughter.  The men were relatives by marriage, and Vest was a man of no great character or industry, generally considered a bad citizen.  At the log-rolling he had been drinking, and still held in his hand a very heavy, old fashioned black bottle.  Morlan told him he had acted very badly about their property affairs.  Vest responded: “It’s a d—d lie!”  Morlan said: “I wont take it,” and struck at him with a hand-spike.  At the same instant Vest threw the whisky bottle with such force that it crushed the skull of Morlan, who lingered but a few days in an unconscious condition.  The trial excited  unusual attention, and the defense by Ned M’Gaughey, was thought to be his finest effort.  Henry Slavens prosecuted with equal vigor; after a long session the jury acquitted.  Boyish enthusiasm may have misled this writer, who heard the trial through; but it seemed that we understood every word of McGaughey’s speech, and other boys no older seemed to understand it as well.


      This was a shocking affair: A young man killing his uncle at the end of a long family quarrel.  On the 16th of August, 1854, Elias and Daniel Laney, sons of a widow whose husband was a brother of Daniel H. Laney, went to their uncle’s to settle their troubles.  With few words the uncle seized a club and struck Daniel, inflicting no great hurt; Elias then threw a heavy stone at his uncle; it hit him just behind the ear, producing death in a few minutes.  Both were committed to jail, but Daniel was soon after released on a habeas corpus.  Elias was tried at the November term that year, and his appearance excited much sympathy.  His defense by Hon. J. P. Usher, was one of the most brilliant efforts ever made at this bar, and he was acquitted after several hours session of the jury.  He lived a respectable citizen of this county for many years.


Occurred in Parke county in the year ending with October, 1856; and there was much evidence of a fourth, which, if committed, was the worst of the lot.  In November, 1855, Washington Hoagland, of Liberty township, was killed in the yard near his residence by unknown parties.  He and his brother, Rowan, lived together, both unmarried; and two girls of bad character had made their home at the house for some time.  This was objected to by Washington, and violent quarrels resulted.  One evening a great outcry was made near the house; Washington ran out, and a desperate struggle was heard in the darkness; next morning he was found there dead, the marks of strangulation on his throat and in his hand a pistol which fell from his grasp when he was raised.  This was considered proof that it was placed in his hand after death.  Washington Hoagland was a singularly quiet man, of feeble intellect and without an enemy.  A strict examination was made on the testimony of the brother and the girls; but nothing was developed, though the people generally settled down to the conviction that the girls had guilty knowledge of the murder.

      The following January, the community was greatly excited by local evidences of a murder on Rush Creek in the same township.  Loud cries for help were heard one very dark night; the next day blood was found on the snow and traces where three men had apparently set in the snow behind a stump; sled tracks were followed from the scene to the acqueduct over Sugar Creek and thence to the main road.  It was further proved that an unknown man had left the Rockport mills about dark to go by that road to Howard, and that he was not seen again.  No body was ever found, but suspicion rested on various parties, all of whom soon after left the locality.  Putting these things together, most of the people decided there had been a murder.  No analysis, however, was made to determine whether the blood was that of a human being.  Twenty-six years afterwards, in 1882, a body was found in a sandy ridge two miles south of the locality.  This is all the evidence, and public opinion is now about even as to whether there was or was not a murder.

      On March 3d, 1856,


Received his death wound at the hands of Charles P. Thompson, in front of the old brick seminary in Rockville.  The details present a sad story of boyish rivalry, begun in friendship and ended in anger and killing.  Sill was a boy of great talent and attractive manners, highly and deservedly popular, aged not quite sixteen years; Thompson, two years older, was a new comer, but well liked as far as his acquaintance extended.  He was rather a fluent talker and . . . illegible word . . . writer, and generally excelled in debate in the “Miltonian Literary” – maintained by the lads of the school.  One night in February the “Kansas War,” then exciting the entire country, was debated in the Literary with great heat, terminating finally in a wordy row and breaking up of the session.  Out of this and social matters too trivial to be related, arose a long quarrel; insulting messages passed, and finally an insulting letter from Thompson to Sill.  That after-noon just after school, Sill attacked Thompson: there was a short struggle, in which the fatal stab was given.  Sill lived some thirty hours.  Thompson fled to Mississippi; was arrested and returned, and after two years delay was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment in the Vigo county jail, his final trial being there.  His term was shortened by the Governor; he went to Iowa, served in the army with some distinction and was City Appraiser of New Orleans during the reconstruction era.  When the “white south” got on top again, he went to the far west.  He always spoke of the tragedy with deep feeling, and insisted that it was entirely unpremeditated.  In this we think most of those familiar with the case are now agreed.

      On the night of October 17, 1856, occurred the dastardly murder of


The circumstances were eminently shocking, and disgraceful to all concerned.  On the trial, which this writer listened to, it was proved that Joseph Russell, Willis Hart, Abraham Stipp and Hank Spohr were engaged in playing cards at Miller’s saloon in Montezuma.  There were present also Hart’s son and several others.  After winning some money of Stipp and Spohr, Hart and Russell insisted on closing the game and to restore good humor Russell “treated the crowd,” displaying considerable money.  Hiram Phipps, a neighbor of Hart and Russell, whispered to the latter, “This is a foul crowd; lets get out of it.”  The four then hastened away, followed by Stipp and Spohr who taunted them as “no gentlemen” because they wouldn’t finish the game.  Some more of the crowd followed up from the saloon and a combined attack was trade on the “country crowd,” as they called them.  Russell was knocked senseless with a club; Phipps clinched with an unknown man and at the same instant Hart received a deadly stab.  He tried a day or tow under the influence of opiates, saying several times, “the tall man stabbed me.”  Spohr, a tall man, escaped – he was a total stranger in Parke, and nobody yet knows where he came from.  Stipp was arrested, tried and convicted, receiving a ten year sentence.  The next summer Spohr was found in St. Louis and returned to Rockville.  His youth and strikingly handsome appearance excited much comment and some sympathy.  But he had no defense and was sentenced to the penitentiary for twenty-one years.  He then detailed the affair very minutely, showing to a certainty that he killed Hart, and that Stipp was comparatively innocent; and soon after the latter received a pardon from the Governor.  He has since conducted himself as a good citizen.  Spohr resigned himself to his fate with becoming fortitude and became a “good prisoner.”  He talked but little, but said with much feeling that by drink and gambling he had ruined his life at the early age of twenty-two!  Joseph Russell, the friend of Hart, was himself killed not long after by one Spinning, in Fountain county.  He was a thorough gentleman, and for most of his life an estimable citizen; but in the latter years became somewhat dissipated.

      With the close of 1856 we enter a period within the memory of most of our readers – a time when homicides can scarcely be detailed with complete impartiality.  We therefore give but briefly the subsequent cases, with date of homicide and final settlement of the case.

      Michael McCormack, a feeble old Irishman was most barbarously murdered in his cabin near Montezuma, August ??, 1860, his head being chopped to pieces with an ax.  It was done during a few minutes absence of his partner, who had gone to the field to dig potatoes for a late dinner, in broad day; but not the slightest clue was ever discovered.


      One would naturally have supposed that the four years of terrible excitement, when our people were practically divided into hostile camps and most men went armed, would have been prolific of homicides – the actual facts are surprising.  There was not one homicide in a political quarrel during the war, and only one after its close.  Suspicions are entertained that one young Democrat died of wounds received in Rockville; but there is very little proof of it.

      John L. Phipps killed Berry Catterson on the 25th day of February, 1864, at an evening meeting at a school house in Sugar Creek township.  The wound was in Catterson’s temple, made by a blow from a common pocket-knife, and he lived a few days.  Phipps had his final trial in February, 1867; was sentenced for twenty-one years, but after a few years at Jeffersonville, received a pardon and now resides in Paris, Illinois, a very fair citizen.

      May 3rd, 1864, Washington Painter killed Henry Craft in Rockville, with three shots from a “pepper-box” revolver.  Craft was an English butcher, quarrelsome when in liquor; he made an unprovoked attack on Painter who was never indicted for the killing.

      Riffe Sutherlin killed John S. Hazlitt, July 17th, 1865; took a venue to Montgomery, and was acquitted.  This was a purely political quarrel.


      In 1865 the people were horrified by a handbill – a mother offering a reward of $1,000 for the “arrest or death” of a son for killing his father!  Milton Wineland shot his father, Frederick and his cousin, May 10, 1865; and was some months later, himself killed on the Wabash, near Montezuma.  He was shot by “Colonel” Curtis, who got the blood money; and in November 1869, Frank Redford killed the same Curtis, at Mecca – adjudged to be actual case of self defense and no bill found.

      Since 1870 four men have been killed in Parke county, but the details do not come within the scope of our article.

      The record shows 25 grown men killed, besides well grounded suspicions of four others.  There have also been five proved cases of infanticide, and several suspected and almost proved.  Thus it appears that 30 odd human beings have been slain by violence of their fellows in this county, followed by no hanging and only seven convictions.