William C. Keen

Submitter Unknown

William C. Keen.* The recent deaths of Solon Robinson, of Florida, and Mrs. Bronson, of Switzerland County, bring to memory some events in the career of a third person who figured prominently in the early history of the southeastern part of the State. Gen. William C. Keen was born in Phildelphia, and in early life learned the printer's art, was in Perry's celebrated victory on Lake Erie, where he was wounded. Soon after he immigrated to Indiana and settled in Vevay, and so enthusiastically did he adopt the State that he named the first born to him in it, "Indiana." His wide-awake and "get up" disposition led him to readily engage in work incident to pioneer life. A soldier, who had seen service, readily procured him the appointment of general of militia, and on all muster days he was seen upon his horse riding hither and thither with much dignity of bearing; and with an avoirdupois of 350 pounds, a voice commensurate with it, and with red feather, sash and shining sword dangling at his side he was an object of no small interest to the youngsters who looked for "training day" with as much anxiety as the modern youth does for the circus. Village Squire Perret Dufour relates an instance of his administration of justice to a backwoodsman who had driven a fat steer into Vevay for sale, and, indulging in a little profanity, was arraigned before Squire Keen, who assessed the full amount of the value of the steer, with the costs still unprovided for. In that vigorous application of justice he may have had a premonition of the same kind which was in store for himself, and which will be related hereafter. He published the "Indiana Register" several years, and while in the capacity of editor an opportunity was afforded him to prove that he was no coward. Having offended a certain wild Irishman by something he had published, the injured party entered the editorial "sanctum" with pistol in hand threatening to shoot the General on the spot, whereupon the offending editor raised himself up in his chair and baring his bosom requested the irate gentleman to proceed, but he didn't. And it may not be amiss to state that the General and the people of the county afterward succeeded in taming that wild son of Erin so far, as to induce him to serve the county as clerk for seventeen years; and he might have been serving to this day for aught the writer knows to the contrary, had our glorious temperance principles more generally prevailed. Also whilst publishing the "Register" he was elected to the Legislature in 1825. And also in the preceeding year, he in convention nominated Henry Clay for President and Andrew Jackson for Vice-president. This attempt, as the modern politician may think, to mix oil and water may seem strange; nor was it a success, the contest that year culminating in a triangular one between Clay, Jackson and Adams, the latter being finally elected by the House of Representatives, and, as Jackson's friends claimed, by a corrupt bargain between the other two. Many of Clay's original friends afterward became ardent supporters of Jackson, and succeeded in electing him to the Presidency over Adams in 1828. Gen. Keen was Jackson's admirer ever after. Previously to this time the General had removed to his farm near Jacksonville, six miles out on the road leading from Vevay to Lawrenceburgh, and which place he named "Printer's Retreat." There he established "The Weekly Messenger," but whilst championing Jackson in 1832, he disliked VanBuren, nor would he insert his name with Jackson's in his paper until many of his subscribers threatened to discontinue unless he did. The writer was employed by Keen to distribute his paper in portions of the county, and was the medium of communication between irate subscribers and himself, and representing the revolt as being so general and dangerous in its aspects, the young diplomat succeeded in convincing His Immensity that from a financial standpoint it would be the best thing to admit the little sage of Kinderhook's name under that of the hero of New Orleans. The General readily entered into all objects for the promotion of morals or religion. Not a professor of religion, yet he readily engaged with such as were. The ever memorable and lamented Allen Wiley, the pioneer Methodist minister, assisted with him in building up the first Sunday-school ever established in the little village of Jacksonville, he acting as secretary and always giving the school the benefit of his presence. He also devised the plan and wrote out, perhaps, the first school law in the State entitled, "Rules and Regulations" governing the Jacksonville school association, under which schools were operated many years and until the Legislature enacted the beginning of the present school law. Soon after removing to Printer's Retreat he obtained the location of a postoffice there. Passing over several years of time it may merely be stated that during these years the people became generaly distrustful of him, owning partly to his unscrupulous dealings with them, as well as to some mysteries connected with the management of the postoffice. Money passing through the mail was lost, and these occurrences becoming so frequent, and suspicion resting upon him so strong, the postoffice department determined to set a detective at work to catch him, if the guilty one. Accordingly a fine specimen of a Vermont Yankee, by the name of Taylor, came into the neigborhood and obtained employment, and inquiring at the office for a letter stated that he was expecting money from home. Solon Robinson, afterward the author of the famous "Hot Corn," and whose death recently occurred in Florida, was the detective employed by the postoffice department. To that end he went to Quercus Grove Postoffice, the next one from Printers' Retreat toward Lawrenceburgh and kept by Martin R. Green. Here I may digress a little to mention that Green's connection with this affair made him famous, and from an obscure cross-roads postmaster he was soon elected to the State Senate. This matter brought him conspicuously into public notice, and not the Georgia land transaction, as has been published since his death. He was not of obscure parentage, but the son of a pioneer Methodist minister, and his mother a sister of Dr. Calvin Ruter and Martin Ruter, of New York, who was author of Ruter's Arithmatic, a school book of half a century ago, yet his name was not even known by a tithe of the voters of his county until his connection with the arrest of Gen. Keen introduced him so conspicuously to them. At Green's office Robinson mailed a letter with a $10 bill marked for identification in it to Taylor at Printers' Retreat. The mail was carried by "Uncle Ben COLE," Robinson following in full view all the time until Cole delivered the bag into Keen's hands and he still remaining in sight as Cole came out of the office and placed the bag on the horse's back and pursued his way to the next office, and all the while in view of Robinson, who entered the office with him, and taking possession and examining the contents of the bag then found that the letter had stopped at Keen's office as directed. Taylor made inquiry for his letter and was told that it had not come. Robinson immediately searched the office and found the money in one place and the letter in another. Keen was at the time probate judge, and holding court was arrested after adjournment as he came down out of his seat on a suit issued by Perret Dufour, justice of the peace. I am indebted to Squire Dufour's history of early times in Switzerland County, for this particular of his arrest, but he places it, I think, two years too late (1839 when it should be 1837), from the fact that it was nearly a year after his arrest before Van Buren pardoned him, which was done in the early part of the last year of his term, 1840. His trial was in the city of Indianapolis, before Judge Jesse L. Holman, father of the present Judge Holman, of Aurora. Judge Holman was not only known as an eminently just judge but a minister of the gospel, also, in the most excellent acceptation of that term. With such qualifications for the painful duty, he entered upon the trial of one with whom he had associated many years in business, and mutually with him had suffered many of the trials of pioneer life. The evidence being so conclusive, a sentence of ten years in the penitentiary was given him. Judge Holman, in pronouncing sentence upon him, was moved to tears in announcing to him the painful duty incumbent upon him to consign a life-long friend and associate to such a punishment, and for such a great offense. Protesting his innocence, and having so far escaped detection in other crimes he may have commmitted, he very evidently hoped to escape punishment for this one, and also had determined that he would not go to the penitentiary in the event of conviction, and came to trial fully prepared to beat justice of her due, having secured arsenic about his person, and which he proceeded to swallow as soon as he was placed inside the jail. However sad to comtemplate this case on his own account, yet another one suffered sadness and sorrow on account of it beyond, perhaps, human contemplation. The wife of his bosom, though she had become so only a few months before the crime was committed, yet did she cling to him as affectionately and sincerly as though she had been the wife of his youth to old age. She followed him to this city, remaining by his side during the trial, and sharing his imprisonment was with him when he swallowed the poison, but powerless to prevent it. Fortunately intending to make sure work he took an overdose and thus was foiled in the attempt. Although sentenced to the penitentiary he was never confined even to the limits of town, but was often seen in Louisville with a market basket upon his arm doing the marketing for the officers of the prison and with the key of his own cell in his pocket. His inability to escape or work in consequence of his immense size was the reason for this liniency. After his transfer to Jeffersonville, his devoted wife with a heroism and indomitable will worthy of a better subject to spend her energies upon, set herself to work to obtain his release. She provided herself with a petition written by the late Oliver H. Smith, wherein he stated that up to this act for which he was convicted, he had always stood in high estimation of his neighbors, and was believed to be honest in his business transactions, etc., which was doubtless dictated by her, she believing it to be true. With this she visited Washington and appeared personally to President Van Buren in her husband's behalf. After repeated and long continued importunities, the President finally promised a pardon for him in the event of her obtaining the signatures of the court, officers, and jury who tried him, to a petition for his pardon. Prompted by the hallowed love she bore for her husband, encouraged by the President's promise, and heroically intent upon his release, she at once determined to search for every one whose signature was necessary to enable her to secure the coveted pardon; and, with a petition so worded that it could but have a favorable impression upon the persons sought to sign it, she started upon her pilgrimage. There being no railroads in those days, and few other public conveyances, it can readily be conceived the great undertaking it was--a lone woman to traverse the State to every point of the compass so as to reach twelve men, distributed at various and distant points, and almost the whole journey to be accomplished on foot, yet in due time that great end was reached, after which, she again hurried away to the President to claim his promise, and he was prompt to issue the coveted and well-earned pardon for her husband. After his release they settled in Florence, Switzerland County, where they remained a few years, and thence went to Germantown, Penn., where he was employed to settle a long contested estate, and for which he received $5,000, and then and there soon after died. Some time after his death the widow returned to Florence, and there married a worthy gentleman by the name of Moses Branson, and with whom she lived quietly until a few years ago, when he died, and a little later she also followed him, as well as the first loved one--"with all his faults, still loved"--to the world beyond. Mrs. Branson was Gen. Keen's third wife. He married her in Philadelphia a few months only before he was arrested for purloining that letter; and notwithstanding that he represented to her that he lived in fine style, she came to his house only to find it destitute of the commonest comforts, yet she accepted the situation cheerfully; which fact, with all her subsequent fidelity and untiring perserverance in his behalf until she had procured his pardon for the great crime against herself, must entitle her to a grand historic place as a noble heroine and real representative of true womanhood.
An incident, a closing scene it might be termed, will illustrate the General's ingratitude. Mention has been made of his dislike of VanBuren. During the exciting canvas of 1840 between President VanBuren and Gen. Harrison, and soon after Keen had returned from the penitentiary by the clemency of the President, he made a visit to his old neighborhood, stopping at the village tavern, kept by Uncle Jerry Thomas, a very eccentric and noted character, as also a political friend of the President. As many of the old citizens as could be reached were called in to see the distinguished arrival. Politics of course, was introduced and discussed with the feeling incident to the times, when the General vociferously demanded to know of one good act that Van Buren ever did, and Uncle Jerry answered very promptly: "I can point to one d--d bad act which he did, and that was when he pardoned you." Keen soon took his leave.

The General's patriotism was never at a discount. When the Black Hawk war broke out he issued a flaming call in his "Weekly Messenger," as Uncle Solomon Washer used to call it, for the people to rally and organize a company, which he proposed to lead to the scene of conflict. It caused much excitement among some of the ignorant settlers, thinking it a call by the Government for a draft, and a young Althiger became so alarmed about it that he was induced by some way to cut off the forefinger of his right hand to escape it. The writer has often seen the stub of that finger. As the old hero of that conflict is still living, the Government might consider the propriety of pensioning him for that heroic sacrifice. Mr. Robinson employed Cole, as being a witness, to haul Keen to Indianapolis in a two-horse wagon. It being winter and the roads very soft, they were not long on the way before "Uncle Ben," in his vain attempt to fathom the mud, was compelled to call a halt, and request the riders to unload and help to lift the wagon up to "terra firma," but the General complacently informed him that "Uncle Samuel" had taken the contract to carry him to Indianpolis, and hence he did not propose to work his passage. And thenceforward, as often as they "got stuck," he remained a quiet spectator of their herculean efforts to relieve themselves of the oft-recurring dilemma, assuring them that he was in no hurry, and did not care if it took till midsummer to make a trip. The General's mind was generally a success, whenever an opportunity for sharp practice upon the average settler, or his own tenant, presented itself; but not so at other times, as in the following instance: Conceiving the praiseworthy idea of providing the needy settler his physical and mental food all from the same mills, to this end he removed to his place an old frame of two stories and a hurricane deck; the first and second stories to be devoted to the necessary horse-power and machinery for cracking the corn for the people's evening mush and morning dodger; whilst in the hurricane deck the printing office was to be placed from which was to be ground out the mental food to the benighted young Hoosier. By the aid of the much-to-be-benefited people the old frame was resurrected and by abundant wedging and pinning, persuaded to stand alone. The grinding paraphernalia all being ready, corn in the hopper, the mush water at home in the pot a-boiling, the expectant granger contemplating his victory over the hand-mill and grater, the mill started. Whereupon counting the number of kernels cracked in a given time, it all at once became painfully evident that the aforesaid hand-mill and grater must still be the stand by, instead of the new combination of mill and printing office. The General also soon discovered that, although he might possibly keep his bulky proportions in a perpendicular pose, he and his devil were certain to have more "pi" about supper time than they could possibly get away with. In the gliding years, as he viewed that monument of wrecked hopes and disapointed ambition, his thoughts perhaps were not unlike to those of his fellow-townsman of the city of brotherly love--the patriot banker of the revolution, who thought to build "Robert Morris's mansion," but in all his subsequent life, only beheld "Morris's folly."