You may be aware of a story in the January 11, 2019 New York Times that disclosed the FBI decided to investigate President Trump for possible treason right after he fired FBI Director James B. Comey. As America divides almost in half over whether Donald Trump is a messiah or a menace, probably half of you who read the Times story were infuriated and half of you were elated. Perhaps this column may invoke similar reactions, among a somewhat smaller audience of course.
If you have read Gavel Gamut over the past 28 years you may recall my general philosophical position on our political system is that democracy not bureaucracy is the ideal. In other words, if we want to keep control of our government and our freedom, we should elect all public officials, they should all be term-limited and bureaucrats should be subservient to elected officer holders. Much as we make our military subservient to our civilian authority, we should make sure we do not allow unelected, life-time appointees to rule us via unfettered discretion.
On the local level that means our law enforcement community’s duty is to serve and protect not abuse. And at the federal level that means our FBI, CIA, FISA (United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) and other agencies should serve at the pleasure of our elected officials because we can know who our officials are, and we have the power to remove them at the next election.
Unfortunately, our FBI has always been a political organization with shifting ideologies depending upon the bureaucrats, especially the Directors, who lead them. As set forth on National Public Radio in a January 26, 2018 report:
“Everyone agrees that the FBI should be as professional and impartial as possible and that its investigations should not be driven by any political agenda or vendetta. That has always been the ideal.
… As a matter of reality, the FBI has been political from its outset.
… Surely there is a massive case of collective amnesia afflicting Washington and much of the media commentariat on that score.”
NPR then exposited the sordid history of the FBI being used to harass Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., anti-war protesters during the Viet Nam War and numerous instances of FBI surveillances and investigations of civil rights activists by agents of the FBI whose main purpose was to advance partisan political positions.
I realize if you hate the President, you want him investigated. If you hate Hillary Clinton, you want her investigated. And if you hate your neighbors, you want them investigated. However, you might reflect on the possibility they feel the same way.
As for politically connected matters, some do need to be addressed and even investigated. I respectfully suggest that should remain the purview of Congress. They will gladly proceed.
As many of you, my first job for pay was mowing neighbors’ yards. My brother Phil and I would start the first week after school let out, usually about June 01, asking around for jobs. We charged $2.00 for mowing and trimming a house and yard on one or two lots. The lots were 25’ wide by 100’ long and since this was always summer in Oklahoma the trimming required was minimal; flowers were pretty much hoped for only. Still, trimming with mechanical hand trimmers was a worse job than mowing so Phil and I alternated who did which.
Our business plan originated when I was 9 and he was 10. It began when Dad finally scraped up enough money to replace our ancient mechanical push mower with a power push mower. We went from one or two yards per week to 5, sometimes 6. The gasoline engine used leaded gas and the tank held one quart which was enough for one lot. We usually had to refuel at least once. Gasoline cost less that 20 cents per gallon. A 5-gallon can could be filled for 1 dollar. You can readily see how the net income ran into double digits.
Of course, we had to be up before sunrise and load the gas can onto our wagon so we could walk it the one mile, each way, to a gas station. One problem we sometimes encountered was we would have spent all of our profits from the previous week on pop and snacks or shells for our 22 or 410 for rabbit hunting so we had to have Mr. Hamlin who owned the station front us the fuel.
This first business was pretty good but we yearned for higher goals, that is, more money and less work. So when our Mother told us a lady, Mrs. Juby, from church needed kitchen workers in her restaurant we transitioned from mowing to actual jobs, 50 cents per hour and one meal. Dad said o.k. but we still had to mow our own yard.
Mrs. Juby’s restaurant was one of those iconic small-town eateries. A few plastic covered booths along two walls and a counter down the middle with backless stools along with a menu of plate lunches, always including mashed potatoes. Phil and I had no idea how many potatoes it took to feed the luncheon crowd of one small town. Also, we were tasked with washing the huge kettles and pans the potatoes were washed and boiled in.
Everything went okay for us at first because we knew our place. Mom told us just do what Mrs. Juby said and don’t embarrass the family and Phil and I were pretty handy with paring knives due to all the squirrels and rabbits we had cleaned plus Mom had made sure we were familiar with washing pots and pans long before we got paid for it.
For a few weeks in the summer between my 6thand 7thgrade years Phil and I peeled potatoes and washed pans like the professionals we were. One thing Mom had taught us over the years was how to properly clean and peel potatoes. Most importantly, we knew all bad places, rotten parts, were to be removed. Unfortunately, Mrs. Juby saw the removal of potato parts as an attack on her profits, kind of like Phil and I might have seen the waste of a tank of gasoline.
So, one busy lunch hour we were assiduously washing pans and peeling potatoes when I came across a large spud that was mainly black and mushy. As I was eliminating about 90% of the potato Mrs. Juby burst into the kitchen with her apron flapping. Then when she saw the small remnant of potato I was contributing to the mashing pile her jaws matched her apron. “Jimmy! What are you doing? I’m not made of money you know. Is that why I have had to buy more potatoes? And you Philip! How could you let your little brother waste food like that? Well, I am going to let your Mother know about this. Finish with lunch then you don’t need to come back tomorrow!”
Well, Gentle Reader, my first real job was grand while it lasted, but not nearly as grand as the job I just finished. Thank goodness Mrs. Juby was not voting in Posey County the past 38 years!
On Wednesday, December 26, 2018 at 12:30 p.m. in our historic courtroom in the Posey Circuit Court in Mt. Vernon, Indiana you have the opportunity to see the people whom you have chosen to help run your life take an oath to perform their public trust. On November 6, 2018 you voted for a new Circuit Court Judge, Craig Goedde, another term for Prosecuting Attorney, Travis Clowers, and a new Sheriff in town, Tom Latham, to oversee your legal and law enforcement system.
They will be working with new County Clerk Kay Kilgore, Auditor Sara Beth Meighen, Assessor Nancy Hoehn, Coroner Bill Denning, County Commissioner Randy Thornburg, and four elected or re-elected members of our seven-member County Council, Tom Schneider, Dave Pearce, Stefani Miller and Marilyn Brenton.
Further, each of our ten county townships: Harmony; Black; Point; Marrs; Lynn; Center; Robb; Robinson; Bethel; and, Smith has an elected Trustee and a three-member Advisory Board.
Each of the major office holders has the duty and authority to appoint staff such as Court Reporters, Probation Officers, Deputy Prosecutors, Deputy Sheriffs, and numerous assistants. While it would require more pages than your newspaper has to name all the support staff for those offices, the inability to mention each one does not mean their roles are not important. In fact, some of the public functions the deputies and admin-staff perform are where the rubber meets the road if you or your family need government services.
You may have never thought about all the government employees you hire and pay or you may have wondered: “How do I get that done and who does it where?” Well, on the day after Christmas you have the opportunity to see in person many of the people who will be sworn in to help you.
If you have questioned whether our democracy is alive and well, come to the Courthouse and see it in action. It will make you feel good.
Memorials take many forms and have many purposes. Some are large in scope covering acres of land containing statues and museums, such as Gettysburg Battlefield, or are smaller in area but allow visitors to absorb history and meaning through sober reflection, such as the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site where Custer ambushed and killed Chief Black Kettle, his wife and most of his tribe of peaceful Native Americans.
What should be the design of a Posey County’s memorial to the people and events of October 1878? Of course, that is a community decision best made by representatives of various interests. However, I respectfully suggest the purposes of a memorial should be the same regardless of the physical structure:
To honor the victims;
To recognize the events;
To learn from the past;
And to inspire a desire to make a better future.
When one visits Gettysburg the opportunity to simply walk The Wheatfield as did the Confederates, or crouch behind short stone walls awaiting the charge as did the Yankees is to be transported into the soul of the battle of July 1863.
At Washita, to silently walk the dirt paths the fleeing Indian families took on foot as Custer and his soldiers pursued them on horseback is to experience the horror of November 1868. No museum is necessary.
Whereas the design of a memorial to the events of October 1878 in Posey County should be the result of careful planning with input from numerous persons, the location should be pre-determined. It should be where the murders took place, which was on the campus of our beautiful and historic courthouse.
I respectfully suggest a small area on the southeast corner of the courthouse campus be set aside and that there be medium size stones or marble steles with the names of the victims along with small marble benches where people could sit and absorb the events of 1878 while reflecting on their meaning. Of course, there could be a brief explanation of the events on a historical marker that would match the overall design. However, the design is not as important as the statement we as a community should make by finally publicly recognizing the events.
There were telephone calls, personal inquiries and Facebook posts. Thank you everyone! It speaks well for Posey County that people today are taking an interest in recognizing a terrible injustice that previous Posey County citizens committed and perpetuated by silence over one hundred years ago.
I have been a citizen of this fair county since 1976 and have been deeply involved in our legal system. From 1976-79 I served as the Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney, from 1979-80 as County Attorney to the Board of Commissioners, from 1976-81 as a practicing attorney, from 1981-83 as judge in what was then the Posey County Court (now the Posey Superior Court) and from 1983 to 2019 as the Posey Circuit Court Judge. And while I will retire as a full-time judge December 31, 2018, the Indiana Supreme Court has appointed me as a Senior Judge for 2019. In other words, I have had and have some responsibility for aiding in the administration of justice in Posey County.
Therefore, I believe it is my duty to help seek justice, at least in memory, for the seven men who were murdered during one week in October 1878. The murderers included two hundred white Posey County men who were aided by the silent complicity of the rest of our citizens. Since I first found out about these murders I have spoken and written about the events. The following is the Preface of my historical novel JUDGE LYNCH! that was published in July 2008.
On March 14, 1990, I spoke to the Posey County Coterie Literary Society in the courtroom of the Posey Circuit Court in Mt. Vernon, Indiana. As a thank you, the Society presented me with William P. Leonard’s History and Directory of Posey County (1882). The presentation was made by the Society’s President, Ilse Horacek. I read the book the following weekend and was struck by three brief paragraphs found at page 101:
“Annie McCool, a white prostitute, was murdered at Mt. Vernon, by some unknown person, in September, 1878. Her murderer was supposed to have been a negro paramour.
Daniel Harris, a negro, on October 11, 1878, shot and killed Cyrus Oscar Thomas, a son of Geo. W. Thomas, Esq., of Mt. Vernon, while the latter was in discharge of his duty as Deputy Sheriff. Harris was indicted by the grand jury at the October term of the Circuit Court in 1878, and at the August term of that court in 1881, the prosecutor, William H. Gudgel, entered a nolle prosequi. It is supposed by some and denied by others that Harris was murdered by the friends of his victim who disposed of his body by means which will forever leave its whereabouts a mystery.
James Good, Jeff Hopkins, Wm. Chambers and Edward Warner, all colored, were hanged October 12, 1878, by a body of unknown men, from trees in the Public Square, at Mt. Vernon for murders and other heinous acts committed by them during that year.”
I could not find any further description of these events that had occurred right outside my court chambers so I contacted Ilse who brought me a copy of the Western Star newspaper of October 17, 1878, that she had pieced together from the microfilm records stored at the Alexandrian Public Library in Mt. Vernon.
As a German child during World War II, Ilse observed firsthand the denial of civil rights by those in power. After marrying a soldier from Posey County whom she met in Germany, Ilse made her home in Mt. Vernon and has always been vigilant in the cause of equal justice for all. Ilse pointed me to other sources for more information.
One thing that I personally observed was the four old hangman’s nooses that are still on display at the Posey County Jail. On May 21, 1992, I took those nooses to be props for a speech I had been asked to give on the 1991 Rodney King police brutality case to our local Kiwanis Club. The reaction of the crowd of business and professional leaders to my comparison of the 1991 case in Los Angeles to the 1878 lynchings in Posey County was a surprise to me. That is when I began in earnest to search through the old court records in the courthouse catacombs and the Indiana State Archives.
I have also written about the events of October 1878 several times over the last few years in my weekly column, “Gavel Gamut”. The column appears in our three Posey County newspapers, The Mt. Vernon Democrat, The Posey County News, and the recently revived Western Star as well as The Carmi Times in Illinois.
Each October for the past three years I have reprised the murders and the cover-up. On numerous occasions I have solicited family diaries or records, such as a copy of the photograph Glenn and Kenneth Curtis saw in the 1950’s. Perhaps this book may help bring out more facts.
The Harrison family is often referred to in news accounts and even court records as Harris. For the sake of consistency, Harrison is used throughout this book.
Much of this novel is rooted in fact. But, because many in the white community of 1878 had good reason to avoid exposure and many in the black community were driven out, I have taken poetic license to tell the story and call for such atonement as may be possible.
Jim Redwine, May 2008
That is WHY. Why NOW you might ask? Because there has been no atonement, no recognition, no justice and no memorial for 140 years. The time is now!