FIVE DAYS IN OCTOBER
(Week of October 15, 2007)
Ever since I learned of the lynchings that occurred on our courthouse campus on Friday, October 12, 1878, this date has joined the small number of infamous dates that disturb me each time their anniversaries occur: December 7, 1941; November 22, 1963; and September 11, 2001.
Now, as the most recent renovation of our historic courthouse advances towards completion, it might be appropriate to address this grave injustice that was committed soon after our then new center of justice was dedicated.
Should you have read this column occasionally over the last couple of years, you might recall that this tragic chapter of our past has been exposed before.
The facts are that several local prostitutes claimed that several young African American men had raped them on October 8, 1878. Then on October 10th three white men murdered John Harrison whose older brother, Daniel Harrison, Jr., had been named as a rapist.
On October 11th, Daniel Harrison, Jr., was murdered by a white mob.
Next, Daniel Harrison, Sr.’s, home was approached at 2:00 a.m. on October 12th by law enforcement officers who thought another of the accused rapists was hiding there. Daniel Harrison, Sr., allegedly shot and killed Deputy Sheriff Cyrus O. Thomas.
Harrison, Sr., was placed in our county jail that, in October, 1878, was located on the southeast side of the courthouse near some locust trees. Already in the jail were four more black men accused of the rapes.
Late Friday night or early Saturday morning a mob of two hundred to three hundred white men broke into the jail. They first cut Harrison to pieces and put his body parts in the jailhouse privy; they may well still be buried on the campus.
Then they hanged the four young black men from the locust trees and left their bodies there until Officer Thomas’s funeral was over the afternoon of October 13th.
Now that I am aware of this horrendous miscarriage of justice, whenever I near that portion of the courthouse campus where the murders occurred, I feel a need to address this long ignored sordid part of our history.
Of course, we cannot afford justice to the three members of the Harrison family and to the other young men who never received a fair trial. But maybe we should consider establishing a permanent reminder of the denial of their civil rights.
A THOUSAND WORDS
(Week of October 22, 2007)
Glenn Curtis is one of Posey County’s best historians. In fact, Glenn is designated the Posey County Historian by the Posey County Historical Society. Glenn and I have both been involved in the Historical Society for many years and I have appreciated Glenn’s friendship and his large store of knowledge of our county’s interesting history.
Another friend and Posey County historian and researcher and fellow Historical Society member is Ilse Horacek. Ilse is the person who first alerted me to the murders that occurred during the second week of October, 1878. In addition to pointing me to the accounts found in the Posey County history volumes written by Leonard, Goodspeed and Leffel, Ilse provided copies of extensive eyewitness statements found in the “Mt. Vernon Democrat” and “New Harmony Times” of 1878.
The Indiana State Archives sent me copies of the Coroner’s Inquest into the lynchings and I researched the Posey Circuit Court Order Books for 1878 through 1881 in which the legal system’s approach to the murders and rapes is set forth.
These written accounts are sobering but Glenn’s description of the photograph of four young black men hanging from the locust trees on the courthouse campus removed any reasonable doubt as to what occurred on October 12, 1878.
Glenn told me he had been in a local barber shop a few years back when a local man brought in a black and white photograph of the event.
This was probably one of the photographs taken by a Mr. Jones who was on the staff of the “Mt. Vernon Democrat” in 1878. He advertised the availability of the pictures at a price of one dollar.
Glenn is an excellent artist and told me he would try to recreate the scene depicted in the photograph. He described it to me as he recalled it, but a drawing would be most meaningful.
Perhaps someone may know of the location of such a photograph or of other information about this chapter in our history. If so, maybe you could share with the rest of us.
Yes, it was a long time ago, but there is no statute of limitations on justice.
(Week of October 29, 2007)
Daniel Harrison, Sr., Daniel Harrison, Jr., John Harrison, Jim Good, Jeff Hopkins, Ed Warner and William Chambers all lost their lives during the week of October 8-12, 1878, as did O.C. Thomas (Cyrus Oscar Thomas).
Did Daniel Harrison, Sr., shoot and kill Officer Thomas? Did John Harrison try to help his brother, Dan Harrison, Jr., avoid being arrested for rape?
Did Jim Good, Jeff Hopkins, Ed Warner, William Chambers and Daniel Harrison, Jr., rape prostitutes, Jennie Summers, Emma Davis and Rosa Hughes?
Did Posey County’s legal system fairly address these issues in 1878?
Are these events an important part of our history and have most of us even been aware of them?
Does it matter?
After all, none of the people who were directly involved in or affected by these events nor even their oldest child would be alive today.
It is even unlikely that any of the actors would have a living grandchild at this late date.
So, why should we care?
Posey County has prospered and grown since 1878. We have provided many soldiers who have served honorably in our nation’s wars, produced vast quantities of food stuffs and other vital products, integrated our schools and, in general, treated all of our citizens equally and fairly in our legal system. We have much to be proud of and not much to rue.
But the recognition of the events of October, 1878, would enhance, not detract from, our status as a just community. No one today or, in fact, for many years has condoned such actions. We have nothing to atone for in this regard.
It is out of a sense of decency and respect for the memory of the victims and their loss, not out of a sense of any blame or responsibility, that we should mark this tragic and unique episode in our county’s history with a memorial. Most importantly, it would be a ready reminder of how fragile our legal system can be and how vigilant we should be in protecting it.