It is October, my favorite month. The air is cool but one can work and play outside without a heavy jacket. When we walk through the still yet green grass the heavy dew leaves interesting evidence of our intrusion. While October has always brought a sense of contemplation to me, ever since I was made aware of the tragic events of that fateful October of 1878 in Mt. Vernon, Posey County, Indiana, my reverie for the month of October is haunted by the murders of Daniel Harrison, Sr., John Harrison, Daniel Harrison, Jr., Jim Good, William Chambers, Jeff Hopkins and Ed Warner.
Until March of 1990 I had no reason to be concerned about any spectres arising from my courthouse campus as I arrived for my work as the Circuit Court Judge. But on March 14, 1990 at the invitation of my friend, Ilse nee Dorsch Horachek, I spoke to the Posey County Coterie Library Society in my courtroom about the history of the courthouse. As a thank you, the Society presented me with a copy of William P. Leonard’s History and Directory of Posey County first published in 1882. That evening I read the history and at page 101 found the following passage:
“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.k.a. Harrison), a negro, on October 11, 1878, shot and killed Cyrus Oscar Thomas, a son of Gen. 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.”
My family and I had lived in Mt. Vernon since 1976. I was deeply involved in the Posey County legal system as the Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney from 1976 to 1979 and had been serving as a Posey County Judge since 1981 at the time I read this brief passage. I had never had anyone ever mention these events. I telephoned my friend Ilse and asked her if she was aware of them. Ilse came to my chambers that day and brought me a copy of a microfilmed newspaper article from the Western Star newspaper; a portion of the front page of that article is set out below:
John C. Leffel who was the editor of the newspaper and who had personally interviewed the five men who were murdered and was an eye witness to the event set the tone for how the community should react when he editorialized that Posey County should just “[L]et the appropriately dark pall of oblivion cover the whole transaction.” And that is what occurred for over 100 years until Ilse brought me the article. It is one of this dark event’s great ironies that Ilse nee Dorsch Horachek was born in Germany and married American soldier Corporal Gene Horachek who was from Mt. Vernon, Indiana. Gene’s ancestor was the Deputy Sheriff O.C. Thomas who was killed in the line of duty. Officer Thomas’ name is enshrined on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial for officers killed in the line of duty. His memory is appropriately still honored by the Horachek family and is one of the reasons Ilse was familiar with the lynchings. Another reason is because Ilse was personally familiar with the evil we humans are capable of visiting upon one another as she observed the atrocities of Hitler’s Third Reich. Ilse’s extraordinary life includes having met Hitler when she was four years of age in 1934 and then later being horrified by his actions. See her interesting book Flowers for Hitler.
Another irony in the exposé of the long forgotten collective violence of October 1878 is the involvement of a remarkable teenager named Sophie Kloppenburg whose mother is German and whose father was Black. Sophie’s mother works in Mt. Vernon, Indiana where Sophie just graduated from high school. She is now attending college at Columbia University on scholarship. Sophie has worked tirelessly and successfully to have a memorial to the victims of 1878 erected on the courthouse campus. She has also organized a one-year anniversary memorial ceremony that will include a panel discussion at 10 am at the Alexandrian Public Library in Mt. Vernon and a vigil at each of the four corners of the courthouse campus beginning at 6 pm. The events will take place Saturday, October 21, 2023; the public is invited to both.
Mr. Leffel’s scheme of allowing these collective atrocities to be left in the dustbin of history has been frustrated. Ilse’s eyewitness to Hitler’s crimes along with her coincidental connection to Officer Thomas, my childhood of growing up in segregated Osage County, Oklahoma, and Sophie’s German and Black heritage have all come together along with the involvement and contributions of many other current Posey County residents have finally come together to lift that dark pall of oblivion.
Taken from The Police Gazette (1878).
Edited by Gene Smith and Jayne Barry Smith