Gentle Reader, you will, of course, remember the Gavel Gamut column of December 05, 2005 where one of Posey County, Indiana’s most infamous brawlers was mentioned. One Tom Miller was fond of drink and when drinking was fond of fighting. In the years just before the Civil War old Tom would get liquored up and lick whoever had the misfortune to run into him on the streets of Mt. Vernon, Indiana. As described by John Leffel in the Western Star newspaper Miller would, “Pace the streets of Mt. Vernon with his coat off, sleeves rolled up, his shaggy breast exposed and his suspenders about his waist.” According to the editor, Tom always bellowed the same challenge, “I’m a mean man, a bad man and I orter to be whipped, I know, but whar’s the man to do it?”
Tom Miller was only one small part of our Posey County and new state of Indiana’s reputation for tumultuous living. The sobriquet, “Hoop Pool Township”, was fairly earned by Posey County brawlers who drove visiting boatmen away. And as for frontier justice in Indiana, some experts assert our Hoosier nickname came about from the proclivity of Indiana rowdies to bite off ears and spit them out onto barroom floors.
I am indebted to columnist Erik Deckers who set forth this theory of the origin of the word “Hoosier” in his article contained in the publication Here and Wow, Indianapolis! Vol.1, No. 1, 2018. At page 22 Deckers attributed this possibility to Indiana’s poet laureate James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916) of When the Frost is on the Pumpkin fame who claimed that early Indiana folks would frequently gouge out eyes or bite off body parts which would litter a barroom floor and when the next day someone would kick the removed piece of fleck they’d ask, “Whose ear?”
If I had not dealt with so many cases in court where the behavior of the combatants resembled such activity I might look askance on such a theory. However, I can see some merit to Riley’s analysis.
Well, onto another topic as discussed in last week’s column. You do remember last week’s column, right? Okay, it involved military service and concentrated on my Great Great Grandfather, John Giggy who was a stone mason and farmer from La Grange, Indiana who fought all four years (1861-1865) in Company H of the famed Iron 44thIndiana Volunteer Infantry.
Before being wounded at both Shiloh and Chickamauga and before he saw his first shot fired he and his outfit witnessed a sad spectacle in Henderson, Kentucky that helped them understand one of the main reasons they went to war. Kentucky did not secede, but it did have legal slavery until 1865. In fact, one reason Tom Lincoln, Abraham’s father, moved his family from Kentucky to Indiana was to avoid competing for work with slave labor. Slavery was part of the legal and social culture of Kentucky. The young Hoosier farm boys from northern Indiana who were used to doing their own labor had not had direct knowledge of The Peculiar Institution until they personally observed a slave auction in 1861 just across the Ohio River as they were making their way south:
“It was a strange pitiful sight that of women and little children standing upon the action block to be sold as human chattles. They came wringing their hands and with tears and sobs, lamenting their cruel fate. The soldiers stood near filled with pity and indignation but restrained by law and discipline. Slavery existed at this point in its mildest form. Here were a dozen or more large tobacco factories. The blacks were required as a daily task to strip 400 pounds under penalty of the rod. Children of ten years were given this task. Work hours extended from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. In each room was an overseer whose presence was a threat. Some negroes were well dressed, others ragged. Attendance at church was allowed and many were Christians. They regarded the coming of the soldiers as the precursor of their liberty.”
As to the name Hoosier, Posey County’s most famous citizen, Major General Alvin P. Hovey, while in command at Shiloh came across a Union sentry on a dark night who asked for the password. Hovey was just getting his men to that position and had no idea what password was being used. When the sentry asked, “Who goes there?”, Hovey improvised what he hoped would be an acceptable password and responded, “Hoosiers”. The sentry said, “Welcome Hoosiers.” Apparently, we Hoosiers have been welcomed as such for a long time.