Charley Nelson Defined by the “One Drop” Rule

Blog post by Randi Richardson

registrationOn June 5, 1917, Charley Nelson, age 22, a resident of Bloomington, Indiana, registered for the draft of World War I.  Because Charley’s ability to read and write was limited, as illustrated by his poorly written signature at the bottom of the card, someone else filled in the information for him.  In what appears to be in a different hand than the rest of the information, it is noted that Charley is of “African descent.”

On Monday, April 22, 1918, when the newspaper announced that Charles Nelson had been drafted and his name was among the 47 “Monroe County boys” to head to Camp Taylor on Saturday, April 27, Charley’s mother, Ella Nelson, took immediate action.  The very next day she went before the conscription board and demanded that Charley be sent to war with white soldiers rather than colored troops.

The board, so it claimed, based their decision about Charley’s placement with the colored troops on information provided at the time the registration card was completed.   More specifically, the answer to the question of Charley’s race.

Ella disagreed with how Charley’s race was recorded.  Never mind who provided the information.  She hired Attorney Frank Regester to “get up the necessary papers” to prove that Charley, a son by her husband, Tom Nelson, was only 1/16 negro by blood, that his great grandfather was “a pure, white man” and the great grandmother “one half negro.”  This made the grandfather “one-quarter negro” and he married a “pure, white woman” which makes Tom Nelson, the boy’s father, “one-eighth negro, and he married a pure, white woman which made Charley 1/16 colored and 15/16 white.”

Regester was asked to show the board “that under present Indiana law, a man of 1/8 negro blood is allowed to enter into a marriage contract with a white woman, and so is entitled to be regarded as white” and eligible to go to war with white soldiers.  Charley, with only 1/16 negro blood, certainly met that requirement.

Although the outcome of the action taken by Ella is unknown, there is no doubt that Charley, officially known as Charles Gordon Nelson, did his part during World War I.  In the 1930 federal census, Charley, a “negro,” is identified as a veteran of WWI.  He was enumerated with his white mother, Ella, in Richland Township, Monroe County, Indiana.  And on his flat, granite marble tombstone of military issue at Rose Hill Cemetery, it is noted that he died on December 15, 1954, and served as a “Pvt 2 Prov Sch Det FACOTS,” the latter an acronym for Field Artillery Center Officer Training School located at Camp Zachary Taylor in Kentucky.

A close review of various vital records and military pension applications indicate Charley’s line of descent as follows:  his parents were Ephraim Thomas “Tom” Nelson and Ella (Fender) Nelson.  Tom is consistently identified as black or mulatto and Ella as white.  The couple married in Hamilton County, Ohio, 1893, though there is no evidence they ever lived in Ohio.

An image from the 1900 Monroe County (IN) census record showing Charley Nelson with his racially-mixed family.

Tom’s paternal grandfather, Ephraim T. Nelson, is consistently identified as black or mulatto.  In 1859 he married Mary Ann Fender, white, in Sandwich, Canada, along the Canadian-US border of the Detroit River having gone there from Indiana for about ten days and claiming to be residents of Detroit, Michigan.  Ephraim was drafted to serve in the Civil War; he died of the measles in Tennessee in 1865 less than a year after he was mustered in.

Tom’s paternal great grandparents were Jesse and Lucinda “Lucy” Nelson.  Jesse, born August 16, 1790, in South Carolina, was white and Lucy was identified in census records as black.  However, if Ella was correct in what she told the conscription board, Lucy was only half black.  Perhaps she was one of the 26 slaves previously owned by Jesse, the only white person in his household noted in the 1840 census record in Fairfield District, South Carolina.  Their place of marriage is not known.

Tom’s paternal great great grandfather, James Nelson, was a Revolutionary War veteran. His pension application, and that of his widow, Margaret (Turner) Nelson, is available online at Fold3.  James died on May 28, 1832, and Margaret in 1845.  Afterward the pension was assigned to the two surviving sons, Jesse and his brother, Daniel.

If one looks back at Charley’s paternal ancestors, Charley was consistently defined as either black or mulatto due to the “one-drop” rule meaning that a single drop of black blood, his great grandmother Lucy’s, makes a person black.  Because Lucy was either black or biracial, all those who descended from her were identified as black.  Undoubtedly, however, the color of their skin became lighter and lighter as one after the other of his ancestors married whites.  Many of Lucy’s descendants moved away from Indiana in order to avoid Indiana’s restrictive laws related to blacks and interracial marriage.  Thankfully, throughout the U. S. today those laws either no longer exist or have been much relaxed,  but one must, however, ask if the changes are great and far-reaching enough.

SOURCES:  Bloomington (IN) Evening World, April 22, 1918, p. 1.

Bloomington (IN) Daily Telephone, April 24, 1918, p. 1.

Military pension record for James Nelson, Revolutionary War soldier

Military pension record for Ephraim T. Nelson, veteran of the Civil War

Military pension record for Mary A. Nelson, widow of Ephraim T. Nelson


Blog post by Randi Richardson

Randi and Nathan early 1972.

Christmas is typically a day when families gather to celebrate.  I’d like to share with you a story of my most memorable Christmas.  It was in 1971 with the arrival of a baby.

While most babies are born in a hospital, our baby came from the Glendale Mall in Indianapolis.  We met a person from the agency at the agreed upon time in front of a store the name of which I don’t recall.  It was mid-December and chilly.  The baby was wearing a pastel green onesie that I still have nearly 50 years later.

The baby was handed to me, and my husband took him immediately.  It was love at first sight for a father and his son.

We came bearing gifts as we were told to do.  A white, soft teddy bear purchased in the hours before our meeting.  Other than this, we had nothing for a baby as we learned that we would be parents only the day before.  Hardly believing our good fortune, we didn’t so much as buy a diaper.  The less invested we were, the less we would hurt if something fell through.

The lady from the agency left us alone at the mall for an hour or so.  When she returned, she asked if we would like to keep the baby.  Oh, yes!  “Okay,” she said.  “Go ahead home and we’ll follow up with you.  Was this for real?  Who gets a baby in a mall?

As we headed back to Bloomington we chose a name for our new baby.  Not even bothering to stop at home, we headed to the home of Richard’s mother, Betty (Skirvin) Richardson, in Smithville.  This was her first grandchild.  On Cedar Bluff Road we were met by Richard’s sister, Cherie, who turned the car around and met us at Betty’s.

A few days later on Christmas morning, Richard’s little brother, Bryne woke up about 4 AM.  Betty called us in Bloomington with a heads up.  We hurried to Smithville to celebrate Christmas with family.  What a memorable occasion!

What is your most memorable Christmas?

Dr. John Herschel Lemon Reminisces about Early Life in Bloomington

Blog post by Randi Richardson

The item noted below is based on a column in an unidentified Bloomington newspaper called “Looking Back.” It was found in a scrapbook compiled by a man named Fred Lockwood.  The scrapbook is held by the Monroe County History Center, Bloomington, Indiana.  It also includes information and a photograph from Dr. Lemon’s obituary in the Indianapolis (IN) Star, July 11, 1935, p. 5.

John Herschel Lemon, the son of John A. M. and Cynthia Lemon, grew up near lemonHarrodsburg.  In 1856, when he was about twelve years of age, the family moved to Bloomington where he and his brothers attended the university.  Although the Civil War interrupted John’s academic career, he eventually became a physician and settled in New Albany, Floyd County, Indiana.  In 1929, he wrote John Cravens, secretary of Indiana University, a letter in which he reminisced about his early days in Bloomington.

…We moved…to the northwest corner of the campus in 1856.  South across the street lived Sheriff Pleasant Lorenzo Dow Mitchell, the son-in-law of old Col. Ketchum.  Dr. Eckley Hunter married a daughter, and I think Bruce Shield another.  The Mitchell family was large.

Along west side of town…lived Jim Howe.  His son went into regular military.  I think the next was even then a much worse, two-story brick where Joseph A. Wright* had lived perhaps in his janitor student days.  Emmanuel Marquis, who had served in the U. S. Consulate in some German town, wrapped up a brick that Joe Wright had hodded to the top wall of the Bloomington courthouse.  The brick was presented with some ceremony at Berlin where Wright was minister.  Prof. Marquis said the intention was to show his home folks how a man of the humble laboring class could in America go up to a high place…

North of the old Gov. Wright brick was the large white frame house of Mr. Batterton, the tinner.  He had five daughters.  Jake Wolfe married one and Madison Evans married another daughter.  The Battertons belonged to the Christian Church, and Evans was preparing to become a preacher in that denomination.  He often came to our house to see my older brothers, Alexander Downey and Alfred Homer Lemon.  The death of Evans in 1865 or 1866 was a sad time in our neighborhood.

Next north of the Batterton house lived Mr. McFetteridge (consider McPhetridge and McFetridge as spelling variants) for many years clerk of the court.  After a short distance over low ground was the depot on east side of the railroad.  I think my father owned a lot or two about where the Orchard House is, or was.

We owned a five-acre wood and pasture lot one-half mile or so west of town, south of the Acuff place.  Dr. James F. Dodds’ equal size lot was joining on the south.  Our lot had old, wide-spreading beech trees.  It was a grass slope divided by a small, rippling stream.  Students came often here to declaim or rehearse, especially in commencement time…

I belonged to a militia company.  Several local students belonged, drilling in the clean shade of Dunn’s woods on Saturday, once staying up the night when there was alarm of being attacked by Greene County Butternuts or Copperheads.  The drum beatings, the enlistings and speakings were in the courthouse and public square.  In the college campus, it was quiet as a country Sabbath when a professor was told a student had joined the army, his manner was serious and sad.  Professor Wylie’s son was dead.  Sammy Dodds, the two friends, was dead in distant, bleak Missouri.

Many other young flowers of hope and all faithfulness were dead.  What could these venerable scholar-saints do but enter into a chamber and plead that the time be shortened.

There was always a great crowd at the depot when the afternoon train came with the Cincinnati Gazette.  Oscar McCullough had a news stand opposite the courthouse.  Usually someone read the news aloud.  The others—Wylie, Ballantine, Kirkwood—gathered close to listen, their faces grave as if they heard a voice from land and sea that time was to be no more.  I heard little or no conversation among them.  Kirkwood was slightly deaf.  He had a cane, a worn silk hat and long, black cloak.  After listening to the news they filed away.  They were not good mixers or conversationalists but always polite and kindly mannered and pleased with friendly greeting.  Neither of these three, very great and truly good men, seemed able to contribute to ordinary conversation.

I do not remember Professor Woodburn at the news stand loafing place.  I think he was always busy in the afternoon hammering away with the sometimes large Prep classes.  Truly, the old faculty of the university were a fine, old set of mahogany…

A few months ago I wrote a sketch of Company A, 54th Regiment of Indiana, three month’s men—Captain Daniel Shader [sic] and Lt. William J. Allen.  The company was a fine, made-up group of Bloomington and Monroe County men—some from college.  The names of all are in the reports of [the] Adj. Gen’s office at Indianapolis.  My name appears there as John H. Seamon instead of John H. Lemon.

I have never seen any reference to the service of Co. A, 54th Indiana.  We must nearly all be dead by now.  I was seventeen and one-half years of age in the summer of May 1862…The operations of Co. A, 54th Indiana were for a while as guards over five or six thousand rebel prisoners at Camp Morton and afterwards served in west Kentucky before the slaves were emancipated and shows the attitude of Kentuckians on state rights and against invasion.

Asbury Cravens and his brother were good friends, and their father, General Cravens, and wife, came to see us in Bloomington and to see Richard D. Owen who had a room and board[ed] at my mother’s house when, after my father’s death in 1863, she moved and built a house next to Dr. James F. Dodds, north of his large brick…

Very Respectfully,

John Herschel Lemon, President

Floyd County, Indiana Historical Society

I will mention that in class of 1854, my brother’s name is William Harrison Lemon.  The “Herschel” is in my name.  Also Alexander Dowling should be “Downey” after my mother’s brother-in-law, a preacher about 1824.  South a few miles of Bloomington is [the] Ezra Pering or old Tom Carter neighborhood.

Six years after Dr. Lemon’s letter to John Cravens was published in a Bloomington newspaper, he died in New Albany on July 11, 1935.  His obit was published the same day in the Indianapolis Star (see p. 5).  At the time of his death he was 90 years of age and was believed to hold the record for the longest continued practice of medicine in Indiana.  He also was the father of the Floyd County Medical Society.

*Joseph Albert Wright (1810–1867) was Indiana’s tenth governor.  He served in that capacity from 1849 to 1857 and later became a U. S. Senator.  His father was a brick manufacturer in Pennsylvania who settled with his family in Bloomington about 1819 or 1820.  After the death of his father, 14-year-old Joseph worked his way through Indiana Seminary, later Indiana University, as a janitor, bellringer and occasional bricklayer.

Monroe County History Center Journeys to a Stop on the Underground Railroad

Blog post by Randi Richardson

An interesting, life-size sculpture at the Interpretive Center.

On a chilly Wednesday, November 14, enthusiastic travelers boarded a bus at 9 AM in front of the Monroe County History Center (MCHC) for an all-inclusive, day trip to Fountain City to visit several structures associated with Indiana’s Underground Railroad.  One of those structures was the Levi Coffin House Interpretive Center featured in the Smithsonian Magazine as one of twelve new museums around the world to visit in 2016.

Our first stop was for lunch at the Old Richmond Inn just a few miles south of Fountain City.  Our group was seated in a private dining room where steaming silver trays of food and a carving station awaited us in great abundance.  The food was every bit as delicious as it looked and smelled which prompted a fair number of us to anticipate an equally great dessert.  Alas there was none.

Our next stop was the Interpretive Center, a 3-story facility that opened in December 2016 with a number of interactive exhibits, a large gift shop that offered for sale abridged versions of Levi Coffin’s historic autobiography,  and an education room where we saw two short videos related to the underground railroad.  One of the videos featured a woman whose slave ancestor wore the wooden, Dutch-like shoes on display in the upper level of the Center.  On the sole of one of uncomfortable-looking shoes was a large, worn hole.  Where had those shoes traveled and what hardships had they known on their path to freedom? I wondered.

Thoughtfully, the Interpretative Center was located just across the street from the Coffin house.  Coffin, a Quaker merchant, had the house built for his family in 1839.  Although he owned the property until 1860, he left Fountain City, then called Newport, in 1847 and never again lived there.

During the course of Coffin’s residency in Fountain City, it is said that he aided 2,000 fugitive slaves in their escape to freedom.  On the uppermost floor of the three-story, brick home, accessed by narrow stairways, were places where the fugitives could be hidden in the eaves.  Fortunately, however, and due in large part to Levi’s legal savvy, the home was never searched.  After Levi’s relocation in Cincinnati, he continued to aid slaves and is believed to have assisted a grand total of 3,300 by his own estimate.  For this reason he is often recognized as the president of the Underground Railroad.

The Levi Coffin House was identified as an historic landmark in 1966.  Restoration, largely done with the help of the community, was completed in 1970.

The U. S. Department of the Interior placed the house on the National Registry of Historic Landmarks in 19666.  Restoration of the home began in 1967 and was completed in 1970.  Long-time owners of the home, who were aware of its history, kept it in good repair and preserved some of the home’s furnishings.   Today visitors to the home can see most of the original fireplaces, floors, doors and glass in the windows.  The furnishings all predate 1847 and are typical of the time period and those of a Quaker family.

This lovely piece of textile art in the hallway of the Coffin home is one of its few contemporary furnishings.

Our last stop, a few blocks away via our warm bus, was a restored Friends Meetinghouse established in 1837.  It was here that Levi and his wife, Catherine, attended the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends along with other like-minded Quakers.  Details of the church are available in an online video and at Facebook as noted below.

If you missed this interesting trip, you may want to gather your family and visit these historic properties on you own.  And if you’d like to receive news of future trips, send an email to Andrea Hadsell, the MCHC educator, at    The MCHC would love to welcome you aboard on their next journey through history.  Membership is not required.


For more information check out these online resources:

Restored Friends Meeting House– or

Levi Coffin State Historic Site–


Shorty Owen Feared No One

Blog Post by Randi Richardson

Several Bloomington policemen standing at attention in front of the Monroe County jail c. 1913.  From the archives of the Monroe County History Center.

George McQueen “Shorty” Owen (variously spelled Owens) was a tubby individual with a cold eye who feared nothing that walked on two legs.  He had several siblings including a sister, Lizzie, who had that same cold eye.  She was a teacher in the local schools for a number of years and had no trouble controlling the boys in her charge.

Shorty, a native of Indiana, was born about 1855 to William Dunn and Sarah Owen.  For many years he was one of the Showers factory boys but finally left his bench at the factory to go into politics and first ran for town marshal about 1887.

Back in those days, Saturdays was the weekly fighting holiday—a political rally or national holiday was a sort of field meet for fights.  Saturdays was Marshal Owen’s busy days.  A cry of “Fight, fight” would bring Shorty at a swift pace and within a few minutes he could be seen going down an alley to the jail with a struggling individual.  But it wasn’t often he had to use a club to get a man to jail.  He never used a “billy” unless the unlucky man was sober enough to put up a real right.

The fights were mere pastime for Shorty, a cop who had a policy of never arresting a drinking man if the man would go home.  Also, every Saturday Shorty conducted various farmers to their wagons and started them home.  He was a sort of majordomo of the week and drinking festivities.

There were enough saloons in Bloomington to accommodate all the local thirsty and all the thirsty visitors as well.  With liquor in them, the town men fought because of differences and the country boys fought for pure pleasure.

There were several country families that celebrated each visit to Bloomington with a glorious fight.  The fight always started in a saloon or in front of one, then it continued up an alley to the hitchrack and around the square or to a side street where the family team and wagon was waiting.  Arrived at the wagon, the fighting family made a valiant retreat out of town, well satisfied with the usual pleasure which a trip to town offered them.  There were two or three families of four or five brothers who never finished their Saturday in town without a fight.  It must have been against the generally accepted rules to use a gun for few of those fights resulted seriously.  Even the use of a pocket knife was not good form.

Once in a while a bad individual would come to town, announce that he was bad and that he was going to perform in a bad, bad way.  When Shorty arrived, he would walk up and take the gun away from the bad man then take him to jail or run him out of town.  Shorty was one of the most fearless individuals who ever walked the streets of Bloomington.

As the years passed, Shorty began to have more than a local name; his name was used by mothers in compelling the obedience of bad little boys.  In fact, so great was the fear of Shorty that bad little boys ran and hid when a rumor passed up the street that he was coming.  In spite of the bad name which the mamas of the village gave him to their children, Shorty was kind to all the kids.

After serving as town marshal for twelve years, Shorty finally fell a victim to politics and was defeated by Ed Johns.  He lived only about a year after leaving office, much of that time in failing health.  In late October 1900, he went to Nashville, Indiana, to take advantage of the mineral baths.  Upon his return home in early November, feeling no better or worse than usual, he sat down to breakfast one morning at the home he shared with his sister, Lizzie.  His head suddenly dropped forward and the dying man breathed his last.

At the time of his death Shorty was 43 years of age, lived with Lizzie at 504 N. Lincoln Street in Bloomington where the funeral was held, and never married.  Lizzie filled out the information for his death record.  No place of burial was noted.  In addition to Lizzie, he was survived by two brothers, Charles of Waynetown and William Dale Owen who served as Secretary of the State of Indiana from 1885 to 1891.


  • George M. Owen Death Record, Ancestry.
  • An undated and unsourced item written by Blaine W. Bradfute found among newspaper clippings in a scrapbook compiled by Fred Lockwood at the Monroe County History Center.
  • George M. Owen obit, Bloomington Evening World, November 5, 1900, p. 1.



College Closed Due to Outbreak of Cholera

Blog post by Randi Richardson

Cholera is a bacterial disease typically spread by drinking water contaminated with human feces.  It causes severe diarrhea and dehydration and can be fatal in a matter of hours.  Left untreated, the mortality rate is about 50 -60%.  In industrialized countries with modern sewage and water treatment, cholera has been virtually eliminated.  The last major outbreak in the United States occurred in 1911.

Before that time, especially during the nineteenth century, cholera grew to epidemic proportions because people had no understanding of how the disease could be prevented through sanitation.  Drinking water was often drawn from rivers, stagnant water sources like canals and shallow wells, some near seeping cesspools.

Cholera first appeared in the United States in 1832.  During that year cholera claimed the lives of thousands of U. S. citizens and those abroad.  More than 5,000 people died in New Orleans alone; 55,000 in Paris and the United Kingdom.  An outbreak in a community would cause extreme panic prompting people to flee elsewhere.

There was a prevalence of cholera in Bloomington during August 1833.  After the death of a student enrolled at Indiana College, all classes were canceled and students sent home until the faculty deemed it safe for them to return.


Another epidemic of cholera struck Bloomington during the 1850s.  Citizens died by the score leaving doctors bewildered and in a state of helplessness.  Many victims of the dreaded disease were frantically buried without benefit of customary last rites.  All saloons in the town were ordered closed until the malady had passed.  Very little congregating was done, fear occupying the minds of the populace.

The Bloomington Town Council, in a desperate move to combat the inroads of cholera, purchased 200 bushels of lime which were to be spread about town.  It was reasoned that the scattering of lime would act as a purifying agent and at least prevent further spread of the epidemic.

In the summer strange ideas came forth on how best to protect one from the ravages of cholera.  Perhaps the most surprising one, and one accepted by many as highly potent, was the belief that cholera originated from fresh fruit.  The eating of fruit in season was, therefore, strictly taboo in the homes of many citizens.  A few families went so far as to destroy their fruit, but they were in a minority.




Keeping with the Halloween spirit I thought I’d share a newspaper clipping we recently found in the collection. This is from the Bloomington Telephone, a bi-weekly paper, from Friday, April 17, 1891.

The Worral family that live just north of Crossroads church, have had some trying experience with ghosts. On one occasion the mysterious forms were seen at the window, trying to enter, when they were seen at the window, trying to enter, when they were told if they came in the name of the Lord, to come in, but if they came in the name of the Devil to depart; and they departed.

Cross Roads United Methodist still exists today on W. State Road 48/W. Third Street/Whitehall Pike and is one of the oldest churches in town. According to a 1947 article titled “Old Bloomington….” from an unknown newspaper, several Worralls were listed as members in 1885.  But which Worrall (spelled Worral in the 1891 article, Worrall in all other sources) had ghosts? After some digging around I found an obituary for Albert Worrall from the Bloomington Times dated June 21, 1937. In the obituary it stated that Albert died at his home on Whitehall Pike and that he lived there for 48 years. Based on this information it is safe to assume that Albert and his family,wife Rebecca, and children Glen, Mary, and Raymond, were the Worralls who had a paranormal experience back in 1891.

Albert left England with his parents and siblings when he was just 8 years old. His family lived in Northern Indiana for one year before relocating to Monroe County. Albert lived in Bloomington for 66 years and is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery along with his wife, parents, and other family members. It is unknown if they experienced any other ghost sightings after 1891.

Blog post by Megan MacDonald