A BLOODY TRAGEDY IN ELLETTSVILLE

Blog post by Randi Richardson

Sometimes the line between “vigilante justice” and just downright meanness is quite thin and poorly defined.  Such is the 1854 case in which Harrison Spear, variously spelled Speer, was a victim and Hugh Butler, one of several perpetrators, died.  The assault was allegedly triggered by Spear’s immoral behavior.  Newspapers in various states carried the story which often differed in detail.  It is believed, but not proven, that the Harrison Spear in question was a resident of Indian Creek Twp., Lawrence County.

knifeOn April 15, 1854, the Bloomington Newsletter published information pertaining to a vicious assault on Harrison Spear of Ellettsville by Hugh Butler, Jacob Young and Jeff Raper who were all well into their cups at the time. Spear was described by the Newsletter as a “peaceable but unfortunately a poor man.” It was alleged that Spear was living with a woman of ill repute. The young men lobbed bricks and rocks toward Spear’s home. At one end of the house they exploded a keg of powder and sand putting the inhabitants in fear for their lives.

In the midst of the chaos, someone fired a gun.  Some accounts noted that it was Raper; in other accounts it was Spear. Regardless of who fired it, it struck Butler.  Butler’s companions took him to a physician who declared that the wound was not serious whereupon Butler and the others took up their pursuit of Spear.

Here, too, the story differs.  According to one, Spear quickly fled for his life with his assailants, joined by Hugh’s brother, Frederick, Jr., in hot pursuit.  They overtook him and were beating him terribly with rocks and, it is believed, an axe, when Spear managed to draw a bowie knife and stabbed Hugh in the right side killing him almost immediately.  According to another account, the ruffians managed to get the “old man” out of doors and had him on the ground beating him over the head with a stone when he drew a knife and stabbed Butler.

Whichever of the stories is accurate, covered with blood, both his own and that of Hugh, Spear escaped and fled to the home of his neighbor, Henry Shook who turned him away, perhaps fearing for his own safety.  Next Spear took refuge at some distance in Worley’s tavern.  He ran upstairs and fastened the door with the assailants close behind.  It was there that Worley found Spear covered with blood, still clutching the bloody knife and terrified almost to death.  He convinced Spear to give himself up with the assurance that he would not be hurt by his pursuers.

While Young and Raper made a hasty retreat, Spear was lodged in jail.  On Friday morning, the case was brought for trial before Jno. M. Sluss, a justice of the peace. Because Young and Rader, witnesses for the prosecution, had not yet been found, the trial was continued until the next Friday.  Paris Dunning was one of the lawyers appointed to prosecute Spears.

On May 6, 1854, the Bloomington Newsletter reported that “no bill” was found against Spear for killing Hugh Butler.  Thus ended Harrison Spear’s brief sojourn in Monroe County.

Shorty Owen Feared No One

Blog Post by Randi Richardson

shorty
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.

Sources:

  • 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.

 

 

Regulators Organization Established to Deal with Lawbreakers

The clipping noted below, written by Mrs. Wesley Hayse, was published in an undated, unsourced Bloomington newspaper under a column 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.  The item below was abbreviated from the original, as noted by the ellipsis, and excludes information pertaining to the development of Polk Township.

Horse thieves, crooks of every kind, burglars and counterfeiters seemed to overrun Indiana in the late forties and early fifties, and Monroe County seemed to receive her share of the unwelcome visitors.  Within the county, where the rough country was scarcely inhabited, the ravines and thickets furnished excellent retreats for the outlaws.

The southeastern portion of Monroe County showed early evidence of illegal transactions of this character and several residents of Polk Township were at times suspected of complicity, but nothing definite was learned until late in the fifties.

Many men of good character, who had previously bore good reputations, were sometimes inducted to connect themselves with manufacturers of counterfeit bills or bogus coins in order to reap a harvest for the time being, intending to later resume their places of respect among their fellowmen.

Before this, counterfeit bills on different state banks and bad coin of fair appearance, color and weight had made its appearance in the county at stores, and steps had been taken to find the guilty person or persons, but the rascals had a well-organized system and soon baffled the authorities.  It was no doubt but more of this money was actually manufactured within the county as passers of counterfeit money were quite numerous.

regulators

But finally conditions became so bad that an organization known as the Regulators, men of honesty in Monroe County and vicinity, resolved to, by their own efforts, end the career of the lawbreakers if careful vigilance and persistent effort could possibly bring such things to pass.  And these men did succeed and the plan soon became quite popular as the means of settling with criminals.

One man was shot in the jail in Bloomington by a mysterious crowd of men who overpowered the guards.

In a short time the plan meant grave abuses when a number of men held a grudge against a neighbor they would assemble at night, thoroughly disguised, and give the man a terrible whipping.  A man named Bingham received such severe treatment in this way that his body was a mass of bruised and blackened flesh from the whipping he received.  He died from the wounds within a few days, and he was said to be an honest, upright citizen.

Another man, named Vansickle, who lived in the southern part of Monroe County, was so severely whipped by masked men who took him out one night that he later died from the effects at what became known as “Vansickle’s Mill” in the southern part of Morgan County…