Four Hundred Remniscenes., Clay County, Indiana Page 1
From: A History of Clay County, Indiana
By: William Travis (of Middlebury)
The Lewis Publishing Company
New York - Chicago 1909

Burning of the Court House.

On Sunday night, the 30th of November, 1851, the court house at Bowling Green was wholly destroyed by fire, consuming all the public records but those of the recorder's office. John S. Beem, then recorder, who was a tailor by trade, kept the books and papers pertaining to this office in his shop, where they escaped the flames. The origin, or cause, of the fire, whether accidental or incendiary, was never judicially determined. However, an investigation was made by the board of commissioners at the December term immediately followings as to the probable cause, when the statements of many reputable citizens were heard and all the circumstances duly considered, the board arriving at the conclusion that "beyond a doubt, the fire originated in the hall on the second story of the building, and that it is not in the least attributable to the officers nor those having charge of the house, but was the work of an incendiary." The county officers then incumbent were: George Pinckley, clerk; John Osborn, auditor; John Picard, treasurer; Lot Loving, sheriff, their offices .being on the upper floor of the building.

At an early hour the following morning, December 1, a man rode up in front of Robert Baber's residence, in Lewis township, on the Terre Haute-Louisville road, and asked for a breakfast and horsefeed. While eating he inquired of Baber if he had heard that the court house at Bowling Green was burned. On being told that he had not heard it, the man said further: "Yes, it is in ashes this morning and all the court and other records are destroyed." The man's horse looked jaded and worn, as though he had been hard ridden.

At that time a man named Riley Sexton, whose home was in Sullivan county, was confined in the jail at Bowling Green, awaiting trial for the murder of Alfred Pitts, a Greene county man, whom he shot and killed in an altercation while at work on the construction of the Wabash & Erie canal, at a point near the present crossing of this old water way by the Brunswick-Howesville road. In those days there were no revolvers nor hip pockets, nor was it known that any employe on the work carried a weapon, until Sexton drew from his pocket a small brass barreled pistol and fired upon Pitts, the discharge taking effect immediately above the eye.

As the records were burned there remained no indictment against Sexton, nor was it ever renewed and re-instated. As the sequel, the prisoner was afterward released and escaped punishment for the crime. The man who called at Baber's for breakfast on the morning succeeding the fire was Isaac Sexton, father of Riley Sexton, who was said to be of half Indian blood. Putting this and that together, the reader will reach his own conclusion as to the significance of the circumstance of the elder Sexton's riding up to the Baber residence from the north at the hour of sunrise on the morning of the first day of December, 1851.

Soon thereafter the Sextons emigrated to the state of Missouri, locating near Princeton, Mercer county, Riley Sexton and his wife making the entire trip on foot, carrying with them their personal effects done up in a bandanna handkerchief. Living in a border state, the coming on of the Civil war disrupted the family on the issue of union and disunion, involving the factions in personal criminations and recriminations, in which the elder Sexton was openly charged with having burned the court house in Clay county, Indiana. This statement is made by a present resident of this county of recognized credibility, who lived in Missouri and was neighbor to the Sextons at the time of the "unpleasantness" between the North and the South.

Succeeding the fire there were for a time half suppressed rumors to the effect that the incendiary was an ex-county officer, who had resorted to the torch to destroy the records in order to obliterate what clue and evidence there might be in black and white to his supposed crookedness and malfeasance in office. Later on this was talked aloud, and before the expiration of three years Abijah Donham, a well to do farmer citizen of Perry township, openly charged that John Williams, of Washington township, who had been county treasurer from 1844 to 1850, had committed the crime after the installment of his successor in office as the most effectual way of covering his tracks and evading exposure. To repel this accusation and vindicate himself, Williams appealed to the law by bringing suit against Donham for damages to his character in the sum of $10,000 in the Clay circuit court, Judge Gookins then presiding. In his complaint Williams alleged that Donham had at sundry times uttered words "false, slanderous, scandalous, malicious, and defamatory" of his character and, specifically, that in a public speech he, Donham, said: "John Williams, the gentleman, after having been elevated to office and become rich from the emoluments of office, wrapped the court house in flames."

Mutual friends of the parties to this suit interceded to bring about an understanding and the restoration of amicable relations, and to this end a court of conciliation was convened at Bowling Green in the month of November, 1854, over which William M. Franklin, of Spencer, then judge of the court of common pleas, consented to preside. The parties having been duly notified, both appeared, when Judge Franklin reviewed the legal status of the situation, explaining fully to them their respective rights in the premises, tendering the good offices of his position to bring about a reeoncilation and the withdrawal of the pending suit in the circuit court. Both plaintiff and defendant declined to accept any terms of conciliation.

At the March term of circuit court, 1855, the cause went to trial, the proceedings taking place on the fifth day of the term, the verdict following on the sixth day. The attorneys for Williams were James M. Hanna, Harvey D. Scott and Amory Kinney; for Bonham, Delaney Eckles, John P. Usher and William M. Franklin. The jury impaneled to hear and determine the cause was composed of Thomas J. Hadden, of Van Buren township; George W. Moss and Jonathan Grimes, of Sugar Ridge township; Richard North, of Lewis township; Reed Hixon, of Dick Johnson township; Jesse W. Pearce, of Sugar Ridge township; Daniel Zenor, Benjamin F. Elkin, Oswell Thomas, John Edward and Fergus Shoddy, of Washington township. The verdict of the jury was rendered as follows: "We, the jury, find for the plaintiff and assess his damages at one dollar.
"THOMAS J. HADDEN, Foreman."

It should be added that Williams still survives, having outlived his accusers, the court officers, the attorneys, the jury and the witness in the case.

Phenomenal Fatalities in Campaign of 1888.

In the Cleveland-Harrison campaign of 1888 a strange dual fatality befell two locally prominent residents of Clay City, coincident, in a sense. In the organization of the two opposing parties in Harrison township, Casper Rader was made chairman of the Democratic committee and Joseph Wilbur of the Republican committee.

On the 18th day of September, on the occasion of a Republican campaign rally at Coal City, Chairman Rader drove over to that place to observe the doings of the day. On the return drive, accompanied by Henry Smith, of Clay City, Rader attempted to pass the big, long coupled campaign wagon, running onto sideling ground between the wagon and the fence, when his vehicle was turned over, throwing out the occupants, Rader falling under the heavily loaded wagon, a hind wheel passing directly across his head, crushing the skull, death ensuing instantaneously.

On the night of October sth an excursion was run over the Evansville & Indianapolis Railroad from Clay City to Brazil, on the occasion of the Governor. Porter meeting at the wigwam. In this party was Chairman Wilbur. On the return home, as is frequently the case on such occasions, under the influence of campaign enthusiasm, members of the party moved about, exchanging seats, and passing from coach to. coach. In stepping from one platform to another Wilbur lost his balance and fell between the cars to the track. He was not seen to fall from the platform, but was soon missed, when the train wads brought to a standstill and reversed, finding him lying on the track between the railing, violently injured, from the effects of which he survived but a few days. Both were men of families, Rader aged thirty six years and Wilbur aged thirty five years.

Mrs. Mary Wilbur, widow of Joseph Wilbur, instituted suit in the Clay circuit court against the railroad company for personal damages, which was tried at the January term, 1891, the jury finding in her favor and fixing the damages at $5,000. This judgment was set aside by Judge S. M. McGregor as an erroneous finding, on the ground of contributory negligence.

Interesting Old-Time Election Incident.

At the presidential election of 1828, when Andrew Jackson was first elected, a number of young men in Harrison township voted for him who were not then yet twenty one years of age. There was at that time an organized company of militia in the township, of which these young men were members. Before closing the polls for the day, David White, who was the inspector, appeared at the door and made' the call for all young men past eighteen years who were members of the militia to come up and vote for Jackson, all of them accepting the invitation and casting their ballots as requested. David White, who was the father of Edward White, well known at a later day, was himself an ardent Whig, but was a soldier under Jackson at New Orleans, whose election to the presidency he declared necessary to the welfare and safety of the country. The last survivor of those who responded to White's call was Elias Cooprider, who died November 6, 1901, having cast nineteen votes for president, an experience which comes to but one man in a million.

Twenty Years in Chains.

There are yet living in the county a number of people who remember Simeon Vest, the pauper maniac, who was a county charge for more than twenty years. Vest was a native of Kentucky, coming to Clay county in his boyhood days, the family locating on the old Bowling Green-Brazil road, west side, on what was later and for many years known as the Morgan Bryant place. In his youth and early manhood he was, to all appearances, normally poised, giving out no indications of any mental derangement. At the time of the building of the Terre Haute & Indianapolis Railroad, in 1850-51, the two brothers, Simeon and George Vest, were contractors on construction of a half mile of grade on the Modesitt place, where the town of Newburg was afterward platted and built. Soon thereafter both went back to Kentucky, where they were said to have engaged jointly as contractors on both public and private works. Several yearns later Simeon returned unaccompanied by his brother, so unbalanced mentally as not to be able to give an intelligent and satisfactory account of him. A county asylum having meanwhile been established, he was committed to this institution about the year 1857, and soon thereafter, under the administration of Adam B Moon as keeper, became violent and dangerous, assaulting Moon with a heavy garden hoe, when he was being. restrained by being shackled.

When Moon retired from the keeping of the infirmary, to remove Vest from contact with other inmates of the institution, a special contract was made between the county board and the retiring superintendent of the asylum for his keeping, when he was taken to Moon's residence, on the hill between the Thomas and the Crafton farms, on the Bowling Green-Brazil road, a mile and a half out from the former place, where he was lodged in a small house of one room on the south side of the road. To confine him to his new quarters the chain clamped about his wrist was securely attached to a staple in the floor. The chain was of sufficient length to allow him to walk about the room and have access to, his bed. Physically, Vest was a powerful man, Mr. Moon keeping close watch over him on going into the room to serve his meals or otherwise attend his wants.

As the road passing by his prison home was much traveled, many passersby would stop at the door and talk to Vest. Unless agitated and in very sullen mood, he was easily engaged in conversation and would talk rationally for a moment or two. Frequently, he would call footmen to the door who were going in the direction of Bowling Green and request them to bring him a plug of tobacco or a flask of whiskey. While he seemed to recall former visits and recognize faces, he never attempted to call names. In his hours of aberration and spasms of frenzy he would throw to the floor his man of straw, whom he called Adam Moon, and belabor him to his heart's content, emphasizing his demonstrations with curses of deep revenge. For more than twenty years he was in chains. He died January 7, 1879, at the new county asylum, three miles southwest of Bowling Green, to which he had been taken two years before, age unknown. As his brother George did not return from Kentucky and was not again heard from hereabouts, it was rumored that he might have been foully dealt with by his brother in a freak of emotional insanity.

A Permanent Business Established on a Capital of $1.60.

On the first day of December, 1888, was launched the first issue of the first daily paper in the history of Clay county. Within the week on the last day of which appeared the initial number of the Times, Robert Hinkel came from Crawfordsville to Brazil to look over the field afforded by the city for the support and success of a daily, his available capital on arrival being just $1.60. As the life and success of a newspaper, daily or weekly, are largely dependent on the advertising patronage, the projector and promoter of the proposed enterprise sought to make a test of the encouragement which would be extended by the business men of the place for the first issue, and, with a sheet ruled and prepared for the purpose, started at the court house and proceeded as far west as the Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railroad, securing orders for $s.00 worth of advertising. He then went over the same ground again and by more persistent effort in solicitation increased the amount to $29. Several cases of second hand type were then leased of the Register office and a small shed rented on South Walnut street convenient to press facilities, operated by hand power. An office force of four men who proceeded to get up the copy and composition for the advance issue, meanwhile, were boarded at the hotel. Three hundred copies of a small folio sheet were issued and carrier boys employed to distribute them, who were awarded prizes for lists of subscribers procured during the succeeding week. This edition of three hundred copies has since grown to three thousand and the printing plant, now operated at 111 South Meridian street, Brazil, is the outcome of an original investment and working capital of $1.60.

Coincidence in Land Entries.

Among the earliest and best known pioneers of the northeast part of the county were George G. McKinley and John Graves, who, on coming to the county, but a few years after its organization, squatted on government lands in the immediate locality of what is now Harmony, and proceeded to make improvements. On going to the land office at Vincennes and learning that Graves had not yet made entry of the tract on which he lived and was making improvements, McKinley included this description in the entries which he made, but by some mistake or oversight failed to include his own improvements. Soon thereafter John Stalcup, who settled about three miles north of the National road, on returning from the land office, told Graves that the tract on which McKinley had made his improvements was still open to entry. Graves lost no time in making ready and going to Vincennes, including in his entries the McKinley improvements.

The sequel to these transactions, whatever may have been the motive back of them, was not long delayed. When the directly interested parties became mutually aware of the situation and its possible complications later on, deeds of conveyance were exchanged without any demand for difference in values from either side.

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