Criminals, Indianapolis, Pop Culture, Sports

John Dillinger the ballplayer.

John “Jack Rabbit” Dillinger and the Mooresville “AC’s”

Original publish date:  April 8, 2021

Despite John Dillinger’s meteoric rise to infamy and spectacular headline grabbing death, his Indianapolis boyhood was unexceptional. He attended public schools for eight years in the Circle City and was a typical student. His teachers recalled that he liked working with his hands, was good with all things mechanical and liked reading better than math. He liked hunting, fishing, playing marbles, the Chicago Cubs and playing baseball. He was energetic and got along well with others (although he often bullied younger children), was cocky and quick witted. Dillinger quit school at age 16, not due to any trouble, but because he was bored and wanted to make money on his own.
During World War I, Dillinger tried to get a job at Link Belt in the city but was rejected because he was too young. Instead, he took a job as an apprentice machinist at James P. Burcham’s Reliance Specialty Company on the southwest side of Indianapolis and worked nights and weekends as an errand boy for the Indianapolis Board of Trade. All the while, Dillinger played second base on the company baseball team. One slot on Dillinger’s resume included a four day stint with the Indianapolis Power & Light Company drawing the hefty sum of 30 cents an hour. Just long enough for the “ringer” to help the IPL team win a league title.
In his spare time, Dillinger hung out at the local pool hall where he drank and smoked with the older men and cavorted with the local prostitutes. One of the regulars later recalled, “John would come in, hang up his hat and play pool at a quarter a game. He wasn’t very good, and he frequently lost. When he would lose two dollars, he’d put back the cue, get his cap, and walk out without a word. Never gave anyone any trouble and never said much.”

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In 1920, his father, John Dillinger Sr., believing that the city was corrupting his son, sold his eastside Indianapolis Maywood grocery store property and moved his family to Mooresville. For the next 3 years, young Dillinger split his time between Moorseville, Martinsville and Indianapolis, traveling by interurban or motorcycle nearly every day. The athletic Dillinger quickly caught on with the semipro Mooresville Athletic Club’s “Athletics” baseball team. His reputation on the local sandlots and his quick speed earned him the nickname “The Jackrabbit”.
The 5-foot-7, 150 pound middle infielder batted leadoff and led the Athletics in hitting, for which the team’s sponsor, the Old Hickory Furniture Company, gave him a $25 reward on their way to the 1924 league championship. His game was so tight that other local teams began to pay him to play ball for them and throughout that summer the cash poured in.

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Dillinger’s younger sister Frances, who passed away in 2015, insisted that her brother was good enough to draw Major League scouts to tiny Martinsville just to watch him play. Flush with confidence and blinded by the glare of an obviously bright future, Dillinger married Beryl Ethel Hovious in Mooresville on April 12, 1924. The couple moved into his father’s farm house but within a few weeks of the wedding, the groom was arrested for stealing 41 Buff Orpington chickens from Omer A. Zook’s farm on the Millersville Road.
Though his father was able to work out a deal to keep the case out of court, it further strained his relationship between them. Dillinger and Beryl moved out of their cramped bedroom and into Beryl’s parents’ home in Martinsville. There Dillinger got a job in an upholstery shop. All the while, Dillinger continued to play baseball. In between calling balls and strikes during AC Athletics games, umpire Ed Singleton (a web-fingered local drunk and pool shark 11-years his senior) was in the young shortstop’s ear. Singleton said he knew an old man, Frank Morgan, who carried loads of cash in his pockets around the streets of Mooresville.

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Beryl Hovius and John Dillinger


On September 24, 1924, the young and impressionable Dillinger accompanied Singleton on what turned out to be a botched stick-up. After ambushing Morgan with a heavy iron bolt wrapped in a cotton handkerchief and knocking him unconscious, Dillinger fled the scene, thinking he had killed his victim. Turns out the bolt was not heavy enough to render an unconscious blow so Dillinger pistol whipped the old man in the face. The gun went off, firing harmlessly into the ground, unbeknownst to the young hoodlum. The robbery netted just $50 ($750 in today’s money).
Upon hearing the gunshot, Singleton panicked and drove away with the getaway car, stranding Dillinger, who ducked into a pool hall a few blocks away. Dillinger was arrested the next day at his father’s farm and held in the county jail in Martinsville. His father visited him there and told “Junior”, “Johnnie if you did this thing, the only way is to own up to it. They’ll go easy on you and you’ll get a new start.” Dillinger, who did not have a lawyer, pled guilty and received a 10-year prison sentence. His accomplice Ed Singleton hired a lawyer and received just 5 years. John Dillinger had launched himself into the big leagues of professional crime. But again, baseball would play a pivotal role in the young outlaw’s life.z pendleton
While incarcerated at the Indiana Reformatory in Pendleton, Prison officials recognized his superior ball playing skills and quickly recruited him for the prison ball club. On July 22, 1959, the 25th anniversary of Dillinger’s death, the Indianapolis News ran an article on Dillinger the ballplayer by “Outdoor Columnist” Tubby Toms. “His play was marvelous, both in the field and at bat… He might have been a Major League shortstop the caliber of a Pee Wee Reese or a Phil Rizzuto.” Tubby further mentioned an interaction between Governor Harry G. Leslie and Dillinger. Leslie, who has been detailed in a couple of my past columns, was a legendary athlete at Purdue University. Leslie always made it a point to stop and linger on visits to watch the prison ballplayers in action.
Tubby, who was the News Statehouse reporter at the time, recalls a 1932 visit to the prison with Governor Leslie when both men watched the reformatory’s baseball team take on a local semipro club. The two men couldn’t take their eyes off the shortstop whom fellow inmates were calling “jackrabbit”. Governor Leslie strongly believed in the rehabilitative power of organized competition and took a keen interest in inmates who applied themselves and excelled. So it wasn’t unusual that Dillinger captured his attention.

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Governor Harry Leslie


Later that day, as fate would have it, Governor Leslie presided over Dillinger’s parole hearing. After Dillinger was once again denied parole, the dejected outlaw asked a question of the board. “I wonder if it would be possible to transfer me to the State Prison up at Michigan City? They’ve got a REAL ball team up there.” The Governor then said, “Gentlemen, I saw this lad play baseball this afternoon, and let me tell you, he’s got major league stuff in him. What reason can there be for denying him this request? It may play an important part in his reformation.” His request was granted and to this day, his official records state that he was sent to the big house “so he can play baseball.” It was at Michigan City where John Dillinger, under the tutelage of more seasoned cons, learned how to be a bank robber.
On May 22, 1933, Governor Paul McNutt released Dillinger from State Prison. Within a month, he held up the manager of a thread factory in Monticello, Illinois. A month after that, he held up a drugstore in Irvington. From there, he graduated to robbing banks. Dillinger followed his beloved Cubbies for the rest of his short life. Legend states that he even attended a few games at Wrigley Field while perched atop J. Edgar Hoover’s most wanted list. In fact, while playing toss in the outfield before a game in August of 1933, the bank robber was pointed out to outfielder Babe Herman as he sat with a group in the left field box seats. Cubs Hall of Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett often recalled how Chicago police routinely knew that Dillinger was in the crowd of Cubby faithful at Wrigley Field but never turned him into the G-men. Cubs all-star Woody English was once stopped on his way to the ballpark because he drove the same model of car as the outlaw did.
In a letter to his niece Mary, with whom he used to play catch, Dillinger said he was going to try and head east to see the Giants play the Senators in the 1933 World Series. Unfortunately, he was arrested on Sept. 22, 11 days before the start of the Fall Classic. He did, however, make money betting on the Giants, who won the series in five games. The 1933-1934 hot stove season was a busy one for Dillinger. He busted out of two jails and on June 22, 1934, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI officially dubbed him Public Enemy No. 1. Dillinger responded by hiding out in plain sight in the city of big shoulders. He went to movies, partied at night clubs, toured the Chicago World’s Fair (more than once), and took in several Cubs games.Dillinger almanac


After a near fatal, botched plastic surgery in May of 1934, Dillinger dyed his hair, grew a mustache, and sported dark sunglasses to attend games at Wrigley to test out his new look out. One of Dillinger’s known hideouts in Chicago was an apartment at 901 W. Addison St., just two blocks east of Wrigley Field. On June 8th, Dillinger watched as his Cubs witness from the season before, Babe Herman, hit a 2-run homer in a loss to Cincinnati 4-3. In a story that made newspapers nation-wide, Dillinger watched from the upper deck as again Babe Herman drove in a pair of runs during a June 26th game as the Cubs defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers 5-2.
Mailman Robert Volk, who was in the garage in Crown Point on March 3, 1934 when Dillinger broke out of jail, instantly recognized the arch-criminal and the robber recognized him too. The outlaw got up and sat down next to the terrified man. After sitting in chilled silence for a while, Volk shakily said “this is getting to be a habit”, to which America’s most wanted bank robber replied “it certainly is.” Dillinger smiled and shook the mailman’s hand, introduced himself as “Jimmy Lawrence”, and left during the 7th inning stretch.

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Despite this close call, Dillinger returned to Wrigley again on July 8th to watch the Pirates get pounded by his Cubbies 12-3 (for the sake of continuity, Babe Herman went 1 for 5 in this one). After the blowout, the Cubs left on an extended road trip. They were still on the road against the Phillies on July 22 when Dillinger decided to catch a movie at the Biograph Theatre. The White Sox were in town that afternoon playing a double-header against the Yankees. The Bronx Bombers ‘moidered” the north-siders in both contests. Had Dillinger been a White Sox fan he might have avoided his date with destiny and lived to die another day. He might have been in the bleachers to catch Babe Ruth’s 16th homer that day. Instead he caught a hail of bullets in a damp Chicago alleyway. According to the Cook County coroner, the jackrabbit was only three pounds above his old playing weight.

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Music, Pop Culture, The Beatles

The Beatles, John Lennon, WIFE… and Irvington. Part I

Original publish date:  May 6, 2021

Last Winter, I was contacted by Irvingtonian Bill Price with a story idea. Bill is journalist Nelson Price’s cousin. Nelson is a good friend and host of the Hoosier History Live radio show that airs live from noon to 1 p.m. each Saturday on WICR 88.7 FM in Indianapolis. I have been on Nelson’s show many times over the years as have several Irvingtonians active in the literary and history communities. So I was happy to learn of our shared connection and even happier to find an Irvington connection to this story.
Bil Price lives on Graham Avenue right in the heart of Irvington, just back of the Methodist church and behind Jockomo’s. Price relates, “I was born at 16th and Ritter, but really grew up on the westside. Nelson and my grandparents lived on 9th Street over by Ellenberger Park. I moved over here after college in the late 80s. Lived by Howe for 14 years and then bought this house on Graham around 18 or 19 years ago.”

Price reveals, “In the John Lennon film “Imagine” from quite a few years back, and the documentary about him recording the Imagine album, there’s a scene where a young hippie / vagabond type of man who is apparently a shell-shocked Vietnam vet shows up at Lennon’s house. Lennon is patient and talks with him and even invites him in to eat some food. Recently, another film “Above Us Only Sky” has been released about Lennon and has the same footage. While watching this clip, I noticed something peculiar. There is a car parked outside Lennon’s house that has a WIFE Good Guys radio sticker on the back window! I am wondering how in the world did a sticker from a local Indianapolis radio station end up on a car in John Lennon’s driveway in England? I’ve asked a couple local musician buddies of mine who seem to know a lot about local music / radio and The Beatles, etc., but they have no idea of any Indianapolis connection to John Lennon at that time.”
Well, Bill, you are absolutely correct, that sticker is most certainly from Indianapolis. The sticker, which features a bearded B&W beatnik smiley faced character holding up a bright yellow sign reading “WIFE Good Guy”, appears on the left side of the rear window of Lennon’s Circa-1971 Mini Cooper. Indeed, the clip from the documentary features a scene in which a young man named Curt Claudio shows up at Lennon’s house “just to see him.” The house, actually an estate mansion known as Tittenhurst Park, is located in Berkshire, near the town Ascot in England.


In the scene, which can be easily found on Netflix, John is leaning against the pillars of the mansion that date back to 1830, Yoko stands nearby her husband. The disheveled young man, his long hair flowing over the Shearling fur collar of a ragged sheepskin coat, carries on a lengthy, disjointed conversation with his hero from just a few feet away. Given that the scene was filmed mere months after the Manson family murdered Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring and several others under supposed orders from The Beatles White Album and knowing the way Lennon’s life ended less than a decade later, the scene is eerie to behold.
The young man had written several letters, one of which apparently stated, “I’m coming and I just need to look into your eyes and I’ll know.” Apparently Claudio had been secretly living in the rough on Lennon’s 72 acre estate for days. London police wanted to arrest the troubled fan but Lennon wouldn’t allow it, instead opting to gently talk to him face-to-face. Claudio apparently believed that some songs were speaking directly to him. Lennon does his best to dissuade that notion by asking how that could be possible since the two were strangers and stressing, “I’m just a guy who writes songs. Don’t confuse the songs with your own life. I mean, they might have relevance to your own life, but a lot of things do. So we met, you know, I’m just a guy. I write songs.”

Curt Claudio


As Claudio starts to quote the star’s lyrics, determined that the words were about him, John gently counters: “I was just having fun with words. It was literally a nonsense song. I mean Dylan does that… you just take words and you stick them together and you see if they have any meaning. Some of them do, some of them don’t.” Claudio replies: “You weren’t thinking of anyone in particular when you were singing that song?” To which Lennon replies, “How could I be? How could I be thinking of you, man? I’m thinking of me, and at best Yoko if it’s a love song. I’m singing about me and my life, and if it’s relevant about other people’s lives, then yeah, that’s alright.” Claudio looks devastated and his eyes drop to the ground. John then says: “Are you hungry?” gesturing to his friends he adds: “Let’s give him something to eat.” At which point Claudio is invited into the house and is seated at the dining room table with John and Yoko and they all eat a meal together.
For years, there was some confusion as to exactly who Curt Claudio was. Most accounts pegged him as a Vietnam War Vet. Others a hippy strung out on heroin. Still others claimed he was a deranged patient from a San Francisco mental hospital. According to the website “thedailybeatles”, Curt Claudio was born Cesare Curtis Claudio in Alameda, California on August 28, 1948. He graduated with the class of 1966 at Kennedy High School in Richmond, CA. He died in a plane crash in Fremont, CA. on December 22, 1981, a year and two weeks after Lennon’s murder. Part of Claudio’s legend states that he was so devastated by Lennon’s death that he deliberately crashed his own plane to end the pain.

Curt Claudio and Yoko Ono


Curt’s older brother Ernie cleared up the mystery, “Curt was never in the military. He was a straight “A” student in high school and earned a scholarship to the University of California in Davis, CA. Then he started using drugs and dropped out of school. He spent most of his life working on farms. We worked at Ford Motors in Milpitas, California until they closed the factory. Ford gave their employees $12,000 so they could re-train for another job. I asked Curt,” What are you going to do with your $12,000?” Curt said, “I’m either going to buy a Harley or an ultra-light airplane.” He bought the ultra-light, and that’s what killed him. He was flying too low and too slow and the plane stalled. The plane came down, bounced off a carport roof, and landed in a tree, six feet off the ground. The high impact caused his aorta to separate from the heart. Death was instantaneous.”
In 1973, John Lennon sold Tittenhurst Park to his former bandmate Ringo Starr, since Lennon had decided to live long-term in the United States and move to the Dakota (where he died). In 1988, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan – President of the United Arab Emirates and former ruler of Abu Dhabi – purchased Tittenhurst Park from Ringo Starr for 5 million pounds. Renovations took place in 1989-1990, during which many elements pertaining to Lennon’s, Ono’s and Starr’s time still on the property were removed. Astonishingly, during those renovations, wall paintings by Lennon were destroyed.


But what about that sticker? The one from the WIFE Good Guys in Indianapolis? Where on earth did that thing come from? Well, I found the just the guy to solve the mystery. And he lives right here in Irvington.

Abe Lincoln, Creepy history, Ghosts, Politics, Presidents

The Mumler Abraham Lincoln Ghost Photo.

Original publish date:  October 22, 2020

Last Saturday before the Irvington ghost tours, one of our volunteers, Alex McFarland, initiated a conversation that seemed to be a perfect topic for the evening: the Abraham Lincoln ghost photo. Known officially as the “Mumler photos”, these were a series of posed studio photographs, not unlike any old time photo, usually in Carte de Visite (or CDV) form, that can be found at any antique show, shop or mall today. The difference is, Mumler’s photos had the visual image of a ghost in them. The most famous of the Mumler photos features widowed First Lady Mary Lincoln with her deceased husband, President Abraham Lincoln.


William H. Mumler

William H. Mumler (1832-1884) was a well-known Boston photographer who claimed to be a “medium for taking spirit photographs.” Mumler was part of the growing phenomenon of spiritual manifestations introduced in 1848 by the Fox sisters of Hydesville, N.Y. The three sisters held séances at their home (near Newark, N.J.), that featured spirit rappings and table tippings in response to their queries. Their amazing “abilities” caused a sensation that spread across the country. With its long history of highly intelligent, intellectually curious populace, Boston became an epicenter for the movement attracting spiritualists, mediums and psychics from all over to the mysterious world of the “higher plane.”
In 1871, the camera was still in its infancy. The technology had graduated from metal to glass to paper photos readily available and affordable to the general public like never before. The country was still mourning from Civil War losses, in some cases having lost entire male lines of families and large portions of towns and communities. The loss of loved ones was still fresh and many turned to any means necessary to see and talk to their loved ones one last time. Mumler’s promise of contact in the form of visual evidence drew flocks of true believers to his studio at 170 West Springfield Street in this city historians called the “Cradle of Liberty.”


In February of 1872, seven years after Lincoln’s assassination, a still grieving Mary Lincoln arrived at William Mumler’s Boston Studio to have her picture made. Dressed in mourning, she gave the photographer a false name (‘Mrs. Lindall”) and kept her face concealed behind a black veil. In 1875, Mumler recalled in his autobiography, “I requested her to be seated, went into my darkroom and coated a plate. When I came out I found her seated with her veil still over her face. I asked if she intended to have her picture taken with her veil. She replied, ‘When you are ready, I will remove it.’” The widow Lincoln was used to dealing with charlatans and knew how to prevent their tricks.

The reason she landed at Mumler’s studio was because her dead husband had appeared to her at a séance earlier in Boston. The medium told her she should visit Mumler’s studio because the photographer had the ability to capture the shadows of the dead on photographic negatives. Mumler always claimed that he did not recognize his subject until the after he developed the negative. And then only after he recognized the image of the martyred President did he realize it was Mary Todd Lincoln. His visitor just may have been the most vulnerable woman in America, shattered by death and loss for the past two decades.
Mary never recovered from her husband’s assassination six years before and the loss of three of her four sons, all dead before their 18th birthdays. Even before her husband’s death, Mary Lincoln had embraced spiritualism, the belief that spirits of the dead can be contacted through mediums. Reputedly going so far as hosting seances in the White House and visiting mediums in Georgetown and D.C., sometimes accompanied by the President himself. So her visit to the studio, today located near historic Frederick Douglass square in Boston, was unsurprising and predictable. It should also come as no surprise that the photo, the greatest presidential ghost photo ever known, is a fake.


Mary’s visit to William Mumler’s studio (one of five Boston studio locations he occupied during the 1860s-70s and 80s) stands out as one of the grand hoaxes of the Spiritualist period. The distraught first lady must have been satisfied, even consoled by the image, but to our practiced modern eyes, this photograph of Mary Lincoln remains a touching, if sadly preposterous, fake. Nonetheless, it was Mumler’s most famous portrait. Mumler’s Lincoln image is his most reproduced photograph, and it is believed to be the last photo ever taken of Mary before her death in 1882.
The story of Mumler’s spirit photography began as an accident and turned into a joke. In 1861 the 29-year-old jewelry engraver was living in Boston and experimenting with the new art of photography as a hobby. In his autobiography, The Personal Experiences of William H. Mumler in Spirit Photography , Mumler claimed his discovery was made while developing a self-portrait. While the plate was soaking in the tray of toxic chemicals, he noticed the mysterious form of a young girl slowly materialize on the negative. Amused and mystified, Mumler printed this curiosity and showed it around to friends, claiming that it was the ghost of a dead cousin. Mumler, a man of “a jovial disposition, always ready for a joke,” decided to show the photo to his spiritualist friends, pretending that his picture was a genuine impression from beyond the grave.

The Boston psychics fell for the gag and soon Mumler’s ghost photos were circulating around the city. It became an instant sensation and once Mumler’s photo was published in The Banner of Light and other spiritualist newspapers, he became an instant celebrity. The “spirit cousin” was nothing more than the transfer residue of an earlier negative made with the same plate, but it was declared a miracle and Mumler the jeweler became heralded as the “oracle of the camera”. Mumler soon left his job as a jewelry engraver and opened his own photography business full time.

Here’s the scam. On arrival, the subject of the photo was greeted by William’s wife Hannah, she would chat up the client who would invariably reveal who the spirits were that they wished to appear in their sitting. Hannah had some clairvoyant abilities of her own and she often offered her own intuitions about the spirits surrounding her husband’s clients, resulting in the client’s unwittingly revealing more precise information. All while William Mumler was eavesdropping from the adjoining room. Part of his con included a “vacuum tube” that glowed as an electrical current was run through it which he claimed was a special force he then channeled into the camera. It was P.T. Barnum style showmanship pure and simple.

For this special ability, Mumler’s fees were extravagant. At the height of his fame, Mumler charged $10 for a dozen photographs, roughly five times the average rate. Worse, there was no guarantee that any spirits would appear. If Mumler or his wife sensed a particular vulnerability in their subject, the spirits would not appear in the photos. And clients were encouraged to make repeated trips to Mumler’s studio before they were blessed with a true spirit photograph. If the high fee was ever questioned, “The spirits,” Mumler answered, “did not like the throng.”


Boston’s other photographers were not impressed by Mumler’s ghost photos. James Black, one of Boston’s premiere photographers famous for his aerial views of the city taken from the perspective of a hot air balloon, was convinced that Mumler was cheating. He set out to catch him at it. Black bet Mumler $50 that he could discover his secret. Black examined Mum­ler’s camera, plate and processing system, and even went into the darkroom with him. In his auto­biography, Mumler described Black’s reaction when a ghostlike image emerged on the negative right before the doubter’s eyes as, “Mr. B., watching with wonderstricken eyes…exclaimed, ‘My God! Is it possible?’”

P.T. Barnum.

Of the incident, Mumler later recalled, “Another form became apparent, growing plainer and plainer each moment, until a man appeared, leaning his arm upon Mr. Black’s shoulder.” The man later eulogized as “an authority in the science and chemistry of his profession” then watched “with wonder-stricken eyes” as the two forms took on a clarity unsettling in its intimacy. Despite the best efforts of countless investigators, no one was able to determine exactly how Mumler created his apparitions. With the photographic elite unable to debunk Mumler’s ghost photos, hoards of desperate souls flocked to Mumler’s studio-including a grieving Mary Lincoln and the master of all hoaxes, P.T. Barnum himself.
Soon Mumler’s pictures became the subject of great speculation among his peers from all over the country. In 1863 noted Boston scientist, physician and avid photographer Oliver Wendell Holmes not only gave step-by-step instructions on how to obtain a double exposure in an essay for the Atlantic Monthly , but he also contemplated the popularity of Mumler’s pictures. “Mrs. Brown, for instance, has lost her infant, and wishes to have its spirit-portrait taken,” Holmes wrote. “It is enough for the poor mother, whose eyes are blinded with tears, that she sees a print of drapery like an infant’s dress, and a rounded something, like a foggy dumpling, which will stand for a face…An appropriate background for these pictures is a view of the asylum for feeble-minded persons…and possibly, if the penitentiary could be introduced, the hint would be salutary”
Further confounding the experts was the fact that the apparitions seen in a Mumler photograph had human features, lifelike gestures and filmy interactive forms. They are translucent spirits, not hard edge ghosts. That was the secret of a Mumler ghost photo. To mediums, psychics and spiritualists, Mumler’s photos depicted what they believed: that the afterlife was a paradise, simply the next step in human existence, albeit on a higher plain. All questions of process and motives aside, Mumler’s subjects were satisfied with the results. Distraught parents saw visions of children gone for years. Grieving widows saw husbands one more time and widowers looked into the eyes of deceased wives once again.
Eventually, Mumler was a victim of his own vanity and the third deadly sin of avarice: aka Greed. The more people that showed up, the more Mumler had to perform. Some prominent Boston spiritualists, once avid supporters of Mumler’s ability, began to examine the ghost photos more closely only to discover that some of the “spirits” in the images were still quite alive. The ragman, the butcher, the schoolteacher, the cop. These were normal people walking the streets of Boston, all past subjects of Mumler’s “straight” photo studio sessions utilized by Mumler in the photographs of strangers. Eventually, Mumler’s business in Boston fell off.


He died on May 16, 1884 holding patents on a number of innovative photographic techniques, including Mumler’s Process, which allowed publishers to directly reproduce photographic illustrations in newspapers, periodicals, magazines and books. Mumler’s skill as a photographer was only rivaled by his talent as a con artist, but he never really experienced any accumulated wealth from his labors. Mumler maintained to the end that he was “only a humble instrument” for the revelation of a “beautiful truth.” To further confuse matters, Mumler destroyed all of his negatives shortly before he died. William Mumler’s photographs may be products of pure hoaxing, but the question of whether technology is capable of catching spirits on film remains with us to this day. Search the web on any given day and you will see photos of every type captured by cameras of every description. Security cameras, ring doorbells, digital images and cellphones continue to capture photos of mysterious orbs, mists, apparitions, shadows, dancing lights and unexplainable phenomenon of every description. The allure of capturing a ghost on film, especially that which is invisible to the naked eye, may have begun with William Mumler but it continues to this day.

animals, Criminals, Indianapolis, Wild West

The National Horse Thief Detective Association.

PART II

Original publish date:  November 12, 2020

The southern Indiana town of Warren, a stop on the route of the Indianapolis & Ft. Wayne Railroad in Huntington County, had one of the first local Horse Thief Detective Association chapters. The town’s story typifies why a HTDA chapter was needed. Warren had a race track that drew horses from across the tri-state area; horse thieves could easily ride trains and the interurban from larger neighboring cities, steal the horses, and hide them in Wells County caves – where the Huntington County sheriff couldn’t cross county lines to look for them. In 1800’s Indiana, a deputized vigilante force of constables was formed to track, arrest and detain these suspected horse thieves. Indiana was frontier back then. It might take days (or weeks) for a US Marshal to appear. So locals took matters into their own hands.
However, there was a frail line between being protectors of people and property and frontier vigilante justice. The latter, called whitecapping, led to the beating and very often lynching of people who whitecappers saw either as criminals or simply people whose actions were eroding the morality of a community. In many cases, by the turn of the 20th century, the NHTDA had devolved into a violent lawless movement among farmers defined by extralegal actions to enforce community standards, appropriate behavior, and traditional rights.


In September of 1897, newspapers reported on the “Versailles lynching,” or the “Ripley lynching” in which 400 men on horseback came to the Ripley County jail demanding that five men there, all facing charges for burglary and theft, be turned over to them. County residents were being victimized by thieves that were becoming bolder and more aggressive – sometimes conducting their crimes in broad daylight. One of the most egregious of these, which was reported to have led to the lynching, was the alleged torture of an elderly couple who had hot coals put to their feet by men demanding money. The deputy in charge of the jail refused to turn over the keys, but was quickly overpowered.
“The mob surged into the jail, and, unable to restrain their murderous feeling, fired on the prisoners. Then they placed ropes around their necks, dragged them (behind horses) to some trees a square away and swung them up,” according to an account in the Sept. 15, 1897, issue of The Madison Courier. The men killed were Lyle Levi, Bert Andrews, Clifford Gordon, William Jenkins and Hiney Shuler.

James A. Mount.
Indiana Governor James A. Mount had called immediately for those responsible for the lynching’s to be brought to justice, writing to Ripley County Sheriff Henry Bushing and ordering that he “proceed immediately with all the power you can command to bring to justice all the parties guilty of participation in the murder of the five men alleged to have been lynched. Such lawlessness is intolerable.” Despite his best efforts, the identity of those responsible for lynching these men was never discovered.

Anti-Horse Thief Association lapel badges.


Mount, who was ironically also the NHTDA’s president, reported that from 1890 to 1896 the association had investigated the theft of 75 horses and had recovered 65, leading to the conviction of 129 thieves. Mount condemned the lynching by saying, “The hideous crime of lynching is not to be measured by the worth or the character of the subject lynched, but by the dangerous precedent established,” he stated. “We would be unworthy of an organization created by the statutes if we dared to insult the law by becoming law breakers ourselves.” The vigilante spirit that once drove the organization ultimately turned ugly but remained strongest in Indianapolis.
The front page of the Feb. 25, 1925 Indianapolis Star reported that 13 Democratic State Senators bolted to Dayton, Ohio to thwart the forming of a quorum (subjecting themselves to a $ 1,000 fine per day) to pass an appropriation bill that included the gerrymandering of a Democratic Congressional District. The Star reported that “members of the Horse Thief Detective Association would come to Dayton to attempt to arrest the striking Senators.” It was clear that by 1925, the NHTDA had turned into little more than a well-organized mob of armed thugs with badges.

Anti-Horse Thief Association badge and watch fob.


By 1926 there were still as many as 300 active companies of the National Horse Thief Detective Association in Indiana and neighboring states. The western states version was known as the National Anti-Horse Thief Association and out east, the Horsethief Detection Society (founded in Medford, Massachusetts around 1807). And while by this time, horses were few, crime had not diminished much. By the Roaring Twenties, most of the NHTDA agencies had formed alliances with the Ku Klux Klan. It is this late association with the KKK that hastened the end of the organization and forever tarnished its history.
D.C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the Indiana KKK, wanted to take advantage of the broad legal powers afforded to Indiana’s horse thief detective associations. Stephenson utilized the Hoosier NHTDA chapters, still on the books but mostly forgotten, as his “hidden” enforcement arm of the KKK. He succeeded in having KKK members infiltrate the group. The post-World War I atmosphere fomented fears of political radicals, outsiders, foreigners, seditionists and minorities which played right into Stephenson’s klan plan. Stephenson’s klan latched onto fears of racism and, particularly in Irvington, anti-Catholic sentiment at the time.

Anti-Horse Thief Association ribbons.


Stephenson’s klan quickly gained momentum in the state (membership cresting at half a million members) but that all changed with his brutal assault on Madge Oberholtzer, an adult literacy advocate and state employee. Oberholtzer died of injuries suffered in the attack, but not before implicating Stephenson in a graphic 9-page deathbed statement that ultimately led to his conviction for second degree murder. Madge’s death brought down the klan and proved once and for all that, contrary to his boastful statements, he was no longer the law in Indiana.

Klan Leader D.C. Stephenson


Stephenson was denied a pardon by the Irvington resident he claimed to have gotten elected Governor: Ed Jackson. He began to leak the names of all those he had helped to elect with his influence and dirty klan money. D.C. Stephenson’s savage attack of Madge Oberholtzer in Irvington hastened the destruction of the KKK and took the NHTDA with it. (In 1928, the Indianapolis Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the biggest scandal in the state’s history.)
In 1928, the group dropped the “Horse Thief” specification from its name in an attempt to rid itself of the Klan connection. The name change to “National Detective Association” didn’t take. By 1933, Indiana lawmakers had repealed all laws that gave the agency, regardless of name, any enforcement powers. These organizations remained on life support into the mid-1950s, but their reputations were ruined irreparably. By 1957, all such groups had faded into history. The desperate demise of the association has in many ways complicated its history. The Indiana organization, despite its onetime prominence and clear tie to the state’s history, has been largely stricken from the state’s history.


Like the Klan itself, association with the NHTDA in the Hoosier state seems to have become a taboo subject, deservedly so. So the task has fallen onto collectors, county historic societies, local libraries and archives to maintain records, roles and histories of local chapters of the NHTDA. However, the Anti Horse Thief Association fared somewhat better.
Likewise, the Anti Horse Thief Association was formed as a vigilance committee at Fort Scott, Kansas in 1859 with a noble cause: to provide protection against marauders thriving on border warfare precipitating the Civil War. It resembled other vigilance societies in organization and methods, but the AHTA did not share some of the shadier tactics of the Hoosier NHTDA. Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri had the largest number of active AHTA chapters. A major difference between the AHTA and the NHTDA was that not only could a thief steal a horse and hurry across a state line, they could also escape into the Indian territories where local authorities could not easily follow. Stealing horses was easy and lucrative. Horses were seldom recovered, since it typically cost more to go after them than they were worth.
The AHTA was not a group of vigilantes, capturing horse thieves and hanging them from the nearest tree. The group believed in supporting and upholding the law, and the last thing they wanted to do was break the law. The AHTA worked hand in hand with law enforcement, gathering evidence and testifying in court to punish horse thieves and other criminals. It was a way for law-abiding citizens to restore order by working with law enforcement rather than becoming helpless victims.


Although it was a “secret” organization, nearly any man could join. To become a member of the AHTA, it was only necessary that you be a citizen in good standing, male and over eighteen years old. One of the reasons the AHTA was so successful was because the members didn’t have to worry about getting extradition orders and crossing state lines while bringing back a thief. The AHTA had a clever way around this. If a thief was chased into another state, part of that state’s AHTA group would remain close to the state line. When captured, they would take him to the line and tell him to, “get out of our state and don’t come back.” As soon as the thief crossed the state line he would be arrested by AHTA members on the other side waiting for him.
AHTA membership peaked at 50,000 in 1916. As with the NHTDA, World War I changed rural life, members left for the war, many never to return, and mechanization replaced horsepower. As automation took over, and horses were used less, stealing them became a misdemeanor offense. By the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, AHTA membership shrank drastically, only a few individual chapters survived as social clubs.
Although the Horse Thief Associations are all gone now, horse thieving still exists. There are no solid statistics available, but it is estimated that between 40,000 to 55,000 horses are stolen each year. It is relatively easy to pull up to a pasture and coax a horse into a trailer and haul it to an auction and make a quick buck. Sadly, most of these stolen horses taken to auction end up at a slaughterhouse. There is a modern-day version of the AHTA. It is called Stolen Horse International (SHI). Thanks mostly to the Internet, SHI boasts a 51% recovery rate of stolen horses that are reported within the first day of the theft.
And what what remains of Indiana’s NHTDA? Today, badges once worn by HTDA, NHTDA and AHTA members are highly prized by collectors. Badges vary in style, size and design according to chapter and year. Collectors also seek out buggy markers (designed to be nailed to a buggy to signify a buggy owner’s membership) and books, stickpins and ribbons are also highly sought after. Relics from a lost era when horses were a part of the family and the only pollution being produced could fertilize your garden.

Criminals, Indianapolis, Wild West

The National Horse Thief Detective Association.

PART I

Original publish date:  November 5, 2020

I’ve spent the past month talking about the past. Relics from the past. Some good. Some bad. One of those relics has an unusually ancient sounding name: The National Horse Thief Detective Association. Sounds like something from an old B-western movie right? Visions of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry on horseback riding hell bent for leather immediately gallop through our minds. Truth is, the NHTDA is not as ancient as you might think. And of course, it has ties to Irvington.
The National Horse Thief Detective Association was sort of a nineteenth-century rural neighborhood crime watch, aimed not only at prevention but also apprehension and the execution of justice. And it wasn’t just looking for horse thieves. The NHTDA was as much a civic organization as a law enforcement agency — largely composed of white, property owning men wealthy enough to pay the dues. The NHTDA was well organized. It had branches (or companies) in 92 counties of Indiana. Delegates attended annual regional meetings to swap stories, catch up on NHTDA news and share the latest law enforcement techniques.


According to the Indiana Historical Society, the horse thief detectives were Hoosier-based from the beginning, with the first official company, the Council Grove Minute Men, formed in 1845 near Wingate, Ind. In the 1840s, Indiana was literally a wild frontier and these companies were created to police rural areas and track down criminals where law enforcement (principally enforced by US Marshals) might be days, or weeks, away. The main focus was on horse thieves but soon expanded into tracking down any “evildoers” who brought crime to an area.
Expanded duties required expanded membership and soon companies were popping up all over the state, eventually spreading to Ohio and Illinois. The NHTDA itself was founded in 1860 as an umbrella group to organize the hundreds of individual detective companies among the three states. The Hoosier countryside was riddled with bandits, outlaws and horse thieves who preyed on the people living and farming in rural communities with little established law enforcement. Stealing horses, which were crucial for farming and transportation of people and goods before the arrival of the railroad and the automobile, was crucial to survival on the frontier. Many times, these thieves were better organized than the residents themselves.


These bands of marauding bandits, rustlers and gypsies were sophisticated, with established “stations” where stolen horses could be stashed to rest during the day and moved to the next station by cover of night. These horses stolen from Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois were transported to Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska, where they were quickly sold. To combat these professional horse thieves, during the 1850s, Hoosier lawmakers passed legislation officially appointing association members as constables, granting them the authority to arrest and jail criminals and recover stolen goods. This legislation allowed them to cross county lines to track and apprehend thieves – something county sheriff’s couldn’t do.
Horses and livestock were one of the most vital resources a pioneering family had in those days of early westward expansion. Without horses travel was slow, plowing impossible and getting perishable goods to market a hopeless proposition. Horse thievery in antebellum Indiana resulted in crops being abandoned and farms being lost. Indiana winters are harsh and a stolen horse was no laughing matter. Failure to locate and prosecute horse thieves by US Marshals and local law enforcement often led to vigilante justice.


In most cases, horse thieves were transient and almost impossible to locate having crossed state lines in the blink of an eye. Brands were disguised, herds were split and mixed, and apprehension, let alone prosecution, was rare. However the operators of the safehouse stations were locals and word soon circulated that some neighbors were being paid by the gangs for tips on who had the fattest, fittest herds that could be easily stolen. To make matters worse, due to the sparse rural population, these operations were conducted quite brazenly during the day. It was this environment of widespread horse thievery that led to the first horse thief detective agencies being founded in Indiana.
The citizenry’s earliest attempt to tame the wild regions of rural Indiana were called the “Minute Men.” According to an association pamphlet, that membership included “only the best men in the community” and represented all the “vocations in pioneer life.” There were secret passwords and signs, and strict standards of behavior; Any member who played cards, gambled, or “used liquor to excess” was expelled. A registered member paid dues and became a constable with police powers. Operational enforcement was pretty straight forward.


If a horse was suspected as stolen (and not just a stray) the owner would go to a neighbor and ask them to notify the local association, passing along identifying information about the stolen horse (color, breed, type of shoe, height, etc.). Then, association members would call in other members who would ride immediately to a designated secret meeting place nearby. Once organized, the duly notarized constables would fan out individually, inquiring at toll booths, homes, farms, and stores in an effort to track the culprits down. The more people they notified, the more likely a horse could be found before the trail ran cold.
National Horse Thief Detective Association ledgers digitized and found on the internet, libraries and various private collections detail the lengths to which a particular chapter would go to retrieve a stolen horse. The October 1867 Warren Township HTDA Ledger, which included the Irvington area, reports of HTDA agents hunting for the horse of Mr. George White, who resided just off Brookville Road, east of Arlington Avenue.


The October 6, 1867 ledger entry reports: At 7:00 a.m. Leander White notified me that his father’s bay horse had been stolen the night before. I proceeded immediately to select men to hunt said horse. I selected 10 men to meet at George White’s house as soon as they could get there by 9:00 p.m. The men reported ready as soon as I could get a description of the horse and the direction he had started. I started 4 men to Indianapolis and Wilson, George Butcher, Henry Wilberg and Alonzo Snider to inquire at the toll gates and see if they could find any track in that dirt road. I went with the others to the National Road and there we found by the track, that he had crossed the road and went south towards McClain’s Gate; not finding any track where he had come back. I was satisfied that he had gone in a southern direction. I then sent Mr. McClain and Mr. White to Indianapolis to search the gates south and I went with the rest of the men Hiram Morehouse, John Wagoner, Conrad Reah; Thomas Cammel and Chris Wilder to the Brookville Road and started 2 men on that road and 2 south to go in a southern direction and Thomas Cammel to go on the Lawrenceburg Road and to get Jacob M. Springer to go with him. I then went to Indianapolis to meet the other men and did meet them at 12:00. M. Lonzo Snider reported that he had seen a horse pass where he had camped near Cumberland that morning about daylight that suited the description of the one he was hunting. I then sent Alfred Wilson and George Butcher east on the National Road and Lonzo Snider and Henry Wilberg south on the Bluff Road. McClain and White came home. I gave out word for the company to meet at the town house the next evening at 5:00 and ordered all the men that went to hunt to return by the next night if they got no track and if they got track, to keep on and not come back as long as there was any chance of getting him. Company met Monday evening; no word from the men exception Morehouse and his partner. They reported no track. Meeting approved for next morning at 7:00 a.m.
Oct 8, 1867: Company met all the men had returned. Cammel Springer reported. Heard of the horse at Shelbyville. Followed the tracks a few miles lost it; and could not find the track any more. Company agreed to send 6 men back to hunt said horse and called on me to select the men. I did select 6 men: Alfred Wilson, John Wagoner, Hiram Morehouse, Thomas Cammel, John Shearer, and Conrad Rahl to start immediately and if they made any discoveries, they were telegraph to George Parker. On Thursday we received a dispatch from Morehouse; they had heard of the horse. Friday evening, company met and the men all reporting no further track could be found. Company agreed to send 12 men to hunt said horse and ordered me to select the men. I did select Daniel Sharer, George Askren, Henry Wilberg, Isaac Wheatley, John Buchanon, Henry Jorger, Peter Kissel, Fred Brady, Conrad Gemmer, David Springer, Gorden Shimer, and Chris Raseno to meet at the townhouse Saturday morning at 7:00 a.m. Company met Sat morning; the men all reporting for duty. On motion, it was agreed to send one man by rail to the Ohio River to examine the ferries and towns along the river between Lawrenceberg and Vevey. On motion of A. Parker, it was agreed to send the Captain. I did start the same evening at 6:00 (the first train I could get on) went to Lawrenceberg. From there, walked to Aurora thence by boat to the bay making thorough inquiries at all towns and ferries. I then went back to Aurora and took the train to Osgood thence to Versailes by hack. Soon after I got to Versailes, William Wheatly, Conrad Grammer and Peter Kissel came into the Versailes and reported no track found by them and that 7 of the company had started that morning to Lawrenceberg together. After dinner I took William Wheatly and Peter Kissel and hired a man by the name of Stevens to go along. We left Gemmer at the hotel and I road his horse. We went about 4 miles from Versailes to a place noted as a horse thief harbor, it is in the hills and about 5 or 6 miles square we rode in and thru those hills and hollows but made no discoveries. We returned to Versailes that night. Shortly after we got back George Askren and John Buchanon came in and reported no track of horse found by them.


Although the culprit (or culprits) were never found or prosecuted, this particular case shows the lengths that the HTDA in Indianapolis would go to solve a case. Apparently, even though this caper almost bankrupted the group, similar associations continued to be formed throughout the city, eventually resulting in 16 chapters in Marion County alone. Eventually, the National Horse Thief Detective Association was formed to bring them all together. State laws were passed giving NHTDA members authority to arrest and detain, granting members extraordinary policing powers. While sheriffs and deputies could not cross county lines to apprehend lawbreakers, NHTDA deputies could. Justice was swift and often judgement was enforced at the end of a rope.
In time, chapters broadened their jurisdiction to include not only horses but also carriages, cows, poultry and other livestock. By the turn of the 21st Century, NHTDA were primarily tasked with looking for car thieves, home invaders… and people. It was the twisting of that last pursuit that would see the demise of the National Horse Thief Detective Association.