Indianapolis, Music, Pop Culture, The Beatles

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

Original Publish Date May 20, 2021.

In the John Lennon film “Above Us Only Sky” (a segment from the larger film “Imagine”) there’s a scene from a 1971 encounter with a young man who shows up at Lennon’s house in England. Lennon talks with him and eventually invites him in to eat some food. In the clip, Lennon’s Mini Cooper car (parked outside the house) has a WIFE Good Guys radio sticker in the back window. 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? The mystery was uncovered by Irvingtonian Bill Price in part I of this article and solved by Irvingtonian Stephen Bruce Smith in part II. Part III reveals another Irvington connection.
When the Beatles played two shows at the Indiana State Fair in September of 1964, Radio station WIFE 1310 sponsored the show in the Coliseum, and WIBC sponsored the show in the grandstand. In 1963, WIFE-310 AM signed on the air with a rock-heavy playlist. And by the time The Beatles arrived, the station had rapidly surged to the top of the ratings race, bringing an end to radio station WIBC-1070 AM’s reign as the champion of Indianapolis’ airwaves. In 1964, programming on WIFE largely focused on top 40 hits and bubblegum rock including The Beatles.


The Beatles concerts have been detailed by this writer in past columns and the specifics of those shows are well-known to all Circle City Beatles fans. Stephen Bruce Smith added more details to that story and revealed that Lennon “got the bumper sticker in 1964 at the station when The Beatles awarded tickets to a lucky high school girl who won a contest. I knew her brother at Howe High School. John got that sticker at the station from either Jay Reynolds or Jack Sunday (Jerry Baker).”
Turns out Smith, who knows everybody, rediscovered that lucky ticket-winning girl too. Did I mention Stephen Bruce Smith knows EVERYBODY? Her name is Elaine Conly and she is a Howe graduate, class of 1966. She was Elaine May when she won that contest back in 1964. Elaine’s mother, Virginia Casey May, who passed in 2002, was active in the Irvington Women’s Club as past chairwoman and past president of the Irvington Music Study Group. She was also a pioneer member of the neighborhood CrimeWatch program and Human Rights Commission, retiring from the Indianapolis Mayor’s office in 1977. Virginia was also a former chairwoman for the Junior Civic Theatre and scriptwriter for the “Time for Timothy (Churchmouse)” program. So Elaine, who performed in some of those productions for her mother’s Civic Theatre, knew a thing or two about the entertainment business.

Elaine Conly With Paul, Ringo, George & John at the Concert Press Conference.

15-year-old Elaine entered a 50-word or less summertime essay contest by the Indianapolis News titled “I want to meet the Beatles because…” Elaine entered (without telling her parents) and her 47-word essay was selected as the winner from more than 3000 entries. Her winning entry read: “I want to meet the Beatles because they have a special magic. When they perform, the oppressing world crisis and other problems can be temporarily forgotten. They sing happy, swinging songs. I’d love to meet the four young men who can make everything seem a little brighter.” Just like in the movie Bye-Bye Birdie, Elaine supplants Ann-Margret who likewise wins a contest to meet her Elvis-like hero, Conrad Birdie.
“I had to keep it a secret though, that was hard to do,” Elaine says. When her picture appeared on the front page of the newspaper announcing her victory, “The phone rang off the hook, it was pandemonium.” Elaine, the daughter of Harry A. May, grew up at 1134 N. Butler Ave., “Butler Avenue North of 10th, Two blocks from the Steer Inn,” she states.
“I was worried that they (The Beatles) would not want to meet a teen-aged kid and that they might poke fun at me. I expected to get a cold reception.” Elaine recalls, “But they were perfect gentlemen and very nice to me. I shook all of their hands and when I entered the room, John stood up an offered me his seat.” Which was a good thing because John Lennon was her chosen Beatle. “He had written a book of poetry and he was my favorite. They were all very nice and gentlemanly but John was the nicest of the four.” Elaine recalls. “I went out and bought a special black crepe dress because I heard that John liked black.”

Paul McCartney with Elaine in the background.

The whole encounter, which took place in the communications building at the State Fairgrounds across from the Coliseum, took less than five minutes. Elaine reveals, “I wore the class rings of four of my classmates to the meeting. They belonged to my friends. They all wanted their ring to touch a Beatle.” When I asked if she got any souvenirs or autographs, she responds, “No, I was told (by the Indy News) that I couldn’t ask for autographs or take photographs of my own. I wish I would have because I probably could have paid for my college tuition with that money now.”
Elaine states that the newspapers followed up on Elaine’s story every few years. As for the Fab Four, “They were very funny but very polite.” she recalled. Part of Elaine’s duties that day, aside from the obvious photo op for the news, was to deliver an original editorial cartoon from the News to the Lads from Liverpool. “Then I just stood to the side for the rest of the Press Conference”, Elaine says. When she left the building, she was bombarded with questions from local reporters.

Elaine Conly with the Beatles.

Part of her prize package included tickets to the show. When asked what memories she had of the concert, Elaine says, “Security was very tight. It was very dark and very hard to hear them. But it was great to look at them, they were so handsome.” Her tickets? “Oh, they were very close, first 10 rows or so.” Did anyone recognize her as the contest winner? “Yes, a few people picked me out right away, but then the Beatles came out and that was that.” Elaine is still saddened by the death of her favorite Beatle. “I was watching Monday Night Football (December 8, 1980) when they broke in to announce that John Lennon had been shot. I cried. I cried a lot.”
And what about that little black dress, the only physical souvenir she has left from that encounter? “That dress was good luck.” she says, “I was wearing that dress a year later when I walked a friend to the bus station. A friend of a friend, University of Cincinnati architecture student Michael Conly, was on the bus and kept asking, “Who’s that girl in the black dress?” Long story short, Elaine and Michael Conly have been married for 51 years. And her engagement ring? Michael purchased it for her in Beatles Country: England, where he was studying in Europe.
Several years ago, Michael had a special print of his wife’s brush with the Beatles enlarged and the poster-sized photo hangs on the couple’s wall inside their Fishers home. “That’s my claim to fame I guess. Over the years it (the photo) was a big hit with our babysitters who would gasp and ask me about the encounter. I was always amazed because most of them were not even born when that meeting took place. The Beatles still have that power though, after all these years.”

Indianapolis, Music, Pop Culture, The Beatles

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

Original Publish Date May 13, 2021.

In part I of this series, I told you about an obscure episode involving The Beatles John Lennon and the Indianapolis radio station WIFE. In the film “Above Us Only Sky” there is a car parked outside Lennon’s house that has a WIFE Good Guys radio sticker on the back window. How did a sticker from a Circle City radio station end up on a car 3,947 miles away in John Lennon’s driveway?
Anyone over the age of 50 should remember WIFE AM 1310 in Indianapolis. How can you forget those Coppertone commercials in the summertime: “Time to turn so you won’t burn.” Or the WIFE Lucky 13? Or the billboard near Indianapolis’ Weir Cook Airport (later Indianapolis International Airport) which amused passing motorists with the message, “While you’ve been gone we’ve been spending night and day with you WIFE!” Or even the “window on the world” of the WIFE studios at 1440 N. Meridian Street where pedestrians and downtown shoppers could walk past the window and see one of the “WIFE Good Guy” DJs in action?
WIFE was the top 40 giant of Indy for years and the only real AM radio rockers in town during the mid to late sixties (sometimes garnering as much as a 40% share of the Indy radio audience). WIFE is remembered for their endless contests (“The 100 Thousand Dollar Dream Home” or “The 100 Thousand Dollar Cash and Car Give-A-Way”), ear-worm jingles pounding the call letters and station numbers ad nauseam, and, maybe worst of all, the station sped up the records to cram more music in between the ads, witty banter, and promos. This last practice confounded pre-teens who wondered why the songs sounded so much different on WIFE than on the 45s. Most of all, radio fans remember the “WIFE Good Guys”: Big Jack Armstrong, Roger W. Morgan, Reb Porter, Jay Reynolds, Joe Light, Jay Hawkins, Buddy Scott, Jim Fox, T.J. Byers, Scott Wheeler, Mike O’Brien, Dan Summers, and Steve Miller.


And who can forget Jack Sunday: aka ABA / NBA Indiana Pacers radio voice Jerry Baker. Jerry handled the noon to 3:00 shift for a couple of years at WIFE chanting “Hey, this is Jack Sunday” every break and intro and while hosting the “Pool Party” segments. It was Jerry Baker who introduced the Beatles during their two concert stops at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. For years, WIFE would replay Jerry’s Beatles intro from the fairgrounds every time they played one of the Fab Four’s songs: “On behalf of the Indiana State Fair Board and WIFE Good Guys…The Beatles!” No doubt about it, WIFE 1310 is an Indiana institution. And somehow, a bumper sticker from the station ended up on John Lennon’s car in England.
I found the answer, where else? On Facebook, which led me right back here to Irvington. I started by joining the WIFE RADIO ALUMS & FANS Facebook page. It was there that I found Irvingtonian Stephen Bruce Smith. That name should be familiar to many Irvintonians. Smith is a former Irvington Council President (1997-99), 1975 Howe high school alumni, and 1980 Butler grad. Smith, who grew up on the corner of Brookville and Grand (421 So. Grand), is a Beatles superfan, authority and collector. And he knows EVERYONE in Irvington. I called Smith on a Saturday afternoon. When he answered the phone I could hear that he was spinning Beatles vinyl on the turntable in the background. EXACTLY what you might expect from an Irvington Beatles guy.
Smith unraveled the mystery of the bumper sticker quite succinctly. “The Beatles came to Indy in September 1964 to do two concerts at The State Fair on the 3rd. WIFE sponsored the concert and had various contests surrounding the concert. The Beatles visited the WIFE studio earlier that day and were given various gifts to remember their visit to Indianapolis. They were greeted by Miss Indiana State Fair as well as meeting a girl who won the Meet The Beatles Contest. She happened to be a Howe High School girl. The WIFE Good Guy sticker on John’s Mini Cooper in the 1971 film came from that studio appearance that morning at WIFE 1330 North Meridian. John loved stickers and t-shirts so I’m sure he just stuck it on there many years later.”


However, the story doesn’t end there. Stephen went to the first Beatles concert at the Fairgrounds. There were two, one inside the Coliseum and the other on the stage/grandstands outside. “I went with my father, Stephen Smith Sr., in exchange for punishment to see Andy Williams and the Osmond Brothers,” Stephen jokingly says. “My dad was shipping supervisor at Atkomatic Valve Co. at 141 S. Sherman Drive at Brookville and Sherman. They produced valves used in the NASA space program. He passed away in November of 1967. He got the tickets for free from a coworker.”
Smith remembers actually being excused from school to go to the concert. “It was a weekday, a Thursday I think. I was 8 years old and I was worried my teacher, Mrs. Cunningham, wouldn’t agree. I went to Orchard Park School and I think I got on her bad side because I had dressed up as Vic Morrow from the Combat TV show for Halloween. She gave me a frown as she lifted my mask. Everyone else was dressed as princesses, ghosts, and cartoon characters and my costume was a little rough looking, but she let me go.” Smith found out later that several other kids in school went to the concert too.
I asked what he remembered about the concert, and he stated, “It was about 35 minutes long and they played maybe 6 songs. You couldn’t hear anything.” Smith adds that, years later, he became good friends with WIFE Good Guy DJ Jay Reynolds and they often talked about that concert. “I remember Jay gave me the greatest quote about the noise. He said, “it got so loud that it got quiet.” And he was right.” Smith recalls that the Coliseum was “remodeled and brand new after the explosion.” (On October 31, 1963, during a Holiday on Ice show, a propane leak at a concession stand caused an explosion that killed 74 people and injured around 400 others. A subject I’ve written about in past columns.)


Smith continues, “Even at that young age, I could see that the security seemed unprepared for what was happening. Girls were screaming, fainting, and crying and there was even a rumor that one girl died from an asthma attack during the concert. Girls were all peeing themselves and getting hurt jumping from seat to seat. There were 16 Marion County deputies around the stage and they were all scared to death. You could not hear a word.” Stephen continues, “My dad was a pilot in World War II and he said he hadn’t seen that kind of crazy since wartime.”
One image that sticks with Smith is that of a smashed golf cart he and his father walked past after the show. “I remember staring at that thing for a long time. It was totally destroyed. After the concert, they used it as a diversion to get the girls away from the band. These screaming girls chased it down and literally tore it apart. I can still see that trashed golf cart in my mind.”


As an adult, Stephen Bruce Smith also encountered Jerry Baker, aka WIFE Good Guy “Jack Sunday”. Smith relates, “Jerry told me that the Beatles were each given goody packs that included Bibles in each bag. And the only thing they requested was a black and white TV, coca-colas, hamburgers, French fries, and Marlboro cigarettes. Also in those goody bags were t-shirts and stickers from WIFE. John loved trinkets and collected all that stuff, t-shirts, patches, and stickers of any kind; anything American. John had stickers on everything in his house.”
It makes sense that Lennon, fresh on the heels of The Beatles’ 1970 break-up (which many attribute to Yoko Ono), chose the WIFE sticker, with its slogan “WIFE Good Guy”, as a wry contrary comment on his relationship with Yoko. The Indianapolis connection was purely coincidental.
Many years later, Smith won a contest to meet Paul McCartney backstage in Chicago in 2005. “I was ushered in to meet him with a group of reporters. It was only 6 minutes, but it seemed like 6 hours. The reporters were stunned and really weren’t talking to him. I asked him if he remembered the concerts in Indianapolis. He said, “Oh yes, I remember Ringo went drinking with the cops.” Smith adds the little-known detail that Ringo traveled up to Noblesville where one of the police security officers (State Trooper Jack Marks) owned a horse farm. “When word got out about that visit, those poor people were invaded by teenage girls wanting details.”
Smith continues, “knowing Paul owned a sheepdog, I told him I had a sheepdog myself. He asked, “Oh really, what is the dog’s name?” I answered, “Jack the Moose” and Paul said hmmm, “Jack the Moose, Jack the Moose” over and over a few times. I was hoping he was gonna use it in a song, but that never happened.” Smith, who lives next to Pleasant Run Golf Course, ran into Paul’s assistant at another McCartney concert later. “He recognized me and said as we parted, “Cool, Paul will see you after the show.” Smith says, “It never happened. But the concert was great.”


Next week, Part III


The Beatles, John Lennon, WIFE… and Irvington.

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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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.