Lynchings create somber yuletide

By Mike McCormick

December 15, 2002

Christmas usually is identified as a time of joy and celebration. During the 19th century, however, the Yuletide season in Vigo County was associated with three gruesome hangings.

The execution of Civil War veteran Oliver Anson Morgan on Dec. 23, 1869, for the murder of saloonkeeper-grocer John Petri is the most celebrated.

A member of the 16th Indiana Regiment, Morgan was a hardworking Terre Haute blacksmith with a penchant for alcohol.
Petri, who operated a grocery in Carr's Hall at Fourth and Walnut streets for many years, moved to Twelve Points after the store was destroyed by fire. The family resided in the back of a saloon and grocery home on N. 13th St., a block north of Maple Avenue.

On Sunday, July 11, 1869, Petri and his wife left their home by horse and wagon to go to downtown. After traveling about a block, Petri glanced back to see a suspicious man approaching his saloon.

Returning home to investigate, Petri discovered Morgan hiding under a bed. Morgan later contended that he shot the saloonkeeper in self-defense. From his deathbed, Petri claimed he was shot without undue provocation.

Morgan took refuge in the Wabash River bottoms north of the city and a posse probed the area with lynching in its mind. The next day he was apprehended at his ex-wife's residence.

At a trial in early August 1869, Morgan was found guilty and sentenced to death. However, the conviction was appealed and reversed by the Indiana Supreme Court. In late November, the case was tried for the second time with the same result. This time the appeal was futile. Special Judge George H. Chapman set the execution for Dec. 23.

A scaffold, enclosed by partitions, was erected in the middle of Market St. (now Third St.), at its intersection with Walnut. Thirty guests were invited, but others watched from roofs of nearby buildings. Altogether, 2,500 people surrounded the gallows.

At 12:16 p.m., chief executioner Samuel Conner released the trap door and Morgan dropped six feet, but his feet hit the ground with a thud. Three assistants frantically seized the rope and lifted the dangling body up by its neck. Morgan struggled for several minutes. Dr. Ezra Read pronounced him dead after 21 minutes.

The grotesque sight was said to have had a permanent psychological effect on John P. Baird, one of Morgan's lawyers. Seemingly recovered from the mental anguish he suffered after being forced to execute two Confederate spies at Fort Granger, Tenn. as colonel in the 85th Indiana Regiment during the Civil War, Baird had a mental breakdown a few years later and died in March 1881 at the Indiana Hospital for the Insane.

Morgan's execution was not the first holiday hanging in local annals.

On Dec. 30, 1842, a large contingent from Vigo County trekked to Rockville to witness the hanging of Noah Beauchamp for the murder of George Mickelbury.

The Beauchamps and the Mickelburys were neighbor farmers in Sugar Creek Township. A confrontation between the two families erupted in July 1840 when Mickelbury's two daughters told neighbors Beauchamp's daughters had stolen some wool.

Mickelbury was stabbed in front of his home. Beauchamp escaped on foot, reportedly swimming several miles down the Wabash River. He was apprehended in Texas in April 1841 working as a blacksmith. Two men identified Beauchamp from a written description printed on a poster offering a $500 reward.

Transporting Beauchamp back to Vigo County was not an easy task. No railroads existed and the entire trip was made on horseback, consuming several months.

Beauchamp was granted a change of venue from Vigo to Parke County. He was convicted Sept. 8, 1842, after a jury trial and his only appeal was denied.

It was the first Vigo County murder for which the death penalty was imposed.

The execution of transient Lewis Bradford, an Illinois resident, for the Aug. 10, 1860, slaying of John L. Brooks was scheduled a few days after Christmas, but postponed until Jan. 4, 1861.

Bradford was accused of bludgeoning Brooks with a heavy tree limb east of the city (near present 17th St.) to confiscate the victim's horse and $50.

Bradford denied the crime. However, there was evidence that Bradford spent currency received by Brooks by mail from Wheeling, Virginia, the day before his death to buy a saddle and a new suit (West Virginia did not become a state until 1863).

The jury trial before Circuit Court Judge Solomon Claypool lasted 10 days. On Sept. 14, 1860, foreman Isaac M. Brown announced the guilty verdict. Bradford's appeal was denied Dec. 13.

On Dec. 30, Bradford admitted killing Brooks, but insisted it was in self defense.

Gallows, surrounded by a fence, were built by Sheriff William H. Stewart north of the Ohio Street jail. At 1:03 p.m., the trap door was released and the prisoner fell three feet. The sudden drop did not sever Bradford's spinal cord, but Dr. Read pronounced him dead 23 minutes later, probably from strangulation.

Donations were solicited from the large crowd for the defendant's family and his widow was permitted to sell copies of his Dec. 30 "confession."

Mike McCormick is the Vigo County historian. His column appears each Sunday.

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