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