Five men hanging from a tree. What a sight to see early in the morning.
In the late summer of 1897 my great grandfather, Albert H. Bultman, drove his team and wagon back to his Laughery Township farm in Ripley County, Indiana, to show his wife, Anna, his receipts from the livestock auction he had just attended. It amounted to $200.00–a small fortune by their standards. Little did he know that a band of home invaders were hot on his trail.
Albert had barely changed from his “dress” bib overalls into his work clothes before the bandits burst into the house demanding the proceeds from the sale. They took Albert outside while two of the men held a hot poker to the feet of his wife to force her to divulge the whereabouts of the cash. It was to no avail, however, as she did not know where the money was. I did not know my great grandfather nor his emotional attachment to his wife as compared to the money so I can’t say to what degree he attempted to come to her rescue. In any event the cash was in the bib pocket of his overalls laying on the bed and the bad guys left empty handed. Hang on to this thought. I’ll return to it.
Versailles is the seat of Ripley County (it’s pronounced Ver-sales, not like the French city). On the 15th day of September, 1897, folks woke up to find five guys known as the Levi Gang hanging from an oak tree outside the jail. Needless to say it caused quite a stir. A grand jury was seated but no suspect was ever indicted as no true bill was ever handed up by the panel. After several months Attorney General William Ketcham was ordered to conduct an investigation into the lynchings and make a report to Governor James Mount. First I will give you a brief rundown of the official account of the incident. Then I will relate a newspaper report of the hangings. You can then decide which one to believe…or neither, as you choose.
Ketcham concluded that Lyle Levi broke out of jail, somehow managed to get to the town of Osgood five miles to the north. There he broke into McCoy’s store and stole a pistol his brother had pawned earlier, returned to Versailles, and broke back into the jail. He then shot and killed prisoners Henry Schuter and William Jenkins and hung them from a nearby tree. He later hanged Messers Andrews and Gorden while they were still alive. (Early news reporting did not always deal with given names and I have not been able to retrieve these two. Family anecdotes provided the others.) Ketcham told the governor he believed the five jail guards on duty at the time to have been “asleep at their post.” He then suggested that Levi shot himself but not mortally and eventually committed suicide by hanging himself alongside the others. Ketcham reported that “…no one else was abroad that night as all the saloons were closed…” and the matter was brought to a close with Levi being named the killer of four of his own gang members and then taking his own life. That was the official report.
According to a story in The Journal-Press, a newspaper in the adjoining county, what really happened was a group of vigilantes met in the small community of Napoleon about eight miles from the jail and close to the Bultman farmstead. Tired of the Levi gang’s rampage of thefts, arsons, batteries and killings, they allegedly drew straws to determine who among them would storm the jail.
The men overcame the jail guards and locked them in a cell and then beat the Levi gang members before dragging them to the hanging tree. According to the newspaper account, only one died of strangulation, four were beaten to death and none was shot. A contributor to The Journal-Press would write that the official report “…must have been the biggest stretch of imagination ever put into an official record.”
Family anecdotal reports suggest the Levi gang was the group of men who invaded the Bultman household, however, there has been no connection between the lynching and my great grandfather. I carry his genes. Don’t burn my wife’s feet.
Welcome to Authspot, the spot for creative writing.
Read some stories and poems, and be sure to subscribe to our feed!