The Ripley County Lynching

On September 15, 1897, the state and county was shocked by the news that five persons had been taken out of the jail at Versailles in the early hours of the morning and hung. Although an investigation was immediately undertaken by the state authorities with a view of prosecuting those who participated in the lynching, it was openly and defiantly proclaimed throughout Ripley County that nothing would come of the investigation. At the time of the lynching the court was in session, and the judge called the attention of the grand jury to the heinous character of the crime, that it be investigated and the guilty parties, if they could be ascertained, be indicted. This jury accomplished nothing and it remained for the Attorney General. Wm. A. Ketcham, on behalf of the State of Indiana, to undertake the investigation, discover the guilty parties and prosecute them. That he discovered who some of the guilty parties were is evident from a summary of the case by Attorney General Ketcham (Biennial Report 1897-98, page 47), in which he says: "The case, although dependent upon circumstantial evidence, outside of this particular witness, was an impregnable one, and the defendant and his counsel recognized, before the case was concluded, that a case had been made," and his failure to bring the guilty to justice is set forth in his unique report to Governor Mount on the subject of The Ripley County Lynching, as follows:

March 2, 1898.

To His Excellency James A. Mount, Governor of Indiana:

I have the honor to submit the following report of my efforts during the last ten days in endeavoring to ascertain the method and manner of the killing of five citizens in Indiana, in Ripley County jail, on the night of the 14th and morning of the 15th of September last. I ascertained the following facts to be indisputably true, namely:

  1. Some time prior to that time one Wilder Levi had pawned at McCoy's store, in Osgood, a 44-caliber revolver.
  2. That this revolver was in McCoy's store under pawn on the evening of the 14th of September.
  3. That neither McCoy, nor any employee of his, on that evening, had aught to do with this revolver.
  4. That Lyle Levi was killed on the night of the 14th, or the morning of the 15th, with this identical revolver, and was subsequently found hanging to a tree in the neighborhood of the jail.
  5. That of the four other inmates of the jail, tow Henry Schuter and William Jenkins, were killed in jail and subsequently hung with the other two, who were not killed in jail, on the same tree with Levi.
  6. That the Sheriff of the County, being disable, and therefore incapacitated from attending to the business during the night when wrongs might be perpetrated, was absent from his post of duty during that particular night and the two preceding nights, although being conspicuously present, with his wife, at the jail during the day, when harm could bot be expected to come to the inmates.
  7. That in the absence of the Sheriff, the jail was carefully and sedulously watched by five vigilant and faithful guards, who had been selected by the Sheriff for that purpose.
  8. That of the guards, some were armed with revolvers, some with shotguns, and some, apparently, with the weapons that nature had conferred on them, and that in order to make their weapons more efficient, the loads had been withdrawn from the shotguns, so that, undoubtedly in the case of an emergency requiring action, a sufficient charge could be placed in the gun to deter any persons bent on crime from approaching the body of the jail.
  9. That no person whatever, either of the county, or from any other place, participated either directly or indirectly in the killing of those five men, or any of them.

Conan Doyle, who had devoted great thought and attention to the ferreting out of crime, and of the principles upon which discoveries in that line shall be made, lays down the following axiom as a cardinal principle in detective work, namely: That when you have excluded every other possible hypothesis, the one remaining is undoubtedly the correct one, however improbable or unreasonable it may seem. This proposition commends itself to my judgement, and must, I submit, commend itself to yours; and as every other possible hypothesis is necessarily excluded by the foregoing statement of facts (which are each undoubtedly true), I submit that the following is the only correct and true solution of the killing of these men, namely: That Lyle Levi, having been incarcerated in the jail, and not being satisfied with surroundings of associates, and knowing that Wilder Levi's revolver was at McCoy's store in Osgood, broke jail - it's not important in this connection to ascertain how he broke jail - and went to Osgood - the manner of his getting to Osgood is likewise immaterial - that he broke into McCoy's store, stole Wilder Levi's revolver, returned to Versailles, broke back into jail, without the knowledge of the guards, who apparently were asleep at their posts at this time, returned to his cell, shot himself, then killed Schuter and Jenkins and with a rope that he had got hold of somehow - but the evidence does not disclose how or in what place he obtained it - hung the dead bodies of Schuter and Jenkins to the tree, put the finishing touches to his crime by hanging Andrews and Gordon, and then, in order that suspicion might be directed against innocent men, finally hung himself, and his nefarious conduct in attempting to distract attention from himself and divert suspicion to the good citizens of Osgood, Napoleon, Milan and Versailles, all of whom were in the habit of retiring to their beds (and followed that habit on this particular night - the hour at which, under the law, saloons are required to be closed - is the more reprehensible, as apparently nothing in his life so became him as the leaving of it.

It is clear that, except as to Levi, nobody was abroad that night. It is clear that everybody, especially in Versailles, Osgood, Napoleon and Milan, condemns in the strongest language the conduct of Levi in thus summarily putting an end to the lives of his companions in crime, imprisonment and death. Every one in the county, especially the men (other than Levi) suspected of the crime, the lawyers, the officials and the justices, condemn in unmeasured terms the unlawful taking of life. I know of no crime they regard as worse than that, unless it be the crimes of which these five me were suspected, and on account of which they were incarcerated. It will doubtless be a great relief to your mind, as it is to mine, to know that the sentiment of Ripley County has heretofore, without any just cause, charged upon the good citizens of the county. In this feeling the Methodist minister in change at Versailles measurably coincides, but only within limits. While opposed in the abstract to the killing of prisoners confined in jail, the crimes of which the men so confined were accused, seem to him to be the more heinous of the tow, and I sincerely trust that when your mind is coerced to the conclusion, as it must be by this report, that Levi, and Levi alone, is guilty of the killing, and that it is simply one more crime added to the long list of which he has been charged and suspected, the good man in his relief at knowing that nobody else in Ripley County except Levi was responsible for the killing, will feel at liberty to denounce this additional crime by Levi in the manner that it deserves, and that as a result of this sad chapter in the history of the state, all criminals henceforth confined in county jails will be deterred from adding further to their crimes, and permit their fellow prisoners to be hung decently and in order, by the constituted authorities, under the law of the land, and not attempt to add to their other crimes the killing of those who are confined with them, and finish the story by suicide.