Nov 8, 2019
(November 2, 2019) Indiana judicial history is not generally known for legal precedents that promote the cause of racial justice.
But we're drawing upon our rich archive of previously aired episodes to bring you a special encore show focusing on two landmark legal cases of racial justice in early 19th century Indiana.
The two historical incidents in our focus: a trial in which an enslaved Indiana woman successfully sued for her freedom and a milestone legal case in which a gang of white men was found guilty and executed for slaughtering nine Native Americans, an infamous incident that history has dubbed the Fall Creek Massacre.
In 1821, Mary Bateman Clark, a young African-American woman living in Vincennes, made history when her lawyer filed a lawsuit seeking her release from an "indentured servitude" contract with one of the most prominent men in the new state of Indiana. The contract required Clark to cook, clean and sew for Gen. Washington Johnston and his family for 20 years. Her only pay was housing, food and clothing.
The case, which made its way to the Indiana Supreme Court, involved determining whether such "indentured servitude" contracts violated the state's Constitution as a form of slavery. Nearly 200 years ago this month - on Nov. 16, 1821 - the state Supreme Court ruled in Clark's favor and ordered her employer to release her.
Sharing insights about the social history of the era and the landmark case, Nelson is joined in studio by one of Clark's descendants, Indianapolis resident Eunice Trotter. Eunice, a veteran journalist, and her sister Ethel McCane have used their research about their ancestor to do "living history performances" for schools and civic groups across the state.
Eunice and Ethel also crusaded for a historic marker in honor of Mary Bateman Clark, which was dedicated at the Knox County Courthouse in 2009. The sisters are Mary Bateman Clark's great-great-great granddaughters.
Nelson and his guest also discuss a similar case involving another young woman, Polly Strong, who also lived in Vincennes in the 1820s and sued to obtain her freedom. She had been enslaved by Col. Hyacinth LaSalle, a prominent Vincennes resident, before Indiana became a state in 1816. LaSalle challenged the new state Constitution, unsuccessfully arguing that it could not be applied retroactively.
Re-enactments of the Polly Strong case have been performed across Indiana under the direction of Corydon historic preservationist Maxine Brown, who has been a guest on Hoosier History Live for a show about her historic restoration of a segregated school in Corydon, as well as a show discussing DNA testing and family ancestry. The restored school, now known as the Leora Brown School, has been the setting for re-enactments of the court cases of Mary Bateman Clark and Polly Strong.
Just three years after the Mary Bateman Clark trial, another milestone Indiana legal case set a precedent for racial justice in the United States.
When a group of white men were found guilty by a jury and executed for the slaughter of nine Native Americans in March 1824, it was the first time that the murders of Indians by whites had been subject to capital punishment under American law.
To explore all aspects of the brutal crimes in the swampy woods of Madison County - where the Native Americans (including three women and four children) were gruesomely murdered - Nelson is joined in studio by David Thomas Murphy, author of the book, Murder in Their Hearts: The Fall Creek Massacre (Indiana Historical Society Press).
A professor of history at Anderson University, David spent four years researching the massacre, trial and subsequent developments, including the social history of pioneer Hoosiers (Indiana only had been a state for about seven years at the time of the massacre) and of the Native Americans in the region.
"The slaughter in the soggy Indiana creek bottoms created a short-lived but serious national security crisis," David has written, referring to concerns across the country that warfare would erupt across newly developing states.
In researching the tragedy, David explored why the federal government devoted great efforts and resources to prosecuting the perpetrators. David's research required that he reconcile conflicting accounts of the events (the tribal origins of some of the victims remain unclear) as well as the motivations involved in the cold-blooded crimes, which involved shooting some of the Native Americans in their backs and mutilating several of the corpses.