Prepare to take a tour of some dark, strange moments of southern Indiana’s history. From the scheming wife who wanted her dull husband out of the way to make room for a young love affair and the husband who stomped his wife to death because she wouldn’t stop singing an irritating song, to the man who murdered an entire family to pay off some farming equipment and the case of a mistaken-identity murder, author Keven McQueen relates the sinister (or not so) motives and gruesome details of nine murders that occurred in southern Indiana between 1880 and 1912. With a detailed, if macabre, look at each story as well as the ambiguities surrounding the criminals and punishments, McQueen illuminates the darker side of Hoosier history.
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One thing everybody agreed upon: Jacob Mottweiler could not have chosen a more isolated location in Indiana in which to live. Specifically, the Mottweiler farm was located in a valley surrounded by "almost inaccessible hills" — according to a chronicler of the dark deed that unfolded there — two miles from Edwardsville, two miles from the highway and a full mile from the nearest neighbor. A perfect setting for a murder, one might say.
Mottweiler settled there in the 1860s, just after the Civil War. In this lonesome place he chose to call home, he dwelled with his wife, Mary Ellen, and Sallie Snyder. The Mottweilers were a childless couple and had adopted blonde-haired, blue-eyed Sallie, Mrs. Mottweiler's orphaned little sister. She earned her keep by doing domestic chores, but unfortunately for all concerned, she would turn out to be something of a floozy — if not the town floozy, then at least a hilltop floozy. In the delicate phrasing of a newspaper report, she had "a very bad reputation for chastity."
All was invigorating hard work and bucolic pleasures until June 1888, when the Mottweilers took in a sickly, malnourished, illiterate, homeless and friendless eighteen-year-old boy who was living at the county poorhouse. His name was William Benson, and he was so poorly educated and ignorant that he did not even know the name of the county in which he resided. The Mottweilers fed him and nursed him back to health, whereupon he remained at their house as a farmhand. It was one of the farming couple's pet projects to see that Benson got an education. Benson was well liked by the neighbors — what little they saw of him — and seemed to get along well with his benefactors.
But there was something the Mottweilers did not know: their charge, Benson, had fallen madly in love — or, at least, in lust — with Sallie Snyder. He did everything he could think of to get her to marry him, which was generous on his part since she was very, very pregnant and he wasn't the father. He "promised to provide for the offspring of her shame," but Sallie refused each time he offered. She did not love him, she said, and she did not want to leave the comfortable home made for her by her sister and brother-in-law.
On Sunday, December 9, 1888, Benson told Mr. Mottweiler of his heart's burning desire to marry Sallie Snyder; he asked if the farmer would let Benson live in a cottage on the farm if he could persuade her to tie the knot. "I would do almost anything for you," said Mottweiler. "But I cannot afford to build a house for you since the fruit crop failed last summer." Despite all the good things the generous Mottweiler had done for him, Benson did not take well to this thwarting of his fondest dreams. It appears that this was the catalyst for the violence that followed. The farmhand brooded over his ill fortune until, somehow, a very poorly thought out and deeply ungrateful plan formed in his mind: if the Mottweilers were dead, Sallie would have little choice but to tie her fortune to his because then she would be homeless and what other man would have her? Benson convinced himself that if the farmer and his wife met with an untimely death, he could legally take possession of the land. Before the day was finished, Benson had made a fateful, foolish decision.
Just before dusk, Mr. Mottweiler went out to round up the cows for the evening milking; his wife went to the barn to await the coming of the cows; and Sallie Snyder was preparing supper in the farmhouse kitchen. Benson was nowhere to be seen, having wandered away with his old- fashioned rifle, which required oversized bullets, on the pretext of going squirrel hunting. Sallie went out to draw water from the well; when she returned, Benson was at the house looking "confused and frightened." Sallie, assuming Benson was drunk, requested that he cease his fruitless marriage proposals. He replied that he had just shot "Uncle Jake" by accident. Somehow, he had been so unhinged by this mistake that he had also beaten Mary Ellen Mottweiler over the head with a hatchet. Then, he told the woman whom he wanted so badly to marry that he was going to return to the barn to finish off Mary. "You'll have to kill me first," said Sallie, who ran to the barn and found her older sister lying on the ground. "The pail of milk had been overturned and was mingled with her life's blood from a great wound on the left side of the head near the ear. The hatchet was near her and covered with blood," Sallie explained to the authorities in more detail than probably was necessary.
Sallie demanded that her admirer help carry her fallen sister home. He refused, so despite her advanced pregnancy, Sallie dragged Mary Ellen fifty yards back to the house as William Benson watched "with the most fiendish looks upon his face." Afterward, Sallie managed to slip away from William and alert some neighbors, the George Gresham family. Mr. Gresham investigated and found Jake Mottweiler dead with a bullet hole in the back of his head and the top of the same removed to a new location. He had died instantly in the act of reaching for a plug of tobacco in his pocket; at least he was spared the knowledge, in the last moments of his life, of how his kindness had been repaid by his desperate farmhand.
Gresham's sons spread the word; shortly thereafter, many neighbors were at the Mottweiler farm, standing vigil over Jake's corpse and tending to the wounded Mary Ellen. Contradicting the story that he had told Sallie, Benson told everyone that he was innocent and had no idea who would have performed such horrible deeds. They believed him — luckily for Benson, because later the neighbors said that if they had known the truth they would have killed him on the spot. Emboldened, Benson also told the story to the New Albany police, but had to give it up after Sallie told the truth. He confessed to everything with one exception: he told the authorities that he was engaged to Sallie, which was a flagrant lie. As was standard procedure in those days, there was much caloric talk of stringing Benson up without benefit of a trial. He survived the night only due to the swiftness of the law in getting him to the safety of the Jeffersonville Penitentiary.
A Louisville Courier-Journal reporter who visited the Mottweiler house on December 10 found the small building so crowded with mourners and gawkers that there was hardly enough space for the murdered man's coffin in the front room. Poor Mrs. Mottweiler was alive, barely, and did not realize that she had been struck twice in the head with a hatchet. She was convinced that she had come down with a case of neuralgia. She vomited blood and occasional streams of the crimson leaked from her ears and nose. When she was conscious, she recognized the faces of her neighbors but could not understand why her husband was not present to comfort her. Her skull had been fractured and the physician in attendance, Z.C. Wolf, was certain that she would die of her wounds. A news report published on December 16 includes a bleak prognosis: "[I]f the end has not come this morning, it can be delayed a few hours at most." On the bright side, Sallie Snyder gave birth on December 14. She said the father was Frank Livingston, who had fled Indiana in August and had since found work as a railroad hand in Pineville, Kentucky.
To William Benson's credit, he pleaded guilty at the preliminary hearing held in New Albany and did not avail himself of the insanity dodge. On the other hand, he expressed no remorse and appeared to be as unconcerned as though he were accused of nothing worse than picking flowers in a city park. He must have changed his mind about Sallie Snyder's attractions as a potential spouse because he told a reporter that she had masterminded his assaults on the Mottweilers. The death penalty was the farthest thing from Benson's mind; he was convinced that, at worst, he would get a life sentence.
Despite his notable ignorance, Benson proved to be correct — but just barely. At his trial in April 1889, his attorney made the grave mistake of putting Benson on the stand. His guilt was undeniable, but the jury members thought him insane and therefore were inclined to be lenient until they heard his obvious evasions while under oath. This convinced them that he was sane, shrewd and doing his best to avoid punishment. They gave him the death penalty on April 6 and he was sentenced to be hanged at the Jeffersonville State Prison on August 16.
Benson faced his imminent demise with an equanimity that surprised everyone. He confessed again, but claimed most implausibly that the nine-months-pregnant Sallie Snyder had actually tomahawked Mrs. Mottweiler with the hatchet. He also admitted that he had made false statements under oath during his trial, and this seemed to trouble him more than his dire crimes. Benson agreed that the death sentence was appropriate considering the gravity of his offenses. Peculiarly, the scaffold from which Benson was to be hanged was kept in a room adjoining his cell and so, as one reporter noted, "[f]rom his bed to the trap on which he is to stand when the noose is adjusted is less than ten feet." The prisoner's comment on the arrangement: "How nicely Captain Patten [the warden] has arranged everything. He does not intend to hang me as if I were a dog."
August 16, the date of the scheduled hanging, came. While the necessary arrangements were made, including plans for his own funeral and burial, Benson seemed as unconcerned as ever. He put on the clothes in which he wished to be hanged: a black luster coat, jeans trousers, a flannel shirt with necktie and silk slippers. It was the best suit he had ever worn in his life. About an hour before Benson was scheduled to stretch hemp, he was saved by a telegram from Governor Hovey, who had been influenced by pleas from the wretched man's mother. Hovey commuted his penalty to life in prison for no other expressed reason than that he thought the prisoner deserved a second chance due to his youth and ignorance. This casts some doubt on the oft-stated maxim that nothing is more valuable than a good education; it is to be assumed that if Benson had had a PhD from Yale or even a high school diploma, he would have been executed right on schedule. "I am glad of it," said the murderer. "But I was prepared to die." He had, in fact, earlier expressed the sentiment that he would rather die than face life in prison. After the prison officials gave Benson the good news, they asked him if he would like to see the scaffold on which he was to have died. The prisoner agreed, whereupon the warden gave him a grand tour of the gallows — which, incidentally, had been constructed by a fellow convict and skilled carpenter named George Lewis. They showed him how the contraption worked and even demonstrated the springing of the trapdoor for the prisoner's edification. Perhaps they were attempting to give him a graphic lesson about what lay in store if he committed another murder.
Another odd circumstance involving Benson's near-hanging is worth telling. Prisoner Owney Heaton, also known as W.W. Williams, had escaped from jail on August 4, two weeks before Benton's scheduled execution, and vowed that he would voluntarily return after Benson's execution. He claimed that he was Benson's stepfather and refused to be in the jail while his stepson was paying the law's ultimate penalty. The unlikely story was confirmed by both Benson and his mother. Heaton and Mrs. Benson had fallen in love while inmates at the county poorhouse and had walked away from the institution to get married in New Albany. I don't know whether Heaton returned to jail as he promised.
Benson had to surrender his fine suit and wear stripes like the other convicts. In April 1897, he was taken to the reformatory at Michigan City to finish out his life term. He wasn't the only one who got a reprieve from what seemed certain death: Mrs. Mottweiler, to the astonishment of the medical fraternity, recovered from her injuries.
Benson was a model prisoner and learned how to read and write. Long after his crime, in July 1910, his bid for a parole was denied by Governor Thomas Marshall. Benson applied again in November; this time, he was fortified with a petition signed by his old prosecutor as well as all but one of the surviving jurors who had sentenced him to death over twenty years before. The Board of Pardons agreed to consider Benson's case during the third week of December. As evidence that fate has a weird sense of humor, during the same week the board performed its deliberations, Benson's surviving victim, Mary Ellen Mottweiler, died at age seventy-five after a long illness.
Perhaps the board felt that since Mrs. Mottweiler was now deceased, there was no one left to protest if Benson should regain his freedom. Whatever their reasoning, they recommended the love-struck farmhand for release on the day before Christmas 1910, after having spent half of his roughly forty-one years in prison.
There is a sad footnote to the saga of William Benson. After his release he lived in La Porte, where he got married and had three children. But he could not get used to the world outside of prison and he found it impossible to resist the lure of petty crime. He voluntarily requested that he be sent back to jail. In June 1914, he was arrested for "mistreating a little girl near his home"; one wonders if he violated his parole intentionally so he would be returned to his old home behind bars. If so, he got his wish. The warden's little exhibition at the gallows years before had had little effect after all.CHAPTER 2
A RATHER BAD NEIGHBOR
Bright and early one lovely September 19 many generations ago, James E. "Bud" Stone went to visit Denson Wratten at his home in Harrison Township, ten miles southeast of Washington, Daviess County, a locale notorious for being the site of several unsolved homicides over the years. Wratten had been bedridden with typhoid for some time, and his neighbors made a point of dropping by to make sure that he was okay. Stone tried the front door, found it locked, entered through the kitchen door and saw the bodies of Mrs. Ada Wratten, twenty-eight, and her four-year-old son Henry lying in the requisite "pool of blood." Stone went to get help, and soon it was discovered that all six members of the family had been most gruesomely attacked. (Mrs. Wratten had been pregnant when she was murdered; the baby was almost full term, so some would consider the body count seven rather than six.)
In the master bedroom lay the bodies of thirty-three-year-old Mr. Wratten — his head smashed to pieces and his hand still gripping a handkerchief — and his nine-year-old daughter, Stella. A third child, twelve-year-old Ethel, was alive but so badly injured that she was not expected to survive. Almost every corpse bore the unmistakable mark of a deep hatchet blow across the forehead. The only exception was Ethel, who had been struck in the back of the head.
The grandmother of the family, Elizabeth Wratten, sixty-four, dwelled in a solitary room connected to the rest of the house by a porch. When the authorities entered her room, they found evidence testifying to the terror of her final moments. She must have awakened to the sound of her family members being slaughtered because she had tried unsuccessfully to barricade her door with heavy furniture. Her attacker had gained entrance to the room by kicking in a window. The room was splattered throughout with blood, and her corpse bore signs of defensive wounds: she had been beaten and scratched, her right hand was broken and her left hand was severed. She had been struck in the head so many times that "her features ... bore no resemblance to those of a human."
Grandmother Wratten recently had withdrawn $619 from her bank account — for this was the year of the Panic of 1893 — and it was supposed that the money had been the murderer's motive. Little Ethel Wratten was taken to the house of Bob Swaningen, a relative of the murdered family, where she wavered on the border of death. It was hoped that she would recover and give police an account of the attack, but she died two days later after regaining consciousness only long enough to say, "Lay me down."
The police brought in bloodhounds, which initially went to neighbor Stone's house — not surprising, since he had visited the crime scene when he found the bodies. Then the dogs wandered off to another county. Three sleuths from the Pinkerton Agency came to town in search of clues. They slunk away in defeat a few days later. A brother-in-law of Mr. Wratten, George McCafferty, offered a reward of $1,000 for information leading to the conviction of the murderers. For his pains, McCafferty was himself suspected of being behind the slayings. The beleaguered man had an attorney write a request that the police cease persecuting him and many citizens signed a petition declaring their belief in McCafferty's innocence.
A couple of weeks after the ghastly murders, City Marshal William Cavanaugh arrested three suspects, all local farmers: Alonzo ("Lon") Williams, William Kays and Oscar Brown. The three were taken to separate cells in the Indiana State Prison South at Jeffersonville. They were glad to be there, having been threatened back home with a triple lynching. Lynch mobs were fearful and unlawful things, but they were very effective at ensuring that arrested men were profoundly grateful to the authorities and therefore more cooperative. Alonzo Williams had especially good reason to fear a mob because he knew of their violence firsthand. Several years before, he had survived being strung up by parties convinced that he had assaulted a woman in Martin County. Because Williams had refused to confess, his life was spared, but according to one news account, "A long time afterward it was ascertained to almost a certainty that Williams really did commit the deed."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Strange Tales of Crime and Murder in Southern Indiana"
Copyright © 2009 Keven McQueen.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Without Whom, It Would Not Have Been Possible,
A Rather Bad Neighbor,
Music Hath Charms,
Evansville's Serial Killer,
Brotherly Love at Rising Sun,
Grand Guignol in New Albany,
Name Your Poison,
Other Books by Keven McQueen,