(Editor’s note: In the Sept. 17, 2022, column written by Craig Davis, “Drunken Brawl of September 1890: Prelude to Vigilantism,” the author mistakenly cited details from George and Sarah E. Matlock divorce court records, including the accusations of abandonment and drunkenness, and two children Walter and Rachel Ann. The records refer to a different George and Sarah E. Matlock living in Ewing at the time, not those of Owen Township.)
On Wednesday evening, Oct. 28, 1891, the temperature in Owen Township dropped into the 30s.
Eight farmers, a blacksmith, a carpenter and a few other “quiet, peace-loving citizens” — as the Banner called them — allegedly gathered to commit extra-judicial violence against George Matlock and his family. Wilburn Fields, James A. Browning, James Ballard, Marshall Hudson, Henry C. Branaman, James Drinnen, David White, brothers John and Henry S. Williams, Edward Moneyhan and William Wilson were all neighbors of George and Drusilla Matlock.
Many were inextricably linked to the Matlocks through blood or marriage. Fields and Drinnen had known the Matlock clan from their native community in War Gap, Tennessee, and were former drinking buddies with George. Drinnen had married into the Matlock family.
Other vigilantes had known George and his former wife, Sarah E. Browning Matlock, most of their lives. Jim Browning, Sarah’s younger stepbrother, was just 8 when Sarah and George married in 1868.
David White and Henry S. Williams were born the following year and grew up near the Matlock farm. David’s maternal aunt was married to George Matlock’s brother. Around 1872, Sarah gave birth to Burt Matlock, and he very well may have gone to school and played with David and Henry.
But some undisclosed “crime” drove a dozen or more members of this close-knit community to administer Lynch Law, as Hoosiers called vigilante justice at the time.
Likely emboldened by sympathetic Jackson County courts, community members and media, the White Caps donned hoods or painted their faces and stormed George Matlock’s home located between Freetown, Clearspring and Kurtz. The vigilantes ransacked the Matlock house and stole family possessions, including $150.50 in cash, the equivalent of about $4,900 today.
The assailants beat and kicked George and Burt, who was about 19. Ironically, Burt was actually Jim Browning’s nephew. The ordeal must have terrorized the other family members who likely witnessed it: Drusilla; 5-year-old David; Thomas, who was but a toddler; and Dorothy Matlock, George’s 81-year-old mother and Drusilla’s grandmother.
Immediately after the attack, George rode to Brownstown and filed charges against the White Caps with Brownstown’s justice of the peace. Although the Kurtz and Freetown justices of the peace were closer in distance, George likely felt Brownstown’s official was more objective. After all, Isaac Smith was Freetown’s justice, who just two months earlier had conducted the inquest of Drusilla’s dead baby and served as a witness against her in court.
Beginning the next day, Sheriff Ewing Stillwell arrested the 11 men on the charges of riotous conspiracy for some and the additional charges of larceny and burglary for others.
While the assault was carried out largely by farmers and laborers between the ages of 21 and 41, the aftermath suggests a much wider collaboration, including older, prominent businessmen and landowners. The defense attorneys rapidly subpoenaed the vigilantes’ spouses, siblings, children, in-laws, a reverend and a saloon owner to serve as witnesses. Six prominent businessmen and landowners posted bond or lent other support after the fact.
Five of six were older Civil War veterans between the ages of 44 and 63, including William Matlock, one of George’s own brothers. One of the six was a medical doctor, another a hotel owner, another a postmaster. Two were landowners and two were bankers, including justice Isaac Smith.
Indeed, George didn’t find much sympathy in Freetown. The Freetown columnist for the Banner suggested Matlock was the criminal and the vigilantes the victims.
“Several of our citizens were arrested and bound over to the next term of court. That he (George Matlock) should have any of our quiet, peace-loving citizens arrested on such a charge was quite a surprise to all as they seem to have an abhorrence of such a way of punishing crime.”
Neither the existing court records nor the media leave any indication of the Matlocks’ alleged “crime.” However, the fact that a jury had found Drusilla Matlock not guilty of murdering her newborn child just two months earlier was motive enough for White Caps to take the law into their own hands.
The Matlocks found little sympathy in the Jackson County justice system, either. Whereas Drusilla’s murder case took six months to come to trial while only calling 12 witnesses, the White Capping case was rushed to trial exactly four weeks later, calling a whopping 40 witnesses.
Prosecutor William T. Branaman and defense attorney Frank Branaman were brothers. They also were first cousins of accused vigilante Henry C. Branaman. Moreover, it is unclear how many of those 40 witnesses actually took the stand during the short, one-day trial. The next morning, the jury found all 11 defendants not guilty. Not surprisingly, none of the written testimony survived.
The Freetown columnist applauded the verdict: “After the expenditure of much time and money, (the accused) proved themselves clear of the charge and have returned home as happy as could be expected of men who were forced to expend so much valuable time for nothing.”
However, the Matlocks’ sorrows were far from over. Likewise, the Fieldses, Ballards, Brownings and others would suffer their own tragedies. Post-Bellum Jackson County, Indiana, was a rugged environment. And few survived unscathed.
Craig Davis, who was born in Seymour and graduated from Brownstown Central High School, currently lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and works for a U.S. government contractor on school-based violence prevention. He is the author of “The Middle East for Dummies” and is conducting research for a genealogy and social history book in Kurtz and Freetown. You can visit the Living with Cancer weekly blog at marvingray.org and write him at [email protected] Send comments to [email protected]