In September 1897, five men were lynched in Versailles and hung from an elm tree, which became known as The Hanging Tree.
Delbert Abplanalp, Napoleon, shared his knowledge of this event with Batesville Area Historical Society members and guests Oct. 15.
“Back in the early days, it was common for people to break the commandment, thou shall not steal. The Reno Gang around Seymour was cheating at card games and robbing people.” He said they would also threaten people they had stolen from, saying, “‘If you cause us trouble, we’ll burn your house or hurt you in other ways.’”
In the mid-1850s, the railroad came through. “It went from Cincinnati to St. Louis and crossed through Seymour. The trains would slow up or stop, and members of the Reno Gang would get in the baggage car. They knew there were safes in there. On one haul, they got $8,000, and on another one, they got more than that.
“The gang’s downfall was someone was hired to apprehend them. They went out West as far as Missouri and Iowa and robbed courthouses .... Then they came back, and they got meaner and ornerier. A vigilante group was organized and caught up with them,” and eventually hung them.
“One of the gang members, Lyle Levi, didn’t get caught. He started up a group of his own in Osgood. They ended up doing about the same things as the Reno Gang did.
“The main businesses in Osgood were hotels and livery stables .... There was always money around. People usually carried some on them or kept it at home. At that time, they weren’t much for banks.”
Gang members would go out at night to steal money from citizens, threatening to beat them up if they didn’t turn it over, the 85-year-old said. One night, they broke into the home of farmer John Bultman. The bandits thought he had money, but he didn’t, so they beat him and “took his wife and built a fire and put her feet on the stove .... and took some valuables, including a 12-gauge shotgun.
“When word got out, people got upset.” They were later caught, and the sheriff “brought them to the courthouse, but they said they didn’t do it, so he had to let them go.”
About a month later, a shootout was held in Correct, just south of Versailles. The sheriff was shot in the hand and two gang members were also wounded. Those two got away, but were later apprehended and jailed at Versailles.
On that September day 116 years ago, “a vigilante group was meeting east of Napoleon .... About 10 p.m., they were going to Versailles and do justice.” By the time they arrived there, about 200 people had accumulated. “I don’t know how the word got out,” Abplanalp revealed.
“They took off their coats and everything that would identify them, and put red or blue handkerchiefs around their faces. It was the first quarter of the moon, so you couldn’t see them well.”
The mob went to the jail and demanded the release of five prisoners, including Levi, Bert Andrews, Cliff Gordon, Henry Shuter and Bill Jenkins. Ropes were put around them and they were “dragging them like a boy dragging a toy.
“They went until they found an elm tree on the banks of Laughery Creek .... put the ropes up (to hang the men) and disappeared the same as they came in.”
Abplanalp added, “A man who lived along the path said he heard and saw the whole deal and recognized one of the men giving orders as a prominent man in Versailles.” When questioned later, the witness maintained, “‘I’m not saying anything.’”
The coroner was called and he “ordered the bodies be cut down .... It was said the bodies were facing four different directions of the globe.
“By that time, it was getting to be morning, so the bodies were drug up and put in a tent. Water was carried in, and the bodies were scrubbed up the best they could and the next of kin were called.
“Five coffins were lined up outside the funeral home and funerals were going to be that afternoon .... One of the families called the pastor of the Methodist church and told him to have a silent prayer. When he was done, he (the minister) said, ‘I think justice has been done.’”
Gov. James Mount wanted the vigilantes arrested. He even sent an investigator down from Indianapolis, but no evidence was found to jail anyone.
However, Abplanalp pointed out, “There are probably some of you in here who had relatives involved in it.”
He said there is still a lot of interest in the story of The Hanging Tree, and a piece of the tree is displayed in a frame at Stratton-Karsteter Funeral Home, Versailles.
Diane Raver can be contacted at email@example.com or 812-934-4343, Ext. 114.