Historians hope to memorialize 1875 lynching

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Joe Skvarenina and Linda Dunn are spearheading an effort to acquire a historical marker to memorialize the death of a Black man who was lynched in Hancock County in 1875.

This story has been updated to correct the location of the Marion, Indiana, lynching and to clarify a reference to James Whitcomb Riley. 

GREENFIELD — Historical markers in downtown Greenfield note the birthplaces of local figures, but two local historians are hoping to put up a marker acknowledging something more painful in Hancock County’s history.

They’ve raised money for a sign that would memorialize the 19th-century lynching of a Black man by dozens of white residents. Local donors have supplied the $2,975 needed to fund a historical marker.

Joe Skvarenina and Linda Dunn raised money for the potential marker with the help of the local League of Women Voters. If the signage is approved by the Indiana Historical Bureau, they hope to put a sign up next summer near the burial place of lynching victim William Keemer.

“It was time that it was acknowledged and not ignored,” Skvarenina said.

The killing occurred in 1875, when Keemer, a Black resident of Carthage, was lynched by a crowd of about 160 men from Hancock, Rush and Shelby counties. Keemer was accused of raping a white woman, but there was no trial, and the historical record contains nothing about what the woman had to say, only her husband’s testimony.

According to the historical record, Keemer stopped at the woman’s home in the Charlottesville area to ask for a glass of water on his way back from a journey to Indianapolis. He was arrested in Rush County but was transferred to the Hancock County Jail because there were threats of a lynching spreading among white residents.

Dunn studied Keemer’s murder for a book she wrote about the history of Black Hancock County residents. She said men from the three counties apparently met to decide on how Keemer should die and voted for hanging. He was taken from his jail cell to the county’s fairgrounds at the time — where Hawk’s Tail Golf Course is today — and a crowd of people watched him die.

Dunn said county law enforcement at the jail resisted the mob, and there were rumors that Quakers in attendance tried to prevent the hanging, but the crowd was overwhelming and couldn’t be turned away.

After the lynching, there was a veil of silence over Hancock County’s white majority. Not one of the men involved in the murder was ever identified publicly or prosecuted.

“People just refused to talk about it,” Skvarenina said.

James Whitcomb Riley, who was in his 20s and not yet a famous poet, lived in Greenfield at the time. One of his biographies notes that he was distraught about what had happened in his hometown. Another historian, Brigette Cook Jones, says the biography indicates Riley was not present with the mob but was persuaded to go see the body the next day.

“I would give a United States mint,” he said, “to efface that picture from my memory,” according to the biography.

Later, Dunn said, Keemer’s brother and eventually his brother’s descendants tried to find out the identities of those involved in the lynching, but they never could.

Hancock County’s hostility to Black residents, Skvarenina said, continued. The Ku Klux Klan established a major presence in the county, and Indiana as a whole, in the 1920s.

Skvarenina said now, as more non-white residents are moving into the county, is the right time to look back at the shameful parts of the area’s history.

“History’s good and bad, and you’ve got to acknowledge the bad with the good,” he said.

The former jail where Keemer was removed from his cell is now the Hancock County prosecutor’s office, a building in poor condition that may not be preserved, and the site of his hanging has been developed, so Dunn and Skvarenina decided the marker should be placed near the former pauper’s cemetery where he was buried. That’s on the same parcel of land that will house the county’s new jail, now under construction. The bodies of indigent people who died in the county at the time were buried there; the bodies were never moved and remain buried in an overgrown field, Dunn said.

They hope the marker can be placed on state-owned land off U.S. 40 and near the drive that will lead into the jail campus.

Dunn said she thinks Hancock County is at a “tipping point” where it is poised to become more diverse, but it still carries a legacy of racism.

“Putting that marker up now is an opportunity for us to address that past history,” she said.

Hancock County currently has three state historical markers. One marks Riley’s birthplace; another memorializes noted local artist Will Vawter, who illustrated Riley’s work; and the thrid commemorates the origin of the rooster as a symbol for the Democratic Party.

Jones, another historian who also is the director of the Hancock County Tourism Commission, said she was unsure when she heard about the plans for a potential marker. She said she thinks it might not qualify for the state’s standards of notability, since the impact of the incident was mostly local rather than statewide or nationwide.

Jones said there was also a potential for disagreement about putting up a marker, noting that the families of two men who were lynched in Marion in Grant County were against the idea of installing one there.

However, Jones said, she isn’t against a potential memorial to the incident in some form.

“It is part of our history and it is something that a lot of people are maybe not aware of,” she said.