The 1885 Phipps Controversy, Terre Haute, Indiana

Terre Haute, Indiana and Casey, Illinois were astir during the summer of 1885 over the disappearance of a Casey farmer, Edgar Williamson, also referred to in newspapers as Elmer Williamson. Evidence turned up which suggested that Williamson had been murdered, and that a certain Phipps family, living in Terre Haute at the time, were to blame.

Newspaper accounts jumbled the facts and are riddled with contradictions. Sometimes different articles contradicted each other. Sometimes one article would even contradict itself. The following, however, appears to have been the chronology as reported, at least more or less.

Williamson had been a farmer living near Casey, Illinois. Casey is located in Clark and Cumberland Counties. He came to Terre Haute in February 1885, and was seen in the city in the St. Clair House. Then he disappeared, and was not seen again until his body was found in the Wabash River, where it floated to the surface after ice broke up in the spring.

Williamson’s activities in the city were traced to the St. Clair House. This was described as a building “inhabited by the very worst elements of the city.” An illustration showing the St. Clair House appears in an 1874 Vigo County, Indiana atlas published by A.T. Andreas. Photos of the structure also appear on p. 76 of the book Terre Haute & Vigo County in Vintage Postcards. The St. Clair House was located at 204 Wabash Avenue, on the northeast corner of 2nd and Wabash. It later became the Stag Hotel.

Several women associated with the St. Clair House, including a certain Emma Morey, were taken into custody on suspicion, but were later released. Emma Morey’s name was also represented in newspaper accounts as Emma Mowery. She was known as Em.

In May 1885, around the time that Williamson’s body was found, a newspaper mentioned Emma Morey and Jennie Phipps “of the St. Clair flats.” The two women were said to have tried, “under alcoholic inspiration,” to “paint Gallatin street a beautiful cardinal red” on a Saturday night. A police sergeant then interrupted “their little amusement” and locked them up.

When the Williamson matter came up, it appeared that the matter would likely be dropped, since no evidence turned up. Then, however, rumors began to surface that suggested that a family named Phipps, who had been living in the St. Clair House, might have been responsible.

John W. Phipps, along with his daughters Emma and Jenny, had been living in the St. Clair House in Terre Haute but had since moved to a farm belonging to T.H. Riddle of Terre Haute. The farm was located 7 miles west of Casey, Illinois. John W. Phipps was said to have been “well-known” in Terre Haute for “a number of years,” and had been working for T.H. Riddle. Edgar Williamson, the man who disappeared, had also been living near Casey.

One of the Phipps “children,” as a newspaper put it, was overheard as remarking that his father told his mother that Williamson would “soon wash out of the river.” One of John W. Phipps’s daughters, a married woman referred to as Mrs. Patrick, entered into a squabble with her father. This was because she wanted to bring her husband to Phipps’s house, but John W. Phipps would not allow it, since he did not like him.

As a result, Mrs. Patrick supposedly no longer wished to hold the family’s dark secrets. In another version of the story, one of the Phipps girls “captured” a young man for a short time, but her sister “cut her out.” Her anger then prompted the confession. She then told a justice of the peace that a member or member of the Phipps family drugged Edgar Williamson in Emma Morey’s room at the St. Clair House. In yet another version, one of the Phipps girls, identified as a prostitute, told authorities about the murder, but her confession was said to have prompted by jealousy, and that there “nothing in it.”

According to Mrs. (Phipps) Patrick’s account, as reported, the intent was not to kill Williamson, but only to rob him. They gave him too much of the drug, however, and Williamson died. After he died, according to Mrs. Patrick’s story, Williamson’s body was carried into the cellar by John W. Phipps, referred to as “the old man” of the family. Then it was said that the body was later taken on a dark night to a sewer at the corner of 3rd and Chestnut Streets, where it was deposited. Evidently, the assumption was that the body would soon find its way to the river.

The story pointed the finger at the Phipps family, Emma Morey, and another Emma, presumably the one who was John W. Phipps’s daughter. Before they moved to near Casey, Illinois, Jenny and Em Morey (sometimes referred to as Mowery) had been sharing a room in the St. Clair House. Williamson was said to have died in this room.

A sergeant and deputy went to Casey, Illinois to make arrests. They returned at 1 pm on Wednesday, 5 August 1885 with John W. Phipps and Jennie, described as his blonde 18-year-old daughter, under suspicion of murder. John W. Phipps was said to be 59 at the time, which indicates that he was born about 1826.

Both John and Jennie (otherwise referred to as Jenny) Phipps were placed in jail, but in separate cells. They denied any knowledge of the matter, as did Emma Morey, who was also in jail. Even while these individuals were incarcerated, it was thought that there was not much of a case against them. That was because the sole evidence was said to be the testimony of Mrs. Patrick, who was described as being of “exceedingly bad character.” In addition, it was thought that Jennie did not “talk nor act” guilty, and that John W. Phipps looked like an “inoffensive old man.”

A contradictory account, however, appears to have Emma Phipps, not Emma Morey or Mowery, as in jail with John W. Phipps. In that version of the story, Emma Phipps, also called Em, admitted that Williamson had been drugged in an attempt to rob him. Supposedly the drug had been added to a beer which was given Williamson by Jenny. In another account, however, it was wine rather than beer.

Then, it is said, Jenny Phipps and “the Mowery girl” found that the dose was too strong, and that Williamson had died. They then consulted John W. Phipps, who, according to the story, decided to carry Williamson’s body into the cellar, where he covered it with boards. Before long, however, the body began to smell. Becoming concerned that the body would be discovered, on a dark night John then carried the body to the sewer, where because of melting snow and spring rains the body soon found its way to the river.

While in jail, “the Mowery girl” was said to sing, talk, and act happy. John W. Phipps’s bail was set at $1,000. Mrs. Patrick’s testimony came under scrutiny. She had said that the body was inserted into the sewer at 3rd and Chestnut. It was pointed out that because of grating and the design of the sewer at that point, the body would not likely have reached the river. At 2nd and Chestnut, however, the body could have easily been placed into the sewer, and would have traveled out into the river.

The police concluded that it appeared that the evidence was insufficient to “hold” a murder charge. In fact, a sergeant who had made the arrests near Casey, Illinois said that “if Phipps had not wanted to come to Terre Haute worse than they wanted him, he would not have been brought at all.” Supposedly he was anxious to come to Terre Haute to clear his name.

A local paper reported on 8 August 1885 that the “parties now in jail” were not guilty, and that Jennie Phipps and Emma Morey had been released. Then, in a one-sentence newspaper article on 13 August 1885, it was reported that John W. Phipps had been released “on his own recognizance.” It was added that this “practically ends” the case.

Was there guilt on the part of the Phipps family, or were the charges against them just a matter of fabrication prompted by jealousy? And who were these Phipps individuals, genealogically speaking?

A Terre Haute marriage record from later the same year, 1885, involves a Jennie Phipps, daughter of John Phipps. Was this the same family?

According to that record, Jennie Phipps of Terre Haute married George W. Bishop, a cook who was also living in Terre Haute. He was 25 and born in Illinois, a son of John and Sarah (Delap) Bishop. She was 20, so born about 1865, and born in Illinois. Jennie’s parents are listed as John and Nancy (Cooper) Phipps. Jennie Phipps and George W. Bishop were married 31 December 1885 in Terre Haute by a justice of the peace, according to Vigo County Marriage Book 1-M, pp. 284-285.

Sources:

  • “Another Horror,” Terre Haute Express, 4 August 1885, p. 1.
  • “Edgar Williamson,” Weekly Gazette, Terre Haute, 6 August 1885, p. 4.
  • “Em. Mowery Arrested,” Terre Haute Express, 5 August 1885, p. 1.
  • “The Last of the Phipps Case,” Terre Haute Express, 8 August 1885, p. 1.
  • “Phipps Released,” Weekly Gazette, Terre Haute, 13 August 1885, p. 6.
  • “Phipps Released,” Terre Haute Express,/em>, 7 August 1885, p. 1.
  • Untitled, under “City in Brief,” Terre Haute Express, 26 May 1885, p. 4.
  • Untitled, under “Notes and Comment,” The Mail, Terre Haute, 8 August 1885, p. 1.
  • “The Williamson Mystery, Terre Haute Express, 6 August 1885, p. 4.
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