True crime stories, both fictional and nonfictional, are popular at the Crawfordsville District Public Library, but my interest was snagged by a real “whodunit” I came across in a Crawfordsville letter. During the third week of March in 1857, a young man named William N. Organ received a letter from his childhood friend, Robert Rhea Taylor, who lived in Grant County, Indiana. Though Organ was living in Crawfordsville when he received his letter, he too was not from here, but had arrived recently to attend Wabash College. Amidst Taylor’s news, he told Organ that his two cousins, John and Jehu Rhea, ran a grocery store in Crawfordsville. Upon further investigation, Robert might have been mistaken about both cousins being here because his cousin Jehu had recently run for coroner in late 1856 in their home area of Eaton, Ohio, just east of Richmond, Indiana. However, his cousin John Rhea did move to Crawfordsville in November 1856 with his wife Mary Philura, and their two children, 4-year-old Alice Emma, and new baby Frank. The family moved from Indianapolis, and before that Eaton, Ohio. John opened his grocery in Crawfordsville out of a space known as Crawford Corner east of the courthouse and then he began placing ads for his new “Grocery and Provision Store” in The Crawfordsville Weekly Journal in November.
In his letter, written on March 20, 1857, Robert Taylor told Organ that he heard his cousin John Rhea had been murdered. What? Avidly interested and in full armchair-detective mode, I used the free Indiana historic newspaper database, Hoosier Chronicles (https://newspapers.library.in.gov/), to search for more of the story. According to a Feb. 12, 1857 article in The Crawfordsville Weekly Journal, it had been two weeks since John Rhea left Crawfordsville for Indianapolis with $600 to purchase grocery supplies for his store. One eyewitness, Crawfordsville resident Harvey Ball, saw Rhea on a railroad car between Lafayette and Indianapolis. The police in Indianapolis were notified of Rhea’s disappearance and they searched for him, but they found no evidence that he had arrived. Rhea was still missing when the Greencastle Banner also ran an article about him two weeks later. His wife and children were frantic for his return, and his creditors were restless to seize his property. Everyone — area residents and his family both immediate and extended — believed him murdered, that is, until another letter arrived in Crawfordsville.
John Rhea himself sent a letter to his wife from Austin, Texas. The Crawfordsville Review reported on March 14, 1857, that Rhea begged for her forgiveness for running away and asked her to join him. Apparently, some of his family in Eaton, Ohio and in Grant County, Indiana had not heard of his resurrection from the dead as reflected in Robert Taylor’s letter written a week after John Rhea’s letter. Ironically, John Rhea outlived both Robert Taylor and William Organ. William died in 1862, at age 26, in Missouri and Robert died in 1866, at age 32, in Grant County, Indiana. I do not believe John Rhea’s wife joined him in Texas, nor did she stay in Crawfordsville. John Rhea returned north, and he joined her in the Eaton, Ohio area where he ran a grocery business for the next four decades. He died in his late 70s in 1901.
If you would like to see the Robert Rhea Taylor letter for yourself, it is a new acquisition to the local history archives at the Crawfordsville District Public Library. In addition, do not forget to check out Hoosier Chronicles online … whether you are into true crime or not.
Amie Cox is a local history specialist at the Crawfordsvilel District Public Library and the district media specialist at the Crawfordsville Community Schools.