The Murder of Elmer Hamilton

“Poor Elmer died this A.M. about ten o’clock. It was a case of murder. Particulars are not yet known.”

- Thomas Neely, September 5, 1899

On their way to work around 5:00 a.m. on September 5, 1899, John Ralston and Theodore Hand discovered a badly beaten man lying on the Harrison School grounds just south of 6th Street. An iron chain laid across his chest with one end tied to a jersey cow who, unperturbed by the grisly scene, stood nonchalantly nearby munching grass. A broken piece of timber, covered in gore, lay a few feet away next to part of the man’s jaw and a few teeth. The next day, the Muncie Morning News reported that his face “was mashed almost to a pulp, and his upper jawbone was broken…with indisputable evidence that he had been choked.”

Ralston and Hand sought help from nearby houses. Several neighbors then gathered around to discuss what was best to do. The man was conscious enough to talk, but wasn’t making sense. Someone in the group eventually phoned the police and five MPD patrolmen arrived at the scene. The man’s face was so badly beaten that no one recognized him. An officer asked him for his name.

“Hamilton,” the man sputtered back, choking on blood.

“What Hamilton, the one who works at the lime house?”

“Yes.”

Seeing that nothing could be done there, the officers called R. Meeks & Sons Mortuary. Along with undertaking, Meeks also operated a free city ambulance at the time. This may seem like a conflict of interest today, but probably was just practical in 1899. The morticians took Hamilton to Whitney Hospital on South Council Street. After several grueling hours, Hamilton died around 9:45 a.m. He was 28.

The victim, Elmer Hamilton.

Elmer Hamilton’s brutal death caused an uproar in Muncie. Several recent murders, some of which had gone unsolved, had rattled gas boom-era Munsonians who now demanded justice. Elmer was also a son of Muncie’s well-known lime dealer, George Hamilton. The MPD immediately launched an investigation. Detectives interviewed several witnesses that had seen Hamilton the night before with Clifford Morris as the two engaged in an epic bender across the Magic City. Both men were known to gamble and drink heavily, though Morris was “considered one of the most dangerous men in the city when intoxicated.” Hamilton was described as an industrious worker, but “his one fault was drink, and while under the influence of liquor, was childish and ready to quarrel.”

The police couldn’t find Morris, but detectives pieced together a rough timeline from witness statements. Hamilton had spent the day before his death drinking about town. After dining with his wife and parents, he excused himself around 9:00 p.m. and met up with friends including Morris, Charles Stephenson, Harry Geise, and Sam Morrett. The five purchased two gallons of beer from Alvy Drumm’s Place at 200 N. Walnut. Instead of drinking it there, they guzzled their brew in the back alley behind Lake and Andrew’s Saloon across the street.

Hearing the commotion, Lake and Andrew’s bartender, Albert Lamb, rushed to the alley and commanded the carousers to leave. A fight ensued between Lamb and Stephenson, which ended when the latter “slightly stabbed” Lamb, though the bartender did not immediately discover the wound. Geise left about this time with Morrett. Both owned racehorses and the two had an upcoming relay in Marion to prepare for. A very drunk Stephenson, who worked as Morrett’s groomer, also left, but headed for the Delaware County Fairgrounds to sleep off his stupor in a stall with Morrett’s horse. Hamilton and Morris, however, we’re undaunted by the experience and continue with their drinking spree.

The assailant, Clifford Morris.

The exact timeline of where the two went after was inconclusive. But eyewitnesses placed Hamilton and Morris at several other locations throughout the night including the Tremont Hotel, Harry Hope’s Saloon, Maple Grove Beer Garden, Up-To-Date Café, James “Doc” Seitz’s Stag Saloon, Kettner’s New Southern Bar, Everett & Son Restaurant, John “Pluck” Davison’s Saloon and Restaurant, and the Big 4 Saloon. Sometime around 2:00 AM, three very drunk men, one of whom matched Hamilton’s description, entered Lulu Schumaker’s brothel at the corner of 6th and Kinney where “they became abusive to the inmates.” Lulu’s was about a block away from Harrison School.

Yes, you read that right. There was a bordello within eyeshot of a Muncie elementary school.

On September 6th, detectives went to the fairgrounds in search of Morris and Stephenson. They learned that both had left separately for the Marion horse race the day before. Robert Winters, a Muncie Morning News reporter, was also investigating the murder. When he learned that Stephenson and Morris were in Marion, he tagged along with MPD Captain Curtis Turner to question the suspects.

Charles Stephenson, horse groomer.

With an assist from Marion police, Turner arrested Stephenson first. The groomer gave a statement admitting to the fight with Lamb, but adamantly denied killing Hamilton. He indicated that he had returned to the fairground stables well before midnight. Around 4:00 a.m., according to Stephenson, a drunk Clifford Morris woke him up and the two went for breakfast at Frank Anderton’s Restaurant. On the way back to the fairgrounds, Morris told Stephenson that he and Hamilton had fought a few hours prior and he had beaten Hamilton almost to death. That was enough for Captain Turner. The dashing policeman returned to the Grant County Fairgrounds and arrested Morris who protested his innocence. Turner then escorted both men back to the Delaware County jail.

Captain Turner

All evidence was turned over to a grand jury. After interviewing 50 witnesses, the jurors indicted Morris for murdering Hamilton. The trial was scheduled for November 20th with Judge Joseph Leffler presiding. Morris secured counsel from two law firms, Ball & Needham and Gregory, Lotz, & Silverburg. The state was represented by Delaware County Prosecutor Edward White, with assistance from Ralph Ross and John Ryan.

I don’t have enough space here to describe the proceedings in detail, but suffice it to say, the trial was a hot mess. Witness testimony was often contradictory and the state really only had circumstantial evidence. The defense tried to raise reasonable doubt by pinning the murder on Albert Lamb. Apparently once Lamb discovered his stab wound, he went looking for the revelers “to whip them.” Morris’ attorneys also floated a stupid idea that the cow had attacked Hamilton.

The jury didn’t buy this nonsense and returned a verdict on December 3rd, finding Morris guilty of manslaughter. He was sentenced to 2–14 years at the Jeffersonville Penitentiary. He was released in 1903, but true to form, returned to violence back in Muncie. He was arrested once for a fight and a second time after firing four shots through the back door at Lulu’s brothel.

I’m not sure what the moral of the story is here. But after researching and writing it, I definitely understand now why the Anti-Saloon League and other Temperance Movement votaries so adamantly pushed teetotalism. Unbridled drinking, especially coupled with toxic masculinity, can lead to consequences far worse than a hangover.

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Public historian, animator, and resident of Muncie, Indiana.

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Chris Flook

Chris Flook

Public historian, animator, and resident of Muncie, Indiana.

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