In Vincennes, the early morning of April 19, 1889, Good Friday, was warm and a bit hazy. The scene around the Knox County Court- house was a peaceful one. Trees were leafed out in springtime green, and the only sound to be heard was birds singing. This tranquil picture belied the events about to play out there. Observers would have seen that an 18-foot-high fence had been erected on the courthouse grounds. The fence hid a wooden scaffold that was key to the day’s happenings. In just a short time, an immense crowd would gather there in what would be described as a “circus day” atmosphere.
Confined in the county jail, which at that time stood where the Soldiers and Sailors Monument is now located, was 25-year-old Sylvester Grubb, who had just eaten a hearty breakfast, his last meal. Ministers came to pray with him. Rev. Thomas Keith of the First Baptist Church was one of his visitors. In just a few hours, Grubb would be taken to the scaffold and hanged, a punishment ordered after the young man was convicted of murdering his onetime sweetheart.
Knox County had seen two men lynched that decade, one in 1884 and one in 1886. Both were accused murderers who were dragged from the jail by mobs and hanged without benefit of a trial. Grubbs would be the last legal hanging in the county, and it was said to be the last execution in Indiana that took place in a location other than a state or federal prison.
The crime leading up to the execution occurred seven months earlier in Gibson County. On Sept. 13, 1888, Grubb shot his former girlfriend, Gertrude Downey, age 19, at the Princeton Fairgrounds, after she spurned his affection. Miss Downey lingered with two bullet wounds, succumbing several days later.
Grubb was immediately arrested. He was arraigned in Gibson County and entered a plea of not guilty to a charge of first-degree murder. For a time, he was moved to Evansville and then Jeffersonville, due to very real threats from a lynch mob.
Grubb’s trial came to Knox County on a change of venue. He was moved to the Knox County Jail on Oct. 12, with the trial starting that day in Circuit Court. Special Judge W. F. Townsend had charge of the proceedings, and Grubb was represented by local attorneys William A. Cullop and James S. Pritchett, along with Gibson County attorney A. P. Twineham. The men used the insanity defense.
The prosecution was made up of prosecuting attorney. J. C. Adams, J. R. Bretz, and J. E. McCullough. Some 100 witnesses would be called.
The trial concluded just over a week later. On the morning of Oct. 19, after deliberating for eight hours, the 12-man jury’s verdict was read in court. They found the defendant guilty of murder in the first-degree. After three ballots, the jury agreed unanimously that Grubb’s sentence should be death. The defense motion for a new trial was denied and the judge set April 19, 1889, as the date of his execution by hanging. An appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court proved unsuccessful, so Grubb remained in jail awaiting his fate.
On the evening of March 2, 1889, with the date of his execution fast-approaching, Grubb and another prisoner escaped from the jail, using some tools they had acquired to cut through the iron ceiling. They climbed into the attic, removed a ventilator in the roof, and used blankets tied together to descend to the ground. Grubb made his way across the O & M Railroad Bridge into Illinois, where, by walking and riding a boxcar part of the way, got to the outskirts of Grayville, before he was captured late the following day by the Grayville marshal. He was returned to Vincennes the next morning.
The execution was not public, hence the tall fence, rather a ticket was required, those going to a select audience comprised of law enforcement and other public officials, physicians, and representatives of the press.
The prisoner was taken from the jail with his hands in shackles and ascended the scaffold. The noose was placed around his neck and his head was covered with a black hood sewn by a local woman for that purpose. Knox County Sheriff Mordecai McDowell pulled the lever releasing the trap door, dropping Grubb to his death just after 11 a.m. Ironically, Sheriff McDowell, who was also a physician, was an opponent of capital punishment. He carried out his duty, nonetheless, unwilling to order anyone else to take on the awful task. Grubb’s body was taken to Gardner’s undertaking establishment and later to Gibson County for burial in Mount Olive Cemetery.
On a side note, this columnist’s great-great-grandfather, Henry Spangle, who was a prominent farmer north of Edwardsport, was a member of the jury that convicted Grubb and sentenced him to death.
Brian Spangle can be reached at email@example.com. His latest book, “Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County,” published last year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.