Author Maurice Thompson’s historical novel “Alice of Old Vincennes” was published in the autumn of 1900, achieving enormous sales during its first weeks in print. The popular book, which featured heroine Alice Roussillon and her role in the capture of Fort Sackville, was credited with bringing about a renewed interest in the history of Vincennes. “Alice” would stand as Thompson’s most successful work, although the author would not live to see the full extent of the acclaim his book received.
Maurice Thompson was born in Fairfield, Indiana, on Sept. 9, 1844. His father was an itinerate Baptist preacher. In 1855, the family moved to northern Georgia, and Thompson would serve in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He returned to Indiana in 1868, residing near Crawfordsville. Thompson married a young woman named Alice Lee that same year, and the couple soon started a family. He would work in the engineering profession, practice law, and, in 1878, won a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives. Throughout those years, he continued his writing, publishing short stories, novels and poems. An expert in the sport of archery, he even wrote a book on that subject, called “The Witchery of Archery.”
Thompson and his wife spent their winters in the South. After coming home to Indiana, following the winter of 1900, he developed La Grippe (the common term for influenza in those days). By that fall, his illness was described as chronic and his doctor recommended that he not travel, so he remained in Indiana that winter. In late January 1901, Thompson developed a cold, which turned into pneumonia.
Vincennes newspapers carried periodic updates on Thompson’s failing health. On Feb. 12 it was reported that he was near death. He passed away at his Crawfordsville home, which he had named Sherwood Place, in the wee hours of the morning of Feb. 15, 1901, 120 years ago Monday. He was only 56 years old.
News of his passing made papers all across the country. The Vincennes Commercial, in their Feb. 16 edition, wrote: “The death of Maurice Thompson has produced universal sorrow in this city. This great author, by his famous story ‘Alice of Old Vincennes,’ endeared himself to the people of Vincennes.”
Since Thompson’s death had been seen as imminent, at the Feb. 11 Vincennes City Council meeting, councilman Ayres J. Taylor entered a resolution requesting that the council, on behalf of the city, send a floral tribute to Crawfordsville to honor the author. The resolution was adopted unanimously.
Local florist William A. Reiman was enlisted to create the arrangement, from a design developed by Mayor George Greene. Not just any display would do for the man who was so instrumental in bringing Vincennes national notoriety, in fact, it was like nothing ever seen before.
Reiman designed a floral Fort Sackville. This is how the Western Sun described his unique creation: “The fort is triangular in shape, 54 x 42 x 42 inches and 26 inches high. The rear wall is constructed of brown galax leaves, found only in North Carolina; the court is lined with green galax leaves; the three bastions, pink and white carnations, the middle one surmounted by a silk American flag. The walls consist of white roses, purple violets, lilies of the valley, and in a foundation of white carnations are the words in purple, Alice of Old Vincennes.”
Reiman put the arrangement on display at his greenhouses at Sycamore and Chestnut Streets, where people flocked to see the work.
The floral arrangement was transported via rail to Crawfordsville, accompanied by Mayor Greene, councilman Taylor, and funeral director George Gardner. The special tribute was delivered to Thompson’s home and placed beside the casket. These three men, along with Crawfordsville Mayor Charles Elmore, served as honorary pallbearers at the funeral, riding in a carriage alongside the hearse.
The funeral was held on Feb. 18, a cold winter day, with burial in Crawfordsville’s Oak Hill Cemetery.
At the end of 1901, “Alice of Old Vincennes” ranked number two on the fiction best seller list and continued to sell well decades into the 20th century.
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.