Blog post by Randi Richardson
Sometimes the line between “vigilante justice” and just downright meanness is quite thin and poorly defined. Such is the 1854 case in which Harrison Spear, variously spelled Speer, was a victim and Hugh Butler, one of several perpetrators, died. The assault was allegedly triggered by Spear’s immoral behavior. Newspapers in various states carried the story which often differed in detail. It is believed, but not proven, that the Harrison Spear in question was a resident of Indian Creek Twp., Lawrence County.
On April 15, 1854, the Bloomington Newsletter published information pertaining to a vicious assault on Harrison Spear of Ellettsville by Hugh Butler, Jacob Young and Jeff Raper who were all well into their cups at the time. Spear was described by the Newsletter as a “peaceable but unfortunately a poor man.” It was alleged that Spear was living with a woman of ill repute. The young men lobbed bricks and rocks toward Spear’s home. At one end of the house they exploded a keg of powder and sand putting the inhabitants in fear for their lives.
In the midst of the chaos, someone fired a gun. Some accounts noted that it was Raper; in other accounts it was Spear. Regardless of who fired it, it struck Butler. Butler’s companions took him to a physician who declared that the wound was not serious whereupon Butler and the others took up their pursuit of Spear.
Here, too, the story differs. According to one, Spear quickly fled for his life with his assailants, joined by Hugh’s brother, Frederick, Jr., in hot pursuit. They overtook him and were beating him terribly with rocks and, it is believed, an axe, when Spear managed to draw a bowie knife and stabbed Hugh in the right side killing him almost immediately. According to another account, the ruffians managed to get the “old man” out of doors and had him on the ground beating him over the head with a stone when he drew a knife and stabbed Butler.
Whichever of the stories is accurate, covered with blood, both his own and that of Hugh, Spear escaped and fled to the home of his neighbor, Henry Shook who turned him away, perhaps fearing for his own safety. Next Spear took refuge at some distance in Worley’s tavern. He ran upstairs and fastened the door with the assailants close behind. It was there that Worley found Spear covered with blood, still clutching the bloody knife and terrified almost to death. He convinced Spear to give himself up with the assurance that he would not be hurt by his pursuers.
While Young and Raper made a hasty retreat, Spear was lodged in jail. On Friday morning, the case was brought for trial before Jno. M. Sluss, a justice of the peace. Because Young and Rader, witnesses for the prosecution, had not yet been found, the trial was continued until the next Friday. Paris Dunning was one of the lawyers appointed to prosecute Spears.
On May 6, 1854, the Bloomington Newsletter reported that “no bill” was found against Spear for killing Hugh Butler. Thus ended Harrison Spear’s brief sojourn in Monroe County.