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The Unsolved Mystery of Josiah Botkin’s Disappearance

Blog post by Randi Richardson

If you are lucky enough to have an ancestor that left behind an oral interview, you may find the material both interesting and enlightening.  Consider, for example, the oral interview of Alva Botkin (variously spelled Botkins, Bodkin and Bodkins) on file at the research library in the Monroe County History Center.

Alva Botkin, a native of Monroe County, was born to Charles W. and Cora V. (Mitchell) Botkin in 1897.  He graduated from Smithville High School in 1916, received an A. B. degree from Indiana University in 1923, and was principal at Smithville High School from 1936 through 1939.  In 1980 when Alva was about 83 years of age and living in Arlington Heights, Illinois, he came to Bloomington to visit his brother-in-law and sister, Mr. and Mrs. John McMillan.  While in Bloomington he was interviewed by Julia Deckard.  One of the most interesting topics that Alva covered in his interview was the history of his grandfather, Josiah Botkin.

Alva Botkin’s photo from a Smithville Searchlight yearbook c. 1939.

Born in Virginia about 1825, Josiah left his native home for Indiana sometime between 1850 and 1855 when he married Priscilla Thrasher, also a native of Virginia, in Monroe County and settled with her nearby in Pleasant Township, Lawrence County.  Unlike few others in the county, or even in the state, Josiah worked as an engineer to support his family that, by 1870, included six children.

Though Josiah’s roots ran deep in Virginia, a slave-holding state, he was bitterly opposed to slavery.  The level of his commitment to freedom for all may be best demonstrated by his enrollment in the Union army, Co. A, 24th Indiana Infantry, in July 1861.  During the course of his military career, according to Alva, Josiah saw action at the battle on Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1863 and on Sherman’s march to the sea in Georgia during 1864.

Upon his discharge from the army in 1864, Josiah returned to Lawrence County where he once again took up his work as an engineer.  Then about 1876, according to Alva, Josiah went to Mississippi and set up a sawmill.  Some of his employees were men of color, undoubtedly at least a few of whom were former slaves.  He wrote home to Priscilla that the business was doing quite well.  After a year, however, the letters stopped.  Josiah simply disappeared.  It was speculated that he was killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan who were very active in Mississippi at the time.

An unidentified photo of an early sawmill from the archives at the Library of Congress.

In telling of the story of his grandfather, Alva noted that Priscilla was never able to collect Josiah’s military pension because there was no death certificate and, therefore, she had to “raise seven children the hard way, by manual labor.”  Historical records, however, reveal a bit more to the story.

On March 29, 1877, Priscilla married a well-to-do, much older widower, Leonard Litz, another native of Virginia, who lived in Indian Creek Twp., Monroe County, and had a number of adult children.  After nearly 17 years of marriage to Priscilla, Leonard passed away from natural causes in February 1894 at the age of 86.

Priscilla, who would have been about 60 when Leonard died, could not qualify for a widow’s military pension from Leonard because he was not a veteran of the Union army.  Initially she was also unable to qualify for Josiah’s pension because she had remarried.    In 1901, however, Congress changed the law allowing remarried widows to receive a pension from their first husband so long as they were also widowed from any subsequent husband.

In 1903 Priscilla applied for Josiah’s pension.  But there is little evidence of that application beyond the single index card noted above that was found at the Fold3 website.  On July 18, 1907, Priscilla (Thrasher) Botkin Litz died in Smithville and was subsequently buried there in the Mt. Ebal Cemetery.