“Looking Back” by Rose McIlveen March 28, 1987
Monday, August 29, 1898, was not a run-of-the-mill kind of day in Smithville. That was when the locals awoke to discover that in the near future, at least, they would have father to go to to “wet their whistles.”
Chirped the Bloomington Courier, “The people of Smithville have a novel way of getting rid of saloons. At least it is a different way than is being used by the temperance people of this city who are remonstrating against the sale of liquor.”
The newspaper primly explained that “Smithville is not used to saloons.” In fact, the liquor business that James May established in Smithville was still a novelty, being only two months old. He may have thought he was providing a much-needed service to the little community, but there were those who thought otherwise.
At approximately 1:30 am – give or take a few minutes – persons residing in the vicinity of the saloon were awakened by a terrible commotion. Of those who had intentions of venturing outside, none actually did that, due to the advice of a gang of men armed with such formidable weapons as guns, axes and sledge hammers. For the intimidated ones, imagination had to suffice.
What was going on were some alterations at the local saloon – alterations that would cause May to reconsider the marketability of his product in the Smithville area. Whip-capper vigilantes wielding the hammers and axes shattered doors and windows first and then proceeded to the interior attractions. Attacking a mute, $150 refrigerator containing cold beer, the men returned the liquid to the earth from which it came. In fact, every bottle containing an alcoholic beverage received the same treatment.
The Bloomington Telephone reported that the group numbered 10 or 12, who arrived on horseback from the east. Continued the newspaper, “They had evidently come for business and in little time whiskey and beer were soaking the ground.” Nor did the tables and chairs escape destruction. They were said to be worth $300.
Speculated the Telephone as to why May was put out of business, “For some time there has been talk in the community that men both old and young had been spending too much money for liquor, when their families were going without the necessities of life.” That might have been said of some Bloomingtonians, but the temperance movement in the city took a more rational approach, trying to persuade people to vote “dry” in the periodic referenda during the years of local option.
There was speculation that the gang of men were self-styled Regulators, an extra-legal force that had been known to resort to bodily harm to get their point across. The instances of taking the law into the average citizens’ hands was not a Monroe County phenomenon, and in later years the excesses prompted the governor of Indiana to take drastic action.