KOKOMO – “Henry C. Cole is dead. He was shot while in the act of robbing the Spring Mills at 10:30 o’clock this evening, and his body now lies out on the commons about one hundred yards from the mill.”
That was the beginning to a story in the Sept. 24, 1881, edition of the Kokomo Saturday Tribune, that chronicled a tale of Hollywood-style intrigue, culminating with the dead, bullet-riddled body of Kokomo’s sixth mayor and the suspicious testimony of a Howard County Sheriff’s posse tasked with bringing him to justice.
Cole, dead at the age of 43, was a man, a doctor, who possessed an almost unbelievable life story, complete with a vengeful murder, an abortion-related arrest, other crimes, and deaths, of which he was suspected, the plagiarism of medical documents, and more.
But why now? Why has this 136-year-old story – one that unfolded alongside the death of America’s 20th president, James Garfield – once again entered Kokomo’s consciousness?
The answer can be found at the corner of North Main and West Jefferson streets in the lot of 100.5 WWKI, or the former location of Cole’s two-story residence and horse stables.
Now residing at that location is a historical marker outlining the strange saga of one of Kokomo’s most notorious characters, the victim of what some call “The Crime of the Century.”
However, that plaque – unveiled March 3, by Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight, Howard County Historical Society Executive Director Dave Broman and Kokomo Historic Review Board member Tom Tolen, an expert in all things Cole – tells only part of the story.
The rest of the tale is a little known, yet engrossing piece of Kokomo history.
The strange life of Dr. Henry C. Cole
It’s hard to say exactly when, or where, Cole was born, though various documents, including those published by the Indiana State Medical Association, state he was born in 1838 in Ripley County. He is believed to have arrived in Kokomo in 1860.
A tall, bearded man, Cole served as a surgeon for the Union Army in the Civil War and became a well-known doctor in Kokomo shortly after his arrival.
His prominence as a medical professional was short-lived, however, as he was accused of plagiarism in 1867, one year after presenting a paper to the Indiana State Medical Association. In May 1867, the plagiarism accusations – his paper was called a “literal copy” of one in a New York publication – led to his expulsion from both the ISMA and the Howard County Medical Society.
It was around that same time that Cole, no stranger to public controversy, saw his life devolve into chaos and violence.
In October 1866, Cole confronted a man named Chambers Allen outside the Kokomo Post Office, accusing Allen of “seducing” his wife, a woman Cole would later divorce, according to a New York Times profile of Cole.
Then, Cole reportedly drew a revolver and shot Allen through the back of the head. After Allen fell, Cole shot him twice more, in the stomach. Allen died on the spot.
Shortly after the incident, Cole was arrested – the Times reports there was “strong talk of lynching Cole” – and jailed. Soon, Cole was the defendant in a Tipton Circuit Court trial that many expected to cost him a lifetime of freedom.
Represented by Daniel Voorhees, a man who served as a U.S. senator and is believed to have been friendly with Abraham Lincoln, Cole embarked on an eight-day trial. The trial ended with Cole’s acquittal on the grounds of an emotional insanity plea, but forever tarnished his standing in local circles.
In the early 1870s, Cole, still a man of local prominence, was named the city’s chief fire engineer and later in the decade was elected to the city council.
But, even with his continued place in the public spotlight, Cole’s scandals did not subside.
In 1873, Cole was put on trial for performing an abortion. Some speculate he covered up other abortions, including burning down a barn where a failed abortion had taken place. Such claims have not been proved.
Following his trial in an Indianapolis court, Cole was convicted and sentenced to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. But, as the trend would dictate, Cole was ultimately able to rid himself of any guilt.
After requesting a new trial, Cole was found, once again, to be the innocent victim of undue criminal charges. Post-trial, Cole even sued a local Indianapolis newspaper for libel.
And by 1881, Cole, warts and all, was elected Kokomo’s mayor.
A ‘ghastly’ scene
By all accounts, the weather on Sept. 19, 1881, was exceedingly normal, a dark, clear, starlit night.
Previously – records conflict on exactly when – Sheriff James W. Dehaven and William Styer, owner of the Spring Mill, were informed that the mill was to be robbed and set ablaze to conceal any evidence on Sept. 19.
A “sheriff’s posse” comprised of Styer; two brothers, Constable George W. Bennett and Asher C. Bennett; and deputy sheriff J.W. Learner staked out the mill at 9 p.m., noted the Tribune.
At roughly 10:30 p.m., they say, two shadowy figures descended on the mill, and they watched as a masked assailant climbed into the mill through an open window. Shortly after, according to the posse, that man handed out two bags of flour to another burglar. Moments later, a second batch of flour appeared.
It was then that the posse, specifically Asher Bennett, recognized the recipient as none other than Kokomo’s mayor.
Asher Bennett testified that he immediately yelled “Halt!” Cole reportedly began to run. Bennett said he then shot low, specifically at Cole’s legs.
After a second command of “Halt” from someone else in the group, at least one vulgar exclamation from Cole and a flurry of shots from revolvers and shotguns, Cole was found dead, a revolver in both hands.
A few townspeople, hearing the commotion, quickly arrived at the scene, and word of the mayor’s death began to spread like wildfire.
And despite the local media’s acceptance of the posse’s story, several discrepancies and suspicious details remain.
First is the presence, or lack thereof, of Sheriff Dehaven, who, despite being the chief law enforcement officer, was in bed at the time of Cole’s death, even though he was the first to know of the supposed planned mill robbery.
Second is the coroner’s determination – following an autopsy done in a large, full courthouse auditorium – that of the 21 bird shot and two pistol balls that entered Cole’s body, it was a small bird shot lodged in the heart that had killed Cole, instantly.
That detail, that Cole had died instantly, isn’t corroborated by eyewitness testimony, which states Cole struggled, some say for minutes, before finally "expiring."
Additionally, the basic idea that Cole, a longtime doctor and public official, would steal flour from a local mill caused immediate skepticism. The bags Cole was accused of trying to steal would be worth the 2017 equivalent of roughly $80, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Many of Cole’s friends and family doubted the posse’s story from the beginning, some even speculating that he was lured out on a medical call and killed somewhere else in Kokomo before his dead body was transported and staged at the mill.
Historical records also point out that Cole had a bad relationship with many in the posse, possibly accusing one of murder and another of stealing from a widow.
The posse was later indicted, but the case against the foursome was ultimately dismissed, as the prosecution, led by a local judge, claimed a lack of evidence with which to prosecute.
The Tribune, not holding its opinion close to the vest, ended its Sept. 24, 1881, report by stating, “He that draws the sword shall perish by the sword.”
It’s also worth noting that the Tribune placed the news of Cole’s death on Page 5 of its Sept. 24, 1881, edition, knocked off the front page by the assassination of President James Garfield.
Garfield’s death, however, has not buried the bizarre details of Cole’s life and death for modern-day historians and Kokomo officials.
A great story
For Tolen, a lover of local history, learning about Cole’s story through newspaper archives, biographical documents and more has been a fascinating ride.
“The stories that have been told in the papers were always a negative side, always that he was guilty, that Cole was a bad dude,” said Tolen, noting that he, Broman and others used eyewitness, and participators', accounts published in the Tribune to construct the plaque.
“Well, he was a complex character. He did contribute to the city of Kokomo in a positive way,” he added, highlighting Cole’s specific contributions to the city’s fire department after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, including the purchase of its first pumper.