Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Last Hanging Tree

"That’s the last of the Archer trees,” Marie Hawkins tells me as we stand before the 1876 former Martin County Courthouse, now the home of the Martin County Historical Society and Museum in Shoals Indiana, where a tall spindly tree rises toward the sky.

No, it’s not a new variety of tree I quickly learn. Instead, it’s the one  surviving trees where the Archer Gang were hanged back in the 1880s.

The Archers were a bad lot indeed, rampaging through Orange, Martin and Dubois Counties in Southern Indiana. But they made their home in what is now the Lost River Township in Martin County next to the county line. A family gang, members including Thomas Sr., Sam, John, Martin and young Martin Jr., along with relatives like first cousin Sam Marley, nephew Kinder Smith and John Lynch who married into this enterprising criminal family. 

They were not only thieves but they were mean as well.

According to an article in the Olean Democrat (Olean, New York) Dec 31, 1885 posted on the Website, Sheriff John A. Padgett of Martin County arrived in Vincennes seeking John B. Archer, wanted for the murder of John Bunch, a farmer of that county, who disappeared four years ago.

“The crime was fastened upon Archer by the recent confession of his deserted wife,” the article continued, “who said that Archer murdered Bunch for his money, boiled the flesh of the body in a boiler and buried the bones. Padgett found Archer on a farm five miles south of here. Archer and two companions barricaded themselves in a house and threatened to shoot the officer. Padgett thereupon returned here for re-enforcements and has got a posse of fifteen men to go out with him and capture Archer dead or alive.”

The case garnered such attention that even the New York Times wrote about it in 1886.  By then, a mob had broken into the Martin County Jail and lynched three of the Martin gang.

Samuel Archer was sentenced to be hanged for his crimes and before dying, according to the Times, he confessed, blaming his family’s evil on his Uncle Martin Archer who, Sam said, seemed to enjoy killing people.

But there’s not only hangings to this story but a generational family feud. Charles Archer was acquitted of killing Miss Annabel Stanfield in Martin County. He claimed she stole his revolver and then shot herself the next day because he had ruined her and would not marry her. Physicians testified that it would have been impossible for her to have done this in the way Archer explained and a feud broke out between the Standfields and Archers that would result in more deaths over the years and in 1922 the Olean Evening Times reported that the families still didn’t get along.

And though we haven’t heard of a ghost haunting this old tree where Sam Archer met his end in 1886, it’s not hard to imagine his spirit might linger on a cold Halloween night.

The museum is open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10:00 AM until 4:00 PM, the museum is closed in the winter months. 

For more information: 812-247-1133 or

1 comment:

  1. Is there any record of what ever happened to Sam Marley?