Brian Spangle’s new book provides a glimpse into famous people and obscure stories of Knox County past
Story and photos by Bernie Schmitt
As soon as his first book on local history was published in 2015, Brian Spangle wanted to do another one.
“There is just so much history here,” he said. “There is no way to get it all in one volume.”
Spangle’s new book, Hidden History of Vincennes and Knox County, was published in January. It is a compendium of little-known and long-forgotten stories of the past. It is a second book derived from the collection of historical columns he has written for the Vincennes Sun-Commercial, a part-time avocation he began in 1999.
“Even after the last book came out I still had on my mind to do another one,” he said. “So, in 2019 I decided to do it, and began organizing the columns in my computer.”
Hidden History of Vincennes and Knox County includes, as the title suggests, stories that do not get a lot of attention or that have been forgotten. Subjects like the severe destruction of a freak hailstorm (hail the size of eggs) in northern Knox County in 1909, and the legacy of “Uncle Joe” Roseman, a Civil War veteran who lived long enough to get cemetery markers for veterans of World War I, are recalled.
“I like to write offbeat pieces,” Spangle said. “This is history that typically does not make history books.”
Not your average history
Another such story is about the Abernathy brothers, Louis, 10, and Temple, 6, who successfully rode their ponies from Oklahoma to New York City in 1910 to see Theodore Roosevelt. The boys stopped in Vincennes on May 1, and spent the night at the Grand Hotel.
He also writes about the community’s brush with famous people, politicians and celebrities, who once visited the area.
“I’ve always been interested in the famous people who’ve visited here,” he said. “Most don’t realize how many different people came through here.”
Some know about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s visit to Vincennes in the 1930s to dedicate the George Rogers Clark Memorial. But few, including this writer, knew that Roosevelt had visited here in 1920 when he was the Democratic vice-presidential running-mate for James Cox. His visit drew 1,200 people to the Knox County courthouse lawn that October.
President Warren G. Harding and his wife Florence were here (during a train stop). President Harry S Truman’s train stopped here in 1948, and he visited again in 1953 as “Citizen Truman.” Father Edward J. Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, a “home for orphaned and wayward boys,” spoke in Vincennes on two different occasions.
Celebrities like the jazz great Duke Ellington performed at the Pantheon Theatre, and the fighter “Gentleman Jim” Corbett — who won the heavyweight boxing title by knocking out John L. Sullivan in 1898 — visited the Union Depot Hotel Café late one evening while waiting for a connecting train in 1923.
There are lots of other stories, too.
Intriguing crime stories from the early 20th Century, like the “cornstalk killing” in 1919 which frightened the entire community, the Stibbin brothers who stood trial for killing their father in Harrison Township, and an Edwardsport bank teller who was killed during a robbery attempt, are recalled in the book.
“People are interested in crime and murder cases,” Spangle said.
Hidden History of Vincennes and Knox County was published by History Press, a publishing firm in Charleston, S.C. His 2015 book, Vincennes History You DON’T Know, was published by Hawthorne Publishing in Carmel, Indiana, owned by author Nancy Niblack Baxter, a Knox County native. The Knox County Public Library helped to finance the first book.
Spangle has since retired from his position as the historical collections administrator at the library, but he still volunteers at the McGrady-Brockman House. This is where he has conducted most of the research for his work.
“I was familiar with History Press, as they are a part of Arcadia, the company that published the pictorial histories that Richard Day and Bill Hopper did,” Spangle said. “I wrote an extensive book proposal and they accepted it. But I could only have up to 50,000 words and I had 100,000, so I had a job to trim it down.”
The most difficult part of the process, he said, was finding photographs to help illustrate the book. Unlike his previous book, Hidden History contains many more pictures, a requirement of his publisher. Of the 70 images Spangle submitted, a little over 60 of them appear in the finished product.
“It was a good percentage, I thought,” Spangle said. “They rejected 17 of them mostly because of quality. They had pretty strict specifications.”
He searched the McGrady-Brockman collection for most of the pictures. He found a photo of the old Dunbar School for the “cornstalk killing” piece, as the victim’s body was found behind that building at 12th and Seminary streets in Vincennes. For some, he accessed the Photographic Print Collection now digitized at the Library of Congress. He also shot some of his own photos, like the cemetery monument for the murdered Edwardsport bank cashier.
“Some photos were used to show how a situation may have looked (such as the 1920 Roosevelt photo), because no photographs could be found from the event,” he said. “People just didn’t take a lot of pictures then.”
Spangle began work on the book last June, selecting and editing the columns in his archive. A manuscript was sent in August. He did the final editing and proofing last fall. He also wrote all of the captions that accompany the pictures.
“I had a really tight deadline at first,” he said. “But they extended it some because getting the photos was such a challenge.”
‘So much research’
Spangle says he has written more than 1,000 columns in 21 years, all of which require considerable time and research.
“So much research goes into each piece,” he said. “But it’s hard to say how long I’ve spent on each, as I work on and off on some of them for months. I usually work way ahead of my deadline. I’ll get a rough column done, then continuously tweak it right up until I email it in.”
He still has a long list of potential topics for future columns and other books.
“I have whole notebooks full of possibilities,” he said.
It’s nice to have this history in book form, Spangle said, a thought he had when he first began writing the column in 1999. At some point he would also like to write a more substantial local history, perhaps one focusing on one year where a number of events occurred.
His publisher hopes to sell at least 1,000 copies of Hidden History, so Spangle is busy promoting his work wherever he goes. In mid-February he gave a short presentation before a book signing at the library.
Readers can learn much about their local history from his work, a fact Spangle takes pride in. But even the author himself learns new things, like the success story of grocer Glenn Roughan, the first to establish a chain of stores in Vincennes, Lawrenceville, Bicknell and Evansville in the early 1900s. Unlike many “mom and pop” stores, Roughan sold on a “cash only” basis — no credit.
“I kept seeing his ads everywhere when I was going through old newspapers doing research,” Spangle said. “Another thing Roughan did (that others didn’t) was advertise heavily in newspapers. It’s what made him a successful, ground-breaking grocer.”
There is even a story about Bruno, the black bear who lived in Vincennes during the 1920s, and the risqué dance performance by Sally Rand at the Pantheon in 1935.
Copies are for sale, while supplies last, at the Knox County Public Library.