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October 12, 2017

The Man Who Knew

The Man Who Knew

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

While most people would be excited to be a part of one mystery, there was a local man who was part of two.  Richard Howard “Howe” Davidson (1829-1896) was a Noblesville businessman who ran a boot and shoe store, a hotel, and some other local businesses.  His good memory and eye for detail provided important clues for investigating crimes.

The first mystery happened in July of 1885.  A decomposed body was found in a field near Castleton by a farm worker.  (There was some alarm as a ghost had been seen near there in March.)   After investigation, the body was determined to be a victim of a shooting affray.  The person later charged with the murder claimed that he had been shot at by a stranger and then ran away after shooting back.

The dead man’s identity was a mystery until Davidson spoke up.  He said that the man was John C. Moffit, an English immigrant who had worked for him.  Davidson said that Moffit was “a very peculiar man” and described him in a July 18 article in the Indianapolis New:

“He was evidently a gentleman who had seen better days.  He had been in the British army up in Canada, up to 1857, when he deserted and went to England, staying there until 1865.  Upon his return to this country he traveled very extensively for a linen house in Scotland.  From that time until within a few years he refused to give any account of his life, but it is probably the old story of privation and suffering, resulting from the use of whisky and opium, to which he was greatly addicted.  After he came to Noblesville, he did all sorts of work, running errands, digging ditches and tending bar, and was employed by Mr. Davidson for some time at his hotel.  Moffit, when his mind was unimpaired by drink, showed by his conversation and information that he was a learned man, educated in all the higher branches and, and was a very entertaining talker.”

It would be fascinating to find out what Moffit’s full story was.

The next mystery was in April of 1891, when some workmen were excavating a cellar for an addition to a house at the corner of Cherry and 14th Streets.  At about four to six feet deep, they came across a human skeleton in a sitting position with its back to the east.  It was examined and found to be of an extraordinarily large man who was thought to be fairly young, as the teeth were relatively unworn.  The Democrat newspaper did some further investigation and found some thought-provoking facts.

They questioned “Bent” Smith, the workman who had found the skeleton, who showed them a small brass token with the characters “80”, W.W.”, and “5 cents” inscribed on it.  At this point, Davidson stepped forward with an intriguing explanation.  He had bought the land in January of 1868 when it was mostly farm fields.  He had noticed a fresh mound of dirt at that site at the time, but he had business matters to pursue and forgot about it.  It was eventually plowed over and then built upon.

Davidson then recalled that a year or so before he purchased the lot, a strange soldier was passing through town and stopped at the small farmhouse that was on the lot.  The soldier was obviously fresh from the army and was carrying hundreds of dollars.  It was Mr. Davidson’s belief that this skeleton was the soldier.  The brass token found with the remains supports this.  It fits the description of something called a “sutler’s token”.

During the Civil War, merchants were issued licenses to travel with the regiments in order to sell them things not available from the army.  These sutlers were often the only source of canned goods, writing paper and other luxuries for the soldiers.  Since hard cash was rare at the battlefront, they would pass out tokens as change to be cashed in later.  On this token, the “80” may have signified the regiment, “W.W.” may have been the initials of the sutler, and “5 cents” would probably have been the denomination.

Of course, how did the soldier ended up in an Indiana cornfield?  Since there was apparently no further work done on the remains, property ownership would be the next place to look.  From 1861 until December 1867, a man named Abraham Nicholson (1806-1876) had owned the land.  He had been settled in the county since 1839 and had been the founder of the town now known as Clarksville.  However, during the 1860’s, his life took some unusual twists.

In April of 1864, he and his wife, Sarah, separated, despite having been married for over 20 years and having at least six children.   Sarah received half of his landholdings as well as their home in Clarksville.  Abraham got the land in Noblesville.  He then married Harriet Allison in Marion County on November 1, 1866.  Harriet was from Ohio, but had married her first husband in Hamilton County in 1853 (it’s not known what happened to him), and was 20 years younger than Abraham.  She is listed as his wife on the deed to the Noblesville property.  A curious trail, but it unfortunately leads to no conclusions.

So, while Davidson provided some clues, the mystery remained unsolved.  However, it give us an interesting glimpse into the lives of our ancestors and in doing so, gives a unique twist on the old phrase about “skeletons in the closet”.