Friday, July 26, 2019

The Wolf Creek Tragedy.

The Shanks family and the Keller family lived on opposite sides of the border between Fountain County and Parke County Indiana; the Shanks on the Fountain side, the Kellers on the Parke side. During a drought in the summer of 1895, the Kellers gave the Shanks family permission to access water on their property. The job of fetching the water fell to Clara Shanks, the beautiful 18-year-old daughter of Frederick Shanks, and she would visit Kellers’ yard several times a day.

Nannie Keller, the wife of 34-year-old Daniel Keller, kept an eye on Clara and began to suspect the young girl had begun flirting with her husband. Her suspicions grew to the point where she publicly accused Clara of having improper relations with Daniel.

On the evening of July 5, Clara’s older brother, also named Daniel, went next door to talk with Mrs. Keller about the allegations. She told him of her suspicions and said that Clara must not be allowed to come for water anymore. Other members of the family would be allowed, but Clara must not come into their yard. 

The next morning, Nannie Keller, Daniel Keller, and Daniel’s sister Maggie went to the Kellers' house to confront Clara and resolve the issue. Daniel Shanks would not let Clara come to the door, so Nannie repeated the charge to Clara’s mother that Clara had been intimate with her husband. Mrs. Shanks said she did not believe it. Nannie turned to her husband and said, “Will you let them deny what I say?”

Daniel Keller then confirmed what his wife had said and admitted that he had improper relations with Clara. He would later deny making this confession, saying that anything he said that day was only to restore peace in his home. 

The Kellers left and the Shanks sat down to dinner. Mrs. Shanks asked Clara about the charges against her. Clara denied it all; she sat there in silence and could not eat. A few minutes later, she got up and left the table. Mrs. Shanks would later say that Clara left the house to make Daniel Keller recant his accusation. It was the last time they saw Clara alive.

When Clara did not return, the family went looking for her. They hunted in the thicket around Wolf Creek but found no trace of Clara, and that evening they gave up the search. 

The next morning Mrs. Shanks told her son Daniel that she had dreamed of seeing Clara struggling in the pool at the foot of Wolf Creek Falls. Daniel ran to the pool, about a half-mile away, and waded in. He found Clara’s body in five feet of water. He hurried home, then got his shotgun, went next door and called out Daniel Keller.

“Clara is drowned in Wolf Creek Falls, and you caused it,” he exclaimed, then fired the shotgun twice at Daniel Keller who was standing in the door. Shanks was too excited to aim, and both shots missed Keller and hit the door sill. A neighbor intervened and took Shanks home.

The coroner of Fountain County made a hasty examination of Clara’s body and declared it was suicide by drowning. The same day, Daniel Keller went to Rockville, the county seat of Parke County, and swore out a warrant against Daniel Shanks. The deputy sheriff went to arrest Shanks, but by the time he got to the house, he found it surrounded by a mob of 300 angry men, who informed the deputy that if he arrested Shanks, they would hang Keller. The deputy left without serving his warrant.

The people of Fountain County were not satisfied with the coroner’s verdict, and suspicion grew that Keller had murdered Clara. A vigilance committee was organized and held secret meetings to decide what to do about the murder. The sentiment against the Kellers grew so strong that the family left and went to live with Daniel’s brother George. 

Ten days after the burial, a post-mortem examination was organized by the vigilance committee. Clara’s body was exhumed and examined by seven physicians chosen from both Fountain and Parke counties. They found several heavy bruises about the head, a congested state of the brain, with an entire dislocation of the head at the base of the skull. There were no signs of water in the larynx or the lungs, indicating that she had not drowned. The examing doctors disclosed the fact that Clara “had no cause for secret shame.” Clara was a virgin, negating Mrs. Keller’s accusations and the basis for all suicidal theories. The unanimous verdict of all seven physicians was: “We find that Clara Shanks met her death by violence; sources unknown.”

On August 9, warrants were issued for the arrest of Daniel Keller, Nancy Keller, and Margaret Keller for the murder of Clara Shanks. Daniel Keller’s brother John was arrested as an accessory. A court of inquiry was held; both families hired attorneys and charges and countercharges were flying in and out of court. The Kellers' attorney tried to fix the guilt on the Shanks, saying that they had located the body too easily and the dream of Mrs. Shanks was “too realistic to come from a sleeping brain.” Evidence against the Kellers included spots on a pair of Daniel’s trousers that looked like blood, similar spots on the floor of the Keller’s house, and fibers of burned clothing in the stove. The Kellers were indicted on nine separate charges, to cover several specific means which could have been used to murder Clara. 

While the Keller family was in jail awaiting trial, their homestead was unlocked and their home was besieged by relic hunter. Their kitchen was practically emptied, and two loads of shot were carved from the door casing with pocketknives. 

The trial of Daniel, Nannie, and Maggie Keller began on January 27, 1896. Because passions were running high in Fountain and Peake Counties, the venue was changed to Terre Haute, in Vigo County. The courtroom was filled to overflowing during two weeks of testimony by nearly 200 witnesses. In the end, there was not enough evidence to convict the Kellers of the murder; after deliberating for 22 hours, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

The circumstances surrounding the death of Clara Shanks remain a mystery.

“Acquitted of Murder,” Jackson Citizen Patriot, February 15, 1896.
“Clara Shanks's Mother,” Indianapolis Journal, July 31, 1895.
“Clara Shanks's murder trial,” Elkhart Daily Review, January 30, 1896.
“The Creek Mystery,” Kalamazoo Gazette, September 6, 1895.
“Interest in the Shanks Case,” Chicago Daily News, August 22, 1895.
“Kellars Not Guilty,” Chicago Daily News, February 15, 1896.
“On Trial for Murder Three Kellers Charged with the Killing of Clara Shanks,” Daily Inter Ocean, November 27, 1895.
“The Shanks Mystery,” Indianapolis Journal, July 23, 1895.
“The Shanks Mystery,” Indianapolis Journal, August 2, 1895.
“Trial of the Kellar Family,” Elkhart Daily Review, January 7, 1896.
“Was a Foul Crime,” Indianapolis Journal, August 10, 1895.
“Was Anxious To Die,” Indianapolis Journal, September 12, 1895.
“Who is the Murderer?,” Chicago Daily News, August 9, 1895.
“Wolf Creek Tradgedy,” Indianapolis Journal, July 20, 1895.


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