By Tim Bean
Today, the torture post of Delaware County is an all-but-forgotten relic of Indiana lore. If not for multiple, independent testimonies as to its existence and use, it could easily be dismissed as morbid fiction. It is not.
The torture post stood roughly ten feet tall, carefully hewn from dense white oak. Two human faces in profile decorated the tall post. Fires were not heaped at the foot of the post, contrary to common depiction, but in a five-foot radius around the post. Heat would sear and blister flesh at this distance, but would not ignite a human body. This layout also prevented smoke inhalation from causing asphyxiation. Death at the torture post was not quick.
The first settler to describe this post, a Reverend W.C. Smith of Harvard University, said it had been used by the Munsee people of the Delaware tribe so enthusiastically and often that the ashes had formed a circular ridge around the post. Outside this ridge, where Native-Americans would whoop and dance during a burning, the ground had been packed so tightly by stomping feet that no plants could grow.
In his dramatic account of the Indiana Territory’s first settlers (link at end of article), Rev, Smith described the frequent attacks on the pioneers of southern Indiana. All tribes native to the territory had been decimated by disease, war, and starvation. Those that lingered had little respect for the awkward, frightened farmers populating the region. Reverend Smith’s matter-of-fact accounts of massacres and hardships of both the settlers and the indigenous people could turn the strongest stomach. However, he considered the torture post beyond comprehension in its cruelty. Located in a “village called Old Town, situated in what is now Delaware County, some five miles from Muncie, and near White River,” Smith visited the post not long after it had been last used.
Had Rev. Smith’s account been the only one to mention the torture post, even the most generous historians would have let it slip into the realm of pioneer myth, notwithstanding the reverend’s esteemed education and reputation. But it wasn’t. In fact, history records several other reliable accounts of this horrific post, all contained in various issues of the Indiana Farmer, a popular periodical of the mid-1800s.
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Mr. Issac Cartwright of Fillmore, Indiana, visited the remnants of Old Town in the early 1840s, some three decades after Rev. Smith. By then, trees and undergrowth had all but swallowed the decayed town again, but amidst all this dense wilderness, Mr. Cartwright chillingly described a bare, flat area 25 feet in diameter that contained only short, dense grass. At the center stood the torture post.
GEORGE W. EDDY
George W. Eddy of Columbia, Indiana, visited the site roughly at the same time as Mr. Cartwright, a man Eddy knew well. His father and uncle brought him to examine the torture post as a kind of rite-of-passage. His account provides additional details, including the possible fate of the post itself. Mr. Eddy described a “portion of the post cut out or rounded out, as my father explained to me at the time, for the purpose of fitting the prisoner’s head at the time of torture…” The victim would have his or her head pressed firmly into the notch, then tied down securely, preventing the head, neck, and shoulders from moving.
Eddy also gives an enigmatic but intriguing mention of the post’s later fate: “A few years after this date, I saw an old black and charred stake in the court house at Muncie, and was informed it was the same torture stake that I saw in the circle south of Muncie.”
Samuel Cecil’s testimony is probably the most authoritative of the Indiana pioneers: he owned the torture site for over half a century. He didn’t contribute to its history until 1899, when a friend handed him a copy of the Indiana Farmer and asked if he could find any mistakes. He did not, but added his own findings from clearing and plowing the site for farmland decades earlier.
By the time he worked the land in 1861, overgrowth had shrouded the site and it had been largely forgotten. He could still see the clearly defined path tribe members had carved leading to the torture post, and also recalled the location of the council house and Delaware huts. The charred earth from the frequent campfires remained even decades later. He also explained the ultimate fate of the post.
CRIMES SWUNG BOTH WAYS
It is important to recognize that while the early Indiana pioneers should be pitied for the hardships they endured, Native-American tribes across the state and the country endured them as well. No culture in American history has been as unapologetically decimated as Native-Americans. With that knowledge, neither historians nor the public should make any sweeping judgments of Indiana’s Delaware tribe, then or now. It was a horrific time, a hard time, a tragic time for everyone, not just pioneers.
Would You Like to Know More?
Here’s a complete pdf download of Rev. Smith’s narrative Indiana Miscellany. The stalwart reverend does not shy away from uncomfortable subjects in his observations—anyone interested in the REAL story of American settlement or Indiana history will delight in this book.