Blankenbaker, “Bat,” and the Black Hand Letter

If my tale of election rascality in early 1800s Kentucky interested you, maybe you’ll like this one of early 1900s from Indiana, in which my sixth cousin once removed, Felix Franklin Blankenbaker, had a bit part . . . he and Bat Masterson. Ah, now you’re intrigued!

Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1913 was rife with corruption and violence, and some political candidates didn’t hesitate to employ these tactics in their quest for power and control. Following the November election there were charges of fraud in Vigo and other counties in Indiana. An investigation, indictments and trial testimony revealed that on election day, gamblers, gunmen, and “foreigners” were employed to ensure the continuation of the Democratic regime then in control. A grand jury issued a statement indicating their findings of ” the most appalling condition of lawlessness that could possibly exist in a civilized community.”

The mayor of Terre Haute, Donn M. Roberts, was arrested, along with two judges, the chief of police, the sheriff and several other city Democratic officials and nearly 100 citizens. The charges involved actions before the election as well as on election day itself. Election officials “registered” dead people and created false identities for people at fake addresses. In the Sixth Ward, there were 200 eligible residents — but there were 600 ballots cast. The scheme also enticed “scores of foreigners” to register by offering barrels of free beer at saloon registrations. After the vote, one election inspector took home marked ballots and hid them behind a dresser in his child’s room. On February 18, 1914, the Indianapolis News reported that Felix Blankenbaker had been named special judge in circuit court to try four of the men indicted for fraud in the election of local officials.

Felix Franklin Blankenbaker was born in Clark County, Illinois, on March 2, 1868, son of a farmer, auctioneer and Civil War veteran. Shortly after graduation from high school, he was elected justice of the peace in Martinsville and began reading law; he earned a Master of Laws degree at Northern Illinois College of Law and set up a practice in Terre Haute in 1901. I guess it’s worth noting that he was a Republican, presiding over the trial of Democratic fraudsters.

On March 5, 1914, after less than 30 minutes of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty of conspiracy in election fraud for William Huffman, former Terre Haute councilman. The next day, Judge Blankenbaker sentenced Huffman to serve a term of from three to ten years in the state prison at Michigan City and barred him from voting for ten years.

michigan city prison


[The trial of the Mayor and others was held later in federal court since the 1913 election had also involved electing a U.S. Senator and a Congressman. Twenty-seven men were found guilty of conspiracy to defraud the United States government, and the Terre Haute Mayor was sentenced to six years in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. Not one to take defeat lying down, the ex-Mayor, from his residence in the pen, ran an abortive campaign for Governor of Indiana in 1915.]

Judge Blankenbaker found out that these guys didn’t play nice. The day after he sentenced Councilman Huffman, he received what was known as a “Black Hand” threatening letter, which read:   “We emptied half of the gun in your house last night. The other half goes in you. No shoestring peddler can pull that raw stuff around here. You might railroad somebody to Michigan City, but we’ll railroad you to hell — The Black 8.”  They were referring to  a shooting that took place in front of the Blankenbaker home in the wee hours of that morning. The family and neighbors were awakened by three shots but could see no one outside. The Judge offered a $1,000 reward for the arrest of the person(s) who sent the threatening letter.

A grand jury investigation ensued which discovered a more involved plot: two men, one from Hammond and the other from Chicago, were brought to Terre Haute for the purpose of dynamiting the homes of Judges C.M. Fortune and Felix Blankenbaker, and Joe Roach and Chalmers Hamill, special prosecutors. The night it was to be done there was a slight fall of snow, and the dynamiters were afraid their footprints could be traced.

Before the plot could be carried out, the wife of Bert Dickens, described as “a tinhorn gambler” and “a hangeron at cigar store gambling joints,” appeared before the grand jury and spilled the beans about the whole conspiracy. Her husband was arrested and put in jail. Two others who were indicted escaped. A fourth man was arrested and agreed to turn state’s evidence and reveal the hiding places of the escapees. This rat was Bat Masterson.

Now this was not THE Bat Masterson, legendary lawman of the Wild West. This Indianapolis thug, convicted gunman and strike-breaker, was David R. Masterson, who, in a peculiarly egomaniacal twist, chose to go by the name of “Bat.”

Not surprisingly, Masterson double-crossed the authorities, his bond was increased, and he went to trial on May 20, charged with assault and battery with intent to kill Felix Blankenbaker. Bat’s most bitter complaint in his own defense was “that he had been seriously accused of entering into a conspiracy with a half-wit like Dickens.” The jury deliberated for four hours before finding Bat guilty of a lesser charge, simple assault, and imposed a fine of $15. The newspaper reported that “one member is said to have had a black eye, which he did not have when the jury retired. Members of the jury denied, however, that they had any fight.” Bat paid his fine and said he had had enough of Terre Haute; he was going back to Indianapolis.

But it seems that Bat just couldn’t get enough of the gangster life. Two years later, in 1916, he was sent to prison for perjury in a case involving the dynamiting of the home of a special prosecutor charged with cleaning up corrruption in Muncie. In 1918 Bat was refused clemency. Last we heard, he was a reporter for the reformatory’s newspaper, “Reflector.”

Felix Blankenbaker continued to practice law in Terre Haute and died in 1940 of myocarditis.

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