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100 Years Ago

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Feature Article on Alfred Artis. Topic: BLACK HISTORY & PEOPLE
Written by Rich Wallace in January, 1995


One hundred and forty years ago, Alfred Artis sat in a cell in the Shelby County Jail contemplating his fate. He had been sentenced to death for murder on Nov. 16, 1854. What was his crime, and could he find a way to avoid the gallows? This is his story.

Residents of the former settlement of Rumley, near the present-day McCartyville, had known for sometime that Alfred Artis was a nasty character. Rumors swirled in the little community about Artis and the manner in which he treated his daughter, Emma. Some residents even whispered that Artis kept her chained to a post in a woodshed near his log cabin and forced her to work without sufficient clothing or food.

The date was Feb. 17, 1854. Word spread rapidly that the neighbors' worst fears had come true. Emma was dead. Her body was recovered from a shallow grave 4 1/2 miles west of Rumley. She was just 12 years old.

Artis was known as a man of superhuman strength. Sheriff James A. Dryden heard of the murder and went to Artis' home with his two deputies, Charles Eisenstein and Christian Kingseed. Kingseed was a blacksmith and was also respected for his physical prowess.

After arriving at the house and finding him in a thicket nearby cutting wood, Eisenstein asked Artis if he would like to try his skill as a woodchopper. He handed him an ax he had found nearby. Using this ruse to divert his attention, the sheriff and his deputies overpowered Artis and took him to Sidney. Artis was imprisoned immediately. The grand jury did not meet until April 21. Soon thereafter, Prosecutor Hugh Thompson obtained indictments on four crimes, including the murder of Emma. One of the key witnesses against Artis was another family member, Rhoda Artis.

Artis and his attorney asked the court to move the trial to what was then known as "district court" because of the publicity surrounding the crime. This maneuver, known now as a motion to change venue, was immediately overruled by the judge. The defendant refused to enter a plea, and the judge entered a plea of not guilty for him.

Artis was ordered to stand trial in front of a jury of his peers. In those days, only men who owned real estate in the county (known as "householders") could serve on a jury. The lurid details of the murder quickly spread outside the county until the murder was the talk of the entire state. Artis stood trial for his life beginning on July 6, 1854. There is no indication in the record that he was represented by an attorney. Prosecutor Thompson called numerous witnesses, including neighbors of the Artis family. Among those testifying were Thomas and Nancy Goings, Jacob Wiford and Jane Oldham.

The evidence presented was chilling. Little Emma was kept chained from November 10, 1853 until she died. Deprived of sufficient food, water and clothing, she endured subfreezing temperatures. After she attempted to run away once, Artis placed an iron collar around Emma's neck and fastened it to a pole at night. He would beat her on occasion with a pole he kept nearby.  There was also testimony that Emma's hands and feet had been frozen during the time she was chained in the shed. After two days of trial, jury members reported to a packed courtroom that they could not reach a verdict. A stunned silence was followed by outbursts of anger. The prosecutor announced immediately that he would retry the case.

A new jury was impaneled on November 15, 1854. The men who served on the second jury included Henry Dickensheets, George Michael, Benjamin Robinson, David Wilds, Adam Baylor and Jacob Henry.   After the jury deliberated for the better part of a day, a verdict of guilty was returned on the charge of murder. Artis was ordered to be "hanged by his neck until dead on February 23, 1855, between the hours of 10 of the clock in the forenoon and 4 of the clock in the afternoon."

It is interesting to note that in the 1850s, hardly a time for crowded court dockets, it took over a year for the Artis case to be concluded.

The hanging of Alfred Artis presented a particular problem. Because he was so strong and would resist every attempt to execute him, Deputy Kingseed was ordered to make a special set of chains for Artis the day before the execution. Although this day happened to be a Sunday, Kingseed consented to perform the work, even though it was against his principles to work on a Sabbath because he was a God-fearing man.

The day of the execution arrived at last. Coroner Isaac Harshbarger was deputized for the occasion. Sheriff Dryden, along with Deputies Eisenstein, Kingseed and Harshbarger arrived to lead Artis to the scaffold. Halfway up, Artis dropped to the steps and braced his body lengthwise along the stairway of the gallows, refusing to budge.

Losing his patience, Kingseed choked Artis and beat him to insensibility so that he could be dragged up to the gallows. Sheriff Dryden then did his duty before a large crowd. For his work he was paid the substantial sum of $300. Thus ended the first and only public execution to take place in the history of Shelby County. The 400 residents of Rumley quietly celebrated. Emma Artis is buried in Barnett Cemetery, which is located 12 miles northwest of Sidney. Alfred Artis was denied a decent burial and had to be buried in a corner of his own land. It is said that the north side ditch of State Route 274 passes directly over his grave.


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