Vincennes may be Indiana’s oldest city, but even its residents have forgotten a sensational slice of local history — the Vincennes murder that split a family and shook the city more than a century ago.
It wasn’t the first time a grisly crime had hit the Indiana countryside. But the murder — and the trial of victims’ two sons — became front-page news all over the region.
A Barnyard Murder
It all started on the evening of Friday November 17, 1911. Two children of George Stibbins, a wealthy local farmer, found their father sprawled in the mud of his barn lot. Stibbins was dead from a bullet to the back of the head. His body was by the corncrib door. Hogs rooted around his remains, and a lantern he had held lay at his side.
Suspicion immediately fell on Stibbins’s children. They made no attempt to inform their mother, nor did they pursue a possible assailant. The sheriff wasn’t even notified until Saturday. In fact, the authorities were the ones to inform the widow that her husband had been shot. Further, all of the children denied hearing a gun shot, even though a revolver was later found lying in the mud at the scene.
All kinds of theories regarding the family’s behavior that night were floated. Many suspected that the reason the body was left in the barn lot so long was so that it would be mutilated by the hogs, thus destroying evidence. The killing made public the dissension, already well known by neighbors, that had been rife within the family. There had been major disagreements, most notably over how the farm should be run. In fact, the children had previously tried to have their father declared insane so they could take over the farm.
An Arrest (and then another!)
The child with perhaps the worst relationship with Stibbins was the oldest son, Edward. Stibbins had banned Edward from sleeping in the house (although he would often sneak in and stay the night). After the Knox County sheriff department investigated the murder, it arrested Edward on November 19. Edward pleaded not guilty and hired the noted Indianapolis attorney Eph Inman to defend him.
A few days later, authorities arrested another son, Ray Stibbins, and charged him with the murder, as well.
The (Local) Trial of the Century
By the time the trial began, in the spring of 1912, the two brothers were being defended by four attorneys. It would be the longest trial in county history. Nearly one hundred subpoenas had been issued for witnesses, forty-nine by the state and forty-nine by the defense.
The courtroom was packed each day, with standing room only. The trial was big news well beyond the immediate area, and numerous reporters from other cities were in the courtroom. The brothers were described as thin and pale after having spent so many months confined in jail.
Factories even closed some afternoons so employees could attend the trial, and the high school let out early one Friday to allow students to hear closing arguments. Once night sessions began, a Bloomfield theater lost all business.
Although the trial was front-page news in local papers every day, on April 14, the ocean liner RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank in the north Atlantic with the loss of more than 1,500 lives. From that time on, the proceedings were reported alongside updates of that historic event.
The prosecution tried introducing evidence taken from a dictograph machine, a new and unreliable piece of technology. The device had been hidden in the Stibbins boys’ jail cell in Vincennes with a receiver for officials to listen in on their conversations, but the evidence was not conclusive due to problems with the sound.
In the end, the two defendants spent hours on the stand, fervently denying their guilt. Both men broke down while giving testimony. The defense did not attempt to prove that the murder had been committed by a third party; rather, their theory was that George Stibbins had committed suicide.
Time for a Verdict – and a New Vincennes Obsession
After nineteen days, the case went to the jury, and after six and a half hours of deliberations, the jury reached its verdict. The verdict of not guilty was read in court by the deputy clerk at 8:10 a.m. Six ballots had been taken before the jury voted to acquit.
To this day, the murder of farmer George Stibbins remains unsolved. But that wasn’t the only mystery this crazy case raised.
As a reporter covering the trial for the Vincennes Commercial wrote in the April 28 edition, “Everybody in the town has been talking the case, from the first grade in the schools to the oldest man living here and nothing else is talked. What the town will do for entertainment when the verdict is returned is a mystery.”