Hot Blood in Indiana: The Wayne County Seat War

The Wayne County Sheriff warned Centerville to stop its sabotage.

How Two Hoosier Towns Ended up Shooting at Each Other: It was over a court house, and it involved a cannon.

Today the “Wayne County Seat War” is a mostly forgotten conflict, but it featured many battles and even some bloodshed. Residents of Wayne County squabbled for decades about where to put their county seat, and they cycled through six different courthouses. The debate got most heated in the years after the Civil War, when the state courts helped Richmond steal the seat away from Centerville. As the New York Times put it—and yes, the Times covered this war—there was “Hot Blood in Indiana.”

So Long, Centerville…

In the fall of 1873, work began to tear down Centerville’s jail. The plan was to move its prisoners and documents and even parts of its building to Richmond. But the project was beset by vandals desperate to keep the seat in Centerville. They destroyed the workers’ ropes and wooden tools, until armed men arrived to protect the workers. 

On the night of October 28, seven guards were left in the sheriff’s residence and jail over night to guard the tools of the workmen. Late in the evening, between 10:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m., a group of fifty or sixty masked and armed men surrounded the building and demanded that the guards leave.

The guards refused, and the mob began firing their guns into the building, breaking windows and filling the ceilings and walls with bullets. After an hour of the siege, three guards were able to escape and get a horse and buggy from a nearby stable. The men rushed to Richmond to raise the alarm. 

Send the Posse!

Bells in the firehouse and courthouse were rung to rouse help in Richmond. At first, the people thought that there might be a fire. As soon as the word was passed, a posse of nearly one hundred men armed themselves and met at the railroad depot. A special train was made available; they were off to the rescue, arriving in Centerville a little after 4:00 a.m. 

Read the full story in Wayne County Indiana: The Battles for the Courthouse by Carolyn Lafever

The delay in the arrival of the posse had given the attackers time to do a lot of damage. When the remaining guards stubbornly refused to give up, a little cannon was placed facing the door of the sheriff’s residence. They loaded it with scrap iron, old nails, bolts and other metal debris from a blacksmith shop. The cannon was then fired, shattering the heavy front door. A hail of bullets accompanied the cannon fire. The yelling mob rushed inside, and the four guards retreated to barricade themselves in the jail at the rear of the building. 

The attackers demanded that the jail door be opened and gave the guards five minutes to open the door—or they would blow it open with the cannon. Recognizing that they were overpowered, the guards finally gave in. They were promised safety for themselves.

Quiet Returns to Centerville

To be sure they left town, the guards were escorted for about a mile down the road toward Richmond. They were told in no uncertain terms to “git.” 

When the posse arrived, all was quiet. The cannon was discovered in a stable nearby. 

The fence that circled the courthouse, sheriff’s residence, and jail in Centerville in 1873.

Fortunately, there was no more shooting in the following days. Centerville’s expensive $10,000 iron fence, also a point of contention, completely encircled the public square. In three hours, they had it taken down. A train with flatcars was sent over from Richmond. 

A total of sixteen cars moved the fence, which would be used at the new public square—not in Centerville, but in Richmond.