A circa 1860-1865 image of Lew Wallace (from U.S. National Archives and Records Administration).
In the woods north of Indianapolis Parks’ Municipal Gardens sits a modest memorial to the 11th Indiana Volunteer Regiment. The memorial to the Union regiment and its original leader—Lew Wallace, best known as the author of Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ—was unveiled at the site of the former Camp Robinson in September, 1914. Forty-two surviving members of the regiment attended the unveiling at the site where they had originally camped in 1861 before going to the front. Today the 11th Regiment monument is hidden in woods known as the Memorial Grove, and very few people visit the Riverside Park site overlooking the White River or even know it exists (for details, see Ryan Hamlett’s 2013 Historic Indianapolis discussion of the 11th Regiment monument).
In this 2015 Google image aerial view Memorial Grove is the woods at the intersection of Cold Springs Road and Lafayette Road, just north of the Indianapolis Parks Building now known as Municipal Gardens.
The woods surrounding the 11th Regiment memorial conceal an even more unsettling and unknown story ignored for nearly a century. Almost eight years after the monument was unveiled the body of George Tompkins was found in the surrounding woods. Tompkins was among the African Americans who migrated to Indianapolis from the South, probably leaving Frankfort, Kentucky around 1920. In 1910 Tompkins was living with his uncle and aunt Robert and Fannie Smith in Frankfort, where the eight-year-old was in school. Tompkins apparently was raised by the Smiths since infancy, and he was living with them in Frankfort as late as 1917.
The Smiths came to Indianapolis after World War I and were living on Colton Street on the present-day IUPUI campus in 1920. They had moved a few blocks away to Holborn Street not long before their nephew’s death. After Tompkins’ death the Smiths told the Indianapolis News that they had raised him since he was nine months old and his mother had been dead for “many years.” Tompkins had been working at the Fairmount Glass Works until two weeks before his death; an official at the glass factory told the newspaper that Tompkins had quit after receiving word from Kentucky that his mother was gravely ill and he was going south to visit her.
The March 17, 1922 Indianapolis Star initially proclaimed the death of George Tompkins a lynching in this headline.
On Thursday March 16, 1922 Tompkins left the Smiths’ home on Holborn Street, and at noon his “still warm” body was found in the woods near the 11th Regiment Memorial. The Indianapolis News reported that Tompkins “was suspended from a tree by a rope around his neck and with his hands tied behind him” with a handkerchief. Police believed that Tompkins had been murdered elsewhere and then moved to the woods in Riverside Park, where his body had been hung. The body was covered with dirt, suggesting Tompkins had been dragged by the taut rope, but detectives on the scene included a contingent that championed the theory that Tompkins’ death was a suicide. Proponents of that suicide theory believed Tompkins “may have looped the handkerchief around one wrist and tied the knot in it before strangling himself.”
Two days after Tompkins’ death the Indianapolis coroner’s office ruled his death was a suicide.
The city’s Coroner concluded on the scene that Tompkins had been murdered, but early 20th-century officials were reluctant to label African American deaths as lynchings, especially within the city limits. Surviving descriptions of the scene are not especially detailed, and perhaps Tompkins had not been strangled at the scene or died as a result of hanging in the Riverside woods. However, lynching scenes routinely were mined for souvenirs, including rope, bonfires, trees, and even victims’ bodies, and there is a suggestive hint that this might have opened in the woods along Cold Springs Road: the Indianapolis News observed in passing that “four or five of the small limbs on the side of the tree on which the body was found had been cut off apparently with a small pen knife.” Harvey Young has detailed how many lynching scenes were dismembered by souvenir hunters. Indiana’s most infamous lynching of two men in Marion, Indiana in August, 1930 was chronicled with a shocking photograph of the two lifeless victims, and two women in the foreground appear to be holding swatches of fabric that probably were keepsakes torn from the victims’ bodies.
Tompkins’ body was autopsied on March 18th by Deputy Coroner George R. Christian, and the death certificate identified the place of death as “Robinson’s Camp,” referring to Camp Robinson. The cause of death was ruled to be “strangulation by hanging from neck.” However, Christian’s surprising verdict was the death was a suicide. Like so many African-American deaths in 20th-century Indianapolis, Tompkins’ death was quickly ignored, with not a word about the case again appearing in the local White press after March 17th (unfortunately, the city’s African-American newspaper, the Indianapolis Recorder, does not have surviving copies from this period). Tompkins was laid to rest in Floral Park Cemetery.
George Tompkins’ death has been submerged in a commonplace historical amnesia about racist violence, ironically effaced in the same woods where some of the soldiers who had fought for Black freedom have also been forgotten. Such landscapes of racist violence have been similarly effaced throughout the country, and perhaps a memorial to Tompkins risks being forgotten as the nearby 11th Regiment memorial has been. Nevertheless,reviving the memory of George Tompkins’ tragic death hopefully contributes to a discussion that dignifies his life and acknowledges a shameful history.
2004 Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women, and the Mob. Rutgers University Press, Piscataway, New Jersey.
James M. Davidson and Edward Gonzalez-Tennant
2008 A Potential Archaeology of Rosewood, Florida: The Process of Remembering a Community and a Tragedy. The SAA Archaeological Record 8(1):13-16.
2006 A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
James H. Madison
2001 A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America. Palgrave McMillan, New York.
Stewart Emory Tolnay, E. M. Beck
1995 A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930. University of Illinois Press, Urbana.
2005 The Black Body as Souvenir in American Lynching. Theatre Journal 57:639–657.
Matthew Brady image of Lew Wallace from U.S. National Archives and Records Administration