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Yesterday, our tour of the back pages led us to Sassafras John. My favorite Sassafras John poem might be “The Blacklegs,” an old-fashioned yarn of greed and vigilante justice rooted in actual events. It hasn’t been that long since northern Indiana had an element of Wild West to it. The 1858 hanging of two-faced Gregory McDougal:

In the village, known as Northport,
Greg McDougal’s cabin stood.
He wus crooked like an ole rail fence,
But folks thought he wus good.

A great 1920 history of Noble County’s pioneer days, reprinted here by the Indiana Genealogy project, lists McDougal’s crimes:

McDougal [had] within a year or less stolen thirty-four horses, robbed four stores and two tanneries, had broken two jails, taken the entire loads of two peddlers, besides a large amount of other property of a miscellaneous description, and had passed large amounts of counterfeit money.

Not a bad haul.

As the poem notes, a life of crime didn’t end well for McDougal, although he wouldn’t have expected a public execution. The 1920 history says the state had given power to “regulator companies” — citizen-created law enforcement agencies — to find criminals and arrest them, but not to mete out punishment. The people, however, thought a strong example would deter crime, and McDougal became that example.

This poem is a fascinating example of local oral history that may have come from a first-hand source. Sassafras John was born in 1852 and apparently raised in Wayne Township, Noble County. It’s possible he could’ve seen McDougal as a child, or even attended church with him. In any case, he certainly could have heard the stories of McDougal’s arrest and execution by citizens who witnessed or even participated in it.

McDougal mural painted by Robert A. Hudson in Ligonier, part of the wonderful Ligonier Murals project. Photo courtesy of ligoniermurals.com

One final note: The Blacklegs and other scoundrels of Noble County were so bad, their reputation spread throughout the United State and territories. The Latta Genealogy Newsletter offers this, from an 1882 history:

Noble County at once became the headquarters of scores of convicts and criminals and soon gained national repute as a perfect hotbed of sagacious crime. In California, after the gold excitement had somewhat subsided, any man, it is said, who announced himself as coming from Noble County, Indiana, was regarded with suspicion and distrust. So it was as far east as Maine, as far south as Florida.