Kokomo’s sixth mayor didn’t serve very long in office, but the controversy of his death likely enshrined Dr. Henry C. Cole in the city’s history.
Emblazoned upon a plaque at 519 N. Main St., the home of 100.5 WWKI, is an inscription enshrining Cole’s death on Sept. 19, 1881. The historical marker is located at the site of Cole’s former home where he resided when he served as the mayor of Kokomo.
But the marker isn’t commemorating Cole’s tenure as mayor, his home, or even his service as a surgeon during the Civil War. Rather, it’s a reminder of the former mayor’s violent death.
“On the night of Monday, September 19, 1881, Mayor Henry Cole was fatally shot by a sheriff’s posse at Styer’s Flour Mill,” reads the plaque. “Howard County Sheriff James DeHaven had deputized armed men to guard the mill based on information it would be robbed and a fire set to conceal the crime. After dark, they were joined by William Styer, who later testified he saw Mayor Cole stealing sacks of flour.
“The posse claimed finding Mayor Cole’s body with a revolver in or near each hand.”
While the historical marker paints an interesting picture of the night Cole died, Tom Tolen, who works as part of the city of Kokomo’s development department and also serves as the secretary of the Kokomo Historic Review Board, said there’s more to it.
“He was sort of painted in a negative light, and what we’re trying to do with the plaque is open public opinion and say, ‘Hey, regardless of whether he was good or bad, what happened in the testimony (of the posse’s trial) doesn’t add up to the verdict in my opinion,’” said Tolen. “Anyone who would read this would agree that it certainly seems dubious. I can say he was shot dead, and I didn’t come up with the same verdict that the coroner was tasked with coming up with.”
While Tolen was quick to indicate he can’t say for sure what happened the night of Cole’s death, he made it clear that the many factors in the infamous case created more questions than answers. He based his opinion on his own research, with the most significant piece of evidence being a newspaper article from Sept. 24, 1881.
The article Tolen referenced took up an entire page of that day’s Kokomo Tribune. It consisted of a summary of what happened the night of the mayor’s death, and also included the transcribed testimony of nine individuals who were involved in the trial that followed Cole’s death. Included in this are the sheriff and the four men who were at the mill when Cole allegedly was shot.
According to the article, headlined “SHOT DEAD!,” Cole was killed about 10:30 p.m. on what would have been a Monday evening. That day, William Styer, an owner of the Spring Mills, received information that his mill was to be robbed that evening. Afterward, the robbers were reportedly going to set fire the structure to conceal the crime.
With that information, Sheriff J.W. DeHaven deputized several individuals to guard the mill. These individuals included Constable George Bennett and Asher Bennet. The sheriff’s deputy, J.W. Learner, also partook in a stakeout at the mill that evening, along with Styer. DeHaven, however, wasn’t present.
The testimony in the article described how the deputies and the mill owner took various concealed positions either within or around the mill at 9 p.m. About 10:30 p.m., they claimed two men walked up to a window of the mill’s engine room, and one climbed in. After a few minutes, this man reappeared at the window with two sacks of flour, about 25 pounds each, and handed them to who the posse identified as Cole. When a second set of flour bags were handed to the mayor of Kokomo, a member of the party allegedly ordered Cole to halt.
The mayor then attempted to run, an individual fired on Cole, and then multiple shots followed. And then, “with a cry of anguish Henry C. Cole fell to the ground dead, seven wounds being found on his body. As soon as he fell the officers at once ran over to him and found him laying (sic) upon his back with a revolver in each hand.”
To Tolen, several parts of this narrative, as presented within the trial, don’t add up.
For one, pointed out Tolen, the individual who was handing the flour to Cole was never found or identified. None of the individuals that testified in the trial ever indicated they knew who the second alleged flour thief was. In his testimony, Learner said he thought the unidentified man may have had a hat on.
“They never found the other guy, conveniently,” said Tolen. “Who was inside the mill in the dark?”
Also within the testimony, Tolen took issue with the coroner’s report, the firearms Cole carried, and the location of his body when he was found.
According to the doctor who conducted Cole’s autopsy, the mayor of Kokomo was shot six times, with ammunition ranging from shotgun to pistol balls. A shotgun shot penetrated an area about Cole’s left knee. Additionally, bullets struck the mayor’s right index finger, his right arm above the elbow, below his right ear, and “at the lower border of the right glutin (sic) muscle.” The killing blow, according to the article, came by the way of a shot that penetrated the right auricle of the heart. “This was of itself sufficient to produce death from hemorrhage,” read the doctor’s testimony.
“It’s dark. Let’s face it, pistols are not that accurate at this time,” said Tolen. “To be shooting somebody at a faraway range in the dark, they find his body, and they testify it’s 125 yards from the mill. The autopsy says that one shot hit him in the heart, and he died instantly. None of this adds up. The testimony doesn’t add up to what they say happened here.”
Adding to this, almost all of those present during Cole’s supposed death claimed that the mayor ran beyond their view in the dark at some point.
Most of all, Tolen indicated he saw little reason for the mayor to be stealing what would have been relatively inexpensive flour. However, he went on to claim that he’s found information that Cole and the mill’s owner, Styer, had public disputes. One occurred while Cole served on the Common Council, and he refused to pay Styer a requested bill that was sent to the city for gas used in public street lights. Styer owned interest in the gas company, and Cole disagreed with paying the full amount because the street lights weren’t lit for a period of time. But, it goes beyond that.
“They had publicly sparred, so it seems strange that this incident happens after dark at the mill owned by (Styer),” said Tolen. “Dr. Cole had also questioned William Styer’s ownership of this mill. The mill had formerly been owned by a gentleman who was married. The gentleman had passed away, and somehow the controlling interest went to William Styer and not the widow. Dr. Cole had always questioned that before, in meetings, and in the paper.”
And, maybe most interestingly, Cole’s wife made claims that made it difficult to believe the deceased doctor would rob the mill.
“This obviously made national news,” said Tolen. “The Times covered it, and the Cincinnati Inquirer came here in November of that year, 1881. They interviewed his widow … She kind of debunks a lot of the stories that he was a bad man … She goes so far as to say she can’t imagine him stealing flour because he was not a man that was prone to any sort of manual labor. She even said he wouldn’t lift a hoe for the garden. She said there was a rumor once that he stopped a buggy, stole, and shucked corn, then threw it in the buggy to save money because he was cheap. She said, her exact quote was, ‘He wouldn’t lift a box of corn to put in the buggy if you gave it to him.’ It was very interesting.”
Of course, many other questions remained in Tolen’s mind. He said Cole’s public image was forever tarnished after the trial that followed his death, where the posse was cleared, and he was found to have robbed the mill of flour. Why didn’t any of the posse testify that they heard a buggy and horse come upon the mill? Or why was the trial so fast? Or why wasn’t the sheriff part of the posse the evening of Cole’s death?
“At first I thought he was guilty of robbing the flour mill, and he was shot robbing the flour mill,” said Tolen. “That’s what I absolutely thought happened. Now, that’s the verdict, but after reading this, I can’t come to that same verdict … How he came upon his death, the facts are in question.”