From their beginnings in 1854 and 1859, respectively, the Indianapolis Police Department (IPD) (see Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and the Indianapolis Fire Department (IFD) recruited officers only from the white population. The death of Edward Phillips changed this practice.  

On the evening of March 1, 1876, three white police officers, patrolmen Scantlin, Wombaugh, and Benner, arrived at the northwest side home of Mary Clark to issue a warrant for the arrest of Phillips, an African American, on charges of adultery. Cornered inside the home, Phillips agreed to accompany the officers. Once outside, Phillips fled. The officers chased Phillips, with Scantlin firing two warning shots. A third shot wounded Phillips as he attempted to scale a fence.    

Officer Wombaugh demanded that Phillips walk to the station or suffer a beating for noncompliance. An African American passerby offered to load Phillips in his wheelbarrow to carry him to the station. Instead, the officers dragged Phillips a half mile to a streetcar stop, placed him on a streetcar, and then dragged him another half mile to police headquarters, where he was placed in an overcrowded cell. The next day a doctor making rounds in the jail found a semiconscious Phillips, who complained of an untreated gunshot wound and pain. 

The doctor instructed officers to move Phillips to City Hospital (see Sidney & Lois Eskenazi Hospital) for treatment. There, surgeons determined Phillips’ wounds were mortal. Before dying, Phillips’ employer, attorney, and justice of the peace William H. Schmitt, arrived to hear Phillips’ version of the shooting. Schmitt used Phillips’s account to spur Marion County Coroner James H. Fuller to investigate Phillips’ claim. A coroner’s inquest ruled Phillips’ death a homicide.  

The coroner’s decision forced Marion County Prosecutor J. M. Cropsey to file murder charges against two of the officers, John Wombaugh and John Scantlin, who stood trial in the Marion County Superior Court (see Courts in Marion County) in April 1876. The trial is believed to be the second known instance at that point in U.S. history that a white police officer stood trial for killing an African American. The first instance occurred six months earlier in Baltimore, Maryland, when Officer Patrick McDonald stood trial for killing Daniel Brown, a Black man. A jury of all-white men found McDonald not guilty of murder. Similarly, the jury of white males found the officers in Indianapolis not guilty, leaving a substantial number of Black and white residents outraged. The judge, William C. Buskirk, told a newspaper reporter that he believed the officers were overcharged. 

The trial took place weeks before the May 1876 presidential primary elections. African Americans had become newly enfranchised just six years prior and became a source of votes, and Reverend Willis Revels of the Bethel AME Church promised a boycott of the election for both Republican and Democratic candidates. To ensure the Black community’s vote, Mayor John Caven promised to hire Blacks to public safety jobs in return for the political support of the Black community. On May 2, 1876, every Republican incumbent won his seat, and on May 19, 1876, Indianapolis hired two African American policemen, an African American jailer, and four African American firefighters. Phillips’s death led to Mayor Caven successfully keeping the Black vote for the Indianapolis Republican party while simultaneously desegregating public safety jobs. 

Revised November 2023

Help improve this entry

Contribute information, offer corrections, suggest images.

You can also recommend new entries related to this topic.