John Tucker became a victim of racially motivated violence in front of a crowd of almost 100 onlookers on West Washington Street after attending Independence Day festivities. He died from the injuries that resulted from his assault. Historians judge it as a lynching because it was a violent and public event that terrorized Black people.

A formerly enslaved man, Tucker obtained his freedom and relocated from Kentucky to Indianapolis circa 1830. He worked as a farmer for Samuel Henderson, one of the wealthiest early inhabitants of Indianapolis who served as the first postmaster of Indianapolis and then as the city’s first mayor. Tucker lived next to Cheney Lively, who may have been the city’s first permanent Black resident, near St. Clair and Delaware streets, on Out Lot 37, Lot 3, with his wife and two children, Mary, 13, and William, 10.

On the day of his murder, Tucker left Military Park, where Independence Day celebrations were held, and walked along Washington Street toward Illinois Street. He passed an inebriated Nicholas Wood, who exited a grocery store. Wood accosted him and gave him a bloody nose. No one at the scene reported that Tucker had done anything outwardly to provoke him. A bystander suggested that Tucker report the assault to the Indianapolis Magistrate’s Office. As Tucker began walking in that direction, Wood struck him again, and then two others, first Edward Davis and moments later William Ballenger, joined Wood in the attack. The three men beat Tucker with wood clubs, stones, a barrel of salt, and a brickbat.

Most onlookers watched the attack in disbelief, but others in the crowd cheered the three men as they beat Tucker to death. Reverend Henry Ward Beecher of Second Presbyterian Church saw the attack, saying Tucker tried to defend himself against the angry men.

Davis, still at the scene of the murder, was badly injured during the attack. He was sent home to recover after posting bail of $2,000. Wood was apprehended less than one hour after the murder. He was brought before Justice of the Peace Joseph A. Levy who sent him to the city jail. Wood identified Ballenger as the third assailant, and a warrant for his arrest was issued within an hour and a half of the crime. Perhaps expecting arrest, Ballenger left town.

Prominent early civic leader, attorney, and abolitionist Calvin Fletcher led the effort to bring Tucker’s assailants to justice. On the evening of Tucker’s death, Fletcher retained the legal services of former U.S. Senator O. H. Smith and president of the State Bank of Indiana, Judge James Morrison. Before 7 am the next morning, Fletcher, other abolitionists, and a coroner’s jury, which included prominent physicians John Evans and Livingston Dunlap, convened at a store owned by early merchant Alfred Harrison to investigate the case. Here, Dr. John L. Mothershead performed the autopsy.

Mothershead’s autopsy report revealed Tucker’s skull fractured in its entirety. A fracture on the anterior part of the skull, externally and internally, ran laterally to the base of the skull. Another fracture was found on the posterior skull. Slight fractures of the internal layer of the skull, a fractured jaw, and a large gash approximately 3 inches long separated the exterior skull, holes to the right cheek below the eye and through the left ear most likely caused a concussion, which led to Tucker’s death. Dunlap and Evans concurred with Mothershead’s findings. In all, the report indicated the blows Tucker received “would have felled an ox.”

The murder trial started on August 13, 1845. Fifteen witnesses provided corroborating testimony of the sequence of events. Davis was acquitted, but Wood, who started and saw the deed to completion, was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to three years of hard labor at the State Penitentiary. On August 28, 1845, in the aftermath of the lynching and trial, the Indiana State Sentinel reported “that many colored residents are in the habit, since the 4th of July, of carrying big clubs.”

Because he had not paid off the mortgage on his home, Tucker’s family was left insolvent. The children appeared in court countless times in their attempts to keep their homes, but the court system sold the property at a public auction in 1851.  

Revised May 2023

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