The Legend of Dead Man’s Holler
There’s a hollow out along Cox Ferry Road that many generations of county residents say will inspire eerie and foreboding feelings, even if you visit during daylight hours. Something about the location is just a little off or creepy. Some claim it is haunted by a horrible, unspeakable spirit of a bygone era, while others will tell you that its all nonsense, no more than a tale of urban legend. But this Washington County legend is steeped in historical fact.
In the early part of November, 1840, the Johnson County Sheriff and two Deputies rode into Salem around breakfast time, after delivering a prisoner to the state penitentiary in Jeffersonville. They stopped at a popular tavern/inn on Main Street to get some breakfast. Also in the tavern at the time, were 3 Kentuckians, by the name of Hargrave, who had come to town to sell some cattle. After eating and exchanging pleasantries, the six men got into a political discussion over the impending presidential election, between Martin Van Buren and war hero, William Henry Harrison. Soon enough the men had ordered up a liberal supply of whiskey and they all began taking shots. Both groups of men were strongly committed to their candidates and it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn argumentative. As the whiskey continued to flow, the quarrelling became heated and turned intense, when 6 foot, 200 pound, Deputy Sheriff Elias Voorhees stood up and proclaimed that he could personally whip any of his Kentucky opponents.
The eldest of the Hargrave men rose to engage Deputy Voorhees and quickly all six men were engaged in a full bar-brawl battle. The fight raged on for some time and the men from Kentucky seemed to have got the worst of it. After collecting their bloodied selves from the tavern floor, the three Kentuckians fled the tavern and immediately ran to the Justice of the Peace, Alexander Crooke, to file charges of assault against the Johnson County lawmen. Crooke, true to his position, issued affidavits and had the three Hoosiers arrested and detained for a trial at sundown. Somehow, just before dark, Deputy Voorhees managed to escape and get back to his horse. He galloped away from town, in a flurry, before the hearing could commence.
When there was not an immediate pursuit of the fleeing man, by local law enforcement, the Hargreaves felt they weren’t getting a fair deal. So they offered up a cash bounty, to anyone, who would hunt down, re-arrest and return Voorhees to town for the trial. Four young local men eagerly volunteered, armed themselves and set off in pursuit of the fugitive. The four amateur bounty hunters; Jeremiah Dennis, Isaac Gordon, Mike Atkinson and John Goodwin were gone the rest of that night and did not return until the following evening. They reported to everyone that they were unable to find even a trace of Voorhees and had heard no word or gossip on his whereabouts.
In the gauzy light of the predawn hours of November 6th, two young Washington County boys, Phineas Little and John Williams were out hunting cattle along Cox Ferry Road, when they made a horrendous discovery. Out in the field, a few rods from the road, was the ghastly, decapitated head of a man, stuck atop a wooden stick in the ground and his headless body was lying nearby, under a tree. The two boys took off down the road, screaming “bloody murder”!
People for miles around came running to the sight to learn the identity of the individual, scrutinize the murder scene, or simply to observe the macabre. It was quickly discovered that the corpse was that of, Johnson County Deputy Sheriff, Elias Voorhees. He had been shot through the heart and killed instantly, the assassins then used a large hunting knife to cut off his head and placed it on the pike. Suspicions immediately turned to the four local men, who had attempted to collect the Hargrave’s bounty, they were accordingly arrested and charged with first degree murder. A tense environment erupted in Salem, as the county residents were certain of the local men’s guilt and rumors began to circulate that there would be a lynch-mob formed to exact justice for the grisly murder.
Due to the anxious circumstances, the defense attorney requested and received a change of venue and the case was transferred to Harrison County. When the proceedings took place in Corydon, the case was hotly contested and there were a number of incriminating facts that made it look bad for the prisoners. However, the change of venue caused complications for the prosecution, as they were unable to produce some of the evidence and several of their witnesses failed to make the journey to the Harrison County Seat. After deliberations, the jury voted to acquit the Washington County men and they were set free. But the testimony delivered in the court room, left little doubt in the minds of the public that Goodwin and Dennis had perpetrated the crime, while Atkinson and Gordon were accessories to the fact and cognizant of the truth in the matter.
Prior to his beheading, Deputy Elias Voorhees had been born in 1814, in Mercer County, Kentucky and had migrated across the Ohio River, as a child with his parents, settling around Franklin, Indiana. Elias was only 26 years old at the time of his murder and left behind, a widow, Eleanor Davis, a 3 year old son, Andrew and an infant daughter, Martha.
The hollow, a few miles northwest of Salem’s city limits, on Cox Ferry Road, has been said to be haunted by this Man’s spirit, since the incident occurred and over the years garnered the nickname of “Dead Man’s Holler”. Through the many years since, numerous people have claimed, in the wee hours of night, to have seen a headless apparition, dressed in clothes from another time era, roaming along in the fields beside the road. Some say the spirit they saw had no head at all, while other witnesses claim the Voorhees doppelganger was carrying his head in his hand, held outright, like you would with a lantern trying to find your way through the darkness. Despite the similarities, there have not been any reports of this spirit riding a horse and smashing pumpkins, but it is certainly easy to imagine the unrest of Voorhees’ spirit and his fruitless pursuit of justice for his gruesome, wrongful and untimely death.
It has been some years since anyone has claimed to have seen the ghost of Elias Voorhees, but remember the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead, is said to be the thinnest around the time of Halloween. So the members of the county historical society wouldn’t be as shocked as the observer, if Deputy Voorhees were to make another appearance, still aimlessly wandering between two realms, 175 years after his brutal murder.
These are the known facts, of the 1840 case, of Elias Voorhees and the Legend of Dead Man’s Holler, in the historically rich and fascinating lands of Washington County, Indiana.