Was Greensburg similar to most towns of like size in 1907?
Yes, and it wasn’t what we would appreciate today. Many businesses and homes burned because the fire engine and other equipment were pulled by horses. Hundreds of men had been brought in to work on the Interurban line, pave streets, build sewers, double the rail tracks (20 passenger trains came through daily). Shacks sprang up south of town to house the men. Taverns and brothels were abundant and five policemen were supposed to keep all that under control. Horses were the means of local travel. Imagine unpaved streets and horse manure with accompanying flies and odors.
John Green wasn’t a resident of Greensburg until he came to take advantage of jobs available thanks to the improvements being promised and much needed. Green was an African American who, it was reported, was “not bright.” He came to town to work with the other laborers on the sewer system but had trouble following directions and was let go even before the sewer system was finished in 1905. He had been arrested for burglary, but wasn’t held accountable because he was considered disadvantaged. He was living in one of the brothels just west of the square and later hired by an elderly 67-year-old widow named Mrs. Sefton who lived alone in her home at 422 North East Street. He was to do odd jobs that she couldn’t do for herself.
White dives and black dives caused constant problems. Citizens were angry even before 1907. Mayor Frank Thomson was blamed for most of it, but with a five man police force one wonders what could have been done. News accounts stated, “Gambling ‘hell holes’ flourish day and night. Negro dives and the back doors of saloons have been kept open on Sunday.”
It is debatable about the time of day when John Green committed the crime that was to be the beginning of the trouble and that would cause Greensburg be named a Sundown Town to those who couldn’t be bothered to learn the facts. Some reports state that the crime occurred in broad daylight, others that Green entered the home and that he “turned out the dim light.”
Possibly it was a dreary day and Mrs. Sefton had a light on. I believe she was in bed with a light to read by. On Thursday, April 25, Green crawled through a window, went into her bedroom, turned out the light, placed his hand over her mouth and told her he would kill her if she made any noise. Then he got into her bed with his muddy boots on and assaulted her.
Green then forced her to give him all the money in the house. She only had 71 cents but gave it to him. He then left the house through the kitchen door. The widow went to the Lanham home next door and told them what had happened. They first got word to Dr. Kercheval (an ancestor of Ken Kercheval of Dallas fame) who found that she was in shock. Mr. Lanham then notified the police.
The police immediately sent an urgent request to the Noblesville Police force to send their bloodhounds. The hounds with handlers arrived the next morning and led officers from the Sefton home on North East Street to the passenger train depot on South Franklin Street.
In the meantime, city officials, several businessmen around and near the square and a newspaper correspondent met. After much discussion they agreed that this crime should be kept quiet for two reasons. One, the crime of rape was seldom reported in those days because it brought shame on the person that had been raped. It took many years for that attitude to end. The second reason was that there were already many problems in the city due to the overcrowded conditions among the rough laborers that had come to the city to work. By far though, it was thought that the abundance of alcohol available would create havoc.
The city officials and businessmen made a list of 15 African Americans who had been a source of trouble since they came to the city. The 15 troublemakers would be asked to leave the city. Their idea was that, since the crime was committed by an African American, if the major troublemakers left town things would calm down. But it didn’t happen that way.
News of the crime spread, so the newspaper decided to write the story despite the earlier agreement. The story came out in the afternoon edition.