Truth or Tall Tale?

Up for a quiz? We haven’t had one for a while.

I’m calling this “Truth or Tall Tale?” I’ll give you a historical situation and you have to decide if it’s something that really happened, or a piece of fiction.

Let’s see how you do.

  1. John Dillinger spent time in the old Hamilton County Jail on the courthouse square.
  2. A brother of U. S. President William Henry Harrison is buried in an old cemetery northwest of Riverwood.
  3. In the early 20th century it was hoped that pearl fishing in the White River would become a new industry for the county.
  4. Author James Fenimore Cooper visited William Conner in order to gather research on the Delaware Indians for his “Leather-Stocking Tales.”
  5. Cicero once had a lead mine.

Now the answers:

1. Tall Tale. This should have been easy since I’ve written about it before. However, given that this rumor used to be all over the internet, I think the truth bears repeating —Dillinger was NEVER held in jail here. The only verifiable visit he ever made to Hamilton County was when he was involved in a car wreck on the Range Line road (U. S. 31) in April of 1934. The car stayed; Dillinger got away.

2. Tall Tale. The October 1, 1923 Noblesville Daily Ledger reported that it was a “well known fact” one of Harrison’s brothers was buried in a graveyard on the farm owned at that time by Arza Teter, father of stunt driver Earl “Lucky” Teter. (The farm is now the Teter Retreat and Organic Farm.)

According to biographies published in newspapers during the 1840 presidential campaign, Harrison had two brothers, both of whom were older and both of whom died in Virginia before 1810. One brother was definitely buried in Virginia. Presumably, the other one was as well.

Maybe someone confused President William Henry Harrison with early Strawtown settler, Caleb Harrison. Like the President, Caleb Harrison was a veteran of the Battle of Tippecanoe. (He’s also supposed to have been a War of 1812 veteran, but I haven’t verified that to my satisfaction yet.)

3. Truth.  In the late 19th century and early 20th century, pearl buttons were popular, and at the height of the fad, more than one-third of all pearl buttons were made from the shells of freshwater mussels such as those found in Indiana’s rivers.

After pearl fishing in the Wabash River proved profitable, attention turned to White River, but the business never really caught on here. By that time, fashions were changing and the mussel population was declining due to overfishing. The rise of plastic substitutes in later years pretty well finished off the whole pearl fishing industry.

4. Tall Tale. In the 1920s, Charles N. Thompson, president of the Indiana Society of Pioneers, made public a story passed down in the Conner family that not only Cooper, but also Washington Irving, had spent time at William Conner’s home. (Thompson’s wife, Julia, was John Conner’s great-granddaughter.)

Thompson must have done more research later, however, because when his book on William and John Conner, “Sons of the Wilderness,” was published in 1937, he noted there was no record of Cooper ever being in Indiana.

I found no evidence Irving was here, either.

5. Tall Tale . . . but with some Truth.

Early newspapers reported that Native Americans here at the time of this area’s first white settlement had a source of lead somewhere in the vicinity of Cicero. This was most likely a surface deposit, however, not a mine like you’re probably picturing.

The Indians kept the exact location of the lead secret, but small amounts of lead ore were discovered west of Cicero during the last decades of the 19th century.

– Paula Dunn’s From Time to Thyme column appears on Wednesdays in The Times. Contact her at