READERS: This is the sort of story I intend to write more of over the next few years to share with my family. It’s also the sort of story I encourage you to write about your own family! It doesn’t have to be fancy, with links to articles and such. Just capture the memories for future generations.
Once upon a time….as one of my family’s stories goes…my maternal grandparents lived in a big house in Muncie, Indiana that was dirt cheap because no one else wanted to live there. That’s because, for a time, it had been a gangster hideout. And the former owners were murdered by the gang.
Or something like that.
Sometimes, when the story is told, the gangster is the famous Depression-era gangster John Dillinger. Other times no one is sure what his name was, or exactly what happened, or when. And, although I did know my grandparents, they are long gone now, and it’s too late to ask them about it.
So I did some digging…..
The Old Home Place
The photo above shows the house in which my mom and her two sisters were born. Grandma Hankins always referred to it as “the old home place”. The photo looks to have been taken in the late 1960’s because that’s me, my brother Mike, and Mom you see on the porch. It looks grand now, but when they lived there (from the early 30’s to 1945, when they moved to New Mexico) the brick was still a natural red, there were no white pillars, and the windows on this side had not yet been remodeled into front doors. (The main entrance was on the other side of the house.)
The Hankins family was poor (although probably no poorer than their neighbors). During the winter they only occupied a few rooms of the large house because it was so hard to heat. Villa and George took turns minding the girls while he worked at Warner Gear, and she attended Ball State University. They had a small farm — a few chickens, a cow, a vegetable garden. George was mechanically inclined and rigged up his own river-powered generator for supplying electricity to the house. Theirs was the only house on a long, dead-end country lane, nestled in the woods between a cemetery and the Mississinewa River. Perfect for a gangster hideout.
Here are some photos from Mom’s Boxes:
I started with a Google keyword search: Muncie + Dillinger. Yes, Dillinger was there in the 30’s…but…well…I don’t see anything about a farmhouse hideout…
Google Maps: Hmmm, where’s the Mississinewa River? Ohhh…that’s right, they didn’t actually live in Muncie…they lived in Eaton, which is 12 miles away and sometimes referred to as Muncie because Muncie is the largest nearby town. Ah — there’s the river! And the cemetery! And the lane from the main road that runs along the river! And the house! (Although somewhat hidden by trees.) Gotta love satellite view!
Then I remembered another candidate gangster’s name: Gerald Chapman
Chapman’s Wikipedia listing mentions “authorities being tipped off by informant Ben Hance” and, “Hance and his wife were shot to death when their car was forced off a road outside Muncie on August 11, 1925.”
This article mentions “their hideout along Mississinewa River, in the vicinity of Eaton…”
Ooh! Sounds like we’ve got our gangster!
But are we sure the Hances lived in this same house?
From Ancestry.com: The 1921 Eaton, Indiana city directory lists the Hances as living at Eaton RFD 1 (Rural Free Delivery Route #1). This is as close to a street or mailing address as existed at that time in this location.
From Ancestry.com: Ben and Mary Hance were buried in Union Cemetery – the one on the map. The one where my mom and her sisters played. The Hankins family knew the caretakers, the Renches, who were, after all, their closest neighbors.
This newspapers.com article details Chapman’s exploits, along with accomplice “Dutch” Anderson, and their prison escape. “Soon Anderson and Chapman were holed up on a farm near Muncie, Ind. Their host was Ben Hance, who gloried in the importance of his guests and was ready to help them any way he could when they got in business again.” Later it says, of Chapman, “Wrongly, he blamed Ben Hance for revealing his whereabouts.” But — rightly or wrongly (accounts vary) — Hance did testify at the trial which determined Chapman’s guilt and sentenced him to death. From this legal brief: “Hance testified that from sometime in April to the following August, 1924, the accused had lived part of the time on his farm in the sparsely settled community near Eaton, Indiana …”
So now we know exactly when Chapman was there — 1924. (My grandparents moved in sometime between 1931 and 1934 — the years of their wedding and my mom’s birth).
In retribution for Chapman’s conviction and execution, his accomplices, “Dutch” Anderson and “One-Arm” Wolfe — gotta love gangster nicknames! — lured the Hances out of their home onto an open road and gunned them down in their car. (That’s the short version.)
This article contains quite an exciting account of Wolfe’s apprehension, and the manhunt for Anderson. It includes photos of Ben and Mary Hance and A PHOTO OF THE FARMHOUSE! This view is from the back, or, well, at the time it was the front, and the short part of the house matches the photo of George, Villa, and baby Ethel above. It refers to Chapman as “the bandit prince”. I have also seen him referred to as “The Gentleman Bandit”. However, the link is to Newspapers.com and I don’t know that you’ll be able to see it without a subscription, so here an image of a portion that day’s paper. (The story filled the front page.)
This article — 10 Outlaws of the Public Enemy Era Almost Forgotten by History — refers to Chapman as “The First ‘Public Enemy No. 1′”.
Ewww, this article — GERALD CHAPMAN’S LAST ARREST – is easy to read, as it was published on the internet in 2016, not photocopied from an old newspaper article. It describes his crimes, capture(s), his unusual (and since outlawed) method of execution, and his last meal: pork chops, cottage fried potatoes, prunes, bread and butter, coffee, and milk.
So, wow, it’s all true! I’m thinking that at least the Hances weren’t murdered IN the house. “By the way,” my aunt George Ann said, after I’d found all of this evidence to corroborate her stories, “there were rumors of hidden treasure in the basement, but we never found it.” Ack! No wonder no one wanted to live there! Who knew if another gang member, or fortune hunter, might return for the loot someday? Another mystery to solve?!?!
What sort of stories does your family tell?
Have you ever tried to validate them? What were the results?
Please share with us by leaving a comment.
And et me know if you’d like some help researching your family history!
Copyright 2019 by Hazel Thornton, Organized for Life.
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What great research and what a fabulous story! Thanks for sharing it. Mom’s boxes are filled with such great things!
Thanks, Andi! Glad you enjoyed it.
What an exciting discovery! You are really piquing my interest in learning more about my own family.
Who needs books when I can just read Hazel’s family blog? What an incredibly cool story. I saw a car in the Memorial Day parade I attended this morning that would have fit right in with your gangster story. My husband and I were commenting on it. Coincidence?
What a colorful family history! You’re an incredible sleuth. Your family is so lucky that you have the passion and skills to research, document, and write about stories.
One of my favorite family stories is my grandfather (Papa Moishe), my mother’s father. When he was a baby (in Poland), his house caught on fire. A man walking down the street ran into the burning building and saved his life. Fast forward 30+ years and the man that saved my grandfather ended up becoming his father-in-law and my great grandfather. I think about how different our family history would have been if my great grandfather, Wolf Greenspan, had not saved my grandfather’s life when he was a baby. I am grateful for Wolf’s bravery.
What a story. I enjoyed reading.
A bit more information on Ben and Mary Hance. One of my relatives, William Alec Thomas, born in Nelson County, Kentucky, in 1891–died 1961, in Louisville, Kentucky. I don’t have the year but he was married to Oda Mary Crooks, in the 1920s. She was the daughter of Orland Franklin Crooks, 1866-1925, and Mary Minnie Gagneau [or Gagnon], born in Canada in 1887. Mary Gagneau Crooks divorced Orland Crooks at some point and remarried to Ben Hance 
In the early to mid 1920s, Alec Thomas thought he had killed a man in a speakeasy in Louisville and fled to Indiana. At some point he met and married Oda Crooks, who, I believe was a drug addict. Oda Crooks Thomas died in Indianapolis, November 26, 1934. Her survivors were Calvin Crooks of Indianapolis; Corydon Crooks of San Pedro, CA, and Mrs. William Sheppard, of Eaton, Indiana. Oda was born in Michigan in 1902. When Oda was eleven her mother married Ben Hance. [so about 1913]. George “Dutch” Anderson was spotted by a cop passing counterfeit money in Muskegon, Michigan. Anderson and a police officer killed each other in a gun fight. “One Arm” Wolfe was tried for the Hance murders and given a life sentence. Wolfe always swore it was a case of mistaken identity. For whatever reason, the Governor of Indiana commuted his sentence in 1940. My grandfather was the only one who knew anything about this story and he had it all wrong. He didn’t know who the people were that were killed but said they had been involved somehow, with Al Capone and were machine gunned outside of Indianapolis.
I have a biography of Gerald Chapman, by H. Paul Jeffers, called “Gentleman Gerald,” St. Martin’s Press, New York,1993–I apologize if any of this commentary seems a bit disjointed. Thanks, Steve Wright, Hodgenville, Kentucky
Interesting stuff! Thank you. How did you find my blog post? I also have Wrights in my family tree, but on my Dad’s side.
My mom and I used to clean that house in the ‘70’s. I always thought it was gorgeous.
Hi Kris! Wow — did you know the history of the house when you were cleaning it? I’m thinking you must know a relative of mine in Muncie. Otherwise, I wonder how you found my post?
My parents , sister Rosalie and I moved into that house in 1949. Our father Glenn Gibson did the remodeling and added the porch, pillers, and the two French doors and painted it white. There was a hitching post with a horses head on it until my mother Jewell moved to Muncie approximately 1987. We didn’t find the hidden treasure in the basement either. We did find bullet slugs in a tree where we were told the lawmen used for target practice.
How cool is that? Did your parents know my grandparents? Did you know my mom and her sisters? I’ll tell my aunt you never found the treasure either! And, did you mean “lawmen”, or did you mean “gangsters”? Thanks for stopping by my blog to add to the story!
Hey Sandy – are you Glenn’s daughter? We’re Cousins. I am his grand niece through “Olive”, Nellie’s daughter. I remember great uncle Glenn’s house in Eaton. I loved fishing in the creek! I had no idea about the rest. I go by Saige now and am on Ancestry.com.
I don’t know if Sandy will see your comment, but if one of you says yes, I’ll share your email address with the other!