The Strange Disappearance of Luella Mabbitt

Did the wrong man hang for murder? For that matter, was Luella Mabbitt really even dead?

19th century cabinet card depicting the death of Abner Green

In 1887, a man by the name of Abner Green was lynched by an angry mob near Delphi, Indiana, from a walnut tree in the yard of a tiny country schoolhouse. The crime was the murder of Luella Mabbitt, the pretty daughter of a popular local farmer. But when Abner's restless spirit began to haunt the schoolhouse, eventually resulting in its closure, locals began to wonder if they had hanged an innocent man by mistake.

The following is the true and never-before-told complete saga we like to call "The Strange Disappearance of Luella Mabbitt", a strange story involving a tragic crime, a mysterious doppelganger and a headless corpse.
The tragic tale begins in early August of 1886, in a small farm community in the heart of Indiana along the banks of Wildcat Creek, just south of Delphi. Miss Luella Mabbitt, the pride of Walnut Grove, was the pretty daughter of a well-respected and wealthy farmer. Unfortunately, much to the chagrin of the Mabbitt family, Luella's chief suitor was not a handsome and ambitious businessman from Delphi or Logansport. Nor was he a hard-working, salt-of-the-earth farmer from the Wabash Valley like Mr. Mabbitt. Luella's suitor was Abner Green, viewed by many of the locals as a dim-witted, good-for-nothing troublemaker; the kind of chap who had probably descended from a long line of chicken thieves and feeble-minded farmhands.

Rejected by Miss Mabbitt, Abner Green drove his carriage to the young woman's home in a fit of jealous rage. After threatening Mrs. Mabbitt, Abner seized Luella, placed her in the carriage and carried her off. Abner returned home the next day, alone, where he ditched the carriage, turned loose his horse and disappeared. At least that's how the story goes.

Naturally, everyone speculated that the pretty farmer's daughter had been murdered by her abductor. A search party was formed and after a few days a trail was found leading to Wildcat Creek, a tributary to the Wabash River. The townsfolk believed that Luella's body would be found nearby.

In the meantime, part of the mob headed over to the Green home, believing that Abner's mother knew the whereabouts of the missing girl. As an angry mob is inclined to do, they threw a rope around the old woman's neck, threatening her with instant death if she did not disclose the hiding place of her son. But the threats from the angry mob were of no avail; Ms. Green refused to say a word. No mother, regardless of what her offspring may have done, would betray her son.

It was also noticed that around this time, another one of Luella Mabbitt's suitors- John Yearkes- seemed to have vanished into thin air. Without much evidence to go on, the mob had to settle for the arrest of William Walker, a local boy who happened to call on Luella's twin sister the night of her abduction. Walker was arrested as Abner Green's accomplice. They also arrested Mrs. Green, in the hopes that she would eventually lead the angry locals to her missing son. They were both committed to the county jail at Logansport. (1)

On Sunday, February 7, 1887, six months after the disappearance of Luella Mabbitt, a badly-decomposed body was found in the nearby Wabash River. At the coroner's inquest the following Friday morning, the father, mother, and twin sister of Luella Mabbitt, Elia, viewed the body and identified the waterlogged corpse as that of the missing girl. It seemed to be an open and shut case and the court of public opinion strung up Abner Green and delivered him to the gallows. All they had to do, of course, was to find him. The newspapers proclaimed:

There was a very good chance that the Mabbitts made an incorrect identification, however. Because the body they viewed was badly decomposed and horribly mutilated, they had to examine the teeth of the bloated corpse to make a positive identification. Mrs. Mabbitt, upon seeing the teeth, broke into hysterics and exclaimed, "That is my daughter!". The twin sister, Elia, "confirmed" this identification by stating that both she and the corpse had a crooked tooth in the lower jaw (It would not be until 1982 that a researcher, R.F. Sognnaes, would prove that identical twins do not have identical teeth). Another party from Clinton County brought to the inquest scraps of clothing found near Wildcat Creek, which were identified as belonging to Abner Green.

On March 26 it was announced that there was a major break in the case, one that was sure to lead the law to Abner Green's doorstep. Six years prior to the disappearance of Luella Mabbit a quarrel took place in Young America, a small village about twenty miles east of Delphi. During the altercation a man named Enos Brunsbaugh was shot and killed by William A. Green, brother of Abner. The Pinkerton detective agency, operating out of Chicago, believed that William made his escape with the assistance of his brother. Though details were scarce, rumors circulated that both men were in Texas. Detectives also discovered that Luella and Abner's relationship was more serious than initially reported by the Mabbitts; evidence seemed to suggest that Luella and Abner were engaged to be married.

The detectives from Chicago, no doubt motivated by the large reward on the heads of the Green brothers, traced old Mrs. Green to Ohio. She had fled Indiana after her near-deadly brush with the angry mob. Once again she refused to talk. The detectives followed the Green Brothers trail to Denison, Texas, but were disappointed to learn that they had moved on to Kansas. Then William Green made a mistake- one that would eventually lead to his brother's death at the hands of the very same mob that had threatened to hang his elderly mother. (2)

The husband of Mrs. Gallagher, of Chicago, had recently received a letter in the mail from her husband, presently doing time at the penitentiary in Joliet. The letter informed Mrs. Gallagher that he had escaped and was hiding out in Cedarvale, Kansas. Mr. Gallagher asked his wife to send him $200 at once. Suspicious of the letter, Mrs. Gallagher turned the correspondence over to the Pinkertons, who staked out the Cedarvale post office. Before long they nabbed the man who was picking up Mr. Gallagher's mail. That man turned out to be William Green. (3) The Pinkertons then decided to stake out Mrs. Green's home in Ohio, and on April 15, 1887, the spiders managed to catch their fly. Abner Green was apprehended in Ohio and held by the local sheriff until the authorities from Cass County arrived to take Abner back to Logansport.

On a hot July day, both Green brothers arrived at the county jail in Logansport in shackles, William escorted by Sheriff Wallace and Abner escorted by Deputy Sheriff J.B. "Buck" Stanley. The jail was promptly surrounded by a mob of about 300 men from Cass, Carroll and Clinton counties. Deputy Sheriff Stanley vowed that he would take every precaution to protect the prisoners and see that they both got a fair trial, but no such trial would ever take place. (4)

Cass County Courthouse and jail, Logansport, IN

By July 17, more than twenty heavily-armed guards were dispatched to the jail to stave off the rabid, bloodthirsty mob, which had now swelled to over a thousand in number. This caught the attention of Governor Isaac P. Gray, who sent a telegram to the lawmen, urging them to do everything possible to prevent mob violence. (5)

Things quieted down, at least temporarily. Three days later, however, the mob was back, after it was discovered that someone had stolen the body of Luella Mabbitt from the Springvale Cemetery in Lafayette. (6) Believing that this would result in the acquittal of Abner Green, the mob defied the sheriff's orders and demanded he turn over the accused murderer.

Unbeknownst to the angry mob, however, the Lafayette police learned that the body of Luella was removed by Mr. Mabbitt himself, and, in perhaps the strangest turn of events to ever befall a corpse, it was learned that Mr. Mabbitt had instructed a dentist, Dr. J.K. Pattison, to remove his deceased daughter's head from her body, presumably to make a plaster cast as a memorial. Now, this is beyond strange on many levels. First of all, by this time, Luella Mabbitt had been dead for nearly a year, including the six months she had been submerged in the Wabash River. Any plaster cast made from her present condition wouldn't exactly be the type of memento you'd want hanging over your fireplace. Secondly, Luella had an identical twin sister who was still alive and well. Why not make a cast using her face instead?

Though it is purely conjecture, the possibility exists that Mr. Mabbitt wasn't 100% sure that the body in question was indeed that of Luella. Since the teeth were the only possible way to identify the corpse fished out of the Wabash River, what better way to prevent a not guilty verdict at Green's trial than by tampering with the only evidence at hand? However, much to Mr. Mabbitt's surprise, Dr. Pattison never did make a plaster cast of the head. In yet another bizarre turn of events, he instead removed the jawbone from the skull and took it to a convention of the state dental association at Lake Maxinkuckee and had it examined. The dentists in attendance all agreed that the jawbone in question was not that of a beautiful, young woman, but that of a male between 45 and 50 years old. (7)(8)

On Wednesday, August 3, 1887, the trial of William Walker began (9). Walker, who was charged as an accomplice because he was dating Luella's sister at the time of her disappearance, did not fare very well, in spite of the revelation that the jawbone taken from the corpse belonged to a middle-aged male. At Walker's trial, Coroner Mofitt testified that he and four other physicians examined the corpse after it was recovered from the river and had no doubts as to the sex of the body, as the genitals were still intact. His testimony, along with the identification of Green's handkerchief and overalls that were found near Wildcat Creek , convinced the judge that Walker was somehow an accessory to a murder that may or may not have been committed in the first place. Sensing that justice would soon be served, the sheriff returned Abner Green to the local jail and sent away the extra guards, before presenting a bill of $4,200 to Cass County for the additional expenses. (10) Citing the local hostility, Green's lawyer moved for a change of venue for his client's impending trial.

Historical marker in front of the Carroll County courthouse in Delphi

Around midnight, October 22, a mob of nearly two hundred men attacked the unguarded Delphi jail and took away Abner Green, who was awaiting trial for the kidnapping and murder of Luella Mabbitt. (11) They arrived in over seventy-five wagons, some on horseback, and all armed to the teeth. They broke down the wooden door and demanded the keys to Green's cell. When Buck Stanley refused, the mob took a sledgehammer to the cell door and busted it open. Green put up a fierce battle but was soon overpowered. He was bound in rope and tossed into the back of a wagon. At Deer Creek crossing, just south of town, the vigilantes met up with another group of sixty wagons and they all proceeded to Walnut Grove, about seven miles east of Delphi, and stopped near the tiny one-room schoolhouse.

Two large fires had been built by the schoolhouse, and the leader of the mob told Green that he must either produce Luella Mabbitt or die. Green stood from the back of the wagon, turned to address Mr. Mabbitt and told him that Luella was alive and was living in Fort Worth, Texas, with a man named Samuel Payne. When asked why he didn't produce this information earlier, Green explained that his attorney advised against it. Unconvinced, the mob threw a rope around Abner's neck and over the limb of a tree. The wagon was about to be pulled away when a spectator, one of the local newspapermen, called out, "Are you an innocent man?"

"I am an innocent man," Abner answered.

"What is your last request?" continued the reporter.

"That you inform my mother, send her my body and tell her I desire to be buried by the side of my sister in Ohio."

"At Hebron, Ohio?" asked the reporter.

Before Abner Green could answer, the horses gave a lurch and the victim was suspended between the earth and sky. His body was cut down at 9 o'clock the next morning, but not before thousands had a chance to view it. Some even took pictures. Over the next few weeks, the most popular post card in town was one depicting the lifeless body of Abner Green hanging from a tree.

Meanwhile, about ten miles away in neighboring Miami County, William Green, awaiting trial for the 1881 murder of Enos Brunsbaugh, gave reporters an uncannily similar account of the fate of Miss Mabbitt, stating that she was alive and living in Fort Worth. (12)

The telegraph wires were on fire, as hundreds of reporters wired Fort Worth to see if Green's claims were possibly true. They learned that a man named Samuel Payne did live in the city up until September. He lived on Rusk Street with a young bride in her early 20s named Luella. A former neighbor, Mrs. Orr, told reporters that she believed the wife's maiden name was "Merritt", and that she had moved to Texas from Indianapolis. The couple moved to Chicago after Mr. Payne's health began to fail, where Samuel had a brother who worked in a butter factory. Luella told Ms. Orr that both of her parents were dead, and that she and Payne had been married in Indiana. (13) Meanwhile, back in Delphi, a rumor circulated that Gov. Gray had implanted confederates into the lynch mob in order to identify the leader. When asked about his role in the lynching, Mr. Mabbitt swore that he was not present at the event, although a few astute reports at the scene recall seeing not only Mr. Mabbitt, but his brother George as well as Luella's brothers, Monte and Orris.

On October 24, 1887, a train pulled into the station at Delphi and a young woman, heavily veiled, got off and proceeded to the baggage room, asking the clerk if her trunk had arrived. She explained that she had the trunk checked when she boarded the train at Fort Worth. Informed that her trunk had not arrived, she left the station. When her trunk finally arrived a few hours later, the young woman could not be found. The mysterious visitor never returned for the trunk. (14)

Not much was heard again of the Mabbitt family until December of 1890, when newspapers reported that two brothers of Luella- Monte and Orris Mabbitt- were arrested in Indianapolis for the murder of a newborn baby, which they drowned in Eagle Creek by tying a weighted rubber boot around its neck. The child was murdered to "hide the shame" of the mother, impregnated by a barber named Spilter, who gave her name as Minnie Jones to the police. Those who knew of the family identified Minnie Jones as Minnie Mabbitt- Luella's seventeen-year-old sister. In 1891, Monte bragged that he was the member of the lynch mob who fastened the rope around Abner Green's neck. (15,16,17,18)

Fate has a strange way of righting some of history's wrongs. On May 27 of 1891, George Mabbit, believed to have played a key role in the lynching, was struck by lightning and instantly killed while returning from Frankfort. (19)

In September of 1901, Jesse Martin, trustee of the Walnut Grove school, awarded a contract for the erection of a new schoolhouse. In recent years, attendance at the school had dwindled to the point of non-existence; during the fall term of 1900, only four pupils showed up for class at the Walnut Grove School in Delphi. All the teachers quit and no teachers could be found for the next school term. The only thing that was wrong with the building, it seemed, was that it was haunted by the restless spirit of Abner Green, who was hanged from the walnut tree in the schoolyard.

Abner's ghost appeared so often that the once-thriving classroom was essentially rendered uninhabitable. He was seen by teachers and students alike, and classes were plagued by inexplicable, unearthly noises. It was also noted that the walnut tree in the schoolyard, once large and healthy, never again bore foliage after the lynching.

In her later years, even Luella's identical twin sister- who positively identified the corpse at the morgue three decades earlier- had doubts about whether or not Abner Green had really killed Luella. In February of 1916, amid a new round of "Luella sightings", Elia told a reporter from the Logansport paper:

"For all I know, my sister may not have been murdered and may be living today. One night the home folks were awakened by the quarreling voices of Amer [Abner] Green and my sister down the stairs. Green was demanding the return of some presents which he had given and Luella was remonstrating. She had been called out of bed and was attired only in a pair of house slippers and a kimono. Suddenly the voices were quieted and we went back to sleep. The next morning Luella was missing and no trace of her was ever found except the torn kimono. A body found two weeks later in a creek was not identified." (20)

While the truth about Luella Mabbitt may never be known, the story of her disappearance and the subsequent lynching of Abner Green illustrates what happens when a mob decides to take justice into its own hands. Unfortunately, not a single member of the lynching party was ever prosecuted or held accountable for their actions. In the years following Green's hanging it was widely believed that Sheriff Buck Stanley had known the exact day and hour of the lynching; a fellow law enforcement officer from Logansport had even gone on record making this claim. And so ends the story of the strange disappearance of Luella Mabbitt, the belle of Delphi and the pride of Walnut Grove.

Marlin Bressi is a freelance writer, creator of the Pennsylvania Oddities blog, and author of the book Hairy Men in Caves: True Stories of America's Most Colorful Hermits.