Thursday, January 26, 2017

John Ricker and his "she-devil wife," Sidanah


Considerably more than a century has passed since children in the Old Greenville neighborhood  --- down southeast of Russell --- have been sent off to bed on cold winter nights with tales fresh in their heads of old John Ricker and his "she-devil wife," Sidanah, shared by lamplight around the stove.

To hear Henry Gittinger tell it, youngsters "dreaded to go to sleep for fear that John and Sidney (sic) might steal out from under the trundle bed and cut off their heads. Often did the writer feel of his head to see if he was intact the next morning after one of those recitals."

Henry recounted this bit of lore in The Chariton Leader of April 27, 1905 --- one of a number of references he made over the years to the nefarious couple.  It was Henry who branded the unfortunate Sidanah a "she-devil," based on the assumption that she was complicit in her husband's evil deeds.

Had he not thusly ensured their immortality it is likely that this episode of Lucas County history would have faded entirely collective memory.

But make no mistake about it, the Rickers were real people who lived in Washington Township for roughly 10 years, from 1853 until 1863, then vanished, by some accounts overnight. Legend has it that they left behind the remains of a victim, partially dissolved in quicklime, under their pioneer cabin and were never heard from again.

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John Ricker made a cameo appearance here on Monday in a post entitled "Charley Noble: From Lincoln to Roosevelt."  In reporting on a political debate near Greenville during the fall of 1860, when Lincoln and Douglas were vying for the presidency, Henry reported that Charley, "On nearing the 'Corners' ... ran into a group of men quarreling as to which was the smarter man.... The question was discussed vehemently on both sides and a free-for-all fight ensued. Finally there was a thunder of imprecations and curses heard above the din of battle and the notorious John Ricker, the terror of Honey Creek, appeared on the scene and branded each and all Douglas men rebels and liars, crackling his fists together and frothing at the mouth."

Some seven years earlier, during 1853, the Rickers had made a lasting impression on their pioneer neighbors upon arrival in Washington Township, according to Leander O. "Tip" McKinley. McKinley, son of Samuel and Mary, was 10 years old at the time and had arrived with his parents from Indiana during 1848.

Here's how Leander told the story 46 years later, in a letter dated Aug. 12, 1899, written at his home in Miller, South Dakota, and mailed to Henry, who was editor of a long-vanished Russell newspaper at the time.

"A peculiar writ of ejectment was served on Wyley Knight by John Ricker in 1853. Jonathan Rowlans entered 160 acres of land on Honey Creek (afterwards known as the Fisher farm) in 1851. He sold the place to John Ricker early in 1853; was to give Ricker possession in the fall. Rowlans rented the place to Knight until his time was out and Ricker should have possession.

"Ricker came on a few days before Knight's time was out and demanded possession, which Knight refused to give. Ricker then swore if he didn't get out he would burn him out, and went to the barn, set the hay on fire, which consumed the barn and all of Knight's feed he had prepared for winter. Ricker then threatened to set the house on fire, but Knight got out and Ricker was arrested."

"This," McKinley wrote, "was the introduction the people had of Ricker."

Nathan Kendall, another Washington Township pioneer whose home was on a high hill overlooking the farm where the Rickers settled to the north, added a few details in a letter published in The Leader of October 3, 1907. Sadly, this paper is torn at a crucial point and the paragraph I'm quoting from is not entirely legible:

"In the year of 1853, there came a man from Indiana, settled and built a habitation just at the north edge of the little bottom on Honey Creek, north of where the bridge on the 'Mormon trace' road is now, and his name was John Ricker. In the course of about a year there came four of his brothers from the Hoosier state --- named George, Mike, Pete and Al --- and they all settled on the foothills of Honey Creek, in the brush lands, close together (on a branch of Honey Creek; at the) time this was called Ricker's Branch. There came with the Rickers (torn) Jasper Niday, and a man (torn) of Rawlins. They also (settled on the) so-called Ricker's Branch."

Nathan characterized the new arrivals this way: "To say that they were a tough lot would be putting it mildly. At that time the writer of this article was in his teens, but well does he remember the depredations that were being carried on by this band of border ruffians, and especially by the original one, John Ricker himself. He kept whisky and tobacco for sale."


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Quite a few of the Rickers make an appearance in the 1856 state census of Washington Township, along with Leander McKinley, Nathan Kendall, their families and neighbors. The John Ricker household consisted of himself, a Tennessee native, age 40; Sidanah, age 34, born in Indiana; John W. Divine, age 14, born in Ohio, whose role in this story will become evident later; Joseph M. Whitsett, 24, Rodah M. Whitsett, 21, and John H. Whitsett, age 2. I'm speculating that Joseph Whitsett was Sidanah's brother and Rodah and John, his wife and son.

Living nearby were George W. and Sarah Ricker, ages 52 and 49 respectively, with five younger people ranging in age from 21 down to 2; Peter and Nancy Ricker, ages 31 and 26 with two very young children; and a household consisting of Gidings Ricker, 24, Sarah Ricker, 38, Martin S. Ricker, 19, Sarah Ricker, 10, and John W. Ricker, perhaps 5.

But by 1860 all of the Rickers save John, enumerated as 45, and Sidanah, age 33, had moved along, some it would appear to Kansas, others perhaps back to Indiana. The third person in John's and Sidanah's home during 1860 was Elizabeth Whitsett, age 64 and perhaps Sidanah's mother. Adjoining the Ricker home were three "unoccupied" cabins --- possibly until quite recently the homes of other members of the extended Ricker family.

The neighborhood where the Rickers lived is familiar to me, but I'm not sure I can explain it --- too many of the old farms are gone and their occupants dead. A bridge still crosses Honey Creek on the old Mormon Trace road about two and a half miles southeast of Center Church. When I was a kid, Kendall descendants still lived in a small house on the old home place high upon a hill southeast of the bridge. What had been the Ricker place was immediately across the road to the north, 120 acres stretching along it in three 40s. The Lester Palmers lived there when I was small; later, the Horners --- in a big white house set back on a rise a ways from the road. The Ricker "roost," however --- home base for all that lawlessness --- was up the creek north a ways and back along a branch to the west, in the woods of the far west 40.

Recalling the site of boyhood adventures in The Leader of Jan. 2, 1913, Henry described it this way: "Up the green valley once upon a time, there had flourished a 'robber's roost.' until it was finally routed by the brave settlers and the outlaws escaped. It had been a rendezvous for rough, unprincipled men and much stolen goods had here been concealed. Even murder itself had been committed there. The ruins of the primitive castle might yet be observed. It was shunned by even the stout hearted by day and the ghosts stalked the place by night --- so it was said."


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Everyone who wrote about John Ricker and his gang had roughly the same sort of story to tell.

Henry wrote of the Rickers this way in The Leader of Jan. 15, 1920: "At that time, in a little secluded gulch not more than a half mile away (from the home of his grandfather, Xury West) John Ricker, the outlaw, had his rendezvous. And I guess if the history if it was written it would form as thrilling narrative as any pirate tale upon the Spanish main. Hard characters came and went and the gulch had a reputation. Ricker's liquor flowed freely, and the mysteries of the rendezvous kept the settlers terrorized. It was generally understood to be the headquarters of a horse thief band, until murder itself, through the way-laying of travelers, became the common report."

Leander McKinley remembered John Ricker this way: "He kept the neighborhood in a constant reign of outlawry until finally he was compelled to leave the country. He was a bold, bad man.... Ricker was accused of all the crimes (almost) known to the criminal statute."

Here's Henry again, in The Leader of July 15, 1915: "In the early days, within less than a mile of where the writer was born in Washington township, was a 'robbers' roost' maintained by an outlaw by the name of John Ricker. Desperate characters often congregated there and it was the exchange rendezvous for stolen horses. Travelers sometimes stopped there and one night a belated pilgrim was seen to ride up to the Ricker haunt --- and he never rode away."

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It seems to have taken a shooting incident at the cabin of Xury West, Henry Gittinger's grandfather and Washington Township's first and perhaps most highly respected pioneer, to set the neighborhood firmly and decisively against John Ricker, however. Until that time, his truculence had been tolerated and Sidanah was included in social gatherings of neighborhood women, reportedly suggesting on one occasion that her husband would not sell whisky unless there was a market for it among their husbands.

Although the year is not given, there's general agreement that West had most likely denounced Ricker publicly not long before the shooting occurred.

Here's how Nathan Kendall recalled the shooting and its aftermath: "It was in the night time. I would say about 9 o'clock. Some miscreant willfully shot through the window of Xury West's house, no doubt with full intent to kill him. I happened to be there that evening and heard the shot and saw the glass fall from the window, and then the man disappear on horseback in the gloaming to the west, so I know of what I say.

"The alarm was given, and the nearer neighbors who responded to the call to arms were Samuel McKinley and his boys, Abbott Kendall, Abner McKinley and a few others. After gathering at the West home there was held a council of war and to say that the excitement ran high would be a mild way of expressing it.

"By this time it was growing late, perhaps near midnight, and all present seemed to think it was John Ricker, the desperado, who had done the shooting. So it was put to a vote and carried unanimously to march down to his stronghold and call him up and have a hearing. 

"At that early day it was all open prairie and the road at that time trailed down and across the foothills, passing near where Mrs. Margaret Aldrich's farm house now stands. There was a ford on Honey Creek just east of the Ricker castle, and when we got to this ford there was another council of war held and it was decided that Leander (Tip) McKinley and the writer would be sent to the house and call Ricker up, under the pretense of buying some tobacco.

"To say it took some nerve for two young fellows to carry out the detail hardly conveys the point --- but we went forth with fear and trembling just the same. The agreement was than when we called him out and the 'reserve' saw the light, they were to rush in, which they did in good order.

"But to describe the actions of Ricker and the language used by those infuriated men would be impossible at this late day. I well remember that Isaac West came near braining Ricker with a chair. I think he was the worst feared desperado I ever saw. After we had kept him company about an hour, to his great discomfort, and giving him his orders for his future conduct, we all went home, but we did not sing a song."

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There is no specific account of the incident that finally, according to neighborhood lore, put the Rickers to flight --- and details vary. Several allege that a traveler disappeared, the neighborhood rose up, John and Sidanah fled in the night and the remains of a victim were found in the cellar of their cabin.

Here is Henry's account from Jan. 15, 1920: "The settlers rose up and John and Sidney (sic) Ricker fled --- and have not been seen or heard of since. Search was made and quick lime in the cellar, with human bones, told the story."

Here's an earlier version from Henry, published in The Leader on April 27, 1905: "No formidable steps were taken against him until a murder was reported at the robber's roost, and then only when he and his she-devil wife had fled. the search of the premises revealed dead men's bones in the cellar. they had 'taken a stranger in.' "

Leander McKinley added another twist in his 1899 letter: "He kept the neighborhood in a constant reign of outlawry until finally he was compelled to leave the country. It was supposed he murdered a boy he had living with him (John Divine), as he disappeared and was never heard of since."

Those who have been paying attention may recall that a 14-year-old lad named John Divine was indeed living with John and Sidanah Ricker when the 1856 census was taken.

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There's no way now to figure out exactly what happened so long ago in the Old Greenville neighborhood. There's little doubt that old John Ricker was a holy terror, but a murderer? And was his wife unfairly implicated in her husband's evil deeds? Who knows? This is Lucas County's oldest cold case.

No one lives in,  even especially near, the vale of Honey Creek these days --- but many pass through it bound for elsewhere. If that's you late some night and whilst crossing the bridge you look upstream and see a light in the woods along Ricker Branch --- watch out!

1 comment:

Debbie Jorgenson said...

Thanks for sharing this very interesting history of John Ricker and his "she-devil wife." In my research for my ancestors, I came across the story of my 3rd great-grandfather, Barnabas Lowell, the murdering pirate.