Unseen Malady

Thomas Clark was hungry.

A lot of people think they’ve been hungry because they skipped lunch one afternoon, but that’s not hunger. Hunger is not remembering when you last ate, and not knowing when you’re going to eat again. True hunger is like an animal, clawing and barking and snapping, demanding to be fed.

The beast makes you weak. It can soften minds and shatter spirits. People will do nearly anything to keep it at bay, like a desperate man fleeing from an angry mob. People have eaten shoe leather, bark, grass, and even dirt, when they got desperate enough.

Thomas Clark wasn’t there yet, but it wouldn’t take too much longer.

He had been running through the backwoods of Huntington County, Indiana for about three days. He wore a nice suit; his Sunday best. After wading through creeks and slogging through muddy fields, it wasn’t anymore.

His hands and his left leg ached, and they were getting worse. He needed help, but no one in the county wanted to give him that. Instead, they chased him where ever he went, and a lot of places he hadn’t been yet.

Thomas had to be careful, but the hunger and the pain were driving him to desperation. With so many people looking for him, his first instinct was probably to run. Flee and get away from everyone as fast as he could.

But in his condition, Thomas couldn’t. He needed a place to hide, to heal. But there weren’t many that were going to do that for him, not even family.

A short time before, he had tried to get to his brother’s house. Surely his own brother would help him, at least let him sleep in the barn and give him something to eat.

While his brother might have, his nephew was a different matter. When the young man saw his uncle coming toward the house, he got a shotgun. Thomas was no fool and immediately hid behind a nearby tree. The nephew, afraid of what grim business Thomas might be on, fired a blast into the air to rouse the attention of his father.

Thomas could take a hint, and ran away. He’d find no shelter there.

Tom Clark, Fort Wayne Journal Gazette
Thomas Clark. Courtesy of the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette

Now, here he was, walking down a lonely stretch of road, hungry and tired. He had been on the run before, and knew what to expect. Only that time, he hadn’t been hurt. The whole thing had gone better. Thomas had survived and even thrived, escaping his pursuers with relative ease.

That time, he had ample motivation not to be caught. He didn’t want to go back to … that place, that awful, awful place. They had had treated him so badly there. He wouldn’t ever go back there again, not if he could help it.

Of course, this time he had good reason to run, too. This time, there wouldn’t be a cell; this time there’d be a rope.

As Thomas walked, a truck made its way steadily down the road. He didn’t really pay much mind to it, until it pulled up alongside of him.

The man behind the wheel was Cecil Jackson, a storekeeper from the nearby town of Jackson Center, and riding with him was a younger man named Jesse Bevens. The last thing in the world Thomas wanted was to be recognized, and, unfortunately, he had known Jackson for years.

The three men talked for a bit, and Jackson offered him a ride. Thomas politely refused, and asked them not to tell anyone else that they had seen him. Jackson and Bevens agreed, and they parted company. But Jackson and Bevens had no intention of letting Thomas go.

They drove to the next farmhouse, where Jackson asked the farmer living there if he could borrow a shotgun. After explaining why, the farmer was only too happy to comply and handed it over.

In the last three days, there had been almost 150 men out looking for Thomas Clark, but with absolutely no luck. Now they had him. After what he had done, they weren’t about to just let him go.

Quickly, they drove back down the road where they had last seen him. Sure enough, he was still there, making his way steadily forward. Bevens and Jackson drove past him, making their way to the next farm along the road. They got out, secreted the shotgun, and started to pretend that they were brokering a deal for produce.

Soon enough, they saw Clark shuffling toward them. When he got close enough, Jackson took out the shotgun and held it on him, telling him not to move.

Clark could have protested. He could have fought. But he was just too damn tired. With hardly a word, he surrendered. A three-day manhunt for the most wanted man in Huntington County had just come to an end.

Three days before, Clark had been fighting with his wife, Lillie. They lived on a farm near Huntington, Indiana, with three of their sons – Herbert, Dale, and Homer.

Although they had been married for over 20 years, for some of that time, Clark had been a patient at the Eastern Indiana Hospital for the Insane, or, as it was better known, Easthaven.

Why Thomas was originally sent there has been lost to history. In the early 20th Century, there were several reasons why a person could be sent to a psychiatric hospital. At that time, there was still much that wasn’t known or understood, which led to many people being sent to asylums for illnesses that might be easily, or at least be better, treated in the modern world.

Standard treatments of the age could include electroshock therapy, lobotomies, and ice water baths. It was these latter that Thomas would come to revile and fear the most.

Thomas hated being an inmate at Easthaven. It wasn’t so much that he was a patient there; he seemed to be okay with that. Rather, it was the ill treatment that he received at their hands.

He claimed that they choked and kicked him. The worst part were the baths, where they would plunge him into a near-boiling tub of water, immerse him, and then sling him out and directly into another tub full of ice-water.

After several sessions of this, he pled with the head doctor there to stop, essentially asking the man, “What would your mother think?” The doctor, apparently moved, stopped the sessions.

Still, life at Easthaven was intolerable for Thomas and he escaped in the early 1920’s. On the run, he lived off the land, stealing food here and there and evading capture by staying off the main roads and sticking to the back country.

For months he was able to evade capture, eventually fleeing the region and going to another state. But, in 1922, he came back.

Sometime in late Summer or early Fall of that year, Thomas Clark returned. He knew that if he was caught, he’d be sent back to the asylum, and he had no desire to return there.

Instead, he approached his wife, who he asked to intercede with the authorities on his behalf. She did, and Thomas was declared cured. He happily returned home to his family and life on the farm.

However, things had changed.

His wife, Lillie, had become known in Huntington. Although the area newspapers politely referred to her as being “known” about the town, the insinuation of her behavior between the lines did not make it seem like anything wholesome.

She came into Huntington frequently, and was often seen in the company of an unsavory woman who was known only by her nickname. Although no details were ever given, the attitude toward the two implies that they weren’t doing anything that would be considered PG-13.

Not to throw any shade on anyone’s character here, the truth is that the exact nature of what they were doing may never be known. Perhaps they liked to dance the Charleston and wear flapper dresses, and the people writing for the papers were completely against that. Or, they may have actually been drinking copious amounts of bootleg whiskey and sleeping with anything that moved.

Whatever they were doing, people were talking, and it eventually reached the ears of Thomas Clark.

Needless to say, Thomas didn’t like his wife going to Huntington. He accused her of having affairs, not only to her face but to several other people, as well. He was convinced that she was sleeping around, and he wasn’t happy.

Lillie had concerns of her own about Thomas as well. She wasn’t worried so much about him sleeping around, as she was about his mental health.

Lillie approached a local doctor about his condition, and to see if it wouldn’t be a good idea to recommit him to Easthaven. Apparently, whatever had caused his initial commitment had resurfaced, if it had ever really gone away at all.

It was only a matter of time before something gave between the two. Finally, on November 16, it did.

That morning, Lillie asked Thomas to go and clean the basement. Their teenage sons, Herbert and Dale, were in the field working, while Homer was at school.

Thomas dutifully cleaned the basement, but Lillie told him that the furnace room also needed to be cleaned. He disagreed, which made her angry. The two began to argue, and all of the pain and rage that had been festering inside the two came out in a rush.

Lillie told him to stop telling people that she had been having affairs, and that if he didn’t, she’d kill him. During another part of the argument, she told him that he should kill all of the children so that they wouldn’t suffer from the same mental illness that he did.

At the height of it, Lillie grabbed a pitchfork and hit Thomas with it. That was enough.

Taking a piece of firewood, Thomas swung it viciously at his wife. It hit home, knocking her to the floor. He followed her down, striking her again and again and again. Lillie Clark was dead, beaten to death by her husband.

As their mother lie in a spreading pool of blood in the basement, Thomas Clark made his sons breakfast and also made their lunches. This was usually done by Lillie, so while it seemed a little off, it wasn’t enough to worry them.

Clark Home, Star Press
The Clark Home. Thomas Clark murdered his wife here in the basement furnace room in 1922. Courtesy of the Star Press

The day passed, and Thomas waited.

While Herbert and Dale were in the fields, Homer made his way into the house from school. Thomas and his youngest were alone in the house.

Taking him down in the basement, Thomas Clark used a hammer to crush the boy’s skull, all because his wife had told him to do it. Although he had planned to kill all of his children, Thomas instantly felt bad after killing Homer and decided against it.

Instead, he made preparations to burn Lillie’s body. When he was asked about it later, Clark claimed that he hadn’t intended to hide his crimes, but he did it because a mysterious and unnamed “someone” had told him to.

At first, Thomas tried to carry the body out of the house, but Lillie’s corpse was too heavy to manage. Instead, he took some wire and wrapped it around her ankle, using it to drag her up the stairs and out the door.

Thomas took her into an old house on the property that they used for a chicken coup. Leaving her on the main floor, he returned to the other house and retrieved Homer’s body, taking it to the second floor of the chicken coup.

He threw some boards and railroad ties on Lillie’s body, then soaked the whole pile in gasoline. As he did, some of the liquid splashed on Thomas’ pants. Once finished, he struck a match and threw it on.

All at once, the pile erupted into a ball of orange flame, catching his hands and pants on fire where the gas had spilled earlier.

Thomas quickly put himself out, but he had already received some nasty burns. That was okay, though. He knew the old house would burn and consume the bodies of his wife and son, while he would go to Missouri.

He went inside and changed into his best Sunday outfit, then went upstairs to wake up his son Dale. Thomas told him to get out of bed and drive him to his uncle’s house. He further explained to his son that Lillie had left, and that Dale was to answer the phone and talk to anyone calling the house.

Thomas asked for the car key, but Dale explained to him that the vehicle had next to no gas in it, and that they wouldn’t make it far.

Apparently, Thomas didn’t care, because he grabbed Dale and started to pull him out of bed. The young man got up and started to get ready. As he did, he noticed that the chicken coup was on fire as he passed a nearby window.

Clark Chicken Coup
The old house on the Clark farm that they used as a chicken coup. The burnt remains of Lillie Clark were found on the main floor, while the body of 8-year-old Homer Clark were found on the second story. Courtesy of the Star Press

Yelling to his father that there was a fire, Dale rushed over and woke up Herbert, then went outside. Grabbing a bucket, he filled it with water and ran inside, throwing it on the flame. He and Herbert repeated this several times, running into the house and through the billowing smoke to save the structure.

As the fire died down and the smoke began to clear, they noticed that there were a pair of woman’s shoes jutting from underneath the pile of old timber. As they looked closer, they realized that it was their mother.

Herbert began to vomit. Dale, in shock, gently grabbed his brother and guided him out of the house. Meanwhile, Thomas had fled on foot.

Three days later, Thomas was actually a little happy to have been captured.

It had rained, which, when combined with the fall temperatures, had often left him feeling cold and damp. Now he was finally warm and, more importantly, had a full stomach.

He told his side of the story openly, not holding anything back. While he seemed a little confused on the details of some of the events, Thomas didn’t really seem to mind talking about it.

Clark’s family were all afraid of him, especially Herbert and Dale. They were worried that Thomas was going to come back and kill them all, no matter what he said.

An investigation of the crime scene had been conducted while Thomas was on the run, and all of the relevant witnesses had been interviewed. The county prosecutor was convinced that Clark had premeditated the whole thing, and was determined that justice was going to be done.

Thomas stopped talking about the murders, stating that he couldn’t remember what had happened. This was thought to be a strategy being used by his defense attorneys, who were thought to be trying for an insanity defense. The prosecutor, for his part, didn’t believe it for a moment.

Thomas Clark was indicted for two counts of murder, but, before the trial could begin, it had to be proven that he was sane enough to stand trial.

In February 1923, Clark was examined by doctors in Huntington. At the conclusion of their interview and tests, it was found that Thomas Clark was unfit to stand trial by reason of insanity. He was remanded to the custody of the Indiana Hospital for Insane Criminals in Michigan City, Indiana, where he spent the rest of his life.

Thomas Clark was consumed by mental illness. While he could function mostly normally and seemed alright to most people he came into contact with, he had issues that no one could see.

He had tried to get help, but instead found abuse at the hands of those who were supposed to help him. Escaping, he eventually went to the place that we all want to go: home.

But home had changed so much. Without the help that he so desperately needed, Thomas’ illness began to consume those around him, as well, leading him to murder his wife and innocent son.

When he was in jail, authorities stated that he was a model prisoner. He didn’t cause any commotion, and became a trusted and valuable individual. Thomas even showed a gift for dealing with his fellow mentally ill prisoners, even the most violent ones. He was gentle, and it might have been hard to believe that he, like those he dealt with, was criminally insane.

But he was. Thomas was legitimately sick, suffering from an unseen malady that had cost the lives of two of his loved ones.

Perhaps, in a new, controlled environment, Thomas Clark received the help that he so desperately needed.

 

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Sources

 

Posse Chasing Huntington Murderer. The Huntington Herald, 11/16/1922

Huntington County Posse Hunts For Murderer. The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, 11/16/1922

Mother and Son Slain and Posse Seek For Father. The Star Press, 11/16/1922

Posses Look For Alleged Slayer. The Indianapolis News, 11/16/1922

Woman and Child Murdered. The Huntington Press, 11/16/1922

Murder Victim’s Funeral Today. The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, 11/17/1922

Clark Leads His Pursuers on Wild Chase Through Bottom Lands and Along Wabash. Palladium-Item, 11/17/1922

Bury Victims Of Double Murderer. The South Bend Tribune, 11/17/1922

Murderer Remains at Large. The Huntington Press, 11/17/1922

Manhunt is Shifted to Grant County. The Huntington Herald, 11/17/1922

Search For Alleged Slayer is Continued. The Indianapolis News, 11/17/1922

Clark is Caught at Hartford City. The Fort Wayne Sentinel,11/18/1922

Clark Seen Near Anderson. The Huntington Press, 11/18/1922

Thomas Clark Caught Near Roll, Ind. The Huntington Herald, 11/18/1922

‘She Struck Me First,’ Clark ‘He Is Sane,’ Haller Infers. The Huntington Press, 11/19/1922

Thomas Clark, Wife Murderer, Gives Self Up. The Star Press, 11/19/1922

Indictment of Clark, Insane Slayer, Will Be Asked of Jury. Palladium-Item, 11/20/1922

Grand Jury To Probe Murder. The Fort Wayne Sentinel, 11/20/1922

Slayer is Suffering From Burns. The Huntington Herald, 11/20/1922

Clark is Still In Grave Condition. The Fort Wayne Sentinel, 11/21/1922

Clark Has Chance of Recovering. The Huntington Herald, 11/21/1922

Indictment is Expected Today. The Fort Wayne Sentinel, 11/22/1922

Confessed Slayer Adopts New Pose. The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, 11/23/1922

Wife Murderer Now in New Role. The Star Press, 11/23/1922

Serves Warrant on Clark Today. The Fort Wayne Sentinel, 11/24/1922

Mind is Blank as to Murder. The Fort Wayne Sentinel, 11/29/1922

“Irresponsible,” Pleads Murderer. The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, 11/28/1922

Clark Declares Whiskey Cause of Murders. The Huntington Herald, 12/14/1922

Examine Thomas Clark As to His Sanity. The Huntington Herald, 2/20/1923

To Examine Clark Again Thursday. The Huntington Herald, 2/21/1923

Clark Sent to Criminal Insane Hospital. The Huntington Herald, 2/23/1923

Court Declares Thomas Clark Insane. The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, 2/24/1923

United States Census Records

www.findagrave.com

Indiana, Death Certificates, 1899-2011

www.asylumprojects.org

 

 

 

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