On the afternoon of January 20, 1922, May Lewis returned home from school. She went to find her parents, Charles and Fay. Not seeing anyone, she called out for them. No one answered. Thinking that they might be in their bedroom, she tried the door. It was shut tight, and nothing she could do would budge it.
As she worked, May began to smell gas. More than aware of the danger, she immediately went to a neighbor’s house for help. They, in turn, called the police.
Soon, two officers arrived. Finding that the gas stove had been left on, they turned it off and then went to find Charles and Fay. The two men tried their best to force open the bedroom door, but had no more success than May.
Going outside, one of them managed to open the bedroom window. Cautiously, they climbed through, and into a charnel house.
In 1922, Terre Haute, Indiana and the surrounding area was a major coal mining region.
When many people think of coal mining, it’s usually easy for them to picture stern-faced men wearing hardhats and overalls riding massive elevators down deep into the earth. There, they slave away in near pitch-black conditions, rending chunks of coal from the hard stone.
These images are usually associated with mountainous regions like West Virginia. Many people wouldn’t ever think of coal mining in the Midwest. However, it was an important and lucrative industry in many parts of the region.
Coal was an important commodity that was used all over the world. It was used to heat homes and businesses in the winter, and to fuel the boilers and engines for steamboats and trains
In Terre Haute, Indiana, coal helped to save the city and became a leading economic industry.
Prior to the Civil War, pork production contributed heavily to Terre Haute’s economy. With the rise of Chicago and Kansas City as the major meat processing areas of the Midwest, Terre Haute took a major hit and was soon in serious need of a replacement industry.
When large deposits of coal ideal for widespread iron construction and manufacture were found in a nearby county, coal was it.
Over the next several years, coal mines and iron foundries started to spring up all around the city and county. The more the industry grew, the more families and workers flocked to Terre Haute for work.
Although the iron foundries eventually shut down and went by the wayside, coal mining was still a leading industry through the early 20th century. Hundreds of men were employed in the mines over the years, and Charles Lewis was one of them.
Lewis was born in Indiana in 1888 to Norwegian parents, and was already hard at work in the coal mines of Brazil, Indiana at the age of 13. Eventually ‘Swede,’ as he was known, joined the other men extracting coal from the Indiana earth. Like many others, he fell in love, married, and settled down to start a family.
Unfortunately, his union was not necessarily a happy one. Charles and his wife, Fay, fought constantly. Even after they had May, the couple continued to fight and argue.
Eventually, the couple moved to Terre Haute. Fay stayed at home and took care of the house while Charles went back to work in the coal mines. The move did nothing for their relationship troubles, and Charles was arrested multiple times for beating his wife.
Still, both of them being gone like this was out of the ordinary. Where had they gone?
When the bedroom door swung open, May got her answer.
Inside were Charles and Fay, both dead. Both of them had their throats cut. Blood covered the walls and furniture, and pooled on the floor. Clothing had been stuffed into all the cracks around the door, which was why no one could open it. May, seeing this carnage, broke down into hysterics.
Investigators soon discovered the truth behind what had happened. For reasons that he took with him to the grave, Charles had used a butcher’s knife to cut his wife’s throat. The keen edged knife had easily passed through her neck, nearly severing her head. Judging from her position and apparent lack of distress, police determined that Fay must have been asleep when Charles had murdered her.
One part of his plan fulfilled, Charles then went and turned on the gas stove, then returned to the bedroom and stuffed the door cracks with clothes. Once satisfied, he went to the bedside, and, using the same knife, cut his own throat.
Unlike Fay, Charles did not fade away quietly. He struggled in his last moments, his blood spraying the room.
On the kitchen table, police found a note written by Charles for his daughter. In it, he asked May to forgive him for his awful crimes, and to always be a good girl. He left her $35 in the bank, as well as Fay’s jewelry. Charles concluded the letter by asking that his daughter go to live with his mother, Mary Lewis.
We can only speculate on why Charles came to the horrible conclusion that he should kill his wife and commit suicide. Although they had a rocky marriage, the couple had been together well over a decade by 1922. Was there some kind of external pressure that had spurred on the crime, or had Charles been nursing the idea over a long period of time?
The police in 1922 couldn’t find a satisfactory answer. At the point that they became involved, the motivations behind the crime had become academic. What mattered is that two people were dead, and any secrets they had were taken with them to the grave.
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Former Brazil Man Kills Wife; Ends Own Life. The Brazil Daily Times. 1/21/1922
Cuts Off Wife’s Head and Then Kills Self. The Indianapolis News, 1/21/1922
Miner Cuts Wife’s Throat and Own in Dual Tragedy. The Indianapolis Star, 1/21/1922
Taylor, Jr. Robert M., Stevens, Errol Wayne, Ponder, Mary Ann, Brockman, Paul. Indiana: A New Historical Guide. Indianapolis; Indiana Historical Society, 1989.
Lewis, Charles – Indiana Death Certificate
U.S. Federal Census Records