Hell’s Half Acre. This was a term almost synonymous with Whitley county for some years before the Civil war, reaching its height of degeneracy during the war period, and even yet is regarded as a term of reproach. Forty or fifty years ago, mention of this fearful place was enough to scare any boy of fifteen, under the bed.
Its fame extended not only all over northern Indiana but into other states. The exact location of the place was not understood, but the swamps, heavy timber and thickets of south-west Columbia township and extending into Richland, were supposed to be alive with thieves and marauders.
Three different vigilance committees were organized and incorporated under the laws of Indiana, for the purpose of cleaning out the Half Acre, one in Richland township, one in Cleveland township, and one in Troy township. Each member was, by the authorities, vested with the rights of a constable, to make arrests, and it was generally understood that if he abused the legal right of an officer and overstepped his duty, he would in no way be brought to book for it. They were supposed to be a secret, oathbound organization, and the weird story of what they were doing was overestimated as much as were the fanciful stories of what the denizens of the place themselves were doing.
The place was really located on the spot of the Indian village in section 20, Columbia township, and began to be notorious about the time the Indian history was dying out, some few straggling Indians being still about the place to add to its mysterious horrors.
George Helms moved on the north-west quarter of section 20, early in the 40’s, the farm now owned by the Korts, Harrison Dowell lived a mile south. They were always quarreling and always involved in law suits. Helms was regarded as a very desperate character. He was vulgar and profane to the extreme, was very insulting to women and was charged with several very serious offences. He would go away for weeks at a time, and return with a lot of money. Every crime in the catalogue was imputed to him. Others might commit any crime from murder to counterfeiting and on down to petit larceny, and George Helms get the credit.
Many stories have gained currency from time to time as to the origin of the expression, when and how it came to be called Hell’s Half Acre. The exact fact is this: In the early winter of 1849, Sanford Mosher came to Ben Beeson’s blacksmithshop on Main street, on the bank of Blue river. Helms and Dowell had a lawsuit that day in Columbia, which was the general topic of conversation. The late Harmon Beeson was also at the blacksmithshop and began twitting Mosher about his quarrelsome neighbors and finally said: “There is a place down in Kentucky they call ‘Hell’s Half Acre,’ they must have moved it up here.” The expression raised a great laugh among the bystanders, which Mosher appreciated as much as any one, and the neighborhood received a name from which nearly sixty years has not divested it.
Though the family name of Helms was very intimately associated with the Half Acre they were by no means the only ones, but it was left to Howard, son of George Helms, and his cousin, Sam Helms, to give the place a reputation for feckless daring and public, open and notorious defiance of law and law officers. George Helms’ two sons, George and Howard, were not regarded as worse boys than their neighbors. Indeed, in contradistinction to their father, they were generally called good boys, and their natures chafed seriously under the tyrannical domination of their father.
Early in the Civil war, they both enlisted and entered the service, and had they not come home on a furlough their history might have been different, but they came home with the full intention of returning. The father did all in his power to prevent their returning to the service. They took counsel from Orrin Mosher and others, who urged them to return to duty and observe their oath of allegiance, but the very atmosphere was surcharged with excitement engendered by war, and a spirit of hostility to persons with hereditary criminal natures, about being deserters, and the boys chose the wrong course and became at once fugitives and outlaws.
Now began an era of crime beside which all former exploits of the Acre were tame. Howard Helms was captain, his brother George an able lieutenant and they had plenty of followers and assistants. Withal, there was something about Howard that attracted men to him, perhaps his reckless daring and fidelity to his friends. He always said he had as close friends among the vigilance committees as he had inveterate enemies, and that they always gave him warning of an attempt to get him, either by direct word or by some sign, and said that he would once have been caught unawares before for the signal could be made to fire. For several years he defied federal officers with warrants in their pockets when they knew where he was and he frequently went from the fastnesses of the Acre to Columbia City and other towns. The old criminal docket of Whitley county is burdened with causes against him and his associates, and constables and sheriffs had their pockets full of warrants, which they made but feeble attempt to pretend to serve and thus crime went on in defiance of all law. Indictments for larceny, resisting officers, assault, riot, etc., were but idle mockery.
George Deer, Joseph, George and Mathias Slessman, from Columbia City, once undertook to arrest Howard. They had learned to a certainity that he was at Lawrence Manier’s house, section 20, farm now owned by Jules Romey. The Eel River Railroad now runs directly where the house stood. It was torn down on building the railroad, He saw them when within a few paces of the house and struck off south-east toward Harrison Dowell’s; they rode out the lane and turned south toward him. They called, halt! but he moved on. Then one of the party shot to scare. He was more than twenty rods from them and deliberately took aim and shot to kill. The bullet whizzed past Joe George’s head. They ran out of the road to see the dust raise from the second shot on the spot where they had stood, and the expedition ended.
The provost marshal made one attempt to arrest him. With a large posse of mounted men and with the knowledge that he was at Harrison Dowell’s house, they started in high glee. As they neared the house Dowell came rushing in exclaiming: “My God, Howard, the lane is full of men on horses! For God’s sake, Howard, go!” He walked right out with a big navy revolver, his finger on the trigger, and the weapon across his arm, and when they came within a rod or two of him he said calmly, “Gentlemen, what do you want?” The marshal said: “We are looking for Jake Long.” Harrison retorted: “I am the Jake Long you are looking for.” The marshal said again: “No, no, we want Jake Long.” Howard then coolly said: “Gentlemen, turn around and go back. I am not guilty of murder and don't want to be, but will shoot dead the first man in your party who attempts to draw a gun. I have no ill will against you, but you’ll not take Howard Helms this time.” They all quietly turned and left as they were bidden to do.
Early one morning as Hiram Mosher went to the field to work he heard a voice calling him. He looked around and saw Howard Helms sitting on the fence stark naked. “What is the matter,” said the boy. “Oh, the regulators were after me last night. I heard the signal of two shots from one of the party and got out of the house into the woods. They soon swarmed all around me and I just had to crawl into an old elm tree uprooted. I crawled into it and had to lay in mud and water, up to my face. John Anderson, one of my worst enemies, was so near me twice that I could have caught him by the leg, and it seemed so funny I had a notion to do it. I am now waiting for my clothes to dry, but some of them may yet be prowling around and as I am not in good shape to defend myself I guess I’ll get off the fence and squat by that log.” He had not thus concealed himself three minutes until Erastus Rollins rode up and accosting the boy said: “When did you see Howard Helms?” “Yesterday,” said the boy, which was true. “If I ever get sight of him I’ll shoot him on the spot,” and then he moved off. Howard said laughingly, “I had a notion to come out naked as I was, with a stick in my hand and point it at him and scare him white-headed, but I was afraid there might be a lot more of them around and I am not just now hunting trouble.”
The store of Combs & Edwards, at South Whitley, was robbed, but not a window was opened or door unlocked or broken in. Some one who knew all about the place, conducted the thieves under the floor and up through an opening. George Williams, who was said to be a “Hawpatch horse thief and counterfeiter,” was supposed to belong to the gang. He was taken from a sick bed to the “red brush” schoolhouse in Richland township, a rope was put about his neck and threatened with death if he did not tell all. The best they could get out of him was, “I feel sick enough to die anyhow and you can just finish up the job if you want to,” but they didn’t and they learned nothing.
A few days after, as Orrin and Sanford Mosher were striking a bee-line below Taylor’s station or Wynkoop, in section 30, they heard noises in the swamp and listening, distinguished who they were, and that they were quarreling over a coat and other things. Howard and the fellow the regulators didn’t hang were two of them. Orrin went quickly to Peter Snyder’s and had him go to Comb’s and Edwards at South Whitley and tell then to meet Orrin and San Mosher at Eliakim Mosher’s, just after dark, and they would conduct them to the place of the stolen goods. Nobody came, perhaps Combs and Edwards were afraid of some trap, as they went instead to their lawyer. Three days after, Howard Helms appeared at Sanford Mosher’s and brandishing a revolver, said: “Some Mosher has told on us, and if I can find out which one it was I will blow his brains out.”
Anderson Grimes had a fine set of double harness stolen, and the regulators offered ten dollars for their recovery. Soon after, Sanford Mosher, out hunting, saw a man carrying a set of harness, but he soon disappeared in the thicket. The next day, taking Orrin with him, they found the harness concealed in a hollow tree. They sent for John Anderson, leader of the regulators, and he took the harness and paid the reward.
These are but a very few of the incidents of the terrible years when “Hell’s Half Acre” held mad riot in the center of Whitley county; but with the coming of more settlers and the strengthening of the power of the law, the clearing of the swamps and hiding places the on-rushing tide of progress must necessarily clean out such festering places.
No one knew this better than the Helms boys. George left some time before Howard and went to Ohio. Howard went from here to La Otto, Dekalb county, in 1867 or 1868, and married there, George going there, too.
There began a new era of depredation. They gathered about them other thieves and tribute was levied by night on the country for anything that could be hauled to Fort Wayne and turned into cash, or could be used by the gang at home; but the fame of Helms traveled thither and the ravishing of that neighborhood was not of very long duration.
One night as Howard was out scouting, as he termed; crossing a road he found himself in the midst of a troop of horsemen. They asked him if he knew Howard Helms. To say he did not would be to arouse suspicion, for his terrible name was on the lops of all the settlers. Yes, he had heard a great deal of him, but never saw him. “Well,” said the leader, “he is at the house below the cross-roads two miles down and we are going to get him tonight.” He could easily save himself, but all thought was of his brother George, whom he knew was sleeping in that house. Quick as thought, he said: “I want to go along and help take him.” “We want all the help we can get,” the leader said, “but you have no horse and we are in a hurry and it is nearly two miles down there.” “If you don’t ride too fast I will keep up,” said Howard, and he never made two miles so quick in his life.
Arriving at the place, the captain caused the men to surround the house some thirty rods from it and then move cautiously to the center. Howard stayed near the captain, whom he took for a coward, and he felt if he were out of the way the others would flee in terror. He thought the time had come to kill his man. When about ten rods from the house he gave the double shot, to warn George and wound the captain and not kill him unless further events necessitated it. Two shots, frantic yells, and the captain wounded in the leg and all was confusion and excitement, terror took the place of discipline. Just then George, fleeing from the house ran right up to Howard, and before the frenzied crowd knew what had happened, the brothers were out of their reach and made their way to Michigan. Howard, later, came after his wife and they made their home in Michigan.
After he had gone to Michigan, three Whitley county regulators, armed with a belated warrant and stimulated by the promise of a reward, undertook to capture him. He was at his uncle Dowell’s. Just after dark, one evening, Dowell came in and said: “Howard, there are three men from Indiana, regulators, right here.” Howard immediately jumped out of the back window and stood there with his navy revolver ready for fire. They filed in the house, two within range of his gun. His first impulse was to shoot all three, so enraged was he that they should follow him for the reward and after all deserters had been freed, and he waited till all would come within range so he might despatch them. Nothing happened, they stood seemingly amazed and he stood with cocked gun until he got tired and walked away. One of these men still lives in Whitley county.
Both the boys settled down and became good, respectable citizens. George was elected sheriff of Lake county, Michigan, a few years ago and made a good officer. He still lives in that county. Howard, after several years’ respectable residence in Michigan, moved to Wisconsin, where he still lives. By an accident, while out hunting a few years ago, he lost a leg.
Hell’s Half Acre of a half century ago with its swamp, morass and wilderness has become a beautifully cultivated country of elegant farms and pretty homes, good, intelligent and law-abiding citizens, and life and property are as secure as anywhere in the world, not a cabin or landmark by which to remember the days of Indian sloth and drunkenness, nor yet of the sterner days when Helms was a name to be feared and dreaded.