Happy June, everyone! The Archives staff has been hard at work cataloging records during the month of May. We hope to get back to more consistent updates soon.
Though our volunteer, Jessica Newell, is preparing for graduate school, she is still contributing to the Clerk’s Archives. She submitted this piece that she uncovered while working on the inventory of 19th century criminal cases.
This case involving an accusation of disturbing the peace, dated 1869, is an interesting example of social norms in Evansville during that period. It also contains glimpses of the forthcoming battles with the temperance movement over the role of alcohol in the community.
“Divers Loud and Unusual Noises Did Make:”Disturbing the Peace in Nineteenth-Century Evansville, Indiana
The documents within the Clerk’s Archives capture in silent print the personalities and passions of the citizens involved in their creation. One of the most important tasks of the archivist is to take these bits of ink and paper and give them back their voices. One box of records, dating from 1869, garnered a case both humorous and enlightening. Joseph Geiger’s indictment for nuisance in the Vanderburgh County Criminal Court offers a glimpse into the seedy underside of nineteenth-century Evansville and local authorities’ efforts to quell dissipation and unruly behavior.
In the summer of 1869 Joseph Geiser owned a home in the city of Evansville that doubled as his lively place of business. According to extant court records, he engaged in a thriving sale of alcohol in a convivial atmosphere. His tavern-like establishment perhaps would not have attracted much notice had he refrained from hosting amateur theatrics in the building as well. The boisterous quality of the productions alerted the local constabulary who arrested Geiger for a variety of infractions underneath two formal complaints: one for illegal liquor sale and the other for what the court termed “nuisance.”
Geiser appeared multiple times before the Vanderburgh Criminal Court for infringements regarding alcohol. He stood accused of selling liquor to minors and also selling on Sunday against county and state law:
“The Grand Jury, impaneled, sworn and charged, to inquire for the State of Indiana in and for the body of the County of Vanderburgh upon their oath present and charge: that on Sunday the 25th day of July A.D. 1869 at and in the County of Vanderburgh aforesaid Joseph Geiser did then and there unlawfully sell one gill of intoxicating Liquor to John Marchant for the sum of five cents.” [i]
Although the document attests that Geiser possessed a liquor license, it did not protect him from being charged with other infractions. Geiser’s folder includes several citations pertaining to liquor. His case is one of at least twenty similar cases in the box dating from 1869. The frequency of cases indicates that perhaps Evansville experienced a rise in the illegal consumption and sale of liquor, the local authorities had intensified their efforts to curtail these activities, or that both phenomena were occurring at the same time.
However, this particular case is not so commonplace. Geiser did not merely run a common gin shop. Accompanying the citations for illegal alcohol sales is a complaint against him for “nuisance,” the equivalent of disruption of the peace. Sales from Geiser’s bar fueled the artistic impulses of his patrons. The county court accused Geiser of “unlawfully keeping maintaining and exhibiting a certain low, common, and indecent performance, called a theatrical performance, at which divers lewd persons, clowns and buffoons, unlawfully enacted farces, comedies and pantomimes.” [ii] On every day of the week, including Sunday, Geiser would host what amounted to coarse vaudeville performances in a theater of his own. The court clerk derisively underlines the phrase “theatrical performance” in the record and thereby distinguishing it from the respectable entertainment provided by city theaters such as the Victory. The sights and sounds of the performances disturbed the neighborhood and alerted the authorities. The complaint lists Charles Keller, Henry F. Muller and others as witnesses who came forth to charge Geiser in the interests of the other residents on the street.
Geiser’s customers, their creativity augmented by drink, staged productions of their own devising. The actors would “put themselves into divers indecent postures; and then and there unlawfully hallooed, bellowed and roared and made a great clamor and outcry.” [iii] Undoubtedly the crowd would grow and the entire company could be heard from a great distance. The audience seemed to never wane in enthusiasm. They expressed their approval by “shouting, clapping their hands, and stamping their feet,” all the while “drinking, tippling, cursing, swearing and using indecent and obscene language.” [iv] For the Vanderburgh County Criminal Court, Geiser’s establishment embodied unacceptable licentiousness within the community.
Unfortunately, the record does not indicate Geiser’s exact fate at the hands of the law. It is certain at the very least that he would have faced a fine for the liquor charges as others did in similar cases. The preliminary paperwork before his trial has been discovered thus far. The only hint available as to the events of the trial is a paper signed by Geiser that requests a different judge to hear his case. He attests that he cannot have a fair and impartial trial “on account of the bias and prejudice” of the Honorable Andrew L. Robinson. [v] It is unclear whether Geiser asked for another judge before the trial or after the trial had commenced. It is interesting to note that several other cases in the 1869 box include the same documentation against the impartiality of Judge Robinson. Further study could attempt to capture the courtroom conduct of the judge and determine why defendants were loath to appear before him.
The case against Geiser’s drunken home theater is one of thousands of stories held within the Vanderburgh County Archives that reflect the standards of behavior during their time in the looking glass of law. Geiser’s establishment symbolized the antithesis of polite society in the Victorian age. His patrons delighted in viewing indelicate entertainment usually not permitted before the public gaze. Instead, it is evident that a substantial number of people, characterized as belonging to the lower levels of society, witnessed the plays over strong drink. A correlation might be drawn between the crowds that gathered at Geiser’s house on a daily basis and financial hardship in the city at large. The case dates from only a few years after the conclusion of the Civil War. Further study might indicate if Evansville in 1869 experienced an influx of soldiers and civilians looking for employment amidst economic depression. A large population looking for distraction might account for the popularity of the theatrics.
In addition, the sheer volume of alcohol sales by Geiser, along with the sale to minors and on Sundays, perhaps attracted the ire of reformers. The temperance movement remained present in Evansville from the nineteenth century through Prohibition in the early twentieth. This case would have constituted a prime example of the negative consequences of alcohol. Intoxication meant the disappearance of inhibitions, and in the case of Geiser’s customers a precursor to dramatic soliloquies before an eager audience. Perhaps temperance supporters contributed to the charges levelled against Geiser in court.
The case against Joseph Geiser during the June 1869 term of the Vanderburgh Criminal Court is but one of thousands of intriguing stories waiting to be discovered in the Clerk’s Archives that preserve the echoes of people otherwise lost to the passage of time.
[i] State of Indiana v. Joseph Geiser (Vanderburgh County Criminal Court August 26, 1869).