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The Indianapolis Civil Rights Trial which Challenged the Street Railway Company

I’ve mentioned before that I often find new blog topics while conducting research for other posts or projects. Currently, I am in the middle of a massive streetcar related project, and while researching that I ran across the topic of today’s post.


Our story takes place in June 1866. The Civil War had ended over a year before, and the city of Indianapolis was in the midst of the drawn down from the mobilization of the war years. A relatively new feature for the city was the first attempt at a streetcar system, which had been established a few years before. This first system was riddled with problems and suffered from management and operation issues. A more in-depth look at this will be saved for another day. However, the streetcar company and its policies were the stage for an early push for Civil Rights for black residents of Indianapolis.


In 1866, the streetcar company had a policy which dictated that black women were permitted to ride inside the mule drawn streetcars which were initially used in Indianapolis. The Indianapolis Daily Herald described the policy, noting on June 29, 1866, the company “permits female persons of color to ride in the street cars just like people.” However, black men were required to ride on the platform of the streetcar. Each streetcar had forward and rear platforms which were outside the enclosed portion of the vehicle.


The Daily Herald in reporting on this policy noted that many black men were understandably upset by this policy. It reported that the Civil Rights Bill pending before congress provided a possible avenue for contesting the company’s policy and that there had been discussion around the city of challenging the policy under his new law.

Indianapolis Journal, March 22, 1866

The civil rights legislation at issue was the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Proposed not long after the final passage of the 13th amendment in late 1865, the Civil Rights Act was intended to ensure that citizens of the United States were treated equally under the law, although its more immediate reason for passage was to permit former slaves and citizens of African descent an avenue for asserting their civil rights. The Act established that all persons born in the United States, regardless of race, were US citizens, “without regard to any previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude.” Further the Act allowed citizens “to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, and to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by white citizens.” The groundbreaking legislation was passed in March of 1866 (Journal article above) and was immediately vetoed by President Andrew Johnson (Lincoln had died the previous April), but Congress overrode the veto and on April 9, 1866 the Act became law. The Act was the first Civil Rights legislation passed in the United States, and some of its provisions would later appear in the 14th amendment.


On Friday, June 22, the street railway company’s policy “came to a head” as stated by the Daily Herald, which was the only local newspaper to cover the events as they unfolded. Two men, Mumford Harris and William Nichols boarded streetcar number 14 in downtown Indianapolis. Both men were black and were aware of the company’s policy. Mumford was a laborer and Nichols was a porter.

Upon boarding and taking their seats, the conductor of the streetcar ordered both men to the front platform to stand for the trip. Harris and Nichols both refused to budge. The car had begun its run, but it stopped while its crew argued with Harris and Nichols. The stationary car attracted the attention of Harry Catherwood, brother of the president of the railway, and himself the superintendent of the street railway system, who happened to be nearby. Upon boarding the car and finding that the two men refused to move to the platform, he demanded that they move. What exactly transpired between Catherwood and the two passengers is not clear, but eventually both men “indignantly” exited the streetcar.


Both men immediately filed a lawsuit against Catherwood for assault and battery. The case was filed in the city court, before the justice of the peace Charles Coulon. Harris and Nichols were represented in the action by Eben Kimball, while the company was represented by Catherwood in his position of superintendent, and William H. English, a prominent local businessman. English who had practiced law in previous years, although by the 1860s he had mostly abandoned this occupation. At the time, he was only a few years away from taking over ownership of the street railway company. In 1880 he would open the landmark English Opera House (and later hotel) on the northwest quadrant of the Circle in the heart of downtown Indianapolis.


Kimball had moved to Indianapolis in the 1862 and had been practicing law in several other states prior to his arrival in Indiana. He was described as an ardent abolitionist and Unionist, and friend and supporter of Governor Oliver P. Morton in his efforts to support President Lincoln and the Union cause during the Civil War. Kimball would later leave Indiana and continue to practice law in a variety of jurisdictions, before settling in Arkansas and being appointed to that state’s Supreme Court.


In an amazing feat of judicial expedience, the case was called before Justice Coulon a week after the incident, on September 28. When the trial opened, English immediately moved the court to exclude the testimony of Harris and Nichols. The grounds for the motion are not recorded, although it likely had to do with their race. Kimball responded that it was established precedent that since the passage of the Civil Rights Bill a few months before, black residents were permitted to testify in court proceedings. This was not the first time this issue had been raised in Indianapolis. James Overall had dealt with similar issues in 1836 after he shot and injured a white member of a gang who was attempting to invade his home. More detail on this case can be found on this page for the historical marker that was placed at the location of his home. Overall was found to be justified in his actions based on a natural right to defend his property and family.

However, Kimball's use of the recently passed Civil Rights Act appears to have been the first time that legislation, or any Civil Rights legislation, was used to support an assertion of rights by a black resident of Indianapolis. Kimball produced a provision of the law which supported his argument, noting that the Civil Rights Act was the law of the land. The Daily Herald’s recounting of Kimball’s argument might be partially paraphrasing, but it was dramatic nonetheless:

"It was now too late, after this nation had gone through it» terrible five years struggle in[sic] behalf of human liberty, to say that a white man could insult, villify[sic], and abuse a negro with impunity, so long as none but negroes were witnesses of the outrage. It was too late for the idea that a colored skin was an insuperable bar to redress."


English really had no argument to counter the supreme law of the land, and merely pointed out that the court was organized under the laws of the state, that law is what should be applied. The Daily Herald reported that “Justice Coulon decided in favor of the admission of the shady testimony.”


Harris testified first and stated that he and Nichols boarded the car and offered to pay the fare to the conductor. However, he refused to accept the payment and told the two men it was against company’s rules for them to ride inside the car, and that they must ride on the platform. Harris testified that the driver stopped the car and Mr. Catherwood boarded the car took Harris and Nichols by their arms and “shoved” the two men off the car. Under cross exam from English, Harris affirmed that Catherwood took him by the sleeve of his shirt and took him off the streetcar. He admitted that Catherwood did not use improper language when addressing Harris and did not verbally order him off the streetcar. He also admitted that he had heard about the plan to challenge the streetcar policy, but that his lawsuit wasn’t because of that.


William Nichols was then sworn and his direct testimony began. He explained that he had boarded car 14 with Harris with a plan to ride up "Batavia Street" (unclear where this street was located) to look at a house for sale. He and Harris sat down inside the streetcar, which had plenty of available room, and both men were then confronted by the conductor and told to ride to the platform. According to the Daily Herald, Nichols responded as follows: “I told him my understanding of the matter was that the cars were for the accommodation of the public, and that a [redacted]’s money was as good as anyone else’s money.”


The conductor did not yield and told the men they needed to get on the platform “damned quick.” He stopped the car and summoned Henry Catherwood, the superintendent. Nichols testified that Catherwood snatched up he and Harris by the arm and “hustled” them off the streetcar. On cross examination he confirmed that Catherwood did not use profanity (the conductor had) but that Catherwood did physically pull and push him off the streetcar. English questioned Harris about his injuries. Harris said he had suffered much pain in his arm, and there were no marks or bruising.


Following the Plaintiff’s testimony, several fact witnesses were presented. The first was W.S. Lankford, the minister at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, then located on Georgia Street between Missouri and Mississippi (now Senate) Streets. This location is now occupied by the Convention Center. Lankford was on the streetcar when Harris and Nichols boarded, although he was already on the platform since he had heard of other black men being forced to exit the streetcar and stand on the platform and wanted to avoid being “insulted.” Lankford observed that Catherwood acted gentlemanly and seemed determined to get the two men off the streetcar.  He heard Nichols say that he would not ride on the streetcar if he had to stand on the platform, to which Catherwood responded “Get off, then.”


English first called a witness named Noff (I was unable to locate this person's first name), the driver of the streetcar. He testified that Catherwood was calm, and after being repeatedly told to move to the platform, both men left the streetcar. He also noted that Catherwood did not lay hands on either man, contrary to their testimony. Kimball conducted a “rigorous” cross examination, as described by the Daily Herald, but apparently failed to budge Noff’s testimony.


English next called brothers John and Samuel Buzer. John Buzer was an Indianapolis police officer who arrived at the scene.  Samuel apparently just happened to be on scene as well. John testified that Catherwood did not touch either Nichols or Harris and declared the testimony of Nichols “entirely false.” His brother conveniently corroborated John’s testimony, stating that he had stood outside the streetcar and looked inside to observe the events.


In an odd turn, Catherwood made a statement to the court, but does not appear to have been subject to cross examination. His testimony conformed with what had been said by earlier defense witnesses. He stated that he had seen the car sitting stationary and went to investigate. He told Harris and Nichols they had to stand on the platform, they refused, saying their money was good as anyone else’s. They then stood and left the streetcar.  He also stated that he did not “lay a finger on them,” and that he had heard that funds were being raised to challenge the company’s policy on regarding black men riding on the platform of the streetcar.  


The closing arguments were full of fireworks. English rested, noting there was nothing to the case, but he wanted to address the general issue of black men riding in the streetcar. As recounted by the Daily Herald, English stated that “[t}he company had no prejudice against the colored population,” and that the company wanted their patronage. But “deference” had to be given to public opinion, and allowing black passengers could damage the company’s business. He further argued that the company was more “liberal” towards black passengers than other companies since black women were permitted to ride inside the streetcar. Finally, the policy regarding black men might be changed in the future, if “public sentiment demanded it.”


Kimball gave what was described as a “tolerably exhaustive and somewhat excited speech.” While at its core the case was premised upon assault and battery, Kimball renewed his Civil Rights arguments based on the Civil Rights Act of 1866. “This soulless corporation had no more right to ostracize negros, than it had red headed men, or curly headed men, short nosed men or long nosed men, blue eye men or black-eyed men.”


Kimball cited to a treatise on contracts to argue that a railroad, as a common carrier, was obligated to take on every passenger who paid a fare and behaved appropriately. He also invoked the recently ended Civil War, noting that under the Bill of Rights no legislature can grant immunities to citizens that all may not enjoy, and while this was the law before the Civil Rights Bill, the new law made sure there was no doubt about this point. “That is what we have been fighting for these five terrific years,” he said. To sum up his closing, Kimball declared that “he would rather sit beside a loyal negro than a traitor or a miserable Copperhead. This petty railroad can not trample on human rights.”


Kimball’s closing seemed to enrage English, who rose to make a reply.  He denigrated Kimball’s representation of Nichols and Lewis, and Kimball’s closing, noting that he was not being paid for his representation of the streetcar company, and did not think he needed to exert himself, while Kimball was being paid, and felt that he had to earn that fee. “He had made a speech full of clap trap and Fourth of July.” The Daily Herald reported the most disturbing portion of English’s closing and his attack on Kimball: “His speech was the veriest clap trap, worthy of a man who deliberately state his preference for the society of filthy negros over genteel white men.” The Daily Herald further noted that in response to Kimball’s closing argument, “Mr.  English was proud to say he stood there as a representative of the Caucasian race and he would loathe himself if he had uttered such a sentiment.” Finally English argued that the only issue before the court was that of a simple assault and battery, and that the issue of a “colored man’s right” was “gratuitous.”


The Daily Herald’s report of the trial indicated that the case was submitted to a jury, although it appears that Justice of the Peace Coulon was the finder of fact in the matter.  After a few hours’ deliberation, Coulon found that there had been no assault and battery, and that the streetcar company had the right to establish regulations as to how and where black men could ride, although it had no right to refuse to allow them to ride the streetcars.


Thus is the result of the first Civil Rights case tried in Indianapolis. While a loss for Nichols and Lewis, it did demonstrate and reinforce the right of black citizens to bring suit against a white defendant, and to testify in court.


Research Note: The legal case described above, and the blog post as a whole, is kind of unique. The main source relied upon was the detailed account of the trial provided by the Indianapolis Daily Herald. No other detailed reports of this case, or the interaction on the streetcar, were found in local newspapers or other sources. A few obscure references were found but provided no details. The Indiana State Archives, which contain a large portion of the court records for Marion County, also had no materials related to this legal case. While I dislike relying on limited sources for research, the detailed play by play from the Dailey Herald, and the unique, and important nature of the case, demanded otherwise.




Indianapolis News: January 26, 1923

Indianapolis Journal: March 22, 1866


Indianapolis Daily Herald: June 29, 1866

Indianapolis City Directories, 1865, 1866

1860 United States Census Data



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