Crawfordsville is a small town in western Indiana, where seemingly little happens. Its main historic distinction is probably that Lew Wallace, a failed Civil War general but successful post-war writer, penned Ben Hur: A Tale of Christ while residing there. Crawford has another distinction: it was the site of a once-famous Gilded Age murder, stemming from a love triangle involving a reverend, his wife, and his lover.
The main culprit was William F. Pettit, a New Yorker with rough edges from an early age, who hung out with hooligans, dabbled in crime, and eventually did a few months in jail for stealing a pistol. Upon his release, he became a schoolteacher, a fervent Methodist, and an unordained revival preacher. That was how he came into contact with Hattie Sperry, an older schoolteacher. They got married, but it was not to be a happy union: he liked carousing with his buddies, and chasing women. The couple eventually moved to Indiana, where, concealing his past, William became an enthusiastic Freemason, and worked his Masonic connections into getting a gig as an ordained Methodist minister in 1886. He eventually ended up at Shawnee Mound Methodist Episcopal Church, in Crawfordsville, Indiana.
Deadly Love Triangle: The Reverend, Hattie Pettit, and Elma Whitehead
If Mrs. Pettit thought that her husband would mend his ways now that he was a man of the cloth, she thought wrong. William – now the Reverend Pettit – continued carousing and womanizing. He soon earned a reputation pinching many of his female congregants, and for copping a feel every now and then. His most significant pursuit would be of Elma “Clementine” Whitehead, the widowed daughter of David Meharry, a founder and patron of Pettit’s church, and one of the richest men in the region.
Elma was no beauty, and as one contemporary reporter unchivalrously put it: “the most liberal of men would hesitate to call her attractive“. However, what she lacked in looks, she more than made up for in wealth: she was one of western Indiana’s richest widows, which made her one of the region’s most desirable women. Reverend Pettit had helped Elma’s father write his will in 1888, and was thus aware that she would inherit most of his estate, valued at $40,000 – a hefty sum back then. She also had a nice nest egg of her own, that she had inherited from her late husband.
It was not long before William, who had first started to frequent the Meharrys’ in a quest to seduce their maid, set his sights higher, and began pursuing the rich mistress, instead. Elma, who was often surrounded by the whiff of scandal, was game. Her father was the local Postmaster, but when he took ill, she took over his duties, and got in the habit of tampering with the mail. It led to an official investigation and censure. What got tongues wagging even more furiously in that straitlaced era, however, was her adulterous affairs.
One of them in particular, with the married publisher and editor of several regional newspapers, was carried out so openly with unchaperoned nighttime rides and unaccompanied trips throughout the Midwest, so as to scandalize the locals. It finally ended when Elma’s family threatened to do her lover in if he showed up in their neck of the woods again. Choosing discretion as the better part of valor, he stayed far away from Shawnee Mound.
As to William Pettit, within a year of his arrival in Shawnee Mound, the Reverend and Elma Whitehead were lovers. The adulterous affair was an open secret as the duo, oblivious to or reckless of local opinion, were seen traveling together, unaccompanied, all over the region, before returning late at night. They were also observed mooning over each other, and before long, many locals were referring to Elma as Reverend Pettit’s “second wife”.