A case of self-defense, 1865

Near the end of the Civil War, in southern Indiana, two young males fought over words. After the fight, a 16-year-old lay dead from a knife stab to his heart, and an 18-year-old faced the aftermath of the fight.

The non-agressor survivor of the fight was James M. COPELAND. His paternal aunt was married to Henry Brevard HUKILL, a Circuit Court judge in Ripley Co., IN.

From the March 13, 1865, Daily Evening Courier, Jefferson Co., IN:

At a singing school near Canaan, in Shelby Township, [Jefferson Co., IN] on Saturday night, two young men fell out about a girl, for whose hand and heart, it seems, they were rival suitors. One of the young men was named Copeland, and the other Salyers. The result of the fuss was this: Copeland stabbed Salyers with a knife, killing him. On yesterday some of the Canaanites came for a coffin, and Coroner Bucher went out to hold an inquest. Copeland was still at large yesterday, but the authorities were after him last night, and we shall probably soon hear of his arrest. Both the parties are of good families, well known in Jefferson County, and appear to have been much respected. The deceased was a brother of our friend Mr. Richard M. Salyers, ex-Sheriff of the county. The announcement of the sad occurence has occasioned feelings of the deepest sorrow, especially among the friends and acquaintances of the young men. We regret exceedingly to have to chronicle such an event, and hope many days will elapse ere a like necessity arises. We have learned no particular further than the above, but presume that the whole matter will be thoroughly sifted and the details brought to light when the trial comes off.

From the March 14, 1865, Daily Evening Courier:

Copeland, who killed Salyers at Canaan on Saturday, made no effort to escape, but quietly consented to arrest when the officers went for him. The young men were not rival suitors. Salyers, who was a nephew of the ex-Sheriff and son of Jerry Salyers, accused Copeland of making a statement about his (Salyers') sister, which Copeland positively denied. A dispute ensued, which soon led to blows, when Copeland stabbed Salyers to the heart, killing him instantly. As we stated yesterday, they both belonged to respectable familes, who are in the deepest distress on account of the sad affair. It is even feared that the mother of one of them, and a sister of the other, will allow their grief to drive them to distraction, both being at last accounts entirely overwhelmed with anguish and refusing to be comforted.

From the March 18, 1865, Daily Evening Courier:

James Madison Copeland, charged with the killing of Salyers last Saturday at Canaan, had a preliminary trial this week before Esquire Coffin in this city.

The bulk of the testimony was less strong against the prisoner than we had expected to find it. It was about to the following effect:

Copeland and a part of friends were at a certain house, having met in the capacity of a singing school. Salyers and some companions came also to the place, and stopping outside, he offered to pay "half a dollar" to any man who would get Copeland to come out. On being told of this fact, Copeland said he was not going out to have any trouble with Salyers, and that if the latter wanted to see him he would have to come in. Subsequently, the same evening, the two came in contact, when some words passed between them, Salyers accusing Copeland of having made some remark about his sister. Copeland replied that he had made no such statement. To this Salyers said, "I believe you did say it." "Well, believe it and be d___d," responded Copeland; "I did not say it."

Salyers then struck Copeland twice, and was about to get the best of him, when the latter in self-defence began to resent the blows, and soon Salyers fell, but none of the witnesses knew that he was stabbed at first. They stated, however, that when the deceased approached Copeland the latter had his knife out and was engaged in whittling. The supposition is that during the fight Copeland gave his opponent "an under-hand" thrust with the knife, the point of the blade entering his heart, and producing instant death.

Judging by the evidence it seems that it can be made no worse at least than a case of manslaughter. His honor Esq. Coffin admitted the prisoner to bail, for appearance at the next term of the Court, in the sum of $1,000.

Newspaper clippings are on file at the Jefferson Co., Indiana Historical Society.

James M. Copeland was the son of James Copeland (b. 14-Apr-1797, Franklin Co., IN; d. 9-Apr-1861, Jefferson Co., IN) and Polly MACKLIN; and the grandson of Samuel Copeland, Jr., (b. abt 1758 Halifax, NC; d. 23 Aug 1821 Jefferson Co., IN) and Margaret (last name unknown; d. 30 Dec 1811, KY). The ancestry of Samuel Copeland, Jr., can be found here: CLICK HERE. (Scroll down the page to the ahnentafel chart for Rachel Copeland, and begin reading with her father, Samuel Copeland, Jr.)

It is unknown whether James M. Copeland faced criminal prosecution. He was 18 at the time of the killing; James Salyers was 16. Two years after the event, James M. Copeland married Mary DILK.



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