Brutal Butchery, 1878

Vacelet Family Ax Murder Perhaps Knox County's Most Horrendous Crime

From The Weekly Western Sun
Royal E. Purcell,
Editor and Proprietor.

Office: Tindolph's Building.
Entrance on Second and Busseron Streets.

FRIDAY EV'NG,::::::::::OCT. 25, 1878


A Whole Family Brained in Bed with
a Blunt-edged Axe!

The Ghastly Spectacle of John De-
sire Vacelet with Nine Horrid
Gashes in his Head, Face
and Shoulders.

His Wife with Her Head Almost
Dissevered, and their two Sons,
John and Frank, lying in
Bed side by side in the
Death Gore


The Supposed Demon of the Deed
Under Arrest.


The early morning quiet of the city was disturbed, yesterday morning, with the rumor that a dreadful murder had been committed, and from mouth to mouth flew the word that the whole family of Desire Vacelet had been butchered in cold blood by tramps. In a few minutes the road leading south of the city in the direction of the scene of the tragedy was lined with vehicles, carrying hundreds of persons out to ascertain, if possible, the facts concerning the horrible deed.

The house in which John Desire Vacelet lived with his wife and two sons, aged 14 and 16 years, is about 150 yards from the track of the Evansville and Terre Haute railroad, three miles south of this city, on a farm owned by J.S. & W.J. Wise. It is a dilapidated frame-structure, one story high, and has very few outbuildings, and no fence surrounding it, and has a desolate and lonely appearance. (There is no family residing nearer than half mile from it). There are but two rooms in the house, and a rickety lean-to at one end, which was used as a lumber room and alongside of which ran a narrow porch leading to the entrance to the house.

Entering the south room a ghastly scene presented itself, sickening to the beholder. On a bed, beside which was a pool of blood, bearing in it a naked footprint (probably of the one who did the foul deed) lay the wife, Victoria Vacelet, aged about fifty years, her head almost severed from the body. Over the bed and covers was the blood of the victim in profusion. One cut, four inches long, commenced at the upper portion of the right eye and extended to the upper portion of the ear. Another incision, the same length, extended from the cheek bone, cutting through the middle of the right ear, entirely severing the mastoid and fracturing the lower jaw. A third cut, three or four inches in length, divided the right side of lower lip, cutting through the lower maxillary.

Lying in the door-way, leading to the other room, were the remains of John D. Vacelet, the husband and father, the head thrown back, mouth open, and eyes staring--a fearful sight to view. He had received nine terrible wounds, the murderer or murderers evidently wanting to make sure work with him. A lateral cut, four inches in length, (evidently done with an ax) opened scalp and skull and entered the brain; another, three inches up from the nasal bone, through to the brain; another, five inches long, across left cheek bone, dividing the superior maxillary; another across left side of lower part of face, diving inferior maxillary, five inches long; another, of equal length, divided right superior maxillary extending half way across the nose; another cut off the lower part of the right ear, fracturing the lower jaw; another wound on the back of the shoulder, extending deep under the scapula, which, probably, was done with a knife; another punctured wound, cutting through the left clavicle, and another, six inches long, on the left arm. The body was laying in a pool of its own blood, which had poured copiously from the wounds.

In a bed, in the north room, lay the two boys, Frank and John, and just in front of their bed was the trundle bed, in which Pierre Provost, the hired man and suspected murderer had been sleeping, and just above the head of his bed was the window, where he says he escaped from the house.

John, the oldest boy, (aged 16) had been death two fearful blows, undoubtedly with an ax, cleaving scalp and skull, and entering the brain, portions of which were protruding.

Frank, aged fourteen years, bore seven wounds. There were two cuts across the right parietal eminence, three inches long, through which the brain protruded. The other five cuts were about his face and head, rendering his appearance absolutely frightful.


The news of the butchery was carried by the hired man, a Frenchman named Pierre Provost, to Eugene Brouillette’s, half-mile distant from Vacelet’s. He got there about 4 o’clock, was barefooted, had nothing but his underclothes on, and was frightened so that he was “as white as a sheet,” to use their own expression. He was given clothes and afterwards came back to the scene of the murder with the neighbors. He exhibited considerable levity, as he told (in French) what he knew about it. He said that he was aroused and went to the partition door and opened it, and saw the room nearly full of men, cutting and slashing, and that he retreated and was pursued, but made his escape through the window over his bed, barely escaping a stroke from an ax in the hands of one of the men. The lower portion of the window frame bears the mark of the stroke, but the lower part of the lower sash bears the mark also, showing conclusively that the window was down when the stroke was made. Besides the window was fastened down with a stick, around which were woven many cobwebs, proving that the window had not been up for a long time. At the side of the bed where Mrs. Vacelet lay was a barefoot print in the blood, which would indicated that the bloody work had been done by somebody in the house.

Esq. Heidenreich was on the ground for the purpose of holding an inquest, and ordered Provost arrested, which was promptly done by Deputy Sheriff Sam. Rumer. The crowd noticed spots of blood on the bosom of his shirt, the same he had worn the night before, and it was not difficult to see that they regarded him with deep feelings of suspicion, and some went so far as to openly express threats of lynching. It is to be hoped however, that better counsel will prevail, for every one is entitled to the protection due an innocent man, till he is proven to be guilty beyond a doubt.

The Coroner’s jury having examined the bodies, an adjournment was ordered to meet at Esq., Heidenreich’s office at 3 o’clock p.m., at which time the following evidence was taken:

Eugene Bruat, being duly sworn, stated that he knew prisoner (Provost) since last spring when he came to Mr. Vacelet’s. He came from France in January. Knew the parties found dead. Lived half a mile from them. Hadn’t seen Mr. Vacelet for a week or more. Prisoner came to my house about 4 o’clock this morning and called me up, saying: “I want to come in the house, I’m cold.” I was in bed, but got up and let him in. Don’t remember who spoke first; I told him to come in; that I must light the candle. He said, “Oh, no, don’t light the candle. Oh, hell is at our house.” Beating done at our house. Somebody struck me on the shoulder; I run fro the window.” Prisoner had on two shirts; I made a light. “He was cold,” and I made a fire for him. I gave him clothes and he put them on. He looked scared; said six or seven persons were there. Prisoner was barefooted. Would take eight or ten minutes to walk to my house. Said he was scratched by briers, and showed me the direction he came; he staid at my house till after breakfast. Didn’t say anybody had been killed, and said he didn’t know anybody that was there. “He heard the noise striking.” I thought perhaps it was a quarrel among themselves, as there was nothing exciting in prisoner’s appearance. Went down after sun up and looked through window; I saw old man Vacelet on the floor dead. Mr. Seavers said outside doors were locked. Prisoner said he wasn’t going down to the house. He first said, “better go down and see.” Don’t think he said anything about going down, till I spoke of it. He smoked my boy’s pipe all the time; sat on a chair and talked all the time. He said, “you had better go down after daylight.” Stayed at house all time, and was badly frightened. Mr. Seavers and I came back to the house; sent my son out to tell neighbors of the murder. We told them they were all killed. Didn’t see tears in the prisoner’s eyes; Mrs. Seavers and I came back and watched the house; when we said they were all killed he was outside; don’t know the clothing of the prisoner; he went back in the house and looked pretty sad, and sat down by the stove. I went back to Mr. Vacelet’s house and prisoner came with me. I told him they wanted him down there; I said a man who would commit such a murder ought to be hung, and he said nothing in answer. He told me when he came in the house that somebody had a dark light; he meant the persons who were doing the beating.


Dr. F.W. Beard testified substantially as follows:

Said he was a physician and was called on to examine the four bodies. He examined them at 9 o’clock a.m., and thought they had been dead ten hours; he didn’t think the boys struggled any, and the old lady gave no evidence of struggle, excepting she may have raised up and fell back; didn’t think blood on floor by bed was blood of hers. There must have been a struggle with Mr. Vacelet. The prisoner’s foot fit in the footprint at the side of the bed; found a cut on the prisoner’s shoulder; had his shirt torn; blood was spotted on prisoner’s shirt front; think there would have been more blood on a man’s shirt if he had filled four persons; think he would have been spattered all over. The window was down and slat above it. The slat was nailed to the window and had spiderwebs about it. Didn’t see any blood on the sash where the cut was on the window. I examined three axes which were lying on the floor, think they had been laid there on purpose. Two axes were in front (south) room, and one in back (north) room with pruning hook. Axes were all bloody; no blood on handles or polls of the axes; it might get on the handles, but it could be wiped off. Hooks was bloody and had hair on it in the middle--no blood on the point. Had appearance of not being used lately. Hair on the hook was black--hair of the deceased person was black; saw corn-knife with one spot of blood and three black hairs on it. No blood on feel of old man or boys; think blood by bed came from old man; foot prints by bed pointed in, showing face to have been towards bed. Prints were those of barefooted person; prisoner showed three pair of pants he said were his, and they had no blood on them. Prisoner said the money was in the bed, but it could not be found; prisoner said there were five men in the room; examined the feet of the prisoner and found no blood on them. Don’t think the window had been raised when the prisoner claimed he got out; think footprints could have been by foot of the prisoner; suppose the foot of the prisoner made the footprints that were on the floor.

The inquest was adjourned till this forenoon at ten o’clock, when the evidence will be completed. Provost is in jail.

This is the most brutal murder ever committed in Knox county. We hope that the Coroner’s inquest may elicit some clue to the perpetrator, and that justice may be swift and sure. All violence, however, is to be deprecated.