Jeremiah Sullivan House

I realized at the Jeremiah Sullivan House that I really do not know the movers and shakers in early Indiana. I walked into the Jeremiah Sullivan House blissfully unaware of Jeremiah Sullivan (1794-1870) (and pretty much walked out still ignorant of his importance).

Sullivan was a Virginia lawyer moving west as the country expanded. On his way to Louisville, someone persuaded him that he wanted to go to Madison instead of Louisville. At the time, Madison was devoid of lawyers. Perfect for a lawyer wanting to hang out a shingle.

Sullivan settled in Madison and went on to become a state legislator, an Indiana Supreme Court Justice (1836-1846), and a Jefferson County judge (1869-1870). He also helped found Hanover College and the Indiana Historical Society.

His 1818 Federal-style home was the first brick mansion built in the Northwest Territory. It isn’t clear to me what happened to the house after his death in 1870. At one point, it was a bed and breakfast. In the 1960s, it became a museum. (Our docent talked about accompanying her mom as a child when her mom was a docent at the house.)

The house is in decent shape but given that the building changed hands, little of the furniture is original to Sullivan.

The house consists of three floors and a basement. The first floor includes a front parlor, an office behind it, a dining room to the side, and a kitchen behind it. The docent pointed out a few items that Jeremiah’s son Algernon presumably sent from New York.

The office contains a curious bookshelf with glass doors. Noting that lawyers couldn’t always rely on courthouses to have the books they needed for a case, our docent mentioned that lawyers had to take their own books. She pointed to the handles on either side of each shelf of the bookshelf. You could literally remove a shelf of books and haul the entire shelf to court with you. (Seems like there had to be an easier way to haul books to court.)

In the dining room, the docent pointed out the dishes in the cabinet—Sullivan’s dishware from the Indiana State Museum. She also noted the silver on the sideboard—a gift from Governor Hendricks. I was confused. (The only Governor Hendricks I knew was Thomas Hendricks who was governor 1873-1877. Later I learned that his uncle, William Hendricks, was the third governor of Indiana from 1822-1825. Witness my ignorance of early Indiana history!)

More confusing is the placard in the room that indicated the silver was a gift of Frances Hendricks Ketcham, a descendent of Hendricks. So…was the silver gifted long after Sullivan was dead by either Governor Thomas Hendricks or his descendent Frances Hendricks Ketcham? Or was it a gift from Governor William Hendricks, a contemporary of Sullivan’s?

The kitchen is, well, not the real kitchen. (What?) It was a serving kitchen, where food was brought before being served. Oh, kind of like a staging area or a butler pantry. Interesting. And totally believable given the small hearth.

The docent pointed out a few items. A wooden contraption by the window was a lunchbox from the 1800s. And on a water bench sat the strangest looking homemade device—three square blocks of wood that could be lifted. Any ideas, she asked us? Nope. It was three connected mouse traps. The little rodents would unsuspectingly enter the wood box and trigger the blocks of wood to fall on them, crushing them. (At this point, I am wondering why they didn’t just get some cats.)

The Sullivans used indentured servants. I winced. Indentured servants in early Indiana were just another form of slavery. (Slavery was illegal according to the 1816 Indiana Constitution. However, people got around that legal technicality by forcing slaves to sign lengthy contracts of indentured servitude. In 1821, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled against the indentured servitude of Mary Clark, which helped contribute to the end of indentured servitude in Indiana.)

No, no. The docent insisted it wasn’t slavery. The indentured servants that Sullivan used were apprentices. When they were freed, they were given two sets of clothes, money, and references. (I heard similar stories at other historical sites.)

Well, I thought, indentured servitude did exist as separate from slavery (witness early immigrants who paid for their passage to the New World with servitude limited to a certain number of years). Given some southern Indiana support for slavery and the use of forced indentured servitude as slavery under a new name, it is really hard to know if the Sullivan servants were servants or slaves.

The docent then sent us downstairs to look around. (She doesn’t do stairs.) Two rooms are open: the actual kitchen (with a larger hearth) and a storeroom full of every sort of implement you can imagine. We walked through the storeroom trying to determine what different items were.

The house consists of two other floors. The second floor has only three bedrooms: the master bedroom, one for Jeremiah’s parents, and one for the children.

The third floor is set up as an exhibit area with some information about the family. One woman on the tour discovered an oddity in the family tree. The daughter Charlotte was married to a man with the same last name. (How convenient! She didn’t have to change her name.) Was it just a coincidence or were they distantly related?

In the information about the family, I learned—though it shouldn’t have been a surprise—that the son Algernon fought for the South. (Note: I have found no evidence of this; Algernon did defend Confederates as a lawyer in New York. He was a southern sympathizer and was married to a southerner.) One of his other brothers fought for the Union.

In 1988, Historic Madison Inc., which owns the house, created replicas of the smoke house and bake house that existed out back. A little square brick-lined area in the ground near the house is where milk could be stored to keep it cool.

If you go, be sure to stand next to the stairwell and look up. You’ll get a really cool view of the three stories of stairs.

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