The statues of Gertrude and Charles Hilligoss stand stalwart above their graves in West Maplewood Cemetery. The statues are a tribute to enduring parental love and it is impossible to fully know their story without knowing the stories of the parents who made sure that their children wouldn’t be forgotten.
George N. Hilligoss was born in Rush County, Indiana. His family moved to Madison County when he was a child and he started out as a farmer. He also had a job for a while clerking in the drug store of John Westerfield in Anderson. During the Civil War, Hilligoss served for two years in the 75th Indiana Infantry, fighting in Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia. After his discharge in 1864, his life changed direction. He studied medicine for three years with Dr. William Hunt in Anderson and obtained his medical degree from the University of Michigan in 1867. His first medical practice was set up in North Vernon in Jennings County, Indiana. While he was there, he made several lifelong friends. He also met Caroline Grawlig, a school teacher from Madison, Indiana. Grawlig, born in Frankfurt, Germany, had come to the United States as a small child and was well-educated and cultured. The young couple married in 1870 and moved to Fishersburg, where Hilligoss started a medical practice.
The Hilligoss family was relatively poor when they came to Fishersburg, but Dr. Hilligoss did well there. He was both a good doctor and a good businessman. He opened a drug store in Lapel. He had a fine house and the fastest, smartest driving rig in town. The Hilligosses were especially proud of their children. Nine year old Charley clerked for his father in the drug store and was smart and reliable enough to be trusted with business errands to nearby Anderson. His little daughter Gertrude was bright and loving.
In December of 1881 Gertie developed diphtheria. She was ill for a few weeks and then died, despite her father’s skill and her mother’s loving care. Caroline Hilligoss was devastated by her daughter’s death. She could find no comfort in family or religious faith. One possible avenue she thought might help was spiritualism. She urged her husband to investigate.
One month after Gertie’s death, Dr. Hilligoss and Charley went to Terre Haute. They took rooms at a boarding house and were careful not to advertise their presence there. During a short stay they consulted with several mediums. In the first séance, Dr. Hilligoss saw the materialization of his mother, who came and sat beside him. She assured him that Gertie was with her and that she was well. She introduced the doctor to a sister he had never known he had, the product of a miscarriage his mother had had before he was born. (He later confirmed the fact of the miscarriage with his father.) Later his daughter materialized as well and she had a talk with her brother. The medium told Hilligoss that his wife and Charley were both mediums and that they would be given instruction.
Hilligoss and his son attended several séances and he returned to Madison County a changed man. He wrote a long letter detailing his experiences which was published on the front page of the Anderson Herald. Spiritualism energized the family. By the end of the year they were operating a séance parlor in Lapel. Both George and Caroline Hilligoss became officers in the Indiana Spiritualists Association.
Charley Hilligoss graduated from the Lapel district school and began his studies at Purdue University. He planned to be a writer. One day during a walk with friends along the Wabash he injured his ankle in some way. By the next day he was in great pain and his father went to Lafayette to bring him home. The diagnosis was bone erysipelas.
For the next year he was an invalid and was unable to walk. He passed his time by reading and wrote some articles for the local newspaper. It was finally decided that his leg should be amputated and the operation was performed. Whether because of infection or because of an already weakened condition he died in December of 1887, soon after the operation.
After Charley’s death, Dr. and Mrs. Hilligoss put into action a plan they had had for some time. They wanted to commemorate their children’s lives in a way which would cause them to be remembered. They commissioned the statues through an agent in Indianapolis. Photographs of the children were sent to the sculptor in Florence, Italy, so that the statues could be as much like Gertie and Charley as possible.
The statues almost ended up as unfinished work. A lynching of Italian immigrants reputed to be Mafioso in New Orleans outraged the artist and he had to be coaxed into finishing them. They were finally delivered in the spring of 1892 and set above the children’s graves in West Maplewood.
Three years after the statues arrived they were part of a public drama involving their mother. An Elder W. R. Covert, a minister of the Church of God, was conducting a crusade against Spiritualism. Camp Chesterfield was one of his targets, so he brought his message to the local area. Anyone had a right to believe in Spiritualism (he said), but the mediums who conducted séances were either liars, knaves, fools, frauds or ignoramuses. He boasted that he could uncover and unmask any trick of any Spiritualist.
Covert seems to have been a bully who was spoiling for a fight. Caroline Hilligoss took his comments to mean that he was calling her a crook and a cheat. She filed a $10,000 suit for slander against Covert. Whether Covert had targeted Caroline Hilligoss personally at first or not, he got personal right away.
In the Anderson Democrat, he accused both George and Caroline Hilligoss of selling whiskey illegally from their drug store in Lapel. He planned, he said, to ask Caroline Hilligoss where Spiritland was because she had been heard telling someone that she had shipped a pair of ponies to her children in Spiritland. He also accused the couple of being pretentious liars.
While they boasted of having the statues of their children carved in Florence, Italy, he could prove that the statues had instead been carved in Anderson by an artist that the couple kept in seclusion. (That charge the Democrat quickly debunked. Local citizens had seen the statues being carved while on a visit to Italy.)
Beth Oljace works in the Indiana Room at the Anderson Public Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.