The strange case of Wacker v. Wacker

August Wacker worked to have his wife declared insane.

By CONNIE ZEIGLER, Contributing editor

In March 1903 the Indianapolis Journal reported the “pathetic circumstances” of a man named August Wacker, who was seeking a judgement by the Circuit Court that would allow him to sell several pieces of property jointly owned by August and his wife, Louise, so that he could use the proceeds to pay for Louise’s treatment at “Central Hospital.”

Central Hospital was a shortened version of the hospital’s official name: “Central Hospital for the Insane,” later renamed Central State Hospital.

The news article said, in the wonderfully archaic poeticism of the law, that August was “praying the court for permission” to sell a house and lot so “that he might devote the proceeds of the sale to her cure in the sanitarium.”

This does seem pathetic, or at least sad. But we should be careful where we aim our sympathy. In the case of the Wackers – with a deeper dive into the historical record – we might correct a long-ago misunderstanding, or at least learn more facts with which to weigh the sad story of the couple.

Due primarily to August Wacker’s involvement in land sales and other public activities, there are numerous records that pertain to him in local newspapers. In fact, there is so much information to parse that this story will begin in February and conclude in the March edition Urban Times.

What isn’t reported in the 1903 Journal article mentioned above is that, by then, Wacker had already successfully sued his wife in court with an insanity charge in order to sell real estate. And that he was buying and selling property totaling in the thousands in his own name in between these court cases.

Let’s start with the earliest information we can find about August and Louise. U. S. Census records reveal that both were born in German states; Louisa was born in September 1849 in Prussia, her future husband in September 1848 in Wurttemberg. Both immigrated to America in 1870. Marriage records show that they were married in November 1871 in Marion County.

Census records that the Wackers already had four children by 1880, ages eight, six, three and two-and-a-half. That year, the census has columns to check that were titled “Does not read” and “Does not write”. The census-taker did not tick either of those fields for the adults, but ticked them both for all the children. All the double negatives are confusing, but in essence they reveal that whoever reported the household information to the census taker indicated that the children didn’t read or write, but the adults both did.

Over the succeeding decades August amassed a good deal of property and became a land developer. In 1893, he had purchased part of the west half of a quarter section of land west of the White River from John Cooper. Wacker built a brick house on the property and farmed the land as a truck garden. According to the Riverside Park Master Plan, some of Wacker’s land and the family’s house was purchased to become park land when the city laid out Riverside Park in 1898. The Wacker house became the home of J. Clyde Powers, park superintendent.

Around this time Wacker and his brother, John, laid out Wacker’s first, second and Tthird additions to the Haughville neighborhood. In October 1898, The Indianapolis News reported that John Wacker conveyed seven lots in the second and third additions to August for $400, and August conveyed six different lots in the same additions to brother John for the same amount. There was no explanation of the shuffling, but the news item shows that August had his hands on a considerable amount of land as early as the 1890s, and his wife’s name was not noted in the sales.

Two years later, on March 3, 1900, more land shuffling took place. The Indianapolis News reported that August sold part of Section 22 in Township 15 to William R. Shoff for $2,000. The next line in the land sales list showed that, in turn, William R. Shoff sold August Wacker lots 17 and 18 in North Indianapolis. Two weeks later, the newspaper reported that John Wacker sold August Wacker lot 38 in Wacker’s First Haughville Addition for $1,000. Again, Louise is not mentioned in the transactions.

Louise does appear in other records from 1900. The census was taken in June 1900 and it reveals that the Wackers had added two more children to their brood. Still living in the home that year were Fredia, who was eighteen, and Emma, seven. Louise would have been 42 when Emma was born. The census entry notes that the couple had had seven children but only six were living. August was 51; Louise was 49.

Interesting additional tidbits collected in that year’s census were questions about whether persons in the household could read, write and speak English. The census taker wrote “yes” in each of those columns for August and both children, and “no” in every one of them for Louise. If this was factual then it contradicts the 1880 census information, which indicated that she did read and write. It also raises a question about whether or not Louise could properly understand what was happening in the court cases in which she would soon become a defendant. Alternatively does it reveal that she was by then deranged and she could no longer perform those simple tasks?

Three months later, in September, Wacker addressed the Riverside Park Board and offered to donate land to open a street next to Riverside Park between 18th and 30th streets. The park board punted the decision to the next meeting, but the offer shows that Wacker was planning for more land development.

The year 1900 was a fateful one for Louise. In November 1900, August would first claim in court that Louisa was insane so that he could sell property that she co-owned without her consent. In the November 1900 case August stated that “his wife is insane” and he sought to sell property to “get money to prevent her from becoming a charge upon the county. He also agrees to reserve one-third of the sum for his wife.”

The Circuit Court heard the case of “August Wacker vs. Louise Wacker: to convey real estate” in December and decided in August’s favor. “Insanity of defendant suggested,” the newspaper reported. The sale of the real estate for $400 was approved.

The court assigned a guardian ad litem to the defendants. The legal term, according to the Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute, is “someone to watch after a ward when the ward cannot take care of himself or herself. This is typically because the ward is a minor or is legally incompetent.” But “Unlike typical guardians or conservators, guardians ad litem only protect their wards’ interests in a single case.” In this case, the court assigned Collie E. Kinney, an Indianapolis attorney (who would be sued for divorce by his own wife for “failure to provide” in 1903) as guardian ad litem for Louise.

At the end of December 1900, August Wacker had found a solution to the problem of co-owned property. With the “insanity of defendant suggested,” he could quickly eliminate Louise’s lack of consent from the equation. It was a solution he would employ again in the coming years. n

Next: Louise and August’s story is carried on to its (spoiler) sad conclusion.