News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 16, 2012

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: The link between Alexander B. Crane and John P. Baird

Mike McCormick
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Alexander Baxter Crane became one of the most successful lawyers on Wall Street.

Crane was a Terre Haute resident for only 11 years but that was long enough for him to become irrevocably linked to the community and the friends he made there.

The son of Abial Briggs and Emma Porter Crane was born April 23, 1833 in Berkley, Mass. He graduated from Amherst College in 1854 and promptly settled in Terre Haute to read law under the supervision of Richard W. Thompson.

Upon admission to the bar in 1856, he associated with William Edward McLean, a prodigy who graduated from Indiana University before he was 20 years old.

Crane helped prosecute several important cases, including the trial against Lewis Bradford for the Aug. 10, 1860, murder of John L. Brooks. Bradford was found guilty on Sept. 14, 1860, and was executed by hanging Jan. 4, 1861.

In early August 1862, Indiana Gov. Oliver P. Morton asked John Pierson Baird, perhaps Terre Haute’s most esteemed trial lawyer, and Crane to establish the 85th Indiana Volunteers in Vigo County. The regiment was mustered in on Sept. 4. Baird was commissioned colonel and Crane was designated lieutenant colonel.

Though Col. Baird and Col. Crane were friends before the war, they were destined to become much better acquainted. Baird had no military training while Crane was only an “inert fourth corporal” of Capt. Mark Hough’s Terre Haute Guards.

Serving as judge before a military commission in Danville, Ky., during late 1862, in Crane’s presence, Col. Baird established a precedent by allowing black witnesses to testify over objections by the defense in a trial against a white defendant.

On March 5, 1863, both Baird and Crane were captured by Confederate troops commanded by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest at Thompson’s Station, Tenn. Baird’s physical health began to deteriorate during the trip during cold weather  to Libby Prison in Richmond, Va. A bladder infection caused him incredible anguish.

Baird was released first in a prisoner exchange. “If good fortune had not relieved Baird before the rest of us,” Crane later said, “I think we should have left his body at Richmond as he was breaking down when he left. Baird’s name was called, being alphabetically the first colonel, and he bade me goodbye and left.”

Crane was not present at Fort Granger when Baird was mandated by Gen. James Garfield to hang Confederate spies Col. Lawrence Orton Williams and Lt. Walter G. Peter. Peter’s uncle was married to Martha Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s granddaughter, and Williams’ mother was a cousin to Robert E. Lee’s wife.

Previous columns and “Terre Haute: Queen City of the Wabash” described the incident at Fort Granger at length and extensive treatment of the episode also can be found in “Coburn’s Brigade,” the excellent history by Frank Welcher and Larry Ligget.

After Baird returned to the regiment, Crane perceived the mental impact the hangings had upon his friend. “Though he had gone through the incident with great nerve and with a full sense of responsibility,”  Crane wrote nearly 18 years later, “yet he was much overcome by it. His whole sympathies were enlisted for those two men.”

On July 20, 1864, permanent disability forced Baird to yield his duties to Crane, provoking one subordinate to write:

“In every battle [Col. Baird] was our leader … [H]is coolness under fire and sound judgment in maneuvering his command, and his uniform kindness and care for his men has won for him a reputation of which he may be proud.”

Crane steered the 85th Indiana during the Atlanta campaign and Sherman’s “March to the Sea.” Meanwhile, Baird returned to Terre Haute and, upon recovering from his several physical ailments, resumed a law practice in partnership with Gen. Charles Cruft, commander of the 31st Indiana Volunteers.

On July 12, 1865, Crane wed Laura Cornelia Mitchell, daughter of Charleston, S.C., lawyer John W. Mitchell. Alexander entered into a partnership at 92 Broadway in New York City with his father-in-law and brother-in-law.

In 1873, Col. Crane was among the first few affluent executives to commute to work in New York by rail by acquiring “Holmhurst,” a palatial residence in Scarsdale, N.Y., founded in 1851. He also became active in community affairs in or around the home. The Cranes raised six children.

Over the years the Cranes acquired more land in Scarsdale than anyone except Caleb Heathcote and transformed Holmhurst into a immense estate. Stones used for additions to the mansion came from quarries in Crane Woods. What became Crane Road used to be a farm lane. Several Scarsdale streets are surnames in Alexander’s ancestry.

There were two cottages on the Holmhurst acreage in addition to the mansion. After Laura Crane’s death on Jan. 26, 1917, Col. Crane lived there with three of his five daughters and a cook until his death April 16, 1930, eight days before his 97th birthday.

A property superintendent, his wife and two workmen and a chauffeur, his wife and a daughter resided in the cottages.

In 1951, the Crane estate was sold to the Trinity Lutheran Church.

Col. Crane did not forget Terre Haute or the friends he made there. He returned periodically for reunions and special events. Baird was not so fortunate. Plagued by the memory of two executions in Franklin, Tenn., he faced another setback while witnessing the Dec. 23, 1869, hanging of client Oliver Anson Morgan, a Civil War veteran.

In 1875, Baird had a mental relapse. On April 1, 1876, he voluntarily entered the Indiana Hospital for the Insane in Indianapolis and died there March 7, 1881, at age 51.

Col. Crane’s eulogy, read before the bar association on March 21, included the following remarks:

“I have never known a man who did more thinking than Col. Baird. He talked law, he thought law, he dreamed law. And he had an intuitive knowledge of men. He read men better than books.

“[S]ince residing in New York I have been  … connected with some very able lawyers, but I can truthfully say I have never met a lawyer more able and none so dangerous as an opponent.”