Thomas Dunham: South Bend’s justice of the peace who died of a curse?

Aaron Helman

Dunham Street is a broken road on South Bend’s west side, running east and west in bits and pieces through old Polish neighborhoods, split once by train tracks, once by an overpass, and another time by neighborhood development.

It’s a mailman’s nightmare and might just be the most confusing road in South Bend.

A line drawn directly south from Ford Street would intersect three different versions of Dunham Street.

The highlighted roads are all Dunham Street.

It didn’t used to be that way. The acreage on the west side of South Bend had to belong to someone before the Polish immigration, and much of it belonged to Thomas Dunham, a native of Reading, Pennsylvania, who didn’t arrive in South Bend until he was 56 years old in 1865. By that point, he’d traveled and settled extensively throughout Ohio, even serving a few terms as mayor of Jeromeville. It’s not known what caused him to leave or what brought him to Indiana.

Whatever the impetus, Dunham’s decision was going to pay off, and it was going to pay off quickly. The South Bend transplant established a grocery store at the epicenter of Kalamity Korners, and began to acquire real estate on the city’s westside, a section of the city that was about to grow faster than almost any place in the nation. Whether it was luck or premonition, Dunham’s real estate deals were about to make hum a fortune, with sales reported in the Tribune on an almost weekly basis through the 1870s. As a land broker, Dunham was to the city’s west side what Miner Listenberger had been to the east side.

Clipping from The South Bend Weekly Tribune, March 29, 1873.

Originally, Dunham Street was named only to mark the land that had belonged to Dunham, and the houses in that area were deeded officially as being a part of Dunham’s Subdivision. But by 1873 the council voted to extend the road (and its name!) beyond the edges of Dunham’s landholdings, along with Ford Street and Napier Street. Just eight years after he arrived in South Bend, Thomas Dunham had a major – and growing – city thoroughfare that carried his name.

There were other small steps that Dunham would take to bolster the public’s perception of him. He served as a moderator and judge for public debates. His grocery store became ground zero for the city’s Republican campaign efforts. And he established himself as the area’s premier chestnut dealer:

Clipping from the South Bend Tribune, December 5, 1874.

It was 1877 the first time Thomas Dunham found himself thrust into political office. Judge Mark Whinery, who had for years been a steady and trustworthy justice of the peace, had begun acting erratically and unexpectedly. Eventually, he was forced to cede his position due to cause of insanity, and the county commissioners installed Dunham in his place. It had been barely a decade since Dunham landed in South Bend, but already the Tribune was calling him “one of the oldest and most substantial residents of the city.”

Justice Dunham found himself entrenched in all kinds of legal issues, punishing public drunkenness, prosecuting wheat thieves, and in one instance, fining a schoolteacher $2 for chastising one of his pupils “too severely.”

Dunham consented to run for re-election in 1878 but would not claim a victory. He was supplanted by Solomon Palmer in March 1878, but Dunham’s respite from the office would not last long. Palmer died just two months after taking office, and then began the whispers that the office of justice of the peace was cursed. When Dunham agreed once again to fill the vacant seat, he didn’t imagine that he would be the one to prove the curse correct.

On September 4, 1879, Justice Dunham was presiding over the insanity case of a self-professed clairvoyant named Hannah Smith. When Smith placed a hex upon Dunham during the proceedings, it was just the beginning of her dark story. During the coming years, she’d go on to be arrested for thievery, prostitution, underground saloonery and for running a notorious brothel out of her home at Colfax and Seebirt.

But if the curse was Smith’s dark beginning, it was Dunham’s darker end. Less than an hour after the alleged clairvoyant spoke her threat, Thomas Dunham was dead of a brain hemorrhage. The next day, Smith was determined by a judge to be “possessed of the devil to a large degree.”

Thomas Dunham is buried in the City Cemetery.

Aaron Helman is an author, historian and adventurer from South Bend. You can probably find him at the South Bend Brew Werks. His books are available at