Penitentiary Rocks

Penitentiary Rocks may be prison
for more gold, but who has a key?

"Morning Assignment"
by Joe Aaron
The Evansville Courier
Wednesday, 25 August 1982

Penitentiary Rocks, Ind. -- If you stand on the riverbank in the village of Magnet, facing toward Kentucky, and then you glance off to your left, you will see where once stood the hamlet of Galey, never much of a place and now gone entirely.

And if you look beyond there, to that area obscured by hills and dense forest, you will be able to see the general area where the canyon they call Penitentiary Rocks is located.

It is a wild and pretty place, I am told, and any sign that there was once civilization there has been grown over by trees and the underbrush.

But it is an absorbing chapter out of Perry County history, and I suspect that if you asked around you'd have very little trouble in locating somebody who once dug for the hidden gold that is said to be buried there.

And I though you might like to know, since it is rather an unusual name, just how Penitentiary Rocks came to be called that. I mean to fall back on the expertise of Otis Saalman to tell you.

A resident of Branchville, Ind., and a man of indefatigable enthusiasm for area history, Saalman says Penitentiary Rocks got its name from the fact that it once was a penitentiary of sorts -- for stolen horses.

Then he told of the Prather family -- a man and his four sons who carried on a thriving business in the widespread theft of horses, more than a century ago.

And they weren't just a two-penny operation, either, for they ranged as far afield as Illinois, stealing horses there and then swimming them back across the Wabash into Indiana.

Then they brought them to the wild canyon near their home -- the canyon that came to be called Penitentiary Rocks -- and kept them there until they had on hand a good, big bunch of them.

Then they would swim them across the Ohio River into Kentucky and take them from there into Tennessee, where they sold them -- for gold.

They must have had a superstition about paper money because they invariably insisted on payment in gold.

And they must have harbored a certain distrust of banks, too, because they buried their profits around the old home place.

Well, the Prathers continued in this profitable fashion for several years, and although the father was a sickly, crippled man unable to go out on the actual thieving forays, his was nonetheless a vital role in the operation.

When the boys had stolen their horses and brought them back home, they drove them past their father's bedroom window and he would set the price that each should bring.

It was what we of today undoubtedly would refer to as a "sweet deal," and the money -- the gold -- just came pouring in.

But one day they were caught, as most thieves usually are after a while, and they were hauled off to prison, the brothers in handcuffs and their father carried on a cot to the steamboat.

It was in prison that all of them except one of the brothers died.

In the meantime their farm was sold to a man named Etienne, pronounced A-chin.

And one day several years later a stranger came to his door asking could he please borrow a shovel.

Etienne, while perhaps not a suspicious man but certainly a curious one, asked what did he want with it.

The man with full candor said he was going to use it to dig up some gold, and offered to make Etienne his partner in the undertaking, if he'd help carry it.

He said they would split even-steven.

And with that, Etienne reported in later years, the man took so many steps this way and so many steps that way, which put him smack in the middle of the Etienne garden, and he started digging.

Within a short time the shovel hit the top of a chest that contained all the gold coins that both of them could carry.

A lot of people have always felt that was only part of the gold, not all of it buried on that farm, but all of the digging over the past century has not produced a solitary coin.

And now you know as much about Penitentiary Rocks as I do, and maybe as much as Saalman, although I wouldn't bet on it. He probably held back a tidbit or so as a finder's fee.