Monday, Jan. 7, 1861, was a chilly evening in Evansville. A formally dressed crowd of prosperous citizens had gathered at the Mozart Hall, located on Lower First Street (roughly where the parking lot of Vectren’s Downtown headquarters is now), for a belated New Year’s Eve ball. Probably the prime topic of conversation was the recent secession of South Carolina from the Union over the presidential election of Abraham Lincoln two months earlier. The band played, and hoop skirts swished across the dance floor.
During the evening, two brothers from a prominent family — Robert M. Evans and John Paul Evans, grandsons of the late Colonel Robert Evans for whom the growing city was named — entered into a raucous argument over unknown issues, but witnesses admitted both were in a serious state of drunkenness. As the disagreement heated, both men threw punches and then drew guns. The other party guests hid behind pillars and doorways. Like a scene from a Western movie, the brothers fired 15 shots. John Paul was shot in the head and died instantly, but not before he had lodged two bullets in Robert’s chest and stomach. The shots killed him 20 minutes after impact. A stray shot slew 6-year-old Solomon Gumberts, the son of a prominent family. Someone ran to the Evans home to alert a soon-to-be-broken-hearted mother, Saleta Evans, who rushed to the scene.
Saleta spent the rest of her life devoted to temperance. In 1878, she raised funds to construct Evans Hall on the site of the present Koch Family Children’s Museum of Evansville (cMoe), which, in September, turns five years old. Evans Hall provided meeting space for the growing Women’s Christian Temperance Union. At its peak, the organization boasted 200 members, but that number dwindled after Prohibition was overturned in 1933.
As for the building, it was the largest public gathering place in the city until 1916 when the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Coliseum was constructed at Fourth and Court streets. The building was demolished in 1930 for construction of the then-new Central Library which served the reading public until the current library opened in 2004 on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Any memories of Saleta’s passion for temperance have been replaced by cMoe’s interactive exhibits — from catapulting water balloons in the Quack Factory to pulling on nose hairs in the Live Big exhibit.