Henri Marion, Naval Interpreter and Pigeon Expert, Dead at Culver, Indiana

Culver Postcard 1906

You can thank Jonathan Jennings for making the Hoosier State a Great Lakes State two-hundred years ago, when he got Congress to nudge the border with Michigan a few miles north.  But even with our gorgeous sand dunes stretched out under the shadow of the steel mills, Indiana hardly jumps to mind when it comes to maritime history.

That didn’t stop me from fishing for some home-grown Hoosier connections to the Life Aquatic.  (Did you know that even far-inland parts of the state, like Leavenworth down on the Ohio River, once had thriving boatbuilding enterprises, with craftsmen turning out graceful wooden skiffs shipped around the U.S.?)

One of Indiana’s surprising links to the sea was Professor Henri Marion, whose obituary ran in the South Bend News-Times on August 15, 1913.

Marion was born in Tours, France, in 1857, and emigrated with his wife Jeanne Marie to America around 1883, when the couple were still in their twenties.  The Marions may have lived briefly in Charleston, South Carolina, where their son Paul Henry Marion, who later served in the Navy, was born in 1884.  In 1886, Henri Marion was a language teacher at the Norwood Institute on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C.  An ad for the school listed him as a graduate of the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris.

By 1891, though, Marion had become a French professor at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

An esteemed instructor there, Henri Marion may have been involved in the early use of the phonograph in teaching languages to naval cadets.   Curiously, the French professor also got involved in another “linguistic” innovation involving technology — not “pidgin” English, but another kind of “pigeon” entirely.


Outing October 1894

(A pigeon-cote on the armored cruiser Constellation around 1894.)


The instructor was at the forefront of a U.S. Navy effort to improve the sending of messages via homing pigeon.     An issue of Outing in October 1894 has this to say about it:

The military use of messenger pigeons has grown up since the Franco-Prussian war, when pigeons were first extensively used during the siege of Paris.  In France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain and Portugal, the organization of military pigeon posts is now very complete, some of the nations owning upwards of six-hundred thousand birds.  As homing pigeons are of no use as bearers of messages except after long and careful training, a service of messenger pigeons for naval or military use could not be improvised at short notice.

The United States messenger pigeon service has now been in existence for three years, under the charge of Prof. Henri Marion, United States Naval Academy, who has frequently urged that a permanent service be established along the Atlantic coast, from Portland, Maine, to Galveston, Texas. . .

In peace, the birds would be useful in giving notice of wrecks, fire at sea, lack of food, water or coal, or of any accident to vessels or machinery, if happening near the coast, and could frequently relieve the anxiety of friends of passengers on vessels overdue. . . When in October 1883 a light-ship broke from her moorings twenty-two miles from Tornung, off the mouth of the Eider, four pigeons were liberated from the ship and brought the news in fifty-eight minutes.

In 1896, Professor Marion filed a patent for a new watertight aluminum message holder that would be attached to the bird’s legs.  Scientific American reported that Marion’s improved “quill” weighed “less than eight grains” and can “be fastened to the pigeon in an instant.”


Henri Marion Homing Pigeon Patent 1896

(Marion’s patent for a message holder, October 1896.)


Around 1905, before he began spending his summers as a language teacher in northern Indiana, Henri Marion got involved with another strange naval odyssey:  the discovery of the remains of John Paul Jones.

The Scottish-born Revolutionary War hero was most famous for captaining the Bonhomme Richard in a famous battle against the British vessel Serapis, fought off Flamborough Head in Yorkshire in 1779.  Though hailed as the “Father of the U.S. Navy,” John Paul Jones fell from grace and entered the service of Catherine the Great’s Russian Navy in 1787, battling the Turks on the Black Sea, then wandered around Poland and Sweden, desperately looking for a country to serve.  Jones ended up in Paris in 1790 in the early days of the French Revolution.  Sick and miserably lonely, the 45-year-old hero died of a kidney ailment at his apartment in Paris in 1792.  One of the captain’s few friends found him dead, kneeling face-down at the edge of his bed, apparently in prayer before his spirit took flight (or set sail?)

Thinking (wrongly) that the U.S. government would be interested in repatriating the hero’s remains for an honorable burial in America, a French admirer sought to preserve his body, even as the American ambassador, Gouverneur Morris, refused to help give Jones a proper burial in Paris.  (“I had no right to spend money on such follies,” Morris wrote.)  Like his contemporary Mozart, who was chucked into a mass grave in Vienna just six months earlier, only a few servants and friends attended Jones’ burial in the St. Louis Cemetery, which was set aside for “foreign Protestants.”   The body was stuck in a lead-lined coffin filled with alcohol to aid preservation in case the American government ever ordered an exhumation.  Just a few weeks later, after 600 Swiss Guards died defending King Louis XVI at his palace and were tossed in a mass grave next to Jones’ new coffin, the exact site of his burial became more and more mysterious.

The horrible burying ground later became a garden, then a refuse dump covered by a midden full of animal bones and kitchen waste.  According to rumor, the neighbors held cock fights and dog fights at the site of the forgotten cemetery where America’s greatest naval hero lay.  A grocery store, laundry, and apartment house had also been built on top of it over the course of the 1800s.


John Paul Jones Last Cruise 1


In 1899, General Horace Porter, U.S. Ambassador to France from 1897 to 1905, began an amazing six-year search for Jones that culminated in the discovery, photography, and repatriation of his remains.  (I won’t spoil your lunch by posting the photos here, but I’ll just say he looks like King Tut.  You can see them here.)

Professor Henri Marion — of homing-pigeon fame — was Ambassador Porter’s interpreter in France.  Marion helped translate old documents and went on the archaeological digs that led to the discovery of John Paul Jones’ coffin.  Porter’s team battled worms, stench, and fetid water along the way.  His interpreter later wrote the definitive account of this search through subterranean Paris, a book published in 1906 as John Paul Jones’ Last Cruise and Final Resting Place at the United States Naval Academy.

Henri Marion accompanied the Revolutionary War hero as he sailed on his “final cruise” to Annapolis, Maryland, departing from Cherbourg, France, in July 1905, after lavish services at the American Church in Paris.   A 13-day crossing brought  Jones “home” to a ceremony presided over by President Theodore Roosevelt.  Jones’ bones were then laid to rest in a temporary vault at the Naval Academy on the shores of Chesapeake Bay.


Coffin of JPJ

(The coffin of John Paul Jones is lowered to the deck of the USS Standish off Annapolis Roads, July 23, 1905.  U.S. Naval Historical Center.)


Within a summer or two, the French interpreter who was so instrumental in the hunt for Captain Jones was in Marshall County, Indiana.  By about 1907, Henri Marion was serving as a French and Spanish instructor at the Culver Military Academy’s Summer Naval School, a preparatory program for teenagers interested in enrolling in the U.S. Navy.

Founded on the shores of Lake Maxinkuckee in 1894, the Culver Academy began its unique summer naval program, hailed as “the only naval school west of the Atlantic Coast,” in 1902.  Three years later, it had “125 students from twenty different states” (Plymouth Tribune).

An article in the nearby Plymouth newspaper reported on the mustering-in of a battalion of “Indiana state sailors” in 1909.  “A ship will be provided for them,” it said.

The naval instruction on Lake Maxinkuckee covers all the elementary work done by naval reserves and by the government naval training stations.  In addition, the formation of this battalion entitles Indiana to receive from the navy department a vessel for more extended drills and work in navigation on the Great Lakes.

Illinois has recently received the gunboat Nashville for this purpose and by next summer these Hoosier middies will probably receive a similar vessel.

A writer for the Indianapolis Journal in 1902 told potential tourists that “Visitors to Maxinkuckee during these months [July and August] will find the lake with quite a nautical appearance, the only feature lacking being the smell of the salt sea air.”

With the grounds illumined by Japanese lanterns, a ball was held at Culver that August.  By 1910, a floating dance pavilion called “The White Swan enticed local dancers at the popular lake resort to come enjoy the summer nights along Aubeenaubee Bay.  Guests sometimes arrived on the steamers that once plied Lake Maxinkuckee.  In 1903, Civil War naval veteran (and native Hoosier) Admiral George Brown came to visit the Culver cadets.


Culver Naval School Catalog 1904 (5)

(Naval students learn to dance at the Culver Summer Naval School.  This photo is from the institute’s debut 1902 catalog.  The cost of the 8-week program that year was $110, “including room, board, tuition and laundry.”)


Culver Naval School Catalog 1904 (3)

(“Marlinspike Seamanship,” as taught in the northern Indiana flatlands.  Students “will all be taught ship nomenclature, and the general principles which govern the building of wooden and iron ships.  They will be instructed in the use of the compass, and the lead-line and the log.  In connection with their work in seamanship, they will also be instructed in the courtesies and customs of the United States Naval Service. . . Cadets in the upper class will be taught the laws of gyratory storms. . . and will be required to learn thoroughly the ‘Rules of the Road’ for avoiding collisions at sea.”)


Country Life in America May 1907

(In May 1907, Henri Marion was mentioned in this ad from Country Life in America.  “Expert tutoring is given in any study; also a special course in modern languages, with the phonograph, under Professor Henri Marion, of the United States Naval Academy, and laboratory and other interesting special courses.”)


Culver Naval School Catalog 1904 (4)


Culver Naval School Catalog 1902 (7)


South Bend News-Times August 15 1913 (1)

South Bend News-Times August 15 1913 (2)

Possibly dealing with the effects of typhoid fever he contracted in Maryland in 1910, Henri Marion died in the hospital at Culver, Indiana, in August 1913 “after a general decline” — and not long after a fierce windstorm cut through the school and did huge damage.

The French instructor, interpreter, and pigeon-pioneer was buried at the Naval Academy’s cemetery in Annapolis.  The Culver Military Academy continues its summer naval school to this day.


Scene on Lake Maxinkuckee

(Culver-Union Township Public Library.)


Do you have a photo of Professor Marion?  I’m at staylor336 [at] gmail.com.  And take your own dive into history at Hoosier State Chronicles.

21,676 more pages!

We recently uploaded another 21,676 pages!

Included in the upload are:

Happy searching yesteryear’s news!

The Man Behind the Curtain

Do you love Hoosier State Chronicles?  Do you want to know more about the website? Would you like to know how to get the most out of your searches?  Would you like to know more about how to use the website’s crowd-sourcing and tagging features?

Then come  to a FREE demonstration of Hoosier State Chronicles on Thursday, May 21 at 1:30 pm in the Author’s Room (room 203) at the Indiana State Library (315 W. Ohio St., Indianapolis).  The program will be an hour in length, and will allow time for questions. No registration is required.

Stefan Boddie will lead the demonstration.  Boddie is the managing director of DL Consulting in New Zealand.  DL Consulting developed Veridian the collection management software which powers Hoosier State Chronicles.  Boddie will provide insights regarding how to best utilize the software’s features, and maximize your investigations into yesteryear’s news.

If you have questions about this program, you can contact Chandler Lighty.  His contact info can be found here.

Harry L. Kramer and the Candy Cathartic

Cascarets ad 2

In the sometimes not-so-good old days, Hoosier newspapers were overflowing with ads for what today we’d call snake oil.  Before the Civil War, when these papers typically only ran to four pages and often lacked enough subscribers to stay afloat, vast amounts of newsprint went to work advertising spurious quack panaceas.  As late as 1900, editors in need of underwriters for the news had no qualms about giving ad space to “doctors” who thought that cocaine could cure a sore throat or that an effervescent ginger “summer drink” could get rid of your cholera.

Nor did the amount of medical ads diminish after the war.

From the turn of the century until World War I, a massive national advertising campaign directed at mothers and kids touted a tasty cure-all with roots in the Wabash Valley:  Kramer’s Cascarets, “The Candy Cathartic.”

Born in Keokuk, Iowa, in 1861, to parents who hailed from Richmond, Indiana, Harry Lewis Kramer was a clever businessman and one of the most energetic and revolutionary advertisers of his day.

In 1890, the 29-year-old entrepreneur, who lived in Attica in Fountain County, attracted investors and started up a health resort at a spot near the spectacular Fall Creek Gorge in neighboring Warren County.

Built around a mineral spring discovered in 1884 by Civil War veteran Samuel Story (a victim of severe arthritis who noticed his ailment getting better when he sloshed around in the mud), the lavish hotel Kramer constructed first went by the name Indiana Mineral Springs, then as the Hotel Mudlavia, after the soothing mud-baths offered there.  A service town that popped up next door to the resort took the name of its postmaster, Kramer, and is still on the map, though the hotel has faded into legend.


Harry L Kramer - Fair Play Sainte Genevieve Missouri September 17 1904

(Kramer made sure his face was all over small-town American newspapers.  This clip appeared in Fair Play in Sainte Genevieve, Missouri, on September 17, 1904.  Printer’s Ink hailed Kramer as “a man of almost superhuman energy — a new Napoleon, perhaps. . . He writes his own advertisements, all of which are characterized by wonderful originality and a desire to get out of the beaten track.”)


Mudlavia Hotel 1

(Hotel Mudlavia near Williamsport, Indiana, around 1917.  This photo was taken by Anna Marie Landis, who worked at the famous resort.  Williamsport-Washington Township Public Library.)


Kramer’s sprawling Mudlavia health spa attracted the rich and famous — including boxing champion John L. Sullivan, Indianapolis poet James Whitcomb Riley, and Hoosier songwriter Paul Dresser. Papers lauded it at as “one of the finest sanatariums in the United States.”  Mudlavia ranked with the great mineral baths at French Lick, Indiana; Bedford, Pennsylvania; and Hot Springs, Arkansas.

The lure?  Not just nature — or the elaborate Chinese garden out back.  Pure mineral waters bubbling out of the Warren County hills offered relief from a vast array of bodily ailments.  Infusing water with mud, doctors and their assistants at Kramer’s resort offered a therapeutic “Magno-Mud” cure (sometimes misspelled “mango mud” in the papers), giving blissful relief to aching joints and muscles.  Kidneys and livers also went away from Mudlavia feeling much happier.


Mudlavia Hotel 2

(A guest at Mudlavia gets a mud bath, circa 1917.  An ad for Kramer’s chewing gum, “No-To-Bac,” hangs on the wall behind him.  Click to enlarge.  Williamsport-Washington Township Public Library.)


Closely tied to Kramer’s investment in this tranquil health spa in the luscious Hoosier woods was his other main business interest: a sugary substitute for the dreaded dose of castor oil once administered by American mothers everywhere.  This was Kramer’s nationally-famous “candy cathartic,” Cascarets.

Dozens of speedy and sure-fire purgatives feature in the annals of 19th-century medicine and journalism.  From a spoonful of old-fashioned castor oil itself to a gentler “Castoria” and a wide variety of sarsaparillas and “fig liver syrups,” our ancestors knew plenty of ways to achieve what they rightly saw as the highly-desirable result of these over-the-counter drugs:  a vigorous flush of the intestines.


warner's log cabin sarsaparilla

(Hoosiers William Henry Harrison and his grandson Benjamin Harrison appeared on this 1880’s ad for a cure-all wonderworker.)


I’m not sure if Kramer ever studied chemistry and medicine or just stuck to the business end of things.  But in the 1890s he made a fortune selling laxatives.  (The Attica entrepreneur also marketed a chewing gum called No-To-Bac, which claimed to help smokers kick the habit.)  Pioneered at a lab in Attica, by 1899 five million boxes of octagonal, chocolaty-tasting Cascarets were pouring out of Kramer’s factories in Chicago and New York.

“Cascaret Kramer” revolutionized American advertising, but he was no medical Napoleon.  Plant-based laxatives, used to flush out the bowels, had figured for millennia into folk medical practice.  The jolt to the nether regions customers got from these candy cathartics came from the drug’s most potent ingredient, the bark of a species of buckthorn tree — the cascara, native to the Pacific Northwest, northern California, and Idaho.  Early Spanish explorers called this diminutive tree the cascara sagrada (“sacred bark”).  Mixed with aloe and the roots of rhubarb, Native Americans on the Pacific Coast and in the Northern Rockies used it as a natural purgative.

By the late 1800s, trainloads of buckthorn bark were being shipped out of the Northwest to pharmaceutical companies around the world in quantities that endangered the tree’s survival.  Much of the bark went to the factories of the Sterling Remedy Company, Kramer’s wildly successful over-the-counter pharmaceutical enterprise.

Like other Americans,  Hoosiers were wild for a good clean-out.  Kramer helped create the craze.  On April 25, 1907, the Indianapolis News ran a full page-length ad (really a medical manifesto). “The Curse of Constipation” was almost certainly written by Harry Kramer.


Indianapolis News April 25 1907


Often Caused by Castor Oil and Salts

A Warning That All Should Read and Heed

Constipation is indeed the curse of mankind.  From a simple bit of carelessness this dreadful destroyer of life gets a hold on its victim and slowly but surely tortures him to a horrible death.

It is a fact that all people at some time or other become constipated, and if the warning be not instantly heeded, and the system put back into working order without delay, the victim is marked for death — a long, lingering one, often so disguised that no one would dream of its original cause.

It is also true that nearly every disease recorded by medical science has its beginning in constipation.  Yes, great learned men have said that if people would learn to keep their bowels in order there would be no disease.  Professor B. Howard Rand, the great professor of chemistry in the famous Jefferson Medical College, as a farewell advice to the newly graduating class of young doctors, always said “Trust in God and keep your patients’ bowels open!”

Going into amazing detail in the pages of the News, Kramer went on to describe how Cascarets “begin to cure the moment you begin to chew them.”  These buckthorn candies give “tone and strength” to the walls of the intestines and (so the ad went) help purify the blood, give “a ruddy complexion; bright eyes; clear, active brain; everything that makes life worth living.”  Kramer promoted his tablets as useful against ills far beyond those affecting the intestines.  Children’s diseases, headaches, nervous ailments, female complaints, skin diseases, appendicitis, oral thrush, and worms could all be kept in check or cured.

Some of the drug’s benefits were almost certainly mythic.  One of many printed endorsements ran: “After taking Cascarets for a few nights before writing, I was able to pass a tape-worm 24 feet in length.  Cascarets have our praise. . . — Mrs. Harry Wood, Kenneth, Indiana.”

Kramer sold his candy cathartic for a dime in handy, pocket-sized metal boxes.  “You don’t know until you try how much good is crowded into a little 10-cent box.”


Gunters Magazine Advertiser

(“Grandfather’s Cure for Constipation,” one of Kramer’s humorous ads, appeared in Gunter’s Magazine Advertiser in 1906.)


Cascarets - South Bend News Times November 20 1918

(Kramer’s clever marketing extended to kids, who often didn’t realize they were taking “medication” when they downed a sweet Cascaret.  “They are harmless and safe for the little folks.”  This ad from the South Bend News-Times on November 20, 1918, shows a “Kid’s Indignation Meeting.”  A marketing genius, Kramer often paid to have his ads run in the regular news columns of papers.)


South Bend News Times November 19 1918 (3)

(South Bend News-Times, November 19, 1918.)


Cascarets - South Bend News Times November 30 1918

(South Bend News-Times, November 30, 1918.)


Cascarets - Plymouth Tribune January 16 1908

(Plymouth Tribune, January 16, 1908.)


The name and popularity of the sugar-coated laxative became so widespread that it entered the popular vocabulary.  A polo team in Anderson, Indiana, took the name “Anderson Cascarets” around 1904.  In New York City, night-workers at banks began to be known as “Cascarets” because they “work while you sleep.”

sb news times November 3 1915

(South Bend News-Times, November 3, 1915.)


Cascarets ad 4


Kramer sold his product rights for the drug to the Sterling Remedy Company around 1918 so that he could focus on his health resort at Mudlavia.  (The company was then based in Wheeling, West Virginia.)

Tragically, on February 29, 1920, a fire in a linen closet reduced the vast wooden hotel to ashes.  Many sick patients at the sanitarium, unable to walk due to rheumatism, were barely able to get out alive.  Some guests jumped from third-story windows, then suffered in the February cold even as Mudlavia smoldered in front of them.  Over fifty-thousand dollars in jewels perished in the flames.

Harry Kramer planned to rebuild the hotel, but never did.  The advent of antibiotics and the coming of the Great Depression effectively ended the heyday of the great American health spas.  (The owners of the French Lick resort in southern Indiana sold it to the Jesuits for use as a school in the 1930s for $1.00.)

Kramer retired to 1012 Ferry Street in Lafayette and died of a heart attack in 1935, apparently while visiting the license branch of the Tippecanoe County DMV.  The inventor of Cascarets is buried at Lafayette’s Greenbush Cemetery.

A retirement home and restaurant were built on the site of Mudlavia.  They, too, burned down in 1974.  (Some ghost hunters claim the site is haunted.)  As late as 2008, the natural spring that once made this place famous was still being tapped by an Indianapolis-based mineral water company.  The FDA banned the use of cascara bark in 2008, when researchers discovered the plant has carcinogenic properties and (ironically enough) may contribute to liver ailments.

Harry L Kramer at Mudlavia

(Kramer in his office at Mudlavia around 1917.)


Mudlavia Hotel 7

(Mudlavia Hotel, Attica, Indiana.  Allen County Public Library.)


Have any stories of your own from Mudlavia?  What’s the scoop?  Contact Stephen Taylor at staylor336 [at] gmail.com

The Pogue’s Run Ghosts

Ghost 2

When you dig through old newspapers for a living, you find out pretty fast that almost every street corner has an entertaining story and sometimes a haunt or two.  Like the once-wild Pogue’s Run, a harnessed underwater ghost that trickles through subterranean Indianapolis, most of these stories are “out of sight, out of mind.”

Here’s a glimpse of the spectral history of the capitol city’s Near East Side.

Pogue’s Run, which in 1914 was re-channeled underground just north of New York Street before it flows through downtown in tunnels, owes its name to a man who also vanished from sight.   Generally considered the first permanent white settler in Marion County, George Pogue, a “broad-shouldered,” dark-haired South Carolinian and blacksmith, was also, according to some accounts, the first recorded murder victim and the only man ever killed by Indians in Indianapolis.

Settling in this isolated part of the new Hoosier State in March 1819, Pogue built a cabin for his family of seven roughly where Pogue’s Run goes underneath Michigan and Market Streets today.  The family’s cabin sat near the old swamp that used to occupy most of the northeast outskirts of downtown.  Also called Perkins Run after another early settler who left the area “on account of loneliness,” the old stream in 1819 was wild and often flooded, not the sad open ditch and sewage channel it became just a few decades later.


Indianapolis Journal January 5 1890


As an Indianapolis Journal article from January 5, 1890, tells the story, around the first of April, 1821, a Delaware or Wyandotte Indian known to whites as “Wyandot John” showed up at the Pogue family’s cabin.  Rumor had it that the wanderer was an outlaw even among the Delawares — he was probably also a horse-thief, one of the worst offenses in those days.

Mrs. Pogue objected to Wyandot John being around the cabin, but the blacksmith gave him breakfast.  Some of Pogue’s horses had gone missing, and the visitor told him to go over to a Delaware Indian camp on Buck Creek twelve miles away.

Striking out into the woods, George Pogue, like the creek that still bears his name, never came back.  His murdered body may have been sent floating downstream.  (In 2013, a jaw bone showed up at Garfield Park, somehow prompting investigators to ask if it was George Pogue’s.)

Indianapolis Journal January 5 1890 (2)

As the young city grew, the often rampaging creek rapidly came to be considered a “source of pestilence.”  Before legislators moved the Indiana capitol north from Corydon in 1825, they allotted $50 to rid Pogue’s Run of mosquitoes, which bred the malaria that killed off many infant towns on the Midwestern frontier.  Even as late as the Civil War, what became the Near East Side was thought of as remote from downtown and practically wild country.

On May 20, 1863, the creek was the site of the so-called “Battle of Pogue’s Run.”  At the Indiana State House, ten-thousand Democrats — including Copperheads and suspected members of the pro-Confederate Knights of the Golden Circle — gathered to protest the Lincoln administration.  Two months before the Battle of Gettysburg, the war was going badly for the Union, and Lincoln had just passed the Emancipation Proclamation, which angered Southern sympathizers.  With tensions at white heat, a large military force kept an eye on the Democrats downtown.  (Under the leadership of Dr. Thomas Bowles, the founder of French Lick, Indiana, the Knights eventually plotted to kidnap Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton and violently overthrow the state government.)

That May, as Union soldiers confiscated pistols from Democrats at the Legislature, the crowd boarded trains to get out of the city.  Stopped on the tracks, one train car was raided for weapons.  On another, passengers (including many women, whom the Democrats believed wouldn’t be searched) threw somewhere between 500 and 2,000 pistols, rifles, and knives out the train window into the creek.  Republicans lampooned it as the “Battle of Pogue’s Run.”

A ghost story from the Civil War years set here appeared in the Indianapolis News on January 29, 1889:

Pogues Run Elm - Indianapolis News January 29 1889 (2)

Traditions of a Haunted Elm Tree in the Pogue’s Run Bottoms.

Nowhere on Hoosier soil has nature nourished such giant trees as in the Pogue’s Run bottoms.  In the days when trees were not appreciated the hand of the destroyer felled nearly all the great elm, walnut and sycamore peculiar to this district, but here and there a few remain, stately testimonials of the old-time forest grandeur.  There are elm trees here and there along the run that are wonders in this day.  On East Michigan street, beyond the creek, is one monarch whose branches have a diameter of over a hundred feet, and close to this one is the stump of a burnt-out sycamore, still showing signs of life, in which a family could comfortably live.  The interior of the hollow tree is eight feet across in the clear.

But one tree belonging to this group is better known than all the rest.  It is sometimes called “hangman’s elm,” sometimes “the gallows tree,” and occasionally the boys of the neighborhood speak of it as “the home of the ghost.”

The neighbors don’t believe in spooks, but somehow or other tradition has handed down a ghost story that will not die.  The public records and the memory of the “oldest inhabitant” furnish no evidence on this point, but there is a story in the air to this effect:  During the war, one day when there was bloody news from the front, and when human life was cheap, the body of an unknown man was found hanging from this particular tree.  Soldiers who climbed the tree to cut down the body found a curiously concealed opening in the tree.  It was instantly concluded that the hollow interior of the elm should be the place of sepulture.  The body was lowered into the hollow tree, but apparently it struck no bottom.  Certainly it gave forth no sound in falling.

It may have been that the dust and accumulation of rotted particles of the tree’s heart had made a soft, deep bed within so that no sound of the falling body came forth.  Or was it possible that the spreading roots of the elm walled in a deep “cave of the winds” or well?  At any rate nothing was heard when the body tumbled to its uncertain grave.

The spot where the supposed burial tree stood long ago became part of the city.  The site is beautiful.  Lots have been sold and houses built all about it.  A stranger bought the lot on which the tree stands.  But he will never build there.  One of the neighbors says:

“From the swaying branches of the old elm come mournful sounds of distress, and many a man passing that way has been horrified at the footfalls of invisible pursuers.  Dim figures are sometimes seen in the neighborhood, but these always retrace their cloudy way to the tree and are, as it were, swallowed up by it . . .”


elm tree


By the 1890s, much of the eleven-mile course of Pogue’s Run was an open, festering sewer pit, clogged with industrial, animal and human waste.  Newspaper accounts from the time suggest that one of the most polluted sections of the creek was in the Cottage Home neighborhood just west of the federal arsenal (the building later became Arsenal Tech High School.) In 1897, Indianapolis city commissioners were already considering turning the de facto sewer into a controlled sewage conduit, as the creek “pulled pranks” in the form of deadly floods, doubly disastrous considering the amount of bacterial waste in the water.  In 1890, the Journal spoke of its appalling and unsanitary “odoriferous waters,” which boys who “Worked Like Beavers”  dammed up to make a swimming hole in 1903 — “for bathing purposes.”

The idyllic landscapes painted by pioneer Hoosier artists Jacob Cox and Christian Schrader show the creek before it was fouled up in the late 1800s.


pogue's run swimming hole - jacob cox 1840

(Pogue’s Run Swimming Hole by Jacob Cox, 1840s.  This spot is now the site of Indianapolis Union Station.)


Pogue's Run Covered Bridge 1850s Christian Schrader

(This drawing by Christian Schrader shows the Pogue’s Run Covered Bridge, which once sat on the National Road near the intersection of College Avenue and East Washington St.)


Several old-fashioned bridges, made of stone and wood, crossed Pogue’s Run  in the 1890s.  Stories went around that at least one of these, at the intersection of Highland Avenue and what used to be called Campbell Street, had a spook.

The Indianapolis Journal ran the story in 1896.  (Campbell was renamed East North Street that September, three months before “The Pogue’s Run Ghost” came out on December 11.)  This Gilded-Age paranormal site is at 603 N. Highland Ave., less than a block west of Arsenal Tech’s tennis court.

Pogue's Run Ghost 1

Pogue's Run Ghost 2 Pogue's Run Ghost 3

Pogue's Run Ghost 4

Could the “specter” have been just the fog of the creek — or was it the spooky miasmas of sewage elevating into the air?  (That sounds sinister enough to me!)

As far as I can tell, this piece of ghost-lore never showed up again in the city’s newspapers, and might have dropped out of memory altogether when a modern concrete bridge was put here.  But maybe Google’s Nine-Eyes sees what we can’t see?  Like this blurry spot on the new bridge, captured here in June 2014:

564 N Highland Ave (6)


564 N Highland Ave (5)


Pogues Run Bridges - Indianapolis News May 13 1905

(The Indianapolis News portrayed some of the old stone bridges that once crossed Pogue’s Run in May 1905, on the eve of a dramatic re-engineering project that sent it through tunnels downtown.)


I want to mention one last, and arguably far more amazing, story here. . .

A few steps south of the “ghost bridge” is a parking lot at 564 N. Highland Avenue.  For decades, this was the site of a small shotgun house owned and occupied by Louisa Magruder, daughter of Thomas Magruder, whom many believe to be the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom.

As Joan Hostetler has shown over at HistoricIndianapolis.com, Louisa Magruder lived next to the so-called ghost bridge from the 1870s until her death in 1900 at age 92.  The elderly woman must have heard these spooky stories, since she was probably the phantom’s closest neighbor.


Louisa Magruder


Louisa’s land along Pogue’s Run had once been part of a farm and orchard owned by Indiana Governor Noah Noble, whose father kept the Magruders in slavery back in Virginia and Kentucky.  The Magruders were freed when the Nobles moved north to Indiana around 1820, though they continued to be employed as servants in the governor’s family.  Louisa, who had been a nanny for the Nobles, lived along the creek for almost thirty years after the Civil War.

What might have been the real inspiration for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — her father Thomas’ house at the corner of East Market St. and North College Ave. — sat barely a mile southwest of her house in Cottage Home.  The novelist Harriet Stowe’s brother, abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, was a Presbyterian minister in Indianapolis in the 1840s and often visited the Magruder cabin, where he must have known her, and Stowe herself lived in Cincinnati.  As pioneer historian J.P. Dunn writes in his 1910 History of Greater Indianapolis: “It is the testimony of the Noble family that ‘Mrs. Stowe was a frequent visitor at Uncle Tom’s cabin, and wrote much of her book there’. . . Uncle Tom had but two children, Moses and his younger sister Louisa, and they were middle-aged people when Mrs. Stowe knew them.”


image

image

image


Do you know about other Near East Side haunts and happenings?  I’m listening.  Contact Stephen Taylor at staylor336 [at] gmail.com

Lew Wallace and the Circassian Girl Hoax

an_odalisque_joseph_douglas

Enlightened 21st-century cruisers and abusers of the internet know the term “gone viral”: a video or tweet, often based on totally bogus handling of the facts, skyrockets to global popularity in days or even hours.

But viral news is as old as news itself.

In the early 1880s, Indiana’s great novelist and war hero, General Lew Wallace, author of the bestselling Ben-Hur, got caught up in one of the more trumped-up tales of nineteenth-century journalism — a story which, it turns out, has an incredibly bizarre “cousin” today, reverberating in the deadly chasms of fantasy that cut through the majestic sierras of the World Wide Web.  So beware, fellow climber: Lady Eros and the Yellow Journalist still get together.

The mildly erotic tale begins around 1883, when Lew Wallace was a well-known American public figure.  To quickly recap his bio: son of Governor David Wallace of Indiana, the “militant romantic” had served in the worst battles of the Civil War; sat on the trials of the Lincoln conspirators and Henry Wirz, the Swiss-born Confederate commander of Andersonville prison; fought as a Juarista general in the Mexican Army during the French invasion of 1865; and as Territorial Governor of New Mexico, helped reign in the outlaw Billy the Kid.

Slowly propelled to greater fame when Ben-Hur came out, Lew Wallace  went to Constantinople in 1881 as U.S. Minister to the Ottoman Empire.  The general and his wife, writer Susan Wallace, were ardent Orientalists. Yet Ben-Hur, set in Palestine, was published a year before they ever saw the Middle East, its description based on research in the Library of Congress.  Now, the couple traveled around the eastern Mediterranean.

During his four years as an American diplomat in Constantinople, the Hoosier writer became close friends with Ottoman Sultan Abdül Hamid II — though Wallace famously became “the first person to demand that the sultan shake his hand.”  When Grover Cleveland was elected U.S. President in 1884, Wallace’s term ended.  Abdül Hamid tried to get his friend to stay on and represent Turkish interests in Europe.  Wallace, instead, came home to Montgomery County.


       feb14lewwallace      Sultan Abdul Hamid II


Lew Wallace Autobiography

(Lew Wallace described watching a Turkish infantry and Circassian cavalry drill with the Ottoman Sultan in his Autobiography, published in 1906.)


The gossip mill, however, was already rolling years before Wallace sailed home to the States.  As early as September 2, 1882, the Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail reprinted a dramatic story from The Wasp, San Francisco’s acerbic satirical weekly perhaps best-known for its lurid political cartoons attacking Chinese immigration to the West Coast.  (The Wasp has been called California’s version of Puck and was staffed by extremely talented, if racist, illustrators.)

“An Unwelcome Present” was syndicated in other papers as far away as New Zealand and often got subtitled along the lines of “What the General’s Wife Thought of the Sultan’s Present.”

As far as I can tell, the tale first originated in the pages of The Wasp on August 5, 1882, where it ran under the title “That Present.”  What I find especially fascinating is that the magazine’s editor from 1881 to 1885 was no less than the sardonic Hoosier cynic Ambrose Bierce, whose Devil’s Dictionary had its genesis as a column in the California weekly.

Ambrose Bierce in Civil War

Like Wallace, Bierce fought at the terrifying Battle of Shiloh in 1862, serving as First Lieutenant in the ranks of the Ninth Indiana Infantry.  During his days as a journalist, Bierce also worked for William Randolph Hearst at The San Francisco Examiner.  To sell papers, the newspaper giant “routinely invented sensational stories, faked interviews, ran phony pictures and distorted real events.”


The Wasp August 2 1882

(Collections of the California State Library at www.archives.org.)


Did Bierce pen some “yellow journalism” about Lew Wallace and a Turkish harem girl?  I wouldn’t put it past him.  The Wasp’s  editor was one of the biggest misogynists of his day and took constant swipes at women.  To me, “An Unwelcome Present” sounds like one of Bierce’s tales or epigrams about the diabolical battle between the sexes, which he always portrayed as just slightly less gory than the bloodbath he and Wallace survived at Shiloh.  In any case, the gossipy piece about his fellow Hoosier got published on Ambrose Bierce’s editorial watch.

Here’s the whole comic tale as it appeared on the front page of the Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail:

An Unwelcome Present (1)

An Unwelcome Present (2)

An Unwelcome Present (3)

Writer and poet Susan Wallace, who grew up in Crawfordsville and married Lew in 1852, had no reason to fear her husband would take up with a concubine.  Yet Circassian beauties were all the rage during the long heyday of Orientalism.

The exotic Circassian mystique had been around for many decades.   Inhabiting the Caucasus Mountains at the eastern end of the Black Sea near Sochi (the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics), Circassians were hailed by 19th-century anthropologists as the apogee of the human form.  “Circassophilia” churned out many exotic myths about these people in Europe and America.  During the Enlightenment, the French writer Voltaire popularized a belief that Circassian women were the most beautiful on earth, “a trait that he linked to their practice of inoculating babies with the smallpox virus.”  In the 1790s, the invention of the so-called “Caucasian” race occurred when Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, one of the founders of physical anthropology, compared the anatomy of the beautiful, martial Circassians of what became North Turkey and southern Russia with the rest of humanity and categorized the mountain folk as the least “degenerate” humans.

Yet by the time of Wallace’s tenure in the Middle East in the 1880s, these tough mountaineers had been subdued by the Russians and Ottomans after long years of bloody warfare.  Legends about dazzling Circassian beauties abounded even as Circassia itself disappeared from the map.  One popular story went that the main source of wealth for fathers in the region was their breathtakingly beautiful daughters, whom they sold off to Turkish slave markets, though as writer in The Penny Magazine thought in 1838, Circassian women were “exceedingly anxious to be sold,” since life in a Turkish harem was “preferable to their own customs.”  In Constantinople, they were highly prized in harems — not to be confused with Western prostitution.  American abolitionist and women’s rights activist Lydia Maria Child devoted a chapter to Circassia in her 1838 History of the Condition of Women.


Circassian Cream

(Women from the Caucasus were known for their luxuriant hair and fueled idealized notions of female beauty in the West.  So-called Circassian hair oils, dyes, and creams were enormously popular at the time of the American Civil War.)


circassian women 2

 (A photo of actual Circassian beauties around 1880.)


The horrible trade in female slaves from the Caucasus was alive and well in the mid-1800s, when an alleged glut in the market led to their devaluation.  Good timing for American circus mogul P.T. Barnum.  In May 1864, he wrote to one of his employees, John Greenwood, who had traveled to Ottoman Cyprus to try to buy a Circassian girl on Barnum’s behalf.  Over a year after the Emancipation Proclamation in America, the circus owner wrote:

I still have faith in a beautiful Circassian girl if you can get one very beautiful. But if they ask $4000 each, probably one would be better than two, for $8000 in gold is worth about $14,500 in U.S. currency. So one of the most beautiful would do. . . But look out that in Paris they don’t try the law and set her free. It must be understood she is free. . .  Yours Truly, P.T. Barnum

Barnum’s fascination with acquiring and exhibiting women in his shows took on the elements of a personal erotic and racial fantasy.  Though most were “local girls,” as newspapers knew, Barnum billed his “Circassians” as escaped sex slaves and “the purest specimens of the white race.”  Figments of Barnum’s imagination, these women joined the ranks of the dime-show freaks, part of the offbeat spectacle of bearded ladies, sword-swallowers, and snake-handlers that drew in paying crowds.  Barnum’s harem girls enhanced their hair with beer to create a farfetched “Afro” look — exterior representations, can we say, of the crazy fantasies in Barnum’s own head?


Circassian Girl - Matthew Brady New York 1861

(Daguerreotype of a “Circassian beauty” by Matthew Brady, New York, circa 1861.  These intentional freaks dressed in the very opposite attire of their modest Central Asian “sisters.”)


Circassian Girl ad

(A major feature of the post-bellum American sideshows, Barnum’s racial and sexual fantasies showed up on postcards, cigarette advertisements, and fliers.  An impressive gallery of “Moss-Haired Girls,” as these women were called, has been collected online at Sideshow World.)


Terre Haute Weekly Express September 22 1869

(A trainload of “freaks” came through Terre Haute in 1869.  The group included the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker, who had once toured the world but finally settled down in North Carolina.  Indiana State Geologist E.T. Cox, who had been hoaxed once, rode with them.  The conjoined twins, who married Southern women and whose sons fought for the Confederacy, did a European tour with P.T. Barnum in 1868.)


Jasper Weekly Courier August 10 1900

(Jasper Weekly Courier, August 12, 1900)


Obviously, this was not the kind of Circassian girl alleged by some gossiper or “yellow journalist” to have been given to Lew Wallace in Turkey.

On the eve of his return to America, the General tried to clear things up with the press.  The Indianapolis Journal carried this twist in the story on June 30, 1884:

Lew Wallace - That Circassian Girl - Indianapolis Journal June 30 1884

The website of the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum in Crawfordsville gives a slightly different perspective altogether:

As his tour of duty as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to the Ottoman Empire came to an end in 1884, Lew Wallace was offered a number of gifts from his friend, Sultan Abdul Hamid II. These included Arabian horses, jewels, and works of art. As a representative of the government of the United States, Wallace graciously declined these expressions of friendship and gratitude. According to legend, as Wallace closed his office and packed his residence, the Sultan was able to secretly include the painting called The Turkish Princess, some elaborate carpets and a few other items in the shipping crates. The crates were delivered to Crawfordsville before Lew and Susan returned home. These items sent by the Sultan remained undiscovered by Wallace until he was back in Crawfordsville and opened the crates. The Turkish Princess, said to be one of the Sultan’s daughters, remains one of the highlights of the Study.

Wallace’s biographers Robert and Katharine Morsberger add a further footnote: “Malicious gossip-mongers claimed that the sultan had also provided Wallace a Circassian slave girl for his carnal pleasures and commiserated with Susan Wallace on her husband’s alleged concubine.  Both the sultan and the American minister had too much honor and mutual respect for such an arrangement.”


Lew Wallace Stuy

(The Turkish Princess, by Austrian Orientalist painter Leopold Müller, is the real Circassian girl and hangs in Wallace’s study in Crawfordsville to this day.)


Now are you ready for the big twist?

While researching this story, I discovered that “Circassophilia” is alive and well out in cyberspace.

When I stumbled across a striking painting of a Circassian beauty and a couple of attached photos on one website, I read the claim that this was no less than the “Gwaschemasch’e Kadın Efendi,” thirteenth wife of Turkish Sultan Abdül Hamid, friend of our own Lew Wallace.  I would not have blamed the General if he’d taken notice of this great beauty.

Many websites, none of which looked legit, echoed this claim.  If what the anonymous folks who clutter the internet with re-posts wanted to be true was true, this stunning Circassian woman was not just the Sultan’s wife, but an occult priestess who dabbled in fertility rituals.

One photo shows her offering some kind of sacrifice at the Neolithic Mnajdra temple in Malta in 1906.  A documentary (totally fake) gives more alleged footage of “Princess Gwaschemasch’e” sporting pagan symbols painted on her body at this  ancient Maltese fertility temple.  Another photo shows the same woman with her mother in Paris in the 1890s, and a drawing of a Turkish building in flames bears the (highly convenient) caption: “Fire at Çırağan Palace (1910) — Gwaschemasche’s childhood home was completely destroyed, resulting in the loss of many priceless cultural artifacts including Gwaschemasche’s manuscripts.”  The “princess,” we’re told, even contributed to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a few decades after Wallace came back to the Midwest.


Circassian Girl painting

(The “Mother of Gwaschemash’e,” whose identity is cooked-up in a viral internet hoax, was based on a real 1876 painting by Jean-Léon Gerome, “Veiled Circassian Woman.”)


Turns out this is (or was) one of the biggest cyber hoaxes on the web. Perhaps thousands of internet users have been duped, especially on Tumblr.  A website apparently dedicated to exposing it, Circassian Voices, carries the fantastic title: “The Gwaschemasch’e Hoax: Cult of Circassian Eroticism, Neopaganism, Sisterhood of Jihad, South American Hooligans, and E-manipulation.”  Another supposed watchdog website, Knowing the Junsui, which stopped posting in 2009, will take you deep into the realm of what looks to me like a sprawling internet game, involving fabrication beyond even the usual tampering with Wikipedia and basic Photoshopping.  Circassian Voices points out a YouTube video created by a “hooligan” group in Santiago, Chile, Las Santas Guerreras de Gwaschemasch’e (“Holy Warriors of Gwaschemasch’e” — note the feminine guerreras), then suggests the whole thing might have been deliberately concocted by female Chechen warriors.  Sounds like a Jorge Luis Borges story to me!

But I’ll let you unravel all that.  Too bad Lew Wallace isn’t around to clear things up.  Alas, even the General might not be much help:

Indianapolis Journal June 30 1884

(Indianapolis Journal, June 30, 1884.)

America’s First Shot

Alexander Arch SB News Times September 9 1919 (2)

A century ago, American journalism was buzzing with news of the First World War, which the United States had still not entered.  Though jingoistic newspapermen and politicians of different stripes eventually swayed public opinion toward support for the “war against Kaiser Bill,” in 1915 sending American soldiers to Europe was still controversial.

Across the country, but especially in states with a large number of German-American voters, there was opposition to entering the war.  Isolationists and Socialists were of a similar mind, though often for different reasons.  Wisconsin’s Progressive U.S. Senator Robert LaFollette spoke out passionately against U.S. involvement, earning the ire of ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, who delivered a speech in Racine, Wisconsin, in 1917 where he called the senator a “shadow Hun” — the pejorative nickname for German soldiers.  Roosevelt toured the Upper Midwest to lash out at U.S. Representative Ernest Lundeen of Minnesota and North Dakota’s Senator Asle Gronna, both of whom later cast their votes against making a declaration of war.  (Lundeen was later accused of being a Nazi sympathizer and investigated by the FBI.)

Indiana’s own native son, Socialist presidential candidate and labor leader Eugene V. Debs, also spoke out against what he saw as America’s own involvement in militarism.  In 1918, on charges of sedition, President Wilson imprisoned Debs for his vocal opposition to the military draft during a speech in Canton, Ohio.

(If you’re a Newspapers.com subscriber, one of the more fascinating and hilarious journals from the World War I era is The Fool-Killera satirical “newspaper” published in the Brushy Mountains of Wilkes County, North Carolina, by James Larkin Pearson.  Pearson later became the Tar Heel State’s Poet Laureate.)


Fool Killer June 1 1916

(Lampooning the war-hawks “Toothadore Specksvelt” and Woodrow “Woodpile” in the June 1916 issue of his eccentric Fool Killer, James Larkin Pearson perfected the art of satire in this early forerunner of The Onion.)


Hoosier history is full of strange ironies.  One of them is this:  early on the morning of October 23, 1917, in the Luneville sector of eastern France, the first American soldier to fire an artillery shot against the “Huns” was a 24-year-old sergeant from South Bend, Alexander Arch,  a Hungarian.

Honored in newspapers in 1917 and again in 1919, after he returned from Europe and appeared in a parade with General Pershing, Arch was an emigrant from Sopron, on Hungary’s western border with Austria.  When he was born in 1894, his birth village was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which as an American soldier he was now at war with.

Arch’s parents emigrated to the U.S. in 1899, their children following in 1903, when Alexander was eight.  (They may have Anglicized their names.  His father appears on the 1910 U.S. census as “Steve Arch,” probably István in Hungarian.  Arch might have been spelled “Arcs” or “Arcz”.)  Steve Arch worked as a clerk at George Toth’s bookstore in South Bend.  Alexander’s mother, Theresa, died in 1910.


Alexander Arch SB News Times September 29 1919 (2)

(Arch with his Hungarian relatives at 239 N. Sadie Street.  South Bend News-Times, September 29, 1919.)


Alexander Arch SB News Times September 29 1919 (1)

(The photo appeared on the front page of the paper during the infamous Omaha Race Riot in Nebraska.)


In 1910, when he was 16 years old, Alexander Arch was employed at the Oliver Chilled Plough Works, one of South Bend’s major industries.  After Our Lady of Hungary Catholic Church was founded in 1916, the family were parishioners there.  Before heading to Europe, Arch was briefly stationed on the Mexican border during General John Pershing’s expedition against Pancho Villa.

A 1919 News-Times article on South Bend’s efforts to get the cannon that fired the first American artillery shell in World War I included this clip from Stars and Stripes, the official publication of the U.S. Expeditionary Force:

The first American artillery shot of the war was fired at five minutes after 6 o’clock the morning of Oct. 23, 1917, from a position about 400 meters east of Bathlemont, in the Luneville sector.

A French 75, dragged by the hands of American artillerymen over 800 meters of rough roads on a pitch black night, roared America’s artillery prelude at daybreak.  A heavy fog flashed into flame, a shrapnel shell coursed over the woods and valleys of Meurthe-et-Moselle, crossed a boundary line and fell somewhere in Lorraine.

Battery C of the sixth field artillery is so positive that this shell was America’s first shot that it has just prepared a sworn statement signed by an officer and four enlisted men who were in on the event, telling all the circumstances leading up to it.  The statement reveals, incidentally, that the original shell casing is now in Chicago, and that 18 other casings of that first morning’s firing were distributed among Pres’t Wilson, Gen. Pershing, Gen. Sibert, then commanding the first division, and others.

The gun is now at the United States Military Academy at West Point with other newly transported war trophies.   Before it left France, though, it had fired 20,000 rounds in action, and none of the gun crew serving it had been wounded.

The firing of the first shot was ceremonial, according to the signed statement, each man in the gun crew performing some task.  One soldier set the sights, another the elevation of the range, another the angle of site and another cut the fuse.  Twenty men were gathered about the gun when the command “Fire!” was given.  Because of the fog it was impossible to observe the effect of the first shot, but at 7 a.m., when the fog lifted, the firing was directed from an observation post to Haut Rioville farm in No-Man’s Land.

Sgt. Arch was chief of the gun crew, and at least one other man, Corporal Lewis Varady, a fellow Hungarian, also came from South Bend.

America’s direct involvement in World War I lasted barely a year and Arch was back in the U.S. in mid-1919.  In September, “Thunderous cheers followed by loud applause greeted Sgt. Alexander Arch, South Bend’s history maker, upon his visit to the House of Representatives. . .”  Arch and Varady received a three-minute standing ovation before heading on to Camp Zachary Taylor near Louisville, Kentucky, but not before receiving a triumphal welcome home in Indiana.

After the acclaimed veteran was mustered out of the army at Camp Taylor, he worked as a machinist and auto worker, probably at the Studebaker plant.  Arch married Julia Rebics in 1924 and the couple had four children.  He died in 1979.


Alexander Arch September 17 1919


During a victory parade in 1919, the Hoosier soldier was literally “profiled” in The Washington Times.  The newspaper thought he had a heroic face and a good jaw line, and used his experience as an exhortation to rise and shine, since “there are a good many victories won before breakfast”:

Alexander Arch Washington Times September 17 1919 (3)


Alexander Arch SB News Times September 28 1919

(South Bend News-Times, September 28, 1919.)


The News-Times had some of the best illustrators in Hoosier journalism.  Here are some other historic ads, cartoons, and flashy martial cries — most of it blatantly Germanophobic — published in the South Bend paper around the fateful year 1918.

SB News Times September 26 1918 (3)


SB News Times September 26 1918 (6)


SB News Times May 9 1918


SB News Times September 26 1918 (5)


SB News Times September 28 1918 (1)


SB News Times Sept 9 1917

That Foulsome Air May Do No Harm

vajen mask

An entry in Hyman’s Handbook to Indianapolis recently caught my eye.  A strange masked man stalks this great guide to the old and now mostly vanished architecture of the city in 1909.

My thoughts raced to Jules Verne’s deep-sea divers, Renaissance plague doctors dressed like bizarre birds, steampunk fashion designers, and of course the epic villain, Darth Vader.

Even the name of the company that once manufactured this pioneer fireman’s oxygen mask in the Hoosier State had a science-fiction ring to it: the Vajen-Bader Company.

Smoke, sulphur, and ammonia pose problems similar to those faced by divers and even doctors wading into disease-ridden “miasmas” (the “bad air” mentioned in old medical manuals).  So it should come as no surprise that the invention of smoke helmets is part of a much bigger history.  The tragedy is that the protective devices used by groundbreaking medical men, underwater explorers, and firefighters evolved into the gas masks used in the chemical warfare that made World War I so uniquely terrifying at the time.

In 1893, Indianapolis hardware salesman and inventor Willis C. Vajen earned his place in the history of masks and life-saving.


Salt Lake Herald August 10 1896 (2)

(Salt Lake Herald, Salt Lake City, Utah, August 10, 1896.)


Vajen (whose name, I believe, is pronounced “Vie-en”) came from one of the capitol city’s most prominent and wealthy families.  His father, John Henry Vajen, emigrated from Bremen, Germany, to Baltimore with his parents in 1836, then moved west with them to Cincinnati, Ohio, and eventually Jackson County, Indiana.  (John Vajen, Sr., had been a professor in Germany, a talented organist, and a Lutheran minister, and served as pastor of a large log church near Seymour.)  Vajen, Jr., went into the hardware business and made a small fortune in trading and banking.  During the Civil War, J.H. Vajen became the thrifty Quartermaster General of Indiana and was known as Governor Oliver P. Morton’s right-hand man.  He died in 1917.

Willis Vajen ultimately followed in his father’s footsteps.  After attending a seminary in Hamburg, Germany, Earlham College in Richmond, and Wittenburg College in Ohio, he, too, went into the hardware business.  His sales knack probably had something to do with his skill in design.  (Vajen filed patents for tools and machinery, like this plumb bob and a rein support for horses.)  “Vajen & New” was located at 64 E. Washington St., offering Indianapolitans the best selection of lawn mowers, saw vises, rubber hoses, fishing tackle, fly-screen doors, White Mountain Ice Cream freezers, garden rakes, rubber hoses, and roller skates.


indianapolis news april 13 1886

(Indianapolis News, April 13, 1886.)

Indianapolis Journal October 9 1884

(Indianapolis Journal, October 9, 1884.)


No mere humble merchants of garden tools and sporting goods, the Vajens married into great families.  Willis Vajen was wed to Anna Claypool, daughter of the wealthy Connersville businessman Edward F. Claypool.  (Ironically, the majestic Claypool Hotel, named for the inventor’s father-in-law and once one of the great landmarks of the city, was destroyed by arson in 1967.)  Vajen’s sister Fannie Belle married Charles Stewart Voorhees, son of Senator Daniel Voorhees.  (Charles Voorhees represented Washington Territory in Congress.)  The Vajens often vacationed at their summer cottage on Lake Maxincuckee in northern Indiana, loaning it to the Hoosier novelist Booth Tarkington and his wife Laurel Fletcher in 1902.

Yet Willis Vajen’s claim to fame is the “smoke protector” that he perfected with William Bader in 1893.  Apparently one or both of these men had witnessed a tragic hotel fire where rescuers were unable to reach the fourth floor due to smoke, the inspiration for their efforts at invention.  A German immigrant, Bader was a piano maker by profession and may have come up with the idea first.  Testimony from a lawsuit filed in U.S. Court in 1899 has it that Vajen first saw a photograph of the device in the music store where Bader worked, and the  two worked together to improve efficacy of the mask, meanwhile helped along by Dennis Swenie, Chicago’s fire chief.  A clip in the Los Angeles Herald suggests that “William Baders” was the real genius, Vajen only “furnishing the capital for the enterprise.”  The court’s verdict, however, was that Vajen deserved most of the credit.


hyman's handbook 2

(Hyman’s Handbook to Indianapolis, 1909.)


The struggle to perfect a mask that can ward off the assault of smoke, water, noxious fumes, and even the plague goes back centuries.  News articles heralding the Vajen-Bader Patent Smoke Protector often remarked that it looked like a sea-diver’s helmet.  This, too, was a new invention.  English brothers Charles and John Deane had been inspired to invent their famous copper diving helmet in the 1820s after witnessing a fire at a smoke-filled horse stable.  When the Deanes attached a leather hose to pump fresh oxygen into their firefighting helmet, scuba-diving took a great leap forward.  (While wearing such an outfit in 1836, John Deane discovered Henry VIII’s long-lost warship Mary Rose, sunk off the Isle of Wight three-hundred years before.)


Deane Helmet

(English underwater explorers John and Charles Deane invented the diver’s helmet in 1823 while figuring out a better way to fight fires.  In 1893, French marine scientist Louis Boutan wore a similar diver’s suit and became the world’s first underwater photographer.)


Another fascinating European forerunner of the Vajen-Bader mask was the plague doctor’s costume.  While these seem like creatures of the fantastic imagination to us today, in the 17th century doctors venturing into epidemic-ridden cities sported masks resembling bird beaks, along with heavy protective suits that they believed gave protection from “miasmatic air.”  Filled with scented herbs and spices like ambergris, myrrh, mint, cloves, and rose petals, the doctor’s elongated “beak” was designed as a kind of air filter.   Credited to the Parisian doctor Charles de l’Orme, these ornithologically-inspired plague garments were in use as early as 1619 and later became a feature in the Venetian carnival.


plague doctors mask 2

(The crystal eyeballs and Moroccan leather in this 17th-century doctor’s get-up were oddly echoed by Hoosier innovator Willis C. Vajen, who outfitted his smoke helmets with delicate mica ear pieces to allow firefighters to hear and used sturdy leather that protected the neck and head against falling incendiary debris.)


plague doctors mask

(Doktor Schnabel von Rom, a.k.a. “Doctor Beak of Rome,” wears Kleidung wider den Tod — “clothing against death” — in this 1656 broadside.  The engraving is written in “macaronic language,” a mix of German and Latin.  Bilingualism was also common in Hoosier newspapers.)


When Willis Vajen and William Bader undertook work on their smoke helmet, other innovators had already tried out an array of devices, ranging from primitive sponges and lightweight “respiratory veils” to more sophisticated contraptions, like the one invented in the 1870’s by Irish physicist John Tyndall, who incorporated a cotton filter saturated with lime, charcoal,  and glycerin.  A different device was the respirator pioneered by Bernhard Loeb, who attached metal air canisters to the mask’s mouth.

Chicago’s Fire Chief Dennis J. Swenie endorsed Vajen and Bader’s invention early on — although as he wrote in a letter reprinted in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette in May 1897, a few technical snags stood in the way:

Some two years ago Willis C. Vajen, an Indianapolis inventor, brought me a smoke helmet or protector and asked me what I thought of it.  He will himself, no doubt, admit that it was a crude and cumbersome affair.  The principle material in its construction was sole leather, and its window was of a single thickness or pane of glass.  It did not have facilities for enabling the wearer to hear, and the tank for the compressed air was fully six times larger than was necessary.

However, it was clear that the inventor was on the right track. . .  As it stands now, the weight of the helmet is practically nothing, resting upon the shoulders.  The protector is made of asbestus tanned horsehide and is securely fastened by means of two straps which pass from the back under the arms and snap into rings in front.  Its top is padded and is also re-enforced with transverse seams of the hard leather, which stand up to the height of about an inch.  This makes it capable of withstanding a very heavy blow and forms an almost perfect protection against falling bricks and small stones.

Directly at the back of the neck is a small air tank, which can be filled by means of an ordinary force pump such as the bicyclists use for inflating their pneumatic tires.  It will hold 100 pounds of compressed air and has a tiny gauge attached which registers the pressure of air within.  The first five or ten minutes at a fire generally determines the result, and the total capacity of the air tank is sufficient to last a man for 40 minutes.

“Delicate mica diaphragms” for the ears and eyes helped with vision and hearing, as a did a double-paned window.  “Both eye and ear pieces are protected by strong wire guards. . .  On the front exterior, where it may be easily reached, is a signal whistle, which does not consume any of the pure air from the reservoir.  The operation of the signal, which is loud and sharp, makes no drain upon the breathing resources of the fireman.”

An article in Fire & Water Engineering in 1906 adds:  “It is neat; it weighs only six pounds; it can be put on as easily as a coat. . . There is no hose attachment which is liable to kink or break and thus impede the movements of the wearer.”


vajen mask 3


patent-vajen1


The Vajen-Bader Company’s life-saving invention caught on fast.  Praise came not only from American fire chiefs, but from international clients.  Operating out of a space on the second floor of the old Indianapolis Public Library a block north of Monument Circle (and later at a factory in Richmond, Indiana), the company filled orders from customers as diverse as meatpackers, mining and gas companies, breweries, and the British and Chilean navies.  Overseas agents in Johannesburg, London, and Yokohama marketed the smoke protector around the globe.  In 1897, fire fighters from Dublin, Ireland, to Wellington, New Zealand were “using them with entire satisfaction.”

The masks sold for $100, a large investment for some municipal fire departments, but Hyman’s Handbook claimed that “during the first year an estimated $3,000,000 worth of property was saved by the use of this new device.”


old indianapolis public library 1896

(A small team of workers made Vajen-Bader smoke protectors on the second floor of the old Indianapolis Public Library at the corner of Ohio and Meridian streets.  Demolished in the 1960s during the horrors of urban renewal, the library also once housed the Board of Public School Commissioners, at a site now occupied by the downtown Sheraton Hotel.  www.whatwasthere.com)


A contemporary article from the Los Angeles Herald touts the value of the smoke helmet in preventing minor fires from turning into major ones.

Often a fire of insignificant proportions causes such a dense volume of smoke that it is quite impossible for its location to be discovered, and it smoulders thus until it has gained such headway that it is impossible to extinguish it. 

When Willis Vajen attended a firefighters’ convention in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1896, his cutting-edge device was the star of the show.  The Salt Lake Herald reprinted testimony from the fire department in Kansas City, Missouri, which had already put the mask to a rigorous test.  As KC’s Fire Chief George C. Hale (a great innovator himself) wrote, firemen found a house “which had a cellar underneath, with no ventilation whatsoever.”

In the cellar was dug a hole, in which was placed one of the worst smelling conglomerations of combustibles ever heaped together — sulphur, feathers, tar, wooden and cotton rags and burlap sacks.  Hardly had the match been touched to the pile, until a dense volume of smoke began to roll up out of the single trap door that led down into the cellar.  When the penetrating fumes of sulphur set everyone to coughing, there were many who shook their heads and said no one could possibly live five minutes in the cellar.  The smoke pushed its way up the brick wall and was coming out at the crevices.

Second Assistant Chief Henderson was selected to wear the helmet.  The cylinder was filled with air until there was a 100-pound pressure.  The whistle was tested to see if it would sound.  The helmet was dropped over Henderson’s head and strapped around his body.

“If you grow weak or begin to suffocate,” said Chief Hale, “blow your whistle vigorously and we will come after you.”

The rap door was then raised and the fireman disappeared into the sickening, penetrating smoke.  The door was shut tightly.  Not a breath of pure air could reach the man in the helmet.

Then the crowd began to wait.  Watches were looked at and after a couple of minutes had elapsed without hearing any sound from the fireman, several began to grow nervous, thinking that the sulphur fumes might have gotten in quick work and strangled him.  The door was partly raised and Chief Hale called to Henderson to blow his whistle.  A far-off sound came from the cellar, telling that Henderson was in good shape. . .

The smoke continued to grow denser and blacker, and the odor more vile.  Henderson’s whistle sounded frequently and no uneasiness was felt.  Eighteen minutes had elapsed from the time when he had gone into the cellar, when he knocked on the door. . .

“How did you stand it, Alec?” queried everybody.

“Stand it!  Why, I could have stayed down there all day.  It was dark as midnight, but I could breathe as easily as I do now. . .”

When the pressure gauge of the air cylinder was examined it was found that only ten pounds of air had been used, ninety pounds being left.


Squad 52 Cincinnati

(Two of this team of firefighters of Squad 52 in Cincinnati, Ohio, wear Vajen-Bader smoke protectors, circa 1920.)


Salt Lake Herald August 10 1896

(Salt Lake Herald, August 10, 1896.)


Indianapolis News October 1 1896

Firemen wearing the novel smoke helmets came to the rescue after an ammonia explosion at Schmidt’s Brewery, a subsidiary of the Indianapolis Brewing Company, nearly killed a number of workers on the night of September 31, 1896.  The Indianapolis News reported:

The fire that started in the second story of the building in the malt mill was subdued by the fire department.  It was a hard fire to reach as the fumes of ammonia were strong, and it was almost impossible for a man to get near the building.  The firemen say that this is the first difficult fire they have had since the Vajen-Bader smoke protector was adopted by the department, and that these helmets made it possible for the men to enter the building and reach the fire with the chemical engines.  They say that although the fumes of ammonia were strong enough to render an unprotected fireman unconscious, the men wearing the helmets suffered no inconvenience from the fumes.


willis c vajen obit 1900


Aged 49, Willis Vajen, who suffered from life-long anemia, died at his home at 23 E. Vermont St. on July 22, 1900 and was buried at Crown Hill.  In one of history’s bizarre twists, all the houses on Vajen’s block were demolished around 1921 to make way for the mammoth Indiana World War Memorial, the city’s enormous Egyptian-inspired temple to the veterans of World War I.

These soldiers, of course, were the first to use the terrifying invention whose evolution was partly due to the Vajen-Bader smoke protector.  When the 20th century was still young, the gas mask wove its way into sickening nightmares, both dreamed and awake, as Europe — and then the whole world — caught on fire.


Altoona Tribune March 26 1918

(Altoona Tribune, Altoona, Pennsylvania, March 26, 1918.)


german soldiers in gas masks

(German soldiers and a mule wear gas masks on the Western Front during World War I.  Spike-helmeted firemen in Berlin’s Fire Department had already supplanted the mule and the horse with the bicycle as early as 1899, as shown in this issue of the Louisville Courier-Journal.)


Victor_Bulla_-_Young_Pioneers_Defence - Leningrad 1937

(Young Pioneers Defense, Leningrad, Russia, 1937, by photographer and early filmmaker Viktor Bulla.)


tobruk onions

(American soldiers peel onions while wearing gas masks in Tobruk, Libya, during World War II.)


Plunge headfirst into history at Hoosier State Chronicles.  Have any feedback or follow-ups?  I’m waiting with bated breath:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com.

The Fall of the House of Ford

lincoln indiana

Exactly 150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln, who spent part of his rail-splitting boyhood in Spencer County in southern Indiana, fell victim to the bullet of the 26-year-old actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater.  Soon, the president’s body headed west by train, stopping in Richmond, Indiana, for a public viewing at 2:00 in the morning on April 30, then on to Indianapolis and Michigan City, with short stopovers at small Hoosier train stations along the way.

In a downpour, possibly fifty thousand Hoosiers viewed Lincoln’s open casket in the rotunda of the old State House.  (At a time when the population of the capitol city was less than 40,000, the crowd of black-draped mourners must have been a spectacle in itself.  Many were African Americans clutching copies of the Emancipation Proclamation.)  Just before midnight, a carriage brought the president’s coffin through the rainy streets of Indianapolis, lit by torches and bonfires, to Union Depot, where it departed north by train for the south shore of Lake Michigan, en route to Chicago and eventually to Springfield, Illinois.


lincoln funeral michigan city

(Lincoln funeral cortege in Michigan City, 8:00 a.m., May 1, 1865.)


An exhibit running through July 7 at the Indiana State Museum, So Costly a Sacrifice: Lincoln and Loss, includes some actual “relics” of that fateful Good Friday in 1865 when Booth shot Indiana’s favorite son.  Among the artifacts are a few that seem like medieval religious relics:  clothing with spots alleged to be the blood of Honest Abe, and  a piece of the burning barn in Port Royal, Virginia, where the assassin met his own fate at the hands of a Union soldier, the eccentric street-preacher Boston Corbett.

One of the most interesting things to me about the Lincoln assassination and the funeral that came after is the apparent curse on the people and even the physical things involved in it.  Poe’s Raven could be telling the story, and the bird of death keeps on talking, quawking not “Nevermore” — just “More.”

What happened to Booth and Corbett is pretty bizarre and appalling.  Basil Moxley, a doorman at Ford’s Theater who claimed that he served as one of Booth’s pallbearers in Baltimore in 1865, fed a conspiracy theory in 1903 when he asserted that another man is buried in the plot and that Lincoln’s murderer actually escaped to Oklahoma or Texas.  A mummy hoax brought the assassin back to life as a sideshow attraction in the 1920s.  But perhaps the moody English-American actor would have been thrilled to know that the morbid tragedy he let loose wasn’t over yet.

For instance, Booth’s own killer probably went down surrounded by flames.  It is thought that Boston Corbett died in the massive forest fire that consumed Hinckley, Minnesota, in 1894.  And oddly enough, the very train car that carried Lincoln’s corpse west to Illinois from Washington also burned in Minnesota.  In March 1911, while in storage in the northeastern outskirts of Minneapolis, the historic Lincoln funeral car perished in a “spectacular prairie fire.”


lincoln funeral car

(Minneapolis Sunday Journal, March 19, 1911.)


photo

(This decorative fan now on display at the Indiana State Museum commemorates the Lincoln assassination.  John Wilkes Booth goes down in smoke on the far right.)


In 1893, a year before the inferno in the North Woods probably claimed Corbett’s life, news readers followed the ghastly story of Ford’s Theater’s own doom.  On June 10, the Indianapolis Journal ran this especially sentimental, tear-jerking news piece on the front-page:

fords theater collapse - indianapolis journal june 10 1893

As the Journal tells it:

Hundreds of men carried down by the floors of a falling building which was notoriously insecure; human lives crushed out by tons of brick and iron and sent unheralded to the throne of their Maker; men by the score maimed and disfigured for life; happy families hurled into the depths of despair. . . Words cannot picture the awfulness of the accident.  Its horrors will never be fully told.  Its suddenness was almost the chief terror. . . Women who kissed their loved ones as they separated will have but the cold, bruised faces to kiss to-night. . . In the national capitol of the proudest nation on earth there has been a catastrophe unparalleled in the annals of history, and in every mind there is the horrible conviction that its genesis is to be found in the criminal negligence of a government too parsimonious to provide for the safety of its loyal servants by protecting its property for their accommodation.

At 9:30 a.m. on June 9, the front part of Ford’s Theater, a notoriously rickety and rotten old structure then being used as a government office building, collapsed, sending beams, iron, and over a hundred employees plummeting toward the basement.  Twenty-eight years after Abraham Lincoln was shot here, twenty-two men were killed and sixty-eight injured in one of the deadliest disasters in Washington, D.C.’s, history.  (In a twist of irony, the same day the theater collapse made national headlines, John Wilkes Booth’s brother, the great American actor Edwin Booth, was laid to rest at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Many said that Edwin Booth’s life and death were overshadowed by two different tragedies and the curse of Ford’s Theater.)


fords theater collapse june 10 1893


fords theater draped

(Ford’s Theater draped in mourning for President Lincoln.)


Collapsing structures were a major news item in the 1890s.  Almost every week, American papers reported mass casualties at overcrowded factories and apartment buildings, especially in Chicago and cities back on the East Coast, where poor construction and dry rot led to the deaths of thousands of industrial workers and tenants — often women and children.  During the Progressive era, such tragedies inspired reformers like the photographers Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine (who documented child workers in Indianapolis in 1908) to illustrate the real peril of shoddy, dilapidated buildings in the workplace and at home.

In 1893, Ford’s Theater was probably one of the most dangerous structures in America.  Built in 1863 by the 34-year-old entrepreneur John T. Ford, the building occupied the site of a Baptist Church-turned-theater that had burned down a year earlier.  John Ford’s business was a victim of Booth, too.  After the Lincoln assassination, public opinion and the U.S. government both decided that it was inappropriate to use the site of the nation’s great tragedy for entertainment.  Ford wanted to re-open his theater, but received arson threats from at least one Lincoln mourner.  The Federal government appropriated the playhouse, compensating its owner with $88,000 in July 1866.

Even before the government actually paid for the building, renovations were underway.  In December 1865, the suitably morbid Army Medical Museum moved onto the third floor.  “A far cry from the once jovial theater,” the famous local landmark now housed an array of skeletons in glass cases, body parts, surgical tools, and other gory reminders of military medicine.  The Library of the Surgeon General’s Office soon occupied the second floor.


fords theater medical museum

(From 1866 to 1887,  Ford’s Theater housed medical exhibits.  An active theater for just two years, the place was a literal showcase of death for more than twenty.  The museum later moved to a new location at 7th & Independence.  A section of John Wilkes Booth’s vertebrae was on display here for years.)


fords theater medical museum 2


guiteau

(The Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail reprinted an incorrect rumor that the skull of Charles Guiteau, assassin of President James Garfield, was on display at Ford’s Theater when the building collapsed in 1893.  Guiteau’s skeleton did go on exhibit there, but had been moved to the new museum at 7th & Independence, where his brain and partial skeleton are still in the collections of the National Museum of Health and Medicine.  Guiteau’s head was also reported to be touring southern Indiana during World War I.)


The other floors of the former theater housed the War Department’s Office of Records and Pensions.  The unstable, visibly bulging building was the workplace of several hundred employees and was further imperiled by probably a few tons of heavy paperwork, the red tape of veterans’ pensions.

After the building succumbed to gravity and rot in 1893, American public opinion was almost as outraged as at the assassination of Lincoln.  The Indianapolis Journal wrote:

As long ago as 1885, this building. . .  was officially proclaimed by Congress an unsafe depository for even the inanimate skeletons, mummies and books of the army medical museum, for which a safer place of storage was provided by an act of Congress.  But notwithstanding the fact that in the public press, and in Congress, also, continued attention was called to the bulging walls of the building, its darkness and its general unsuitability and unsafety, it continued to be used for the daily employment of nearly five-hundred government clerks of the pension record division of the War Office.

According to a riveting coroner’s inquest that whipped up public excitement, workers at what the Indianapolis Journal dubbed “Ford’s death trap” had been intimidated and cowed into silence by their tyrannical boss, former army surgeon Col. Fred Ainsworth.  Afraid of being fired, the endangered clerks didn’t protest the condition of the building and later testified that Ainsworth’s assistants had told them to tip-toe on the stairway to keep from falling through.  Investigators determined that the “old ruin’s” collapse finally came while a low-bidding contractor, George W. Dant, was making repairs to the building.  (A support in the basement gave way.)

Court testimony relayed in the Journal resonated with public opinion.  “The government did not want skilled men to execute its contracts, and it would not pay fair prices for good work. . .” the paper claimed.  “An architect testified that the cement used in underpinning the piers supporting the old building was ‘little better than mud.’  A builder said the manner of the work was suicidal.”  Another report said that for years the decaying structure also suffered from “defective sanitary conditions.”

One of the public figures who weighed in on the federal investigation was Indiana Congressman William S. Holman.  A Dearborn County native, Holman sat in Congress from 1859 to 1897 and was  once ranked as the longest-serving U.S. Representative.  He was also a notoriously frugal hawk on government spending.  (Yet far from being a total naysayer, Holman passionately advocated the Homestead Act that tried to break up the domination of Western public lands by big railroads.  He also indirectly helped establish the U.S. Forest Service by providing for Federal timber reserves.)


william s. holman 2

(U.S. Representative William Steele Holman of Aurora, Indiana, kept a famously tight wallet but was a great opponent of land monopolies and unregulated corporations after the Civil War.  He helped establish Yellowstone National Park and was described as “a botanist of no mean ability” and a friend of public forests.)


mr holman talks - jasper weekly courier june 1893


As chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, the curmudgeonly Holman oversaw a lot of government funding.  On June 23, 1893, the Jasper Weekly Courier reported that after Ford’s Theater collapsed, even the arch-fiscal conservative was ready to “deal liberally in the matter of providing safe public buildings, and enact such legislation as would look to the preservation of human life.”  The Indiana Congressman supported moving the U.S. Government Printing Office — ranked with the old theater as one of the worst potential death traps in Washington, D.C. — to a new location.  (The weight of printing equipment housed on upper stories was part of the problem.)

Yet once it was rebuilt after the 1893 collapse, Ford’s Theater returned to government use — oddly enough, as a storage warehouse for the Government Printing Office.  The building narrowly survived being condemned for demolition by President Taft in 1912.  From 1931 until renovations in the mid-1960s, the historic structure housed a government annex and a first-floor Lincoln museum.  Restored to its 1865 appearance and now run by the National Park Service, it opened as a public museum in 1968.


liberty express

(Liberty Express, Liberty, Indiana, February 11, 1921.)


fords theater 1900s

(Ford’s Theater in an early 20th-century stereograph.)


edwin booth

(The Indianapolis Journal took note of the strange coincidence that Ford’s Theater crumbled on the very day that Edwin Booth was buried in Massachusetts.  Edgar Allan Poe, author of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” would have appreciated the irony.)


Explore other strange tales of yesteryear at Hoosier State Chronicles.  And feel free to fire off a round or two at me at staylor336 [AT] gmail.com