History Unfolded Project Part 4: The Nuremberg Laws and a Hoosier “Advocate for the Doomed”

Usually we use the Hoosier State Chronicles blog to tell you stories about Hoosiers and the State of Indiana by using local newspapers.  For this project, we are examining world events through the eyes of the Hoosier newspaper reader.  Because many of these articles were reported through the Associated Press and United Press news services, what we are really seeing is not just what Hoosiers knew, but what the average American knew, about the events leading up to the Holocaust.

www.ushmm.org

Over the next several months, we will be contributing newspaper articles to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum‘s project titled History Unfolded: US Newspapers and the Holocaust.  Using digitized newspapers mainly accessible via Hoosier State Chronicles, we are looking at key events suggested for research by the museum to see what Hoosiers knew when. The overall goal of the project is to contribute to the scholarship on how American media reported and under-reported Nazi atrocities.  Anyone can submit their research; find out how at History Unfolded.

In past posts, we asked when Hoosiers knew about the opening of the Dachau concentration camp; the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses and the removal of Jewish leaders from government posts; and the 1933 book burnings. For this post, Part 4, we will find out what Hoosiers in 1935 knew about the Nuremberg Race Laws. We will also introduce James G. McDonald, a brave and tireless Hoosier who worked to help the growing number of refugees from Germany and who tried to warn the world about imminent Nazi plans to annihilate the Jews.

Indianapolis Jewish Post, August 9, 1935, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

In retrospect, it’s hard to understand how the world could possibly not know that the Nazis were planning a horrific “Final Solution” to their “Jewish problem.” The signs were everywhere and the Nazis were not quiet about their intentions, but most people could not have imagined the unprecedented mass murder that would become known as the Holocaust. However, the average Hoosier, like Americans everywhere, had access to more than enough clues in their daily newspaper. On August 9, 1935, the (Indianapolis) Jewish Post quoted this foreboding statement from Joseph Goebbels, director of the Nazi Propaganda Ministry:  “No foreign protest will prevent Germany from annihilating the Jew – the enemy of the German state. The next few weeks will show what we will do to the Jews.” The Post also reported that “Reichministers [Bernhard] Rust and [Karl Hermann] Frank added fuel to the flames with addresses at Essen and Cologne promising that the government will not compromise on its present racial policy and that no let-up can be expected until the Jew is completely eliminated from German life.”

Still from video of Joseph Goebbels speaking at the September 1935 rally in Nuremberg. View the historical footage through the USHMM.

While they did not hide their goal of eliminating the German Jews, Nazi leaders bristled at criticism from the Allied powers who they blamed for many of their problems after WWI. In the same speech in which he spoke of “annihilating the Jew,” Goebbels complained about the treatment of Germany in foreign press. Goebbels stated: “Whenever someone looks cross-eyed at a Jew on the Kurfuerstendamm [a popular street in Berlin], there is a hullabaloo from London to Peiping. But why does the foreign press insist on converging on Germany? Let it cease about the world and it will readily find topics of greater urgency.”

Indianapolis Recorder, September 14, 1935, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

This theme of encouraging the world to mind its own business was often an effective one.  Before the horrors of the concentration camps came to light, some African American newspapers even agreed. After all, black Americans had reason to fear persecution and even lynching by their neighbors and couldn’t trust their own government to protect them. Prominent African American newspapers asked: how could the U.S. throw stones, when it systematically denied rights and opportunities to its citizens based on race?

Indianapolis Recorder, September 14, 1935, 10, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

On September 14, 1935, the Indianapolis Recorder printed a brief but telling article on this point. The Recorder quoted Julius Streicher, the publisher of an anti-Semitic, Nazi propaganda newspaper, reporting that Streicher “took occasion to advise the Southern States of the American Union to mend their own vicious ways before attempting to point a finger of scorn at the misdeeds of others.” The paper quoted Streicher regarding lynching in the South: “We do not kill Jews in Germany . . . we have other ways of punishing them.” The Recorder then responded to his comments saying that while the “ugly plight of Jews in Germany” should not be discounted, Streicher’s words “should be solid food for thought” for Americans. The Recorder concluded, “Yes, Americans should set about putting their own house in order before telling Germany what to do about her own affairs.” Despite Streicher’s claims, the Nazi party was already moving towards the systematic killing of Jews and the Nuremberg Laws would soon provide them the legal framework needed to intensify persecution by codifying racial antisemitism.

Antisemitism before the rise of the Third Reich can be generally described as discrimination against Jewish people for their religious views. Nazi ideology, however, refocused antisemitism by creating racial theories that defined Jewish people as a race separate from Aryan people. According to this ideology, Jews were now identified not as people subscribing to a particular religion, but as members of a race who could be identified through blood and genealogy.

“An instructional chart used to aid German citizens in the determination of racial status,” accessed USHMM.

Nazis had to use genealogy (that is determining whether a person had Jewish ancestors) to define a person as a Jew because there is no science behind identifying Jews racially. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), “the Nazis had long sought a legal definition that identified Jews not by religious affiliation but according to racial antisemitism” because “Jews in Germany were not easy to identify by sight.” While some Jewish Germans continued traditional religious practices and wore distinctive clothing, most Jews in the 1930s looked the same as any other modern German man or woman. However, if they could codify this racial antisemitism by passing it into law, Nazis would have “the legal framework for the systematic persecution of Jews in Germany.”

“Massed crowds at the Nazi party rally in Nuremberg. Nuremberg, Germany, 1935,” accessed USHMM.

This was Hitler’s goal in September 1935 when he called the Reichstag, or Nazi Parliament, to convene in Nuremberg in the midst of a Nazi party rally. Newspapers across Indiana announced the convening of the Reichstag, albeit without the illuminating quotes published by the Jewish Post. However, an AP article that ran September 13, 1935 in the (Columbus) Republic noted that the Reichstag’s meeting during the Nazi party rally meant that “the party and the state are identical.”

(Columbus) Republic, September 18, 1935, 2, accessed Newspapers.com
Hammond Times, September 13, 1935, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.

In other words, the Nazi party was now the German government. In a move that symbolized this solidification of party and government, Hitler prepared to declare the “nazi swastika flag . . . the one and only flag of the Third Reich” at the Reichstag meeting, according to an International News Service (INS) article published by the (Hammond) Times. The article continued to report that Hitler wished to demonstrate “the complete unity of the German state and the nazi party.” Thus, by the fall of 1935, there were no longer any government officials with the power to defend the rights of the Jewish people of Germany.

“Die Nurnberger Gesetze” (Nuremberg Race Laws), US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Hillel at Kent State, accessed USHMM.

On September 15, 1935, Hitler announced the two laws, which together are known as the Nuremberg Race Laws: the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor. According to the USHMM, the Reich Citizenship Law declared that only people of “German or kindred blood” were German citizens. The law also declared that “Jews were a race defined by birth and by blood,” not religion. Anyone, even Christians, with Jewish grandparents or parents was considered Jewish. The law declared that they were no longer German citizens and had no rights, but were instead “subjects of the state.” The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor outlawed marriage and sexual relationships between “Aryan” Germans and Jewish Germans. Violating this law was condemned as “race defilement” and punishable with imprisonment or deportation to concentration camps. (Read the complete text of the laws through the USHMM here).

Kokomo Tribune, October 1, 1935, 6, accessed Newspaper.com.
“Poster advertising a special issue of a Nazi newspaper about “race defilement” and the Nuremberg Laws,” US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Deutsches Historisches Museum GmbH, accessed USHMM.

Indiana newspapers printed wire service articles on the announcement of the laws, but many missed their significance. For example, the Daily Clintonian (from Clinton, Indiana) ran a United Press (UP) article that focused on the promises of peace made by Hitler in his speech before the Reichstag. The article stated: “From the world standpoint his reference to peace was of paramount importance. It appeared to say plainly that Germany would not encourage Benito Mussolini’s ambitions and would adopt an attitude of neutrality similar to the United States.” However, in the same speech where he promised peace, Hitler threatened Lithuania. The article also naively interpreted the exclusion of Jews from German society as an opportunity for them, stating that “Germany’s new, drastic restrictive laws against the Jews will make it possible for them to have their own community life in Germany.” However, even this misguided article clearly printed the new laws, noting that Jews were no longer German citizens with rights but instead “state subjects.”

(Seymour) Tribune, September 16, 1935, 1, accessed Newspapers.com

On the same day, the (Seymour) Tribune printed an Associated Press (AP) article that more accurately conveyed the significance of the Nuremburg Laws under the headline “Jews Placed in Medieval Status.” The newspaper reported on the specifics of the laws and that “Aryan citizens . . . will be separated sharply from ‘belongers to the state.’” Perhaps most foreboding, the article mentioned that Nazis hoped the rest of their ideology would become law in a similar manner. The article stated: “These acts inspired Der Fuhrer’s followers with the hope that the rest of the Nazi tenets would be translated into practical politics, step by step, just as fast as political expedience permitted.” To that end, the Reichstag gave Hermann Goring (the highest ranking Nazi official after Hitler) the power “to summon it into session at will” to create new laws. According to an AP article ran by the Kokomo Tribune also on September 16, Hitler concluded his speech by threatening “to enact even more stringent laws if today’s legislation fails to solve the Jewish problem.”

(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, September 20, 1935, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, September 20, 1935, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles

For the most part, Indiana newspapers were quiet in the days following the announcement of the Nuremburg Laws. The Indianapolis Jewish post was not. On September 20, 1935, in an article for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, writer and editor Boris Smolar criticized other newspapers for putting a positive spin on Hitler’s address to the Reichstag and for focusing on Hitler’s orders to Nazi officials prohibiting “individual acts of terrorism against Jews” as opposed to the real message of the address: Jews had lost even basic rights. Smolar’s criticism could be directly applied to the aforementioned UP article in the Daily Clintonian which posited that Jews would be able to have their own community now that they were officially separated from the rest of Germany. However, while Hitler was promising protection for Jews, the Nazis were in reality relentlessly persecuting them. Smolar wrote:

[Later photo of Boris Smolar], Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, June 6, 1952 p. 8, accessed Newspapers.com

The press generally hails the new laws relegating the Jews back to the medieval ghetto and warns the Jews not to make the necessary revision threatened by Hitler in his address to the Reichstag. Newspapers point out that these laws give the Jews official protection . . . Meanwhile, reports indicate that the campaign to deprive the Jews of food is going ahead apace . . . In other fields too, the campaign to segregate the Jews goes on relentlessly.

Smolar’s greatest fear however was that “the Jews will be held as hostages” if foreign countries including the United States continued their economic boycott.

“Nuremberg Laws Proclaimed,” [Still from historical video footage of declaration of the Nureumberg Laws], accessed USHMM
In the same issue, the Jewish Post reprinted an editorial from the Indianapolis News bluntly stating that Hitler’s address to the Reichstag cleared up many misconceptions that might remain about separation between Germany and the Nazi party or any thoughts that Hitler would tone down the anti-Semitism or become more moderate once his power was established. The News stated:

Such doubt as recently existed as to whether the Nazi swastika was to be regarded as the German national emblem has been removed by the Reichstag’s declaration Sunday that the Nazi swastika is to be the flag of the Reich and nation. Whatever doubt existed as to whether Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitism was as great as in the earlier days of his rise to power was also removed. . . The speech of Hitler to the Reichstag, however, and the measures promptly adopted at his urgence, give little support to those who had hoped for moderation. By these new enactments citizenship is denied the Jews. . . These enactments and the fanatical declarations so often made by Hitler and repeated by him Sunday, attributing virtually all of Germany’s troubles to the machinations of a race singled out for opprobrium can hardly tend to create confidence in the prospective sanity of a government completely under his control.

Eugenics poster entitled “The Nuremberg Law for the Protection of Blood and German Honor,” accessed USHMM.

Other Indiana newspapers seemed slow to grasp the significance of the Nuremberg laws or even report on the announcement. For example, the Hammond Times did not report on the laws until November 15, two months after their enactment. However, Indiana newspapers did continue to report on the growing threat of Hitler’s Reich and on the debate over whether the United States should participate in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. What very few Hoosiers or Indiana newspapers were talking about, however, was how to help the people seeking refuge from the oppressive Nazi regime.

(Connellsville, PA) Daily COurier, October 30, 1933, 4, accessed Newspapers.com

Not everyone remained silent, however. Hoosier James G. McDonald worked for most of his life to awaken the world’s conscience to the plight of German Jews seeking aid and refuge. In meetings and in letters to foreign leaders, the League of Nations, high-ranking diplomats, leading businessmen, newspaper editors, and President Franklin Roosevelt, McDonald expressed his fears for how the Nazis were planning to solve the “Jewish problem” and pleaded the case of German refugees. Fortunately his letters and journals from this period (published by Indiana University and the USHMM as Advocate for the Doomed and Refugees and Rescue) can be combined with newspaper articles to help us understand the work of one brave Hoosier at this time of crisis.

“James and Ruth (Stafford) McDonald pose outside the Stafford family home in Albany, Indiana, on their wedding day,” [photograph], August 25 1915, accessed USHMM
James Grover McDonald grew up in Albany, Indiana, attended Indiana University and Harvard, and returned to IU to teach from 1914-1918. In 1919, he became chairman of the League of Free Nations Association which worked to encourage the United States to join the League of Nations. The League of Free Nations Association soon evolved into the Foreign Policy Association and McDonald remained at its head until October 1933 when he accepted the position of High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations. He was given the almost impossible task or finding homes for refugees from Germany.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 31, 1933, 9, accessed Newspapers.com

During regular trips to Germany and meetings with high ranking Nazi officials, McDonald gleaned enough to suspect that the Nazis might be planning a tragic solution to the “Jewish problem,” though he could not have predicted the extent of the coming horrors. In a trip to Berlin in 1933, McDonald had a surprising amount of access to leading Nazi officials and policy information through Hitler’s press secretary at the time, Ernst Hanfstaengl. On April 3, 1933, McDonald wrote in a letter to the Foreign Policy Administration (published in Advocate for the Doomed) about a disturbing conversation with Hanfstaengl on the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses in retaliation for a foreign boycott of Nazi goods. McDonald wrote:

Eventually we reached the subject of the Jews, especially the decree just announced for Monday’s boycott. He defended it unqualifiedly, saying: “When I told Hitler of the agitation and boycott abroad, Hitler beat his fists and exclaimed, ‘Now we shall show them that we are not afraid of international Jewry. The Jews must be crushed. Their fellows abroad have played into our hands.’”

McDonald wrote that he tried to explain to Hanfstaengl that there was no international Jewish conspiracy, but that the Nazi then “launched into a terrifying account of Nazi plans.” McDonald’s letter continued to quote Hanfstaengl:

The boycott is only a beginning. It can be made to strangle all Jewish business. Slowly, implacable it can be extended with ruthless and unshakable discipline. Our plans go much further. During the [first world] war we had 1,500,000 prisoners. 60,000 Jews would be simple. Each Jew has his SA [storm trooper]. In a single night it could be finished.

Here McDonald added his own thoughts in response to Hanfstaengl’s diatribe. He wrote: “He did not explain, but I assume he meant nothing more than wholesale arrests and imprisonments.” At this point, anything more was unimaginable. Still, he was kept awake that night with an impending sense of doom. He concluded his letter by describing a late-night walk through the beautiful but troubled city:

I reached my hotel before midnight. But there could be no thought of going to bed. So I walked alone to the Unter den Lindedn (a boulevard) and the Tiergarten (a park)  – a beautiful night, spring-like, bright stars, many lovers in the park, a world seemingly at peace and yet these ghastly hatreds breeding such shocking plans for heartless oppression of a whole section of the people.

Any illusion that the Nazi’s were planning anything other than the literal destruction of the Jewish people would soon disappear. Only a month later McDonald responded to a reporter-friend’s question on what he thought would happen “if there were a Franco-Polish occupation of Germany” with the answer: “Of course, I don’t know, but my guess is that the first thing would be a wholesale slaughter of the Jews” (May 16, 1933 diary entry in Advocate for the Doomed). What had happened over the previous month to change McDonald’s outlook? On April 7, 1933 he wrote in his journal:

I was at the Chancellery at 12:30 to keep my appointment with Hitler.

“Nuremberg Race Laws 1935,” {video still} September 10-28, 1935, Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives & Records Administration, accessed USHMM.

McDonald asked Hitler directly about the Nazi party’s policies towards the German Jewish people and recorded Hitler’s response in his journal entry for that date. Hitler responded defensively, stating that they weren’t only attacking Jews, but also communists and socialists. Hitler said that unlike the United States, Germany had previously accepted such people and therefore “cannot be blamed if we now take measures against them.” Hitler continued, “Besides, as to the Jew, why should there be such a fuss when they are thrown out of places, when hundreds of thousands of Aryan Germans are on the streets? No, the world has no just ground for complaint.”

Later, when he returned to the United States, McDonald gave more details of this meeting to the prominent Rabbi Stephen Wise. McDonald told Wise of a chilling threat from Hitler. Hitler had stated: “I will do the thing that the rest of the world would like to do. It doesn’t know how to get rid of the Jews. I will show them” (Advocate for the Doomed, 48, fn 73).

Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, November 9, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com

Over the next several years, in his role as High Commissioner for Refugees, McDonald worked hard to alert the world of the impending catastrophe and find people willing to help the refugees. However, while the Commission was organized by the League of Nations and affiliated with it, the League provided no financial backing. He pleaded with international government leaders, religious and charitable institutions, and individuals for aid and funding. For example, On May 11, 1934, after visiting ten European and Eastern European countries and meeting with leaders encouraging them to accept refugees, McDonald told the London Jewish Chronicle:

“James G. McDonald poses on the deck of the SS Paris on his way to Geneva to take over his new duties as League of Nations High Commissioner for German Refugees from Germany.” [photograph], circa 1933, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of James McDonald, accessed USHMM.
I think we have made a beginning. There is a clearer recognition of the difficulties involved, and, at the same time, of the acute urgency of finding a solution promptly . . . If only the governments could be made to realize that the refugees would constitute advantages to the material, moral and spiritual wealth of their new homes, the task of securing the necessary permission for the refugees to stay in the older countries or to enter into the newer countries would be immeasurably easier.

McDonald’s public statements were more positive and encouraging than his private reflections and letters. By 1935, he was completely overwhelmed by the need to help the growing number of refugees, by the inadequate response by the United States and her allies, and by the worsening crisis in Germany as epitomized by the Nuremberg Laws. Since the laws went into effect in September, he had been disheartened by increasingly bleak accounts of what faced the German Jews. Speaking with prospective British financial investors in October about a possible reorganizing of the Committee and plans to secure more funding, he saw little hope. He wrote in his diary:

He [a British banker] confirmed stories I had heard from other directions about food and medical shortages, the probability of radical action in implementing the Nuremberg Laws, and the waiving of all favors on behalf of the front-line soldiers or their children. In short, he sees the situation as hopeless . . .

He was equally disheartened that private organizations, especially Jewish ones were not responding adequately in contributing to refugee aid campaigns. In a letter to New York Governor Herbert Lehman which the governor forwarded to President Roosevelt, McDonald wrote:

The Jewish communities, particularly in Great Britain and in the United States, must at last realize the truth, bitter and terrible though it is, which you and I and some of the rest of us have tried to drive home to them for more than two years – there can be no future for Jews in Germany.

Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald Stewart, and Severin Hochberg, eds., Advocate for the Doomed: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1932-1935 (Indianapolis and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Published in Association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C., 2007), photographs between pages 564 and 565.

The Nuremberg Laws were the last straw for McDonald. As a protest against the failure of the world to act on behalf of Jewish refugees, McDonald resigned his post as High Commissioner in a letter to the Secretary General of the League of Nations dated December 27, 1935. His lengthy letter of resignation ran in the New York Times on December 30, 1935 and was widely reprinted and commented on in the international press. (Read the entire letter.) In future posts here and at the Indiana Historical Bureau’s blog, Blogging Hoosier History, we will look closer at the important work McDonald dedicated himself to, but here we will end with an excerpt from his resignation letter in order to convey the significant turning point that was the Nuremberg Laws.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 30, 1935, 15, accessed Newspapers.com

McDonald explained that since the laws had reclassified Jews as a separate race, along with the increasing intensity of their persecution, the critical problem was no longer placing Jewish refugees (as important as this still was to him) but instead intervening politically with the German state to stop the persecution. This was beyond the capabilities of an unfunded committee tenuously aligned with the League of Nations. It was time for the League and its member countries to confront Germany, peaceably but sternly “in the name of humanity and of the principles of the public law of Europe.” McDonald concluded his resignation letter thusly:

(Wilmington, Delaware) Morning News, December 30, 1935, 1, accessed Newspapers.com

. . . I gave in my former office frequent and tangible proof of my concern that justice be done to the German people. But convinced as I am that desperate suffering in the countries adjacent to Germany, and an even more terrible human calamity with the German frontiers, are inevitable unless present tendencies in the Reich are checked or reversed, I cannot remain silent . . . When domestic policies threaten the demoralization and exile of hundreds of thousands of human beings, considerations of diplomatic correctness must yield to those of common humanity. I should be recreant if I did not call attention to the actual situation and plead that world opinion, acting through the League and its member States and other countries, move to avert the existing and impending tragedies.

Photo clipping from the New York Times, Photogravure Picture Section, October 21, 1934, depicting James G. McDonald, League of Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, attending a groundbreaking ceremony on October 3, for a new village, Werkdorp Wieningemeer, on the Zuyder Zee in the Netherlands.United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of James McDonald, accessed USHMM.

James Grover McDonald continued to speak out on behalf of those persecuted by the Nazis, eventually serving as Chairman of the President’s Advisory Commission on Political Refugees under FDR. Check back here and at Blogging Hoosier History for more on McDonald’s life’s work. Please visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s summary of the Nuremberg Laws for more information, photographs, and the personal stories of Holocaust survivors. Don’t forget that you can also participate in the History Unfolded project. Hoosiers can also learn more about the Holocaust and its survivors through CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, Indiana.

References:

Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald Stewart, and Severin Hochberg, eds., Advocate for the Doomed: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1932-1935 (Indianapolis and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Published in Association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C., 2007).

Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald Stewart, and Severin Hochberg, eds., Refugees and Rescue: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1935-1945 (Indianapolis and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Published in Association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C., 2009).

“Nuremberg Laws,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed USHMM.

See also:

Read the previous Hoosier State Chronicles post contributing to the History Unfolded Project on Nazi Book Burnings.

You can submit research to the USHMM’s History Unfolded project as well. Visit: https://newspapers.ushmm.org/

The World on Fire: James P. Hornaday and the Disasters of Martinique and St. Vincent

Indianapolis News, May 13, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

For all of human history, natural disasters have plagued the citizens of villages, towns, and nations. One such incident, the volcanic eruptions on Martinique and St. Vincent in 1902, displayed the immense destruction left in the wake of such a tragedy. As one of the few journalists allowed back to the islands after the eruptions, James P. Hornaday, Washington correspondent for the Indianapolis News, witnessed the devastation first-hand and wrote detailed articles about his experiences. In doing so, Hornaday chronicled one of the world’s most violent natural disasters and provided future scholars with a thorough rough draft of what came after.

Indianapolis News, May 9, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The islands of Martinique and St. Vincent served as colonial outposts in the Caribbean; the former belonged to the French and the latter belonged to the English. In particular, the Indianapolis News described Martinique as “one of the West Indies, belonging to the chain of the Lesser Antilles. . . . thirty-three miles south of Dominica and twenty-two north of St. Lucia.” St. Vincent, the largest of a chain of islands collectively known as the Grenadines, sits within miles of Martinique. Both islands contained valuable natural resources, agriculture, and industry, especially sugar. Being the creations of tectonic shifts and volcanic activity, Martinique and St. Vincent always faced the potential threat of violent eruptions. However, nearly no one in 1902 expected what carnage awaited them.

Indianapolis News, May 9, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

On May 8, 1902, after a few days of growing volcanic pressure, Mount Pelée spewed forth ash, rocks, and steam that completely covered the city of St. Pierre, Martinique’s population center. The News reported that St. Pierre was “totally destroyed by earthquakes and volcanic disturbances” and that “almost all the inhabitants—more than 25,000—are said to have been killed.” This left the thousands who survived “without food or shelter.” Across the way, St. Vincent’s Soufrière volcano also gained momentum, with “a big cloud of steam” lingering over the island and startling its inhabitants. The trouble for both of these islands was only beginning.

The eruption of Mont Pelée, Complete Story of the Martinique and St. Vincent Horrors, Internet Archive.

Within days, the news of Martinique’s destruction reached the ears of two prominent Indiana legislators, U.S. Senators Albert J. Beveridge and Charles W. Fairbanks. They started crafting legislation that would send relief supplies to the island, originally calling for an appropriation of $100,000. Upping the ante, President Theodore Roosevelt asked for $500,000 from Congress. They eventually settled on a compromise of $200,000 (over $5.6 million in 2016 dollars) after further negotiations in the appropriations committee led by Indiana Congressman James A. Hemenway. The president also offered his condolences to the French president, Emile Loubet. “I pray your excellency,” President Roosevelt wrote, “to accept the profound sympathy of the American people in the appalling calamity which has come upon the people of Martinique.” Additionally, his message to Congress stressed the importance of a swift relief effort. “I have directed the departments of the Treasury, of the War and of the Navy to take such measures for the relief of those stricken people as lies within the executive discretion,” he declared.

Indianapolis News, May 12, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

By May 12, the death toll on Martinique grew to 30,000 and the island was engulfed in “almost total darkness.” Among the living, some 50,000 people were without homes, ample food, and supplies. Nearby islands began taking in refugees, but that also came with difficulties. As one Guadeloupe civil servant said, “I do not believe Gaudeloupe [sic] can adequately relieve the stupendous distress.” The next day, the News reported that 1,600 people perished in the eruptions on St. Vincent. James Taylor, an officer on the Quebec shipping liner Roraima, shared his encounter with Mount Pelée:

Suddenly I heard a tremendous explosion. Ashes began to fall thicker upon the deck, and I could see a black cloud sweeping down upon us. I dived below, and, dragging with me Samuel Thomas, a gangway man and fellow-countryman, sprang into a room, shutting the door to keep out the heat that was already unbearable.

The eruption of Mount Pelée, May 8, 1902, The Volcano’s Deadly Work, Internet Archive.

He also shared, in painful detail, the aftermath of the destruction:

All about were lying the dead and the dying. Little children were moaning for water. I did what I could for them. I obtained water, but when it was held to their swollen lips they were unable to swallow, because of the ashes which clogged their throats.

The Reverend William A. Maher, an Indianapolis native who frequently visited Martinique, also expressed his thoughts on the tragedy that fell upon the island. “The horror of this destruction in Martinique is appalling to me,” Maher noted, “It may be that it comes to me more strongly for the reason that some of the persons I have known may have been among the victims.”

Bodies of victims among the wreckage on Martinique, The Volcano’s Deadly Work, Internet Archive.

As soon as the ink was dry on the appropriations, relief ships sailed for Martinique. One such ship was the Dixie, which left from New York City on May 14, 1902. It carried thousands of pounds of food, clothing, shelter materials, and medicines. The stores were desperately needed; nearly 100,000 inhabitants of Martinique were without a steady source of food and supplies. The crew included three army surgeons, thirteen army officers, and 14 civilians, among which were geologists, explorers, volcanologists, and a small handful of press. Among the select journalists included in the crew was Indianapolis’s James P. Hornaday, Washington correspondent for the News. His inclusion came after Senator Beveridge, Senator Fairbanks, and Congressman James Eli Watson sent an appeal to the ship’s captain, Robert Mallory Berry, who allowed Hornaday to join the crew.

Indianapolis News, May 15, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Over the next month, Hornaday wrote about his experiences aboard the Dixie and on the islands of Martinique and St. Vincent. The News ran these stories as front page features for over a week. The first article appeared on June 5, 1902, under the title, “With the Relief Boat Dixie: First Story of Uncle Sam’s Work.” Hornaday described his time on the relief vessel, learning from the eminent scientists and military personnel as well as his first glimpses of the Mount Pelée and the island. “In a little while the clouds that surrounded and obscured the volcano on the island shifted, and the crater came into full view,” wrote the newsman, “The island, containing only five square miles, looked like a great heap of volcanic debris piled up—as it really is.”

Indianapolis News, June 5, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

As he went ashore, Hornaday saw some of the refugees for the first time:

Thousands of refugees, with faces almost expressionless, crowded the sea line in the town of Fort-de-France. Many of them implored the strangers to take them away. To stay, they said, meant certain death.

Two small steamboats, plying the Caribbean waters, were being loaded with such refugees as could raise money enough to get away. Families carried on their heads all their earthly possessions and dumped them into these boats

As for those who stayed on Martinique, he noted their reluctance to use electricity, which resulted in the city of Fort-de-France switching from “electric lights to candles.” “The sensibilities of the natives,” wrote Hornaday, “seemed to be so paralyzed that grief could not manifest itself.”

The front page of Les Colonies, Martinique’s newspaper before the disaster, Century Magazine, Google Books.

In his next article, Hornaday pieced together a rough outline of the events that resulted in the destruction of St. Pierre. Les Colonies, Martinique’s premier newspaper, served as a guide for some of his conclusions. One of the first indications of volcanic activity was reported on April 25, a full 12 days before the eruption. A “picnic guide” named Julian Romain saw what he described as “a boiling mass of what be called ‘bituminous stuff’” around the volcano. “In the cauldron of the crater I saw a boiling, black mixture of bituminous stuff, it rose up, popped, and allowed jets of steam to escape,” Romain said of his encounter with Mount Pelée. Showers of ashes emerged from the sky by May 1, which “did not reach St. Pierre, but guides returning to the summit reported that the ground was well covered high up on the side of the mountain.” May 5 brought on more steam, ash, and eventually boiling water that “formed a good river, and rushed down the mountain side.” The watery onslaught “engulfed several large sugar-cane mills and killed many persons—how many will never be known, for no record had been made up before the great disaster came.”

Indianapolis News, June 6, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Two days later, a government commission published a report arguing that “Mont Pelée [sic] offers no more danger to the people of St. Pierre than Vesuvius offer to those of Naples.” The editor and publisher of Les Colonies sided with the government in an attempt to calm the island. “Since the day Jules Romain looked over into the boiling cauldron no one knows what has happened on Pelée,” the editor opined, “We only know we have been getting ashes. What has to-morrow in store for us?” As Hornaday solemnly noted, “the next morning the man who penned those lines was smothered by the escaping gas and buried beneath the ruins of his little printing office.”

Indianapolis News, June 10, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hornaday surveyed the ruins of St. Pierre on May 22, with his reporting appearing in the News on June 7. “In a land area ten miles wide and twelve miles long every living thing was destroyed. . . . the dead were buried by the same force that destroyed the life,” he reported. As he walked around, he would eventually see Pelée and the outline of the former city. Here are some of his details:

Pelée, rising to the northeast of the city, was cloaked in gray ashes from base to summit. Here and there up the side of the mountain could be seen jets of steam issuing forth. The whole scene was one of desolation. Not a sprig of green came within the range of sight. As we drew a little nearer the beach off St. Pierre the details of the ruins stood out before us.

As for those “details,” Hornaday wrote of city buildings ravaged like “children’s blocks tumbled over” and ashes that “buried the dead to a considerable depth.” The island’s governor was reported lost in the wreckage and no attempt was made to recover his body “which, from the general appearance of the place, was buried in ten feet of debris from the building and the ashes from the volcano.” Hornaday stared death in the eyes and he and his crew left the island “happy…to put the picture behind us.”

“Destruction of St. Pierre’s Inhabitants”, Complete Story of the Martinique and St. Vincent Horrors, Internet Archive.

From there, the coverage shifted from the destruction to the relief efforts. Hornaday’s article from June 9 outlined the efforts of relief workers and the response from the natives. “A whole dozen steamers had emptied their cargoes on the island within ten days after the disaster” when the Dixie and its crew arrived to deliver its supplies. During Pelée’s active eruption on May 8, a vast majority of citizens scrambled towards the north end of the island towards the city of St. Pierre. As Hornaday discovered, “practically every life in the north half of the island had been sacrificed.” Despite the seemingly good intentions of those offering help, the thousands who survived apparently saw the relief efforts in a different light. “The population, almost entirely colored, showed no appreciation of the donation of food and clothing by the United States,” Hornaday opined. By contrast, “the government and city officials, of course, did appreciate the act.”

“Members of the First Relief Party Who Visited St. Pierre After its Destruction,” Complete Story of the Martinique and St. Vincent Horrors, Internet Archive.

Now, it is safe to assume that a statement such as this could be seen as prejudiced, as he singled out the natives of color from the government. In that light, Hornaday’s view on the situation is rather myopic. The people who survived had just gone through the worst disaster of their lives, one the government promised just days before would not happen. Perhaps the natives did not feel like trusting the outsiders and the governments who support them as a result. The island also suffered through an additional eruption on May 20 that reached parts of Fort-de-France, although no one died. Additionally, Hornaday reported that many of the natives felt “numb” from the entire experience, so it’s reasonable to suggest that while Martinique’s government appreciated the good intentions of relief effort, the natives had good reasons to be weary of the whole thing.

Indianapolis News, June 10, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The attitude of St. Vincent could not have been more different. As Hornaday pointed out in his article from June 10, “the cruiser [Dixie] was received by the governor and the officers of the British cruisers as a friend in need, and arrangements were made at once to receive the stores.” While many died on Martinique, St. Vincent had far more injured survivors and thousands “made penniless and homeless.” While St. Vincent’s government appeared just as grateful as Martinique’s, the natives also appreciated the American relief efforts. “Everywhere one heard expressions of good will toward America for having so promptly come to the relief of the stricken people,” Hornaday highlighted. Again, this is one reporter’s view of the situation, but it is worth noting that the British island (St. Vincent) received the Americans more favorably than the French Island (Martinique). As political scientist Sidney Milkis noted, the Roosevelt administration’s relations with France did not strengthen until the second term.

Indianapolis News, June 11, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

After four intense days of investigation, James P. Hornaday left the island of St. Vincent on May 25, 1902 aboard the Madiana, while the Dixie stayed behind and unloaded the relief supplies. The Madiana also carried “as many wealthy refugees as she can carry,” which were described by Hornaday as “well-to-do whites.” He further noted that “the opinion was expressed by the refugees brought away that within a year many of the islands would be entirely left to the negroes.” As with his many pontifications, Hornaday comes off as wildly obtuse, if not prejudiced. Regardless, this passage is telling for one clear reason. Martinique and St. Vincent were colonial outposts, which gave their respective French and British transplants easy access off the island while the natives were left to fend for themselves. It is a case study, among many others, that documents the problematic practices of colonialism and imperialism at the turn of the century. While many non-natives perished, like the US consulate and his family, they had the easiest access to food, shelter, medical treatment, and transportation. The natives were not so lucky.

Indianapolis News,  June 14, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In his final article, dated June 14, 1902, Hornaday makes some tentative conclusions about the entire ordeal. He praised the “promptness with which the United States came to the relief of the needy in Martinique and St. Vincent” and that the “act touched the people of the colonies and they will not soon forget it.” That is, except those who were uneasy about American aid; this is Hornaday slightly reversing his previous conclusions, unless he is talking solely about the islands’ governments. He also praised the work of the scientific community whose initial investigations concluded “that there was ample warning from both Pelée and Soufrière” and “it is nearly always possible to foretell an eruption in time to save life.” Finally, he honored those who died in the destruction, especially American service members:

If the names of the officers and the sailors of the ships who went down could be ascertained and their families sought out wherever they may be there would be undoubtedly be an opportunity to spend wisely the relief fund which the United States holds a reserve. And since the names of most of the ships are known, it ought not to be a task beyond performance.

Once all of his articles were released, the Indianapolis News published Hornaday’s work in a pamphlet, known as the Martinique Letters, on June 19, 1902. It sold for 10 cents a copy and hailed as “a connected and comprehensive account for the great volcanic disasters.”

James Hornaday’s Martinique Letters, Indiana State Library Pamphlet Collection.

Sadly, Martinique suffered another volcanic upset on August 30, 1902, killing several hundred people near the towns of Carbet and Morne Rouge. One of the fatalities was Father Père Marie, who aided the scientific teams and journalists during the initial destruction on Martinique. Hornaday wrote an obituary for Mare that appeared in the News.  “If the cable report be true,” he wrote, “his parishioners have perished.” Hornaday praised the priest for his kind assistance on the island during his investigations the previous May.

Indianapolis News, September 3, 1902 , Hoosier State Chronicles.

Martinique and St. Vincent eventually recovered from the tragedies of 1902 and the latter became an independent nation in 1979. Martinique is still a part of France but is no longer a colony; it became an “overseas department” in 1946 that grants its citizens full rights under the French government. Fort-de-France, the major city that survived the eruptions, became the capital. Their towns, villages, and economies all bounced back and both have become viable producers of sugar as well as prime tourist destinations. They have faced volcanic activity since their 1902 disasters but have always found a way to endure.

Indianapolis Star, December 25, 1935, Newspapers.com.

As for James Hornaday, he worked as the White House Correspondent for the Indianapolis News for another 33 years and became the Dean of White House Correspondents. He died on December 24, 1935 at his desk in Washington, writing up new stories about President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. The president released an official statement the next day:

I share with his legion of friends the grief which the passing of James P. Hornaday has brought to all of us at this Christmas time. Dean of White House Correspondents, he had through long years faithfully chronicled national events, not less admired for his talents as a newspaperman than he was beloved because of the beauty and strength of his personal character. There was, there is, among Washington newspapermen no gentler, truer soul than Jim Hornaday. We shall long remember him, and miss him, and mourn him, and be thankful that we were permitted to know him and love him.

The obituary in the Indianapolis Star also lauded the legendary newsman. Reporter Gavin Payne wrote, “I have never known a man who, in my opinion, outranked him in the sterling qualities of manhood. . . . few men have attained a higher reputation in Washington correspondence.” The article also noted his love for Indiana, saying, “He a was a true Hoosier, and though living in Washington for much more than a quarter of a century, never lost his attachment for the folks back home.”

James P. Hornaday’s articles about Martinique and St. Vincent stand among some of the Indianapolis News’ finest reporting from the period. It was also rather unique; a veteran Hoosier reporter traveled across a continent to vividly chronicle the destruction of some of the Caribbean’s most treasured islands. He helped readers then and now understand the immense geographic, political, economic, and personal struggles these islands faced in the wake of such a disaster. While some of his conclusions about the natives are out of touch with our modern sensibilities, which should be acknowledged, he nonetheless created a portrait of the event that resonates even today. He shows us what journalists will often go through to get their story, even when the world is on fire.

The Tower of Pelée, a short lived volcanic cliff, in the fall of 1902. The Tower of Pelée, Internet Archive.

Fugitive Slaves in Indiana: A Study in Newspapers

Despite its status as a free state in the federal union, Indiana maintained a complicated relationship with the institution of slavery. The Northwest Territory, incorporated in 1787, banned slavery under Article VI of the Articles of Compact. Nevertheless, enslaved people were allowed in the region well after lawmakers organized the Indiana Territory in 1800. As historians John D. Barnhart and Dorothy L. Riker noted, there were an estimated 15 people enslaved in and around Vincennes in 1800. This number only represented a fraction of the 135 slaves enumerated in the 1800 census. When Indiana joined the Union as a free state in 1816, pockets of slave-holding citizens remained well into the 1830s.

Underground Railroad Routes through Indiana and Michigan in 1848, from Wilbur Siebert’s book, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom. Internet Archive.

Fugitive slave laws, a core policy that before the Civil War, perpetuated the “dreaded institution.” The U.S. Congress passed its first fugitive slave law in 1793, which allowed for slave-owning persons to retrieve their human property in any state and territory in the union, even on free soil. Indiana, both as a territory and a state, passed legislation that ensured compliance with federal law. The controversial Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 exacerbated the problem, with many arrests, enslavements, and re-enslavements of African Americans in Indiana. Scholars estimate that 1,000-5,000 freedom seekers escaped bondage annually from 1830-1860, or roughly 135,000 before the Civil War.

Indiana’s revised Constitution from 1851. IARA.

Making matters more complicated, Indiana ratified a new constitution in 1851 that included Article XIII, which prohibited new settlement of African Americans into the state. Article XIII also encouraged colonization of African Americans already living in the state. The Indiana General Assembly even passed legislation creating a fund for the implementation of colonization in 1852. It stayed on the books until 1865. This, along with a litany of “black codes,” limited the civil rights of free African Americans and harsher penalties for African Americans seeking freedom. As historian Emma Lou Thornbrough observed, Indiana’s policies exhibited an “intense racial prejudice” and a fear of free, African American labor. One window into understanding complex history of fugitive slaves is by analyzing newspapers. Ads for runaways, fugitive slave narratives, and court case proceedings permeate Indiana’s historic newspapers. This blog will unearth some of the stories in Indiana newspapers that document the long and uneasy history of African American freedom seekers in the Hoosier state.

Indiana Gazette, September 18, 1804. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Runaway advertisements predominantly chronicled fugitive slavery in Indiana newspapers during the antebellum period. These ads would provide the slave’s name, age, a physical description, their last known whereabouts, and a reward from their owner. One of the earliest ads comes from the September 18, 1804 issue of the Indiana Gazette, while Indiana was still a territory. It described two slaves, Sam and Rebeccah, who had run away from their owner in New Bourbon, Louisiana. Sam was in his late twenties and apparently had burns on his feet. Rebeccah was a decade younger than Sam and “was born black, but has since turned white, except a few black spots.” This might have been a case of vitiligo, a skin pigment disorder. In any event, their owner offered a fifty dollar reward for “any person who will apprehend and bring back said negroes, or lodge them in any jail so that the owner may get them.”

Western Sun, December 9, 1807. Hoosier State Chronicles.

On December 9, 1807, the Western Sun ran a similar ad with a small, etched illustration of a runaway slave. Slaveholder John Taylor offered thirty dollars for the capture and return of three slaves (two men and one woman) who had taken two horses and some extra clothes. “Whoever secures the above negroes,” Taylor said, “shall have the above reward, and all reasonable charges if taken within the state; or ninety dollars, if out of the state . . . .”

Western Sun & General Advertiser, June 27, 1818. Hoosier State Chronicles.

These ads escalated after Indiana’s statehood in 1816, leading to expansions of the role of local officials. As Emma Lou Thornbrough noted, African Americans “were sometimes arrested and jailed on the suspicion that they were fugitives enough though no one had advertised them.” For example, the Western Sun & General Advertiser published a runaway ad on June 27, 1818 asking for the return of Archibald Murphey, a fugitive from Tennessee who had been captured in Posey County. Sheriff James Robb, and not Murphey’s supposed owner, took it upon himself to run an ad for the runaway’s return. “The owner is requested to come forward [,] pay charges, and take him away,” the ad demanded.

Western Sun & General Advertiser, October 26, 1822. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Owners understood the precarious nature of retrieving their slaves, so some resorted to long ad campaigns in multiple newspapers. A slave named Brister fled Barren County, Kentucky in 1822, likely carrying free papers and traveling north to Ohio. His owner offered a $100 reward for his return for at least three months in the Western Sun & General Advertiser. He had also advertised in the Cincinnati Inquisitor, Vincennes Inquirer, Brookville Enquirer, Vandalia Intelligencer, and Edwardsville Spectator.

Leavenworth Arena, July 9, 1840. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Other ads provided physical descriptions that indicated the toll of slavery on a human being. Two runaways, named Ben and Reuben, suffered from multiple ailments. Ben had his ears clipped “for robbing a boat on the Ohio river” while Reuben lived with a missing finger and a strained hip. Lewis, a fugitive from Limestone County, Alabama, had a “cut across one of his hands” that caused “one finger to be a little stiff.” They could also be rather graphic. The Leavenworth Arena posted an ad in its July 9, 1840 issue requesting the return of a slave named Smallwood, who scarred his ankles from a mishap with a riding horse; reportedly a “trace chain” wrapped around his legs, “tearing off the flesh.” The pain these men, among many others, endured from the years of their bondage was sadly treated as mere details in these advertisements.

Western Sun & General Advertiser. November 21, 1818. Hoosier State Chronicles.

While ads represented a substantial portion of newspaper coverage, articles and court proceedings also provided detail about the calamitous lives of fugitive slaves. First, court cases provide essential insight into the legal procedures regarding fugitive slaves before the Civil War. The Western Sun & General Advertiser published the court proceedings of one such case in its November 21, 1818 issue. John L. Chastian, a Kentucky slaveholder, claimed a woman named Susan as his slave and issued a warrant for her return. Corydon judge Benjamin Parke ruled in favor of Chastian on the grounds that Susan had not sufficiently demonstrated her claim to freedom and the motion for a continuance on this question was overruled. Even if Susan had been a free person, the legal system provided substantial benefits to the slaveholders, and since she could not demonstrate her freedom, she was therefore obligated to the claimant.

Richmond Palladium, September 30, 1843. Hoosier State Chronicles.

As for abolitionists, they faced court challenges as well. In 1843, Quaker Jonathan Swain stood before a grand jury in Union Circuit Court, “to testify in regard to harboring fugitive slaves, and assisting in their flight to Canada.” When asked to testify, Swain refused on grounds of conscience. The judge in the case granted him two days to reconsider his choice. When Swain returned, “he duly presented himself before the Judge, Bible under his arm, and declared his readiness to abide the decision and sentence of the Court.” The judge cited Swain in contempt and jailed him, “there to remain until he would affirm, or should be otherwise discharged.” This episode was one of many that demonstrated the intense religious and moral convictions of Quakers and their resistance to slavery.

Evansville Tri-Weekly Journal, October 7, 1847. Hoosier State Chronicles.

By contrast, many of those who sought slaves faced little challenge. The Evansville Tri-Weekly Journal reported that Thomas Hardy and John Smith, on trial in the Circuit Court of Gibson County for kidnapping, were acquitted of all charges. The judge’s ruling hinged only on a fugitive slave notice. This notice provided “sufficient authority for any person to arrest such fugitive and take him to his master.” As with the case involving Susan, the alleged slaves procured in this case received less legal protection than the two vigilantes that captured them. These trends continued well into the 1850s through the end of the Civil War.

Evansville Daily Journal, January 18, 1859. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Second, numerous articles and narratives concerning fugitive slaves and free persons claimed as fugitives were published during the antebellum period. The passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, of which Indiana kept its obligation to enforce, exacerbated coverage. Some articles were merely short notices, explaining that a certain number of alleged fugitive slaves were passing through a town or getting to a particular destination. The Evansville Daily Journal ran a brief description in 1859 about two men “who had the appearance of escaped slaves, came upon the Evansville road, last night, and passed on to Indianapolis.” It was also reported that they “had a white adviser with them on the cars,” supposedly a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. In another piece, the Journal wrote uncharitably about a “stampede of slaves” that:

. . . left their master’s roofs, escaped to the Licking river where they lashed together several canoes, and in disguise they rowed down the Licking river to the Ohio and crossed, where they disembarked and made a circuitous route to the northern part of Cincinnati.

After their travel to Cincinnati, the twenty-three fugitives began their route to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

Evansville Daily Journal, June 19, 1854. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Articles covering the arrest of fugitive slaves also filled the headlines. As an example, the New Albany Daily Ledger ran a piece in 1853 about two fugitive slaves captured in the basement of local Theological Seminary. Jerry Warner, a local, arrested them both and received $250 in compensation for their capture. The Evansville Daily Journal reported of the arrest of three fugitive slaves in Vincennes who were on their way to freedom in Canada. Two men, one from Evansville and another from Henderson, Kentucky, pursued and captured the fugitives nearly eight miles outside of the city. The fugitives defended themselves against capture, with one of them brandishing a pistol who “snapped it twice at the officer, but it missed fire.” The officers then transferred the fugitives to Evansville, who were supposedly returned to Henderson.

Evansville Daily Journal, June 2, 1854. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Conductors of the Underground Railroad also faced arrest for the aid of fugitive slaves. Another article from the Evansville Journal chronicled the arrest of a man known simply as “Brown” who aided four female slaves to an Underground Railroad stop at Petersburgh, Indiana. A US Marshal and a local Sheriff “charge[d] on the ‘worthy conductor,’ and he surrendered.” The officers returned Brown to the Henderson jail for processing. It was later discovered that he received $200 from a free African American for his last job. The Journal described Brown as a “notorious abolitionist, and if guilty of the thieving philanthropy with which he is charged, deserved punishment.” Indiana’s free state status did not lessen the prejudice against African Americans and abolitionists; it only obscured it.

Evansville Daily Journal. April 13, 1858. Hoosier State Chronicles.

One of the more elaborate, yet challenging methods fugitive slaves used to seek freedom involved shipping boxes. The Evansville Daily Journal reported of a fugitive slave captured aboard the steamer Portsmouth, a shipping vessel traveling from Nashville to Cincinnati. He was in the box, “doubled up like a jack-knife,” for five days before authorities discovered him and took the appropriate actions. The ship docked at Covington, Kentucky and they “placed the negro in jail to await the requisition of his owner.” It was learned later that the fugitive slave had an agreement with a widow to move to Ohio on condition that he work for her for a year. “He had fulfilled his part of the contract,” the Journal wrote, “and she was performing her stipulations, and would have enabled him to escape had it not been for the unlucky accident.” This story was also covered in the Terre Haute Daily Union and similar stories ran in later issues of the Journal, the Nashville Daily Patriot, and the Richmond Palladium.

Crawfordsville Weekly Journal, August 16, 1855. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Sadly, the ultimate risk for a fugitive slave was death, and Indiana newspapers chronicled these events as well. The Crawfordsville Weekly Journal published an article on August 16, 1855 detailing the death of a fugitive slave by drowning. It appeared to the authorities that the fugitive, resting near Sugar Creek in Crawfordsville, was discovered by a group of men and questioned about his status. Under pressure, the fugitive leaped into the water and tried to flee, which spurred one man to shoot off his gun in an attempt to stop him. As the Journal wrote, “this alarmed the negro, and he plunged beneath the waters, and continued to rise and then dive, until exhausted, and he sank to rise no more until life was extinct.” His body was discovered a few days later. While some deemed his death a mere drowning, others thought it more “suspicious.” The Journal continued:

Putting the most favorable construction on the circumstances, there was a reckless trifling with human life which nothing can justify. He was doubtless a fugitive, but they knew it not, and had no right to arrest him or threaten his life. They knew of no crime of which he had been guilty, and only suspected him of an earnest longing after that freedom for which the human heart ever pants; and because he acted upon this feeling, so natural and so strong, they threaten to tie and imprison, and when struggling with overwhelming waters, he is threatened with being shot if he does not return ; and then when strength and life were fast failing, stretched not forth a helping hand to save him from immediate death.

If the facts as stated be true, (of which we have no doubt,) there is high criminality, of which the laws of our country should take cognizance; and when the news of the negroe’s [sic] death shall have reached his owner, he will doubtless prosecute those men; it may be for murder in the second degree, or at least for the value of the slave.

The Journal eloquently elucidated why the application of fugitive slave laws, especially by vigilante citizens, harmed the civil rights and lives of both free people and those still in servitude (of which there were a mere few).

Terre Haute Journal, September 2, 1853. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Free African Americans additionally faced threats to their lives and livelihood from the enforcement of fugitive slave laws. A well-known instance in Indiana regarded the arrest and release of John Freeman. Arrested and jailed on June 21, 1853, Freeman faced a charge from Pleasant Ellington of Missouri that he was one of his slaves. Freeman hired a legal team and after a lengthy trial that testified to his status as a free-born African American, he was released on August 27, 1853. It turned out that Ellington misidentified Freeman as a slave named Sam, who fled from servitude in Greenup County, Kentucky and likely escaped to Canada. Due to the diminution of his character, Freeman sued Ellington in civil court for 10,000; it was later ruled in favor of Freeman and he received $2,000 and additional unnamed damages. What Freeman experienced is but a snapshot into how fugitive slave laws harmed the rights of free people as well as slaves.

Indiana State Guard, June 8, 1861. Hoosier State Chronicles.

After the Civil War began, fugitive slaves continued to elicit concern, and coverage, in Indiana newspapers. In the spring of 1861, the Sentinel reprinted a piece from the Jeffersonville Democrat about the rise of fugitive slaves traveling through the Ohio River region: “the number of fugitive slaves caught on the Indiana side of the river, and returned to Kentucky within the past three months, is greater than that of any like period during the past ten years.” Kentucky’s government still offered a reward of $150 for each returned slave. That summer, the Indiana State Guard published President Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts on the issue. Lincoln, in a manner characteristic of his own political calculus, declared that Union soldiers were not “obliged to leave their legitimate military business to pursue and return fugitive slaves” but also cautioned that “the army is under no obligation to protect them, and will not encourage nor interfere with them in their flight.” The new President offered a nuanced position that possibly placated the Border States while satisfying the abolitionist wing of his own party. Realistically, it was a long way away from the Emancipation Proclamation.

Greencastle Banner, December 23, 1865. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The end of the Civil War brought the end of slavery as a federally-protected policy, and thus eliminated the need for fugitive slave laws. Their end brought a larger fulfillment of the Declaration of Independence’s commitment to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” Yet, the history of fugitive slaves often fell into tales of folklore and hyperbole. Looking at a primary source like newspapers helps to dispel many of the myths and provides nuance to the controversial subject of human enslavement in the United States. These stories represent a small fraction of the larger narrative about American slavery. To learn more, visit the Library of Congress’ page about fugitive slave ads in historical newspapers: https://www.loc.gov/rr/news/topics/fugitiveAds.html. You can also search Hoosier State Chronicles for more fugitive slave ads and articles.

Other Resources

Indiana Historical Bureau: Slavery in Indiana Territory

Indiana Historical Bureau: Indiana and Fugitive Slave Laws

Indiana Historical Bureau: The Underground Railroad

Billy Sunday: Revival in Richmond

Billy Sunday preaches in Jacksonville, Illinois, 1908. Indiana Memory.

The Reverend Billy Sunday, born November 19, 1863, started life as a professional baseball player before his conversion to Christianity in the late 1880s. From 1891 to 1895, Sunday learned the craft of evangelizing with an apprenticeship at the Chicago Y.M.C.A. (of which evangelical icon Dwight Moody was a co-founder), and by 1896 had become a professional evangelist. For the next 40 years, Sunday preached a Presbyterianism that represented “the more ‘American’ side of that denominational tradition—a broad, somewhat tolerant, not highly doctrinal, moralistic, patriotic, and often optimistic version of evangelical Protestantism.” His “sensational and vaudevillian” style urged personal responsibility and growth, which he advocated for in his urban evangelizing campaigns. From Sunday’s style of Americanized evangelism, one can easily see a connection to more modern evangelicals like Billy Graham.

Richmond Palladium, May 2, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

For many years, Sunday made Winona Lake, Indiana his home with his wife and family. It gave him more opportunities to hold revivals in Indiana, especially ones lasting for weeks at a time. One such revival came to Richmond in the spring of 1922. For six weeks, Sunday preached to scores of people in Richmond, “saving souls” and collecting donations from audiences. The Palladium, the city’s premiere newspaper, provided  a supplement section in its daily paper for Sunday to share his sermons, stories, and testimonials with the public. It is unclear as to why the Palladium decided to provide such expansive coverage; perhaps a publishing agreement between Sunday’s ministry and the newspaper facilitated the section. An insight into this arrangement might be gleamed from Sunday biographer Theodore Thomas Frankenberg:

Newspapers in any community, whether large or small, must necessarily pay attention to an enterprise which the business men of the town or city are backing to the extent of thousands and thousands of dollars. The element of publicity continues with increasing vigor to the very end of all campaigns, and one of the remarkable features in connection with it is the fact that this publicity is never sought by any direct or overt act — it comes naturally, almost spontaneously, and is easily the fourth factor toward preparing the field for the advent of the evangelist.

In any event, a half-page ad in the Palladium advertised Sunday’s revival and the paper’s forthcoming coverage. “The Palladium will publish a daily supplement giving two full pages of news and pictures regarding the meetings and the sermons in Richmond,” the ad stated. The paper also boasted of its team of reporters who would cover the revivals with a “direct telephone line . . . run from the Tabernacle to the Palladium office in order that there be no delay.” While Sunday’s preaching may have been “old time religion,” the Palladium’s supplement was a modern affair that anticipated the rise of twentieth century American protestant evangelicalism.

Richmond Palladium, April 13, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Richmond Palladium, April 18, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Palladium published its first supplement on April 17, 1922, right after Easter Sunday. Throughout its six-week run, the Billy Sunday supplement followed a predictable pattern. The first page would run a photo of Sunday, often with a quote. The first one, called “I’ve Got a Combative Nature,” quotes the preacher talking about his background in sports and its influence on his preaching. “I was graduated from five gymnasiums. I can go so fast for five rounds you can’t see me in the dust,” declared the Reverend Sunday. The right hand side carried his main sermon, which often focused on a specific topic. For the first issue, Sunday ruminated on what he believed was the “real essence of Christianity,” love:

I will admit that Christianity has fallen away beneath love as the original standard. Love is the dominant principle of the world; love can never be defeated. Love may be checked; love may be prevented for the time being, in accomplishing its aim, but love will drill a tunnel through all the mountains of opposition and reach the goal of a touchdown. Love—it’s the mightiest thing in the world! And the world is starving today for the manifestation of the love of God in the hearts of men and women.

Richmond Palladium, April 17, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

However, Christianity was more than just love to Billy Sunday. It also manifested itself in good works, particularly donations to the church, or in his case, to his revivals. In every supplement, an article or informational table would display the amount of money, in cash and pledges, Sunday’s ministry received for his sermons. The first day, the total collections were $859.71. This wasn’t good enough for the fiery evangelist. “I turned down 25 cities to come here, and it is not fair to me or to the other cities if you do not support me,” Sunday chided. As subsequent issues were published, the money totals and people “saved” became more explicit.

Richmond Palladium, April 18, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Palladium’s Billy Sunday supplement also shared with readers some of his best one liners or bits from his sermons. This was a smart move; Sunday was extremely quotable and articulate and would often do more with a sentence than other speakers could do in a paragraph. For example, in the April 18 issue, the Palladium published some of “Today’s Hot Epigrams from Billy Sunday’s Lips.” Here’s some of his best quotes from that issue:

*

I think that God is too busy to pay any attention to the fellow who is trying to lift himself by his own bootstraps.

*

This is not a world of chance. God don’t wind it up and then throw away the key and let her rip till she runs down. Nothing comes by chance.

*

Christianity is not a simply a creed. Christianity is a creed plus Jesus Christ.

*

Like with the first issue, a picture of Sunday, often in an animated preaching pose, accompanied the quotes. This gave readers a choice; either read the long-form sermons or check out their best bits and quotable lines. This provided Sunday with a wider readership than if he had just provided the sermons as a whole.

Richmond Palladium, April 19, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

One of Sunday’s indispensable lieutenants in his crusades for Christ was Robert Matthews, described by the Palladium as the “custodian of the tabernacle.” However, this was not his only job. Matthews served as Sunday’s secretary, a “buffer between the world and his boss,” as well as his “pianist for the chorus, understudy for Rody [Homer Rodeheaver] as the leader of the choir, and finally a good talker when he has to be.” A native of Kentucky, Matthews graduated from Lake Forest College, received musical education in “New York, Paris, Milan, and Melbourne,” and spent time in the newspaper business before joining Sunday’s staff. The Palladium described Matthews as “faithful to Billy,” further noting that “he is sure that Billy is the greatest man on the face of the earth.” Matthews, along with other staff, made sure that the Sunday revivals went perfectly.

Homer Rodeheaver, known as “Rody,” was Sunday’s musical director. Richmond Palladium, April 20, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The revivals benefited additionally from a well-organized schedule of prayer meetings, led by Florence Kinney, a graduate of Dr. Wilbert W. White’s Bible Training School in New York City and dedicated lieutenant to Sunday. Kinney believed that, “Souls can be saved and individuals converted in those neighborhoods, just as well as at the big tabernacle meetings.” Kinney and Reverend Alfred H. Backus organized Richmond into 10 sections, each with their own superintendent responsible for prayer meetings. Kinney herself taught Bible study classes during the week, scheduled “immediately after the afternoon sermon.” These individualized, personal meetings reinforced Sunday’s sermons, gained new converts, and emboldened the already converted. In this regard, Sunday’s bureaucratic approach echoed the modern evangelical enterprises of Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell decades later.

“Come Up to Help the Lord,” hand-written proclamation from Reverend Sunday. Richmond Palladium, April 21, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In the supplement for April 21, the Palladium published a hand-written proclamation from Sunday, calling for evangelism in Richmond. “The history of the church is the history of revivals—the Church was born in the revival at Pentecost,” Sunday declared in his letter. He also summoned all of Richmond to join his revival. “I issue a proclamation,” Sunday wrote, “to the forces of truth, morality, righteousness in and out of the churches of Richmond ‘come up to the help of the Lord, against the and devil and all his hosts.” He signed it with his name and “Psalm 34,” which, among other verses, stated that “The Lord redeemeth the soul of his servants: and none of them that trust in him shall be desolate.” Sunday fervently believed that the message of Christianity would fail unless the people actively worked for the propagation of its message.

Billy Sunday’s tabernacle in Richmond, Indiana. Richmond Palladium, April 18, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

To hit home this message, the Palladium ran a small chart, starting in the April 19 supplement, chronicling the money raised and those “saved” at the daily services. Between the afternoon and evening services on April 21, the ministry collected $344 and preached to 4,900 attendees. However, by the weekend’s end, the collection ballooned to $3,183.36 and attendance expanded by 19,700 people. As an aside, the paper also noted that the “foregoing does not include pledges, which will swell the total.” The chart began including converts with the April 26 issue, where 119 “’hit the sawdust trail,’ the first converts of the Richmond campaign.” Within days, the paper named the converted as “trail hitters,” a term used throughout the rest of Sunday’s revival in Richmond. By the time Billy Sunday’s six weeks in Richmond came to a close, his ministry claimed 5,876 “tail hitters” and $34,658 in collections. Not too bad for an old baseball slugger turned champion for the Lord.

Richmond Palladium, April 26, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

However, Sunday was not without his controversies. He was openly against divorce, appearing in films, dancing, drinking alcohol, and the theory of evolution. With evolution, Sunday chided that, “If you believe your great, great granddaddy was a monkey, then you take your daddy and go to hell with him, but leave me out! I came from a different bunch, thank God.” He was also particularly bothered by divorce, saying “I shall never prostitute my manhood and high and honorable calling to unite in marriage a man or woman that has ever been divorced for any reason, as long as the man or woman from whom he or she is divorced is alive!” Sunday also railed against hypocrites within the ministry, stating, “I don’t like to see a minister who has one mannerism for the pulpit and another for the street.”

Richmond Palladium, May 3, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Yet, despite his calls for moral behavior and rejection of modern life, there was one group with which he was incautiously naive: the Ku Klux Klan. On May 14, 1922, 12 Klansmen in white robes approached the pulpit during Sunday’s evening service. They stood silent as they handed the reverend an envelope containing a “commendation and $50 in bills.” Sunday took the letter, merely replied “I thank you,” and said to the audience after they left, “I don’t know how you felt, but I commenced to check up on myself.” The Palladium reported that Sunday was “dumbfounded,” even though this was not his first encounter with the Klan. “The klan [sic] has made a present to Mr. Sunday in every city he has been in during the last year. . . . Even the Klan in Sioux City did the same thing,” Sunday confidant Robert Matthews told the press.

Richmond Palladium, May 15, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Muncie chapter and the provisional Richmond chapter of the Ku Klux Klan signed the letter commending Sunday for “the wonderful work that you and your associates are doing in [sic] behalf of perpetuating the tenets of the Christian Religion throughout the nation. . . .” The Palladium further noted that this was “the first time in the history of Richmond that the Ku Klux Klan had appeared. . . .” It also would not be their last time. According to historian Leonard Moore, 4,037 men from Wayne County, of which 3,183 were from Richmond, joined the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Of Richmond’s 26,000 residents, over 12% belonged to the Klan during the decade. Sunday’s interaction with the Klan was not an aberration, but rather a sign of things to come.

As for the Reverend, he shrugged off the “dumbfounding” incident, declared that he did not belong to any secret fraternal organizations, and said that “if you behave yourself they won’t bother you.” In an odd turn, Sunday never readdressed the incident, but instead criticized the liberal wing of Baptist Christianity. “It’s the liberal bunch that don’t like me, and I don’t want their backing,” Sunday shared with his audience before he called for attendees to come forward to be saved.” Sunday’s apparent lack of moral clarity on the issue of the Klan does not imply an endorsement of its politics; it only demonstrates that Sunday was not aware of the implications of associating with them. Nevertheless, Sunday’s actions remain problematic.

Richmond Palladium, May 26, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Towards the end of his run, Billy Sunday’s crowds, collections, and the “saved” continued to grow. On May 25, over 600 members of the local Odd Fellows organization attended the evening service, pushing the audience to 5,200 people and past tabernacle capacity. The next day brought a record 2,000 people to the revival on a week day, the highest it had ever been. His final night of evangelizing brought to his ministry over $10,700 in donations, mostly from those in attendance but also from those unable to attend who donated earlier in the week. The Palladium covered Sunday’s final sermon and the start of his travel home to Winona Lake:

Billy Sunday’s residence at Winona Lake, Indiana, 1920. Indiana Memory.

About 1,500 saw Mr. Sunday off to his home at 10:20 o’clock Sunday evening. As the train started. Billy Sunday was shaking hands with a member of the crowd and was pulled off the steps to the platform. He managed to catch the steps of the end car as it passed and Richmond’s last sight of the evangelist was as he stood on the platform, waving goodbye.

During his six-week revival, Sunday gave 95 sermons in front of nearly 250,000 people, making him one of the biggest draws in the history of Richmond. He left the city a massive success.

Richmond Palladium, May 29, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

One of the biggest reasons for that success was the daily newspaper coverage he received in the Richmond Palladium. “The papers in this town have done better in covering this campaign from every angle than any other city have been to,” Sunday told the Palladium on his final day in Richmond. This is no exaggeration. The Palladium gave Sunday six weeks of uninterrupted newspaper coverage in a special supplemental section, a unique experiment in the newspaper’s near-200 year history. They printed his sermons almost verbatim, alongside other stories, quips, and updates on the prayer meetings and the amount of people “saved.” The Palladium‘s wall-to-wall coverage of Sunday’s revivals foreshadowed today’s network of newspapers, magazines, television stations, and internet media devoted to religious programming. Thus, the Palladium’s “Sunday Supplement” underscores the immense influence of Billy Sunday and evangelical Protestantism in the Midwest during the early 20th century.

To learn more about Billy Sunday, visit Chronicling America and Hoosier State Chronicles.

Richmond Palladium, May 9, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Portions of the introduction appeared in my thesis, Ingersoll, Infidels, and Indianapolis: Freethought and Religion in the Central Midwest.

New Batch Available!

Hey there Chroniclers!

We have a new batch available for you through Chronicling Americahttp://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.

This batch comprises 632 issues (totaling 6,346 pages) and brings our total page count in Chronicling America to 315,480!

Here are the papers and dates available:

Richmond Palladium (Weekly) : January 12, 1839 – December 29, 1843

Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram (Daily): January 1, 1912 – Mar 30, 1912, July 1, 1912 – September 30, 1912, October 1, 1913 – December 31, 1913, May 8, 1916, April 21, 1922-December 30, 1922

As always, happy searching!

This project has been assisted by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

New Batch Available!

Hey there Chroniclers!

We have a new batch available for you through Chronicling Americahttp://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.

This batch comprises 875 issues (totaling 9,934 pages) and brings our total page count in Chronicling America to 309,134!

Here are the papers and dates available:

Jasper Weekly Courier: August 18, 1876 – December 22, 1876

Indiana State Sentinel (Weekly): October 09, 1878 – Dec 24, 1879

Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram (Daily): January 01, 1911 – December 30, 1911, November 22, 1915 – January 31, 1916, October 11, 1918 – December 31, 1919

As always, happy searching!

This project has been assisted by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Tales of the Indiana “Wild Man”

When  searching Hoosier State Chronicles (HSC), you never know what you might stumble upon. One term that seemed interesting to delve into was “wild man.” This simple search term did not disappoint. From outdoor hermits and incensed criminals to unfortunate cases of mental illness, tales of the “wild man” abound in the pages of Indiana newspapers. Below you will find some of these stories; clicking the image takes you to its page in HSC to learn more.

You can search for additional “wild man” stories, as well as countless other subjects, in Hoosier State Chronicles.

Western Sun and General Advertiser, September 9, 1826. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Crawfordsville Journal, June 12, 1862. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Terre Haute Daily Express, August 13, 1867. Hoosier State Chronicles. 
Indiana State Sentinel, September 17, 1869. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Terre Haute Daily Express, August 16, 1870. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Terre Haute Weekly Express, November 2, 1870. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, August 23, 1879. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, January 25, 1884. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, October 30, 1886. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Jasper Weekly Courier, May 13, 1887. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Journal, April 9, 1890. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Crawfordsville Review, September 10, 1890. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Crawfordsville Review, December 19, 1891. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, March 10, 1893. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Journal, April 11, 1893. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Crawfordsville Journal, July 17, 1896. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Crawfordsville Review, October 29, 1898. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, July 8, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Plymouth Tribune, March 16, 1905. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Jasper Weekly Courier, May 18, 1906. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, July 17, 1907. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, July 17, 1907. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Richmond Palladium, August 3, 1908. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, June 30, 1910. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, May 24, 1912. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, May 24, 1912. Hoosier State Chronicles.
South Bend News-Times, September 24, 1919. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, January 3, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, June 15, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Outlaws, Pinkertons, and Vigilantes: The Reno Gang and its Enemies

John Reno. Wikipedia.

Tales of the “Wild West” abound in our cultural imagination, especially when it comes to robberies. Jesse and Frank James, Billy the Kid, and the Dalton Gang are just some of the famous examples from history. However, one of the “Wild West’s” earliest and most infamous robbery syndicates was not from Texas or Arizona— but from Jackson County, Indiana. The Reno Gang, often credited with the “first train robbery in America,” were a gang of outlaws that roamed the Indiana and Missouri countryside in the 1860s, stealing loot from banks and county treasuries. At their peak, the Renos and their copycats stole nearly half a million dollars within a span of two years. The gang’s core consisted of four brothers—John, Frank, Simeon, and William Reno—alongside a cadre of counterfeiters, ruffians, and petty thieves. While their crimes became legendary, the community’s response proved equally legendary. Local sheriffs, Allan Pinkerton’s men, Canadian detectives, and the Jackson County Vigilance Committee all stove to exact justice on the Renos and their accomplices. In this blog, we will uncover the trail of destruction left behind, not only by the Reno Gang, but by those who punished them.

Frank Reno. Wikipedia.

Our story begins with a sprawling family in a small Indiana town. Wilkinson Reno, the patriarch, arrived in Jackson County as an upland southerner from Kentucky. He and his family settled on a 1,200 acre farm in Rockford, a town slightly north of Seymour. “Wilkes,” as he was called, married Julia Ann Reno in 1835, “a woman sprung from the Pennsylvania Dutch.” They had six children; five boys (Frank, John, Simeon, Clint, and William) and one girl (Laura). Clint never involved himself in his brother’s criminal activities, which gave him the nickname “Honest” Reno. Laura proved more of a sympathizer than an accomplice and defended her brothers’ honor her entire life. Growing up, the boys caused trouble by “playing crooked card games to bilk travelers” and allegedly involving themselves in a series of town fires. During the Civil War, some of the Reno brothers gained a reputation for “bounty jumping,” joining the army for recruitment money, deserting the post, and pocketing the cash. While this seems bad enough, the Reno brothers were just getting started.

Frank Sparks. Wikipedia.

After the war, they returned to Rockford, formed a gang with other bounty jumpers, and carried out a series of petty robberies in the community. However, they took their thievery to the next level by “blowing a safe at Azalia, Bartholomew County, Indiana, by which they got $10,000.” This all culminated in the first major robbery of the Reno Gang’s Career: the Ohio and Mississippi express robbery.

Indianapolis Daily Herald, October 8, 1866. Hoosier State Chronicles.

On October 6, 1866, John Reno, Simeon Reno, and Frank Sparks robbed the Ohio and Mississippi Railway express car on its way out of Seymour. As the Indianapolis Daily Herald reported, “two men entered his [conductor’s] car from the front platform, . . . presented revolvers at either side of his head, took his key, opened the local safe, and rifled it of all moneys . . . .” They then “threw one of the safes out, pulled the bell chord, and escaped as they had entered.” They were arrested five days later, after a “vigorous search was immediately commenced by citizens and detectives . . . .” Eventually, Wilkes Reno also faced arrest for his involvement in the robbery, though his exact crime remained unclear in the newspapers. Simeon Reno and Frank Sparks posted bail (at $2,500 each) and Wilkes and Jack Reno also posted bail, for “$8,000 and $1,000 respectively.”

Indianapolis Daily Herald, October 16, 1866. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Within two days, the Gang committed another robbery, this time at the Hendricks County Treasurer’s office. They made away with a cool $900 that “belonged the County Agricultural Association.” Over the next few months, the Renos attempted a few more robberies of county treasuries and local banks. In Elkhart County, they blew the doors off of the treasurer’s safe, only to find it empty. County officials, growing wise to the gang’s antics, removed the money and deposited it in the local bank. They left the office with only a measly $50. However, their break-in at Muncie’s Exchange Bank on November 12 proved a massive success, making off with “$12,000 in greenbacks, and $6,000 in United States bonds” before escaping into the night. However, they ended 1866 in failure after a botched attempt at blowing open the safe of the White County treasury. The Indianapolis Daily Journal published a warning just days after the White County attempt, taking a swipe at the robbers: “Burglars are operating extensively in all parts of the State. County Treasuries seem to possess great attraction for them, though their success in realizing any large amount of greenbacks by such raids is anything but flattering.”

Indianapolis Daily Herald, November 13, 1866. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Despite the warnings, country treasuries felt the wrath of the Reno Gang into the spring of 1867. Ripley County’s treasury lost $500 in a break in, but fortunately, the inner safe kept and saved $30,000 from being lost. DeKalb and Jackson counties proved more successful for the Renos, where their treasury break-ins resulted in $70,000 worth of stolen assets. The Journal published another warning to country treasuries, pithily commenting that “the funds on hand would be as secure if thrown into an empty box or barrel in the treasurer’s office, as they are in what are facetiously termed fire-proof and burglar-proof safes.” The Renos and their accomplices caused much trouble, but their copycats proved to be the beginning of the gang’s unraveling.

Indianapolis Daily Journal, March 16, 1867. Newspaper Archive.

On September 28, 1867, copycats Walker Hammond and Michael Colleran robbed the Adams Express on the Ohio and Mississippi railroad, almost a year after the Renos’ attempt, and made off with $10,000. Hammond and Colleran, while successful in their robbery, were not successful in their escape. The Renos knew their plans and watched the hold-up from afar, and as the copycats attempted their getaway, the gang cut them off and “relieved the robbers of their plunder.” In an even brasher move, the Renos left Hammond and Colleran to the authorities, where they served time while the gang got away with their cash. This appeared to be the last straw for the community and for the Adams Express Company. As a response to constant terror, Adams Express employed Allan Pinkerton, the famous private detective, and his agents to hunt down the Renos. Jackson County locals also formed their own vigilance committee, hoping to exact their own brand of justice on their community’s most notorious criminals.

Allan Pinkerton. Wikipedia.

Some of the gang began to feel the heat. John Reno and Frank Sparks fled to Missouri, where they carried out another series of robberies in Daviess County. Upon returning to Indiana, Pinkerton and his men surrounded Reno’s train in Indianapolis and arrested him. Sparks was also arrested near Seymour. Authorities sent John Reno back to Daviess County where he faced charges of safe robbing and summarily sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. His days with the Reno Gang were over.

The Holt County Sentinel, December 13, 1867. Chronicling America.

The gang continued, under the leadership of Frank Reno, well into the summer of 1868. On May 22, the gang successfully robbed the Adams Express on the Jeffersonville line in Marshfield, 17 miles south of Seymour. The Renos pocketed approximately $96,000 from cracking three safes. The Indiana Daily Sentinel provided great detail on how the Renos pulled it off:

While the train was thus watering on Friday night, six men approached it suddenly, and at once commanded an assault on the engineer and fireman, with a view to the capture of the engine. . . .One of them struck him [the messenger] a terrible blow with one of the crowbars over the right side of the head, crushing in the skull and inflicting a terrible wound transversely from near the top of the head to the temple. . . .This done, the robbers at once commenced their work. All the safes were either broken open and robbed, or thrown overboard at designated places to be robbed by confederates of the six on the train. They were most likely robbed, however, before they were thrown off the car.

An artist rendition of the Reno Gang. Legends of America.

This attempt proved to be the Renos last successful train robbery. They tried it again on the Ohio and Mississippi line on July 10, 1868, but were met “with a volley from the pistols of the guard inside. The robbers were driven off, leaving one of their number very badly wounded, who was brought to this city this morning.”

Terre Haute Daily Express, July 13, 1868. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Terre Haute Daily Express reported that “A party of men who were hunting the thieves . . . chased the gang into a thicket near Rockford, Indiana, and succeeded in capturing one, named Charles Roseberry.” It is likely that the “party of men” described in the piece were Pinkertons, because they brought Roseberry into town for medical treatment and questioning. Gang members John Moore, Henry Jerrell, and Frank Sparks also suffered intense injuries.

Indiana Daily State Sentinel, July 14, 1868. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The citizens of Seymour had had enough. The Express also reported that the “citizens of Seymour met last night and formed a vigilance committee.” They fervently believed that “Frank Reno was at the head of the late robbery” and that his accomplices were “petty thieves” whose amateur mistakes resulted in injured citizens and plundered treasure. The Daily Sentinel minced no words when it declared that “the best thing that could be done for Seymour would be to hang the leading scoundrels and drive the others away, which, we are glad to see, the citizens are now likely to do.”

Terre Haute Weekly Express, July 22, 1868. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Sentinel’s prophecy occurred far faster than anyone could have predicted. On the night of July 20, 1868, just 10 days after the Reno’s last train robbery, the Jackson County Vigilance Committee lynched Reno gang members Thomas Volney Elliot, Charles Roseberry, and Frelinghuysen Clifton near Seymour. “When the train reached a point two miles west of Seymour,” the Terre Haute Weekly Express noted,” it was stopped by a mob of about two hundred men from Seymour and vicinity, the guard [was] overpowered and the prisoners [were] taken out and hanged.” As he faced his inevitable fate, Clifton “wept like a child, swore that he was innocent of all crime, and implored them to spare his life.” As for the others, Roseberry “said not a word” and Elliot railed against his captors, saying “Confess h—l; I’ll tell you nothing; you’ve got me here, a thousand of you, now do your worst.” They were strung up to a beech tree, “struggled greatly, and died hard.”

Terre Haute Weekly Express, July 29, 1868. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Frank Reno, by contrast, made his way to Windsor, Canada and started a new life. The Adams express company offered a reward to anyone who brought him back, either dead or alive. Gang members Frank Sparks, John Moore and Henry Jerrell also fled the state but were captured by authorities in Coles County, Illinois on July 24. They then were transferred to Brownstown and kept under surveillance at the Adams Express wagon office until their transfer to Seymour. However, like the first three, they did not make it. As the Express recounted:

[On July 25], . . . seventy-five men noiselessly surrounded the wagon, overpowered the night guards, and in turn placed them under surveillance; the wagon was driven back under the fated beech, and in less time than it takes to tell it, upon the same three limbs [as the others], Frank Sparks, Henry Jerrell, and John Moore ended their lives of crime.

Indianapolis Daily Journal, July 27, 1868. Newspaper Archive.

Within days of the second lynching by the vigilance committee, Simeon and William Reno were arrested in Indianapolis, subsequently jailed in New Albany, and transferred to the Lexington jail in Scott County. Authorities rightly believed they would be safer there than in Jackson County. The criminal career of the Reno gang crept closer to a conclusion.

Terre Haute Daily Express, July 30, 1868. Hoosier State Chronicles.

While many viewed the actions of the vigilance committee as honorable, the Grand Jury of Jackson County thought otherwise. The New York Times reported that the Grand Jury would “make the most rigorous examination in regard to acts of the Seymour mob, and indict those whom it can be ascertained were engaged in the recent hangings, for murder in the first degree.” As for specific charges elsewhere, “a number of the persons engaged in this outrage have been indicted for murder by the Grand Jury of Johnson County, and are now under $10,000 bail each to answer to the Circuit Court.” The courts continued to emphasize that despite the Reno Gang’s crimes, the murderous acts of the vigilance committee could not be justified. The Indianapolis Daily Journal used it as an opportunity to be brazenly partisan. “To put it concisely,” wrote the Journal, “three more great outlaws have received their deserts – by an illegal process – and the Republican Party thereby incidentally derives a net gain of six.”

New York Times, August 12, 1868. Newspapers.com.

Meanwhile, Windsor Constable Sam Port and his team finally arrested Frank Reno and associate Charles Anderson for the robbery of the Adams Express and the attempted murder of its messenger, Thomas Hawkins. Upon arraignment, the courts dropped the initial charge of attempted murder against Hawkins, mainly from a lack of evidence. However, they were re-arraigned on another charge: the assault and attempted murder of Americus Holden, the conductor of the Adams Express. Chief Justice William Henry Draper, upon reviewing the evidence and arguments for this new charge, ruled in favor of the state and ordered Reno and Anderson to be extradited to the United States and tried there. The two criminals, possibly weary of what awaited them back home, attempted to break out of jail. Unluckily for them, Detective Pinkerton and his men prepared for the thieves’ antics, endured two failed assassination attempts, and successfully carried out their charge by the US Government to bring them back to the states.

New York Times, October 16, 1868. Newspapers.com.

As Pinkerton and his men brought the two fugitives back to Indiana, the Jackson County vigilance committee sought to continue their own brand of justice. In mid-September of 1868, the vigilance committee caught word that Simeon and William Reno were jailed in Lexington. A cadre of “eighty-five men” traveled from Seymour to Vienna, made the eight mile trek to Lexington on foot, and barnstormed the local jail. However, the Renos were not there. That did not stop them from trying. A messenger altered the mob that the brothers might be traveling by train. Some of the mob stayed in Lexington while the others stayed in Vienna. “When the train arrived, consequently, about six o’clock A.M.,” the Daily Sentinel noted, “the platform of the depot was crowded with strange men, whose faces were unfamiliar to the citizens of the village and passengers on the cars.” They searched the train and found that the Renos were not on board; sensing a problem, local law enforcement returned the prisoners to New Albany. Discouraged, the members of vigilance committee in Vienna took another train home to Jackson County. The Renos escaped their clutches, one last time.

Indiana Daily State Sentinel. December 14, 1868. Hoosier State Chronicles.

By December, Frank Reno, Simeon Reno, William Reno, and Charles Anderson all faced trial for their crimes. Prosecutors tried them in New Albany in an attempt to stave off the vigilance committee. Despite all the precautions and stop-gap measures the local authorities took to stop the bloodshed, the vigilance committee got exactly what they wanted. On the night of December 12, “sixty to seventy Seymour Regulators, masked and heavily armed” walked out of the New Albany station of the Jeffersonville railroad and proceeded toward the jail house. They barged in, demanded the keys from the sheriff, and completely surrounded the premises. Frank Reno “fought the regulators, knocking three of them down,” but was beaten to a pulp. William and Simeon also tried to fight them off but to no avail. Anderson, sensing the end, asked if he could say a prayer but was denied. The mob hung all four men within an hour,  commandeered a train, and left by four in the morning.

“Lynch Law in Indiana.” Harper’s Weekly, January 2, 1869. Internet Archive. This lithograph depicts members of the vigilance committee surrounding the New Albany jail.

Within a span of six months, the vigilance committee lynched 10 men of the Reno Gang, including three of the four brothers. After the carnage, the brothers’ bodies were returned to Seymour and buried in City Cemetery. Wilkes, Laura, John, and Clint Reno were all that was left of the one of Seymour’s most notorious families. As for Anderson, his remains were buried in New Albany. Newspapers decried the mob violence wracked upon the Renos. “This high handed and murderous deed deeply concerns every citizen of Indiana. It is a reproach upon the State, which it will take years to efface,” wrote the Evansville Journal. The vigilance committee felt little remorse for their actions, going so far as to publish a warning to criminals in the Cincinnati Times (later reprinted in the New York Times). “We deeply deplore the necessity which called our organization into existence; but the laws of our State are so defective that, as they now stand on the statute books, they all favor criminals going unwhipt of justice.” Despite their initial moralizing, a more ominous intention appeared towards the end. “Do not trifle with us,” declared the committee, “for if you do we will follow you to the bitter end and give you a ‘short shrift and hempen collar.’ As to this, our actions in the past will be a guarantee of our conduct in the future.”

New York Times, December 26, 1868. Newspapers.com.

John Reno, the last surviving brother of the gang, finished his prison sentence in February of 1878, after receiving a commutation by Missouri Governor Benjamin Gratz Brown. After his release, Reno spoke to the Indianapolis News about his future. “I’m a rattling good stonecutter . . . and have put up a shed in Seymour, where I intend to go to work,” he said. Unfortunately, stone cutting was not the only work he was doing. Reno went back to prison in 1885 for “passing counterfeit money in Indianapolis” and served another three years. Little is known of what happened after his second release from prison. He died in 1895. With his death, the Reno Gang finally gave way to legend.

Half Sheet poster for Love Me Tender, 1956. Elvis Worldwide Movie Memorabilia. In his first feature film, Elvis Presley played Clint Reno.

The Reno brothers and their gang perpetuated a crime wave in Jackson County the likes of which had never been seen. Their infamous status served as an inspiration for the pioneering short film, The Great Train Robbery (1903). It also directly inspired two feature films: Rage at Dawn (1955), starring Hoosier Forrest Tucker as Frank Reno, and Love Me Tender (1956), with Elvis Presley as Clint Reno. However, in a historical sense, the Reno Gang’s story is more than just the films it inspired. At its heart, these men were some of the first modern criminals in American history, using technology and organization to steal great fortunes with skill and ease. Law enforcement appeared wildly unprepared to handle them. As a result, a vigilance committee took justice into its own hands, committing horrible violence against the gang and leaving order up for grabs. In their eyes, the law couldn’t contain men like the Renos, so they had to do it themselves.

The graves of Frank, Simeon, and William Reno, Cemetery Park, Seymour, Indiana. Atlas Obscura.

The acts of the vigilance committee tell us as much about the period as the Renos do. In an era of vast economic, social, and political change, criminals took advantage of an antiquated system of law enforcement that was never designed to suppress them. When the system did not evolve, the citizens forced it, through vigilantism and lynching. Indiana would continue to have a problem with vigilante groups and lynching throughout the early years of the twentieth century. While no one would ever deem the Renos innocent, their gruesome deaths parallel the very crimes they were killed for. In that sense, the crimes of the Reno Gang and the violence they instigated belong in the legendary mythos of the “Wild West.”

The Conspirators: Eugene V. Debs, Clarence Darrow, and the ARU Trials of 1894-95

Indiana history is replete with trailblazers, those who stood against the norm and fought for what they believed in. One such trailblazer was Eugene Victor Debs, founder of the American Railway Union (ARU) and perennial candidate for president of the United States under the Socialist Party banner. Before his presidential runs, before the “legend” of Debs took hold in the American psyche, a series of events in 1894-95 catapulted Debs’ status from obscure labor leader to “the ideal of the workingmen of America.”

Greencastle Daily Banner Times, December 15, 1894. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Another seminal character in Debs’ rise was Clarence Darrow, the famed litigator and labor supporter who used his considerable legal talents to defend Debs and the ARU. Coincidentally, Darrow’s rise to American consciousness, in some measure, parallels Debs’ own emerging prominence. They both supported and emboldened each other during an era of immense fortunes for those at the top and very little for those at the bottom. This blog details their partnership during one of organized labor’s most trying times and how these two men facilitated each other’s mythos during America’s Gilded Age.

Richmond Palladium, November 13, 1917. Hoosier State Chronicles.

It all began with a labor strike. On May 11, 1894, 2,000 employees walked out of their jobs at the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago. While the press concluded that the exact nature of the walk out was unknown, the strike had been brewing for months. The economic Panic of 1893 left hundreds of thousands unemployed or underpaid. As the New York Evening World wrote in their report on the initial walk out, “Trouble had been brewing for some time, the men demanding the restoration of a 33 1/3 per cent cut in the wages made last year.” Conditions worsened when the majority of Pullman workers, living in a company town established by the eponymous owner, found rent, food, and other goods too expensive for their slashed wages. The Pullman Company refused to lower prices, despite the wage decreases. These, among other factors, led to the walkout.

New York Evening World. May 11, 1894. Chronicling America.
Pullman workers walking off the job, 1894. Wikispaces.

Within days, the American Railway Union became involved. Founded in Chicago on June 20, 1893, the ARU “very quickly became the nation’s largest organized union.” Debs served as the union’s president. When the Pullman strike erupted in May, the ARU fended off accusations of trying “to stop the Pullman car service throughout the country in an effort to win the strike at Pullman.” However, that didn’t stop the ARU from creating “assemblies of A.R.U. at Wilmington, Del[aware], Ludlow, “K[entuck]y, and St. Louis among the Pullman employe[e]s at those points.”

Indianapolis Journal, May 13, 1894. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In May, the ARU were merely facilitators for the workers; by June, they had taken over the strike. On June 26, 1894, the ARU “began to fight against the Pullman Palace Car Company. Orders for the boycott have issued to all local branches of the organization and preparations are not complete for what it is said may be the greatest railway fight in history.” ARU Vice President George W. Howard expressed his intent in the Indianapolis News:

We are going to bankrupt George M. Pullman, and we are going to do it in a short space of time. We have shut up his works at Ludlow and St. Louis and we shall be able to close his last door at Wilmington by next week. He will be rendered completely helpless inside of ten days unless he comes to terms before that time.

Chicago Police Chief Michael Brennan. History of the Chicago Police, Internet Archive.

Despite walkouts, threats, and the boycott, the General Managers Association decided to keep the Pullman cars running, including “twenty-two Chicago terminal lines.” The company wouldn’t budge on its commitment to lower wages. A police presence, led by Chief Michael Brennan, was asked for by Pullman “in case of trouble as a result of the boycott by the American Railway Union.” Strikers in St. Louis spoke with its police chief in an effort to stave off violence that might “throw discredit on them.” Things were heating up.

Indianapolis News, July 6, 1894. Hoosier State Chronicles.

By early July, Chicago erupted in a fury. The Indianapolis News reported that “two strikers were killed outright and others injured in a riot in the Illinois Central yards at Kensington.” Meanwhile, some “five hundred men were rushing up and down the yards, overturning freight cars and blocking the tracks in every possible manner.” Law enforcement descended on the mob, “150 United States Marshalls and Cook County deputies,” using everything at their disposal to quell the melee. This resulted in gunshots rippling through the crowd, a short stammering by the mob, and then a full-on retreat by police forces as the hordes of laborers charged at them. This continued well into the afternoon, with hundreds of freight cards either ripped from the tracks or burned to the ground. In all, six men died and the railways suffered roughly $2,000,000 worth of damage (over $56,000,000 in 2016 dollars).

Indianapolis News, July 7, 1894. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In the middle of all this carnage, both physical and political, was ARU founder and President Eugene V. Debs. During the July 6 riots, Debs released a statement that rankled the capitalists as well as the public, subtly acknowledging the chaos. “If the corporations refuse to yield, and stubbornly maintain that there is ‘nothing to arbitrate,’ the responsibility for what may ensue will be upon their heads and they can not escape the penalties,” Debs declared. However, his tune changed slightly the next day, telling the strikers that “I deem it my duty to caution you against being a party to any violation of law” and “those who engage in force and violence are our real enemies.” Despite his pleas for peace, the ARU’s boycott and ensuing violence animated the United States Court in Chicago to file an injunction against Debs and the ARU. “The injunction was served as Debs was leaving the Sherman House this morning,” the News wrote.

Indianapolis Journal, July 11, 1894. Chronicling America.

The injunction proved fatal to the strike and to Debs’ hopes of representing the workers in their negotiations with the Pullman Company. On July 10, Debs, ARU Vice President Howard, and two other ARU representatives were arrested in Chicago under alleged violation of the US Court’s injunction. “They are charged with conspiracy to commit an unlawful act—that is, to block the progress of the United States mails,” the Indianapolis Journal reported. The men were arraigned in front of a grand jury and ordered to jail unless they posted bond at “$10,000 each.” Debs’ mail and other ARU materials were seized by the government, as potential evidence in the trial. Debs appeared particularly upset about this action. “…I cannot understand under what law the postoffice [sic] authorities are a party to the seizure of my private mail,” Debs barked, “It is an outrage and you call this a free county? It seems to me not to be compatible with the stars and stripes.” Despite his anger, Debs reached out to his fellow laborers and told them to stay vigilant, refrain from violence, and “maintain law and order.”

Clarence Darrow, circa 1900. Library of Congress.

The attorney who defended Debs and the ARU was none other than Clarence S. Darrow. Before his legendary status in American life as one of the country’s greatest litigators, Darrow was a young attorney making a career for himself in Chicago. After leaving a lucrative practice representing the Chicago and North Western Railway Company, Darrow rose to prominence as the public defender of Patrick Eugene Prendergast, the man who murdered Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison during the 1893 World’s Fair. Darrow toiled well over a year to get Prendergast an insanity plea, and when that failed, he diligently worked with state government to stay his client’s execution. Darrow, who sternly against capital punishment, felt it his duty to stand against its use in such a unfortunate case. Sadly, Darrow’s crusade was unsuccessful and the state executed Prendergast by hanging on July 13, 1894, three days after Debs faced arrest in Chicago.

Omaha Daily Bee, July 11, 1894. Chronicling America.

Darrow, disappointed in the state’s decision in the Prendergast case but emboldened in his desire to defend those deemed indefensible, took on the Debs case right away, according to the Indianapolis News and the Omaha Daily Bee. The Bee also reported that a “large number of telegrams sent by Debs from his headquarters” provided “directions which extended the blockade of trains. . . .” Western Union initially withheld the telegrams from the United States Court, but Judge Peter S. Grosscup issued a subpoena and the company relented. To make things worse, the press wrote scurrilous descriptions of Darrow and Debs. The Wichita Daily Eagle called Darrow “an outspoken Anarchist and no party has the courage to nominate him for any position. His political feelings are dangerous.” As for Debs, the Eagle painted him as the “most indignant citizen . . . the dictator of his union and the regulator of the commerce of the country.” Darrow knew as much as Debs that this case could upend their careers – or gain them the public support they craved.

Judge Peter S. Grosscup. Google Books.

The first trial against Debs and the ARU began in Chicago on July 23, 1894. As biographer John A. Farrell noted, the Feds “launched a two-track legal defense on Debs and his men: the contempt proceeding in which there were accused of violating the federal court’s injunction banning anyone from ‘inciting’ workers to strike, and a criminal case that charged the union with conspiring to stop the mails and to interfere with interstate commerce.” Darrow led a defense team with attorneys William W. Erwin and Stephen S. Gregory. They intended to dismiss the charges against Debs and the alleged conspirators by challenging the legality of the federal injunction. “It will be contended that what the court has done amounts to a usurpation of power not given to the federal judiciary [by] either constitution or law,” the Topeka State Journal wrote. The defendants also denied that Debs and the ARU directed the strikers to leave their posts, but rather its members voted in favor to strike. As for the telegrams, the only approved communication between Debs and the strikers came on July 6, when Debs counseled “every one to stand firm,” not to use violence or to block rail lines. Defense attorney Gregory reiterated this point in a passage from the Indianapolis Journal: “The attorney contended that as long as people obeyed the laws they could not be held responsible for the lawlessness of others.” Each defendant consulted extensively with Darrow and his team before their case was filed.

William W. Erwin. Saint Paul Historical.
Indianapolis Journal, July 24, 1894. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Chicago District Attorney Thomas E. Milchrist, Assistant-District Attorney John P. Hand, and special counsel Edwin Walker represented the prosecution, with attorneys for the Santa Fe Railroad assisting. Walker spoke for the state on the first day and argued that, “All the strike orders which had resulted in the stoppage of commerce and mails came from the office of the union in Chicago, and they were responsible for everything that happened in consequence, even to the loss of life.” Walker, by offering evidence against Debs in the criminal case regarding blocking the U. S. Mail, indirectly affirmed the injunction against ARU. This appeared strong enough in the eyes of presiding Judges William A. Woods and Peter S. Grosscup (he advised Woods), who threw out the defense’s plea to drop the contempt charges on July 25. Two days later, Judge Woods postponed further arguments in the trial until September, so the court could accrue evidence under the assistance of a master of chancery. Debs and the other defendants posted bail and awaited the continuation of their case. The ARU was dealt a serious blow, but the fight was only beginning.

Judge William Allen Woods. Google Books.
Chicago District Attorney Thomas Milchrist. Google Books.

On September 26, 1894, arguments were continued in the Seventh Circuit Court in Chicago under presiding Judge Woods. In his four and a half hours of arguments, Clarence Darrow’s defense of Debs became legendary. The Chicago Tribune published a piece the next day entitled, “Darrow Hurts Debs: Counsel for the Ex-Dictator Flies into a Rage,” where Darrow “was credited with having made an exceedingly able argument.” (The article’s splashy title doesn’t match what is said of Darrow; in that regard, it’s a 1890s version of “clickbait.”) Darrow’s argument was twofold. First, the ARU did direct strikers via telegram after the injunction, “but had a perfect right to do so . . . .” Second, the prosecution’s basis for the injunction, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, was legally unfounded. “He argued at length,” the Tribune reported, “to prove the act had no reference to strikes, but was designed exclusively to correct the outrages of the railroad companies. He thought it a shame the railroads should use it against other people.” Darrow also went after prosecuting attorney Milchrist, saying that “I never knew a man who had more abused an office in which chance placed him . . . .” Milchrist was incensed, and fired back with, “I am responsible for my words. I will not take lessons from you in professional ethics.” To which Darrow snapped, “You ought to take lessons from some one [sic].”

Chicago Tribune, September 27, 1894. Chicago Tribune Archives.

Darrow’s strident defense of Deb’s found coverage throughout the nations newspapers, including the Crawfordsville Journal, the Indianapolis Journal, and the San Francisco Morning Call. The Call’s write up was particularly insightful; Darrow’s reasoning on the right of workers to strike found clearer elucidation than had been in the Tribune. “He said the defendants had not committed any wrong and declared that every man had the right to abandon his position either for a good or bad reason. No court could put a citizen into a condition of servitude,” the Call wrote.

San Francisco Morning Call, September 27, 1894. Chronicling America.

Despite Darrow’s passionate and astute defense of his clients, Judge Woods ruled against Debs and the ARU. On December 15, 1894, Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to six months in prison for violating the federal injunction against the ARU. Seven others, including ARU Vice President Howard, received 3 month sentences. In his ruling, Judge Woods declared: “I think there is no doubt these defendants had power to make the men who looked up to them do as they pleased and that they continued to violate this injunction.” As Darrow feared, Judge Woods sentenced them under his reading of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The act was created to protect the laboring classes, instead Woods applied the law as a weapon against them. “The decision is bad law,” Darrow said, “but the sentence is remarkably lenient.” As for Debs, he was quoted in the Greencastle Daily Banner Times, saying:

I am a law abiding man and I will abide by the law as construed by the judges. But if Judge Woods’ decision is law, all labor organizations may as well disband. According to him, every strike is a conspiracy and unlawful. . . . In the strike of last summer every effort was made by the leaders to prevent violence. Judge Woods intimates that this advice was given to the effect it would have on the public and that the strikers were not expected to heed it. What right has he to draw such an inference? There is nothing in the evidence to support it.

Greencastle Daily Banner Times, December 15, 1894. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Judge Woods gave Darrow and the ARU ten days to develop a strategy to keep them out of jail. Darrow’s plan consisted of the defendants calling for a writ of habeas corpus in front of the US Supreme Court, bypassing the appeals court process altogether. However, Darrow had to be admitted to the Supreme Court bar and meet with the necessary people to begin the process. This delayed Debs’ and the others’ chances of staying out of prison, and while Darrow did all he could to get them freed, Debs and the others began serving their prison terms.

Iron County Register, December 20, 1894. Chronicling America.

And this was only the contempt trial. The criminal trial charging the ARU with blocking the passage of U. S. Mail also plagued Debs, and its decision would be made by a jury rather than a judge. It began on January 27, 1895, with Judge Grosscup, who assisted Woods in the injunction trial, presiding. Edwin Walker, continuing his work for the prosecution, asked the ARU to produce its meeting minutes from the previous summer. This plan backfired, according to Darrow biographer John A. Farrell, because the ARU made its proceedings public months before and had nothing to hide. Darrow, sensing a good strategy, asked for the prosecution to produce the minutes of the General Managers Association. This proved fatal to the prosecution, for it necessitated railway owner George Pullman to testify. He evaded a subpoena and, ironically, faced possible contempt charges. Once Debs, released on bail just days before, took the stand and testified against the charges, the trial fell apart. What happened next can only be described as serendipitous. One of the jurors, a man named “Coe,” fell ill and the jury was discharged. The trial lingered on a continuance but was eventually dropped. Debs, Darrow, and the defense felt certain that if the trial continued, and Pullman was asked to testify, they would’ve won. As one juror said to Debs on his way out, “when this trial opened I was in favor of giving you a 5-year sentence, but now I am anxious to see you free.”

Indianapolis News, February 12, 1895. Hoosier State Chronicles.

One trial down, one to go. Debs, Darrow, and the ARU were off to Washington. Darrow presented his petitions for a writ of error and a writ of habeas corpus to the Supreme Court; Chief Justice Melville Fuller asked for the legality of each petition to be considered. The justices agreed to hear the case and oral arguments were scheduled for March. The first day of arguments began at 12:40pm on March 25, with Darrow, Gregory, and Lyman Trumbull representing Debs. Walker, Attorney General Richard Olney, and Assistant-Attorney General Edward B. Whitney represented the government. As the Indianapolis Journal reported, Darrow and his team sought to reaffirm their position that the Sherman Anti-Trust Act did not grant courts the authority to issue an injunction against the ARU. Furthermore, Trumbull argued that if the lower court had only used the newspaper as a means of disseminating the injunction, “it was in defiance of Congress, and it was not to be supposed that everybody was to be compelled to read the newspapers.” He further “urged . . . that Debs and his associated were illegally imprisoned, and asked for their release.”

Indianapolis News, May 27, 1895. Hoosier State Chronicles.

After two days of intense oral arguments, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against Debs and the ARU’s application for a writ of habeas corpus. In the court’s opinion, Justice David Brewer wrote: “The strong arm of the national Government may be put forth to brush away all obstructions to the freedom of interstate commerce or the transportation of the mails. If the emergency arises, the army of the Nation, and all its militia, are at the service of the Nation to compel obedience to its laws.” Debs was devastated by the decision and shared his disgust with a local reporter:

I think it [Supreme Court] is one of the worst demoralized organizations in the country. When the law in the Debs case was made it was intended to apply to check the greed of corporations. No one ever thought it would be twisted to apply to labor organizations. The decision will be a great blow to railroad labor organization. Railroad men will hardly dare to act, under this interpretation.

Darrow and Trumbull also lambasted the decision, calling it “a sort of double barreled shotgun justice—punishing a man for a crime for which he had been indicted but before he was tried.” Not able to accrue time served, Debs began his six-month jail sentence for contempt of the federal injunction; he served out his time in Woodstock, Illinois.

Indianapolis News, November 14, 1895. Hoosier State Chronicles.

While Debs served out his sentence, Darrow, Trumbull, and scores of labor organizers worked on a big reception for the ARU leader upon his release. They rented out Battery D in Chicago, a venue of 6,000 seats. In a subtle bit of goading, they even invited Judge Woods to attend. On November 22, 1895, Eugene V. Debs was released from jail. A throng of supporters rushed from the train depot to pick up their embattled leader and escort him to the reception awaiting in Chicago. The Greencastle Democrat reported that nearly 4,000 attendees crowded into Battery D to hear Debs speak “for about two hours on topics which have become familiar to all labor advocates.” “I have had time for meditation and reflection,” Debs said among his supporters, “and I have no hesitancy in declaring that under the same circumstances I would pursue precisely the same policy. So for as my acts are concerned I have neither apology nor regret.” That night, Debs evolved from regional labor leader into emerging legend in radical politics.

Greencastle Democrat, November 30, 1895. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Eugene V. Debs and Clarence Darrow used the Pullman strike a means for empowering the working man and precipitating their influence in American life. Debs went on to become one of America’s most successful third-party politicians, running for president under the Socialist Party banner five times (1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, 1920). In his final presidential run, he won nearly a million votes while in a jail cell for violating the Sedition Act. He also co-founded one of America’s most influential unions, the International Workers of the World—known colloquially as the “Wobblies.” He died in 1926.

Debs at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, circa 1920. California Literary Review.

As for Darrow, he became one of America’s celebrated, as well as infamous, lawyers. He set up a law practice (with aspiring poet Edgar Lee Masters) that helped the poor, immigrants, labor activists. In particular, he represented the McNamara brothers in the Llewellyn Iron Works explosion trial and saved Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb from execution in their 1924 trial for murder. However, the trial he is best remember for is the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925. Darrow defended schoolteacher John T. Scopes, on trial for the teaching of evolution. This led to his legendary court battles with William Jennings Bryan, who led the prosecution. Despite Scopes’ conviction, which was later overturned on a technicality, Darrow’s defense of science, secularism, and freedom of thought still resonates today. Darrow died in 1936, at the age of 80.

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes Trial, 1925. Chicago Tribune.

Both of these men forged indispensable paths during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The eight-hour work day, child labor laws, and workplace protections; all these rights were defended, and often won, as a result of their efforts. The ARU trials of 1894-95 propelled their lives into the national conversation and supplied them a platform for their crusades. So while Debs didn’t win the battle in the courts, he often won in the war of ideas. As a result, Debs’ fight became Darrow’s. Reflecting in his memoir years later, Darrow wrote:

Eugene V. Debs has always been one of my heroes . . . . There may have lived some time, some where, a kindlier, gentler, more generous man than Eugene V. Debs, but I have never known him. Nor have I ever read or heard of another. Mr. Debs at once became the head of the Socialist party of America. I never followed him politically. I never could believe that man was so constructed as to make Socialism possible; but I watched him and his cause with great interest. He was not only all that I have said, but he was the bravest man I ever knew. He never felt fear. He had the courage of the babe who has no conception of the word or its meaning.

Debs and Darrow used their Midwestern smarts, guff, and gumption to take on the biggest powers of their time, from the railroad barons to the Supreme Court. In doing so, their battles changed each other—and changed America.

“King Debs,” Harper’s Weekly, July 14, 1894. Library of Congress.
%d bloggers like this: