“The Best of the Season:” Mark Twain’s Indiana Lectures

"America's Best Humorist," Mark Twain. Lithograph by Joseph F. Keppler, 1885. Library of Congress.
“America’s Best Humorist,” Mark Twain. Lithograph by Joseph F. Keppler, 1885. Library of Congress.

From James Whitcomb Riley to Kurt Vonnegut, Indiana is well-known for its literary heritage. This heritage developed, in-part, through personal appearances, where authors read from their works and shared new material with audiences. Of the lecturers, one of the most successful during the Gilded Age was Mark Twain. Born in Missouri as Samuel L. Clemens, Mark Twain became one of the late-19th century’s most popular and acclaimed authors. Alongside his successful career as a novelist and cultural critic, Twain crisscrossed the country, regaling packed theaters with stories, readings from new written material, and plain-old good jokes.

Map highlighting Mark Twain's lectures in the Midwest. Mark Twain Project.
Map highlighting Mark Twain’s lectures in the Midwest. Mark Twain Project.

One of his first visits to Indiana as a lecturer was January 4, 1869, when he performed a reading of “The American Vandal Abroad.”  As reported by the Indianapolis Daily Sentinel:

We caution our readers not to forget the treat prepared for them this evening by the Library Association. Mark Twain, one of the real humorists of the day, will deliver his lecture entitled “The American Vandal Abroad,” and his merits entitle him to a large audience. The lecture will be delivered at Metropolitan Hall, and reserved seats may be secured without extra charge at Bonham’s Music Store.

Mark Twain, circa 1860-1880. Indiana Memory,
Mark Twain, circa 1860-1880. Indiana Memory,

While the exact content of his performance from that night was not reported, he had repeatedly given the lecture through 1868-69, and a compiled version was published by literature scholar Paul Fatout, in his book, Mark Twain Speaking. In this lecture, Twain referred to the “American Vandal” as someone who “goes everywhere and is always at home everywhere . . . His is proud and looks proud. His countenance is beaming. He does not fail to let the public know that he is an American.” Twain’s lecture, like his broader work, represents an American voice that spoke to the Midwest, especially places like Indiana.

Indianapolis News, January 1, 1872. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, January 1, 1872. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

In 1872, Twain returned to Indiana and gave a lecture sharing snippets from his then-upcoming work, Roughing It. According to the Indianapolis News, Mark Twain gave his lecture at the Y.M.C.A. Association hall on January 1, 1872, at a cost of 50 cents at the door, 75 cents for reserved seats (what a bargain!).  As the News reported:

Mark Twain, the noted humorist and author, lectures here to-night [sic] on “Passages from Roughing It.” Mr. Twain has a national reputation and should appear before a hall of people; besides the Y. M. C. A., under whose auspices he lectures, are in absolute want through lack of means. Let Association Hall be crowded to-night [sic].

This lecture was a marked departure from “Vandal,” both in style and in subject. Twain shared with audiences his experiences out west, from camping in the outskirts of Carson City, Nevada to riding colt horses and getting in duels.

Terre Haute Evening Mail, January 6, 1872. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Terre Haute Evening Mail, January 6, 1872. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

Twain’s stories were printed in newspapers during his time in Indiana in 1872 as well. For example, the Terre Haute Evening Mail published an article entitled “Mark Twain on His Travels.” Among the witty stories than were shared by the Mail, this one is golden:

When we got to Rochester I called for a bowl of bean soup. I send you the receipt for making it: “Take a lot of water, wash it well, boil it until it is brown on both sides; then very carefully pour one bean into it and let it simmer. When the bean begins to get restless sweeten with salt, then put it in air-tight cans, hitch each can to a brick, and chuck them overboard, and the soup is done.”

The above receipt originated with a man in Iowa, who gets up suppers on odd occasions for Odd Fellows. He has a receipt for oyster soup of the same kind, only using twice as much water to the oyster and leaving out the salt.

However, not everyone was taken with Twain’s sardonic lectures. The Indianapolis People wrote that “It is the decided opinion of all we heard speak of Mark Twain’s lecture that it read better than it was spoken.”

George W. Cable. Library of Congress.
George W. Cable. Library of Congress.

When Twain returned to Indiana in 1885, he came with a traveling lecture partner. George W. Cable, novelist of the southern-creole experience and an influence on William Faulkner, shared selections from his novels while Twain shared early pages from Huckleberry Finn as well as stories like “The Golden Arm.” Twain and Cable couldn’t have been more different. Twain was described by the Indianapolis Sentinel as “awkward and lanky” whereas Cable was more reserved. As Fatout observed, Twain often bristled as Cable’s religiosity and rigorous commitment to formality while Cable scoffed at Twain’s unorthodox and scattered disposition. To get a sense of their differences, review this blurb from the Indianapolis News: “Mr. Cable eats chocolate ice cream at midnight, after his readings, and still lives. His yoke-fellow, Mark Twain, hurls his bootjack at St. John, and uncorks a bottle or so of pale ale.”

Indianapolis Daily Sentinel, January 7, 1885. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Daily Sentinel, January 7, 1885. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

Nevertheless, their joint appearance at Plymouth Church in Indianapolis, Indiana on January 7, 1885 was greatly lauded. The Indianapolis Sentinel reported that their performances was “the best of the season” and the Indianapolis News wrote that it was “one of the finest audiences that could be gathered.” The Greencastle Times even reported that efforts were underway to bring the two over to Greencastle to perform (alas, it was not to be).

Indianapolis Daily Sentinel, January 8, 1885. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Daily Sentinel, January 8, 1885. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

That evening, Twain shared with the audience his short story, “Dick Baker’s Cat,” a short tale about a special cat who had a propensity for mining. Here’s a short snippet from the story:

‘Gentlemen, I used to have a cat here, by the name of Tom Quartz, which you’d ‘a’ took an interest in, I reckon—, most anybody would. I had him here eight year—and he was the remarkablest cat I ever see. He was a large grey one of the Tom specie, an’ he had more hard, natchral sense than any man in this camp—’n’ a power of dignity—he wouldn’t let the Gov’ner of Californy be familiar with him. He never ketched a rat in his life—’peared to be above it. He never cared for nothing but mining. He knowed more about mining, that cat did, than any man I ever, ever see. You couldn’t tell him noth’n’ ’bout placer-diggin’s—’n’ as for pocketmining, why he was just born for it.’

The rest of story involves a hilarious scenario where the mining-savvy cat gets stuck in a quartz shaft, which explodes, and he flies out of there all covered in soot and his whiskers burned off. It was exactly the kind of zany, improbable yarn that Twain was so gifted at and the audience at Plymouth Church agreed.

Twain’s and Cable’s appearance would be the last time they would appear together in Indiana and Twain’s last lecture in the state. Over the next 20 years, Twain continued to travel the county and the world, going so far as India and New Zealand, to share his lectures and stories. His last known lecture, according to the Mark Twain Project, was a reading for Mary Allen Hulbert Peck on the Island of Bermuda on March 27, 1908. Mark Twain died on April 24, 1910 at the age of 74 from heart failure, at his home near Redding, Connecticut. An obituary in the Plymouth Tribune complimented Twain’s success as a novelist, humorist, and lecturer. It also cited the loss of much of his family, particularly his daughter, and friends as one of the main reasons for his passing.

Plymouth Tribune, April 28 1910. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Plymouth Tribune, April 28 1910. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

Reflecting on what was referred to as the “American style” of humor, Mark Twain shared his thoughts to a reporter from the Detroit Post, later reprinted in the Terre Haute Express:

“Is the American taste for humor still growing, in your opinion?”

“Yes, I think so. Humor is always popular, and especially so with Americans. It is born in every American, and he can’t help liking it.”

“Is it true that the American style of humor is becoming very popular in England?”

“Yes, the liking of American humor over there has become immense. It wakens [sic] the people to new life, and is supplanting the dry wit which formerly passes for humor. American humor wins its own way, and does not need to be cultivated. The English come to like it naturally”

In his lectures in Indiana and elsewhere, Twain exhibited the type of natural humor “born in every American” that characterizes the American cultural identity.

Mark Twain, 1907. Library of Congress.
Mark Twain, 1907. Library of Congress.

The 20% Solution: An Unlikely Breakthrough in Eye Surgery, 1884

Thomas Eakins, Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), oil on canvas, 1875, Philadelphia Museum of Art. {Painting depicts surgery in front of a class of medical students; note the man applying a rag, likely soaked with ether.]
Thomas Eakins, Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), oil on canvas, 1875, Philadelphia Museum of Art. [Painting depicts surgery in front of a class of medical students; note the man applying a rag, likely soaked with ether.]
By 1884, Indianapolis newspapers were reporting on the success of eye surgeries and procedures, including tattooing the cornea, by using a brand new anesthetic… cocaine.

Dr. Carl Koller, photograph, circa 1885, accessed the Foundation of the American Academy of Opthamology
Dr. Carl Koller, photograph, circa 1885, accessed the Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology

According to A. Grzybowki’s 2008 article “Cocaine and the Eye: A Historical Overview,” doctors had been experimenting with coca leaves in Europe since the 15th century.  However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that they learned to extract the active component: cocaine.  Early studies focused on the “many physiological and pathological effects,” as opposed to any numbing effects.

An Austrian ophthalmologist named Carl Koller is credited with discovering the effective use of cocaine as a local anesthetic for eye surgery in 1884. Koller found that a cocaine solution applied to the cornea left the eye temporarily unable to move or feel pain.  Before this discovery, it was almost impossible to operate on the eye because of its involuntary movements. His findings, published on September 18, 1884, were widely accepted and reproduced in the United States. Newspapers throughout the Midwest began reporting on the wonder drug almost immediately.  In fact, the first articles we found in searching Hoosier State Chronicles date to only one month after Koller’s discovery. The rising popularity of the drug was apparently driving up the cost.

The New Anesthetic in Indiana Apothecaries

As early as October 1884, the Indianapolis News listed the price of the “new and successful anesthetic.”

Indianapolis News, October 24, 1884, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, October 24, 1884, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The following month, the Daily Wabash Express noted that 18 karat gold cost about $16 an ounce while cocaine cost $224 an ounce.

[Terre Haute] Daily Wabash Express, November 30, 1884, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.
[Terre Haute] Daily Wabash Express, November 30, 1884, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.
In December 1884, a Bloomington dentist wrote a letter to the editor of the Indianapolis News  encouraging his Indianapolis colleagues that they advertise their use of the new anesthetic in an article titled “Try Cocaine.” This tongue-in-cheek letter is referencing the high price of cocaine.  Thus, he jokes that if the city doctors advertise this expensive service, “great will be the reward reaped from their country cousins,” as most people would rather deal with the physical pain and the cost.

Indianapolis News, December 25, 1884, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles
“Try Cocaine,” Indianapolis News, December 25, 1884, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles
cocaine-indianapolis-news-december-26-1884-4-hsc
S.C., “Try Cocaine,” Indianapolis News, December 26, 1884, 4, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In response to the “country cousin” dentist, an Indiana man with the initials “S.C.,” also wrote to the editor of the Indianapolis News about the new anesthetic.  He wrote: “Hydrochlorate of Cocaine has been in use in the United States about two months . . . The anesthetic solution requires four grains in 100 drops of water.” He too complains about the high price and predicts that it will go up more, encouraging some patients to “grin and bear it” without the pain reliever.  S.C. continued: “The writer has a sample which he uses, not as a reward reaper, but to facilitate matters in examining ‘sore eyes.’ It has wonderful analgesic power in many directions, and physicians and dentists are using is as fast as they can obtain a supply – and a paying customer.”

Cocaine Solution and Eye Surgery

Antonio Baratti, engraving, 1772, National Library of Medicine, accessed U.S. National Library of Medicine Digital Collections, https://collections.nlm.nih.gov/catalog/nlm:nlmuid-101425480-img
Antonio Baratti, engraving, 1772, National Library of Medicine, accessed U.S. National Library of Medicine Digital Collections.
cocaine-article-long-indianapolis-news-march-18-1885-2-hsc
“Surgery without Pain,” Indianapolis News, March 18, 1885, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In March 1885 the Indianapolis News reprinted “Surgery without Pain,” from the New York Tribune, describing the success of one “prominent eye surgeon” at the New York Post Graduate School of Medicine using cocaine as an anesthetic. When asked by the reporter if he uses the drug in surgery, the doctor replied: “Well, I should say so; in operations upon the eye I feel now that I could not get along without it. In general practice it has driven ether and chloroform out of the field. It is not only a wonderful discovery, but it is astonishing how rapidly it has risen into favor.”

The surgeon went on to tell the story of Dr. Koller’s recent discovery of cocaine as a local anesthesia in September 1884 and its immediate experimental adoption in the US.  He stated: “There is hardly a field in which it has not been used with success. Too much cannot be said in its praise in surgical operations upon the eye, ear and nose.”

"The New Anaesthetic," [Terre Haute] Saturday Evening Mail, February 21, 1885, 8, Hoosier State Chronicles.
“The New Anaesthetic,” [Terre Haute] Saturday Evening Mail, February 21, 1885, 8, Hoosier State Chronicles.
On February 21, 1885, the [Terre Haute] Saturday Evening Mail ran an article detailing the history and medical uses for cocaine, including eye surgery.  By dropping a cocaine solution “2 to 20 percent” the eye was made insensitive  “and the most trying operations may thus be performed . . . without pain.” The article also contained a deadly-sounding recipe for a crystallized version of the drug that not only used ether, but also lead.

Indianapolis News, April 15, 1885, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, April 15, 1885, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.

On April 15, 1885, the Indianapolis News also reported on “Cocaine, the new anesthetic” and how a patient not only “submitted to the ball of his eye being punctured by a delicate spearhead knife,” but also “chatted pleasantly with the operator” during the surgery.

Surgery Under
“Surgery Under Cocaine,” Indianapolis News, June 2, 1885, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.

One June 2, 1885, the Indianapolis News ran a story claiming a patient felt “no pain during the section of ciliary or optic nerves” when a 20% cocaine solution was applied before the operation and dropped on the eye throughout.

cocaine-dog-eye-surgery-greencastle-times-march-14-1889-8-hsc
“The Use of Cocaine,” Greencastle Times, March 14, 1889, 8, Hoosier State Chronicles

The Greencastle Times reported on a doctor who used cocaine for eye surgery in 1889, only this time the patient was “a very fine hunting dog, who had got a thorn in his eye.”  The good doctor applied a 5% cocaine solution to the dog’s eye, removed the thorn, and the dog “soon trotted home as well as ever.”

Tattooing the Eye

Crawfordsville Review, December 11, 1897, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles
Crawfordsville Review, December 11, 1897, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Perhaps most interestingly, the Crawfordsville Review reported that “the latest discovery of scientific medical men is that the human eye may be tattooed any color.” The procedure is recommended for blind or “dead” eyes in order to “restore it to its natural appearance, so that nothing but the closest scrutiny can detect the difference between it and its fellow.” The eye was covered thickly with India ink and then punctured “by means of a little electrical machine which operates a specifically made needle.” Of course, this 19th-century medical miracle was also brought to us by cocaine.  According to the article, “The operation of tattooing is performed by first treating the eye with cocaine until it becomes absolutely senseless to pain.”

Indianapolis News, February 10, 1900, 6, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, February 10, 1900, 6, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The following year that this very procedure was successfully performed by a surgeon at the nearby Miami Medical College in Ohio.  The Indianapolis News reported, “Miss Ada Duhrens . . . has had the color of the pupil of her eye restored by tattooing with india ink.”  We can only assume she has cocaine to thank for the “lost color restored” in her eyes.

Advertisement, Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, October 24. 1885, 3.
Advertisement, Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, October 31, 1885, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.

By this time, cocaine was also being used as an anesthetic for nose, throat, and for dental procedures. It was completely unregulated. Anyone could walk into a pharmacy and purchase cocaine powder or tablets. It was also the main ingredient in many “stimulating tonics” designed to combat fatigue and even soothe kids’ tooth aches. Ads appear throughout Indiana newspapers in the 1880s promoting it as a cure for hay fever, hair loss, and recommending cocaine lozenges as essential for speakers and singers.

Later, it turned out, there were some complications with the wonder drug.

 Edward Jackson, Essentials of Refraction and the Diseases of the Eye (Philadelphis: W. B. Sanders, 1890), 136, accessed U.S. National Library of Medicine Digital Collections.

Edward Jackson, Essentials of Refraction and the Diseases of the Eye (Philadelphis: W. B. Sanders, 1890), 136, accessed U.S. National Library of Medicine Digital Collections.

For more information on cocaine and eye surgery see:

  1. Grzybowski, “Cocaine and the Eye: A Historical Overview,” Ophthalmologica 222: 5 (September 2008, accessed Karger Medical and Scientific Publishers, https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/140625
  2. Goerig, D. Bacon, and A. van Zundert, “Carl Koller, Cocaine, and Local Anethesia,” Reg Anesth Pain Med 37:3 (May-June 2012), accessed PubMed.gov, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22531385

More New Issues Available!

Fellow Chroniclers!

We’re back with new additions to Hoosier State Chronicles. Here are the new  issues and titles available to you.

Indianapolis Journal, January 2, 1888. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Journal, January 2, 1888. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

Indianapolis Journal

We have added issues from 1887-1888, bringing the total available issue count to 6,267 issues.

Richmond Daily Palladium, July 15, 1882. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Richmond Daily Palladium, July 15, 1882. From Hoosier State Chronicles.

Richmond Palladium (Daily)

We have added issues from 1877-1898, giving you 1,211 total issues to check out.

Richmond Palladium (Weekly), April 21, 1865. From Hoosier State Chronicles.
Richmond Palladium (Weekly), April 21, 1865. From Hoosier State Chronicles. A common practice during the mid-nineteenth century, black lines around newspaper columns signified the death of a major political or social figure. In this issue’s case, it was the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Richmond Palladium (Weekly)

This a whole new title available to you! It covers 1837-1890 and provides 1,260 issues.

Overall, this is an addition of nearly 10,000 news pages for you to explore! Hopefully this will keep you busy over the Thanksgiving weekend.

As always, happy searching!

 

New Issues Available!

richmond-palladium-feb-1916
Richmond Palladium, February 1, 1916, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Attention all chroniclers!

There are some new additions to Hoosier State Chronicles. The Richmond Daily Palladium, from 1916-1923, is now available, encompassing 1093 issues and over 10,000 pages!

richmond-palladium-feb-1923
Richmond Palladium, February 10, 1923, Hoosier State Chronicles.

From these issues, learn more about the Indiana’s impact on World War I and the early days of the roaring twenties. More issues will be added in the coming weeks.

As always, happy searching!

 

 

Hoosiers Lost and Found at Sea: The Sinking of the Tuscania

The Tuscania, circa 1914, WikiCommons.
The Tuscania, circa 1914, WikiCommons.

Despite overcoming many close calls at sea, the Tuscania eventually met a tragic fate.

Shipwrecks have held an enduring fascination with both historians and the general public, from the 1912 sinking of the Titanic to the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania, which arguably precipitated American involvement in World War I. However, there is a lesser-known shipwreck that has an Indiana connection: the sinking of the Tuscania.

Built in 1914 by Alexander Stephen & Sons, Limited, in the Linthouse district of Glasgow, Scotland, the Tuscania originally served as a passenger ship. With a length of 567 feet and weight of 14, 348 gross tons, the Tuscania carried passengers between New York City and Glasgow for roughly a year before it was repurposed as a wartime ship.

One of its earliest successes during World War I occurred on September 20, 1915. Anthinai, a “Greek steamer” ship that took off from New York harbor on September 16, caught fire off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia. As reported by the South Bend News-Times, the passengers were taken to safety by the Tuscania, “summoned by wireless to the doomed vessel’s aid and are being brought to this port.” Whether or not the “fire” was caused by enemy forces is unclear, but the Tuscania’s valor during the episode earned it notoriety.

South Bend News-Times, September 20, 2015, Hoosier State Chronicles.
South Bend News-Times, September 20, 2015, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Nearly two years later, the Tuscania faced its first major crisis, and succeeded. On March 12, 1917, the Tuscania dodged an oncoming German submarine near the coast of Ireland. According to the Bridgeport Evening Farmer, the Tuscania moved away from the supposed submarine at “high speed, zigzagging in her course.” Even though Captain P. MacLean “denied that he had seen any submarine on the trip,” he did indicate that a foreign body was close the Tuscania and acted accordingly. The Tuscania’s first potential brush with destruction was not its last.

The Tuscania, in Nova Scotia, 1917, Forum Eerste Wereldoorlog.
The Tuscania, in Nova Scotia, 1917, Forum Eerste Wereldoorlog.

During a routine  voyage on February 5, 1918, the Tuscania, carrying 2,179 American soldiers, was attacked between the Irish and Scottish coast by German submarine UB-77. Once it was reportedly hit by two torpedoes, it stayed afloat for nearly two hours, during which time over 200 people had initially drowned or went missing. By the time the story went to press, however, the official number of American casualties was 147; the number of British casualties was 166.

A map of where the Tuscania went down. Indianapolis News, February 7, 1918, Hoosier State Chronicles.
A map of where the Tuscania went down; the “X” between Ireland and Scotland indicates its location. Indianapolis News, February 7, 1918, Hoosier State Chronicles.

A first-hand account of the attack by an “American officer on board” was reported by the Indianapolis Times:

Monday was a wild night. Had the disaster occurred during a gale I don’t like to think of what would never happened. But Tuesday evening was calm.

The first intimation we had of possible danger was an order for all men to go on deck with life belts. It was about 4;30 o’clock. At the same time we sharply altered our course. At 5 o’clock, just as the darkness was setting well in, we got the blow. Nobody saw the periscope nor could one have been seen well. Some soldiers described having heard a hissing sound immediately before the torpedo struck us in the engine room.

We were instantly disabled. All the lights went out. An order rang out sending the troops to their boat stations and to get the lifeboats out. The shock was not severe. It was more of a crunching-in felling [sic] that went through the ship than of a direct blow. There naturally was a good deal of confusion. You can not [sic] lower a score of lifeboats from the hight [sic] of an upper deck in the darkness without some confusion, but at no time was there a panic.

From there, the officer stayed with the Tuscania as long as he could before another torpedo was launched (that fortunately missed) and the ship started to sink.

Indianapolis News, February 8, 1918, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, February 8, 1918, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Indiana newspapers quickly covered the story to see if any Indiana residents were aboard. According to the Indianapolis News and the South-Bend News-Times, a former Muncie resident named Max Lipshitz was supposedly aboard the Tuscania with the 107th engineers when it went down. When his brother, Abram Lipshitz, asked the US state department whether Max was safe, they gave him little information. Another Indiana native, Maurice Nesbit, was also considered missing from the Tuscania. Described as the “leader of regimental band with the Michigan national guard,” Nesbit had not been identified within the first 24 hours of the attack. W.R. Nesbit, Maurice’s father, tried to ascertain whether his son was safe or not. Fortunately for W.R., his son was safe and sound in New Jersey, having not been on the Tuscania at all. He informed his father of the news via letter, which was reported by the Indianapolis News. It was also reported that Lipshitz had also not been on board.

While these two men had not been on board, there were many Hoosiers who were. Some survived while others perished. Of those that survived, three particular stories are worth recounting. As noted in the March 4, 1918 issue of the Indianapolis News, a survivor named Grover J. Rademaker of the 20th United States Foresters had written to his parents that he was safe. “I am here, and feeling fine,” wrote Rademaker, “and we are treated royally. I suppose you have read in the papers of our accident. I sure am a lucky boy, for I got out all right; didn’t even get my feet wet.” Another survivor from Indiana, aviator Joseph McKee from the 123rd aero squadron, was the only one from Lake County to come home. When news of his safety was given to his parents, the Lake County Times wrote that, “It is a happy day at the McKee home.” Finally, a young man named Archie Q. McCracken of New Albany weathered the attack and recuperated in an Irish hospital after sustaining minor injuries.

Tuscania survivor Joseph McKee, Lake County Times, February 11, 1918, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Tuscania survivor Joseph McKee, Lake County Times, February 11, 1918, Hoosier State Chronicles.
South Bend News-Times, February 19, 1918, Hoosier State Chronicles.
South Bend News-Times, February 19, 1918, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Many aboard the Tuscania were not as lucky as Rademaker, McKee, and McCracken. Within a week of the sinking, the American casualty rate grew to 164, whose remains were subsequently buried in Scotland. Among the lost was James Logan, a former Indiana mail carrier turned seaman whose family hadn’t heard from him in two years. They unfortunately never received the news of his safety. His name appeared on a list of the dead published in the February 13, 1918 issue of the Indianapolis News. Logan’s disappearance and death underscored the human cost of war and its impact on local communities in Indiana.

A memorial ceremony for those lost on the Tuscania, isle of Islay, Memorial Day 1920. From the New York Tribune, June 20, 1920, Chronicling America.
A memorial ceremony for those lost on the Tuscania, isle of Islay, Memorial Day 1920. From the New York Tribune, June 20, 1920, Chronicling America.
The monument at Mull, isle of Islay, Greencastle Herald, September 10, 1919, Hoosier State Chronicles.
The monument at Mull, isle of Islay, Greencastle Herald, September 10, 1919, Hoosier State Chronicles.

After the dust settled, preparations for a memorial to those who died commenced. The South Bend News-Times reported on March 5, 1918 that an, “American Red Cross contingent will arrive here [Port Ellen, Scotland] in a few days from London for the purpose of selecting a site for a monument to the American soldiers who perished in the Tuscania disaster.” Within a year, the monument at Mull on the island of Islay was dedicated to the American soldiers who died and the Glasgow Islay Association published a photographic book of the graves of Tuscania victims. This book was compiled as a “labor of love” by the association and offered to any family member of a lost loved one. On Memorial Day 1920, “Natives [sic] from miles around” Scotland gathered “about the simple graves of those several hundred fighting men, victims of the ill-fated transports Otranto and Tuscania” to pay their final respects on the isle of Islay.

Graves of American soldiers that died in the sinking of the Tuscania, at Port Charlotte, Island of Islay, Scotland, Islay History.
Graves of American soldiers that died in the sinking of the Tuscania, at Port Charlotte, Island of Islay, Scotland, Islay History.
tuscania-american-plaque
A plaque at the Tuscania and Ortranto memorial, isle of Islay,  Armin Grewe.

Today, the memorial on the isle of Islay is still standing, a fitting tribute to the resolve of those brave individuals who helped save lives, sadly went missing, or perished in the waters. The Tuscania bombing and its aftermath serve as a reminder that war carries a deep human cost, not only to those who die but to those who live with the grief of the loss of a son, father, brother, or friend. It also highlights the ways in which those from the Hoosier state find themselves halfway across the world, risking life and limb for their country during some of humanity’s darkest hours.

 

“Herman Billik Must Die”: Whiting’s Own Palm Reader, Hypnotist, and . . . Murderer?

V. de Metz, Handbook of Modern Palmistry (New York: Brentano Publishing, 1883, accessed babel.hathitrust.org
V. de Metz, Handbook of Modern Palmistry (New York: Brentano Publishing, 1883), accessed Hathi Trust Digital Library.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the man who called himself Herman Billik  (also Billick) was “plying his trade as a charmer, palm reader and hypnotist in Whiting,” according to the Hammond Times. He was well-known among Whiting residents for his involvement in strange incidents involving the occult. By 1906 he was well-known to the entire country as the poisoner of six people in Chicago.

Greetings from Whiting, postcard, circa 1914, Whiting Public Library, accessed www.whiting.lib.in.usl
Greetings from Whiting, postcard, circa 1914, Whiting Public Library, accessed Whiting Public Library/Flikr.

The establishment of the Standard Oil Refinery in Whiting in 1889 brought many recent immigrants to the area in search of employment. According to Archibald McKinley, historian of the Calumet Region, these new arrivals found a “barren, lonely place, devoidof trees, grass, sidewalks, telephone, theaters, streetlights, parks and other amenities of civilization.”  While many immigrants found community in their religious organizations, others formed clubs and founded theaters, such as Goebel’s Opera House.  Others looked for more sinister entertainment.

Herman Billick, 1908, photographed by the Chicago Daily News, accessed Explore Chicago Collections, http://explore.chicagocollections.org/image/chicagohistory/71/g15tk09/
Herman Billick, 1908, photographed by the Chicago Daily News, accessed Explore Chicago Collections.

One of these new immigrants to Whiting set up shop in an office building on John Street near this new opera house. His name was Herman Vajicek in his country of origin which was referred to in contemporary newspapers as “Bohemia” (likely the Czech  Republic). Now going by Herman Billik or “the Great Billik,” he was “doing a rushing business” before the turn of the century. His buiness was in palm reading, hypnotism, charms . . . and curses.

Hammond Times, December 20, 1906, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, December 20, 1906, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Billik soon befriended a Standard Oil employee named Joseph Vacha, also described by the Hammond Times as a “bohemian.” Vacha described the story of a curse Billik used when hired to break the engagement of “a young Whiting man and a widow.”  According to the Hammond Times:

The mother of the young man objected to the engagement and all of her efforts to break it up being in vain she went to Billik, clairvoyant. He promised to do the deed for the sum of three dollars. To make his charm effective, however, he said that it was necessary for him to have one of the young man’s socks and his handkerchief, and that furthermore permission be given him to enter the home of the young man while everybody in the family was asleep.  Anything to break up the engagement was consented to by the mother, although without her son’s knowledge, The sock, handkerchief and permission were readily given and whatever Billik may or may not have done, it is known that the young man and the widow broke up their engagement shortly after Billik’s midnight visit.

Before Whiting residents greeted the new century, Billik “pulled stakes one night and was never seen again.”

He didn’t go far.

According to the Chicago Tribune, around 1900, he had set up his shop in the East Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago.  The neighborhood was settled by Czech immigrants who worked in the mills, sweatshops, and railroad yards.  According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, these Czech immigrants established their residences along 18th street.  According to the Chicago Tribune, on this same street Billik opened his shop and “made a practice of duping women with money.”  The article continued:

Billick’s Chicago record is dotted with ‘aliases, victims of his love potions and stories of how he spent his easily gained wealth in automobiles, theaters, wine suppers, and rioutous living . . . Billick had headquarters in a richly furnished flat at 645 West Eighteenth street and was known as ‘Prof. Herman.’ To this flat many women went daily. Billick boasted that he made as much as $100 a day.

Image: Pilsen Neighborhood, postcard, circa 1870s, in Frank S. Magallon, "A Historical Look at Czech Chicagoland," Czech-American Community center, accessed https://blog.newspapers.library.in.gov/wp-admin/post.php?post=601634&action=edit
Image: Pilsen Neighborhood, postcard, circa 1870s, in Frank S. Magallon, “A Historical Look at Czech Chicagoland,” accessed Czech-American Community Center.

According to this same article, Billik left Chicago for Cleveland sometime in 1901 after one of these women threatened to expose him as a fraud.  It is not clear when he returned to Chicago and again began selling potions and telling fortunes.

In 1904, Mary Vrzal, the twenty-two-year-old daughter of a Chicago businessman, found herself in need of a love potion.  She visited “the Great Billik” at his Chicago location and sometime during the exchange must have mentioned her father’s thriving milk business. Billik soon visited Martin Vrzal at work where he spoke in tongues and convinced the businessman that he had a vision of an enemy working actively working to destroy him.  Martin trusted the “fortune-teller” perhaps because he was also a Czech immigrant or perhaps because he was indeed engaged in intense battle with a rival businessman.  Either way, Martin Vrzal invited Herman Billik home to meet his family and cast a spell on his enemy. What followed over the next year was clouded in disparate retelling and testimony.  The details were murky, but what was completely clear was that the Vrzal family members began turning up dead.

The family patriarch went first. Martin Vrzal died March 27, 1905, leaving a $2000 life insurance policy to his children. Martin was followed in death by his daughter Mary a few months later and her sister Tilly that December. Their insurance policies totaled $1400. Another two daughters were killed in the first few months of 1906, leaving just a few hundred dollars in life insurance behind.  Finally, the police became involved. The only Vrzal family member left were the late Martin’s wife Rosa, their eldest daughter, Emma, and their only son, Jerry.

Image: Grave of Martin Vrzal, Bohemian National Cemetery, Chicago, Find-A-Grave.
Grave of Martin Vrzal, Bohemian National Cemetery, Chicago, accessed Find-A-Grave.

The police suspected that Herman and Rosa had been having an affair.  They accused Herman of promising Rosa marriage and a life off of the insurance money if they poisoned both his wife and child and Rosa’s husband and children.  However, Herman neither poisoned nor left his family.  He did somehow end up with the insurance money.

Lake County Times, December 18, 1906, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles
Lake County Times, December 18, 1906, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The police then suspected Rosa of poisoning her own family under Herman’s influence.  They issued a warrant for the arrest of both suspects. As the law closed in, Rosa committed suicide — by poisoning. Jerry Vrzal accused Herman of her death, claiming that he hypnotized her into taking her own life.

In December 1906, the  police took Emma Vrzal to the residence to view her mother’s body, only they did not tell Emma that she was dead.  According to Steve Shukis’s well-researched book Poisoned, the detective would sometimes use shock tactics to surprise suspects into confessing.  He took emma into the bedroom and an officer yanked the cover off the body.  She puportedly fainted and when she regained consciousness stated: “Now you must get that man . . . Billik . . . I want him hung.” She then wrote on a piece of paper, “Billik gave father medicine  — and gave some to Mary.”  She went on to tell the police that Billik had “special power” over the family.

The police brought Billik into the station and searched his apartment.  They found letters from the late matriarch, one signed “with ten thousand kisses — Rosa.”

The Chicago police questioned Billik for five hours, according to the Chicago Tribune. The Chicago Daily News took a bizarre series of photographs of Billick and his family from several of his visits to the Hyde Park Police Department and throughout his trials which available digitally through the Chicago History Museum.

Chicago Daily News Photograph, circa 1906, accessed Chicago History Museum. Collection caption: Three-quarter length portrait of Herman Billick, Sr., who was suspected of poisoning members of the Martin Vrzal family, sitting in a room in the Hyde Park police station in the Hyde Park community area of Chicago, Illinois.
Herman Billick, Sr., at the Hyde Park police station in Chicago, Illinois, Chicago Daily News Photograph, circa 1906, accessed Chicago History Museum.

Chicago Daily News Photograph, circa 1907, accessed Chicago History Museum. Collection caption: [Mrs. Mary Billick, sitting, and Edna Billick, standing, looking at each other.
Mary Billick, wife of Herman Billick, and their daughter Edna Billick, Chicago Daily News Photograph, circa 1907, accessed Chicago History Museum.
The coroner opened an inquest and demanded the bodies of the Vrzal family be exhumed and tested for poison.  The inquest continued into 1907 with witnesses bringing forward more an more incriminating stories about Billik.  By February the coroner was through with testing the bodies.  He found arsenic in Martin, Rosa, and Tillie, but also concluded that it had been administered slowly over a period of weeks of months.  This evidence was added to the testimony and the jury indicted Herman Billik on six counts of murder.

The case went to trial in May 1907. The judge sided with the prosecution’s argument that all six charges of murder should have separate hearings.  Billik would have to be found not guilty by six different juries.  The trial for the murder of Mary Vrzal began July 3, 1907.  The jury heard dozens of testimonies but none more damning than that of Jerry Vzral who described Billik’s witching and eventual poisoning his family.  The defense, on the other hand, made a strong case that no one profited more from these deaths than Emma, who inherited the house and business. (Shukis details each day of trial in his book, Poisoned). Hermann admitted to swindling the Vrzal family but not to an affair with Rosa and maintained he was innocent of any of the murders.

On July 18, 1907, Billik was found guilty and sentenced to hang.

Plymoth Tribune, July 25, 1907, 4, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Plymouth Tribune, July 25, 1907, 4, Hoosier State Chronicles.

There were still many questions about the case and much evidence that pointed to Emma as the murderer. His defense attorney began working to appeal.  Several people believed him innocent, including a Catholic nun helping Billik’s family.  She brought his case to the attention of an energetic Catholic priest named Father P.J. O’Callaghan.

Digging for information that would help the appeal, O’Callaghan found more evidence pointing to Emma and a former boyfriend of hers. The priest gathered more information from the immigrant community along with donations that would help Billik.  He visited Jerry where he was in school at Valparaiso University and encouraged him to change his testimony if he had lied. Meanwhile, Emma began a smear campaign against the priest.

Suddenly, in a twist that some though should have cleared Billik entirely, Emma’s husband William Niemann sickened and died in a matter of days (though Emma claimed he had been sick for some time).  Though it didn’t clear him, Billik got his appeal hearing.  More importantly, Jerry returned to Chicago to correct his testimony.  He stated that Billik never gave the family potions or plotted against them. The appeal was read by the Illinois Supreme Court in January 1908.  They decided there was no error in the record to reverse the decision.  Billik would hang April 24, 1908.

The defense attorney, the priest, and Jerry continued to work for a new hearing… and continued noticing other patterns in the testimony and evidence that pointed to Emma. On April 18, 1908, just days before the scheduled execution, the Illinois Governor and a pardon board granted a hearing. After long hours of arguments, the governor granted a reprieve for the board to further review the evidence.

Lake County Times, April 20, 1908, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles
Lake County Times, April 20, 1908, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles

O’Callaghan managed to persuade more than 20,000 people from Chicago’s immigrant community to sign a petition  on behalf of Billik’s claim of innocence. O’Callaqghan’s efforts combined with a demonstration of prayer by 400 of Ballik’s fellow prisoners at the Cork County Jail, drew thousands of people to the jail on execution day.

Lake County Times, June 12, 1908, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Lake County Times, June 12, 1908, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The presiding judge granted an appeal based on a flaw in the prosecuter’s case. He was reprieved until January 29, 1909 when as one newspaper put it, “Herman Billik Must Die.”

Alburquerque (NM) Citizen, January 21, 1909, 1, accessed Chronicling America, Library of Congress.
Alburquerque (NM) Citizen, January 21, 1909, 1, accessed Chronicling America.

However, he was again spared the gallows.  Just before his execution date, the Governor of Illinois commuted his sentence to life in prison.

Plymouth Tribune, February 4, 1909, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Plymouth Tribune, February 4, 1909, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Suspicion remained on the newly widowed Emma Vzral Niemann.  Newspapers reported that Billik’s conviction for the murder of William Niemann was based on circumstantial evidence. Father O’Callaghan and others were convinced of Emma’s guilt.  However, at her inquest the “many details of circumstantial evidence which had been collected against her were successfully explained by her testimony.”  The witness that proved Emma’s innocence was somehow Emma herself.

Topeka Daily State Journal, August 27, 1908, 5, accessed Chronicling America.
Topeka Daily State Journal, August 27, 1908, 5, accessed Chronicling America.

Conclusive evidence seemed to be presented showing that Billik had no access to arsenic, the poison found in all of the bodies except William Niemann’s.   However, the assistant coroner may have been pressured into reporting the lack of arsenic in William’s body.  In his book Poisoned, author Steve Shukis writes that political corruption distorted the facts.  He writes, “Clues were brought forward, but only some were investigated.”  It seems clear that there were people in positions of power that did not want arsenic to be found in the body of Emma’s husband. “It would have cast an enormous cloud over Billik’s conviction” and suggest that leading Chicago figures from the Police Chief to the State Attorney to the judge “condemned an innocent man,” according to Shukis.

Billik spent the next several years in prison, maintaining his innocence and continuing to lobby for a pardon.  Finally, at the end of 1916,  he received a hearing. The evidence was examined by new eyes and Jerry returned to remake testimony. Herman Billik was pardoned in January 1917 and died soon after.

Indianapolis News, January 4, 1917, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, January 4, 1917, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

After his pardon, Emma, now remarried, told the Chicago Tribune:

If ever a man deserved hanging, Herman Billik did. I am the one who first suspected that he killed my father and my sisters. I exposed him. I had him arrested. I never ceased in my efforts at vengeance until I saw him sent to the penitentiary. I have nothing in my heart but bitterness for Billik now. I could cheerfully stone him to death. It would be a joy to me to pull on the rope that choked his life out.

Though we focused on Herman here because of his Indiana connection, several key players at the time were convinced of Emma’s guilt and Herman’s innocence.  For more information see Steve Shukis’s book Poisoned: Chicago 1907, A Corrupt System, an Accused Killer, and the Crusade to Save Him. Shukis’s book gives a much more thorough treatment of what we have only scratched the surface of here. He also presents a myriad of primary sources from the period we had no room to cover here.  The more you dig, the stranger it gets; it’s  a perfect read for the season.  Happy Halloween!

Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1917, 1, http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1917/05/25/page/1/article/herman-billik-dies-protesting-his-innocence
Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1917, accessed Chicago Tribune Archives.

Devil Cats, Magic Mirrors, and Fortune-Telling Cabbage: 19th Century Love-Sick Hoosiers and Ancient Halloween Traditions

"Hallowe'en," postcard, n.d., William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University, accessed http://digitalcollections.lmu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/hpostcards/id/94
“Hallowe’en,” postcard, n.d., William H. Hannon Library, accessed Loyola Marymount University Digital Collections.

On the night of All Hallows Eve in 1868, two young Irish girls left a party to pick cabbage in a neighbor’s field. Their neighbor fired at them with a large navy revolver and killed young Bridget Murry.  Upon his arrest, the murderer “appeared perfectly unconcerned and indifferent,” according to the Daily Wabash Express. The main question is, of course, why would someone commit murder over the theft of a few vegetables? But there is a second mystery here too: Why would two young girls leave the festive atmosphere of a Halloween party to pick cabbage?   Let’s dig in!

We found some delightfully colorful 19th-century Indiana newspaper articles on Halloween celebrations, pranks, spells, and superstitions while searching Hoosier State Chronicles. Some of what we found was surprising! Each October 31 was a night of bonfires, spells, pranks, devilish black cats, and . . . future divining fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

In the decades after the Civil War, Hoosiers continued centuries-old, Celtic-influenced Halloween traditions, carried over from the old world.  These traditions and superstitions included the belief that spirits walked the earth on October 31 and could be called upon for favors or glimpses into the future.  While we are familiar with the imprint of some of these superstitions today, other traditions have been lost.  We were surprised to find that many of the spells and rituals involved young people looking to the spirits to determine their future husband or wife.

snap-apple-night
Daniel Maclise, Snap Apple Night, oil on canvas, 1833, accessed WikiCommons.
"All Hallow Eve," Terre Haute Daily Gazette, November 1, 1870, 4, Hoosier State Chronicles
“All Hallow Eve,” Terre Haute Daily Gazette, November 1, 1870, 4, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The day after Halloween in 1870, the Terre Haute Daily Gazette reported:

Of all the quaint superstitions that have been handed down to us, there are none that have taken a deeper hold upon the popular imagination than the observance of yesterday, the 31st of October, known as All Hallow Eve, or Halloween.

The leading belief in regard to Halloween, is that of all others, it is the time when supernatural influences prevail, the time when spirits, both the visible and invisible world, walk abroad and can be invoked by human powers for the purpose of revealing the mysterious future, and spirits may be called from the vasty [sic] deep at will.

A few years later, in 1872, the Terre Haute Gazette reported on Halloween in Titusville.  This small town in Ripley County celebrated with a festival based on the Scottish folk song “Auld Lang Syne,” which traditionally bids farewell to the previous year – fitting for the end of the harvest season.  Scottish poet Robert Burns, the author of the song’s  lyrics, was also known for his 1785 poem “Halloween.” The newspaper began its Halloween coverage with a few stanzas from that famous poem:

"Halloween Fun," Terre Haute Evening Gazette, November 7, 1872, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.
“Halloween Fun,” Titusville Press, reprinted in Terre Haute Evening Gazette, November 7, 1872, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.

“Some merry, gentle, country folks
Togthe did convene,
To burn their nits, and pou their stocks,
And hay their Halloween.”

The article went on to describe how Hoosiers celebrated Halloween that year:

This anniversary of the “Auld Lang Syne” festival, was pretty generally celebrated in town last evening, in the peculiar manner that has ever marked its recurrence. Out door, gates were unhinged, door-bells were pulled, stumbling blocks tripped unsuspecting pedestrians upon the sidewalks, or if they escaped these dangers below, their hats were knocked off by strings tied across the sidewalks above. A gentleman residing on Main street fell over a washtub upon entering his own domicile, and hardly ceased rubbing his shins before a peck of potatoes pattered down upon his defenseless head. There were hundreds of other similar experiences in town, but we have no time to speak of all the tricks played which the occasion makes allowable, though some of the most ludicrous are worth mentioning.

In addition to committing pranks, young Hoosiers  in 1872 called on spirits to see their future.  They were particularly interested in whether there was romance in store for them.  This idea too is based in Scottish, Celtic tradition, and we’ll explore that in a bit.  First, though, some pranks and a divination gone terrible awry – thanks to the Devil, or maybe just an old tom cat. The article continued:

A young man of our acquaintance who prides himself on his “make up,” called at the house of an acquaintance for an evening visit, and found several young ladies assembled there, all deeply engaged in trying to peer into the future by the aid of such agencies as tradition has named as potent, but facts have marked as “too thin.” None of the girls in the party were willing to undergo the ordeal of walking backward down the cellar stairs, with a candle in one hand and a mirror in the other. Our friend thought he would like to see his future wife, and amidst the admiring remarks if the girls at his courage, prepared to go cellarward. His face blanched a little as he began to descend the gloomy stairway amid the whispered utterances of his friends. He stepped firmly, however, with the candle held closely in one hand and the looking-glass, in which the reflection of his future wife’s face was to appear in the other, but when about half way down the stairs, a horrible, unearthly shriek came from below, which sent the feminine crowd around the entranceway to the cellar precipitately to the parlor. At the same time a something, which our hero described as being  the Devil, rushed between his legs.

Postcard, 1900, Charleston County Public Library, South Carolina Digital Library, acccessed Digital Library of America, http://lcdl.library.cofc.edu/lcdl/catalog/lcdl:37058
Postcard, 1900, Charleston County Public Library, South Carolina Digital Library, acccessed Digital Library of America.

Though naturally brave, this was too much for him, and he dropped both candle and mirror, and losing his balance, fell head first into a barrel of apple butter clear to his arm-pits, and no sooner had he escaped from the butter barrel than he stepped on a potato that was lying on the cellar bottom, his feet slipped out from under him, and he sat down in a crock of lard, at the same time hitting his head against a swinging shelf, which fell, bringing down with it a shower of dough-nuts, pickles canned fruit, and other eatables. The owner of the house appeared upon the scene at this juncture, and escorted the young man to the upper world, where, after scraping the lard and apple butter from his clothes, and combing the dough-nuts out of his tangled hair, he was advised to go home. The Thomas cat, whose hasty exit from the cellar caused the catastrophe, rubbed fondly against the young man’s legs and departed.

George Yost Coffin, "Hallow-eve, 1896," drawing on paper, 1896, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, accessed http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016679883/
George Yost Coffin, “Hallow-eve, 1896,” drawing on paper, 1896, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Halloween’s origins can be traced back some 2,000 years to the Celtic festival of Samhain.  (Learn more about the ancient traditions from the University of the Highlands and Islands). The Celts celebrated their new year at the end of the harvest season on October 31, seemingly like the “Auld Lang Syne” festival mentioned by the Terre Haute newspaper. On this night, the boundary between the world of the living and the dead was more permeable, allowing for premonition and divination. Remarkably, despite the attempt of the Church to replace Samhain with All Saints Day, some of the old traditions carried over into the nineteenth century.  For example, the same 1872 article reported on a mishap with a Halloween divination:

A young “fellah” in his teens took some chestnuts to the residence of his girl on Perry street, to tell fortunes with, upon a hot stove. Everything worked pleasantly at first; the old folks went to bed early, and the young couple sat by the kitchen stove, which diffused a glow scarcely warmer than that which emanated form their own hearts. Two plump chestnuts, which had been named after the two beings who were there to watch their movements, were placed upon the heated stove. They reposed for a moment side by side, then the nut named “John” began to waltz around the surface of the stove, and was followed a moment later by “Mary,” the other proxy.  As they grew warmer their speed and eccentric evolutions increased, and the young couple were very much interested in the final movements which were to indicate the fate of their own hearts, when unfortunately, “John” exploded and a piece of hot chestnut striking the original Mary in the eye, she took no more interest in the antics of fortune-tellers, but sat down, while her admirer, in his haste to relieve her sufferings, stepped on the cat’s tail.

A howl of mortal agony followed, and a moment later the enjoyment of the evening was marred by the young lady’s father opening the kitchen door, and though clad in a single and nameless garment, he insisted on knowing if it was ‘necessary to raise such a hullabaloo at his time of night’ before he departed. Everything was amicable adjusted, however, and the remainder of “Halloween” enjoyed by the young folks in a more quiet manner.

But the jokes were not all confined to the young people. We hear this morning of flax-seeds emptied into beds, where it occasioned much emotion by it resemblance to “yearling” bed-bugs. Those who retired early were pretty certain to find a cabbage or pumpkin between the sheets. Tempting pieces of pie, with saw-dust stuffing, were generally tendered by loving wives to their husbands, and various other jokes, practical and otherwise, were played in a manner that threatened to take from “All Fools day” the distinction it has hitherto enjoyed.

The practice of removing gate hinges, mentioned in the previous article, seems to have remained popular as it was again mentioned the following year:

Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, November 1, 1873, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, November 1, 1873, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Despite the scolding, it appears that young Hoosiers of the 1870s were generally allowed to get away with their pranks without getting into too much trouble. The newspaper allowed this perpetrator to go unnamed:

"Personal," Terre Haute Staurday Evening Mail, November 4, 1876, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.
“Personal,” Terre Haute Staurday Evening Mail, November 4, 1876, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In the following decade, Hoosiers were still keeping many of the old Halloween traditions alive. An 1885 article from the Terre Haute Evening Mail describes Halloween as the perfect time to divine one’s future spouse using various spells.

"Halloween," Terre Haute Staurday Evening Mail, October 31, 1885, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.
“Halloween,” Terre Haute Staurday Evening Mail, October 31, 1885, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

There are several such articles to be found in Hoosier State Chronicles, but none more interesting than this 1889 article written for the Indianapolis Journal. The article notes the aforementioned failure of the Church to replace the pagan celebration with All Saints Day and even mentioned Burns’ poem “Halloween” alluded to in Indiana newspapers a decade earlier.  An interesting stanza of this poem describes the Scottish tradition of uprooting kale or cabbage plants and reading them for information about one’s future spouse. Hopefully one didn’t pick a kale stalk that was too short or withered and hopefully its roots were covered in dirt – a sign of god fortune or a large dowry.  Learn more via the Smithsonian Magazine.

"Comartie Fool," accessed K. Annabelle Smith, "The Halloween Tradition Best Left Deas: Kale as Matchmaker, Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian.com
“Comartie Fool,” accessed K. Annabelle Smith, “The Halloween Tradition Best Left Deas: Kale as Matchmaker, Smithsonian Magazine.

While the Journal article didn’t mention the kale superstition, it did refer to several related traditions:

 

"Mysteries of Hallow-Eve," Terre Haute Express, October 31, 1889, 2 , Hoosier State Chronicles.
“Mysteries of Hallow-Eve,” Terre Haute Express, October 31, 1889, 2 , Hoosier State Chronicles.

All boys and girls know what next Thursday, October 31, will be All-Hallow Even, though most of them corrupt its name to “Hallow Eve.” They know that it is a night of mirth and mystery, specially devoted to mischief, fun, incantations, divinations, charms and spells, but very few of them or their elders understand its real significance, or can tell whence it derives its name.

It is many centuries since the Roman Church, finding it impossible, from the great and constantly increasing multitude of the saints, to set apart a separate day for each one, decreed that November 1st should thenceforward be kept as a day in honor of all the saints and that it should be known as All Hallowmas or All Saints’ day, and that the night of October 31st, immediately preceding it, should thereafter be kept as a vigil, and be known as All Hallow Eve, these occasions being still observed in the Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran Churches.

From its first origination Hallow Eve has been invested with a peculiarly mystic character. It is an almost universal superstition that supernatural influences then have unusual power” that devils, witches and fairies are abroad; that all spirits are free to roam through space, and that the spiritual element in all living humanity can be detached from corporal restraint and made to read his own future, or to reveal to others what fate may have in store for them. A there is nothing in the church celebration of the ensuing All Saints to justify these singular ideas and customs associated with Hallow Eve, and as none of them are of a religious character, we may justly regard them as relics of pagan times.

Image in Better Days Books Vintage Halloween Reader, accessed ChicagoNow.com
Image in Better Days Books Vintage Halloween Reader, accessed ChicagoNow.com.

In all ages and countries Hallow Eve has been deemed, as it still is, the occasion par excellence for divining the answer to that momentous question which absorbs so large a share of the thought of romantic young men and maidens: “Who is to marry whom?” The means employed to gain this much-desired information are as quaint and curious as they are numerous and varied. For this purpose every time and every country – almost every district of every country – has had its own charms and spells, peculiar to itself, and they have furnished an almost inexhaustible theme for folk-poets and compilers of folklore.

William Nicholson, "Robert Burns," etching, 1819, Library of Cngress Prints and Photographs Division, accessed http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2013645279/
William Nicholson, “Robert Burns,” etching, 1819, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Those of Scotland have been most graphically described by that greatest of all poets of the people, Robert Burns. In his poem of “Hallow’een” he has given us a most vivid account of more than half a score of Hallow Eve charms and spells peculiar to the Scottish peasantry.

The remainder of the article goes on to detail several spells for reading the future.  The first involves throwing blue yarn into an old lime-kiln in order to hear one’s future spouse’s name.  The paper notes the slight “difficulty of finding an old lime kiln.”

lime-kiln

The second requires a sliver of wood in a glass of water next to one’s bed on Halloween night in order to dream of one’s future husband or wife rescuing them from a river.

wood-sliver

Another allows the love-sick to find out if the object of their affection returns their feelings using a pair of roses and a spell.

rose-spell

A young man seeking to see the face of his future wife may do so in a walnut tree with the right incantation at midnight on Halloween.

walnut-tree

Sometimes the fates needed only a lock of hair and a strong breeze.

hair

Be careful, however, in choosing a spell. The article’s author has a strong warning from personal experience about the sliver of wood in water and dreams of drowning.  Someone may have to die before the dreamer’s true love can be found in real life. In this case, the writer’s own brother. We don’t want to give it all away; read his story on Hoosier State Chronicles!

And in case you were worried that none of the Indiana newspapers covered the spell allowing kale or cabbage to divine one’s mate, do not fear! The Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail has it covered with this article on “Modes of Divination.”

Terre Haute Sturday Evening Mail, May 19, 1894, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles
Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, May 19, 1894, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.

According to the article, besides various spells involving nuts and apples, “young women determined the figure and size of their husbands by drawing cabbages blindfold.” Perhaps this information from  Indiana newspapers not only gives us a glimpse into Halloween traditions maintained by 19th-century Hoosiers, but also explains the 1868 murder from the beginning of this post:

"A Young Girl Shot and Killed," Daily Wabash Express, November 3, 1868, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.
“A Young Girl Shot and Killed,” Daily Wabash Express, November 3, 1868, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Be careful this Halloween, especially if you plan on going hunting for some midnight cabbage!

Tonight, there’s going to be a (Rotary) Jail Break!

A birds-eye view of the rotary jail from its original patent. Courtesy of Google Books.
A birds-eye view of the rotary jail from its original patent. Courtesy of Google Books.

In a previous post (“When Jails Were Shaped like Pies”), we explored the interesting history of one of the nineteenth century’s most idiosyncratic inventions: the rotary jail. Inspired by the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, rotary jails were circular enclosures that allowed guards a 360 degree view of inmates through moving cells via a crank.  There was only one access point, making escape more difficult. This type of jail was invented in Indiana by architect William H. Brown and iron industrialist Benjamin F. Haugh.  These Indianapolis-based inventors filed their patent patent in 1881.The design became  popular, largely because it decreased interaction between guard and prisoner. In fact, the prisoner did not even have to be removed from his cell to dispose of waste.

The first blog post explained its Indiana origins and general history; this post serves to expand our knowledge of these jails through more newspaper accounts from throughout the United States.

A search for "rotary jail" in US News Map. Courtesy of US News Map.
A search for “rotary jail” in US News Map. Courtesy of US News Map.

But how do we start? One great tool for looking for subjects and their relevance to newspapers is usnewsmap.com. A joint venture of the Georgia Tech Research Institute and the University of Georgia, US News Map provides visitors with an easy search tool that show where subjects show up on the map. When I typed in “rotary jail,” I got eleven hits; some were as far east as Vermont and as far west as Utah.

Main street in Burlignton, Vermont, 1893. On this street resided the city's rotary jail. Courtesy of Google Books.
Main street in Burlignton, Vermont, 1893. On this street resided the city’s rotary jail. Courtesy of Google Books.

In Burlington, Vermont, a rotary jail was built as early as the late 1880s, with city planners waxing enthusiastic about the invention after their visit to the flagship rotary jail in Crawfordsville, Indiana. “They were most favorably impressed with the new rotary jail at Crawfordsville, Ind., and the probability is that they will decide to erect a similar one in this city,” wrote the Burlington Free Press on March 25, 1887. In Picturesque Burlington, a short history written in 1893 by Joseph Auld, describes the rotary jail in detail:

This “cage” is closely surrounded by a barred iron railing with only one opening. When a prisoner is to be placed in his cell the “cage” is revolved till the proper cell fronts the door; then the prisoner is put in, the cage is turned, and he is secure. The number of prisoners is small and the offences venial, largely violations of the prohibitory law.

Despite the reputation that rotary jails were nearly impossible to break through, escapes occurred periodically throughout the country.

Burlington Weekly Free Press, April 7, 1892. From Chronicling America.
Burlington Weekly Free Press, April 7, 1892. From Chronicling America.

For example, one particular story from the Burlington Free Press comes to mind. As reported on April 7, 1892, a man named John Arthur Simpson, whose aliases included “George Simpson” and “George A. Stillwell,” was accused of murder in Dover, New Hampshire. Simpson, whose past lives included “Baptist minister, later a burglar, horse thief, incendiary, farmer, bigamist, and finally a murderer,” apparently bared a remarkable resemblance to Julius McArthur, who “killed Deputy Sherriff Charles H. Hatch of New Hampshire May 6, 1891 while resisting arrest for stealing a horse and who escaped from the rotary jail of this city Jul 17, 1891.” According to the newspaper report, Simpson likely escaped from jail using a knife “as a wedge to open the cell door” and the authorities searched for a supposed accomplice who gave him said knife. Even though rotary jails garnered a reputation for being tough to escape, Simpson’s story shows they weren’t completely impenetrable.

Salt Lake Herald, February 2, 1907. From Chronicling America.
Salt Lake Herald, February 2, 1907. From Chronicling America.

Another rotary jailbreak occurred in Salt Lake City, Utah. Charles Riis, convicted of larceny under the name “Charles Merritt,” reportedly “went through the bars of the supposedly impregnable steel rotary at the county jail as though they were made of putty,” wrote the Salt Lake Herald on February 2, 1907. Riis was said to have “crawled” through a cell “eight inches wide by fourteen inches and length” after sawing through a bar over a few days, slowly as to not alert the sheriff. He then used the sawed bar as leverage to scale down the side of the jail wall with a blanket. At the time of this article, his whereabouts were unknown. Riis’s clever maneuvering utilized the weaknesses of both the rotary jail as an invention and the law enforcement agency’s inability to anticipate his covert actions.

Carrie Nation. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Carrie Nation. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

However, these stories pale in comparison to what was reported in multiple newspapers in Kansas. Carrie Nation, noted prohibitionist and provocateur, instigated a spat with the Wichita Sheriff’s wife and placed in a rotary jail cell in 1901. From here, we get two different sides of the story. According to the May 3 1901 issue of the Kinsley Graphic, Nation was “placed in the rotary cell at the county jail. She abused the sheriff’s wife, calling her all kind of vile names, the ‘devil’s dam being one.” She also called another woman “two-faced” as she was sitting in the rotary cell. However, the Topeka State Journal quoted Nation directly, painting a contrasting narrative. Nation, quoted in the Journal, wrote:

I was put in this [rotary] cell because I told Mrs. Simmons, the jailor’s wife, that when I was here before she tried to have me adjudged insane. She said I was a woman who used low, obscene language to her husband. I told her she lied and all liars would go to burn in the lake of fire. Her husband told me this morning when he came to remove me that his wife wanted me to be put here. Poor, depraved wretch! What a shame to see a cruel, revengeful woman. John the Baptist lost his head from just such a one. I would rather die in this unwholesome place than be such. I wish she would let Jesus change the bitter to the sweet in her nature. What a miserable woman she is! My poor sisters in this Bastille are trusting in the Lord.

Topeka State Journal, April 27, 1901. From Chronicling America.
Topeka State Journal, April 27, 1901. From Chronicling America.

She then railed against the liquor trade in Wichita, advising all citizens to “avoid getting anything from this cursed Sodom,” and comparing her treatment in the rotary jail to the “cruelty and injustice” of the “Spanish inquisition.” Nation’s brush with rotary jails is one of many legendary stories of the gilded age crusader.

Finally, rotary jails not only dealt with prisoners getting out, but also unintentionally trapped in. The November 10, 1886 issue of the Fairfield News and Herald, out of Winnsboro, South Carolina, reported that the rotary jail in Council Bluffs, Iowa “became locked Monday morning by some disarrangement of the machinery, and no prisoners could be taken out nor any admitted.” The paper further noted that a “large force of men were at work all day on the machinery, but the trouble was not removed until Tuesday morning.” This story was also picked by the Laurens Advertiser, the Manning Times, and the Pickens Sentinel.

Fairfield News and Herald, November 10, 1886. From Chronicling America.
Fairfield News and Herald, November 10, 1886. From Chronicling America.

Between the escapes and the structural failures, you would think that rotary jails would have lost sway with the law enforcement community and the general public. As the previous post mentioned, efforts to stop the use of rotary jails began as early as 1917. By the mid-20th century, many rotary jails were discontinued or the cell blocks were immobilized.  Two former rotary jails served as county jails well into the 20th century, with the Council Bluffs jail closing in 1969 and the Crawfordsville jail in 1973.

Although the rotary jail is no longer used, the seminal Indiana invention left a profound mark on the history of crime and punishment in the United States. Its design really broke the mold, or as you could say, broke (out of) the cell.

“Oh Boy! She’s Coming to Richmond”: Mamie Smith Brings the “Crazy Blues,” 1921

talking-machine-jan-1921
The Talking Machine World, January 15, 1921, 27, accessed archive.org.

Historians of blues music and folk culture consider Mamie Smith to be the first African American woman to record blues vocals.  In 1921, only a year after this historic recording, Smith performed to sold-out crowds in Indiana.  Newspapers covered the release of Smith’s records and her Indiana performances extensively. We were interested especially in a spring 1921 performance by this African-American star in Richmond, Indiana, a Ku Klux Klan stronghold at the time.

Before 1920, African American entertainer Mamie Smith, who was born in Cincinnati,  worked in Harlem as a chorus girl and cabaret singer. Here she met the black pianist, singer, and composer Perry Bradford who had found success in theater and minstrel circuits in New York.  Bradford, who was interested in preserving African-American musical traditions in recordings, convinced Fred Hager, recording director of the obscure label OKeh Records to take a chance on recording Mamie Smith.  Bradford convinced Hager that African American music lovers were an untapped market and that “they will buy records if recorded by one of their own, because we are the only folks that can sing and interpret hot jazz songs just off the griddle correctly.”

"A studio headshot portrait of American blues singer Mamie Smith," photograph, circa, 1923, Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images accessed "Mamie Smith and the Birth of the Blues Market," All Things Considered, NPR, http://www.npr.org/2006/11/11/6473116/mamie-smith-and-the-birth-of-the-blues-market
“A studio headshot portrait of American blues singer Mamie Smith,” photograph, circa, 1923, Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images accessed “Mamie Smith and the Birth of the Blues Market,” All Things Considered, NPR.

In February 1920, Smith recorded “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” for OKeh Records. Blues music historians consider this to be the first blues recording by an African American woman. Record producer Hager received boycott threats if he recorded Smith or any other African American singer. In the face of the controversy, Bradford convinced Hager to continue backing Smith, as opposed to the white singer Sophie Tucker, who Hager was alternatively considering.  Bradford recalled:

Mr. Hager got a far-off look in his eyes and seemed somewhat worried, because of the many threatening letters he had received from some Northern and Southern pressure groups warning him not to have any truck with colored girls in the recording field. If he did, OKeh Products – phonograph machines and records – would be boycotted. May God bless Mr. Hager, for despite the many threats, it took a man with plenty of nerves and guts to buck those powerful groups and make the historical decision which would echo aroun’ the world. He pried open that old ‘prejudiced door’ for the first colored girl, Mamie Smith, so she could squeeze into the large horn – and shout with her strong contralto voice.

Smith recorded another set of songs penned by Bradford for Okeh in August of 1920. The track “Crazy Blues” became massively popular and in less than a year the record sold over a million copies. According to long-time music writer Jas Obercht, Smith’s “Crazy Blues” “could be heard coming from the open windows of virtually any black neighborhood in America.” Okeh Records called it “a surprise smash hit.” According to New Orleans jazz musician Danny Barker:

There was a great appeal amongst black people and whites who loved this blues business to buy records and buy phonographs.  Every family had a phonograph in their house, specifically behind Mamie Smith’s first record.

Image of "Crazy Blues" on OKey Records accessed: Jas Obrecht, "Mamie Smith: The First Lady of the Blues," http://jasobrecht.com/mamie-smith-the-first-lady-of-the-blues/
Image of “Crazy Blues” on OKey Records accessed: Jas Obrecht, “Mamie Smith: The First Lady of the Blues,”

This was certainly true in Indiana.

Indiana newspapers ran ads for Mamie Smith’s records not long after the release of “Crazy Blues.”  Often the ads for Smith’s records were also attempts to sell phonographs as Barker mentioned in the above quote. A downtown Indianapolis music store ran this advertisement in the Indianapolis News in November:

Indianapolis News, November 30, 1920, 16, Hoosier State Chronicles
Indianapolis News, November 30, 1920, 16, Hoosier State Chronicles

The C. W. Copp Music Shop ran an advertisement in the South Bend News-Times in December for the hit “Crazy Blues,” but also let an interested public know that they stocked other Mamie Smith records. Hoosier interest in Smith’s records continued into the new year.  In March of 1921, the same South Bend music shop ran several advertisements for five new Smith records and the Hammond Times ran an advertisement for Okeh Records releases, featuring Smith, and to sell listeners the phonograph  to play them on:

Hammond Times, March 4, 1921, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles
Hammond Times, March 4, 1921, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles

According to Obrecht, Mamie Smith recorded 22 songs this year and “between sessions, she kept a grueling schedule of concert appearances.” The Talking Machine World magazine reported that Smith and a revue of entertainers were going to perform in all the major U.S. cities. By April 1921, many Hoosier music fans were familiar with Mamie Smith, as we can see from the newspaper ads.  So when the news broke that she was booked to play in Indiana, the coverage continued almost daily until the performance.

According to the Talking Machine World she performed in Indianapolis and Evansville on this tour, but a search of Hoosier State Chronicles and our recent work to digitize the Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram shows that she also performed to sold out crowds in Richmond and South Bend. This is especially interesting considering 1920s Richmond was only about 5% African American, while perhaps as many as 45% of white males belonged at some point to Whitewater Klan #60, an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. We wondered, what brought Smith to Richmond and how was she received?

The Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram ran a notice of Smith’s Saturday, April 23, 1921 performance at the Coliseum for weeks before the date.  Here are some great examples:

Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921, 7.
Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921, 7.

And:

Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 19, 1921, 7.
Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 19, 1921, 7.

On April 21, 1921 alone there were three ads for Smith’s upcoming performance and records, including this extensive listing of popular songs:

Richmond Palladium and Sun Telegram, April 21, 1921, 3.
Richmond Palladium and Sun Telegram, April 21, 1921, 3.
"Famous Colored Star Sings Here Saturday," Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921. 9
“Famous Colored Star Sings Here Saturday,” Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921. 9

Advertisements were not the only coverage of Smith’s upcoming appearance in Richmond. On April 18, 1921 the Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram reported on the “forthcoming appearance here of Mamie Smith, the popular phonograph star of the colored race, and her All-Star Jazz Revue next Saturday night at the Coliseum,” and called it “the greatest jazz concert that has ever been sent on tour.” The newspaper called Smith “a phonograph star of the first rank” and claimed that she “has done more than any other singer perhaps in America to popularize the genuine ‘blues’ song of the day.” The writer continued to laud Smith for her ability to make songs into “living, potent things charged with a pulsing and individual rhythm.” The paper reported that the popularity of her record had made Richmond residents excited to see her perform live and that they were expecting a “sold-out house when she reaches this city.”

Jazz Revue Seats On Sale Wednesday," Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921, 4.
Jazz Revue Seats On Sale Wednesday,” Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921, 4.

Perhaps the most interesting article in the Palladium was the one that appeared the following day, April 19, and covered not Smith but the revue company traveling with her. Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds were the headlining, crowd-drawing act, but her tour included other acts as well: dancers, vaudevillian comedians, and minstrel performers. The appearance of a newly-minted  blues and jazz star on the same stage as the historically popular minstrel performers marks and intersection of trends in African American music and performance history. While minstrel performers had both conformed to stereotypes out of employment necessity and defied them through their self-presentation (learn more), Mamie Smith’s rise to stardom ushered in a new era of music divas who presented themselves as upper class, educated, rich, and demanding of respect.

Obrecht writes:

While blues music had been performed in the American South since the very beginning of the twentieth century, no one had made recordings of it before, largely due to racism and the assumption that African-Americans couldn’t – or wouldn’t – buy record players or 78s. “Crazy Blues” changed all that, sparking a mad scramble among record execs to record blues divas. The stars they promoted in this short-lived era of “classic blues” were not the down-home country singers who’d record later in the Roaring Twenties, but the glittering, glamorous, and savvy veterans of tent shows, minstrel troupes, and the vaudeville stage. These mavericks defied stereotypes…

"Colored Star Wears Exprensive Creations," Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 22, 1921, 11.
“Colored Star Wears Exprensive Creations,” Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 22, 1921, 11.

As if in response to this very idea, on April 22 the Palladium followed the coverage of the revue with an article detailing the glamorous appearance and presentation of Smith. The newspaper stated that through her record royalties “the popular young colored star is enabled to indulge her fancy in the latest creations both from Paris and New York, and in each city in which she has appeared a gasp of astonishment has greeted her every appearance, for her gowns are described as riots of color and beauty.”

In a telling sentence, the article called Smith “one of the most gorgeously dressed stars of the musical comedy world.”  This notes both the respect for her appearance and success and a misunderstanding of her role in music history.  While African American music fans were connecting to Smith’s sincere and authentic portrayal of the blues music that they grew up with, this white Midwestern newspaper still saw her as part of the vaudeville and perhaps even minstrel genres — understandably perhaps since it was marketed as such.  While Smith had come from such a tradition, through her work with the blues and and jazz performers she had transcended her past.  Black newspapers understood her importance much earlier than white newspapers.  On March 13, 1920, the Chicago Defender wrote:

Well, you’ve all heard the famous stars of the white race chirping their stuff on the different makes of phonograph records . . . but we have never – up to now – been able to hear one of our own ladies deliver the canned goods. Now we have the pleasure of being able to say that at last they have recognized the fact that we are here for their service; the OKeh Phonograph Company has initiated the idea by engaging the handsome, popular and capable vocalist, Mamie Gardner Smith.

Similarly, the African American gospel, jazz, and blues music Thomas A. Dorsey explained, “Colored singing and playing artists are riding to fame and fortune with the current popular demand for ‘blues’ disk recordings and because of the recognized fact that only a Negro can do justice to the native indigo ditties such artists are in demand.”

There were African American audience members at the Richmond performance, who likely had a better understanding of the significance of Smith’s success.  The Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram reported: “The best seats are selling fast from the plat at Weisbrod Music company as white and colored folk alike are wager to see and hear the ‘Queen of the Blues,’ a capacity house is predicted for Saturday night.”

Unfortunately, there are no extant issues of the historic African American newspaper the Indianapolis Recorder for this period. It would be interesting to explore the differences in the coverage of Smith’s performances between a white and black newspaper and perhaps this could be accomplished using the Chicago Defender, but is outside the scope of this post.

As expected, Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds sold-out the Richmond Coliseum, which held 2,500 people, for the April 23, 1921 performance.  The next year, the KKK also sold-out the same venue.  The Richmond Daily Palladium reported on December 12, 1922 that a crowd awaiting a Klan rally “taxed the space at the Coliseum waiting for the ceremonies quite a long time before the Klansmen finally arrived.”  So how was the white population of Richmond able to enjoy an African American musician one year and then attend a Klan rally the next?

While this contradiction may seem surprising, there was (and some argue still is) a tendency for white Americans to de-contextualize African American music from African American culture.  That is, the white residents of Richmond were able to appreciate black music while continuing to oppress black people.  There has been much written on this topic (two good places to start are Imamu Amiri Baraka‘s The Music: reflections on Jazz and Blues and Perry Hall’s “African American Music: Dynamics of Appropriation and Innovation“) and an extensive analysis of Smith’s career through this lens is outside the scope of this post.  However, advertisements continued after her performance, from which we can draw that she was a hit regardless of why.  Notice the advertisement claims that there was “a capacity audience.”

Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 25, 1921, 5
Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 25, 1921, 5

While we were unable to find an article reviewing the Richmond performance or the crowd’s reception, it likely went well because she returned to Indiana the next month.  On May 31, 1921, she performed to another capacity crowd at the Oliver Theater in South Bend.  The South Bend News-Times covered her performance in much the same manner as the Richmond Palladium.  The paper noted in various articles, her fame, her genius, and her status as “the first colored girl artist to attain world-wide fame as a singer and phonograph record star.”

Mamie Smith’s importance to music history is hard to overstate, according to a story on NPR’s All Things Considered for which famed activist Angela Davis (now a professor at University of California/Santa Cruz ) was interviewed.  Davis summed up Smith’s importance succinctly:

“The recording of ‘Crazy Blues’ led the way for the professionalization of black music, for the black entertainment industry, and indeed for the immense popularity of black music today.”

Search Hoosier State Chronicles for yourself to find more on Mamie Smith in Indiana. For more on Mamie Smith’s long career see Jas Orbrecht’s well-researched article, “Mamie Smith: The First Lady of the Blues.”

Coloring Books, Zen, and the Richmond Palladium & Sun-Telegram

Julie Beck, The Zen of Adult Coloring Books, The Atlantic, November 4, 2015, accessed www.theatlantic.com
Julie Beck, The Zen of Adult Coloring Books, The Atlantic, November 4, 2015, courtesy of the Atlantic.

Adult coloring books are everywhere right now! Nielson Bookscan reported the sale of over 15 million adult coloring books last year alone. It’s more than a fad, according to the Washington Post; It is closer to self-guided art therapy.  Coloring books have helped adults to relieve stress and practice mindfulness, as well as deal with grief and improve motor skills after illness of accident.

While working to digitize the Richmond Palladium & Sun-Telegram from 1916, we noticed that on page four each day there was a small line drawing.  Some days the drawings were comments on news events or social issues, but often they were just decorative. We thought they were perfect for coloring.

So print out the drawings below and get coloring!  You just might feel better.

Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, May 18, 1916, 4.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, May 18, 1916, 4.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 6, 1916, 4.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 6, 1916, 4.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 19, 1916, 4.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 19, 1916, 4.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, September 28, 1916, 4.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, September 28, 1916, 4.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, September 28, 1916, 4.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, September 28, 1916, 4.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, May 5 1916, 4.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, May 5 1916, 4.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, June 7 1916, 4.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, June 7 1916, 4.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 28, 1916, 4.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 28, 1916, 4.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 26, 1916, 4.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 26, 1916, 4.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 26, 1916, 4.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 26, 1916, 4.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 21, 1916, 4.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 21, 1916, 4.

While we jumped on the coloring train, we weren’t the first to propose coloring newspaper pages.  In fact, the very newspaper we were looking at beat us to it! In the Junior Palladium, an insert in the Saturday edition, sometimes included images for kids to color:

Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, June 19, 1916, 10.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, June 19, 1916, 10.

Some ads we spotted would make great coloring pages too, like this one for corsets with the Indiana State House in the background:

Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 12, 1916, 6.
Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 12, 1916, 6.

Have you spotted others that would work?  Let us know on Twitter: @HS_Chronicles

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