This month, the Indiana Historical Bureau is focusing on the history and culture of Allen County, Indiana. Here at Chronicles, we thought it would be an apt time to share some of Allen County’s newspaper history.
Fort Wayne, Allen County’s central city and the second-largest city in Indiana, produced most of the county’s newspapers. Thomas Tigar and Samuel V. B. Noel founded the Fort Wayne Sentinel, publishing its first issue on July 6, 1833. The Sentinel’s two publishers came from completely opposite political backgrounds. Tigar’s views aligned with the Democratic Party while Noel identified as a Whig. So, in an effort to avoid political conflicts, the paper initially started as an independent publication. Over the decades, the Sentinel changed hands and political affiliations routinely. For example, when Noel sold his stake to Tigar, it became a Democratic paper; when Gordon W. Wood owned it in the late 1830s, it switched to a Whig perspective. After decades of mergers, name changes (it was called the Times-Sentinel for a while), and multiple owners, the Sentinel merged with the daily News in 1918 and became the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, the name it is still published under today.
As for the News, William P. Page and Charles E. Taylor founded the Republican-leaning daily in 1874. Page made a 28-year career at the News, overseeing the development of weekly and daily editions. In 1902, he sold the paper to a partnership of entrepreneurs incorporated under the aegis of the News Publishing Company. This ownership maintained the paper until 1918, when it merged with the aforementioned Sentinel. Other notable Fort Wayne papers include the dailies Gazette (1863–1899), Journal (1881–1899), and Times (1855–1865).
Alongside all of its newspapers, Fort Wayne produced two of the twentieth century’s most prominent publishers. William Rockhill Nelson, born in Fort Wayne on March 7, 1841. Nelson studied at Notre Dame (he did not graduate) and earned admittance to the bar in 1862, before he decided to enter the newspaper business. He and his business partner Samuel E. Morss purchased the Fort Wayne Weekly Sentinel in 1879 and published it for around nine months. From there, Nelson followed the old maxim “go west young man,” and he and Morss moved to Kansas City, Missouri. Nelson and Morss founded the Kansas City Evening Star in 1880. By 1885, the newly-renamed Kansas City Star became one of the Missouri’s most widely-read papers in the state. By the time of his death in 1915, Nelson’s estate totaled $6 million and his family ensured that his wealth supported the creation of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts, which opened to the public in 1933.
As for Morss, he sold his stake of the Star to Nelson within a year and a half. After traveling in Europe, he returned to the US and spent a few years as an editor at the Chicago Times. He came back to Indianapolis in 1888, to purchase and run the Indiana State Sentinel. He maintained his position with the Sentinel, with the exception of serving as Consul-General of the United States to France under President Grover Cleveland, until his death in 1903. Unexpectedly, he died after a fall from the third-story window of his Sentinel office, likely the result of a heart attack.
George Jean Nathan, another native of Fort Wayne, played a key role in the literary life of Americans during the 1920s and 30s. Born in 1882, Nathan spent his early years in Fort Wayne before he moved east, to study at Cornell University (he graduated in 1904). Nathan’s most enduring legacy stemmed from his relationship with noted journalist and provocateur H. L. Mencken. Nathan served as the co-editor with Mencken of the Smart Set from 1914-1923. They then founded the American Mercury, a magazine of literature, political commentary, and satire, in 1924. Nathan contributed drama criticism, particularly his views on playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill, Henrik Ibsen, and George Bernard Shaw, for the Mercury as well as his own publication, Theatre Book of the Year. He died in 1958.
The Indianapolis Times began publication as the Sun in 1888, described by the Ayer’s newspaper directory as the “only one-cent paper in Indiana.” Fred L. Purdy served as its first editor and owned a minority stake in its publishing; J. S. Sweeney owned the majority stake. It ran daily under this title until 1899 and its circulation grew to 12,823 by 1898. In 1899, it was renamed the Indianapolis Sun and continued its daily publication. During this time, it also maintained a professional partnership with the Scripps-McRae wire service out of Cincinnati, Ohio.
In 1922, Scripps-Howard publishing purchased the Times and it was renamed the Indianapolis Times, the title it kept until it ceased publication in 1965. Roy W. Howard served as the president of Scripps-Howard publishing from 1922-1964, overseeing not only the Times but the United Press International worldwide wire service. Alongside in-house journalism by Times staff, many articles published during this period came from the Scripps-Howard wire service, Newspaper Enterprise Association.
During the 1930s, the Times advocated for children’s needs, raising money for charities that supplied coats and other clothing items to children hit hard by the Great Depression. In the recession of 1961-62, the Times helped 4,000 Indiana residents find jobs through its publishing of free employment ads. Alongside its Klan coverage, the Times also covered multiple scandals, from corruption in the state’s highway fund and voter fraud in congressional districts to exposing falsely reported Indianapolis crime statistics. It even published coverage during the 1960s that advocated for better lunches in public schools, through the use of the federal school surplus program.
Despite its successful journalism and philanthropy, the Times lacked the resources and circulation to compete with Indianapolis’s rival dailies, the News and the Star. On October 11, 1965, the Indianapolis Times ran its final issue and suspended publication. Its final daily circulation totaled 89,374, with a Sunday circulation of 101,000.
While the Indianapolis Times ceased publication over 50 years ago, it maintains a legacy of good journalism and civic integrity. Due to its immense impact on the community, the Indiana Historical Bureau shared the newspaper’s history with future generations of Hoosiers via a historical marker originally placed in 1979, and replaced in 2013.
This week’s notable Hoosier obit focuses on one of Indiana political history’s most important, and slightly controversial, public figures. Schuyler Colfax, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and vice president under Ulysses S. Grant’s first term, was a major player within the Republican Party during the late nineteenth century. However, his political career ended in controversy when news broke that he was a minor player in the Credit Mobilier scandal that also threatened Grant’s tenure in the White House. News of Colfax’s death on January 13, 1885 was somewhat inconspicuous.
Schuyler Colfax was born on March 23, 1823 in New York City. He and his family moved westward in 1836, settling in St. Joseph County, Indiana. As the Indianapolis Sentinel reported in his obituary, the “earlier years of his life were spent as a clerk in a county store, but when eighteen years of age he was appointed Deputy County Auditor, at South Bend, by his stepfather, who was Auditor.” This was the start of his life-long involvement in politics.
In 1850-51, Colfax served as one of the delegates to the Indiana Constitutional Convention, where he staunchly “opposed by voice and vote the clause prohibiting free colored persons from coming into the State.” Defeated as a Whig party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1851, he eventually won election to the House as a member of the newly-formed Republican party in 1854. He served in this body for the next 14 years. After the election of 1860, President-elect Abraham Lincoln gave Colfax some consideration for a cabinet post, before he settled on Indianan Caleb B. Smith. In 1863, during the height of the Civil War, House members elected Colfax as Speaker of the House. During his time leading the House, he helped secure congressional passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ending slavery, on January 31, 1865. The states ratified the amendment on December 18, 1865.
In 1868, while still serving as Speaker, the Republican Party nominated him to be General Ulysses S. Grant’s running mate. They won the election on November 3, 1868. Colfax would serve only one term in Grant’s administration. In 1872, Colfax announced that he was retiring from politics. The Republican Party nominated Henry Wilson to replace Colfax on the 1872 reelection ticket. However, there was a practical reason for Colfax’s retirement and the party replacing him as vice president nominee.
During 1868, Colfax became involved in a railroad shell corporation called Credit Mobilier of America, investing his own money into the scheme and receiving a $1,200 dividend check from Oakes Ames, a Congressman who roped some of his colleagues into it. After the New York Sunbroke the story, Colfax was later implicated in the scheme and nearly impeached. The impeachment proceedings stalled because Wilson replaced Colfax on the ticket. (Consequently, Wilson also became implicated in the scandal, but died of a stroke in 1875.) After nearly 20 years of success in public life, Colfax left Washington in 1873 a defeated, slightly tarnished man.
He spent the remaining years of his life rebuilding his reputation as a public speaker, traveling around the country sharing his memories of President Lincoln during the Civil War. On January 13, 1885, Colfax arrived in an extremely cold Mankato, Minnesota on another lecture tour. As the Greencastle Times reported, Colfax “walked from the Milwaukee [Railroad] depot, the distance of half a mile, and it is presumed the exertion superinduced an attack of heart of disease. He fell forward from the seat in the waiting room and died without uttering a word.”
The Indiana press’s reaction to Colfax’s death balanced its respect for the fallen leader but also acknowledged his Credit Mobilier foibles. The Greencastle Timesdescribed the scandal as the “wrongs and embitterments that wore put upon him through the hatred and malice of his enemies,” but that his reputation was left “unscathed in the estimation of his home constituency and all those who knew him best.” The Indianapolis News wrote that, “Of his connection with the “Credit Mobilier” nothing need be said now, for the country knows it all. It is alluded to here because, in nearly thirty years of public life in his state or in congress, this is the only imputation on his integrity.”
On the other end of responses, the Terre Haute Expressdid not even mention the affair. Finally, on the day of his death, the Indianapolis News published a column that fully defended Colfax against accusations of impropriety. “The case against him, wrote the News, “as having received $1,200 in an ‘S. C. [presumably for Schuyler Colfax] or bearer’ check from Oakes Ames was a strong one circumstantially but lacked direct conclusive proof, and against it Mr. Colfax put a private life without stain and a long and honorable public career to that time unsullied.” The Odd Fellows, of which Colfax was a member, attended to Colfax’s remains, and escorted the body back to Indiana via train within a few days. He was buried on January 17, 1885 at City Cemetery, South Bend.
Despite Colfax’s involvement in one of the nineteenth century’s most explosive political scandals, his career in the House of Representatives, especially his help in passing the thirteenth amendment, deserves some level of recognition. Like many leaders of the Gilded Age, Colfax involved himself in an unsavory business arrangement that ruined his chances for higher political office. Nevertheless, he tried to rehabilitate his reputation and enjoyed a few years of success on the lecture circuit. While most Americans may not think of Schuyler Colfax when discussing the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, he was one of Indiana’s statesmen that left an indelible, and slightly infamous, mark on political life during the times.
Indiana’s contribution to the “Golden Age of Freethought” during the late nineteenth century has been covered by previous blogs for the Indiana Historical Bureau; in particular, iconoclastic author Ambrose Bierce, the Vonnegut’s, and Robert Ingersoll and Lew Wallace’s “legendary train ride.” This blog covers another another Hoosier freethinker, W. H. LaMaster. His freethought newspaper, the Iconoclast, became a staple of Indianapolis thought through the 1880s and he continued his column writing until his death in 1908. LaMaster advocated for religious skepticism, scientific advancement, and was a staunch anti-temperance advocate. LaMaster, alongside notable freethinkers like Ambrose Bierce, Clemens Vonnegut, and Robert Ingersoll, helps us understand the rich religious diversity in the Midwest during the late nineteenth century.
William Hammon LaMaster was born on February 14, 1841 in Shelbyville, Indiana, to Benjamin and Elizabeth LaMaster. His early life is mostly unknown to us, but we do know that he lived for a time in Missouri on the family farm, according to the US Census. From there, LaMaster served for the Union army during the Civil War, serving in the 89th Indiana Infantry and the 146th Indiana Infantry. After the war, he returned home to Shelbyville (and later Liberty), passed the bar exam, and began his law practice. As early as 1868, he was beginning to make a splash within Republican Party circles. As the Daily Ohio Statesman reported, LaMaster was a “rising young lawyer of that city [Shelbyville, Indiana], a gentleman and a scholar, and hitherto was the main hub in the Republican Party in that county. He was in the war, and bears honorable scars.” In 1868, he advertised his law practice in the Connersville Examiner, and described his credentials as “Attorney at Law, and Deputy Common Pleas Prosecutor. Will practice in the Courts of Union and Fayette Counties.”
Also in 1868, LaMaster began writing a regular newspaper column writing for the Connersville Examiner called “Liberty Items.” In it he shared his thoughts on local happenings in Liberty Township, Union County, Indiana. In personal affairs, he married Harriet Reed on December 26, 1866, with the usual proceedings of a “Minister of Gospel,” as described on their marriage record. LaMaster’s iconoclastic views had not yet bubbled to the surface, at least with regards to his nuptials.
From there, LaMaster’s story is unclear until the late 1870s, when his religious skepticism was in full force. While LaMaster’s evolution into a freethinker is of great importance, it is outside of the scope of this initial post. By May 1879, his public life as a freethinker was evident in a lecture entitled “The God of the Bible” that he delivered at Terre Haute’s Dowling Hall. The Terre HauteWeekly Gazette described, “From the way he states his subject something of an idea of his manner of treating it may be learned.” Unfortunately, research has yet to uncover the text of this lecture. However, an advertisement published in an 1884 issue of the Index suggests that it might have been akin to known-agnostic Robert Ingersoll’s critical lecture, Some Mistakes of Moses.
Being a skeptic, so far as spiritualism is concerned in any form, whether manifested through ignorant mediums or otherwise, I must say that I saw nothing on my late experience among spirits in Terre Haute to convince me of the truth of modern spiritualism.
When LaMaster was not debunking spiritualism in Terre Haute, he was trying to debunk another popular notion during the period: temperance. The movement, which called for either the curtailing or elimination of alcohol consumption, gained steam during the late nineteenth century. LaMaster viewed the movement as he did most creeds—as an overzealous, dogmatic group who wanted to control people’s lives. He did not parse words when he wrote in the Indianapolis People that the first temperance lecturer was the Devil, who “taught a very remote grandmother of ours the art of using, in a very temperate manner, a certain kind of ‘fruit,’ to her ‘mental’ advantage, before any wicked distiller ever thought of solving the difficult problem, how to convert its juice into intoxicating beverages.” Now, it is important to clarify LaMaster’s personal view; while he supported any individual or personal efforts to be temperate with drink, he was opposed to using laws to move people in that direction, a distinction the Indianapolis News made sure to print.
While temperance was one of LaMaster’s political hobby horses, his dedication to freethought and secularism was his main contribution to the growing diversity of Indiana’s religious thought during the late nineteenth century. In an 1898 article for the Improvement Era, “What Agnosticism Is?,” LaMaster outlined his own view regarding theological matters. He wrote:
Agnosticism as an applied theory or doctrine may therefore be said to be one which neither asserts nor denies the existence of the infinite, the absolute. Or, it may be defined as a “theory of the unknowable which assumes its most definite form in the denial of the possibility of any knowledge of God.” And so the agnostic may be said to be one who does not claim or profess to know of the existence of a supreme being called God.
Regarding agnosticism, LaMaster’s view mirrored the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (who coined the term) as well as the other titan of Midwestern freethought, Robert G. Ingersoll. Conversely, LaMaster’s agnosticism under-girded his poor estimation of Christianity, which he believed rested on a poor foundation of “faith.” He declared:
To state the proposition more tersely we will say that while Christianity is willing to rest on “faith” alone in arriving at any one or more objective religious truths, agnosticism demands something more—it demands evidence of the highest character before accepting as very truth any kind of a religious belief or dogma. Hence we find Christianity standing for a bare and empty faith and agnosticism for the strongest and the most indisputable of testimony. And so it must be admitted that as between the Christian and the agnostic there is an impassable gulf.
For LaMaster, the use of reason, in conjunction with evidence, provided a person with the clearest picture of the world and their place within it.
In the introduction to the 1893 version, LaMaster further explained his worldview and the impetus for publishing Ingersoll’s answers. He wrote:
It is for the good and well-being of the whole people that a natural religion should take the place of a supernatural one. With the imaginary or idealistic, progressive thought can have nothing to do, since it is the real, and not the ideal, that men and women should crave to find. The world is in need of a religion of humanity—one of philosophy and good deeds—and not one of creeds.
The idea of a “religion of humanity” recalls the proto-humanistic philosophy of Auguste Comte, who argued for a natural religion based on altruistic impulses and mutual affection among individuals without the need for supernaturalism. LaMaster also published with these letters an essay that he likely prepared for the International Congress of Freethinkers in Chicago entitled, “The Genesis of Life.” In it, he argued for a naturalistic explanation for life on earth, noting that “whilst there may be no particular source of life in the universe, there is always to be found a general or universal one from which it may emanate and become an active, moving, and expressive energy in organic nature.”
His years publishing the Iconoclast were difficult, especially in a city like Indianapolis, where its community of freethought was “without organization,” according to the Index. “With the Iconoclast,” wrote B. F. Underwood in the same paper, “existence is yet a struggle, as it necessarily is with all young liberal journals.” Despite its success with Ingersoll’s Answers to Indianapolis Clergy, the Iconoclast ceased publication in 1886.
Over the next 20 years, LaMaster continued writing and publishing a variety of essays and pamphlets, both in journals and newspapers. In 1896, he published, “The Growth and Magnitude of the Sidereal Heavens,” in Popular Astronomy, where he speculated on the existence of extraterrestrial life. “Let us then, in our magnanimity,” declared LaMaster, “rise above the compass of our human selfishness and allow our minds to be inspired with the thought that there are other worlds than ours in the starry vaults of heaven, which are the abode of even more sentient beings than ourselves.” These ideas would be echoed nearly a century later by astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan, in his television series, Cosmos.
In another piece, “How Do We Think?,” LaMaster speculates on the interaction of language and human minds, and whether language is necessary for human thought. LaMaster mused:
If it be true, then, that mind is one of the endowments of matter, even in its organized forms, and one of its functions is that of thinking, it cannot be denied that it will think independently of words actually spoken or disguised . . . . Words themselves presuppose some kind of thought; in fact, words are the natural and legitimate offspring of thought.
Again, LaMaster was extremely prescient about this point. The hypothesis that thought comes before language and that our brains are hard-wired for language has been buttressed by cognitive scientists like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. Despite his training as an attorney, it is evident that LaMaster was a man whose interest in ideas, particularly of the sciences, was particularly well-rounded, especially for the nineteenth century.
Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, he continued writing newspaper columns, including authoring pieces for the Indianapolis News . In one article from February 26, 1895, he wrote about the enduring legacy of American revolutionary and freethinker Thomas Paine. In one of his final columns, written for the August 16, 1907 issue of the Indianapolis Star, LaMaster shared his thoughts about the human soul:
The soul per se, unlike other forms of matter, can have neither growth nor decay. It having therefore its own eternal place and fixity in the universe, it can be neither born nor can it die. And whatever then may be its form or shape it possesses potential being, and one, too, of the highest order.
This nascent spiritualism should not be taken to mean that he had changed his mind. Rather, LaMaster believed that the “soul” was likely an emergent property of humanity’s natural place in the universe.
In 1906, he and his family moved to Westphalia, Knox County, Indiana, away from the hustle of Indianapolis, where he continued his intellectual pursuits until the end. LaMaster died on July 28, 1908, at the age of 67. In his obituary from the Indianapolis News, he was described as a “frequent contributor to the Indianapolis News and other Indianapolis newspapers,” and was a “vigorous writer.” In that last remark, they were certainly correct. In his lifetime, LaMaster had written for numerous newspapers, journals, and pamphlets on a wide-range of topics. His newspaper, the Iconoclast, helped to cement a growing freethought community in Indianapolis. His speculations on science are still noteworthy today. In this regard, LaMaster was a classic, nineteenth century “polymath.” In his explorations and religious unorthodoxy, LaMaster contributed much to our understanding of freethought in the Midwest during the late nineteenth century.
During intense political battles, particularly in the legislative branches of government, shouting matches sometimes turn into full on fights on the floor. This is especially evident with the intense, but weirdly funny, videos of legislators beating each other up. One from Time magazine, called “Politician Brawls Caught on Tape around the World,” displays this weird juxtaposition of suited politicians acting like completely foolish children. However, it would be naive to think that this type of behavior is limited to the present. In fact, one incident in Indiana’s legislature during the late nineteenth century demonstrates that political brawls go back much further.
Beginning as an electoral dispute that turned into outright violence, the “Black Day” of the Indiana General Assembly remains one of the darkest moments in Indiana political history. In 1885, Governor Isaac P. Gray, who had recently assumed the office, expressed public interest in an Benjamin Harrison’s U. S. Senate seat when Harrison’s term expired in 1888. The Republican-turned-Democrat Gray’s aspiration hit a snag when his lieutenant governor, Mahlon D. Manson, resigned. Some critics charged that Gray could not vacate the governorship if there was no successor in place. After consulting with Attorney General Francis T. Hord, Hord recommended that the lieutenant governor’s vacancy be filled at the next election in 1886. Gray trusted that the Democratic nominee for the office, John C. Nelson, would win. Instead, the Republican challenger, Robert S. Robertson, won the election, thereby yoking the Democratic Gray with a Republican successor.
The Republican controlled house recognized the election, but the Democratic controlled senate fought the outcome. As a countermeasure, Democrats defended their own Senate President, Alonzo Green Smith, and backed his move to be lieutenant governor, instead of Robertson. As the Indiana State Sentinel reported, “Indiana presents the singular spectacle of a State having an acting Democratic Lieutenant-Governor and a claimant for his seat in the person of a gentleman recently elected Lieutenant-Governor by Republican votes.”
The 1886 lieutenant governor’s race contentiously pitted Democrats against Republicans. Smith even “appeared in the Circuit Court and instituted proceedings to restrain Robertson from assuming any duties of the office to which he claims to have been elected.” The court ruled against Robertson, but its decision was overturned by the Indiana Supreme Court on February 23, which gave Robertson the impetus to try to take his seat as president of the senate. The situation reached a tipping point on the morning of February 24, 1887. Lieutenant-Governor Elect Robertson tried to be seated in the chamber as president of the senate, but Smith would not allow it. Robertson pushed through the crowd into the chamber and demanded his seat, but Smith again denied him. At this point, according to the Indianapolis Journal, doorkeeper David E. Bulger stopped Robertson, catching him “by the throat, and with the other hand by the shoulder. Holding him thus for an instant, he threw him some fifteen and twenty feet from the steps” of the chamber’s dais. Robertson defended his right to be there, his “position to which the people elected me.” After some more rumblings inside the chamber, Smith declared, “If this man persists in speaking, remove him from the floor.”
Robertson was forcibly removed from the chamber, and fighting and chaos broke out in the Senate chamber and its nearby hallways. Some legislators were even seriously injured. In regards to one incident, the Indianapolis News reported:
The trouble between Senators McDonald and Johnson occurred in about this way: . . . McDonald took hold of him, probably with no belligerent intention, and he was pushed over the arm of the sofa, near the door, when he got up. McDonald still had hold of him and Johnson struck him between the eyes, and then each man tried to impair the facial beauty of the other, but the crowd prevented. . . .Doorkeeper Pritchett [who] looked like he had been through a thrashing machine.
It led to a complete breakdown of the state legislature that lasted throughout the 1887 session. As the Indianapolis News noted, “The one universal comment is that all legislation is now at an end. The two houses are running counter, or at least independent of each other. The house will never recede from the position taken yesterday, and advice is coming in from all directions that there must be no compromise now.”
The next day, Robertson attempted to be seated again but was “denied by the doorkeepers.” Not furthering legal action again Green and the Democrats, Robertson was never seated, and his election as lieutenant governor was never formally recognized. These ruckus machinations ruined Governor Gray’s campaign for the U.S. Senate and even fueled the campaign for the direct election of senators, which became the Seventeenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in 1912. Overall, the “Black Day” of the General Assembly remains one the darkest and most unsettling moments in Indiana political history. It reminds us that while the rancor and partisanship of our own time is certainly upsetting, historically speaking, it’s been much worse.
Justin E. Walsh, The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1816-1978 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1987).
Mitchell Walsh, Dennis L. Walsh, and James E. St. Clair, “Isaac P. Gray,” in The Governors of Indiana, ed. Linda C. Gugin and James E. St. Clair (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society and Indiana Historical Bureau, 2006).
Some material for this blog originally appeared on my other historical blog, IGA History: http://bit.ly/2lzzZrJ.
Boxing holds a revered place in the history of American life. From Jack Johnson and Rocky Marciano to Muhammad Ali, the sport has captivated audiences and broken barriers. One boxer who did just that was Ray Bronson, known as the “Indianapolis Pugilist.” Starting his boxing career in his teens, Bronson fought in 104 matches, with 48 wins and 22 Knock-Outs. His skill in the ring took him all over the world, from Sydney to London, where he was one of the first American boxers to fight abroad. Later in life, he cultivated upstart boxers, acting as their manager, and worked to promote the sport. Bronson’s name has largely been forgotten by sports aficionados, but his mark on boxing remains.
Ray Bronson was born on August 2, 1887 in Webster City, Iowa. As an article in the May 1912 issue of Horseshoers’ Magazine wrote, “When Ray was just a little kid he was thrown upon his own resources.” It is unclear as to how he ended up in Indianapolis, but what is clear is his chosen profession before life in the ring: horseshoeing. Working as an apprentice to Indianapolis “horsehoer” (or farrier) Dennis Egan, young Bronson learned his craft as well as built up his physique. Within six months on the job, it was said that “there was never a horse too frisky for Ray to shoe.” He belonged to the International Journeymen Horseshoers and served as the Vice-President of its local lodge 24 until 1906. After that, the boxing gig took off.
He began his boxing career in 1905, as a seventeen-year-old kid, and racked up wins almost immediately. As the Indianapolis News wrote on February 21, 1905, “Young Bronson made a splendid showing in the first preliminary of four rounds. His opponent was Billy Hinkle. Bronson had the better of each of the rounds, in which there was hardly an idle moment, and easily won the decision.” A month later he fought Jimmy Casey to a draw, where he was willing to “rough it with his smaller opponent” but couldn’t secure a clear victory.
Nevertheless, Bronson was on his way to becoming one of the country’s most capable fighters. About a year later, in another article in the Indianapolis News, Bronson’s budding prowess was described in detail:
Bronson apparently has all the requisites of a successful fighter. He has appeared in almost every boxing entertainment held in this city during the last two years, and has nearly always won by the knockout route. He can weigh in at 120 pounds. A blacksmith by profession, he is as strong as a bull and has hands like a heavyweight. Although there has been a great deal of boxing in this city, the good fighters that have been developed are extremely rare.
Bronson’s victory against Willie Riley in 1906 at the Empire Theater in Indianapolis cemented the newspaper’s opinion of the upstart boxer. In another editorial, Bronson was described as “all muscle and bone” and lauded for his defeat of Tommy Grant, which took him only “one minute and fifty seconds.” He “appears to be most promising candidate for high pugilistic honors this city [Indianapolis] has produced in a long time.”
His only defeat came at the hands of Hughie Mehegan, then lightweight champion of Australia, likely the result of his physical condition, which was described by the press as “drawn and pocky around the face, his eyes [were] sunk deeply, and a plainly visible black ring [shown] under both ribs.” Nevertheless, he “staved off serious trouble, and remained on his feet until the end,” losing only by points. His final two bouts, against Arthur Douglas and Jim Armstrong, ended with knock-out victories for the Indianapolis lightweight. Before returning home, he had a final overseas bout in London, England, fighting against Sid Burns at the Olympia. He would have won this fight had it not been for a foul called in the eighteenth round against him. Nevertheless, he returned home to a hero’s welcome, having cemented his place in the boxing world.
Within a year after coming home from Australia, Bronson achieved his greatest triumph when he won the welterweight championship against “Young” Erne in Indianapolis on February 24, 1912. As the Hammond Times reported, the two “battled ten furious rounds” and while “No decision was rendered by the referee, [but] on points Bronson had the lead and earned the unanimous newspaper verdict.” That same year, he fought career rival Packey McFarland again, to a capacity crowd during the week of the Indianapolis 500. While they fought to what amounted to a draw, McFarland was given a slight points edge and awarded the victory. The Indianapolis News reported that Bronson “did not put up his usual exhibition of good boxing, and about his only damage was done at infighting and at close range.”
This was the beginning of Bronson’s decline as a professional boxer; he would never again stack up wins as he did before he held the championship. He lost the welterweight title on January 13, 1913 against Spike Kelly in Memphis, Tennessee and continued to have lackluster showings against Tommy Howell and Hillard Lang, despite Bronson holding his own in the latter match until the eighth round. He even returned to Australia in 1914 to try recapture his former edge, but to no avail. His first match against Waldemar Holberg on New Year’s Day 1914 in Melbourne ended in defeat, with Bronson taking most of the damage during twenty rounds. His second match against Frank Picato was especially disappointing. As the Sydney Referee reported, “Neither Ray Bronson nor Frank Picato was in condition to do justice to his reputation,” and “at one stay the galleryites counted both men out.” His final match in Australia against Matt Wells on February 28, 1914 ended in defeat, with Wells knocking him out in the seventh round. His days as a prime boxer were over.
However, with endings come beginnings, and Bronson reconfigured his career with the same determination outside of the ring as he had shown in. On a personal level, he finally settled down. Bronson married Marguerite Ryan on June 26, 1913, and as the Hammond Times noted, “Bronson has done well financially in the fighting game and will probably devote himself to business interests with which he is now connected.” In 1914, he began devoting more of his energies to managing boxers. As the Tacoma Timesreported, “Ray Bronson, Indianapolis welterweight champion, [is] now managing Milburn Saylor. . . and has a number of crack battlers under his wing. . . .” Saylor became one of Bronson’s key fighters during his years as a manager. Under Bronson’s wing, Saylor had many victories, including a knockout of New York fighter Leach Cross and a ten round romp against Jimmy Murphy.
In 1916, Bronson started managing young Philadelphian Jack McCarron, a middleweight who “started fighting in 1909 and has never been knocked out.” McCarron also had a slew of wins under Bronson’s management, including his “lacing” of Joe Borrell, noted as “one of the fastest bouts ever staged here” by the Indianapolis News. He also gained victories against Silent Martin and Tommy Burke, with the latter bout being “the worst lacing that the blond haired boy [Burke] ever received.” Managing and promoting boxers became Bronson’s second life within the sport and continued to provide him with a generous income. However, as theIndianapolis News editorialized, Bronson “believes the boxing game is getting into the seer and yellow,” and that boxing’s key fighters should treat it as a “business” rather than “side-show attractions.” It is interesting to contemplate what Bronson would have thought of the sport’s big-time spectacle today, given his opinion in 1916.
Despite all his success as a manager, he wanted to try fighting one more time. On September 7, 1920, after nearly six years out of the ring, Bronson fought Jack Britton in Cedar Point, Ohio. The Indianapolis News’s coverage of the bout wasn’t kind to the veteran boxer:
Jack Britton, welterweight champion, jogged along to an easy victory over Ray Bronson who essayed a comeback after six years out of the ring.
Bronson apparently lasted the full ten rounds through generosity of Britton, who toyed with his opponent throughout the fight and never appeared to be in danger. In a statement, the champion claimed he could have knocked Bronson out in the first round, had he been so disposed.
His comeback was short-lived. Within a month, Bronson announced his formal retirement from boxing. As the Collyer’s Eye in Chicago reported, “Ray Bronson, welterweight, has retired from boxing to devote his time to managing football and basketball teams and promoting bouts.” While his name did appear on a boxing card in 1922, according to the Richmond Palladium, it is unclear whether he was there as a manager or fighter. Either way, Ray Bronson’s boxing career was finally done.
With a “young man’s clean-cut face” and a “horseshoe punch,” Ray Bronson rocked the boxing world during the early 20th century. His considerable wins, international bouts, and successful management of other boxers put him a cut above most fighters. He was also a Hoosier, with a Midwestern work ethic and dedication to clean living, that buttressed his success in and out of the ring. As the Horseshoer’s Magazine wrote in 1912, “The Horseshoer’s Union may well be proud of this boy, for every one [sic] in Indianapolis is.”