Leap Year & “The Ladies’ Privilege”

Leap Year 1908

Only one in four Women’s History Months occurs in a Leap Year — or if you want to use the fancy name given by professional time-keepers and astronomers, you can call it an “intercalary” or “bissextile” year.

Hollywood has churned out a few bad movies about what was probably an old Celtic custom at first, whereby women could take the initiative in proposing to a man.  But American newspapers were having fun with this folk tradition well over a century ago.  And some women did take the opportunity.

Leap years have been around since Roman times, when Julius Caesar simplified the messy Roman calendar.  Since the earth doesn’t take a precise number of 24-hour days to go around the sun, fractions of days accrue.  Before Caesar’s time, Roman astronomers just added an entire 22-day-long month to their 355-day calendar every two years.  Caesar’s astronomers opted for 365 1/4 days, with the quarter-day adding up to a full day every four years. Yet even that extra quarter day isn’t exactly six hours long, a problem that led Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 to fine-tune Caesar’s calendar.  More confusing still:  in the Gregorian system, not even every fourth year is a leap year.  In folk tradition, that accounts for the occasional year when women who want to pop the question have to be especially diligent — or else wait another eight.  At least if they care about tradition.


Indiana American, Brookville, April 29, 1836

(Indiana American, Brookville, April 29, 1836.)


The origin of the “ladies’ privilege” goes back a long time, though no one knows how long for sure.  A popular but doubtful origin myth hinges around a medieval Irish saint, St. Brigid of Kildare — who might never even have existed.

If she was a real woman, Brigid would have been born in the middle of the 5th century, allegedly to an enslaved Christian mother and a pagan Irish chieftain, who sold her mother to a Druid — a Celtic priest and shaman.  The life of St. Brigid might be one big folk legend, however, since she shares a name and many attributes with an old Irish fertility goddess.  Irish folklorist Lady Augusta Gregory wrote in 1904 that the goddess Brigid was “a woman of poetry, and poets worshiped her, for her sway was very great and very noble.  And she was a woman of healing along with that, and a woman of smith’s work, and it was she first made the whistle for calling one to another through the night.”  The same could be said for Saint Brigid.


St Brigid


Whether St. Brigid was real or not, many stories about her are clearly imaginary. But folklore and poetry have a truth all their own. Several tales tell of how the saint protected women and gave marriage advice to men — often while guarding her own virginity and independence amid the violence of the remote, rugged Emerald Isle.  When Brigid dedicated herself to the service of God and others as a nun, her greedy brothers, one story goes, hated her for denying them the “bride price” they would have been entitled to.  As a crowd taunted Brigid for not marrying, one Irishman shouted: “The beautiful eye which is in your head will be betrothed to a man — though you like it or not.”  Brigid’s reply was shocking:  she jabbed a finger into her eye and blinded herself, then cried out, with blood spurting everywhere: “Here is that beautiful eye for you.  I deem it unlikely that anyone will ask you for a blind girl.” Miraculously, Brigid’s vision healed.  As for the man who taunted the saint, both his eyeballs burst in his head.

In legend, at least, Brigid was probably the most powerful woman in Ireland. Even in the afterlife, she supposedly still watches over midwives, illegitimate children, abused women, sailors, poets, chicken farmers, scholars and the poor.  But what about Brigid and Leap Year?

Out of concern for women — and probably for children born out of wedlock — the angry saint fumed about men dragging their feet when it came to proposing marriage and committing to a partner.  (Nineteenth-century feminists would later oppose the liberalization of American divorce laws for reasons not unlike what spurred St. Brigid to action over a thousand years earlier: slipping out of marriage was a way for lecherous and abusive men to escape their duties.)  Brigid, according to legend, asked St. Patrick to make an exception to custom and allow women to “pop the question” every leap year. The new custom still seems sexist to some, perhaps, but the Irish tale is almost definitely fable as far as Brigid goes:  if she ever lived, she would have been about ten years old when St. Patrick died.

Variants on the tale show up in Scottish folklore and English common law.  According to an English book from 1606, Courtship, Love and Matrimonie, any Englishman who refused “the offers of a laydie” on leap year could be fined and even denied “the benefits of the clergy.”  Two-hundred years later, the Indiana American quoted that passage:


Indiana American, Brookville, March 1, 1844 (2)

(Indiana American, Brookville, March 1, 1844.)


“Common” law or not, the custom was rare in America even as newspapers began to pick up on it in the mid-1800s.  Rising Irish immigration might have been a factor in the sudden interest in the custom, but newspapers themselves could have been the ones spreading the “folk” idea.  (After all, Sadie Hawkins Day, a “pseudo-folk tradition” where girls ask boys out to a dance, originated with Al Capp’s popular hillbilly comic strip Li’l Abner in the 1930s.  Sadie Hawkins Day, however, comes every year, usually November 15, the date she first appeared in a cartoon in 1937.)


Sadie Hawkins Dance

(A Sadie Hawkins dance in Virginia, 1950s.)


By the 1840s, the American press was mentioning leap year marriage proposals — and anything else like them that seemed out-of-the-ordinary.  A clip from the Evansville Daily Journal, published just before the Mexican War, reported a similar tradition in Panama, a story that might have been brought back by American sailors.


Evansville Journal, April 24, 1845

(Evansville Daily Journal, April 24, 1845.)


In the leap year 1848 — a year of tumultuous revolutions in politics and love — the Brookville Indiana American reprinted this clip from a Hoosier wag in Richmond, Indiana, who obviously enjoyed the idea of women proposing to men.  They had fifteen days left, since the tradition didn’t require women to propose on February 29.  Any time before midnight on New Years’ Eve was good enough.


Indiana American, Brookville, December 15, 1848

(Indiana American, Brookville, December 15, 1848.)


Also in 1848, the Indianapolis Locomotive, an “entertainment” paper written in the vein of Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers (a bestseller at the time) and filled with more wit and poetry than news, published a strange story about sexual role-reversal.  A lot of tales like this were taken out of Eastern newspapers that came off steamboats or trains.  “A Story of Leap Year,” by Joe Miller, Jr., probably first appeared in the St. Louis Reveille.  The story, which satirizes conventional courtship and sentimental wooing, is funny, if also a bit sexist.  The bold Susan comes over to ask the bashful Sam for his hand in holy matrimony:


The Locomotive, March 11, 1848

(The Locomotive, March 11, 1848.)


Every year, a few women really did ask men to tie the knot, though most couples were already “courting” to begin with. Yet every four years, illustrators, cartoonists, and postcard makers played around with a major source of male fear and trembling, anxiety and dread:  a proposal coming from an unwanted woman “out of the blue.”

In popular culture and superstition, any man who turned down a woman — even a total stranger — ran the risk of being cursed or at least having to stumble through an awkward, hopefully gentleman-like, rejection.  (No “spite and contumely,” as the 17th-century English book put it.)   A lot of drawings and postcards played on economic, class, age, and physical differences, though not all did:


All Men Beware


Many women today consider the Leap Year tradition degrading and insulting, and they may be right.  But as the women’s rights movement gathered steam in the 1800s, not every woman thought the overall gist of the tradition was bad.  One was the famous suffragette and news correspondent Inez Milholland.

Born in 1886, Milholland came from a wealthy family in Brooklyn and graduated from prestigious Vassar College, a women’s college in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1909.  She became a radical and socialist at Vassar, educating fellow students about  socialist principles — which brought her into conflict with the school’s leadership.  Milholland also served as captain of the hockey team at  Vassar.  She was denied admission to Yale, Harvard and Cambridge law schools because of her gender, but earned a law degree at NYU in 1912.

As a trained lawyer and activist, Milholland was especially interested in prison reform, ending child labor and prostitution, and achieving equality for women and African Americans.  In her late twenties, she helped investigate conditions at New York’s Sing Sing prison, handled divorce and criminal cases, and supported female factory workers on strike in New York and Philadelphia. While reporting from the frontlines in Italy during World War I, the Socialist news correspondent wrote anti-war articles and was expelled by the Italian government, at war with Germany and Austria.


Inez Milholland

(Inez Milholland.)


As a supporter of “free speech in love,” honesty, dignity, and open communication between the sexes, Inez Milholland made a famous marriage proposal — though it didn’t happen during a leap year.  She stressed that a woman should be free to ask a man to marry her on any day of any year, not just every fourth year.  Milholland lived up to her principles.

In 1913, while on a cruise in Europe, the woman’s rights activist proposed to Eugen Jan Boissevain, a Dutch coffee importer who came from one of the wealthiest families in Amsterdam. (Boissevain’s uncle, however, was, like Milholland, a Socialist who gave up his fortune and moved to Alberta to be a farmer and labor organizer.)  The two had known each other for just a month but got married within days.  He moved to New York with her.


Inez Milholland and Eugen Boissevain


Sadly, their marriage was short.  At age 30, Inez Milholland died of anemia in Los Angeles in 1916 while campaigning for the National Woman’s Party.  Seven years later, Eugen Boissevain married the great American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.  He died in Boston in 1949.

The Day Book of Chicago told some of the unusual story, published the year of her death — a leap year:


Inez Milholland 2


Inez Milholland 3

(The Day Book, Chicago, January 3, 1916, Noon Edition.)


Milholland’s husband agreed, and had this to add:


Eugen Jan Boissevain

(The Day Book, Chicago, January 3, 1916, Noon Edition.)


 

Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

The Sultana: Titanic of the Mississippi

Sultana Explosion

When the “Grand Arsonist of the Republic,” General William Tecumseh Sherman, addressed a room full of cadets at Michigan Military Academy in 1879, he coined a famous anti-war quote. There are different versions of Sherman’s speech, where he chides young soldiers eager to find “glory” in carnage.  One goes like this:

I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here.  Suppress it!  You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars [the Mexican and the Civil] and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes.  I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies.  I tell you, war is Hell!

Like Hoosier writers Ambrose Bierce, who survived Shiloh, and Kurt Vonnegut, who witnessed the Dresden firebombing as a POW and helped pile civilian corpses onto crematory pyres in its aftermath, Sherman despised romantic images of war — written, he knew, by fools.  With his Catholic religious faith destroyed by what he’d seen in the Civil War, the general would have relished such anti-war movie classics as Cold MountainApocalypse Now, The English Patient and even (yes!) Jaws.  (Spielberg’s first major hit came out in June 1975, just two months after the Fall of Saigon brought the Vietnam War to a close, and carried a subtle anti-war message.)

History repeats itself in strange ways.  Take the famous, eerie monologue of Quint, the professional shark-hunter played by Robert Shaw in Jaws and partly modeled on the obsessed Captain Ahab. Quint’s chilling monologue, sometimes called “The Indianapolis Speech,” tells of how he sailed aboard the doomed USS Indianapolis in the last days of World War II.  On July 30, 1945, just after the vessel delivered the components of Little Boy — the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima — a Japanese torpedo sent the Indianapolis to the blue depths.  Out of 880 sailors who went into the water, over 500 died of hypothermia, starvation, dehydration and the scariest death of all: shark attacks.  World War II came to an end just two weeks later.


USS Indianapolis Survivor

(A USS Indianapolis survivor covered in oil and burns.)


Horrible as the loss of the Indianapolis was, it wasn’t the worst tragedy in American maritime history.  That event happened after a war was over, at 2:00 a.m. on April 27, 1865, when the wooden steamboat Sultana — loaded with exhausted, traumatized ex-POWs, many of them headed home to Indiana — exploded on the Mississippi River seven miles north of Memphis.  Most investigators and historians blame overheated boilers for the blast, but one tantalizing theory has it that the real culprit was a Confederate terrorist.  Other strange parallels evoke the loss of both the ill-fated Titanic and the Indianapolis.

The Sultana, built at John Litherbury’s boatyard in Cincinnati and launched on January 3, 1863, plied the Ohio and Mississippi during the worst days of the Civil War.  At a time when steamboats carried cargo and passengers faster and more comfortably than slow-moving trains, the Daily Evansville Journal kept track of riverboat passages.  Though Midwestern river towns feel abandoned today, in the 1860s they were teeming with life and activity.


Daily Evansville Journal, March 19, 1863

(Daily Evansville Journal, Evansville, Indiana, March 19, 1863.)


The Sultana mostly transported passengers and agricultural wares. Yet travel on the Mississippi River past Memphis had been cut off by the Civil War. Only when U.S. Navy gunboats helped capture that city in June 1862 did river travel start up again, finally brought back to life by the fall of Vicksburg on the Fourth of July, 1863, after an epic siege. That August, the Sultana carried furloughed soldiers north from Vicksburg.  But the wartime dangers of river travel weren’t over yet.  Nocturnal Confederate guerrillas shot at the steamboat near Waterproof, Louisiana, in December 1863.  Another boat traveling alongside it was hit with artillery shells and musket fire, provoking a Federal gunboat to fire indiscriminately into the dark woods.

On April 15, 1865, just days after the Civil War ended, the Sultana was docked in Cairo, Illinois.  Telegraph wires that morning were shooting out news from Washington, D.C. — Abraham Lincoln had died from a gunman’s wound at 7:22 a.m.  The Sultana’s captain, J. Cass Mason of St. Louis, knew that since wires had been cut all over the South, Southerners wouldn’t get the news of the assassination quickly, so he grabbed an armload of newspapers and headed for Vicksburg, arriving downstream a few days later.


Sultana at Helena, Arkansas, April 26, 1865

(English photographer T.W. Bankes took this photo of the overloaded Sultana when it docked near his portrait studio at Helena, Arkansas, on April 26, 1865.)


Vicksburg’s corrupt Union quartermaster, Lt. Col. Reuben Hatch, wanted to make Captain Mason a deal.  With the war over, the Federal government was offering steamboat captains $5 for each enlisted man and $10 per officer they agreed to take back north. With the South in ruins, even former Confederate soldiers from Kentucky and Tennessee found it easier to get home by going up the Mississippi to the Cumberland River, which flows into the Ohio across from southern Illinois.  Hatch and Mason agreed on a deal, whereby over 2,000 soldiers — mostly former Union POWs staying at a Vicksburg parole camp — would be carried back to their homes in the Midwest.  About two-thirds of them were from Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois, though others had served in Union regiments from Kentucky.  Captain Mason would have netted about $10,000, a small fortune.  Mason agreed to give Quartermaster Hatch a kickback.

The freed POWs waiting to go home had already experienced some of the worst conditions war can offer.  Most had been incarcerated at the notoriously cruel and unsanitary Confederate camps at Andersonville, Georgia, and Cahaba, Alabama, where Union POWs regularly suffered and died from diarrhea, exposure, scurvy, frostbite, dysentery, hookworm, and had to contend with abuse by prison guards and even dog attacks.  By the time they made it west to Vicksburg and onto the Sultana, many ex-POWs were still recovering from hunger, disease, PTSD, and physical exhaustion — and surely excruciating homesickness, as well.  Yet the worst was still to come.


Jackson Broshears, 65th Indiana Infanty

(Private Jackson Broshears, 65th Indiana Mounted Infantry, was the son of a French immigrant father and a mother from Tennessee. Imprisoned at Belle Isle POW camp in Richmond, Virginia, 20-year-old Private Broshears was nearly dead of starvation at his release in 1864.  He died that October and was buried at Newtonville in Spencer County.)


The Sultana had paddled down to New Orleans before returning to Vicksburg on April 24.  When it backed out of port, it carried about 2,100 ex-soldiers and civilians, alongside a few women and children traveling on the river.  Some of the women were serving with the United States Christian Commission, a medical relief organization that also provided religious literature to Union troops and helped army chaplains.

Passengers were crammed into virtually every open space on the boat, whose legal carrying capacity was just 376. Decks sagging under the weight even of emaciated men had to be supported with emergency beams.  Yet if Captain Mason could get his boat upriver safely, he was bound to strike it rich.

As the over-burdened boat chugged desperately north, it had to fight a huge spring flood on the Mississippi, which had burst the levees and spilled out for as much as five or six miles in some spots. The river, always treacherous to steamboats, had reached the canopy of trees along the banks and ran icy cold with snowmelt.  The weight  of the passengers caused the Sultana to roll from side to side, which probably caused hot spots in its boilers, as the water that produced steam to power the paddles and keep the boilers from exploding under heat and pressure sloshed back and forth and spilled out. Sudden pressure surges were probably the culprit of the explosion that came at 2:00 a.m. on April 27.


Lexington

(Steamboat fires and boiler explosions were the plane crashes of the 19th century.  The Lexington caught fire while crossing Long Island Sound in 1840, killing all but four of 143 people on board. Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow missed the boat in New York.)


The steamboat had just passed Memphis that night, where it unloaded a cargo of sugar.  Seven miles farther upriver, still fighting the massive current, the enormous blast occurred, followed by a fire that hit the coal and wood furnace boxes and rapidly turned the wooden Sultana into a blazing inferno.  Some thought lightning had struck the boat.

Passengers who weren’t thrown into the river were faced with a horrible choice:  burn to death, or fight for their lives in the frigid, raging Mississippi.

Weakened by incarceration, trauma and disease, many soldiers stood no chance.  They drowned or burned, or gave out to hypothermia while clinging to debris and fighting a brief struggle in the water.  The Tennessee and Arkansas riverbanks were hard to find, shrouded in darkness and high floodwaters. Survivors told of the stench of burning flesh coming off the boat.  Decomposing corpses would be found along more than a hundred miles of the river for months — including Captain Mason’s, who never made his fortune.  Bodies had to be picked out of trees as far south as Vicksburg.  Many victims were never found.


Evansville Daily Journal, May 11, 1865

(Evansville Daily Journal, May 11, 1865.)


When survivors and the dead began to float past Memphis, citizens and riverboat crews hurriedly paddled out in skiffs and recovered as many as they could.  (It is fascinating to reflect that labor activist Mother Jones, who lived in Memphis during the war, was probably a witness.)  The city hospitals filled up with men and the few women and children who were on board, victims of severe burns from steam and fire, exposure and hypothermia.  A large number of Hoosiers were among the wounded and dead.


Evansville Daily Journal, May 5, 1865 (7)

(The list of men admitted to Memphis’ Gayoso General Hospital included a long list of soldiers from Indiana and Kentucky.  Evansville Daily Journal, May 5, 1865.)


Around 1,800 people died, a bigger toll than the Titanic. Yet newspaper accounts of the horrors on the river gave surprisingly few details.  Like another devastating blast — the Allegheny Arsenal explosion in Pittsburgh, which blew up 78 ammunition workers, mostly young women, on the day of the Battle of Antietam in 1862 –and like the USS Indianapolis sinking in 1945, which was overshadowed by the atomic bomb, the news got drowned out by bigger events:  the end of the Civil War, coverage of Lincoln’s funeral train, and the death of John Wilkes Booth, who was shot to death in a burning barn in Virginia the night before the Sultana exploded. (Those who live by fire die by fire, they say:  soldier Boston Corbett, who shot Booth, allegedly died in a forest fire in Minnesota in 1894.)

The St. Louis Republican — a river-town paper, like the Evansville Daily Journal — provided some of the scanty coverage that made it into the press. The stories are hair-raising and gloomy.


Evansville Daily Journal, May 5, 1865

Evansville Daily Journal, May 5, 1865 (2)

Evansville Daily Journal, May 5, 1865 (3)

Evansville Daily Journal, May 5, 1865 (4)

Evansville Daily Journal, May 5, 1865 (5)

(Evansville Daily Journal, May 5, 1865.)


William D. Snow, U.S. Senator-elect from Arkansas, had been awakened by the boiler explosion.  Opening his door, he was confronted by “a large volume of steam” careening through the cabin and many scalded passengers.  Snow said that as he prepared to jump ship and swim almost a mile to the Arkansas shore, the river presented itself as “a sea of heads, so close together that it was impossible to leap without killing one or more.”  Amazingly, in those days before government safety regulations, Snow saw “several husbands fasten life-preservers to their wives and children, and throw them overboard into the struggling mass below.”  The Senator washed up, alive, among “overflowed cottonwood lands” at about 4:00 in the morning.  He was rescued by a passing steamer.

One of the Hoosier survivors, Uriah J. Maverty, came from Lebanon, Indiana, west of Indianapolis.  Maverty, who survived incarceration at Andersonville and Cahaba, was an invalid in a wheelchair when he wrote a graphic account of the disaster before his death in 1910.  He remembered that “several times was I pulled under water by others drowning,” but a love of his mother in Indiana helped him hang on.  “If you ever longed to see your mother, even in the prison-pen or on the battlefield, you know the feelings which came over me were too deep to be described.”

Maverty watched an Irish soldier, whose face had been crushed by “flying missiles,” cry out in loud prayer, but he died just after they were dragged to shore.  Grown men were seen weeping profusely as they floated among dead comrades and severed body parts. Veterans of Gettysburg and Chickamauga thought the sight was worse than things they had seen on the battlefield.

A number of the victims and survivors came from Henry County, Indiana.  More than a century later, a monument to 55 victims from Delaware County was erected at Muncie’s Beech Grove Cemetery. Most victims, however, were buried in Memphis.

Though no one was ever prosecuted for the disaster and investigations pinned the explosion on carelessness, one theory sprouted up right away:  a coal torpedo or bomb planted by a disgruntled Confederate had destroyed the boat. The website Civil War St. Louis even presents a lengthy, detailed (though skeptical) case for-and-against the sabotage of the Sultana.


Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay

(Irish-born Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay, Confederate Secret Service Agent and bomb-maker.)


Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay, a native of Belfast, Ireland — where the Titanic was built and launched in 1912 — had immigrated to St. Louis in 1844, aged 22, and also lived around Vicksburg.  Ironically, Courtenay sold fire and marine insurance in St. Louis and even served as sheriff of St. Louis County in 1860.  The Irish immigrant’s loyalties were to the Confederacy, and early in the war he joined up with the Confederate Secret Service as a clandestine agent.

In 1863, Courtenay invented the coal torpedo, a hollow iron casting loaded with explosives and disguised inside a clump of hardened coal dust.  Hidden in Union coal piles by Confederate saboteurs, coal torpedoes were meant to be shoveled unsuspectingly into the boilers of vessels, where they would heat up, cause the boiler to burst and lead to a larger, catastrophic secondary explosion. Confederate President Jefferson Davis approved a plan to target Union gunboats with Courtenay’s secret bombs.  Several U.S. Navy vessels were actually blown up by coal torpedoes, including one in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1864.

After the war, Courtenay traveled overseas and tried to sell his deadly invention to foreign governments, with no success.  To protest the British occupation of Ireland, the Fenian Brotherhood, radical Irish nationalists based in the U.S. and Australia, reportedly considered putting coal torpedoes into furnaces in New York City hotels and aboard English transatlantic steamships.  Fenian coal bombs were blamed for the explosion of a British Navy vessel in Patagonia in 1880, which inspired a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, inventor of Sherlock Holmes.


Coal torpedo, 1865

(This model of a coal torpedo was found by Union General Edward Ripley at Jefferson Davis’ office in Richmond in April 1865, the month the Sultana blew up and after much of Richmond itself was incinerated.)


As bodies started to float in, a mate aboard the Sultana told a writer for the Memphis Argus that he suspected a bomb.  And during a yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans in 1867, Robert Louden, a Confederate agent and “terrorist” who sank several Union vessels on the waterfront in St. Louis, claimed on his deathbed to have planted a bomb on the Sultana — probably while its crew were unloading sugar at Memphis.  Louden may have been bluffing, and the evidence is not totally convincing, especially since some of the passengers aboard the steamboat were ex-Confederates headed home to Kentucky and Tennessee.

The ruins of the Sultana floated downstream a few miles, burned to the waterline, and sank in a mud bank.  In 1982, archaeologists discovered what may be the steamboat’s remains — but they aren’t in the river.  The ever-meandering Mississippi has moved two miles east since 1865, placing the site of the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history square in the middle of an Arkansas soybean field.

Survivors’ reunions were held well into the 20th century.  The last two survivors — one from the North, one from the South — were still alive in the 1930s.  Though the memory of many was consigned forever to the restless river, the lights finally went out on January 9, 1936, with the death of 94-year-old Albert Norris.  A private in the 76th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Norris, aged 23, had been lying directly above the boilers and fell down onto the hot furnace as men came raining down around him from the hurricane deck.  Though he was one of the closest to the blast, he lived the longest to tell the tale.


Albert Norris

(Albert Norris of Ohio, last survivor of the Sultana, died in 1936.)


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

A Railroad “Chartered in Heaven”

Resurrection of Henry Box Brown

The “religion vs. science” debate has been a hot media sensation since 9/11.  Syria’s refugee crisis is causing further argument over why some believers haven’t helped people obviously in need, though many have.  But venomous debates over religion and refugees aren’t new to American history.

Black History Month reminds us that religious voices have played a profound role in American struggles for justice — with many of the most religious Americans being treated as criminals for their pains on behalf of others.  Some historians have even remarked that the Civil Rights movement was “primarily a religious and spiritual movement.”  The work of Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, William Wilberforce, David Livingstone, and many others drew powerfully on their interpretation of faith.  In fact, you could even argue that the African and African American encounter with Christianity — and vice-versa — eventually unlocked religion for many Europeans and Americans who were only nominally Christian to begin with.

Whatever the truth there may be, radical Christianity rang out loud and clear during one of America’s (and Canada’s) first refugee crises — the exodus of fugitive slaves seeking asylum under “the North Star.”  That exodus took thousands of refugees across the rural Midwest.

Abolitionist history is certainly full of iconic Christian imagery. When a slave from Virginia, Henry Brown, experienced a “heavenly vision” and decided to mail himself out of bondage in 1843, he had himself concealed inside a 3-foot by 2-foot dry goods box or “pine coffin.”  Lined with wool and containing only a few biscuits and some water, the box and its occupant were carried north, delivered after a week on the road to the office of Passmore Williamson, a Quaker merchant active with the radical Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.  Like a well-known Byzantine icon of Jesus, “the Man of Sorrows” — which shows Jesus rising from the dead and an equally tiny box — Henry “Box” Brown climbed out in front of a group of Philadelphia abolitionists and asked “How do you do, gentlemen?”  A fabulous engraving of the event was given the name “The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown.”


Passmore Williamson, 1855

(Passmore Williamson, a Pennsylvania Quaker, at Moyamensing Prison in 1855, where he was jailed for helping Jane Johnson and her two sons escape from slavery. Williamson was also an early advocate of voting rights for women.)


Several major “routes” of the Underground Railroad passed through Indiana, leading to farmhouses and barns in the Wabash Valley, the fields around Quaker-dominated Richmond and Fountain City, and the swamps and prairies north of Indianapolis.  Yet Hoosiers — like other Americans — were deeply torn over whether to obey the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, a controversial law that made it illegal for any citizen to assist a runaway slave and exacted harsh penalties for helping refugees.  The federal law was absolutely designed to protect humans defined as “property” and even as “livestock.”

Many Christians, of course, were slaveholders themselves, though their views often depended on whether they lived in the North or South. Northern and Southern Baptists, for example, had sharp differences of opinion on slavery.  Though Methodism’s founder John Wesley wrote against human bondage in 1778, Southern Methodists often owned slaves.   Ministers who didn’t take their congregation’s — or government’s — line on slavery were sometimes kicked out of the pulpit or physically attacked.  At least a dozen chapels built by anti-slavery Baptists and Methodists in Jamaica were burned down by white settlers.

The religious situation was never simple.  The Jesuits, whose famous South American missions were admired by Enlightenment philosophers as an experiment in earthly utopia, had long owned slaves. Just two years before Pope Gregory XVI spoke out against the slave trade in 1839, Jesuit priests in Maryland were putting slaves to work on plantations to support Georgetown University, a Catholic school built by slave labor and where students brought their slaves to class.  (In 1838, the Jesuits sold thirty of them to the ex-governor of Louisiana, whose son was a student of theirs.)  One Maryland priest used the Bible to defend slave ownership.  Yet the Jesuits were no more guilty than the religious freethinker Thomas Jefferson, who along with forty other signers of the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves while announcing “All men are created equal.”  Jefferson used a blade to create a famous Bible of his own, cutting out the miracles and superstition to focus on Jesus’ ethics and morals.  Jefferson, however, went to his grave a slave-owner, having thought about it for fifty years.


Jefferson Bible

(The cutting-room floor of Jefferson’s Bible.  Though he included Luke 12:48 — “To whomever much is given, of him much shall be required” — the master of Monticello must have been uncomfortable with the next passage, “I am come to cast fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! …Do you suppose that I am come to send peace on earth? Nay, but a sword.” Jefferson sliced it out.  As the English critic of slavery, Dr. Samuel Johnson, put it, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negros?” Contemporary science was no help to Africans.  Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, the most famous American scientist of his time, commissioned the best-known daguerreotypes of African slaves to provide evidence for the old theory of “polygeny,” or “separate creation” of the human races.  Originally a heretical religious theory, the scientific version was given credence by the atheists Voltaire and David Hume.  Voltaire believed that whites and blacks were different species.)


Not all American Christians appreciated the politicizing of the pulpit.  Under the pen name “Q.K. Philander Doesticks, P.B.,” humorist Mortimer Thomson satirized their reaction to “politico religious hash” — i.e., hyper-political sermons.  “Doesticks,” who grew up in the Midwest, wrote for Horace Greeley’s anti-slavery New York Tribune and even did a famous undercover report on a huge slave sale in Savannah, Georgia, where he posed as a potential buyer to get the full scoop.  Thomson received death threats for his exposé of slave auctioneering.  As a satirist, he was much admired by Mark Twain.


Weekly Indiana State Sentinel, October 2, 1856

(Weekly Indiana State Sentinel, Indianapolis, October 2, 1856.)


Indiana was no stranger to this religious battle.  In 1855, the year Passmore Williamson went to prison in Pennsylvania, the Reverend Thomas B. McCormick got into hot water with congregations and the law in Princeton and Mechanicsville, Indiana, two small towns between Evansville and Vincennes.  Gibson’s flock were Cumberland Presbyterians, a branch mostly centered in Kentucky and Tennessee.

Princeton lay on a main line of the Underground Railroad running up the Wabash Valley.  Unlike most “agents” and “stationmasters” on the Railroad, Rev. McCormick made no secret of his hatred for the Fugitive Slave Act.  He actively aided runaways from Kentucky and preached on the topic of slavery and its sinfulness.  A native Kentuckian himself, McCormick had been a minister in southern Indiana for fourteen years when he ran afoul of the law.


Let the North Awake


At a session of the Indiana Presbytery of the Cumberland Presbyterians, who met at Washington in Daviess County in 1855, church elders passed a resolution (17-3) stating “That it is not expedient to discuss the subject of American Slavery from the pulpit.”  McCormick had just preached an anti-slavery sermon.  He ignored the elders.


Indiana American, Brookville, November 16, 1855(Indiana American, Brookville, November 16, 1855.)


McCormick then put forward a resolution of his own, which was rejected by the presbyters:


Indiana American, Brookville, November 16, 1855 (2)Indiana American, Brookville, November 16, 1855 (3)

(Indiana American, Brookville, November 16, 1855.)


When the Cumberland Presbyterians tried to silence Thomas McCormick from preaching, the reverend left and joined the Congregationalists — a denominational cousin of the Presbyterians but who were more united in their condemnation of slavery. McCormick’s activity piloting fugitives north toward Michigan and Canada, however, soon got him indicted by a Kentucky grand jury.

Under the 1850 federal law, Kentucky Governor Lazarus Powell was authorized to request the governor of neighboring Indiana — a technically “free” state, though many Hoosiers were pro-slavery — to extradite any Hoosier caught helping refugees evade slave catchers, who often traipsed onto Indiana soil.  Governor Joseph Wright (namesake of Wright Quadrangle at Indiana University) complied with the noxious law.  Like those he helped, Rev. McCormick himself had to flee to either Ohio or Canada, as “a large sum of money was offered for his body.”  McCormick ran for the governorship of Ohio in 1857 on “the Abolition ticket” and wasn’t able to return to Indiana until 1862, when Governor Oliver P. Morton assured him he would be safe here.  He died in Gibson County in 1892.

Calvin Fairbank, an abolitionist and Methodist minister who ferried slaves over the Ohio, was less fortunate than McCormick.  For over a decade, Fairbank helped at least forty runaways slip into the interior of Indiana, many of them making it to the farm of Levi and Catherine Coffin in Fountain City, just north of Richmond.  Coffin, a Quaker from North Carolina, was called the “President” of the Underground Railroad.

In 1851, with the complicity of Governor Wright and the Clark County sheriff in Jeffersonville, Fairbank was arrested on the way to church by Kentucky marshals, who extradited him across the river to Louisville.  (Some versions say he was “kidnapped.”)  Fairbank eventually spent thirteen years at the old Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort, where guards mercilessly beat him and lashed him with whips, by some accounts a thousand times, by others 30,000 times.  With his body broken, he moved to western New York, where he died in poverty in 1898, an almost forgotten hero of American freedom.


Calvin Fairbank

(Calvin Fairbank.)


The great abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, who lashed out at American hypocrisy, once proclaimed:  “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.”  The Anti-Slavery Bugle, a newspaper published in Lisbon, Ohio, quoted Douglass’ words on the fervently Baptist Newton Craig, cruel superintendent of the Kentucky State Penitentiary and Fairbank’s torturer.

According to an 1860 history of the prison, written by a friend of Captain Craig’s, the jailer’s ancestors had been imprisoned in colonial Virginia “for preaching the gospel” as dissenting Baptists, against the Anglican state church.  In spite of his fervent religion, Craig, as abolitionists said, nevertheless had “the most inveterate hatred” toward “negro-stealers.”  The jail-master earned a small fortune during his eleven years in charge, using convicts on nearby plantations, and is said to have “delivered long sermons to the inmates in his care.”  According to a story mentioned by Frederick Douglass, he broke an expensive cane on Calvin Fairbank’s head:


Anti-Slavery Bugle, Lisbon, Ohio, April 12, 1856

(Frederick Douglass on Newton Craig.  Anti-Slavery Bugle, Lisbon, Ohio, April 12, 1856.)


Kentucky State Penitentiary

(Kentucky State Penitentiary.  The note reads: “This is some Bird Cage.  Looks like a church.”  Frederick Douglass once wrote of America:  “The church and the slave prison stand next to each other… [T]he church-going bell and the auctioneer’s bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneer’s block stand in the same neighborhood.”)


Not long after Fairbank’s arrival  behind bars, several other resisters joined him, including Delia Webster (a Vermont-born schoolteacher from Lexington and the only woman at the prison) and former slave Lewis Hayden.  A lesser-known inmate was the Irish immigrant Thomas Brown, who with his wife Mary McClanahan Brown had posed as a traveling merchant and “notions pedlar” downstream from Evansville, Indiana.  Operating on the Kentucky side of the river near Henderson, the Browns smuggled refugees under curtains in their wagon to the riverbank. Brown was arrested by marshals near the mouth of the Wabash and sentenced to a prison term in Frankfort, where he witnessed the murder of a free black man from Evansville by guards. Released in 1857, Brown wrote an exposé of the wardens, published in Indianapolis that year as Three Years in Kentucky Prisons.

By the end of the 1850s, anti-slavery voices had grown stronger than ever.  The religious undertones were clear:  from the fascinating dream-visions and out-of-body experiences of Harriet Tubman to the fiery Old Testament furor of John Brown.  While the actions of Christians like prison warden Newton Craig and many more made Frederick Douglass’ suspicion of the churches a fair criticism, the “voice in the wilderness” was now crying strong.


Weekly Reveille, Vevay, Indiana, August 18, 1853Weekly Reveille, Vevay, Indiana, August 18, 1853 (2)

(Weekly Reveille, Vevay, Indiana, August 18, 1853.)


Hoosier State Chronicles provides access to many other fascinating news clips about the Underground Railroad, all of them available for free on our search engine.  Here’s a few of the best:

A reprint in the anti-Underground Railroad Daily State Sentinel (Indianapolis) about the impact of the refugee crisis on public opinion in Vermont, “A Change of Sentiment,” July 8, 1858.

An editorial from the Daily State Sentinel criticizing Indiana judges for protecting “the n—-r population,” October 12, 1857.

“Calvin Fairbank Dead,” Indianapolis News, October 14, 1898.

“A Kidnapper Caught,” [on Thomas Brown], Evansville Daily Journal, June 2, 1854.

“A Collision on the Underground Railroad,” Terre-Haute Journal, September 15, 1854.

An article against “The Abolition Editor of the [Indianapolis] Journal,” Daily State Sentinel, May 5, 1856.

An editorial against Illinois abolitionist Owen Lovejoy, brother of murdered abolitionist printer Elijah Lovejoy, Daily State Sentinel, August 9, 1856.

“Return Trips of the Underground Railroad,” about the miserable conditions refugees that found in Ontario, Daily State Sentinel, October 24, 1857.

A reprint from the Detroit Advertiser equating the Underground Railroad with theft, “Arrival of Twenty-Six Fugitive Slaves at Detroit,” Daily State Sentinel, November 8, 1859.

A statement from a Senate report arguing that the Underground Railroad would be cause for war with a foreign nation, Evansville Daily Journal, January 23, 1861.

A reprint from the New York Express, written during the Civil War, mocking abolitionists as part of a procession leading the American people toward “the Limbo of Vanity and the Paradise of Fools,” Daily State Sentinel, October 17, 1862.


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

Erich Muenter, Pro-German “Peace Crank,” Dynamites the U.S. Senate

Thomas and Lois Marshall

Thomas R. Marshall is not a household name anymore, even in his native Indiana.  But a hundred years ago, from 1913 to 1921, this former Hoosier governor served as Vice President of the United States. If Woodrow Wilson had ever died in office, Marshall would have become Indiana’s second native son to serve as Commander-in-Chief.

As fate had it, though, the Vice President himself had to contend with threats from “cranks” and would-be assassins.  Most were probably hoaxes.  But the man who actually dynamited Marshall’s office in 1915 turned out to be a strange “crank” indeed.

Anti-government and anti-capitalist terrorism in the U.S. has been around for generations — and its earliest practitioners weren’t Muslim. During the early 1900s, numerous bomb plots originating with the American labor movement targeted both high government officials and Wall Street.  Union men carried out a deadly plot on the Los Angeles Times building in 1910.  A Polish-American anarchist from the Midwest assassinated William McKinley in 1901. Anarchists also targeted industrialists, the occasional high churchman, and came close to blowing up St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in 1915.  (This week, in fact, marks the 100th anniversary of the anarchist “soup plot” that would have been Chicago’s worst mass murder.)

In July 1915, just a few days after an explosion rocked the U.S. Senate outside his private office there, the V.P. told the press that he had been getting death-threats in the mail for at least six weeks. Marshall considered himself “more or less a fatalist” and ignored these threats from “cranks.”  He threw the letters in the trash and never even informed the Secret Service.


Indianapolis Star, July 5, 1915

(Indianapolis Star, July 5, 1915.)


Because those letters went straight to the waste bin, it’s hard to say if there was any connection to the man who dynamited the Senate just outside his private office door a few minutes before midnight on July 2, 1915.

If John Schrank and John Hinckley’s motivation behind their attempts to shoot Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan seemed far-fetched — Schrank was told to do it by the ghost of William McKinley in a dream, and Hinckley wanted to impress actress Jodi Foster — the story behind Erich Muenter’s attack on the U.S. Capitol is even weirder.

At a time when nativists wanted to shut off immigration to the poor, Muenter — an immigrant — had taught at Harvard and Cornell.  He was also a wife-murderer, an Ivy League scholar, and lived an incredible double-life.  Maybe the expert on German literature knew a bizarre tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr, told when a printer accidentally spliced together an artist’s autobiography and the views of an opinionated tomcat.


Erich Münter 3

(The bomber Muenter, left, first came to notoriety in 1906, when he poisoned his wife Leona just days after she gave birth to their daughter.)


Erich Muenter was born in Germany and immigrated to Chicago with his parents at age eighteen.  He studied languages at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1899, then taught at the University of Kansas for a year before moving to Harvard in 1904, where he was a star doctoral student.  In Chicago in 1901, he had married Leone Krembs, daughter of a rich Milwaukee druggist. Friends in Kansas considered Muenter brilliant and thought that he knew virtually “every living language.”  The Muenters were hugely popular with students and faculty both at Kansas and Harvard.

The couple, it is thought, were “mystics” and Christian Scientists, rejecting medication in favor of faith healing.  When Leone died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in April 1906, a few days after giving birth to a daughter, Muenter — who had been slowly poisoning her with arsenic — thought that Christian Science gave him the perfect cover-up, but hastily tried to ship the body to Leona’s parents in Chicago for burial.  A Massachusetts doctor, however, performed a secret autopsy and uncovered traces of poison in her stomach.

Now dubbed the “Harvard wife murder,” Muenter fled from the law. In spring 1906, he became a national news sensation, with some papers touting spectacular, tabloid-like theories about why he had killed his wife.  One theory had it that Muenter, like Goethe’s Faust, was a “slave to science” and had taken the hunt for knowledge too far.


The Pittsburgh Press, April 29, 1906

The Pittsburgh Press, April 29, 1906 (2)

(The Pittsburgh Press, April 29, 1906.)


Guilty or not, the fugitive eventually slipped over the border to Mexico, where he hid out for a few years, working as a bookkeeper at a mining operation outside Mexico City.

Some time before 1912, under the alias “Frank Holt,” he came back to the U.S. and re-invented himself — as another version of Erich Muenter.  Holt, incredibly, even enrolled at Texas Tech as an undergrad in the German department.  The former Harvard instructor naturally shone as a star student in College Station. And Muenter/Holt must have had a thing for women named Leona, since he married a fellow language student, Leona Sensabaugh, daughter of a prominent Methodist minister in Dallas.  The Holts had three children together.  Leona Holt went on to teach Latin American literature at Southern Methodist University and eventually became its dean of women.

After teaching at SMU himself, Frank Holt returned to the Ivy League, landing positions at Vanderbilt and Cornell.  So it was that less than a decade after he killed his first wife, he returned to academia… by another route and as another man.


The Fort Wayne News, July 8, 1915

(The Fort Wayne News, July 8, 1915.)


Muenter/Holt had also become a German nationalist.  Though President Wilson was trying hard to keep America out of the bloodbath of World War I, many Americans thought the U.S. should enter on the side of Britain.  Others favored Germany.  Socialists almost universally opposed any American involvement at all, arguing that the war only played into the interests of Wall Street. Anarchists agreed.

Some pro-British Americans were already turning a profit from the war by shipping munitions to the Allies, often secretly.  A load of illegal explosives allegedly sent aboard the passenger liner Lusitania led a German U-Boat to torpedo it just two months before Erich Muenter dynamited the Senate.  Germany and its U.S. sympathizers considered this version of “neutrality” a sham.   Some went to extremes to protest it.

In 1915, “Frank Holt,” Cornell University professor, read a book by a former Harvard colleague of his — from back when Holt was Erich Muenter.  The book was The War and America by Hugo Münsterberg, a well-known pioneer in forensic psychology and a German sympathizer. (In 1918, Münsterberg’s book showed up on a list of pro-German works banned from Indiana libraries.)  Convinced by Münsterberg’s argument and angered by American financiers’ profiting off the war, Frank Holt offered his services to the American branch of the German intelligence unit Abteilung IIIB. Founded in 1889, this was a long-standing military spy unit, but during World War I it worked to sabotage arms-carrying vessels departing from U.S. ports.  The unit also allegedly supported Erich Muenter’s attack on the Capitol Building — then on J.P. Morgan, Jr., Wall Street mogul.


Aftermath of bombing of Senate Reception Room, July 1915


On the night of July 2, 1915, Muenter broke into the Capitol with three sticks of concealed dynamite.  The Senate was actually out of session and few people were in the building other than a nightwatchman.  Finding the door to the Senate chamber locked, Muenter set the package under a telephone switchboard next to Vice President Marshall’s office.  Reports differ, but the attacker then either set the timer for just before midnight “to minimize casualties” or the timer went off eight hours early.  He then boarded a train from Union Station bound for New York City.

The blast that ensued at 11:23 PM rocked the Capitol. The watchman and other witnesses thought the great dome was collapsing.  In reality, damage spread little farther than the Senate Reception Room and Thomas Marshall’s office.  No one was injured.

Using a pseudonym, Muenter mailed a letter to The Washington Evening Star, expressing anger at American financiers.  The dynamiter argued that he didn’t want to kill anybody, even posing as a friend to America who wanted to save lives and “make enough noise to be heard above the voices that clamor for war.  This explosion is an exclamation point in my appeal for peace.”  Some papers later called him a “Christian” and a “peace crank.”  The anti-war American Socialist press even appears to have sympathized with Holt.


The Fool-Killer, Moravian Falls, North Carolina, July 1915 (2)

(Socialists — like James Larkin Pearson, editor of North Carolina’s satirical The Fool-Killer, were almost always against the war.  Indiana Socialist and presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs went to prison for speaking out against it.)


Indiana’s Thomas Marshall confessed that “he naturally was startled when he heard of the explosion at the Capitol,” but didn’t think there was any “special significance” in the fact that the dynamite had been placed “within a few feet of his desk.”  Muenter, in fact, was probably bluffing when he told the police that he’d sought to blow up the Vice President.  Marshall was headed to St. Louis and Hot Springs, Arkansas, for Fourth of July festivities.


The Topeka Daily Capital, July 5, 1915

(The Topeka Daily Capital, July 5, 1915.)


Marshall in his Senate office

(Marshall, former Hoosier governor, at his office in the Senate.  The blast occurred a few feet from where this photo was taken.)


J.P. Morgan, Jr., son of the great financier John Pierpont Morgan, was less fortunate than Marshall.  If Americans in 2016 are outraged by the actions of “banksters” and the “1%,” so too was Erich Muenter/Frank Holt a century ago — alongside many Americans less prone to engage in political assassination.

The morning after the Senate bombing, Muenter broke into Morgan’s estate on Long Island.  An epitome of Wall Street, “Jack” Morgan was already reeling in millions of dollars from war loans to the Allies. He also arranged for ammunition from American manufacturers to be shipped on vessels to Britain.  Regardless of what side was right or wrong in that war (probably neither was), Morgan’s profiteering jeopardized “neutral” shipping and American lives on the high seas.

Angry at the millionaire, the strange language instructor — who had committed murder once before — took a gun and broke into Morgan’s mansion, where the Wall Street tycoon was having breakfast with the British ambassador, Sir Cecil Spring Rice. Muenter shot Morgan twice before servants subdued him with a lump of coal.  Press headlines announced that the “war-crazed crank” had also planned to take Morgan’s wife and children hostage until he and other tycoons agreed to stop financing the Allies.

The banker survived. Muenter was hauled off for interrogation by the NYPD’s Bomb Squad, which normally tried to protect New Yorkers from attacks by anarchists.


Erich Münter

(Muenter in police custody.)


The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, July 4, 1915

(The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, July 4, 1915.)


Early reports on the events in Washington and New York came just in time for the Fourth of July.  Newspapers were full of hasty rumors. The Indianapolis Star told its readers that the would-be assassin, now identified as Frank Holt from Ithaca, was a “crack-brained teacher, believing himself the agent of God to stop the flow of munitions to Europe” — and that he had also targeted President Wilson, which was not true.  Much of the news flashed through the press came from a confession Holt gave to a New York bomb detective.  That confession made him seem like a pacifist, bent not on extinguishing but saving human lives.


Indianapolis Star, July 4, 1915 (4)

(Indianapolis Star, July 4, 1915.)


Indianapolis Star, July 4, 1915 (5)

(Indianapolis Star, July 4, 1915.)


By July 6, investigators had begun to believe that Frank Holt was identical with the long-lost “Harvard Wife Murderer,” Erich Muenter, missing for nine years. As Muenter’s incredibly successful mask fell off, he tried to kill himself in jail, slashing his wrists with a lead pencil. The Cornell professor successfully committed suicide on July 6 at a jail in Mineola on Long Island by jumping to a concrete floor, though reports about his suicide varied, some saying that he cracked his skull and “dashed his brains out,” others claiming that he ate a percussion cap, since a loud explosion was heard in his cell.

“Frank Holt” wrote a death note to his wife back in Texas, which read: “Pray that the slaughter will stop,” a reference to the European war.  Newspapers reported that the dead man was slated to become head of Southern Methodist University’s French department that fall.  A large cache of explosives thought to belong to him had just been found on West 38th Street in New York.


Evansville Press, July 6, 1915

(Evansville Press, July 6, 1915.)


News readers must have been driven mad by the twists and turns of the thrilling tale, especially as the anti-war “agent of God” metamorphosed into a bizarre fugitive and “uxoricide” (wife-murderer), then an Ivy League professor, then… a ship bomber.

In his suicide note, Muenter told his wife that while en route from the U.S. Capitol to Long Island, he stopped in New York and put several half-pound sticks of dynamite on an oceangoing vessel bound for Europe. Holt didn’t say which vessel, but it was loaded with sailors and ammunition.  Wireless signals frantically fired the information out to sea, warning captains and crew to search their cargo holds for a bomb.  On July 9, 1915, two days after Muenter’s suicide and on the very day he predicted there would an explosion, the SS Minnehaha caught fire after a blast.  (The Minnehaha had been built by the same Belfast company that constructed the Titanic and was once sailed on by Mark Twain.)  The blast in the ship’s hold caused a dangerous fire but failed to ignite the high explosives on board.  The vessel scurried into Halifax harbor.  Ironically, two years later, in September 1917, the Minnehaha was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the southwest coast of Ireland, just a few miles from where the Lusitania went down with 1,200 innocent lives.


SS Minnehaha

(The SS Minnehaha carried weapons from the U.S. to Britain.  Bombs were also reported on several other steamers.)


Indianapolis News, July 7, 1915

(Indianapolis News, July 7, 1915.)


Handwriting experts connected some more dots, giving further evidence that Frank Holt and Erich Muenter were one and the same.

Back in Texas, Leona Holt was in shock.  Her family refused to believe that Frank was the “Harvard wife murderer” — ironically, Muenter’s family and Chicago in-laws had had the same reaction after his first wife’s death in 1906. Leona blamed her husband’s severe headaches, overwork, and the effects of skeletal tuberculosis.  She was also quick to urge that he “had no Socialist tendencies.”  His father-in-law, Dr. O.F. Sensabaugh, insisted that Frank was from Wisconsin and, though he may have been a German sympathizer, he could never have been the Harvard poisoner. Touchingly, Sensabaugh added that even “If Holt really was a man who had dropped to life’s bottom — and I can’t believe it — I take my hat off to him for the way he came back.  No man could have been a more lovable husband and father and a better friend than he was while I knew him.”  Friends and family were convinced this was all an incredible case of mistaken identity.

The U.S. Army, however, had to station a guard over Muenter’s gravesite at Dallas’ Grove Hill Cemetery to prevent desecration of the body.  The name on the tombstone still reads “Frank Holt.”

The press soon printed allegations that the fugitive Muenter, possibly a real psychopath after all, had sent a letter from New Orleans in 1906 threatening to “annihilate” Chicago and Cambridge for accusing him of poisoning his first wife — and that the real reason he fled Massachusetts was to escape the severe punishment that state inflicted on Christian Scientists whenever a death occurred after refusing medical treatment.


Indianapolis Star, July 8, 1915

(Indianapolis Star, July 8, 1915.  Muenter’s daughter Leona, born just days before her mother’s murder in 1906, lived in Chicago and was active in Democratic Party politics there into the days of Mayor Richard Daley.  She died as recently as 1996.)


The truth behind the tragic 1906 murder in New England — whose long shadow eventually spread over a Texas family, a powerful Wall Street tycoon, a U.S. vice-president, and others — may never be fully known.  But Erich Muenter’s subterfuge led to one of the oddest and most twisted news stories ever covered by the press.

Whether Germany’s sympathizers were right or not, the actions of its saboteurs and spies on American soil — which led to some fascinating rumors about the Kaiser’s cross-dressers in New York — did nothing to help “the Fatherland.”  By 1917, when America finally declared war on Germany, such actions and the press’ role in portraying “Hun barbarity” fueled the equally frightening anti-German hysteria that gripped the country.


Chronicling America has put together a list of related news articles on Erich Muenter’s “Reign of Terror.”

Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

The Black Stork: Eugenics Goes to the Movies

The Black Stork 4

From 1917 into the 1920s, Hoosier movie-goers had a chance to see one of the most controversial — and arguably infamous — silent films ever produced, The Black Stork, later renamed Are You Fit To Marry? Identified by one film historian as among the earliest horror movies, The Black Stork was based on a real and gut-wrenching medical drama from 1915.

Billed as a “eugenics love story,” the movie’s script was authored by Chicago journalist, muckraker and theater critic Jack Lait.  Lait worked for news mogul William Randolph Hearst, the very man who inspired the lead figure in Orson Welles’ great 1941 movie Citizen Kane.  Hearst, king of American “yellow journalism,” relished controversies, which sold newspapers and theater tickets. His film company, International Film Service, produced The Black Stork.

Many Americans today have never heard the word “eugenics,” a once-popular scientific theory spawned by Victorian understandings of evolution and heredity in the wake of Charles Darwin.  The word comes from the Greek for “well-born” or “good stock” and refers to the social interpretation of scientific discoveries purporting to show how harmful genetic traits are passed on from parents to children — and how healthy children could be bred. Eugenics wasn’t strictly the same as science itself, but a social philosophy based on the discoveries of Darwin, the monk-botanist Gregor Mendel, and Darwin’s nephew, geneticist Francis Galton. Yet many scientists and doctors got involved with this social philosophy.

Once fairly mainstream, support for eugenic theories plummeted after the defeat of Hitler, its most notorious advocate. Aspects of eugenics — like the forced sterilization of repeat criminals, rapists, epileptics, the poor, and some African Americans — continued in twenty-seven American states into the 1950s and even later in a few.  The last forced sterilization in the U.S. was performed in Oregon in 1981.


U.S. Eugenics Advocacy Poster, 1926
U.S. eugenics advocacy poster, 1926. The authors ranked just 4% of Americans as “high-grade” and “fit” for creative work and leadership.

Indiana played an enormous role in the history of eugenics when the Hoosier State became the first to enact a compulsory sterilization law in 1907 — a law that lumped the mentally handicapped in with sex offenders, made it virtually illegal for whole classes deemed “unfit” to reproduce, segregated many of the disabled into mental hospitals, and enshrined white supremacy. Though the Indiana law was struck down in 1921, those ideas were hugely popular with many academics and activists all across the political spectrum.

Indiana Historical Bureau state historical marker.

Especially notable, the Indiana Eugenics Law wasn’t pushed by those designated as white racist “hillbillies.” “Poor white” Indianapolis slum-dwellers, in fact, were very much targeted by the eugenicists of the early 20th century.  Promoters of these spurious theories included mainstream biologists, doctors, many reform-minded Progressives, women’s rights advocates, college presidents, even a few Christian ministers and Socialists. The list of widely-admired people who spoke out in favor of simplistic eugenic proposals included Helen Keller, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Sir Winston Churchill, Planned Parenthood’s founder Margaret Sanger, author Jack London, IU and Stanford University president David Starr Jordan, Alexander Graham Bell, and the civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois.  One of the few well-known anti-eugenics crusaders was Senator William Jennings Bryan, a Christian Fundamentalist who lost caste with Progressives in the 1920s for opposing the teaching of evolution.


Murder rankings
American eugenic “scientists” blamed murder rates on heredity, ethnicity, and imaginary racial types like “Dinaric” and “Alpine.” “Pure Nordic,” the type idealized by Hitler, was deemed the least prone to criminal activity. Time would prove that theory wrong.

Eugenics, however, was neither “liberal” nor “conservative.” Americans of all political stripes supported its basic premise — the preservation of social order and the engineering of more a “humane” society.  Strong support for eugenics came from Americans concerned about the proliferation of poverty and urban crime and who sought a reason to keep certain nationalities from entering the U.S.  Eugenics did not begin to go out of favor until 1935, when scientists from the Carnegie Institute in Washington demonstrated the flimsiness of other scientists’ work at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island.  Yet even as eugenicists placed human reproduction on the level of horse- and livestock-breeding, the genetic abolition of any individual deemed “feeble-minded” — and the destruction of hereditary and sexually-transmitted diseases — was packaged as a positive goal, a social benefit to all, even to those who underwent involuntary sterilization and were occasionally killed.


Better Baby Contest, Indiana State Fair, 1931
Better Baby contest, Indiana State Fair, 1931. Eugenicists put reproduction and marriage on the level of agriculture and sought to manage human beings like a farm. Better Baby contests began at the Iowa State Fair in 1911.

Euthanasia was one component of eugenics.  Alongside the “positive eugenics” campaign for “Better Babies and Fitter Families,” “negative eugenics” partly revolved around the controversial view that infants born with severe disabilities should be left to die or killed outright.  In 1915, a case in Chicago plunged Americans into a heated debate about medical ethics.

That November, Dr. Harry J. Haiselden, chief surgeon at the German-American Hospital in Chicago, was faced with a tough dilemma.  A woman named Anna Bollinger had just given birth to a child, John, who suffered from severe birth defects.  John had no neck or right ear and suffered from a serious skin ailment, all judged to be the result of syphilis likely passed on by his father. Dr. Haiselden knew that he could save the child’s life through a surgical procedure.  But since he was familiar with the conditions into which Illinois’ “feeble-minded” were thrown after birth, he convinced the child’s parents to let John die at the hospital.  When the news came out that the doctor wasn’t going to perform the necessary surgery, an unknown person tried to kidnap the child and take it to another hospital.  The kidnapping attempt failed and John Bollinger died.


South Bend News-Times, November 18, 1915
The South Bend News-Times called “Baby Bollinger” a martyr, but later carried advertisements for the doctor’s film.

While the Catholic Church, one of the few vocal critics of eugenics, was the only major group to initially protest the surgeon’s decision, Haiselden was soon called before a medical ethics board in Chicago. He nearly lost his medical license, but managed to keep it.  Public opinion was sharply divided.  Chicago social worker and suffragette Jane Addams came out against Haiselden.  Short of the death penalty for murder, Addams said, no doctor had the right to be an unwilling person’s executioner.  “It is not for me to decide whether a child should be put to death. If it is a defective, it should be treated as such, and be taught all it can learn,” she added.

Many of Haiselden’s critics, such as Addams, pointed out that if eugenicists had had their way, they would have killed some of the great “defectives” in history, like Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevksy, French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, children’s writer Edward Lear, and even the eugenicist Harry Laughlin himself — all of them epileptics.  (Biologist Laughlin, Superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor and one of the science’s greatest advocates, had suffered from epilepsy since childhood.)

Support for Dr. Haiselden, however, came from many famous social activists.  Among them was Helen Keller — advocate for the disabled, a Socialist, and a eugenics supporter (at least in 1915.) Keller, who was blind and deaf since the age of one but thrived against all odds, published her views on the Haiselden case in The New Republic. She thought that children proven to be “idiots” by a “jury of expert physicians” could and perhaps should be put to death. Chicago lawyer and civil liberties crusader Clarence Darrow — who famously went up against eugenics critic William Jennings Bryan at the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial — made no bones about his support for the surgeon: “Chloroform unfit children,” Darrow said.  “Show them the same mercy that is shown beasts that are no longer fit to live.” Indiana Socialist Eugene V. Debs also supported Haiselden’s decision.


Clarence Darrow    Helen Keller
(Clarence Darrow and Helen Keller supported Haiselden.)


Harry Haiselden held onto his job, but bolstered his position and kept the firestorm of public discussion brewing by starring as himself in a silent film based on the Bollinger case.  The Black Stork came to hundreds of American theaters, including many Hoosier ones.  Because public health workers and eugenicists often gave admonitory lectures before and after the movie, separate showings were offered for men and women.  Young children weren’t allowed to attend, but a South Carolina minister encouraged parents to bring their teenage children — so they could see what might come from sexual promiscuity, criminality, drinking and “race mixing.”  Some theater bills added the catchy subtitle: “The Scourge of Humanity.”


South Bend News-Times, November 9, 1917
The Black Stork enjoyed several screenings at the Oliver Theater in South Bend. South Bend News-Times, November 9, 1917.

The movie’s plot was partly fictional and not entirely based on the 1915 Bollinger euthanasia case.  The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette gave its readers the basic story line, which came with an interesting twist near the end:

The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, August 12, 1917 (1)The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, August 12, 1917 (2)The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, August 12, 1917.


The “taint of the Black Stork” was obviously bad genes and heritable diseases. Haiselden’s silent film has been called one of the earliest horror movies, though its promoters billed it as educational and even romantic in nature. It fueled the eugenics movement’s campaign about defectives but also tackled an ethical dilemma that’s still alive today:  is it ever humane to kill a person without their permission, on the grounds that the victim is doomed to live a miserable life and be only a “burden on society”?


The Black Stork 5


Since American eugenics was supported by known racists and would later be directly cited by the Nazis as inspiration for their  “racial science,” it’s uncomfortable to look deeper into it and realize how much turf it shares with Progressivists’ real concern for the treatment of the poor — and of mothers, some of whom would have been forced to raise severely disabled children. Some Americans thought the best way to eradicate poverty and disease was to eradicate the poor themselves by restricting their right to pass on the human “germ plasm” to the next generation.  Eugenics and even euthanasia became, for some, a way to avoid social reforms.  “Nurture vs. nature” lost out to inescapable hereditary destiny.

The Black Stork’s title was eventually changed to Are You Fit To Marry?  It ran in theaters and roadshows well into the Roaring Twenties.  It’s hard to believe that eugenicists begged Americans to ask themselves honestly if they were “fit to marry.”  One wonders how many Americans voluntarily abstained from having children after deeming themselves “unfit”?

Ads show that the film was screened at at least three theaters in Indianapolis (including English’s Theatre on Monument Circle) as well as at movie halls in Fort Wayne, East Chicago, Whiting, Hammond, Evansville, Richmond and probably many other Hoosier towns.


The Fort Wayne Sentinel, January 27, 1920

(The Fort Wayne Sentinel, January 27, 1920.)


The Black Stork 6


The “eugenics photo-drama” reminded Americans of the dangers that “bad” heredity posed not only to their own families, but to the nation.  When The Black Stork was shown in Elyria, Ohio, just a few months into America’s involvement in World War I, it clearly drew from the well of fear-mongering that linked crime and disease to alcohol, immigration, prostitution and rumors about German traitors and saboteurs — all clear threats to Anglo-Saxon ideals. Eugenics and euthanasia, by “saving our nation from misery and decay,” clearly got hitched to the wagon of nationalist politics. Viewing The Black Stork, like supporting the war effort, became “a solemn duty.”


The Chronicle-Telegram (Elyria, Ohio), December 17, 1917
The Chronicle-Telegram, Elyria, Ohio, December 17, 1917.

German scientists were promoting “racial hygiene” long before the Nazis came to power in the 1930s.  Fascism’s scientists and propagandists would also draw heavily on the work of British and American eugenicists — and point to laws like Indiana’s when opponents criticized them.  Racial Hygiene, in fact, was the title of an influential textbook by Hoosier doctor Thurman B. Rice, a professor at IU Bloomington, a colleague of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, and one of the founders of IU Medical School in Indianapolis.  In April 1929, Rice wrote an editorial in the Indiana State Board of Health’s monthly bulletin, entitled “If I Were Mussolini,” where he supported compulsory sterilization of “defectives.”


Thurman B. Rice 2
“If I Were Mussolini,” Monthly Bulletin of the Indiana State Board of Health, April 1929.

The Black Stork wasn’t the last film about euthanasia and eugenics. In 1941, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, commissioned one of the classics of Nazi cinema, Ich klage an (I Accuse).  The plot revolves around a husband who learns that his wife has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  He gives her a drug that causes her death, then undergoes a trial for murder.  The film’s producers argued that death was not only a right but a social duty.  A tearjerker, Ich klage an was intended to soften up the German public for the Nazis’ T4 euthanasia campaign, which led to the deaths of as many as 200,000 adults and children deemed a burden to the nation. (There’s some further irony that Ich klage an’s cinematic parent, The Black Stork, was based on events at Chicago’s German-American Hospital.)

Eugenics captivated Americans and Europeans for a few more decades after the Bollinger case. British writer G.K. Chesterton, a Catholic convert and a fierce opponent of eugenics, probably deserves the last word here. Chesterton called eugenics “terrorism by tenth-rate professors.”


Chesterton at Notre Dame, 1930
G.K. Chesterton in South Bend, Indiana, October 1930, when he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Notre Dame. Dr. Harry Haiselden himself once gave an address to South Bend’s Fork and Knife Club in May 1916.

In his 1922 book Eugenics and Other Evils: An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized State, Chesterton quipped that society has never really had all that much to fear from the “feeble-minded.” Rather, it’s the “strong-minded” who hurt society the most.  Tearing into eugenics advocates in Britain, Germany and America, Chesterton spotlighted their frequent class prejudices, then skewered them brilliantly:

Why do not the promoters of the Feeble-Minded Bill call at the many grand houses in town and country where such nightmares notoriously are?  Why do they not knock at the door and take the bad squire away?  Why do they not ring the bell and remove the dipsomaniac prize-fighter?  I do not know;  and there is only one reason I can think of, which must remain a matter of speculation. When I was at school, the kind of boy who liked teasing half-wits was not the sort that stood up to bullies.

Dr. Harry J. Haiselden was involved in the deaths of at least three more disabled infants.  He died of a cerebral hemorrhage while on vacation in Havana, Cuba, in 1919.


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

“The Notorious and Diamond-Bedecked Dr. Lighthall”

Dr. J.I. Lighthall (2)

Today, rural towns often have doctors with Indian surnames.  But in the 1800s, an “Indian doctor” meant something totally different.

For decades after the Civil War, so-called “Indian medicine shows” rolled through cities and country towns across the U.S.  These shows were something like the medical version of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Leading them, there was usually a wild-looking doctor — typically a white man claiming to be Native American or at least to have studied herbal healing with “Indian medicine men.”  What the shows really dispensed was exotic flare: banjo-playing minstrels, brass bands, even freak shows.

The traveling outfits also raked in thousands of dollars by touting medicinal cure-alls for common ailments, as Indian doctors announced their ability to cure practically all known ills — from dysentery, headaches and “private diseases” (venereal in nature) to dreaded cases of tuberculosis, cholera, and cancer.  Elixirs were only part of the lure. These doctors often doubled as dentists and yanked rotten teeth by the thousands.  In the days before anesthetics, brass bands covered up patients’ screams inside the wagon.  Music and entertainment also helped drown out the protests of local doctors and dentists, whose business these shows cut in on.

While the heyday of the Indian medicine shows came after the Civil War, the “Indian doctor” phenomenon goes back farther than that, piggy-backing off the dearth of professional doctors in pioneer settlements and the primitive state of “scientific” medicine itself.  Southerners who moved to the Midwestern frontier had often lived for a while in Appalachia, where white settlers took an interest in traditional medicine practiced by the Cherokee and Choctaw.  German and Scots-Irish settlers also had a medical heritage of their own going back to medieval Europe.


Indian Guide to Health

(This early Indian Guide to Health [1836] contains some of the often bizarre knowledge gleaned from medicine on the Appalachian frontier. The author was an early Hoosier doctor, Squire H. Selman — alias “Pocahontus Nonoquet” — who studied with the Kentucky doctor-adventurer Richard Carter.  Son of an English physician and a métis woman, Carter enjoyed one of the most thriving medical practices on the Ohio Valley frontier.  Selman went on to practice medicine in Columbus, Indiana.)


It’s a curious fact that one of the first doctors in Indianapolis was a 24-year-old “Indian doctor” from North Carolina.  The man also had an unforgettable name:  Dr. William Kelley Frohawk Fryer.  (In 1851, the Indiana State Sentinel thought his initials stood for “Dr. William Kellogg Francis Fryer,” but we sincerely hope that it really was “Frohawk.” That name appears on the cover of his own book.)

Dr. Fryer claimed to have studied medicine with Native Americans and was remembered by Indianapolis historians as an Indian doctor “of ancient memory.”  Some of his repertory of cures, however, apparently came from “pow-wow,” an old form of Pennsylvania German faith healing.  That practice was known as Braucherei or Spielwerk (spell-work) in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, and pow-wow practitioners (Brauchers or Hexenmeisters) drew on spells and folk remedies that probably go back to the world of Roman Catholic folk healing, forced underground in Germany after the Reformation. (The word pow-wow was either of Algonquin origin or a mispronunciation of the English “power” but had nothing to do with Native American medicine.)  The first book on pow-wow, published by German immigrant Johann Georg Hohman in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1820, anthologized many of these magical healings, talismans, and charms, based partly on occult “white magic” meant to ward off “black magic” or witchcraft. Pow-wow used esoteric words, sometimes from the Bible, as a form of healing and was explicitly Christian in nature, even reminding some of Jesus’ miracles accomplished via saliva.  Brauchers allegedly cured livestock by putting magical words into their feeding troughs.


powwow_3

(From John George Hohman’s Der Verborgene Freund [The Long-Lost Friend], 1820.  The book is still in print.)


Pow-wow, which claimed to cure “both men and animals,” became an unorthodox form of spiritual medicine among Lutherans, Amish, Mennonites and Dunkers at a time when university-trained doctors were hard to come by even on the East Coast. Sometimes called “Christian voodoo,” pow-wow might even figure into the origin of the hex signs you can still see on barns.  (It led to a “Hex Murder Trial” in 1929.)  As a form of medical treatment, pow-wow’s heyday is long-gone, but it is still practiced on the sly in rural eastern Pennsylvania and was probably once part of folk medicine in the rural Midwest, wherever Pennsylvania Germans settled.


hex postcard

(Some scholars believe the hex tradition came out of pow-wow.)


In 1839, the year Dr. William Kelley Frohawk Fryer published his own Indian Guide to Health in Indianapolis, the Hoosier capitol city was just a few steps out of the wilderness.  Fryer believed in “vegetable medicine.”  He would probably have been able to find most of the roots and herbs he needed for medications in the swamps, bottomlands, and woodlands that still covered Marion County.  There’s even some evidence that he provided medical treatment in exchange for plants.  A clip from the Indiana State Sentinel in June 1886 states that he ran a place called “The Sanative House,” probably near his home on “South Illinois Street, near the Catholic school on Georgia.”  But Dr. Fryer was long gone by 1886. In the late 1840s, the young doctor moved down to Mobile, Alabama, then to New Orleans, where he advertised his manual on health (printed in Indianapolis) for sale nationwide.  Early front-page ads in the New Orleans Daily Crescent also carry glowing testimonials (maybe fictional) from his former patients back in central Indiana.


The Daily Crescent (New Orleans), July 25, 1850 (4)

(W.K.F. Fryer claimed to have relieved more than 100,000 patients from ailments as diverse as stuttering, yellow fever, and cancer.  He was still in business in New Orleans in the 1870s, when his name appears in the city directory on a list of physicians.  This ad appeared on the front page of The Daily Crescent, July 25, 1850.)


As the number of college-trained doctors and dentists back East grew after the Civil War, “Indian doctors” were squeezed out to the West and Midwest — where many claimed to have learned their trade in the first place, straight from Native American healers and shamans.  (It’s hard to say how many of these claims are true, but a few of them probably are.)  Yet “folk doctors” weren’t necessarily bad and provided the rudiments of medical care to some patients who couldn’t afford a university-trained physician, who simply had no access to one, or who (like African Americans) were even cruelly experimented on by the medical establishment.

J.P. Dunn, an early Indianapolis historian, wrote that Indiana was a “free-for-all medical state” until 1885.  During the 1800s, American doctors and state and local officials gradually began driving “quack” doctors out of business (or at least out of town) by requiring all practitioners to hold medical licenses.  The establishment didn’t always succeed at this. As early as 1831, legislators in remote Arkansas Territory tried to outlaw quackery.  Their law, known popularly as the “Medical Aristocracy Bill,” was vetoed by the territory’s one-armed governor John Pope, a former Kentucky senator.  Pope objected to it on the grounds that it violated “the spirit of liberty” and said: “Let every man be free to employ whom he pleases where he alone is concerned.”  The governor also took a swipe at college-trained “professionals,” pointing out that

many who have gone through a regular course in the medical schools are grossly ignorant of the theory or practice of medicine. They are mere smatterers in the science. With a piece of parchment in their pocket, and a little superficial learning, they are arrogant, rash and more dangerous quacks than those who adopt the profession from a sort of instinct, or a little practical observation.

Pope may have been right.  Whether educated or not, pioneer doctors sometimes killed whole families by accident.  (My great-grandmother’s grandfather, one of the first settlers of Rosedale, Indiana, was orphaned in 1846 by a doctor who prescribed a deadly concoction of some sort to his parents and one of his brothers.  As late as 1992, then, there was a Hoosier woman still living who had actually been raised by a man victimized as a young boy by pioneer medicine.)


Williams gravestone

(“All died September 15, 1846.”  Boatman Cemetery, Parke County, Indiana.)


In 1885, Indiana finally passed a law requiring doctors either to show that they had studied at “some reputable medical college” or had practiced medicine in the Hoosier State continuously for ten years preceding the date of the act.  In April 1885, the Indiana Medical Journal endorsed this new law, saying: “It will probably make a few of the hundreds of quacks who now infest Indiana seek more congenial climes, and if enforced will prevent quacks from other states from settling within our borders.”

Yet the number of known Indian doctors operating in the state that year was low:


The Waterloo Press, June 12, 1884

(The Waterloo Press, Waterloo, Indiana, June 12, 1884.  “Accouchar” was a misspelling of accoucheur, a male midwife or obstetrician.)


As J.P. Dunn pointed out, the tough question became: what was a “reputable medical college?”  County clerks, not medical organizations, issued doctor’s licenses.  Dunn wrote that since a county clerk only got paid if he issued a license, “he was usually liberal in his views” about the meaning of the word “reputable.”  A state examination board for licensing doctors wasn’t set up in Indiana until 1897.

By then, one of the most outrageously colorful Indian doctors had already had his day in the Hoosier State and gone to his own grave.

For a few summers in the early 1880s, Dr. J.I. Lighthall, “King of Diamonds,” crisscrossed the Midwest sporting a flashy, diamond-studded suit, selling his herbal remedies and often giving them away to the poor, while also earning notoriety as a “tooth-yanker.” Lighthall caught the interest of the press and annoyed local doctors in Terre Haute, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Richmond, Seymour and Columbus.


The Indian Household Medicine Guide, 1883

(Dr. Lighthall’s Indian Household Medicine Guide was published from his home base of Peoria, Illinois, in 1883.)


At the beginning of his Indian Household Medicine Guide, Lighthall claimed he was born in 1856 in Tiskilwa, a small Illinois River town north of Peoria. He announced that he was of one-eighth Wyandot heritage on his father’s side and had left home at age eleven to go out West to study botany with the Indians. If that’s true, in the 1870s the teenage Lighthall lived with tribes in Minnesota, Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma, picking up ethnobotanical knowledge on the Plains.  He also grew out his hair, cultivating a look that some women, at least, found sultry and exotic.


Dr. J.I. Lighthall

(This poster was printed by Cullaton & Co., Richmond, Indiana, where the twenty-something Dr. Lighthall was “Curing hundreds of people daily, at his Camp on Main St.”)


By around 1880, Lighthall had set up shop in Peoria, Illinois.  His mother apparently cooked barrels-full of his herb-, root-, and bark-based medicaments, then bottled them and shipped them by railroad or wagon.  When it came to naming his drugs, he skipped the big Latin and Greek words of modern pharmacology and came up with picturesque names like “King of Pain” and “Spanish Oil.”  Some were probably cut with whiskey, cocaine, opium, and morphine. Lighthall also offered an array of 19th-century popular medicine’s omnipresent “blood purifiers” and “liver regulators,” miracle liquids commonly advertised in mainstream newspapers — partly to keep journalism itself afloat when subscriptions lagged.

As his business picked up, the Doc put together a brass band and went into makeshift dentistry on the street.


Indiana State Sentinel, February 3, 1886

(Indiana State Sentinel, February 3, 1886.)


Educated skeptics abounded, but some of his herbal medications might actually have proven beneficial as “home remedies” for less serious ailments.  The official medical view is that some patients were probably cured by the “placebo effect” (i.e., a belief in a cure led to a real improvement due to reduced stress about the illness). Curiously, one of the real health benefits of Lighthall’s medicine shows was that he got sick people to laugh.

Although the “doc” gave off an aura of the Wild West, most of his short career as an Indian doctor was spent in Indiana and Illinois. Lighthall typically rolled into a town and stayed for a few weeks or months, long enough to garner local notoriety.  Like a well-known politician in 2016 who shall go unnamed, he probably did and said outrageous things in public on purpose to augment his fame — few of which ever seemed to hurt him. However angry the doctors and medical establishment got, “common folk” kept flocking to his medicine wagon. Dr. Lighthall’s entertainment troupe, newspapers reported, resembled a circus and was made up of about 60 “Spaniards,” “Mexicans” and “half-breeds” — and some Hoosiers from Fort Wayne.

Cleverly, Lighthall sympathized with the poor, sometimes handing out free medicine bottles wrapped in $10 and $20 bills to customers who couldn’t afford them.  While the doctor won fame for such “charity,” thousands of others forked out their nickels and dimes for entertainment — money Lighthall would throw into the air to attract an even bigger crowd.  Others came to have their teeth rapidly yanked, often for “free.”  Yet in spite of all the freebies, within a year or two, Lighthall was rumored to be worth about $150,000 (maybe ten times that much in today’s money.)  He wore clothes and a hat studded with valuable diamonds and cut an impressive appearance in public.  Women were attracted to him.  He put his gems on display at a Louisville jewel shop.  A Kentucky hat store sold a line of Lighthall-inspired Texas hats.

Lawmen and doctors tried to do him in, but usually failed.  A court in Decatur, Illinois, summoned him to appear in October 1883 for illegally practicing medicine there.  Ironically, he had just come back to Decatur from Terre Haute, where “the Philistines” and Indiana’s “sun of civilization” drove him back over the state line.


Decatur Daily Republican, July 27, 1883

(Decatur Daily Republican, July 27, 1883.)


Decatur Daily Republican, August 23, 1883

(Decatur Daily Republican, August 23, 1883.)


The Daily Review (Decatur, IL), October 17, 1883

(The Daily Review, Decatur, Illinois, October 17, 1883.  Though the doc was fined, he later produced a bogus diploma from the “University of Tennessee at Clarksville.”)


The following summer, July 1884, Dr. Lighthall’s show rolled into Fort Wayne and camped out for a few months “near the baseball park. . . The joint resembles a circus.”


The Fort Wayne Sentinel, July 25, 1884

(The Fort Wayne Sentinel, July 25, 1884.)


The Fort Wayne Sentinel, July 28, 1884

(The Fort Wayne Sentinel, July 28, 1884.)


His tooth-yanking sometimes got him into legal trouble, as when he got sued for allegedly breaking a man’s jaw in Indianapolis during a complicated dental extraction.  Lighthall’s apparent love for the ladies also turned public opinion against him.  While camped out along East Washington Street in Indianapolis in 1885, he got booked by the cops for being “rowdy” at a “house of ill fame.”  Locals accused him of trying to get two young girls near Fountain Square to run away with his troupe and “go on the stage.”

However dangerous and perhaps lecherous he might have been, Lighthall provided heavy doses of entertainment.  On a trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee, in early 1885, the Doc got into a bloody tooth-yanking feud with a Frenchwoman engaged “in a similar line of business.”  She was dressed as an “Indian princess.” The bizarre fight that followed deserves to be restored to the annals of history.  (We also find it amazingly allegorical this election year.)


The Daily Gazette (Fort Wayne, Indiana), March 31, 1885

The Daily Gazette (Fort Wayne, Indiana), March 31, 1885 (2)

(The Daily Gazette, Fort Wayne, Indiana, March 31, 1885.)


Lighthall may have engaged in just such a “contest” in Indianapolis:

Decatur Daily Republican, July 14, 1885 (2)

(Decatur Daily Republican, July 14, 1885.)


After he left Louisville and the Jeffersonville area one summer, moving north to Seymour and Columbus, the Jefferonsville News reported that local dentists were busy repairing the damage Doc Lighthall had done to Hoosier jaws.

For better or worse, the Indian doctor’s (and yanker’s) own days were numbered.  By January 1886, he had headed south for the winter, encamping in San Antonio, where he was reported to be successfully filching Texas greenhorns of their greenbacks. Tragically, a smallpox epidemic broke out in un-vaccinated San Antonio that month.  The 30-year-old’s medical knowledge couldn’t save him.  He “died in his tent” on January 25, 1886.  Several men from Fort Wayne who were performing with his troupe might also have succumbed to small pox.


The Fort Wayne Sentinel, January 27, 1886

(The Fort Wayne Sentinel, January 27, 1886.)


News of his demise quickly flashed over Midwestern newspapers, in towns where he had become well-known in days just gone by:

Decatur Daily Republican, January 26, 1886

(Decatur Daily Republican, Decatur, Illinois, January 26, 1886.)


Though rumor had it that Lighthall owned an expensive mansion and a medicine factory back in Peoria, he was buried at San Antonio’s City Cemetery #3, not far from The Alamo.  Fittingly, there are bellflowers carved onto his gravestone:


Lighthall grave

(Findagrave.com)


He’s been forgotten today, but Dr. J.I. Lighthall’s fame briefly lived on, with at least one Hoosier writing to ask if he was alive or dead in 1888:

Indianapolis News, March 5, 1888

(Indianapolis News, March 5, 1888.)


“Indian doctors” weren’t even on their way out the door when Lighthall died in Texas in 1886.  In 1900, in spite of efforts to regulate the practice of medicine, the patent medicine business was still reckoned to be worth about $80 million a year.  Several major traveling shows thrived into the 1950s.  By then, industrial pharmaceuticals and the discovery of antibiotics had launched medicine into a new era, but the entertainment aspect of the business kept it alive until radio and television killed it off.

Whatever the medicine shows did for the human body, they were definitely good for the soul, as the early 20th-century troupes helped fuel the rise of jazz, blues and country.  In 1983, folklorist Steve Zeitlin and filmmaker Paul Wagner were still able to find some old medicine show performers in a rural North Carolina town — the subject of their documentary Free Show Tonight.


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com