More Freaks of the Storm

Lightning daguerreotype, 1847


Yesterday’s post set us to hunting:  as blizzards and ice give way to spring lightning and wind, how many other weird weather phenomena lie hidden in the news?  Obviously, we’ve never believed that history is boring, so we wondered:  how often did our ancestors get killed by lightning or blown away by a stiff breeze?

Here’s a few fascinating stories from the annals of meteorology in the Midwest and beyond.

The image above, thought to be the oldest photograph of lightning, was captured in St. Louis, Missouri, by T. M. Easterly in June 1847, eight years after Jacques-Louis Daguerre announced his invention of the daguerreotype in Paris.  At a time when cameras often required exposure times of thirty seconds or more, it’s amazing this was taken at 9:00 P.M.

At the height of the new art form’s popularity, daguerreotypes entered the realm of lightning lore.  As part of a growing fascination with photography (Greek for “writing with light”), those tales (including a few of the “tall” variety, surely) were soon making the rounds of American newspapers.  Yet there was actually a good scientific explanation behind so-called “lightning daguerreotypes” — and they weren’t the kind Easterly was making in St. Louis.


The Berkshire County Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachusetts), May 28, 1858

The Berkshire County Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachusetts), May 28, 1858 (2)

The Berkshire County Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachusetts), May 28, 1858 (3)

(The Berkshire County Eagle, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, May 28, 1858.)


What most witnesses of lightning strikes didn’t know in the 1850’s is that these patterns on the skin weren’t “daguerreotypes,” but Lichtenberg figures.  Also called keraunographs and lightning flowers, they can look exactly like tree branches, plants and sometimes round coins.  (Where the cow shape or the number 44 came from is a bigger mystery.) Named for the 18th-century German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, a student of electrical discharges, the figures often occur after any high-voltage jolt through insulated material like the human body.  Not unlike photographs, they can be produced and preserved in glass, resin and wood as 3-D “electrical trees.”  They also remain behind as scars.


Lichtenberg figure

(Lichtenberg figure on a man who survived a lightning strike.)


Stories about “lightning daguerreotypes” and freak weather accidents spilled into ghost lore, which flourished during the heyday of American spiritualism in the mid- to late-1800s.  A branch of Christianity that involved communicating with the dead through mediums, spiritualism was surprisingly mainstream.  Some of its older American forerunners were the Shakers, part of a unique utopian movement with roots mostly in New England.  (There was also a short-lived Shaker community on the Wabash River north of Vincennes around the time of the War of 1812.  Much of its membership was African American.)

The Shakers incorporated all kinds of unusual spiritual phenomena into their unique faith and believed that their founder, an English textile worker and single mother named Ann Lee, was the second coming of Christ.  They certainly believed in spirits and spirit possession, so the following story (either from New Hampshire or Connecticut) probably wasn’t too out of the ordinary.


Indianapolis Leader, February 28, 1880

(Indianapolis Leader, February 28, 1880.)


Even as metal daguerreotypes and tintypes gave way to the age of Kodak and the paper photograph, stories about human, animal and other images etched by lightning onto some kind of light-sensitive backdrop didn’t immediately go away.  Like Shaker Sam’s lightning-blasted spirit, this story — originating in the Charlottesville (Virginia) Chronicle — also appeared in 1880.  It borders on the supernatural.


The Pantagraph (Bloomington, Illinois), April 13, 1880

(The Pantagraph, Bloomington, Illinois, April 13, 1880.)


As we showed in yesterday’s post, wind can be as fearsome and downright bizarre as any lightning bolt.  “Freaks of the storm” — from flying cows to airborne newborns — would fill a small book, some of it tragic, but a lot of it funny.  Here’s a few more tales of the wind.

When a tornado blasted Drake, Oklahoma, in 1917, it wiped out a whole family — almost…


Drake, Okla. - Indianapolis News, June 2, 1917

(Indianapolis News, June 2, 1917.)


Mattoon, Illinois, was also hit hard that week, probably as part of the same “patriotic” storm-front — which, as it barreled east from the Plains, wasn’t done pulling tricks.


Mattoon, IL -- Indianapolis Star, May 28, 1917

(Indianapolis Star, May 28, 1917.)


Tornadoes had a knack for randomly sparing some delicate, highly-breakable objects — from babies and chicken eggs to caged birds and loose photographs — while demolishing large buildings and whole towns.  This twister struck Louisville, Kentucky in 1890:


Louisville tornado -- Greencastle Daily Sun, June 17, 1890

(Greencastle Daily Sun, Greencastle, Indiana, June 17, 1890.)


A farm animal in Minnesota was less fortunate than the song birds in Louisville, but the farmer who got picked up by this 1892 cyclone was lucky the pig was there.


Southeastern Minnesota -- Indianapolis Journal, June 18, 1892

(Indianapolis Journal, June 18, 1892.)


Tornadoes could be symbolically choosy — and a little morbid — about what they carried away or spared.  Take the cyclone that plowed through part of Omaha in March 1902… and the one that cut up a small Iowa town in 1895.


Sandusky Star-Journal, March 11, 1902

(Sandusky Star-Journal, March 11, 1902.)


The Register, Rock Valley, Iowa, May 10, 1895

(The Register, Rock Valley, Iowa, May 10, 1895.)


A big windstorm tore through downtown Indianapolis one Sunday evening in June 1929.  A girl just born to Mary Hubbell at 30 North Lansing Street that afternoon nearly got killed three hours later when a telephone pole crashed into the small house.  It came careening through the roof “just above the bed in which the mother and child lay.”  Both escaped with small bruises. The Indianapolis News reported that “In all the excitement, members of the Hubbell family have been unable to decide on a name for the new arrival. ‘We are so glad that my wife and baby are not badly hurt, we haven’t had time to think of a name,’ the father explained.'”

It was a wild time.


Indianapolis News, July 1, 1929 (1)


Indianapolis News, July 1, 1929 (5)

(Indianapolis News, July 1, 1929.)

Strange Vagaries of the Wind: Easter Sunday, 1913

Plymouth Congregation Church, Omaha, NE

(Plymouth Congregational Church, Omaha, Nebraska, March 24, 1913.)


It’s a paradox — and probably a testimony to the human spirit — that some of history’s worst natural disasters have given rise to humor and even fascinating meteorological folklore.  Take Voltaire’s great Candide, a scathing satire on philosophical and religious optimism. Candide, which later inspired one of Leonard Bernstein’s musicals, was penned in response to the worst European earthquake of the 18th century, the 1755 All Saints’ Day quake in Lisbon, Portugal, when over 10,000 people in Europe’s most devout city were crushed in church, burned or drowned by a massive tidal wave on one of the holiest days in the Christian year.  More than just a major seismological event, the Lisbon quake turned out to be a milestone in the history of philosophy.

Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913, was another such day, though not nearly as significant. That evening, as Christians were still celebrating the Resurrection, an F4 tornado struck Omaha, Nebraska, killing over a hundred people.  As the storm clouds moved east, hitting other towns, a huge twister struck Terre Haute, Indiana, just before midnight.  The 1913 Easter Sunday tornado killed seventeen people on the south side of town, including a 75 year old man, an eight year old boy, a mother and her baby, and an infant just one day old.

The skies were especially cruel that March.  Most of Indiana and the Midwest were already suffering from extreme floods.  The raging, icy Wabash had inundated part of Terre Haute before the twister struck.  Upstream in Peru, Indiana, the roaring river wreaked havoc on the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, which had its winter quarters along the Wabash. Exotic animals like elephants and tigers, drowned in the freezing water, washed up downstream.  It was a terrible month for Hoosiers and everybody else in the region.


Omaha Daily Bee, March 25, 1913

(Omaha Daily Bee, March 25, 1913.)


Root Glass Factory damage, 1913

(The March 1913 twister destroyed part of Terre Haute’s Root Glass Factory, manufacturer of Coca-Cola bottles.  Fires caused by lightning, oil lamps and downed electric wires hindered the work of rescuers and firemen.)


Indianapolis News, March 25, 1913 (2)

(The storm crossed into Parke and Clay counties and obliterated the tiny mining town of Perth north of Brazil.  Yet with its coal exhausted, Perth had mostly scattered to the winds by the time William Travis wrote his county history in 1909.  Indianapolis News, March 25, 1913.)


Despite the real tragedy of these events, Midwestern tornado lore is full of comic scenes and bizarre escapes — stories of people spared by the “queer antics” and “strange vagaries” of providence, luck and the wind.  As we officially head into storm season, here’s a few tales from the breezy side of life.

Writer William Least Heat-Moon wrote the most famous essay on freaks of the storm.  “Under Old Nell’s Skirt” came out as a chapter in his PrairyErth (1991), a long meditation on the history of one county in Kansas’ Flint Hills.  He talked to old-timers there.  They told him all about the topic:

They tell of ponds being vacuumed dry, eyes of geese sucked out, chickens clean-plucked from beak to bum, water pulled straight up out of toilet bowls, a woman’s clothes torn off her, a wife killed after being jerked through a car window, a child carried two miles and being set down with only scratches, a Cottonwood Falls mother (fearful of wind) cured of chronic headaches when a twister passed harmlessly within a few feet of her house, and, just south of Chase, a woman blown out of her living room window and dropped unhurt sixty feet away and falling unbroken beside her a phonograph record of “Stormy Weather.”

Columnist Dorothy J. Clark revisited some of these “strange happenings” on the forty-fifth anniversary of the tornado that struck the Wabash Valley.  Her fascinating column (most of it plagiarized verbatim from an older book) came out in the Terre Haute Tribune on March 23, 1958.


Terre Haute Tribune, March 23, 1958 (1)

Terre Haute Tribune, March 23, 1958 (2)

Terre Haute Tribune, March 23, 1958 (3)

(Terre Haute Tribune, March 23, 1958.)


The Indianapolis News carried a few more of these odd news items — including the report of an old theory that the bluffs of the Wabash River (to which the town owed its French name, “high land”) deflected twisters by means of “mineral deposits attracting the electricity.”  (A similar belief or prophecy about Omaha’s immunity to twisters was also thrown on the rubbish heap of bogus theories that night.)


Indianapolis News, March 24, 1913 (4)


Indianapolis News, March 25, 1913


Indianapolis News, March 24, 1913 (5)


Indianapolis News, March 24, 1913 (2)


Indianapolis News, March 24, 1913 (3)

(Indianapolis News, March 24, 1913.)


A small book called Terre Haute’s Tornado and Flood Disaster — the source of some of Dorothy Clark’s accounts — recounts a few more of the wild antics of the breeze.


Terre Haute tornado 4


Terre Haute tornado 5


Terre Haute tornado 3


There’s one other bit of strange coincidence from the time of the twister.  A moralizing pastor, Dr. J. Aspinwall McCuaig, had just visited Terre Haute.  The reverend may have still been in town on the day of the Easter Sunday disaster.  A Canadian originally from Scotland, McCuaig was one of the heads of the National Christian League for the Promotion of Purity, an organization established in New York City in 1886.  He came to Indiana to deliver a series of lectures and check in on the effects of the state’s infamous forced sterilization law, which as a eugenicist, McCuaig supported.  (Like Indianapolis’ Oscar McCulloch, head of the liberal Plymouth Congregational Church downtown, McCuaig was one of the surprisingly large number of “progressive” Christian ministers to speak out in favor of eugenics, which sought to reduce crime and social evils by preventing many of the poor and “feeble-minded” from reproducing.)

McCuaig, who lectured on prostitution, alcohol, and nude pictures in bars, hated Terre Haute — a rough railroad town back in the golden days of organized labor, a place famous for its saloons, brothels and easily-bribed Democratic government.  On the day of the Easter twister, McCuaig apparently was still in town, lambasting the city, calling it worse than Chicago. It wouldn’t be surprising if he moralized — rather obnoxiously — on the hand of God reaching out of the skies.


Indianapolis News, March 24, 1913

(Indianapolis News, March 24, 1913.)


Omaha Daily Bee, March 29, 1913

(Omaha Daily Bee, March 29, 1913.)


Contact: staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

“No Imported Patriots”: James Whitcomb Riley, the Irish, and the Klan

Riley stamp 1940

For most Americans, the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley is no longer a household name.  He’s mostly remembered for “Little Orphant Annie,” an 1885 poem about an Indiana girl who warns children against misbehaving, scaring them with the refrain: “The gobble-uns’ll get you Ef you don’t watch out!”

Riley died a hundred years ago this July.  When President Woodrow Wilson got the news at the White House, he is said to have broken down in tears, then sent an express telegram to the poet’s family in Indianapolis.  As Riley’s body lay in state at the Indiana Capitol in July 1916, thirty-five thousand people filed past.  American children, who adored the old man, were devastated.  The press overflowed with eulogies.  Novelist Booth Tarkington, another once-famous Hoosier name in American letters, eulogized Riley in the Indiana Daily Times, calling him “the first and foremost distinctively American poet, and at the time of his death… the greatest American.”  The New York Sun mourned: “The Hoosier Poet blew heart bubbles… In his verses Indiana spoke to the world.”  And the Philadelphia Inquirer noted: “There is no doubt that he was the most popular poet of this generation in America… If there is a child today that is not regaled with ‘Orphant Annie’ that child is to be pitied.”


Riley and Children

(Riley with children and a puppy, circa 1915.  Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis was named in his honor.)


Though Riley was mostly known for his folksy childhood lyrics, he was also a civic-minded poet, fierce in his defense of the downtrodden.

In 1898, during one of those periodic battles over immigration that heat up American politics and pour scorn on newcomers, the “Poet of Childhood” grappled with anti-Irish prejudice — though it wasn’t personally directed against him. Riley, whose own grandparents came from Ireland to Pennsylvania before moving to the Midwest, defended the valor and patriotism of the “Sons of Erin” who fought in the Civil War and Mexican War.  In so doing, he took aim at the religious and ethnic hostility of nativist groups like the American Protective Association, a cousin of the Ku Klux Klan.

In many ways, the Irish, especially Irish Catholics, were the Syrian refugees of the 1800s, frequently misunderstood and feared as disruptors of society.  Long before the Civil War, American nativists like the Know-Nothings had been actively exploiting fears about the Irish and “Rome,” alien forces ready to undermine American democracy and Anglo-Saxon values.  Though some of those fears may sound downright bizarre today, Irish immigrants were often mired in poverty, violence and alcoholism, facts that scared their neighbors. While the brutal living conditions of many Irish were no myth, catastrophic events like the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s were partly to blame.  With their situation made worse by the greed of landowners and brutal utilitarian social theories, many of Ireland’s sons and daughters were reduced to sub-human conditions. Millions  went overseas or found themselves driven into the arms of death.

The Irish had been targeted by some of the worst 19th-century science and philosophy.  Racialized by other whites during the early days of Darwinism, the “native” Irish in particular were type-cast as little better than apes, doomed by biology itself to crime, degradation and — some theorists hoped — gradual extinction.  One famous drawing compares the “Anglo-Saxon” features of English nurse Florence Nightingale to the ape-like face of “Bridget McBruiser” across the Irish Channel.

That drawing, however, was an American drawing, published in Samuel R. Wells’ New Physiognomy (New York, 1866).  Wells was one of the foremost American phrenologists of his time, studying “character” as he imagined it to be written on the human face and skull.  It took decades for the science of head bumps and nose shapes to be debunked as nonsense, but the fallout proved catastrophic for many immigrants.


Contrasted Faces

(Books like Wells’ New Physiognomy gave rise to even more damaging scientific theories about racial types — strange fantasies that fed the growth of American eugenics, the Second Ku Klux Klan, and even Progressivism.  Wells also authored books about farm animals, gardening and witchcraft.)


Bad science and hyper-patriotic conspiracy theories were the target of one of James Whitcomb Riley’s lesser-known poems, “Brother Jonathan Lectures His Adopted.”  That poem appeared in Songs of Two Peoples, an 1898 collection set partly in New England, partly in Ireland.

Originally written in broad New England dialect, “Brother Jonathan” recounts the anti-Catholic ravings of a recent Northern Irish immigrant voting for “the fust time” at a small-town polling booth in America. Jonathan showed himself an eager campaigner against foreign influence, “tearin’ up an’ deown’ on platforms,” lashing out at Rome’s priests who “eat heretics at feasts” — dark tales from European history carried by folklore and immigrant ships into American election booths well into the 1960s and even beyond. Catholics, Jonathan warns, were gearing up to crush the American public school system and democracy.  He gets a stinging rebuke from the embodiment of Uncle Sam, “His Adopted.”


Brother Jonathan

(Songs of Two Peoples, Boston, 1898.  Like Brother Jonathan, many popular anti-Catholic lecturers who touted Americanism a hundred years ago were recent immigrants or not even citizens.  Several wrote books that were later promoted by the Klan.)


Though Riley’s poem is set just after the Civil War, it spoke to the issues of 1898, when America’s generously open door did bring many problems. Yet the looming figure of “Brother Jonathan” was still fresh decades later when George R. Dale, the brave editor of the Muncie Post-Democrat, reprinted it as part of his long battle against the powerful Hoosier Klan.  Sadly, the fear-mongering of the 1880s and 1920s remains a factor in American politics today — in ways that are, as always, frightening to consider.

In 1924, Dale found Riley’s poem as apt as ever.  Dale was at the start of a practically one-man battle against the KKK in his town, using humor to transform the Muncie Post-Democrat into a rollicking 1920s version of The Onion.  Though Dale faced routine death threats and assaults from Klansmen, the Muncie editor bravely tore into chauvinism at a time when the Klan was as much against new waves of Eastern and Southern European immigration as it was opposed to African Americans coming up from the South.  Dale slightly abbreviated Riley’s poem — missing the fact that Brother Jonathan was an immigrant himself and had brought Old World animosities across the Atlantic, a prelude to the Irish “Troubles.”


James Whitcomb Riley -- April 25, 1924

(Muncie Post-Democrat, April 25, 1924.  The A.P.A. was the American Protective Association, an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic secret society founded in Iowa in 1887.  It had a membership of over two million in the 1890s and was a forerunner of the Second Klan. A.P.A.-affiliated newspapers like The Menace and The Yellow Jacket landed on millions of American doorsteps.)


Though many Irish immigrants were racists themselves, stirring up some of the worst race riots of the 1800s, George Dale found an ally in both history and the Catholic Church.  Virtually every issue of Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson’s Klan paper The Fiery Cross contained attacks on the church, sharpest during the Indiana gubernatorial election of 1924, the year Dale reprinted “Brother Jonathan” in Muncie.  It’s not surprising that, since they were long targeted by nativists, Catholics became a major force in undermining the Klan and helped hobble half-baked social and medical theories like eugenics. (The barely-concealed “science” of white supremacy, eugenics had deep roots in Indiana.  That history isn’t over yet:  an alternative band called The IshmaeLites recently made an interesting album about the days of the 1907 Indiana sterilization law, released by Weirdo Records in 2009.)

While Riley was of Irish descent, he wasn’t Catholic himself — in fact he wasn’t much of a church-goer at all.  Yet Riley knew plenty of immigrants: they were his neighbors in Lockerbie, an Indianapolis neighborhood first called “Germantown” and settled partly by refugees from Europe’s 1848 revolutions.

But even Riley’s support had a dark irony in it.  A frequent visitor at his house in Lockerbie was Indiana Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs. The son of French immigrants, Debs was a champion of the working class but often hostile to the new wave of immigration, which he thought undermined American labor and played into the hands of big business.  Debs may have been right about the effect of cheap labor on the American workers’ movement, but history repeated itself in a sad way when even the great Socialist leader made disparaging remarks in 1891 about Chinese and “Dagos” (Italians). They “fatten on garbage,” Debs said, live “more like a savage or a wild beast,” and “are able to underbid an American workingman.”  It took years for Debs to temper those views, as even the Socialist Party succumbed to nativism and fear of the “degraded foreigner.”


Riley house

(Riley’s house in Indianapolis around 1960.   During the gloomy days of urban renewal, the Lockerbie neighborhood fell into bad shape, but fortunately its decline was turned around by the 1990s. The green ivy that once covered the poet’s house, though, is long gone.)

The “Bird Bills”: A Tale of the Plume Boom

Woman's Feathered Hat circa 1913

Did you know that environmental laws, labor and women once clashed, causing feathers to fly?  One little known battle from the days of the “plume boom” took place in 1913.  The setting?  The Indiana State House.

Nineteen-thirteen happened to be the same year that W.T. Hornaday, one of America’s foremost wildlife biologists and conservationists, published a book called Our Vanishing Wildlife. Born on a farm near Plainfield west of Indianapolis but raised in Iowa, Hornaday had traveled around South Asia, served as Chief Taxidermist at the Smithsonian, then became the first director of the New York Zoological Society, later renamed the Bronx Zoo. In 1889, the former Hoosier published the first great book on the near-total destruction of the American bison — the species seen bounding across Indiana’s state seal but which was wiped out here long ago by the pioneers.

Already an expert on the buffalo’s demise, by 1913 Hornaday had begun lashing out at the wholesale slaughter of birds:

From the trackless jungles of New Guinea, round the world both ways to the snow-capped peaks of the Andes, no unprotected bird is safe. The humming-birds of Brazil, the egrets of the world at large, the rare birds of paradise, the toucan, the eagle, the condor and the emu, all are being exterminated to swell the annual profits of the millinery [hat-making] trade. The case is far more serious than the world at large knows, or even suspects. But for the profits, the birds would be safe; and no unprotected wild species can long escape the hounds of Commerce.

Feathers have been part of human attire for millennia.  But by the early 1900s, massive depredations by European and American hunters around the globe had wreaked havoc on avian populations. Bird hunters were now the arm of industrial capitalism, with the harvesting of birds for ladies’ hats belonging in the same category with other natural resources like coal, diamonds and oil.

Although the center of the global feather trade in 1913 was London — where feather merchants examined skins and quills in enormous sales rooms, then bid on them like other commodities — New York and Paris were involved a big part of the trade.  All three cities had become epicenters of women’s fashion.  And women weren’t only the consumers of feathers:  of the roughly 80,000 people employed in the millinery business in New York City in 1900, the majority were women.

In 1892, Punch, the British satirical magazine, took a jab at women, who it considered the driving force behind the decimation of wild bird species and their consumption in the West.  It failed to point out, of course, that the hunters themselves — the ones who did the slaughtering — were men.


A Bird of Prey, Punch, May 14, 1892

(“A Bird of Prey,” Punch, May 14, 1892.)


Woman's Feathered Hat 4

(Woman with an entire bird in her hat, circa 1890.  Late-Victorian and Edwardian fashions led to the deaths of several hundred million birds in the days before state, national, and international laws stepped in to help prevent the extinction of many of them.  A moral crusade among consumers and nature-lovers — as well as changing fashions — were even more important factors.)


Millinery advertisement, 1911

(Millinery advertisement, 1911.)


In the U.S. and Europe, bird-lovers created several societies to stem the global slaughter, with scientists helping to provide the grisly details that would provoke moral outrage.  Women made up most of the membership in these societies, including the new Audubon Society — named for John James Audubon, the French-American naturalist who lived for years along the Ohio River across from Evansville, Indiana.  An especially well-known voice was the great ornithologist and writer William Henry Hudson, born to American parents in Argentina, where he spent his childhood bird-watching in the South American grasslands.  Yet in the days before zoom lenses and advanced photography came along, even respected field naturalists like Audubon and Hudson had relied on guns to “collect” species and study them.

In 1913, W.T. Hornaday gave specifics on the “plume boom.”  At one London feather sale two years earlier, ten-thousand hummingbird skins were “on offer.”  About 192,000 herons had been killed to provide the packages of heron feathers sold at a single London auction in 1902.  Other popular feathers came from birds like the egret, eagle, condor, bustard, falcon, parrot, and bird of paradise. When exotic bird feathers weren’t available or affordable, millinery shops used the feathers of common barnyard fowl.


Hummingbird Skins at Millinery Sale, August 1912

(Hummingbird skins at a millinery sale, August 1912.)


While the Florida Everglades were a huge, popular hunting ground, the “Everglades of the North” — Indiana’s Kankakee Swamp, now mostly vanished — was another commercial source for feathers, mammal pelts, and another item that’s out of fashion today, frog legs.  Yet the worst of the commercial hunting was in Florida, where ornithologists wrote of how hunters shot mother birds, especially herons and egrets, and left nestlings to starve, endangering the entire population for quick profit, as the mother’s plumage was at its most spectacular during nursing.  Conservationist T. Gilbert Pearson described finding “heaps of dead Herons festering in the sun, with the back of each bird raw and bleeding” where the feathers had been torn off.  “Young herons had been left by scores in the nests to perish by exposure and starvation.”  The much-publicized murder of a young Florida game warden, Guy Bradley, in 1905 helped galvanize the anti-plumage campaign and spurred the creation of Everglades National Park.

Since bird feathers and skins were often valued at twice their weight in gold and were readily available to ordinary Americans and Europeans even in urban areas, women and children found a decent supplemental income in stoning birds to death or killing them with pea-shooters, stringing them up, and selling them to hat-makers. Children also robbed eggs for collections.  Farmers frequently shot or trapped even great birds like the eagle when they preyed on chickens, with one scowling, utilitarian farmer in New Hampshire blasting “sentimentalists” who thought the eagle had “any utility” at all.


Recreation, April 1902

(Recreation, April 1902.)


By 1913, legislators in the U.S. and Britain had been urged to consider “anti-plumage” bills.  Yet the profits involved in millinery — and the ability of consumers to buy hats in markets not covered by the laws — were big hurdles.  As early as 1908, anti-plumage bills were being debated in the British Parliament, but they took years to pass.  (Britain’s passed in 1921.)  States like New York and New Jersey were considering a ban on the trade in wild bird feathers around the same time.  New York’s went into effect in July 1911, but not without concern for its effects on feather workers, some of whom argued that they had no other way of supporting themselves.

The debate in New Jersey took a more comic turn.  If this news account can be trusted, women came to the Senate in Trenton and pelted legislators with paper balls.


The Inter Ocean, Chicago, April 8, 1910

The Inter Ocean, Chicago, April 8, 1910 (2)

The Inter Ocean, Chicago, April 8, 1910 (3)

(The Inter Ocean, Chicago, April 8, 1910.)


One crusader for wild birds was the former mayor of Crawfordsville, Indiana, Samuel Edgar Voris.  In 1913, he joined the likes of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Audubon Society by taking the battle to the Indiana Legislature.  For a few weeks early that year, Hoosier politicians and journalists debated what became known as the “Voris Bird Bill.”


Seymour Daily Republican, January 25, 1913

(Seymour Daily Republican, January 25, 1913.)


It was a strange fact that Voris authored the bill, since back in 1897 he’d been called “one of the crack shots of the United States,” often competing in shooting tournaments around the country.  Voris was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1854.  His father may have been the Jerry or Jeremiah Voris who ran a meat market in downtown Terre Haute. (According to one ad, that Jerry sold elk meat next door to the offices of the Daily Wabash Express, ran a grape farm, and might be identical with one of Crawfordsville’s first undertakers.  He also might have known something about preserving the bodies of birds — or at least had an interest in birds.  In 1870, the Terre Haute butcher offered one “fine healthy screech owl” to State Geologist John Collett to be put on display at the State Board of Agriculture.)

Samuel E. Voris was out West in 1876, the year the Sioux wiped out Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn.  The 21-year-old Voris must have seen the slaughter of American bison up close as he traveled in an overland wagon train to the Black Hills of South Dakota.  His 1920 obituary in the Crawfordsville Daily Journal mentions that Voris’ wagon team was attacked by Indians on the way out.  Yet the future Crawfordsville mayor “had the honor of being in the wigwam of Spotted Tail, one of the big chiefs of a noted tribe of Indians at that time.”


Spotted Tail

(Spotted Tail, Brulé Lakota Indian chief, liked feathers on his head.)


Voris came back to the Midwest, settling in Crawfordsville, where he was a member of General Lew Wallace’s “noted rifle team,” a group of crack recreational sharpshooters.  (The Hoosier soldier, ambassador and author of Ben-Hur was also an avid hunter and fisherman, often visiting the Kankakee Swamp.)  Voris’ obituary noted that the mayor “was a man of peaceful disposition in spite of his love for firearms.”  He knew about animals:  his investments in livestock and insurance made him one of the richest men in Crawfordsville.  He also served as postmaster and was involved in civic-minded masonic organizations, including the Tribe of Ben-Hur, Knights of Pythias and Knights Templar. General Wallace, former U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, probably had something to do with the fact that in 1898, Voris was granted an audience with the Turkish Sultan while traveling in the Middle East.  Voris apparently loved camels, too:  in 1914, he fell off one in Crawfordsville when the camel got spooked by an automobile.  The man landed on his head and suffered a scalp wound.

In 1911 and again in 1913, Montgomery County elected their former mayor to the Indiana House.  Representative Samuel E. Voris was the author of at least two bills in 1913 concerning the treatment of animals. (Another bill, written by a different representative, proposed “a fine of $500 for anyone who willfully poisons [domestic] animals.”)

The “Voris bird bill” won strong support from conservation and animals rights groups in the Hoosier State, but sparked a bit of humor on the floor of the House of Representatives.


Indianapolis News, February 4, 1913

(Indianapolis News, February 4, 1913.  Ostrich feathers often came from farms in South Africa, where Jewish feather merchants dominated the trade.  Jews and women also led the millinery business in the U.S.  In 1870, hat-making was the fourth-largest employer of American women.)


The “Voris bird bill” passed the Indiana House, but objections arose in the Senate, with a Senator Clarke arguing that it would harm Indiana milliners while not prohibiting the sale of hats made outside the state from being sold here.  Another senator objected on the grounds that national legislation was needed to make it truly effective — even though that was slow in coming.  The bird bill was killed in February.

Yet while some women opposed it, one correspondent for the Indianapolis Star came out in defense of the anti-plumage campaign.


Indianapolis Star, January 19, 1913


Marie Chomel, who wrote under the pen name Betty Blythe, had a weekly column in the Indianapolis Star for years.  (She came from a newspaper family.  Her father Alexandre Chomel, son of a nobleman exiled by the French Revolution, had been the first editor of the Indiana Catholic & Record.)  As a reporter for the Star, Betty Blythe became the first woman ever to lap the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a race car, riding shotgun with Wild Bob Burman “at a terrific speed” on a day when two drivers were killed there.  It happened in August 1909.

Chomel frequently wrote about fashion, but thought that exotic plumage was inhumane and had to go.  She published her views on the bird bill in the Star on February 13, 1913.


Indianapolis Star, February 13, 1913

(“Our Lawmakers as Betty Blythe Sees Them,” Indianapolis Star, February 13, 1913.)


Chomel agreed with Voris’ motives.  Yet like English novelist Virginia Woolf, who criticized a sexist statement from British radical journalist H.W. Massingham that pinned the blame for bird deaths squarely on irresponsible women, the Indianapolis Star didn’t let men off the hook, either.


Indianapolis Star, March 3, 1913 (2)

(Indianapolis Star, March 3, 1913.  The “feminine correspondent” was probably Betty Blythe.)


Though wildlife protection laws and groups like the Audubon Society helped make the case for saving birds, two other events were even more influential in ending the feather trade.

Oddly, the outbreak of World War I saved millions of birds. Disruptions to international shipping and wartime scarcity made the flamboyant fashions of the Edwardian period look extravagant and even unpatriotic.  Tragically, as women went into the workplace and needed more utilitarian clothing, “murderous millinery” gave way to murderous warfare, fueled by the same forces of imperialism and greed that had killed untold creatures of the sky.

Even more effective, fashion changes and class antagonism caused upper-class women to adopt new apparel like the “slouch” and “cloche” hats and new hairstyles like the bob.  As hair was being cut back, elaborate feather ornaments made no sense.  In the U.S. and the UK, where upper-class and upper-middle-class women made up most of the membership in groups like the Audubon Society, female conservationists sometimes targeted women of other classes for sporting feathers.  Slowly, they instigated change.

Fortunately, most fashion enthusiasts would probably agree that the cloche hats of the 1920s — which drove hunters and feather merchants out of business — are more natural and beautiful than the most literally “natural” hats of a decade or two before.


Cloche Hat

(The cloche hat of the 1920s and ’30s spelled extinction to commercial bird hunters.)


Contact: staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

Ketchups of Yesteryear

Madison Daily Courier, February 20, 1850

While browsing through an old issue of the Madison Daily Courier (February 20, 1850), we stumbled across this eye-catching inventory from James Roberts’ store in the antebellum river town of Madison, Indiana.  Two unusual items stood out: mushroom catsup and walnut catsup.  What on earth was the history of these things?

In the days before H.J. Heinz, a former horseradish salesman, muscled in and mastered the art of making a pure, healthy tomato ketchup, Americans enjoyed an amazing variety of ketchups or “catsups.”  Many antebellum Hoosiers could have bought these at the store.  Others would have been able to make them from scratch using ingredients often available in Hoosier fields and forests.

Like many American families, the ketchup family isn’t native to the New World.  Both the word and the condiment likely came from China or Malaysia, where ke-chap referred to a brine of pickled fish or shellfish.  East Asian ketchups were salty or soy-based and had a liquid consistency, unlike often-stubborn tomato ketchup, a “non-Newtonian” fluid that needs a thump to get moving.

The first known mention of the word ketchup in English comes from a dictionary of slang from 1690, where it’s defined as a “high East-India sauce.”  In fact, British East India traders are credited for bringing the sauce back from Asia.  Word-sleuths, however, think that ketchup might have come from an Arabic word, kabees, also referring to a pickling sauce.

One Englishman, Charles Lockyer, gave advice to other traders in the Orient on how to get the best deals on lucrative soy sauce and ketchup — in 1711.


Charles Lockyer, An Account of Trade in India (1711)

Charles Lockyer, An Account of Trade in India (1711) 2

(Charles Lockyer, An Account of Trade in India, 1711.)


It’s hard to believe anyone would sail all the way to Asia and back in a wooden boat just for ketchup — or that King George and George Washington were throwing ketchup on their food.  But eighteenth-century Britain and America were definitely familiar with the ketchup “family.”  In fact, catsup, once thought to be an Americanized version of the word, was actually a misspelling by the Irish satirist and Anglican priest Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, who used it in a comic poem in 1730.

Eliza Smith, one of the bestselling English cookbook writers, describes how to make ketchup in her book The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion. Smith died around 1732, but her cookbook came out in many editions and was the first one ever printed in the American colonies.  In 1742, a year before Thomas Jefferson’s birth, the cookbook was reprinted in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Yet Smith’s recipe for “English Katchup” didn’t call for a single tomato. Instead, you needed mushrooms, anchovies and horseradish.  The vinegary result tasted and looked something like Worcestershire sauce.  It took a week to make.


The compleat housewife

(Eliza Smith, The Compleat Housewife, London, 1727.  The book was re-printed in Williamsburg by William Parks, who ran one of the first paper mills and thus helped turn out some of the earliest American newspapers, including Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. This instructional video on 18th-century cooking will tell you how to put together a mushroom ketchup that would have been familiar to Americans almost 300 years ago.)


Ketchup’s historic association with pickling sauces and fish was still strong in the mid-1800s, when grocery stores like James Roberts’ just downstream from Cincinnati were advertising the arrival of seafood and condiments from the East Coast.  Much of that food came aboard steamboats floating down from Pittsburgh — future ketchup capital of the world (but not yet…)

For generations, many Europeans and Americans were literally scared of tomatoes and tomato-loving worms, believing both to be the source of a deadly poison.  Part of the reason why the tomato was once considered a “poison apple” was that wealthy Europeans ate it off pewter plates high in lead content.  Botanists and cultivators slowly dispelled these myths.  By the 1870s, doctors and plant-growers had sparked a craze for the tomato as a medical cure-all.  Before the 1830s, though, that lingering fear of the tomato was one reason why it was slow to be accepted into the family of ketchups.


Evansville Daily Journal, December 4, 1848

(Evansville Daily Journal, December 4, 1848.  Incidentally, the cans that lobsters, fish and catsups were packed in might have caused health problems.  Cans sealed with lead have been considered a possible cause of the medical disaster that led to the death of Sir John Franklin’s expedition to the Arctic in 1845, just three years before this ad came out.  Post-mortem tests on 138-year-old bodies of crewmen, mummified in the Canadian permafrost, gave evidence of lead poisoning when they were exhumed, amazingly intact, in 1984.)


What were some of the other varieties of ketchup?

Walnut ketchup still occasionally makes it onto the table and usually tastes something like A-1 Steak Sauce.  Charlotte Mason, a Revolutionary-era chef in England,  promoted fermented varieties of walnut ketchup in The Lady’s Assistant, a cookbook published in London in 1787 and available in the U.S.  You’d have to plan your dinners well in advance, though.  Like distilled liquor, some fermented ketchups take several months to make.  Fortunately, Charlotte Mason definitely believed in bulk cooking — and some varieties would “keep for years.”


Charlotte Mason, The Lady's Assistant (1787)

(Charlotte Mason, The Lady’s Assistant, for Regulating & Supplying the Table, London, 1787.  “Eschalot” was an old word for shallots. Harvesting green walnuts is tough due to the time-frame — a small window in late June and early July, another reason to make it in bulk.)


Just as beer- and whiskey-lovers have been rediscovering all the varieties of alcohol that Americans enjoyed before Prohibition put the nix on brewers and distillers, foodies are unearthing some of the ketchup varieties that once existed in Old American cooking.

These included concord grape ketchup (including this recipe from western New York for grape catsup applied to sweet potato fries and/or Greek yogurt) and lemon ketchup.  An unusual historic recipe from 19th-century New Hampshire tells how to make cucumber ketchup.  One chef touts a tangy peach ketchup calling for ingredients as diverse as cinnamon, sugar, chili, molasses and vinegar.  Oyster ketchup was often made directly from oysters, but other oyster ketchups were made from tomatoes and meant to be put on oysters.  Van Camp Packing Company in Indianapolis and the Loudon Packing Company in Terre Haute were once major producers of oyster ketchup.


Greencastle Herald, July 27, 1911

(Recipe for a fermented version of lemon catsup, Greencastle Herald, Greencastle, Indiana, July 27, 1911.)


Since fermentation was often involved, ketchup sometimes began to be treated like wine.  The Indiana Palladium in Lawrenceburg (future home of Seagram’s Distillery) reprinted a clip from an article in the United States Gazette of Philadelphia about the tomato and its use in regulating digestion.  This was around the time that the health benefits of the once-misunderstood “poison apple” were finally being promoted. The author praises a “very choice bottle” of fermented tomato ketchup, bottled by his family six years earlier — in 1827.


Indiana Palladium, October 18, 1834

(Indiana Palladium, Lawrenceburg, October 18, 1834.  Castor was a common purgative used to open up the bowels.  Ketchup, especially ketchup compounds sold as medicine, was also thought to cure both constipation and diarrhea.)


The tomato’s fortunes were on the rise.  But until Henry Heinz came along, eating tomato ketchup could still put your life in jeopardy.  The problem lay in poor sanitation at factories and bottling plants — and the issue of how to keep tomato ketchup red.

Writers around the time of the Civil War described the disgusting horror show that sometimes came pouring out of ketchup bottles:  yeasty, moldy, bacteria-laden filth.  Food poisoning and even death weren’t an uncommon fate after consumption of “putrid, decomposed” tomato ketchup.  Amazingly, manufacturers — including Charles Loudon in Terre Haute — often used coal-tar dye, an ingredient in road construction, to preserve the tomato’s bright red appearance.   It was only in 1882 that writers began to point out the dangers of coal tar.  Aware of ketchup nightmares, Gardener’s Monthly that year encouraged American families to steer clear of industrial ketchup and keep on making their own.  A further danger came from boric acid, once used as a food preservative and now used in athlete’s foot medication and insecticide.


H.J. Heinz

(H.J. Heinz around the time he moved beyond the horseradish business and forever changed the ketchup industry.)


By the 1870s, Henry Heinz of Pittsburgh was sparking a revolution in the ketchup, sauerkraut, and pickle business.  Heinz’s family had emigrated from Kallstadt, Bavaria, hometown of Donald Drumpf’s ancestors.  Unlike many Gilded Age business moguls, Heinz was a political progressive and took great strides to improve life for workers at his plants — and to keep bacteria out of his customers’ food.

With a good knowledge of advances in chemistry and public health, by 1906 Heinz was turning out a preservative-free ketchup (i.e., no coal tar!) and used transparent jars so his customers could see exactly what they were buying.  Heinz was proud of his factories: even in notoriously polluted Pittsburgh, his employees had access to showers, swimming pools, gardens, medical stations, fresh laundry, free manicures and lunchtime open-air concerts.  He offered free life and health insurance to workers and free tours to the public because — like his bottles — he felt he had nothing to fear from transparency.  The Heinz Company hired thousands of women, and Heinz raised their wages against the advice of his business committee.  He also took out ads in women’s magazines to warn the public about the dangers of certain food preservatives.


Heinz factory

(Women at the Heinz Factory in Pittsburgh, circa 1901.)


Knowing that quality food and happy workers meant bigger profits, the ketchup mogul was a major force behind getting the Pure Food and Drug Act passed in 1906, a year after Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, an exposé of meatpackers, came out in a Socialist newspaper in Kansas, Appeal to Reason.  (That paper’s editor, by the way, was Julius Wayland, a native Hoosier who once nearly got lynched in Versailles, Indiana, for his Socialist views.)

Heinz’s revolution — a “red” one, indeed — soon spread to the Midwest. Today, Red Gold in Elwood, Indiana, is the top ketchup producer in the U.S., beating out even Heinz.  And the Hoosier State itself ranks second only to California in tomato processing.  To think that it all began with a 17th-century Asian fish sauce…


Tomato farmers, Loudon Packing Company

(Laborers pick tomatoes for the Loudon Packing Company of Terre Haute.  Loudon had hometown competition in the ketchup business from Hulman & Company — whose owner, Tony Hulman, later bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.   By World War II, however, Loudon’s company had won minor fame itself by becoming the first major producer of V8, once made in Terre Haute.)


It Helps to Squash 'Em, Karl Kae Knecht, August 10, 1942

(Evansville cartoonist Karl Kae Knecht helped enlist tomatoes during World War II.  Indiana tomato production “splatters” Hitler, Mussolini, and Emperor Hirohito, Evansville Courier, August 10, 1942.)


Contact: staylor336 [AT] gmail.com