The New York Times recently ran a piece about its long and interesting history of wedding notices, specifically its first notice published on September 18, 1851. Sarah Mullett and John Grant were married by the Reverend Thomas P. Tyler at Trinity Episcopal Church in Fredonia, New York on September 10, 1851. It got us at Hoosier State Chronicles thinking about wedding notices in our neck of the woods. Throughout the decades, newspapers from all across Indiana published wedding notices, sometimes before the wedding and sometimes after, and occasionally with extended coverage of the ceremony. In this blog, we will take you through a few notices to give you a sense of how Indiana newspapers covered Hoosiers tying the knot.
One of the earliest wedding notices that we found came from the Vincennes Indiana Gazette on October 23, 1804, before Indiana’s statehood. During these early years of Indiana papers, the wedding notices were fairly basic, often only sharing the exact details of the wedding and nothing else. Here’s the exact text from the Indiana Gazette:
MARRIED, On Sunday evening last, Mr. John M’Gowan to the amiable Miss Sally Baltis, both of this county [Knox County].
Besides the word “amiable,” this notice contains very little information, despite the couple being local. Similar wedding notices were published in the Vincennes Western Sunin 1810 and 1814 and the Charlestown Indiana Intelligencer in 1825.
Early Indiana papers also published breaches of marriage. For example, a piece in the December 14, 1816 issue of the Western Sun noted that a “breach of marriage promise, between Margaret Logan, plaintiff, and Rob[er]t Gray defendant, was yesterday tried in the Court of Common Pleas of this county [Knox County].” The trial resulted in a “verdict for $1,000 [in] damages—the sum claimed in the declaration,” likely going back to Logan.
Another common tradition in the early years of wedding notices was the use of the subheading “hymeneal,” meaning “nuptial.” Sadly, one of the early uses in the Indiana Republican misspelled the word as “hymenial,” which is a type of fungus. Nevertheless, papers like the Republican used the term during the early half of the nineteenth century, as a way to group a few wedding notices into a single piece. The Republican hymeneal from 1817 (with the misspelling) provided notices for two weddings, separated by an anonymously authored poem:
Not Eden with its shades and flowers,
Was Paradise till women smil’d; –
Then what’s this dreary world of ours,
Without creation’s loveliest child.
In an April 27, 1838 issue of the Brookville American, another Hymeneal, spelled right this time, ran on the third page. Four separate weddings from both Indiana and Ohio make up the column. One particular wedding announcement went out late, so it came with an “apology to the parties . . . that it was mislaid.”
By the 1870s and 1880s, the notices kept the same style but lost some the century’s earlier pretensions. For example, the term “hymeneal” went to the wayside, in favor of a more generic “announcements” section. This is exactly how the Indianapolis News published a wedding notice in its February 12, 1885 issue.
That’s not to say there were not outliers. One of the most interesting newspapers available in Hoosier State Chronicles is the Smithville-based Name It and Take It!. A rather obscure paper, it only ran a few months in 1897 before folding. In the June 25, 1897 issue, a wedding noticed was published under the heading of “ROMANTIC!”, the use of an exclamation point being the standard practice on nearly every piece in the notices section. “The Rev. A. S. [Alexander “Sandy”] Baker married a couple on short notice last Saturday, in the clerks [sic] office at Bloomington. The contracting parties were: John Worley, and Catherine Adams,” the paper reported. Based on the exclamation point heading, the paper wanted you to be as excited for the couple as they apparently were.
By the early 20th century, some wedding pieces became slightly more irreverent, like human interest stories you might read in your local paper. In the July 16, 1908 issue of the Richmond Palladium, an article ran entitled “Married in Shirt Waist and Skirt.” Ted Hall, “a young business man of St. Louis,” arrived in the city, quickly proposed to “Miss Nettie Lamar,” and they were married the same day. As the paper noted, the “ceremony was set in such a short time that the bride had to be married in shirt waist and skirt.” This would be the equivalent of a young lady getting married in a pair of capris and a t-shirt today, which is quaint, even charming.
The Indianapolis News during the 1910s provided a large section of its paper to marriage notices, with notifications from all over the state. This trend continued well into the 1920s, as exemplified in an April 29, 1929 issue of the Greencastle Herald. One particular nicety that the Herald extended to the newly-wedded couples was delaying the publication of the notices, after an arrangement with the county clerk.
Other newspapers gave their wedding notice section clever titles. In a 1939 issue of the Indianapolis Recorder, the paper named its section “In Dan Cupid’s Files,” and provided nine separate notices (one was an engagement). One interesting notice noted that “Miss Ella Louise Freeman and L. C. Phelps were secretly married in Chicago” the previous March and then intended to “reside in Philadelphia.” This notice brings up so many questions. Why were they “secretly married?” What necessitated that chain of events? How did their parents feel about it? These would be great topics of research for a more in-depth analysis of wedding notices. However, that is outside the scope of this short tour.
Some wedding notices were so detailed that they warranted a front-page publication. This was the case with a notice published in the August 16, 1940 issue of the Dale News. Robert J. Lubbehusen, a U. S. Navy officer, and Miss Frances Fuchs, “second daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Ed Fuchs of St. Meinrad, Ind.” were “quietly married in the Abbey Church” in St. Meinrad. The unincorporated community of St. Meinrad houses a monastery and church for Benedictine monks. As their website describes, “Saint Meinrad Archabbey was founded in 1854 by monks from Einsiedeln Abbey in Switzerland. They came to southern Indiana at the request of a local priest who was seeking help to serve the pastoral needs of the growing German-speaking Catholic population and to prepare local men to be priests.” The small town newspaper published this notice on the first page, which was probably otherwise a slow news week. Additionally, Lubbenhusen’s active service in the Navy, roughly a year out from American involvement in WWII, may have inspired a front-page notice.
By the 1950s, photographs became a more standard practice for wedding notices in Indiana papers. The Jewish Post ran a full-page wedding notices section with mostly photographs of happily-wedded couples either leaving on their honeymoon, walking down the aisle together after the ceremony, or cutting their cake. Alongside the couples, the Post also published the names of their photographers, Miner-Baker and Julius Marx. Not only did this give credit where credit was due, but it was great advertising for the photographers. Engaged couples could see these nice photos in the paper and then follow up with Marx or Miner-Baker to have them photograph their unions. The wedding notice as advertisement represents another interesting development in Indiana wedding notices.
The last three wedding notices on this tour of history, from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s respectively, indicate that while wedding notices have changed since the beginning of Indiana’s history, they maintained a basic structure. The September 23, 1960 page of wedding notices from the Jewish Postprovided the same familial and logistical information, but it also included details on the bride’s dress. The bride, Elayne Rosanne Kroot:
. . . appeared in a formal-length gown of pure silk peau de soie of ivory color, trimmed with re-embroidered hand-clipped Alencon lace highlighted by matching seed pearls and crystals forming an Empire bodice.
This notice’s level of detail contrasted the more direct, less detailed notice for another couple on the same page. (The wedding notice in the August 24, 1979 Jewish Post also displays a shorter, more direct style.) This contrast suggests a subtle distinction of class, where the longer, more detailed notice cost more to publish than the shorter notice. Again, this would be a great avenue for future research.
Our last notice page comes from the June 23, 1984 issue of the Indianapolis Recorder. These notices might be the most complete notices we will unpack in our journey. The notices are detailed, with logistical information, details on the bride’s dresses, the musical arrangements (including songs played), and a rough timeline of the entire ceremony and reception. These were also paired with photographs of the happy couples. To see the most modern representation of wedding notices, this is one of the best examples from Hoosier State Chronicles.
With that, our trip though Indiana’s wedding notices has come to an end. If you’d like to see more notices, head over to Hoosier State Chronicles. If you search “wedding” or “married,” you get literally thousands of hits, from nearly 200 years of Indiana newspapers. There’s certainly more than a fair share of Hoosier weddings to explore.
Historians of blues music and folk culture consider Mamie Smith to be the first African American woman to record blues vocals. In 1921, only a year after this historic recording, Smith performed to sold-out crowds in Indiana. Newspapers covered the release of Smith’s records and her Indiana performances extensively. We were interested especially in a spring 1921 performance by this African-American star in Richmond, Indiana, a Ku Klux Klan stronghold at the time.
Before 1920, African American entertainer Mamie Smith, who was born in Cincinnati, worked in Harlem as a chorus girl and cabaret singer. Here she met the black pianist, singer, and composer Perry Bradford who had found success in theater and minstrel circuits in New York. Bradford, who was interested in preserving African-American musical traditions in recordings, convinced Fred Hager, recording director of the obscure label OKeh Records to take a chance on recording Mamie Smith. Bradford convinced Hager that African American music lovers were an untapped market and that “they will buy records if recorded by one of their own, because we are the only folks that can sing and interpret hot jazz songs just off the griddle correctly.”
In February 1920, Smith recorded “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” for OKeh Records. Blues music historians consider this to be the first blues recording by an African American woman. Record producer Hager received boycott threats if he recorded Smith or any other African American singer. In the face of the controversy, Bradford convinced Hager to continue backing Smith, as opposed to the white singer Sophie Tucker, who Hager was alternatively considering. Bradford recalled:
Mr. Hager got a far-off look in his eyes and seemed somewhat worried, because of the many threatening letters he had received from some Northern and Southern pressure groups warning him not to have any truck with colored girls in the recording field. If he did, OKeh Products – phonograph machines and records – would be boycotted. May God bless Mr. Hager, for despite the many threats, it took a man with plenty of nerves and guts to buck those powerful groups and make the historical decision which would echo aroun’ the world. He pried open that old ‘prejudiced door’ for the first colored girl, Mamie Smith, so she could squeeze into the large horn – and shout with her strong contralto voice.
Smith recorded another set of songs penned by Bradford for Okeh in August of 1920. The track “Crazy Blues” became massively popular and in less than a year the record sold over a million copies. According to long-time music writer Jas Obercht, Smith’s “Crazy Blues” “could be heard coming from the open windows of virtually any black neighborhood in America.” Okeh Records called it “a surprise smash hit.” According to New Orleans jazz musician Danny Barker:
There was a great appeal amongst black people and whites who loved this blues business to buy records and buy phonographs. Every family had a phonograph in their house, specifically behind Mamie Smith’s first record.
This was certainly true in Indiana.
Indiana newspapers ran ads for Mamie Smith’s records not long after the release of “Crazy Blues.” Often the ads for Smith’s records were also attempts to sell phonographs as Barker mentioned in the above quote. A downtown Indianapolis music store ran this advertisement in the Indianapolis News in November:
The C. W. Copp Music Shop ran an advertisement in the South Bend News-Times in December for the hit “Crazy Blues,” but also let an interested public know that they stocked other Mamie Smith records. Hoosier interest in Smith’s records continued into the new year. In March of 1921, the same South Bend music shop ran several advertisements for five new Smith records and the Hammond Times ran an advertisement for Okeh Records releases, featuring Smith, and to sell listeners the phonograph to play them on:
According to Obrecht, Mamie Smith recorded 22 songs this year and “between sessions, she kept a grueling schedule of concert appearances.” The Talking Machine World magazine reported that Smith and a revue of entertainers were going to perform in all the major U.S. cities. By April 1921, many Hoosier music fans were familiar with Mamie Smith, as we can see from the newspaper ads. So when the news broke that she was booked to play in Indiana, the coverage continued almost daily until the performance.
According to the Talking Machine World she performed in Indianapolis and Evansville on this tour, but a search of Hoosier State Chronicles and our recent work to digitize the Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram shows that she also performed to sold out crowds in Richmond and South Bend. This is especially interesting considering 1920s Richmond was only about 5% African American, while perhaps as many as 45% of white males belonged at some point to Whitewater Klan #60, an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. We wondered, what brought Smith to Richmond and how was she received?
The Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram ran a notice of Smith’s Saturday, April 23, 1921 performance at the Coliseum for weeks before the date. Here are some great examples:
On April 21, 1921 alone there were three ads for Smith’s upcoming performance and records, including this extensive listing of popular songs:
Advertisements were not the only coverage of Smith’s upcoming appearance in Richmond. On April 18, 1921 the Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram reported on the “forthcoming appearance here of Mamie Smith, the popular phonograph star of the colored race, and her All-Star Jazz Revue next Saturday night at the Coliseum,” and called it “the greatest jazz concert that has ever been sent on tour.” The newspaper called Smith “a phonograph star of the first rank” and claimed that she “has done more than any other singer perhaps in America to popularize the genuine ‘blues’ song of the day.” The writer continued to laud Smith for her ability to make songs into “living, potent things charged with a pulsing and individual rhythm.” The paper reported that the popularity of her record had made Richmond residents excited to see her perform live and that they were expecting a “sold-out house when she reaches this city.”
Perhaps the most interesting article in the Palladium was the one that appeared the following day, April 19, and covered not Smith but the revue company traveling with her. Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds were the headlining, crowd-drawing act, but her tour included other acts as well: dancers, vaudevillian comedians, and minstrel performers. The appearance of a newly-minted blues and jazz star on the same stage as the historically popular minstrel performers marks and intersection of trends in African American music and performance history. While minstrel performers had both conformed to stereotypes out of employment necessity and defied them through their self-presentation (learn more), Mamie Smith’s rise to stardom ushered in a new era of music divas who presented themselves as upper class, educated, rich, and demanding of respect.
While blues music had been performed in the American South since the very beginning of the twentieth century, no one had made recordings of it before, largely due to racism and the assumption that African-Americans couldn’t – or wouldn’t – buy record players or 78s. “Crazy Blues” changed all that, sparking a mad scramble among record execs to record blues divas. The stars they promoted in this short-lived era of “classic blues” were not the down-home country singers who’d record later in the Roaring Twenties, but the glittering, glamorous, and savvy veterans of tent shows, minstrel troupes, and the vaudeville stage. These mavericks defied stereotypes…
As if in response to this very idea, on April 22 the Palladium followed the coverage of the revue with an article detailing the glamorous appearance and presentation of Smith. The newspaper stated that through her record royalties “the popular young colored star is enabled to indulge her fancy in the latest creations both from Paris and New York, and in each city in which she has appeared a gasp of astonishment has greeted her every appearance, for her gowns are described as riots of color and beauty.”
In a telling sentence, the article called Smith “one of the most gorgeously dressed stars of the musical comedy world.” This notes both the respect for her appearance and success and a misunderstanding of her role in music history. While African American music fans were connecting to Smith’s sincere and authentic portrayal of the blues music that they grew up with, this white Midwestern newspaper still saw her as part of the vaudeville and perhaps even minstrel genres — understandably perhaps since it was marketed as such. While Smith had come from such a tradition, through her work with the blues and and jazz performers she had transcended her past. Black newspapers understood her importance much earlier than white newspapers. On March 13, 1920, the Chicago Defender wrote:
Well, you’ve all heard the famous stars of the white race chirping their stuff on the different makes of phonograph records . . . but we have never – up to now – been able to hear one of our own ladies deliver the canned goods. Now we have the pleasure of being able to say that at last they have recognized the fact that we are here for their service; the OKeh Phonograph Company has initiated the idea by engaging the handsome, popular and capable vocalist, Mamie Gardner Smith.
Similarly, the African American gospel, jazz, and blues music Thomas A. Dorseyexplained, “Colored singing and playing artists are riding to fame and fortune with the current popular demand for ‘blues’ disk recordings and because of the recognized fact that only a Negro can do justice to the native indigo ditties such artists are in demand.”
There were African American audience members at the Richmond performance, who likely had a better understanding of the significance of Smith’s success. The Richmond PalladiumSun-Telegram reported: “The best seats are selling fast from the plat at Weisbrod Music company as white and colored folk alike are wager to see and hear the ‘Queen of the Blues,’ a capacity house is predicted for Saturday night.”
Unfortunately, there are no extant issues of the historic African American newspaper the Indianapolis Recorder for this period. It would be interesting to explore the differences in the coverage of Smith’s performances between a white and black newspaper and perhaps this could be accomplished using the Chicago Defender, but is outside the scope of this post.
As expected, Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds sold-out the Richmond Coliseum, which held 2,500 people, for the April 23, 1921 performance. The next year, the KKK also sold-out the same venue. The Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegramreported on December 12, 1922 that a crowd awaiting a Klan rally “taxed the space at the Coliseum waiting for the ceremonies quite a long time before the Klansmen finally arrived.” So how was the white population of Richmond able to enjoy an African American musician one year and then attend a Klan rally the next?
While this contradiction may seem surprising, there was (and some argue still is) a tendency for white Americans to de-contextualize African American music from African American culture. That is, the white residents of Richmond were able to appreciate black music while continuing to oppress black people. There has been much written on this topic (two good places to start are Imamu Amiri Baraka‘s The Music: reflections on Jazz and Blues and Perry Hall’s “African American Music: Dynamics of Appropriation and Innovation“) and an extensive analysis of Smith’s career through this lens is outside the scope of this post. However, advertisements continued after her performance, from which we can draw that she was a hit regardless of why. Notice the advertisement claims that there was “a capacity audience.”
While we were unable to find an article reviewing the Richmond performance or the crowd’s reception, it likely went well because she returned to Indiana the next month. On May 31, 1921, she performed to another capacity crowd at the Oliver Theater in South Bend. The South Bend News-Times covered her performance in much the same manner as the Richmond Palladium. The paper noted in various articles, her fame, her genius, and her status as “the first colored girl artist to attain world-wide fame as a singer and phonograph record star.”
Mamie Smith’s importance to music history is hard to overstate, according to a story on NPR’s All Things Considered for which famed activist Angela Davis (now a professor at University of California/Santa Cruz ) was interviewed. Davis summed up Smith’s importance succinctly:
“The recording of ‘Crazy Blues’ led the way for the professionalization of black music, for the black entertainment industry, and indeed for the immense popularity of black music today.”
This election year, there has been a lot of talk of third-party candidates, like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. However, this election cycle is hardly the first to celebrate third-party candidates for President. American presidential history is rich with third-party candidates, such as Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign against Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush or Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy in 2000. From the Hoosier state there was Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party candidate who received nearly a million votes in the 1912 election. Yet, it is arguable that the most successful third-party run for the presidency was by someone who had already been president.
Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president, mounted an unprecedented third-term campaign for the office on the Progressive Party ticket in 1912. Known colloquially as the “Bull Moose Party,” Roosevelt’s campaign for the office was heavily chronicled by progressive newspapers here in Indiana, particularly the Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram. From August 5-7 1912, the Progressive Party met in Chicago to both nominate Roosevelt for the presidency and establish a new political party, one founded on what Roosevelt called the “Square Deal.” As historian Lewis L. Gould explained, Roosevelt believed that, “that the federal government must do more to supervise large corporations, improve the lot of women and children who worked long hours for low wages in industry, and conserve natural resources.”
Roosevelt’s decision to run stemmed from his disappointment at the cautiousness and conservatism of his former cabinet member and hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft. Taft came into office in 1909 arguing for Roosevelt’s ideals, but had since moved towards to the limited government and pro-business attitudes of Republican Party insiders, or so Roosevelt believed. It was this disappointment which motivated Roosevelt to usurp the Republican nomination from Taft and reassert his influence on the party. When the Republicans rejected him in favor of Taft in June of 1912, Roosevelt vowed to begin a new party. Thus, the Progressive Party was born.
The convention began on August 5, and the Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram wrote about the party’s platform, which, among other proposals, demanded “that the light publicity be thrown upon scales of wages and other labor matters” as well as “old-age pensions.” Rudolph G. Leeds, long-time owner and editor of the Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, enthusiastically supported Roosevelt and was elected “national committeeman…by the Indiana progressive delegation.” Roosevelt himself arrived to Chicago on that day and reportedly received “the greatest reception any man ever received in Windy City.” When asked to speak, the former president spoke of the “birth of a new party” and that “the day of the boss, of crooked politicians behind the boss and people who are owned by the boss and crooked politicians has passed forever.”
The next day, August 6, Roosevelt announced his contention for the party’s presidential nomination. His running mate was Hiram W. Johnson, senator from California and one of the Progressive Party’s founders. In his speech, known as the “Confession of Faith,” Roosevelt reiterated his position from his remarks the day before. “Our fight,” Roosevelt declared, “is a fundamental fight against both of the old corrupt party machines, for both are under the dominion of the plunder league of the professional politicians who are controlled and sustained by the great beneficiaries of privilege and reaction.” In terms of policy Roosevelt argued for more workplace and wage protections for labor, further regulations of trusts and large corporations, assistance to farmers, and wilderness conservation.
To Roosevelt, his nomination was bigger than just one election. It was a “crusade” against the forces of graft and corruption and in favor of the people. “Now, friends, this is my confession of faith,” clamored Roosevelt among the packed crowd in Chicago:
Now to you men, who, in your turn, have come together to spend and be spent in the endless crusade against wrong, to you who face the future resolute and confident, to you who strive in a spirit of brotherhood for the betterment of our nation, to you who gird yourselves for this great new fight in the never-ending warfare for the good of humankind, I say in closing…We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.
Roosevelt’s “crusade” was taken to heart by the Palladium and Sun-Telegram, who wrote glowing editorials about Roosevelt and the Progressive Party. “The Progressive party,” declared one editorial, “is the moving, leading, inspiring force in the nation today. It is advancing as no other movement ever advanced in American politics.”
On August 7, the party formally nominated Roosevelt and Johnson. In his nominating speech, William A. Prendergast, comptroller of the city of New York, remarked that “He [Roosevelt] has fought the most vicious forces in American life and has conquered them…To such a leader the hearts of millions of American people are turning in this national crisis.” It was with this nomination that Roosevelt was given the chance to fulfill the remainder of his life’s work, to finally give the American people a “square deal.”
However, Roosevelt’s dedication to a “square deal” under the Progressive Party banner left a key demographic from being at the table: African Americans. As historian Eric J. Yellin observed, Roosevelt staked his political future on alienating the African American voters in the south, who he thought he had already lost to Taft. Due to this misnomer, Roosevelt sought to create a “shadow Republican Party in the south made up of lily-white organizations.” This resulted in the rejection of southern African American delegates from the Progressive Party convention.
Locally, the Indianapolis Recorder, a black owned and published newspaper, wrote scathing editorials in response to Roosevelt’s actions. As an August 10, 1912 editorial declared, “To the Colored men who can find it possible, after denouncing President Theodore Roosevelt as a despot, demagogue, lyncher and betrayer of the confiding Colored race, to now support him even when he leaves his own party and help him to be the founder of a new party, we say that the white world is looking on with a contemptuous smile.” Another column on August 24 noted that, “the position of Mr. Roosevelt, disfranchising the Negroes of the South in his party is a virtual indorsement [sic] of the unconstitutional disfranchising laws of the South, and we believe that he has forfeited all right of respect or support from Afro-Americans.” A minister of the AME Church and long-time Roosevelt supporter, Dr. Reverdy C. Ransom, even left the Progressive Party and publicly criticized Roosevelt’s “Negro policy and…urge[d] the Republican party to improve the situation which the Colonel has created.”
The Progressive Party decided against the colored delegates of the South, but are in favor of the colored people of the North. Theodore Roosevelt, as we understand, is in favor of a “Lily White” Government in the South, but in favor of the colored man’s recognition in the North. The trouble with his idea is that it is in the South that the colored people are complaining about the denial of political rights.
This observation highlighted Roosevelt’s central electoral gamble. By alienating southern African Americans, Roosevelt could have lost a key Republican voting bloc sympathetic to his run, all in an effort to court populist white southerners, who largely voted Democrat. In the general election in November, his calculation went exactly opposite.
In the 1912 general election on November 5, Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic nominee, won the election in a landslide, with 435 electoral votes and 41.8% of the popular vote. (Wilson’s running mate was Indiana Governor Thomas Marshall; they won the state with 43.1 percent.) Now, you may wonder: how was this a landslide? It came down to split of the Republican voting base. Roosevelt won 27.4 percent of the popular vote and 88 electoral votes while Taft won 23.2 percent of the popular vote and eight electoral votes. However, Roosevelt did end up winning a plurality of the African American voting base, but did not win the southern populist whites he had courted during the election. Wilson garnered their vote, and in turn, won the election with a clear victory.
Amid the toppling wreckage of the republican party [sic], with its historic pile crumbled into unrecognizable fragments there strides the Modern Apostle of Discontent the Arch-Egoist Theodore Roosevelt. He gazes around him on the debris with a grin and with triumphant staccato simply says—DEE-LIGHTED! ! !
This sentiment underlined what many Republican voters felt about Roosevelt’s decision to run under the Progressive banner: it had only split the party in his vain attempt to take back the reins of power.
Roosevelt’s political gamble against southern African-Americans cost him both the chance at the election and diminished his reputation as a champion of progressive ideals. Nevertheless, as Gould as argued, his third-party candidacy helped realign the political forces of the country, solidifying the Republican Party towards a more business-centric conservatism while the Democratic Party moved towards a progressivism that culminated in Theodore’s cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his “New Deal.” So, beyond just the electoral success, Roosevelt’s complicated third-party challenge influenced the political landscape for decades.
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, 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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
(Frederick Douglass on Newton Craig. Anti-Slavery Bugle, Lisbon, Ohio, April 12, 1856.)
(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.
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.
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, TheBlack 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.”
The movie’s plot was partly fictional and not entirely based on the 1915 Bollinger euthanasia case. TheFort 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.
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”?
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 “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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
If you enjoy today’s “farcical newspaper” The Onion, in 1922 you might have sent in two dollars for a subscription to George R. Dale’s eccentric and fascinating Muncie Post-Democrat.
While The Onion lampoons everything from politicians to microwaves to bad tippers, George Dale — Indiana’s Jazz Age version of a Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart — focused his ridicule on a powerful group famous for wearing nighties and “mother goose caps” around cornfields at night. That group, of course, was the Ku Klux Klan, whose grip on big cities and small towns alike led to its near-domination of state politics in the 1920s.
Muncie and neighboring towns like Marion, Elwood, Fairmount and New Castle were once a stronghold of the Klan. Warding off physical assaults and threats on his life, Dale fought in the belly of the beast, bravely using humor to expose a group that lured in tens of thousands of Hoosiers, many from the middle class, under the banner of “100% Americanism.”
(Muncie Post-Democrat, November 9, 1923.)
(Dale ridiculed Klan recruitment in the Muncie Post-Democrat, December 15, 1922. The “ten bucks” was for a Klan robe, which made millions of dollars for the Klan’s hierarchy.)
Hoosier State Chronicles, in cooperation with Ball State University Libraries’ Digital Media Repository, is proud to bring a long run ofDale’s Muncie Post-Democrat online, from 1921 through 1950. Here’s a brief bio of the man whose war on the Klan is still little-known outside Muncie, where he served as mayor from 1930 to 1935. We’re including some of his best comic barbs here, lobbed at the not-so-Invisible Empire.
In 1930, a writer named W.A.S. Douglas wrote a long piece in The American Mercury, a magazine edited by the acerbic literary critic H.L. Mencken. (Mencken was a famous enemy of the Klan, though his own views bordered on anti-Semitism.) Douglas recalled that he first met George Dale during the 1925 trial of D.C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the Klan in Indiana and many other Northern states. Though Stephenson was indicted for the kidnap, rape and murder of an Indianapolis stenographer, a crime that involved her near-cannibalization while he was raping her, since the trial was held in Klan-dominated Noblesville, the Klansman seemed confident that his political machine could get him off the hook. Stephenson, still in his thirties, was their “Old Man.”
(D.C. Stephenson and Indiana’s Klansman governor, Ed Jackson.)
“There were Klansmen all around [Stephenson],” Douglas wrote about the courtroom in Hamilton County, “at the counsel-table, in the jury box, in the audience, and guarding the doors of the courtroom. All were brothers in the secret bond.” Then Stephenson looked over and saw a “shabby little old man,” scribbling with a pencil while casting a look that seemed to bore its “right into his brain.”
This was George Dale, “a white-haired little man, well into his sixties and with the seat worn out of his pants — a man who had become a joke all over the state because alone, broke, and kicked from pillar to post, he dared to fight. . .”
(George R. Dale and family, circa 1925.)
Born in 1867 in Monticello, Indiana, Dale — son of a Civil War veteran — was orphaned by age 18. He moved to Hartford City around 1885, where he worked for an uncle who owned the town’s first electric power plant. In his twenties, Dale founded the Hartford City Times, then the Montpelier Call. He married Lena Mohler in 1900 and the couple had seven children. Around 1920, the Dales came to Muncie on the eve of the Klan’s takeover there.
In a study conducted by Hoosier-born sociologist Robert Staughton Lynd and his wife Helen, Muncie became the first American town to ever be systematically dissected on a sociologist’s “operating table.” The Lynds chose Muncie mostly for its averageness. Their 1929 book Middletown wasn’t flattering. Nor was the description that W.A.S. Douglas left: “I well remember this Indiana city when it weltered in starkness; when it tucked its tail between its legs and ran from the sound and the smell of cowshed-perfumed klansmen…”
Douglas’ stereotype wasn’t totally accurate. Muncie wasn’t all Klan. And the most influential Klansmen weren’t farmers. Klan influence was strong in big cities, too, with large membership in Detroit, Chicago, and Indianapolis, where D.C. Stephenson turned out his own newspaper, The Fiery Cross. And in the ’20s, the Klan had more support in the Midwest than in the Deep South.
Klan ideology in the ’20s also differed from its focus during the Civil Rights Movement in the ’50s and ’60s. While never friendly to African Americans, the “second wave” of the Klan was mostly interested in halting immigration, undermining perceived Catholic and Jewish influence in American politics and schools, enforcing Prohibition, and in protecting the “purity of American womanhood.” A new religious movement, Protestant fundamentalism, also fueled the Klan’s rise, with ideologues hijacking religion to stir up nativism. It’s no coincidence that 1925 was the year both of Stephenson’s trial in Indiana and the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee.
George Dale and others went to work documenting the hypocrisy of the Klan’s basic principles — from “100% Americanism” to a ludicrous KKK resolution passed in Muncie proclaiming that Jesus Christ was a white Protestant native-born American and not a Jew.
(Muncie Post-Democrat, March 28, 1924.)
The Klan didn’t invent nativism. Wave of immigrants like the Germans, Irish, Italians and Eastern European Jews all suffered the slander of earlier settlers. Anti-Semitism came into the mix whenever Jews joined labor unions, the Socialist Party, and supported the Russian Revolution. (D.C. Stephenson himself, however, had briefly been a Socialist in Oklahoma.)
When Dale turned the spotlight on anti-Catholicism, he had to deal with fears going back decades, all the way back to the Reformation and the roots of the war in Northern Ireland. As late as the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, many Americans feared that Catholics would take over American politics and schools, then hand the country over to the Pope. For decades, Catholics occupied a position similar to that of American Muslims today.
Dale thought the Northern Irish roots of bigotry worth pointing out, especially when it turned out that a busy anti-Catholic editor had taken a long time to get American citizenship, something prized by the Klan.
(Muncie Post-Democrat, April 11, 1924. Dale noticed that many professional anti-Catholics, like the editor of the The American Citizen, had serious moral failings.)
Anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant fears sometimes stepped into the realm of folk belief, with Jewish revolutionaries and crocodile-shaped “Papist” boogeymen joining the ranks of the Chinese, the Irish, and the Mexicans, all conspiring to undermine American values.
These beliefs had a huge impact on daily life. Some of Dale’s stories from Newark, Ohio, a Klan stronghold and a sort of “sister city” to Muncie, bear this out. When Dale took jabs at the shady goings-on in Newark, he was criticizing his own town on the sly. It’s hard to say how truthful Dale’s “reportage” was, but his satire cut to the bone.
(Muncie Post-Democrat, May 16, 1924.)
(Muncie Post-Democrat, May 4, 1923.)
(Muncie Post-Democrat, January 4, 1924. Anti-Catholicism was probably stronger in parts of the Midwest than in the Deep South. At the height of Klan influence in 1928, Al Smith, the first Catholic and Italian-American to run for president on a major party ticket, carried six states in the Deep South. He won just two in the North and none in the West, losing to Herbert Hoover.)
Dale was no “respecter of persons,” not even women. When it came to mocking the thousands of women who got involved with the KKK, conventions regarding the treatment of “ladies” didn’t hold him back. Dale even used two prominent “Camelias” — as the Women of the Ku Klux Klan were known — as journalistic target practice.
One was the infamous Helen Jackson (mentioned above), a bogus “escaped nun” who helped spread Klan propaganda around the Midwest. Jackson, daughter of Polish immigrants, had actually been a teenage prostitute who was sent to a Catholic reform school for “wayward” girls in Detroit. In fairness, her experience there was probably harsh, but her stories of escaping from a convent — stories she told in a book called Convent Cruelties — drew on generations of anti-Catholic fiction and folklore.
(The Fiery Cross, December 8, 1922.)
In the 1920s, Helen Jackson and a sidekick “ex-priest” — a French-Canadian Holiness preacher, L.J. King — gave lectures in American auditoriums and churches, where they mocked Catholic religious practices, spread fear about priestly tortures and Vatican takeover of the U.S., and incited riots, some of them deadly. Jackson and King were busy stirring up religious hatred in Indiana just before the crucial 1924 election, when Hoosiers put a Klansman, Ed Jackson — no relation to Helen — in the governor’s seat.
Dale lampooned her as just another fraudulent “Koo Koo klucker” interested in profiting off the sale of hate. He was eager to announce her arrival in Muncie in November 1922, when he could debunk her. The “ex-nun” Helen Jackson actually visited Muncie several times, causing so much trouble there that she eventually got kicked even by Muncie’s Klan-friendly police. Her companion, L.J. King, was also well-known to cops. When he started charging extra admission rates for “men’s only” lectures — where he made lurid allegations about sex in confessionals — a few towns, like Phoenix, drove him out for insulting women and for spreading “verbal filth.” George Dale, who wasn’t even Catholic, relished the rumor that King had once had links to an “Indian medicine show” and that his mother in Canada thought “he had always been a bad boy.” Jackson and King were on the road throughout the 1920s, critical operatives of the Klan.
(Muncie Post-Democrat, November 10, 1922.)
(Muncie Post-Democrat, May 16, 1924.)
A favorite target for Dale, however, was the influential Hoosier Quaker minister Daisy Douglass Barr, who headed the women’s auxiliary of the KKK. Barr had once been a well-known reformer in central Indiana, espousing Prohibition, shutting down red-light districts, and reforming prostitutes. Well-meaning reformers like her often had their dark side, however, as the history of the Indiana Women’s Prison shows. In theory, Klan rhetoric supported the banning of booze and “womanly purity,” though a plethora of sex abusers, bootleggers, and rapists joined the rank and file of the Klan, including Stephenson, its leader. (W.S.A. Douglass referred to Indiana’s Grand Dragon as a “booze-soaked printer.”)
George Dale despised Daisy Barr, who lived in Indianapolis for years but was influential in Muncie politics and in her native Grant County next door. Dale put some of his best comic language to work to help take down Barr. Mocking the Klan’s absurd titles, he called her the “Quakeress Fakeress,” “Daisy Doodle Barr,” “champion Kluxerino of Indiana,” and “prize gold digger of the Klan.”
Investigations eventually exposed the Reverend Barr’s greed. The influential Quaker minister had pocketed a fortune from the sale of Klan robes to women. George Dale was quick to argue that the business of the KKK’s leadership, in fact, was just that — a business, one that fleeced “suckers” out of their “boob money.” Members got “nighties” in return.
The editor of the Muncie Post-Democrat wasn’t making millions from his poetry. Nor did exposing the “Ku Klux Quaker” or anybody else help ensure his personal safety. Yet in spite of death threats made against him and his family — with Klansmen shooting at him and attacking his home — Dale had the courage to continue publishing the names of Klansfolk in Ohio and Indiana as soon as he got his hands on membership lists. For all their parading through the streets, many members still wanted their involvement with the Invisible Empire kept secret — including gubernatorial candidate Ed Jackson himself. When the extent of Daisy Barr’s business with the Klan came out, she was forced to step down as chaplain of the Indiana War Mothers.
(Muncie Post-Democrat, May 2, 1924.)
(Muncie Post-Democrat, August 1, 1924.)
(Muncie Post-Democrat, May 29, 1924.)
(Muncie Post-Democrat, June 13, 1924.)
George Dale’s campaign against the KKK was part of a national movement to discredit it. Newspapers and religious leaders led the campaign. While religion had played a disturbing role in fueling the Klan’s growth, it also played a major role in debunking it. Over the next few decades, the opposition of Protestant ministers like Reinhold Niebuhr — not to mention Martin Luther King — helped erode support for the Klan, though the organization survives.
In 1923, Catholic members of the Indianapolis police force did their own part, breaking into a Klan office on College Avenue, stealing a membership list, and publishing it in Tolerance, an anti-KKK paper in Chicago. (In light of the deadly Paris attacks in November 2015, the activist group Anonymous is doing something similar, hacking websites and publishing the personal details, addresses and Twitter handles of suspected ISIS extremists.) Other Hoosier newspapers, including the Indiana Jewish Chronicle, the Indianapolis Freeman, the Indiana Catholic & Record, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Indianapolis Times all attacked the misinformation and bigotry spouted by the Klan. D.C. Stephenson’s murder trial, which exposed the organization’s hypocrisy at its worst, also helped debunk the Klan credo.
Even in Muncie, the tide had begun to turn. Embattled and in fear of his life in the mid-1920s, George R. Dale won the 1929 mayor’s race. His first action was to fire the forty-two members of the Muncie police force.
An indictment for violating Prohibition laws in 1932 overshadowed Dale’s mayoral career. When Franklin Roosevelt repealed Prohibition soon after coming into office, he issued Dale a presidential pardon on Christmas Eve 1933.
The editor’s journalistic battle for civil decency had taken a toll on his health and finances. He had also gone blind in one eye. Yet Dale was at work at a typewriter right up to the moment of his death. Surrounded by his family, and having just typed out one last editorial, George Dale died of a cerebral hemorrhage on March 27, 1936, at his home in Muncie.
When you dig through old newspapers for a living, you find out pretty fast that almost every street corner has an entertaining story and sometimes a haunt or two. Like the once-wild Pogue’s Run, a harnessed underwater ghost that trickles through subterranean Indianapolis, most of these stories are “out of sight, out of mind.”
Here’s a glimpse of the spectral history of the capitol city’s Near East Side.
Pogue’s Run, which in 1914 was re-channeled underground just north of New York Street before it flowed through downtown in tunnels, owes its name to a man who also vanished from sight. Generally considered the first permanent white settler in Marion County, George Pogue, a “broad-shouldered,” dark-haired South Carolinian and blacksmith, was also, according to some accounts, the first recorded murder victim and the only man ever killed by American Indians in Indianapolis.
Settling in this isolated part of the new Hoosier state in March 1819, Pogue built a cabin for his family of seven, roughly where Pogue’s Run goes underneath today’s Michigan and Market Streets. The family’s cabin sat near the old swamp that used to occupy most of the northeast outskirts of downtown. Also called Perkins Run after another early settler who left the area “on account of loneliness,” the old stream in 1819 was wild and often flooded, not the sad open ditch and sewage channel it had become just a few decades later.
As an Indianapolis Journal article from January 5, 1890, reported, around the first of April, 1821, a Delaware or Wyandotte Indian known to whites as “Wyandot John” showed up at the Pogue family’s cabin. Rumor had it that the wanderer was an outlaw among the Delawares. He was probably also a horse thief — one of the worst offenses in those days.
Mrs. Pogue objected to Wyandot John being around the cabin, but the blacksmith gave him breakfast. Some of Pogue’s horses had gone missing, and the visitor told him to go over to a Delaware camp on Buck Creek twelve miles away.
Striking out into the woods, George Pogue, like the creek that still bears his name, never came back. His murdered body may have been sent floating downstream. (In 2013, a jaw bone showed up at Garfield Park, prompting investigators to ask if it was George Pogue’s.)
As the young city grew, the often rampaging creek rapidly came to be considered a “source of pestilence.” Before legislators moved the Indiana capitol north from Corydon in 1825, they allotted $50 to rid Pogue’s Run of mosquitoes, which bred the malaria that killed off many infant towns on the Midwestern frontier. Even as late as the Civil War, what became the Near East Side was thought of as remote from downtown and practically wild country.
On May 20, 1863, the creek became the site of the so-called “Battle of Pogue’s Run.” At the Indiana State House, approximately 10,000 Democrats — including Copperheads and suspected members of the pro-Confederate Knights of the Golden Circle — gathered to protest the Lincoln administration. Two months before the Battle of Gettysburg, the war was going badly for the Union, and Lincoln had just passed the Emancipation Proclamation, which angered Southern sympathizers. With tensions running high, a large military force kept an eye on the Democrats downtown. (Under the leadership of Dr. Thomas Bowles, the founder of French Lick, Indiana, the Knights eventually plotted to kidnap Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton and violently overthrow the state government).
That May, as Union soldiers confiscated pistols from Democrats at the Legislature, the crowd boarded trains to get out of the city. Stopped on the tracks, one train car was raided for weapons. On another, passengers (including many women, whom the Democrats believed wouldn’t be searched) threw somewhere between 500 and 2,000 pistols, rifles, and knives out the train window into the creek. Republicans lampooned it as the “Battle of Pogue’s Run.”
Traditions of a Haunted Elm Tree in the Pogue’s Run Bottoms.
Nowhere on Hoosier soil has nature nourished such giant trees as in the Pogue’s Run bottoms. In the days when trees were not appreciated the hand of the destroyer felled nearly all the great elm, walnut and sycamore peculiar to this district, but here and there a few remain, stately testimonials of the old-time forest grandeur. There are elm trees here and there along the run that are wonders in this day. On East Michigan street, beyond the creek, is one monarch whose branches have a diameter of over a hundred feet, and close to this one is the stump of a burnt-out sycamore, still showing signs of life, in which a family could comfortably live. The interior of the hollow tree is eight feet across in the clear.
But one tree belonging to this group is better known than all the rest. It is sometimes called “hangman’s elm,” sometimes “the gallows tree,” and occasionally the boys of the neighborhood speak of it as “the home of the ghost.”
The neighbors don’t believe in spooks, but somehow or other tradition has handed down a ghost story that will not die. The public records and the memory of the “oldest inhabitant” furnish no evidence on this point, but there is a story in the air to this effect: During the war, one day when there was bloody news from the front, and when human life was cheap, the body of an unknown man was found hanging from this particular tree. Soldiers who climbed the tree to cut down the body found a curiously concealed opening in the tree. It was instantly concluded that the hollow interior of the elm should be the place of sepulture. The body was lowered into the hollow tree, but apparently it struck no bottom. Certainly it gave forth no sound in falling.
It may have been that the dust and accumulation of rotted particles of the tree’s heart had made a soft, deep bed within so that no sound of the falling body came forth. Or was it possible that the spreading roots of the elm walled in a deep “cave of the winds” or well? At any rate nothing was heard when the body tumbled to its uncertain grave.
The spot where the supposed burial tree stood long ago became part of the city. The site is beautiful. Lots have been sold and houses built all about it. A stranger bought the lot on which the tree stands. But he will never build there. One of the neighbors says:
‘From the swaying branches of the old elm come mournful sounds of distress, and many a man passing that way has been horrified at the footfalls of invisible pursuers. Dim figures are sometimes seen in the neighborhood, but these always retrace their cloudy way to the tree and are, as it were, swallowed up by it . . .’
By the 1890s, much of the eleven-mile course of Pogue’s Run was an open, festering sewer pit, clogged with industrial, animal and human waste. Newspaper accounts from the time suggest that one of the most polluted sections of the creek was in the Cottage Home neighborhood just west of the federal arsenal (the building later became Arsenal Tech High School.) In 1897, Indianapolis city commissioners were already considering turning the de facto sewer into a controlled sewage conduit, as the creek “pulled pranks” in the form of deadly floods, doubly disastrous considering the amount of bacterial waste in the water. In 1890, the Journal spoke of its appalling and unsanitary “odoriferous waters,” which boys who “Worked Like Beavers” dammed up to make a swimming hole in 1903 — “for bathing purposes.”
The idyllic landscapes painted by pioneer Hoosier artists Jacob Cox and Christian Schrader show the creek before it was fouled up in the late 1800s.
(This drawing by Christian Schrader shows the Pogue’s Run Covered Bridge, which once sat on the National Road near the intersection of College Avenue and East Washington St.)
Several old-fashioned bridges, made of stone and wood, crossed Pogue’s Run in the 1890s. Stories circulated that at least one of these, at the intersection of Highland Avenue and what used to be called Campbell Street, had a ghost.
Could the “specter” have been the fog of the creek — or was it the spooky miasmas of sewage elevating into the air? (That sounds sinister enough to me)!
As far as I can tell, this piece of ghost-lore never showed up again in the city’s newspapers, and might have dropped out of memory altogether when a modern concrete bridge was put here. But maybe Google’s Nine-Eyes sees what we can’t see? Like this blurry spot on the new bridge, captured here in June 2014:
(The Indianapolis News portrayed some of the old stone bridges that once crossed Pogue’s Run in May 1905, on the eve of a dramatic re-engineering project that sent it through tunnels downtown.)
One last, and arguably far more amazing, story :
A few steps south of the “ghost bridge” is a parking lot at 564 N. Highland Avenue. For decades, this was the site of a small shotgun house owned and occupied by Louisa Magruder, daughter of Thomas Magruder, whom many believe to be the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom.
As Joan Hostetler has shown over at HistoricIndianapolis.com, Louisa Magruder lived next to the so-called ghost bridge from the 1870s until her death in 1900 at age 92. The elderly woman must have heard these spooky stories, since she was probably the phantom’s closest neighbor.
Louisa’s land along Pogue’s Run had once been part of a farm and orchard owned by Indiana Governor Noah Noble, whose father kept the Magruders in slavery back in Virginia and Kentucky. The Magruders were freed when the Nobles moved north to Indiana around 1820, though they continued to be employed as servants in the governor’s family. Louisa, who had been a nanny for the Nobles, lived along the creek for almost thirty years after the Civil War.
What might have been the real inspiration for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — her father Thomas’ house at the corner of East Market St. and North College Ave. — sat barely a mile southwest of her house in Cottage Home. The novelist Harriet Stowe’s brother, abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, was a Presbyterian minister in Indianapolis in the 1840s and often visited the Magruder cabin, where he must have known her, and Stowe herself lived in Cincinnati. As pioneer historian J.P. Dunn writes in his 1910 History of Greater Indianapolis: “It is the testimony of the Noble family that ‘Mrs. Stowe was a frequent visitor at Uncle Tom’s cabin, and wrote much of her book there’. . . Uncle Tom had but two children, Moses and his younger sister Louisa, and they were middle-aged people when Mrs. Stowe knew them.”
Spring is here, which means it’s getting muddy. Check out these stories from the soggier part of town:
You might never guess that several parts of Indianapolis lying well inside the city limits are built on old swamp lands. Turn back the clock to the 1940s and new homes and roads in southeast Broad Ripple are literally sinking into the earth. Turn it back another century still, and the hoot-owls and swamp creatures who easily outnumber humans in Marion County are living practically downtown. (In fact, the whole county was named for Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox” of Revolutionary South Carolina.)
Two old wetlands, sometimes called bogs or sloughs, played a fascinating part in the capitol city’s history.
Fletcher’s Swamp is long gone but used to sit just east of the Old North Side, between Cottage Home and Martindale-Brightwood. A couple of hundred acres in size, the swamp occupied an area more or less centered around the future I-65/I-70 interchange. Pogue’s Run flowed just to the south.
An article in the Indianapolis Journal on December 15, 1889, describes the setting. The author, probably the young journalist and historian Jacob Piatt Dunn, writes about an area northeast of Ninth Street and College Avenue:
To the boys of twenty-five years ago [circa 1864] this area was known as Fletcher’s swamp, and was a famous place for black and red haws, fox grapes and other wild fruits that only a youngster would think of eating. Fifty years ago [the 1830’s] this place was a verible dismal swamp, impenetrable even to the hunter except in the coldest winter, for it was a rare thing for the frost to penetrate the thick layer of moss and fallen leaves that covered the accumulated mass of centuries, and which was constantly warmed by the living springs beneath.
Today the old swamp area is within easy walking distance of Massachusetts Avenue, but you won’t find a trace of it. “About on a line with Twelfth Street” near the center of the swamp “was an acre, more or less, of high land,” a spot “lifted about the surrounding morass.” The writer — again, probably J.P. Dunn — thought that this high, dry spot had once been a “sanctuary” for “desperadoes and thieves who preyed upon the early settlers.” (Northern Indiana swamps, like the one around Bogus Island in Newton County, were notorious hideouts for counterfeiters and horse thieves. Elaborate hidden causeways were said to give entrance to remote islands on the edge of the vast Kankakee Swamp, the “Everglades of the North.”)
In the 1830s, Fletcher’s Swamp became one of the slushier stops on the Underground Railroad. Calvin Fletcher, a Vermont-born lawyer and farmer whose 1,600-acre farm once included most of the Near East Side, was an active lawbreaker during the days of the Fugitive Slave Act. For several decades, many Hoosier opponents of slavery, primarily Quakers, funneled hundreds if not thousands of African American fugitives toward Westfield in neighboring Hamilton County. (Westfield was a major Quaker settlement before the Civil War, and other “stations” around Indianapolis focused on getting fugitives there.) Wetlands, usually hard to penetrate, were an ideal hideout, since the bloodhounds that bounty-hunters used to track fugitives lost their scent here. And like the counterfeiters on Bogus Island, refugees from slavery used retractable wooden “steps” across the swamp to help avoid detection.
Although not Quakers themselves, Fletcher and his family helped many African Americans flee north to Michigan and Canada.
Fletcher also owned the swamp the fugitives hid in. In the language of 1889, the writer for the Journal recalled one story about the place:
Calvin Fletcher, Sr., became the owner of this swamp, or the greater part of it. Spring, summer, and autumn he was in the habit of riding horseback all around it. . . Mr. Fletcher delighted in the study of nature, especially in birds (and in the quiet of this swamp was bird life in sufficient variety for an Audubon or a Wilson), and he knew every flier and nest on its borders.
A tenant of a cabin near this swamp told the story that his attention was often attracted to Mr. Fletcher, for the reason that he rode out that way so early, and usually with a sack thrown over the horse’s neck. The curiosity of the dweller in the cabin was excited to that degree that, one morning, he furtively followed the solitary horseman. It was about sunrise, and he saw Mr. Fletcher hitch his nag to a sapling, take off the sack (which for some reason the narrator supposed to contain corn-bread and bacon), walk a little way into the covert, and then give a call, as if calling cattle. There was, in answer, a waving of elders, flags and swamp-grass, with an occasional plash in the water, and finally appeared the form of a tall, muscular negro, with shirt and breeches of coffee-sacking. He came silently out to the dry land, took the sack from the visitor’s hand, spoke a few words inaudible to the straining ears of the listener and hastily disappeared in the recesses of the swamps. So, after all, Mr. Fletcher’s favorite bird, and a very unpopular one in that day, too, was the blackbird.
The swamp might have had strange bedfellows during the Civil War. The dense thickets and morasses here were an ideal hideout for Confederate POW’s who escaped from the Union Army’s Camp Morton, which sat just west of here, near the future intersection of 19th Street and Central Avenue. Calvin Fletcher’s son, Stephen Keyes Fletcher, claimed in 1892: “During the war the swamp was this great hiding place for escaped prisoners from Camp Morton.”
The original Butler University, which sat at 13th and College until 1875, was another neighbor of Fletcher’s Swamp. When a fugitive, aided by local abolitionists, escaped from jail downtown and fled on horseback, trying to get to the swamp, he ended up at Northwestern Christian University, as Butler was called, and was arrested on campus. “The capture of the negro brought on a heated battle among the students of the university, some of whom were from the South,” the anonymous Journal writer claimed. “A pitched battle followed between them and the black Republican students, which resulted in nothing more serious than some blackened eyes and ensanguined noses. The scene of this battle is now the playground for the children of the Indianapolis Orphan Asylum.”
What happened to Fletcher’s Swamp? Stephen Fletcher, who apparently inherited the property after Calvin’s death in 1866 — he ran a nursery nearby — told some of the story using terminology not employed today.
About this same time the negroes began flocking over from Kentucky and other Southern states. My father, being a great friend of the colored man, was inclined to provide them with homes and work as far as possible. After filling up everything in the shape of a house, I then let them build cabins at the edge of the swamp, on high ground, just north of the Belt railroad, and about where Baltimore Avenue now runs. I soon had quite a settlement, which was named by my brother, Dr. W.B. Fletcher, “Monkey Jungle,” and the location is known to this day  by that name by those familiar with it then.
The 1889 writer for the News concurred:
The clearing of the swamp was an accident of President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation. Hundreds of colored men, with their families, came from the South to this city. It was a class of labor new to Indianapolis, and for a time there was a disinclination to employ them. Mr. Fletcher, however, gave every man with a family the privilege of taking enough timber to build a cabin, and of having ground for a “truck patch,” besides paying so much a cord for wood delivered on the edge of the swamp. Quite a number of the negroes availed themselves of this offer of work and opportunity for shelter…
Calvin Fletcher, Jr., drained what was left of his father’s swamp in the 1870s by dredging it and connecting it to the “Old State Ditch.” Thus it shared the fate of thousands of acres of Hoosier wetlands sacrificed to agriculture and turned into conventional cropland.
An 1891 Journal article on the “State Ditch” calls Fletcher’s Swamp one of two “bayous” that threatened valuable property on the then-outskirts of Indianapolis.
The other “bayou” was the fascinating Bacon’s Swamp. Today, the area that used to be covered by this large Marion County bog is part of Broad Ripple. Although Google Maps still shows a lake there called Bacon’s Swamp, this is really just a pond, re-engineered out of what used to be a genuine freshwater wetland.
Like its neighbor a little to the south, Bacon’s Swamp was created by the melting Wisconsin Glacier. About 20,000 years ago, the ice left an indent on the land that filled with water. As limnologists (freshwater scientists) describe, the process of swamp formation, lakes age and die like living creatures, filling up with sediment and plant matter and gradually losing the oxygen in their depths. Bacon’s Swamp evolved into a peat bog, one of the southernmost in the United States.
Like Fletcher’s Swamp, it took its name from a prominent local farmer active as a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad. A native of Williamstown, Massachusetts, Hiram Bacon moved to this remote spot with his wife Mary Blair in 1821. (Bacon was 21 years old, had studied law at Williams College, but due to poor health joined a government surveying expedition to the Midwest at age 19. He liked Indiana and stayed.) Presbyterians, the Bacons became friends with Henry Ward Beecher, brother of the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, when he served as minister of Second Presbyterian Church downtown. Beecher often came out to Bacon’s Swamp in the 1840s, when this was a remote part of Marion County.
Hiram and Mary Bacon actively helped fugitive slaves escape through the area. A 1931 article in the Indianapolis Star claimed that “The Bacon house stands on the east side of the road [now the paved Keystone Avenue], and the large barn was on the west side. In it was a wheat bin, which could be entered only from outside by a ladder. It was usually concealed by piles of hay. Here and in the bin in the cider house, the fugitives were hidden and conveyed after dark to the next depot . . . The matter was never discussed in public.” At night, fugitives hid out in the peat bog across from the Bacon dairy farm.
The 400-acre family farm was located approximately where Glendale Mall sits today. (Most of east Broad Ripple would have been deep in the morass back in the mid-1800s.) Empty in the 1930s, the site of the Bacon farmhouse is occupied today by The Donut Shop at 5527 N. Keystone.
Around 1900, this area, now considered part of Broad Ripple, was called Malott Park. Not to be confused with today’s Marott Park, Malott Park was a small railroad town later annexed by Indianapolis. Barely a century ago, it was one of the last stops on a railroad line that connected northern Marion County with the Circle downtown. Until World War II, Glendale was a far-flung place out in the country.
Walter C. Kiplinger, a chemistry teacher and tree doctor for Indianapolis public schools, wrote a fascinating article about the peat bog for the Indianapolis News in 1916.The part of the bog he described was about a mile north of the State Fairgrounds, near 50th Street and Arsenal Park. Now a major residential neighborhood, a hundred years ago it sounds like GPS coordinates were the only thing we’d recognize about the place:
You can reach it very easily if you have a machine [car] by taking the White River road to Malott Park, but when the spring rambling fever comes it is much more easy to go cross-country. It is just a pleasant afternoon’s hike there and back. . . If common courtesy is observed in closing gates and keeping off fields where the crops might be injured, the owners of the farm lands usually do not enforce their trespass notices. . .
How much peat there is in Bacon’s slough or how thick the bed is, no one seems to know. . . Whatever the average depth, it is as truly a peat bog as any in Ireland.
Serious proposals to harvest peat in Indianapolis were mentioned in the press from 1905 until the 1920’s, when the idea was apparently dropped. Other parts of Indiana, especially up north, also explored the possibility of using peat as a substitute for coal. During World War I, the U.S. and Canada exported sphagnum moss from North American peat bogs to Europe, where a cotton shortage had led army doctors to experiment with peat bandages on the Western Front. The moss served as a kind of natural antibiotic and was a success when used to dress wounds. (The story made it into the South Bend News-Times in 1918.)
Use of peat has always been widespread in Europe. Not a fossil fuel, it emits an odorless, smokeless heat and an “incredible ambiance.” For millennia, it has served as a cheap heat source in rural Ireland and Britain (where it also gives the “smoky” flavor to Scotch whisky.) The Indianapolis News ran an article about “inexhaustible” Irish peat in 1916, informing Hoosiers that “Mixed with crude molasses from sugar mills it is also used as a forage for cattle, while semi-successful efforts have been made to convert the vegetable fibers into a cheap grade of paper.” In 1929, a massive 40% of the Soviet Union’s energy came from peat, but today, large-scale industrial harvesting is only common in Ireland and Finland.
As an alternative fuel source, peat nearly became a reality in central Indiana in the early 1900s. E.H. Collins, a “scientific” farmer from Hamilton County, touted that the “earth that would burn” in the summer of 1905.
Collins owned a farm a mile north of the State Fairgrounds, in the vicinity of Bacon’s Swamp. An article on August 19 in the Indianapolis News refers to the 30-acre peat bog he “discovered” as the “Collins Bog.” The farmer estimated that it held about 400,000 tons of the fuzzy stuff.
The 1905 article is a strange flashback, envisioning a grand future that never really came about.
The announcement that a good fuel deposit has been found at the city limits and can be drawn on in case Indianapolis gets into a fuel pinch is of great importance to a city that, thus far, has been left out of practically every fuel belt in Indiana in recent years — in fact, since she was the very center of the stove wood belt. Too far west to be in the gas belt, too far east to be in the coal fields and outside of the oil territory, Indianapolis, since the old cordwood days, has been a negative quantity in the state’s fuel supply. . .
The discovery of good peat deposits around Indianapolis calls attention to the fact that Indiana sooner or later is to come to the front as a peat-producing state.
Obviously, this never happened. Peat was briefly harvested in Bacon’s Swamp in the mid-20th century, as it was in a few other spots throughout northern Indiana, but the resource was mostly used for gardening, not as a rival to coal.
As Indianapolis’ economic downturn and white flight led to the explosion of Broad Ripple as a suburb in the 1950s, the swamp was more and more threatened. Conservationists were mostly ignored when they argued that the swamp protected creatures who keep insect populations in check and therefore help farmers and gardeners. In February 1956, three children drowned trying to save a puppy who had fallen through the ice in one of the lakes here, prompting residents in the area to push for “condemning” and obliterating the “deadly swamp.”
While the squishy, “bottomless” ground was a constant problem for developers — devouring roads in 1914 and 1937 — gradually only a tiny remnant pond was left, just west of Keystone Ave and a block south of Bishop Chatard High School. Yet the tree doctor Walter Kiplinger did remember one man who kept himself warm with a satisfying peat fire in Indianapolis back in the day.
“There used to be one from the ‘ould sod’ [Ireland] who lived in a shack near the hog pens east of the slough,” Kiplinger remembered during World War I.
His name was Michael O’Something-or-other, I’m not certain what, but he was a gentleman in the highest sense of the word. There was nothing hyphenated about his Americanism, but is a man any the worse American for having a bit of sentimental feeling for the old country in his makeup? Surely when one has a bit of Ireland’s own bog land in his own back yard, you might say, he has a perfect right to dig and use the peat for fuel. . .
Bacon’s Slough will probably go the way of similar places; but one should not be too pessimistic. The Irish may mobilize some St. Patrick’s Day, and go out and save it just for the sake of that peat bog. You can never tell.
In a previous post about “ghoul busters,” I mentioned the body-snatching problem that was a major issue in turn-of-the-century Indianapolis and throughout the U.S. for most of the 1800s. Driven by the need for “fresh material” on dissecting tables at American medical colleges, the longstanding problem of body thievery was widespread and decades-old.
Originally allowed by law to bring only executed felons and the unclaimed poor into the classroom for anatomical study, doctors facing increasing enrollment at nineteenth-century medical schools were forced to prey on ordinary citizens even after “Anatomy Acts” made legal acquisition easier. Though such data hardly show up on the census records, physicians nabbed tens of thousands of bodies from poorly-guarded graves in city and country alike. Tragically, providing bodies for classrooms was a burden that fell disproportionately on African Americans, who play into American medical history both as the robbers and the robbed, the main instruments and victims of grave robbery and desecration into the 1940s.
Ghouls (grave robbers in 19th-century speak) often ignited civil disturbances, like the “Anatomy Riots” that rocked New York City in 1788. (Twenty people were killed on that occasion.) An English robber kept a laconic but harrowing record of his thefts in 1811-12, published in 1896 as The Diary of a Resurrectionist.Often overlooked as a cause of violence on both sides of the Atlantic, the ghouls supposedly unearthed many of the specters that still haunt America.
Indiana was no stranger to this mostly forgotten practice. In the 1860s, well-substantiated fears of the “Resurrection Man” led to the creation of Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery, now one of the largest in the U.S., designed partly to ward off desecration of the dead by needy medical faculties. Staffed by pistol-toting guards at the turn of the century, Crown Hill ensured that families would no longer have to stand watch over their loved ones’ final resting place until decomposition rendered the remains useless to science.
Further digging into Hoosier newspapers turns up a vast trove of journalism and folklore on this bizarre aspect of medical history. One of the wilder and more entertaining tales from the heyday of the “resurrectionists” comes from Andrew Jackson Grayson, a veteran newspaperman of Madison, Indiana, and is set just before the Mexican War.
In the annals of Hoosier journalism, Grayson had a knack for recognizing a good story. Born at Sandcreek in Decatur County in 1838, at age three he moved sixty miles south with his family to the old Ohio river town of Madison. He later described Madison as a “queer old town. . . the Mecca of Indiana, the gem of the Ohio Valley.” In 1861, the 21-year-old enlisted in the 6th Indiana Infantry and fought in the first land battle of the Civil War at Phillipi, Virginia. (While the war was still on, he published a humorous memoir of the regiment’s role in the Virginia campaign.) Mustered out in 1862 due to varicose veins that developed in his left leg after a forced march to Shiloh, he came back to southern Indiana and at age 22, went to work for the Madison Courier. Grayson worked in the printing trade for the rest of his life.
Like the old river town itself, his grave-robber story comes from before the war and is a sort of “crossroads” of Hoosier history. It also taps into a confusing vein of folklore.
Madison had one of the few medical colleges in antebellum Indiana. Consequently, even small towns nearby often had surprisingly qualified (and interesting) doctors. One of the doctors was Charles Schussler, a German immigrant. Educated at the universities of Tübingen and Vienna, he came to New York in 1828, fought in the Texas Revolution, lived in New Orleans for a while, prospected in California during the Gold Rush, then came back east in the early 1850s to set himself up in medical practice in Madison, where he helped found the Madison Medical Institute. (Though the institute went out of existence long ago, the physician’s house is a bed-and-breakfast today.)
For instruction purposes, Schussler often had to steal bodies. According to one story, on a secret grave-robbing operation he and a band of “ghouls” were forced to contend with a “human icicle” they dug up one frigid winter night, probably in a country graveyard. As the frozen body bounced around the wagon while the team sped away from the cemetery, the stiff smashed into Schussler’s foot. The doctor reportedly cried out in agony, then attacked it in a temporary fit of insanity, screaming “Hurt my foot, will you?!”
One of the protagonists of the anonymous doctor’s tale later recorded by Grayson was thought to be with Schussler that night. Part of a trio of fascinating brothers who practiced medicine in southeastern Indiana in the mid-1800s, Dr. John W. Mullen was born to an Irish family in Pennsylvania. Like Schussler, he went to Texas around 1830, where he served as a page to Sam Houston and almost died of yellow fever. Tiring of Texas, Mullen went back to Philadelphia, trained as a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania, then moved to Madison.
Mullen’s elder brother, Alexander, was also a protagonist in Grayson’s story. Born in Ireland in 1813 but raised near Philadelphia, Alexander Mullen ran away from home to join the American Merchant Marine, first training as a doctor on a ship, then at Louisville Medical College in Kentucky. His Irish pioneer family had moved west to Ripley County, Indiana, in the meantime, hence his own move to the Hoosier State around 1840. Alexander served as Prison Physician at the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City, the regimental surgeon of the 35th Indiana Infantry (the “Irish Regiment”) in the Civil War, and finally moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he died in 1897. In the 1840s, he was practicing medicine in the small town of Napoleon. He also trained country doctors at the nearby Versailles Medical Seminary, which once sat on the courthouse square.
(Irish-born Alexander Mullen, left, gave medical lectures in Versailles. His brother, the pediatrician, soldier, and Irish-American radical B.F. Mullen, right, was also a grave robber.)
The folklore begins to come fast and furious, but around 1846, when Alexander was in his early thirties, his other brother, Bernard Mullen, was either studying medicine or practicing alongside him in Versailles or Napoleon.
If there is anyone who dispels the eerie, Hollywood stock image of a grave robber, it is definitely B.F. Mullen. One of the earliest pediatricians in the Hoosier State, when the Mexican War broke out in 1847, the 22-year-old enlisted in James Henry Lane’s 3rd Indiana Regiment and became the youngest surgeon ever to serve in the U.S. Army, being appointed to that post at the General Hospital in Jalapa, Mexico. (As Grayson’s story will show, Mullen was probably driven into the army to avoid the scandal of being labeled a grave robber back home.) In the 1850s, Mullen, an Irish Catholic, became a vocal opponent of the nativist “Know Nothing” Party, which tried to prevent immigration, especially from Ireland. Acclaimed as an orator, Mullen eventually became active in the Fenian Brotherhood, a fraternal society that was a forerunner to the global Irish Republican Brotherhood whose last leader was Michael Collins.
During the Civil War, B.F. Mullen would serve as Colonel of the 35th Indiana “Irish” Regiment, where his brother Alexander was surgeon. Col. Mullen, former ghoul, led the 35th Indiana into the “Battle Above the Clouds” at Missionary Ridge in Tennessee and helped ward off John Hunt Morgan’s raid on Madison itself. After the war, the colonel practiced medicine in Madison until 1871, then moved to Terre Haute. In January 1879, Mullen was Democratic candidate for Indiana State Librarian, but died of tuberculosis in an Indianapolis hotel a month later.
On to the story.
According to Grayson’s version of the tale in the Indianapolis Journal, Alexander and Bernard Mullen were teaching a medical class at Versailles, probably in 1845. More likely, Bernard was the third student who got entangled with a “posse” at the Cliff Hill Cemetery above Laughery Creek (now Versailles Lake). The other two students were John B. Glass, who may have ended up in Missouri or Colorado, and Jonathan W. Gordon, the eponymous origin of the Versailles landmark called “Gordon’s Leap” since the 1800s. Originally from Pennsylvania, Gordon had come to town in 1844 to practice law. He afterwards fought in the Mexican War, served as a major in the Civil War, entered Hoosier politics, and helped future President Benjamin Harrison get started in the law when Harrison first came to Indianapolis.
But as the story shows, around 1845 the lawyer-doctor was a famous local lawbreaker.
(Major Jonathan W. Gordon, soldier-doctor and occasional “ghoul,” went on to become speaker of the Indiana House, Prosecuting Attorney for Marion County, and the “most prominent criminal lawyer” in the state. He died in 1887 and was buried at Crown Hill. A vintage postcard shows Bluff Springs near the site where Gordon and/or his companion John Glass allegedly jumped to avoid being lynched.)
“‘The sensational instances of grave-robbing that have just come to light in Indianapolis remind me of a similar event in which the late Maj. Jonathan W. Gordon figured when he was a young man,” said Andrew J. Grayson, of Madison. “The incident occurred near Versailles in Ripley County, the place made famous in recent years by the lynching of five men simultaneously. [Five “desperadoes” were killed just outside the Cliff Hill Cemetery in 1897 at a spot called “The Hanging Tree.”] Oddly enough, Major Gordon and his companions came near figuring in a lynching bee themselves. They only escaped an untimely and shameful death at the rope’s end by making one of the most thrilling leaps ever attempted by a human being. The spot at which the perilous jump was made by the young men in question is known to this day as ‘Gordon’s Leap.’
“I obtained the full particulars of the grave-robbery in which young Gordon participated from a veteran physician of Madison,” continued Mr. Grayson. “I was sitting in the old doctor’s office one day chatting pleasantly with him when I asked him suddenly if he had not in his long career had some experiences that were of more than passing interest. ‘I have had quite a few,’ he replied, with a smile.
“Upon being pressed to narrate some of his experiences he consented, and the first story he told was that of ‘Gordon’s Leap.’ ‘Nearly fifty years ago,’ said the veteran physician, ‘the town of Madison could boast a medical institute. I was a student in the school, together with a number of other young sprigs that were desirous of receiving their initial instruction in that primitive academy of science.
“‘About that time Jonathan W. Gordon, who afterwards turned to the law and became one of the most brilliant advocates of the Indiana bar, was a medical student. He and a young man named John Glass attended a course of private medical lectures given by Drs. B.F. and A.J. Mullen at their office in the town of Napoleon, not far from Versailles, in which Gordon resided.
“‘Dr. J.W. Mullen, a brother of the Napoleon physicians of the same name, came one summer from a Philadelphia medical college, in which he was taking a course of instruction, to visit his brothers. He met and formed a close friendship with young Gordon. One day he received from Gordon a note saying that a body that would be an excellent subject for dissection had just been buried in the cemetery near Versailles and proposing that the trio, Gordon, Mullen, and Glass, make arrangements to lift the corpse from its resting place. The recipient of the note entered heartily into the ghoulish scheme and arrangements were made to carry it out.
“‘It seemed, however, that a Dr. [William] Anderson of Versailles was suspected of entertaining body-snatching proclivities and the people residing in the vicinity of the cemetery made preparations to give him a warm reception if he should make an attempt to secure the subject in question.
“‘At the appointed time Gordon, Mullen and Glass set out for the lonely burial ground, and when they reached the place they began without hesitation the work of disinterring the coffin containing the coveted body. They had dug clear down to the box and were raining blows on that with a pick in order to force it open when the enraged citizens in ambush descended upon them with a fierce rush. The young fellows knew well that to be caught meant nothing short of lynching. There was but one way of escape.
“‘A few yards away was a precipice about one hundred and twenty feet in height, the top of which looked down upon Laughery Creek. Fully fifty feet of the cliff was a perpendicular wall. To the young men was presented the alternative of dying surely, but disgracefully, at the hands of the mob or of risking a less shameful death and possibly gaining liberty by leaping over the frowning precipice. With Gordon to think was to act. Hurling himself like a cannonball towards the precipice and shouting to his comrades to follow, the daring youth leaped without hesitation over the face of the cliff. Fired by their leader’s amazing courage, Glass and Mullen jumped after him. Down the trio plunged for, it seemed, an interminable length of time, clutching frantically at branches of trees projecting from ledges, until at last they fell in one quivering, panting heap of humanity into a tangled mass of brush at the bottom, which served to prevent them from being instantly killed.
“The leap would have been pronounced suicidal by anyone not under the stress that weighed on these young men. They, however, escaped serious injuries and what was better still, vengeance of the mob. Young Glass sustained a dislocation of an arm, while Gordon and Mullen were simply shaken up and bruised.
“The trio of daredevils were afterward arrested and brought to trial on a charge of grave-robbing, but fortunately made good their escape through the astuteness of Judge Miles Eggleston, father of the famous author [Edward Eggleston], who discovered a flaw in the indictment against the young men. . .”
The doctor’s version of “Gordon’s Leap” that Grayson heard probably had a couple of serious errors. The Mullen brother who accompanied Gordon and Glass to the graveside was almost definitely Bernard, who would have been about twenty if the jump happened in 1845. (Gordon was about twenty-five.) Several sources suggest that both Bernard Mullen and Jonathan Gordon were forced to run away and join the army during the Mexican War due to the fallout from their “ghoulish scheme.”
As long ago as 1884, the truth or falsehood of the leap was hotly debated. On May 15, a piece appeared in the Versailles Republican. The writer said that he had asked Gordon himself about the location of the famous jump:
We asked him if we had been correctly informed as to the locality. As he had visited the spot the day before, he was certain as to the place from which he leaped. But he says he jumped from a tree that stood upon the verge of the bluff and now that tree is not only gone but ten or more feet of the bank is gone. At all events, it was a fearful leap. One of the men, who was with him, also jumped and received severe injuries…
As to the identity of the coveted corpse that night, the Versailles Republican claimed: “A black man had just been buried there, and it was his body the students were after.”
The story of the leap stayed alive in folklore but varied from telling to telling. The location became a famous Ripley County landmark. In 1941, the WPA’s travel guide to Indiana mentioned it. (WPA writers collected a large amount of Hoosier folklore during the Great Depression, though sadly not much of it made it into the WPA guides.) The author makes no mention of any of the Irish Mullen brothers, claiming instead that Gordon and Glass were studying with the Dublin-trained physician Dr. William Anderson — who was, in fact, practicing in Versailles around that time. In the WPA writer’s abbreviated telling, when the lynch mob showed up, Glass escaped through the foliage, while Gordon jumped over the cliff, broke a leg, and dragged himself to a cabin, where he got hold of a horse and fled the county.
More variations are told. Ripley County in Vintage Postcards states that “Glass ran the wrong direction and fell over the precipice.” Alan F. Smith, author of Tales of Versailles, insists that the “leaper” was John Glass. Smith also adds: “Dr. Gordon lost a patient and could not understand why. He was quite interested in performing an autopsy on the body, but the family of the deceased would have nothing to do with the desecration. . . In the darkness, Glass ran over the cliff. . . but, perhaps because Gordon was the dead patient’s doctor, the general public always held the belief that it was he who had jumped.”
Folkorist Ron Baker caught one more elaboration of the tale, which shows up in his classic anthology Hoosier Folk Legends (1982).As someone told Baker: “There was a Dr. Gordon in Versailles. There had been a strange death. Gordon thought an old man’s wife had poisoned him and wanted an autopsy. The family wouldn’t let him. One night real late, he dug up the body. When he got the casket open, the cops and the family came out. Gordon took off running. There’s a 200-250 foot drop cliff at the edge of the cemetery. At the foot of the cliff is Versailles Lake. Gordon fell off and broke a leg. He swam away, and no one ever saw him after that. Now this is called Gordon’s Leap.” (This is certainly false. Versailles Lake, a reservoir, was constructed by damming Laughery Creek in the 1950s.)
Unfortunately, the story wouldn’t be complete without the harrowingly sad coda Grayson appended to it in 1901.
Lest Gordon be considered a hero rather than a grave robber, it’s important to remember that the bodies stolen from rural and urban cemeteries by “resurrection men” were, more often than not, African American. (So were many of the resurrectionists themselves.) White doctors were rarely prosecuted for theft, however, especially if the body was black, whereas African American “ghouls” in their employ often went to court and were sometimes shot and killed by police on the spot.
At one time (1884) the Versailles Republican mentioned that the town’s citizens were considering putting up a monument to Gordon “the leaper.” (In fact, the Ripley County Historical Society erected a historical marker at the Cliff Hill Cemetery in 2013). It is worth noting that no such marker exists to memorialize the thousands of African American bodies robbed from Indiana cemeteries over at least a century.
But I’ll leave it to the doctor from Madison to tell this tale. The date isn’t mentioned, but he claims the event happened before the Civil War:
There is but one authenticated instance of body-snatching in the Madison cemetery, the body taken being that of an old colored man named Taylor. The reason body-snatching was rare in Madison was that we usually got our subjects from rural graveyards. But to return to the Taylor case: A son of the old man was employed as a messenger in the office of Dr. H., in Madison, and after his father died the lad suspected his employer of having stolen the remains. This suspicion, I remember, was aroused by a remark the youth overheard Dr. H. make. The poor boy suffered intensely from his suspicions of his employer, for in those days a negro’s word was worthless against that of a white.
One day, when the doctor was out of his office, the boy decided to put into effect a plan he had evolved. He knew that the doctor had in his closet a skeleton that he used for purposes of study and demonstration. He also knew that his father, when living, had struck himself on the ankle bone with an ax, chipping off a piece of the bone.
Gaining entrance to the closet, the youth peered long and earnestly at the grewsome object suspended therein. Oddly enough one ankle bone of the skeleton had had a piece chipped from it. To the mind of the imaginative young darky the skeleton of his father, as he verily believed it to be, seemed to curse the ruthless hand that had dragged it from its peaceful place in the City of the Dead.
Years rolled by and the doctor disappeared from our midst, entering the Confederate army and becoming a surgeon in the Civil War. The colored office boy grew to manhood, married and had offspring gathered about him. Death visited his little home one day and took from him one of the little ones. The hideous vision he had had in the doctor’s office before came back to him suddenly and with wonderful distinctness. Here was his opportunity to satisfy himself as to the truth of his surmise formed at that time. Accordingly he requested the sexton of the cemetery to permit the body of the child to be buried in the grave of its grandfather. The official assented and the old grave was re-opened. When the bottom was reached there was found, true to the long-entertained belief, the remnants of a coffin, but no trace of the body it once contained.
From the late 1800’s into the early years of the 20th century, Indiana’s capital city had a body problem. How to protect people who were already dead?
Around 1900, even supernatural visitors to the city’s cemeteries would not have been surprised to find “the quick” prowling among the dead. For decades, grave robbers and vandals regularly stalked Indianapolis’ burial grounds – until the city took bold steps to stop them.
An early description of how big the “body-snatcher” problem was comes from an article in the Indianapolis Journal, published just before Halloween on October 27, 1899. The story concerns a shocking discovery at the Greenlawn Cemetery.
You’d be hard pressed to find any trace of Greenlawn today, but for most of the nineteenth century, this was one of the major city cemeteries. Founded in 1821, while Indianapolis was first being laid out, Greenlawn was the original city burying grounds. Situated along the White River just north of what became Kentucky Ave., the cemetery is thought to have been the oldest in Indianapolis. (Tiny family cemeteries may have existed in the area before then, but no trace of them has been found.) Today, the once hallowed 25-acre spot is occupied by the Diamond Chain Company, just west of Lucas Oil Stadium and just north of where I-70 crosses the river. (The company once manufactured about 60% of the bicycle chains in America.)
Over 1100 Hoosier pioneers were interred at Greenlawn. Vermont-born Indiana governor James Whitcomb (1795-1852) lay there until his daughter ordered his body moved to massive, prestigious Crown Hill Cemetery in 1898. Among those who also found their first, but not final, resting place by the White River were 1200 Union soldiers and over 1600 Confederate POW’s who died of illnesses and battle wounds at the U.S. Army’s Camp Morton or in city hospitals nearby.
Greenlawn, however, shared the fate of all those who came to call it home in the nineteenth century. The cemetery, too, died. Indianapolis’ downtown burying grounds faced all the normal cemetery problems, such as vandalism of tombstones by youth and overcrowding, especially after the numerous Civil War interments. Spring and winter floods on the White River were also a major factor behind its closure to new burials in 1890.
But another cause also drove the city to declare Greenlawn itself “defunct”, and was far more disturbing in nature. As Indianapolis newspapers reminded their readers in 1899, the problem had been around for decades.
While performing some of the earliest removals out to Crown Hill, families and city officials unearthed the grisly fact that “in reality, few if any bodies” buried at Greenlawn prior to the 1890’s were still in their graves.
Robbing a grave for jewels and other valuables is a tale as old as time. Preventative measures against the desecration of graves and theft of items meant to stay with the dead had actually led to the creation of some of the greatest mortuary art, including Egypt’s pyramids. Even daring archaeologists were technically glorified grave robbers. The plot of William Faulkner’s great novel Intruder in the Dust (1948) centers around a spinster and a teenager trying to clandestinely remove a body from a fictional cemetery in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, to prove a man innocent.
Outright theft of bodies themselves, however, was something that really only emerged after the 1500’s, when the more accurate study of human anatomy initiated the emergence of modern medical science. In the early days of modern medicine, however, the primary provider of bodies for anatomical study was the public hangman, not the grave robber. Rembrandt’s famous painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp shows doctors-in-training gathered around the body of a Dutch thief, Aris Kindt, who had been strung up on a rope just a few hours before he went to the dissecting table.
Before many centuries were out, though, doctors began to find that live thieves were also useful. In the 1800’s, medical faculties often had trouble finding enough bodies for their students to dissect in classrooms. Families were reluctant to donate their loved ones to science. Tragically, the bodies that medical instructors typically got hold of came from the most victimized and outcast members of society. When available, corpses for the dissecting room were found at poorhouses, jails, and mental asylums, for the simple reason that those who died there had often been abandoned by their families.
While many vocal opponents tried to stop the dissection of the poor, if none came to claim a body as a “friend,” medical faculties were legally allowed to use such corpses for the education of future doctors. Most states passed so-called “Anatomy Acts,” modeled on Britain’s of 1832.
It should come as no surprise that the largest number of bodies dissected by medical students from the 1800’s into the 1930’s were those of African Americans. A high number of those paid or encouraged to do the grave-robbing were also black. African Americans often served as medical assistants to white students, as many turn-of-the-century photographs of dissections show, but rarely became doctors then.
The clandestine pilfering of Indianapolis’ unguarded cemeteries stemmed from a constant need for fresh “instructional material” at central Indiana medical schools, including Indiana Medical College, the Physiomedrical College of Indiana, and Greencastle’s Asbury College (now DePauw). Indiana University in Bloomington did not offer courses in anatomy or physiology until September 1903.
The Central College of Physicians and Surgeons, at 212 North Senate Avenue, was built in 1902 and immediately showed up in lurid news stories about illegal body snatching. (The college was an early forerunner of IU Medical School.) Readers of stories in the Indianapolis Journal could easily have formed an image of the college’s medical faculty scouring obituary notices and hiring thieves to steal fresh bodies as soon as the last family member left the cemetery after a funeral. One such story was reported on September 22, 1902. Mrs. Rosa Neidlinger, recently buried at Pleasant Hill Cemetery between Traders Point and New Augusta, was recovered at Central College a few days later. Investigators returned her to her husband, a miller, for a second burial.
The preferred word in newspapers for grave robbers was “ghouls” (a word that comes from Middle Eastern folklore.) At least one story shows that ghouls and their employers were sometimes caught red-handed.
On February 26, 1890, the Journal reported that three prominent Louisville physicians had been apprehended and indicted for body-thievery at a New Albany, Indiana cemetery. Four “ghouls”, all African American, employed by the Kentucky doctors were involved. One ghoul, George Brown, was shot through the heart by policemen in the cemetery.
The Journal article from October 1899 describes the bizarre dimensions of the problem at Greenlawn in Indianapolis. Families who ordered exhumations of their relatives at Greenlawn were discovering an astonishingly high rate of empty coffins — or to put it more accurately, coffins with only empty clothes left in them. No bones, no hair. Only shrouds and clothing. Were robbers stripping the bodies at graveside?
A man presumably on trial in Marion County for grave-robbing explained this odd fact to the writer for the Journal, who reported:
At first it was customary to open a grave and take the body out, clothes and all, and either strip it naked on the ground or double it up in a sack and remove the clothes after taking it to a safe place.
This practice was discontinued when one day the city was thrown into an uproar over the finding of a girl’s slipper in the snow beside her newly made grave. She had been buried one afternoon in winter when snow was falling and her relatives came back the following day to look at the grave. Between visits the grave robbers got in their work, and, following the usual custom, did not remove the clothing from the body, but doubled it up and put it in a sack. In doing so one of the dainty slippers fell from one of the feet, and, being white, was not noticed in the snow. During the following morning the snow melted and the relatives, returning to the grave, saw the slipper, and, recognizing it, raised a hue and cry. This made the grave robbers change their methods, and thereafter opening the boxes they stripped all bodies of their clothes and put the garments back in the caskets.
This when related to the authorities explained why in opening the graves within the last few months nothing was to be seen in the caskets but piles of discolored clothes thrown in heaps, with slippers where the head ought to have rested. . .
It has come to be generally understood by the city officials that while Greenlawn has all the outward signs of being a cemetery, there are in reality few, if any, bodies there, and that in view of this fact there should be no opposition to its being transformed into a park.
The Journal writer may not have been exaggerating. Grave robbers and doctors were possibly reluctant to disturb the honored Union dead, who were removed to Crown Hill National Cemetery as early as 1866. Can the same be said of the Confederate dead? Greenlawn’s 1600 Confederate soldiers were the last bodies removed once the city decided to exhume every remaining coffin in Greenlawn for reburial at Crown Hill. This process began in 1912, and was sped up by the fact that the area around Greenlawn had become an unattractive industrial area, which it still is today. The Confederate soldiers were left here until 1931. Buried in a damp area by the river, few of their remains likely would have survived 70 years after the Civil War. Could some of them have been sent to medical schools just after burial?
One of the most fascinating criminal cases in Indianapolis history is the story of Rufus Cantrell. An African American who had moved north from Gallatin, Tennessee with his family and settled in Indianapolis, he was prosecuted for extensive grave-robbing in 1903. When pressed, and perhaps enjoying the media attention, Cantrell came clean, taking investigators around cemeteries all over the city where he and his “gang” had removed corpses. Lawyers tried to prove their client insane, even getting his mother to testify that he had preached and talked to God when he was a teenager.
Cantrell was found guilty and sent to the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City, where he “lay dying of typhoid fever” in June 1904. He survived and later was transferred to the Jeffersonville Reformatory near Louisville. Though few if any white doctors who paid ghouls for their services ever got such sentences, Dr. Joseph C. Alexander, who allegedly worked with Cantrell, went on trial in Marion County in February 1903. When the court failed to convict him, angry farmers in Hamilton County hanged and burned effigies of Dr. Alexander and the judge in the middle of a street in Fishers, shouting “Death to the grave robbers!” When they inspected the graves in a rural cemetery on what became Indianapolis’ North Side, half of the coffins there were found empty.
In 1878, there had occurred the well-publicized heist of Benjamin Harrison’s own father from the family cemetery in North Bend, Ohio. Former Congressman John Scott Harrison, son of Indiana territorial governor and U.S. President William Henry Harrison, was found hanging naked from a rope in an air shaft at Ohio Medical College in Cincinnati, shortly after his son Benjamin came from Indianapolis to oversee his secure burial in a secret grave. Amazingly, John Harrison, Jr., armed with a search warrant, had discovered his father’s body while investigating the disappearance of yet another corpse, that of Augustus Devin, a young tuberculosis victim who had been buried next to the Harrison plot just days earlier. Devin’s body turned up in a vat of brine at the University of Michigan.
All this considered, a major factor driving the surge in burials at Crown Hill at the turn of the century was the increased security taken there to ward off robbers. Modeled on Louisville’s famous (and equally massive) Cave Hill Cemetery, Crown Hill was the resting place of most of Indianapolis’ elite. It eventually became the third largest private burial ground in the country.
As a lengthy article in the the Journal reported on October 5, 1902, surveillance at Crown Hill was extensive. Security involved call boxes for quick communication. It also featured a curious system of “time stamps”. Revolver-toting guards were forced to clock in at different corners of the cemetery every 20 minutes, thus ensuring they didn’t fall asleep or shirk their duties as they monitored every part of the park-like necropolis, which in 1902 housed over 32,000 graves. If they encountered prowlers, the guards were ordered to shoot to kill, and they patrolled the cemetery in all weather. The northwest section, near the future site of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, was considered Crown Hill’s “most dangerous district.”
Body-thieving never totally disappeared. (The actor Charlie Chaplin was stolen from his grave in Switzerland in 1978.) The public also feared other reasons for desecration. When Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was buried with his family at Terre Haute’s Highland Lawn Cemetery in 1926, no individual headstone was placed there. Though Debs’ body had been cremated, the Debs family and his supporters feared that unfriendly vandals or “souvenir”-snatchers, perhaps funded by his political enemies, would try to steal the urn.
Such stories are troubling to read, but a vital part of the city’s history, involving race, science, and medicine. Ultimately, it is a strange fact, surely part of the terror and beauty of the human predicament, that many a grave robber, who almost certainly came from the margins of Indianapolis society, ultimately did help advance medicine and the public welfare.