In Indiana during the 1890s, a creature feature known today as the “Crawfordsville Monster” became fodder for newspaper headlines. People throughout the town claimed they saw this “horrible apparition” in the sky. While the monster’s origins were eventually discovered to be earthly bound, the legendary status of the monster speaks to the power of fake news.
When searching Hoosier State Chronicles (HSC), you never know what you might stumble upon. One term that seemed interesting to delve into was “wild man.” This simple search term did not disappoint. From outdoor hermits and incensed criminals to unfortunate cases of mental illness, tales of the “wild man” abound in the pages of Indiana newspapers. Below you will find some of these stories; clicking the image takes you to its page in HSC to learn more.
On the night of All Hallows Eve in 1868, two young Irish girls left a party to pick cabbage in a neighbor’s field. Their neighbor fired at them with a large navy revolver and killed young Bridget Murry. Upon his arrest, the murderer “appeared perfectly unconcerned and indifferent,” according to the Daily Wabash Express. The main question is, of course, why would someone commit murder over the theft of a few vegetables? But there is a second mystery here too: Why would two young girls leave the festive atmosphere of a Halloween party to pick cabbage? Let’s dig in!
We found some delightfully colorful 19th-century Indiana newspaper articles on Halloween celebrations, pranks, spells, and superstitions while searching Hoosier State Chronicles. Some of what we found was surprising! Each October 31 was a night of bonfires, spells, pranks, devilish black cats, and . . . future divining fruits, nuts, and vegetables.
In the decades after the Civil War, Hoosiers continued centuries-old, Celtic-influenced Halloween traditions, carried over from the old world. These traditions and superstitions included the belief that spirits walked the earth on October 31 and could be called upon for favors or glimpses into the future. While we are familiar with the imprint of some of these superstitions today, other traditions have been lost. We were surprised to find that many of the spells and rituals involved young people looking to the spirits to determine their future husband or wife.
The day after Halloween in 1870, the Terre Haute Daily Gazettereported:
Of all the quaint superstitions that have been handed down to us, there are none that have taken a deeper hold upon the popular imagination than the observance of yesterday, the 31st of October, known as All Hallow Eve, or Halloween.
The leading belief in regard to Halloween, is that of all others, it is the time when supernatural influences prevail, the time when spirits, both the visible and invisible world, walk abroad and can be invoked by human powers for the purpose of revealing the mysterious future, and spirits may be called from the vasty [sic] deep at will.
A few years later, in 1872, the Terre Haute Gazettereported on Halloween in Titusville. This small town in Ripley County celebrated with a festival based on the Scottish folk song “Auld Lang Syne,” which traditionally bids farewell to the previous year – fitting for the end of the harvest season. Scottish poet Robert Burns, the author of the song’s lyrics, was also known for his 1785 poem “Halloween.” The newspaper began its Halloween coverage with a few stanzas from that famous poem:
“Some merry, gentle, country folks
Togthe did convene,
To burn their nits, and pou their stocks,
And hay their Halloween.”
The article went on to describe how Hoosiers celebrated Halloween that year:
This anniversary of the “Auld Lang Syne” festival, was pretty generally celebrated in town last evening, in the peculiar manner that has ever marked its recurrence. Out door, gates were unhinged, door-bells were pulled, stumbling blocks tripped unsuspecting pedestrians upon the sidewalks, or if they escaped these dangers below, their hats were knocked off by strings tied across the sidewalks above. A gentleman residing on Main street fell over a washtub upon entering his own domicile, and hardly ceased rubbing his shins before a peck of potatoes pattered down upon his defenseless head. There were hundreds of other similar experiences in town, but we have no time to speak of all the tricks played which the occasion makes allowable, though some of the most ludicrous are worth mentioning.
In addition to committing pranks, young Hoosiers in 1872 called on spirits to see their future. They were particularly interested in whether there was romance in store for them. This idea too is based in Scottish, Celtic tradition, and we’ll explore that in a bit. First, though, some pranks and a divination gone terrible awry – thanks to the Devil, or maybe just an old tom cat. The article continued:
A young man of our acquaintance who prides himself on his “make up,” called at the house of an acquaintance for an evening visit, and found several young ladies assembled there, all deeply engaged in trying to peer into the future by the aid of such agencies as tradition has named as potent, but facts have marked as “too thin.” None of the girls in the party were willing to undergo the ordeal of walking backward down the cellar stairs, with a candle in one hand and a mirror in the other. Our friend thought he would like to see his future wife, and amidst the admiring remarks if the girls at his courage, prepared to go cellarward. His face blanched a little as he began to descend the gloomy stairway amid the whispered utterances of his friends. He stepped firmly, however, with the candle held closely in one hand and the looking-glass, in which the reflection of his future wife’s face was to appear in the other, but when about half way down the stairs, a horrible, unearthly shriek came from below, which sent the feminine crowd around the entranceway to the cellar precipitately to the parlor. At the same time a something, which our hero described as being the Devil, rushed between his legs.
Though naturally brave, this was too much for him, and he dropped both candle and mirror, and losing his balance, fell head first into a barrel of apple butter clear to his arm-pits, and no sooner had he escaped from the butter barrel than he stepped on a potato that was lying on the cellar bottom, his feet slipped out from under him, and he sat down in a crock of lard, at the same time hitting his head against a swinging shelf, which fell, bringing down with it a shower of dough-nuts, pickles canned fruit, and other eatables. The owner of the house appeared upon the scene at this juncture, and escorted the young man to the upper world, where, after scraping the lard and apple butter from his clothes, and combing the dough-nuts out of his tangled hair, he was advised to go home. The Thomas cat, whose hasty exit from the cellar caused the catastrophe, rubbed fondly against the young man’s legs and departed.
Halloween’s origins can be traced back some 2,000 years to the Celtic festival of Samhain. (Learn more about the ancient traditions from the University of the Highlands and Islands). The Celts celebrated their new year at the end of the harvest season on October 31, seemingly like the “Auld Lang Syne” festival mentioned by the Terre Haute newspaper. On this night, the boundary between the world of the living and the dead was more permeable, allowing for premonition and divination. Remarkably, despite the attempt of the Church to replace Samhain with All Saints Day, some of the old traditions carried over into the nineteenth century. For example, the same 1872 article reported on a mishap with a Halloween divination:
A young “fellah” in his teens took some chestnuts to the residence of his girl on Perry street, to tell fortunes with, upon a hot stove. Everything worked pleasantly at first; the old folks went to bed early, and the young couple sat by the kitchen stove, which diffused a glow scarcely warmer than that which emanated form their own hearts. Two plump chestnuts, which had been named after the two beings who were there to watch their movements, were placed upon the heated stove. They reposed for a moment side by side, then the nut named “John” began to waltz around the surface of the stove, and was followed a moment later by “Mary,” the other proxy. As they grew warmer their speed and eccentric evolutions increased, and the young couple were very much interested in the final movements which were to indicate the fate of their own hearts, when unfortunately, “John” exploded and a piece of hot chestnut striking the original Mary in the eye, she took no more interest in the antics of fortune-tellers, but sat down, while her admirer, in his haste to relieve her sufferings, stepped on the cat’s tail.
A howl of mortal agony followed, and a moment later the enjoyment of the evening was marred by the young lady’s father opening the kitchen door, and though clad in a single and nameless garment, he insisted on knowing if it was ‘necessary to raise such a hullabaloo at his time of night’ before he departed. Everything was amicable adjusted, however, and the remainder of “Halloween” enjoyed by the young folks in a more quiet manner.
But the jokes were not all confined to the young people. We hear this morning of flax-seeds emptied into beds, where it occasioned much emotion by it resemblance to “yearling” bed-bugs. Those who retired early were pretty certain to find a cabbage or pumpkin between the sheets. Tempting pieces of pie, with saw-dust stuffing, were generally tendered by loving wives to their husbands, and various other jokes, practical and otherwise, were played in a manner that threatened to take from “All Fools day” the distinction it has hitherto enjoyed.
The practice of removing gate hinges, mentioned in the previous article, seems to have remained popular as it was again mentioned the following year:
Despite the scolding, it appears that young Hoosiers of the 1870s were generally allowed to get away with their pranks without getting into too much trouble. The newspaper allowed this perpetrator to go unnamed:
In the following decade, Hoosiers were still keeping many of the old Halloween traditions alive. An 1885 article from the Terre Haute Evening Mail describes Halloween as the perfect time to divine one’s future spouse using various spells.
There are several such articles to be found in Hoosier State Chronicles, but none more interesting than this 1889 article written for the Indianapolis Journal. The article notes the aforementioned failure of the Church to replace the pagan celebration with All Saints Day and even mentioned Burns’ poem “Halloween” alluded to in Indiana newspapers a decade earlier. An interesting stanza of this poem describes the Scottish tradition of uprooting kale or cabbage plants and reading them for information about one’s future spouse. Hopefully one didn’t pick a kale stalk that was too short or withered and hopefully its roots were covered in dirt – a sign of god fortune or a large dowry. Learn more via the Smithsonian Magazine.
While the Journal article didn’t mention the kale superstition, it did refer to several related traditions:
All boys and girls know what next Thursday, October 31, will be All-Hallow Even, though most of them corrupt its name to “Hallow Eve.” They know that it is a night of mirth and mystery, specially devoted to mischief, fun, incantations, divinations, charms and spells, but very few of them or their elders understand its real significance, or can tell whence it derives its name.
It is many centuries since the Roman Church, finding it impossible, from the great and constantly increasing multitude of the saints, to set apart a separate day for each one, decreed that November 1st should thenceforward be kept as a day in honor of all the saints and that it should be known as All Hallowmas or All Saints’ day, and that the night of October 31st, immediately preceding it, should thereafter be kept as a vigil, and be known as All Hallow Eve, these occasions being still observed in the Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran Churches.
From its first origination Hallow Eve has been invested with a peculiarly mystic character. It is an almost universal superstition that supernatural influences then have unusual power” that devils, witches and fairies are abroad; that all spirits are free to roam through space, and that the spiritual element in all living humanity can be detached from corporal restraint and made to read his own future, or to reveal to others what fate may have in store for them. A there is nothing in the church celebration of the ensuing All Saints to justify these singular ideas and customs associated with Hallow Eve, and as none of them are of a religious character, we may justly regard them as relics of pagan times.
In all ages and countries Hallow Eve has been deemed, as it still is, the occasion par excellence for divining the answer to that momentous question which absorbs so large a share of the thought of romantic young men and maidens: “Who is to marry whom?” The means employed to gain this much-desired information are as quaint and curious as they are numerous and varied. For this purpose every time and every country – almost every district of every country – has had its own charms and spells, peculiar to itself, and they have furnished an almost inexhaustible theme for folk-poets and compilers of folklore.
Those of Scotland have been most graphically described by that greatest of all poets of the people, Robert Burns. In his poem of “Hallow’een” he has given us a most vivid account of more than half a score of Hallow Eve charms and spells peculiar to the Scottish peasantry.
The remainder of the article goes on to detail several spells for reading the future. The first involves throwing blue yarn into an old lime-kiln in order to hear one’s future spouse’s name. The paper notes the slight “difficulty of finding an old lime kiln.”
The second requires a sliver of wood in a glass of water next to one’s bed on Halloween night in order to dream of one’s future husband or wife rescuing them from a river.
Another allows the love-sick to find out if the object of their affection returns their feelings using a pair of roses and a spell.
A young man seeking to see the face of his future wife may do so in a walnut tree with the right incantation at midnight on Halloween.
Sometimes the fates needed only a lock of hair and a strong breeze.
Be careful, however, in choosing a spell. The article’s author has a strong warning from personal experience about the sliver of wood in water and dreams of drowning. Someone may have to die before the dreamer’s true love can be found in real life. In this case, the writer’s own brother. We don’t want to give it all away; read his story on Hoosier State Chronicles!
And in case you were worried that none of the Indiana newspapers covered the spell allowing kale or cabbage to divine one’s mate, do not fear! The Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail has it covered with this article on “Modes of Divination.”
According to the article, besides various spells involving nuts and apples, “young women determined the figure and size of their husbands by drawing cabbages blindfold.” Perhaps this information from Indiana newspapers not only gives us a glimpse into Halloween traditions maintained by 19th-century Hoosiers, but also explains the 1868 murder from the beginning of this post:
Be careful this Halloween, especially if you plan on going hunting for some midnight cabbage!
Yesterday’s post set us to hunting: as blizzards and ice give way to spring lightning and wind, how many other weird weather phenomena lie hidden in the news? Obviously, we’ve never believed that history is boring, so we wondered: how often did our ancestors get killed by lightning or blown away by a stiff breeze?
Here’s a few fascinating stories from the annals of meteorology in the Midwest and beyond.
The image above, thought to be the oldest photograph of lightning, was captured in St. Louis, Missouri, by T. M. Easterly in June 1847, eight years after Jacques-Louis Daguerre announced his invention of the daguerreotype in Paris. At a time when cameras often required exposure times of thirty seconds or more, it’s amazing this was taken at 9:00 P.M.
At the height of the new art form’s popularity, daguerreotypes entered the realm of lightning lore. As part of a growing fascination with photography (Greek for “writing with light”), those tales (including a few of the “tall” variety, surely) were soon making the rounds of American newspapers. Yet there was actually a good scientific explanation behind so-called “lightning daguerreotypes” — and they weren’t the kind Easterly was making in St. Louis.
(The Berkshire County Eagle, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, May 28, 1858.)
What most witnesses of lightning strikes didn’t know in the 1850’s is that these patterns on the skin weren’t “daguerreotypes,” but Lichtenberg figures. Also called keraunographs and lightning flowers, they can look exactly like tree branches, plants and sometimes round coins. (Where the cow shape or the number 44 came from is a bigger mystery.) Named for the 18th-century German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, a student of electrical discharges, the figures often occur after any high-voltage jolt through insulated material like the human body. Not unlike photographs, they can be produced and preserved in glass, resin and wood as 3-D “electrical trees.” They also remain behind as scars.
(Lichtenberg figure on a man who survived a lightning strike.)
Stories about “lightning daguerreotypes” and freak weather accidents spilled into ghost lore, which flourished during the heyday of American spiritualism in the mid- to late-1800s. A branch of Christianity that involved communicating with the dead through mediums, spiritualism was surprisingly mainstream. Some of its older American forerunners were the Shakers, part of a unique utopian movement with roots mostly in New England. (There was also a short-lived Shaker community on the Wabash River north of Vincennes around the time of the War of 1812. Much of its membership was African American.)
The Shakers incorporated all kinds of unusual spiritual phenomena into their unique faith and believed that their founder, an English textile worker and single mother named Ann Lee, was the second coming of Christ. They certainly believed in spirits and spirit possession, so the following story (either from New Hampshire or Connecticut) probably wasn’t too out of the ordinary.
Even as metal daguerreotypes and tintypes gave way to the age of Kodak and the paper photograph, stories about human, animal and other images etched by lightning onto some kind of light-sensitive backdrop didn’t immediately go away. Like Shaker Sam’s lightning-blasted spirit, this story — originating in the Charlottesville (Virginia) Chronicle— also appeared in 1880. It borders on the supernatural.
(The Pantagraph, Bloomington, Illinois, April 13, 1880.)
As we showed in yesterday’s post, wind can be as fearsome and downright bizarre as any lightning bolt. “Freaks of the storm” — from flying cows to airborne newborns — would fill a small book, some of it tragic, but a lot of it funny. Here’s a few more tales of the wind.
When a tornado blasted Drake, Oklahoma, in 1917, it wiped out a whole family — almost…
Mattoon, Illinois, was also hit hard that week, probably as part of the same “patriotic” storm-front — which, as it barreled east from the Plains, wasn’t done pulling tricks.
(Indianapolis Star, May 28, 1917.)
Tornadoes had a knack for randomly sparing some delicate, highly-breakable objects — from babies and chicken eggs to caged birds and loose photographs — while demolishing large buildings and whole towns. This twister struck Louisville, Kentucky in 1890:
Tornadoes could be symbolically choosy — and a little morbid — about what they carried away or spared. Take the cyclone that plowed through part of Omaha in March 1902… and the one that cut up a small Iowa town in 1895.
(Sandusky Star-Journal, March 11, 1902.)
(The Register, Rock Valley, Iowa, May 10, 1895.)
A big windstorm tore through downtown Indianapolis one Sunday evening in June 1929. A girl just born to Mary Hubbell at 30 North Lansing Street that afternoon nearly got killed three hours later when a telephone pole crashed into the small house. It came careening through the roof “just above the bed in which the mother and child lay.” Both escaped with small bruises. The Indianapolis News reported that “In all the excitement, members of the Hubbell family have been unable to decide on a name for the new arrival. ‘We are so glad that my wife and baby are not badly hurt, we haven’t had time to think of a name,’ the father explained.'”
(Plymouth Congregational Church, Omaha, Nebraska, March 24, 1913.)
It’s a paradox — and probably a testimony to the human spirit — that some of history’s worst natural disasters have given rise to humor and even fascinating meteorological folklore. Take Voltaire’s great Candide, a scathing satire on philosophical and religious optimism. Candide, which later inspired one of Leonard Bernstein’s musicals, was penned in response to the worst European earthquake of the 18th century, the 1755 All Saints’ Day quake in Lisbon, Portugal, when over 10,000 people in Europe’s most devout city were crushed in church, burned or drowned by a massive tidal wave on one of the holiest days in the Christian year. More than just a major seismological event, the Lisbon quake turned out to be a milestone in the history of philosophy.
Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913, was another such day, though not nearly as significant. That evening, as Christians were still celebrating the Resurrection, an F4 tornado struck Omaha, Nebraska, killing over a hundred people. As the storm clouds moved east, hitting other towns, a huge twister struck Terre Haute, Indiana, just before midnight. The 1913 Easter Sunday tornado killed seventeen people on the south side of town, including a 75 year old man, an eight year old boy, a mother and her baby, and an infant just one day old.
The skies were especially cruel that March. Most of Indiana and the Midwest were already suffering from extreme floods. The raging, icy Wabash had inundated part of Terre Haute before the twister struck. Upstream in Peru, Indiana, the roaring river wreaked havoc on the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, which had its winter quarters along the Wabash. Exotic animals like elephants and tigers, drowned in the freezing water, washed up downstream. It was a terrible month for Hoosiers and everybody else in the region.
(Omaha Daily Bee, March 25, 1913.)
(The March 1913 twister destroyed part of Terre Haute’s Root Glass Factory, manufacturer of Coca-Cola bottles. Fires caused by lightning, oil lamps and downed electric wires hindered the work of rescuers and firemen.)
(The storm crossed into Parke and Clay counties and obliterated the tiny mining town of Perth north of Brazil. Yet with its coal exhausted, Perth had mostly scattered to the winds by the time William Travis wrote his county history in 1909. Indianapolis News, March 25, 1913.)
Despite the real tragedy of these events, Midwestern tornado lore is full of comic scenes and bizarre escapes — stories of people spared by the “queer antics” and “strange vagaries” of providence, luck and the wind. As we officially head into storm season, here’s a few tales from the breezy side of life.
Writer William Least Heat-Moon wrote the most famous essay on freaks of the storm. “Under Old Nell’s Skirt” came out as a chapter in his PrairyErth(1991), a long meditation on the history of one county in Kansas’ Flint Hills. He talked to old-timers there. They told him all about the topic:
They tell of ponds being vacuumed dry, eyes of geese sucked out, chickens clean-plucked from beak to bum, water pulled straight up out of toilet bowls, a woman’s clothes torn off her, a wife killed after being jerked through a car window, a child carried two miles and being set down with only scratches, a Cottonwood Falls mother (fearful of wind) cured of chronic headaches when a twister passed harmlessly within a few feet of her house, and, just south of Chase, a woman blown out of her living room window and dropped unhurt sixty feet away and falling unbroken beside her a phonograph record of “Stormy Weather.”
Columnist Dorothy J. Clark revisited some of these “strange happenings” on the forty-fifth anniversary of the tornado that struck the Wabash Valley. Her fascinating column (most of it plagiarized verbatim from an older book) came out in the Terre Haute Tribune on March 23, 1958.
(Terre Haute Tribune, March 23, 1958.)
The Indianapolis News carried a few more of these odd news items — including the report of an old theory that the bluffs of the Wabash River (to which the town owed its French name, “high land”) deflected twisters by means of “mineral deposits attracting the electricity.” (A similar belief or prophecy about Omaha’s immunity to twisters was also thrown on the rubbish heap of bogus theories that night.)
There’s one other bit of strange coincidence from the time of the twister. A moralizing pastor, Dr. J. Aspinwall McCuaig, had just visited Terre Haute. The reverend may have still been in town on the day of the Easter Sunday disaster. A Canadian originally from Scotland, McCuaig was one of the heads of the National Christian League for the Promotion of Purity, an organization established in New York City in 1886. He came to Indiana to deliver a series of lectures and check in on the effects of the state’s infamous forced sterilization law, which as a eugenicist, McCuaig supported. (Like Indianapolis’ Oscar McCulloch, head of the liberal Plymouth Congregational Church downtown, McCuaig was one of the surprisingly large number of “progressive” Christian ministers to speak out in favor of eugenics, which sought to reduce crime and social evils by preventing many of the poor and “feeble-minded” from reproducing.)
McCuaig, who lectured on prostitution, alcohol, and nude pictures in bars, hated Terre Haute — a rough railroad town back in the golden days of organized labor, a place famous for its saloons, brothels and easily-bribed Democratic government. On the day of the Easter twister, McCuaig apparently was still in town, lambasting the city, calling it worse than Chicago. It wouldn’t be surprising if he moralized — rather obnoxiously — on the hand of God reaching out of the skies.
Only one in four Women’s History Months occurs in a Leap Year — or if you want to use the fancy name given by professional time-keepers and astronomers, you can call it an “intercalary” or “bissextile” year.
Hollywood has churned out a few bad movies about what was probably an old Celtic custom at first, whereby women could take the initiative in proposing to a man. But American newspapers were having fun with this folk tradition well over a century ago. And some women did take the opportunity.
Leap years have been around since Roman times, when Julius Caesar simplified the messy Roman calendar. Since the earth doesn’t take a precise number of 24-hour days to go around the sun, fractions of days accrue. Before Caesar’s time, Roman astronomers just added an entire 22-day-long month to their 355-day calendar every two years. Caesar’s astronomers opted for 365 1/4 days, with the quarter-day adding up to a full day every four years. Yet even that extra quarter day isn’t exactly six hours long, a problem that led Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 to fine-tune Caesar’s calendar. More confusing still: in the Gregorian system, not even everyfourth year is a leap year. In folk tradition, that accounts for the occasional year when women who want to pop the question have to be especially diligent — or else wait another eight. At least if they care about tradition.
The origin of the “ladies’ privilege” goes back a long time, though no one knows how long for sure. A popular but doubtful origin myth hinges around a medieval Irish saint, St. Brigid of Kildare — who might never even have existed.
If she was a real woman, Brigid would have been born in the middle of the 5th century, allegedly to an enslaved Christian mother and a pagan Irish chieftain, who sold her mother to a Druid — a Celtic priest and shaman. The life of St. Brigid might be one big folk legend, however, since she shares a name and many attributes with an old Irish fertility goddess. Irish folklorist Lady Augusta Gregory wrote in 1904 that the goddess Brigid was “a woman of poetry, and poets worshiped her, for her sway was very great and very noble. And she was a woman of healing along with that, and a woman of smith’s work, and it was she first made the whistle for calling one to another through the night.” The same could be said for Saint Brigid.
Whether St. Brigid was real or not, many stories about her are clearly imaginary. But folklore and poetry have a truth all their own. Several tales tell of how the saint protected women and gave marriage advice to men — often while guarding her own virginity and independence amid the violence of the remote, rugged Emerald Isle. When Brigid dedicated herself to the service of God and others as a nun, her greedy brothers, one story goes, hated her for denying them the “bride price” they would have been entitled to. As a crowd taunted Brigid for not marrying, one Irishman shouted: “The beautiful eye which is in your head will be betrothed to a man — though you like it or not.” Brigid’s reply was shocking: she jabbed a finger into her eye and blinded herself, then cried out, with blood spurting everywhere: “Here is that beautiful eye for you. I deem it unlikely that anyone will ask you for a blind girl.” Miraculously, Brigid’s vision healed. As for the man who taunted the saint, both his eyeballs burst in his head.
In legend, at least, Brigid was probably the most powerful woman in Ireland. Even in the afterlife, she supposedly still watches over midwives, illegitimate children, abused women, sailors, poets, chicken farmers, scholars and the poor. But what about Brigid and Leap Year?
Out of concern for women — and probably for children born out of wedlock — the angry saint fumed about men dragging their feet when it came to proposing marriage and committing to a partner. (Nineteenth-century feminists would later oppose the liberalization of American divorce laws for reasons not unlike what spurred St. Brigid to action over a thousand years earlier: slipping out of marriage was a way for lecherous and abusive men to escape their duties.) Brigid, according to legend, asked St. Patrick to make an exception to custom and allow women to “pop the question” every leap year. The new custom still seems sexist to some, perhaps, but the Irish tale is almost definitely fable as far as Brigid goes: if she ever lived, she would have been about ten years old when St. Patrick died.
Variants on the tale show up in Scottish folklore and English common law. According to an English book from 1606, Courtship, Love and Matrimonie, any Englishman who refused “the offers of a laydie” on leap year could be fined and even denied “the benefits of the clergy.” Two-hundred years later, the Indiana American quoted that passage:
“Common” law or not, the custom was rare in America even as newspapers began to pick up on it in the mid-1800s. Rising Irish immigration might have been a factor in the sudden interest in the custom, but newspapers themselves could have been the ones spreading the “folk” idea. (After all, Sadie Hawkins Day, a “pseudo-folk tradition” where girls ask boys out to a dance, originated with Al Capp’s popular hillbilly comic strip Li’l Abner in the 1930s. Sadie Hawkins Day, however, comes every year, usually November 15, the date she first appeared in a cartoon in 1937.)
(A Sadie Hawkins dance in Virginia, 1950s.)
By the 1840s, the American press was mentioning leap year marriage proposals — and anything else like them that seemed out-of-the-ordinary. A clip from the Evansville Daily Journal, published just before the Mexican War, reported a similar tradition in Panama, a story that might have been brought back by American sailors.
(Evansville Daily Journal, April 24, 1845.)
In the leap year 1848 — a year of tumultuous revolutions in politics and love — the Brookville Indiana American reprinted this clip from a Hoosier wag in Richmond, Indiana, who obviously enjoyed the idea of women proposing to men. They had fifteen days left, since the tradition didn’t require women to propose on February 29. Any time before midnight on New Years’ Eve was good enough.
Also in 1848, the Indianapolis Locomotive, an “entertainment” paper written in the vein of Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers (a bestseller at the time) and filled with more wit and poetry than news, published a strange story about sexual role-reversal. A lot of tales like this were taken out of Eastern newspapers that came off steamboats or trains. “A Story of Leap Year,” by Joe Miller, Jr., probably first appeared in the St. Louis Reveille. The story, which satirizes conventional courtship and sentimental wooing, is funny, if also a bit sexist. The bold Susan comes over to ask the bashful Sam for his hand in holy matrimony:
Every year, a few women really did ask men to tie the knot, though most couples were already “courting” to begin with. Yet every four years, illustrators, cartoonists, and postcard makers played around with a major source of male fear and trembling, anxiety and dread: a proposal coming from an unwanted woman “out of the blue.”
In popular culture and superstition, any man who turned down a woman — even a total stranger — ran the risk of being cursed or at least having to stumble through an awkward, hopefully gentleman-like, rejection. (No “spite and contumely,” as the 17th-century English book put it.) A lot of drawings and postcards played on economic, class, age, and physical differences, though not all did:
Many women today consider the Leap Year tradition degrading and insulting, and they may be right. But as the women’s rights movement gathered steam in the 1800s, not every woman thought the overall gist of the tradition was bad. One was the famous suffragette and news correspondent Inez Milholland.
Born in 1886, Milholland came from a wealthy family in Brooklyn and graduated from prestigious Vassar College, a women’s college in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1909. She became a radical and socialist at Vassar, educating fellow students about socialist principles — which brought her into conflict with the school’s leadership. Milholland also served as captain of the hockey team at Vassar. She was denied admission to Yale, Harvard and Cambridge law schools because of her gender, but earned a law degree at NYU in 1912.
As a trained lawyer and activist, Milholland was especially interested in prison reform, ending child labor and prostitution, and achieving equality for women and African Americans. In her late twenties, she helped investigate conditions at New York’s Sing Sing prison, handled divorce and criminal cases, and supported female factory workers on strike in New York and Philadelphia. While reporting from the frontlines in Italy during World War I, the Socialist news correspondent wrote anti-war articles and was expelled by the Italian government, at war with Germany and Austria.
As a supporter of “free speech in love,” honesty, dignity, and open communication between the sexes, Inez Milholland made a famous marriage proposal — though it didn’t happen during a leap year. She stressed that a woman should be free to ask a man to marry her on any day of any year, not just every fourth year. Milholland lived up to her principles.
In 1913, while on a cruise in Europe, the woman’s rights activist proposed to Eugen Jan Boissevain, a Dutch coffee importer who came from one of the wealthiest families in Amsterdam. (Boissevain’s uncle, however, was, like Milholland, a Socialist who gave up his fortune and moved to Alberta to be a farmer and labor organizer.) The two had known each other for just a month but got married within days. He moved to New York with her.
Sadly, their marriage was short. At age 30, Inez Milholland died of anemia in Los Angeles in 1916 while campaigning for the National Woman’s Party. Seven years later, Eugen Boissevain married the great American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. He died in Boston in 1949.
The Day Book of Chicago told some of the unusual story, published the year of her death — a leap year:
Today, rural towns often have doctors with American Indian surnames. But in the 1800s, an “Indian doctor” meant something totally different.
For decades after the Civil War, so-called “Indian medicine shows” rolled through cities and country towns across the U.S. These shows were something like the medical version of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Leading them, there was usually a wild-looking doctor — typically a white man claiming to be Native American or at least to have studied herbal healing with “Indian medicine men.” What the shows really dispensed was exotic flare: banjo-playing minstrels, brass bands, even freak shows.
The traveling outfits also raked in thousands of dollars by touting medicinal cure-alls for common ailments, as Indian doctors announced their ability to cure practically all known ills — from dysentery, headaches and “private diseases” (venereal in nature) to dreaded cases of tuberculosis, cholera, and cancer. Elixirs were only part of the lure. These doctors often doubled as dentists and yanked rotten teeth by the thousands. In the days before anesthetics, brass bands covered up patients’ screams inside the wagon. Music and entertainment also helped drown out the protests of local doctors and dentists, whose business these shows cut in on.
While the heyday of the medicine shows came after the Civil War, the “Indian doctor” phenomenon goes back farther than that, piggy-backing off the dearth of professional doctors in pioneer settlements and the primitive state of “scientific” medicine itself. Southerners who moved to the midwestern frontier had often lived for a while in Appalachia, where white settlers took an interest in traditional medicine practiced by the Cherokee and Choctaw. German and Scots-Irish settlers also had a medical heritage of their own going back to medieval Europe.
(This early Indian Guide to Health  contains some of the often bizarre knowledge gleaned from medicine on the Appalachian frontier. The author was an early Hoosier doctor, Squire H. Selman — alias “Pocahontus Nonoquet” — who studied with the Kentucky doctor-adventurer Richard Carter. Son of an English physician and a métis woman, Carter enjoyed one of the most thriving medical practices on the Ohio Valley frontier. Selman went on to practice medicine in Columbus, Indiana.)
It’s a curious fact that one of the first doctors in Indianapolis was a 24-year-old “Indian doctor” from North Carolina. The man also had an unforgettable name: Dr. William Kelley Frohawk Fryer. (In 1851, the Indiana State Sentinel thought his initials stood for “Dr. William Kellogg Francis Fryer,” but we sincerely hope that it really was “Frohawk.” That name appears on the cover of his own book.)
Dr. Fryer claimed to have studied medicine with Native Americans and was remembered by Indianapolis historians as an Indian doctor “of ancient memory.” Some of his repertory of cures, however, apparently came from “pow-wow,” an old form of Pennsylvania German faith healing. That practice was known as Braucherei or Spielwerk(spell-work) in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, and pow-wow practitioners (Brauchers or Hexenmeisters) drew on spells and folk remedies that probably go back to the world of Roman Catholic folk healing, forced underground in Germany after the Reformation. (The word pow-wow was either of Algonquin origin or a mispronunciation of the English “power” but had nothing to do with Native American medicine.) The first book on pow-wow, published by German immigrant Johann Georg Hohman in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1820, anthologized many of these magical healings, talismans, and charms, based partly on occult “white magic” meant to ward off “black magic” or witchcraft. Pow-wow used esoteric words, sometimes from the Bible, as a form of healing and was explicitly Christian in nature, even reminding some of Jesus’ miracles accomplished via saliva. Brauchers allegedly cured livestock by putting magical words into their feeding troughs.
Pow-wow, which claimed to cure “both men and animals,” became an unorthodox form of spiritual medicine among Lutherans, Amish, Mennonites and Dunkers at a time when university-trained doctors were hard to come by even on the East Coast. Sometimes called “Christian voodoo,” pow-wow might even figure into the origin of the hex signs you can still see on barns. (It led to a “Hex Murder Trial” in 1929.) As a form of medical treatment, pow-wow’s heyday is long-gone, but it is still practiced on the sly in rural eastern Pennsylvania and was probably once part of folk medicine in the rural Midwest, wherever Pennsylvania Germans settled.
(Some scholars believe the hex tradition came out of pow-wow.)
In 1839, the year Dr. William Kelley Frohawk Fryer published his ownIndian Guide to Health in Indianapolis, the Hoosier capitol city was just a few steps out of the wilderness. Fryer believed in “vegetable medicine.” He would probably have been able to find most of the roots and herbs he needed for medications in the swamps, bottomlands, and woodlands that still covered Marion County. There’s even some evidence that he provided medical treatment in exchange for plants. A clip from the Indiana State Sentinel in June 1886 states that he ran a place called “The Sanative House,” probably near his home on “South Illinois Street, near the Catholic school on Georgia.” But Dr. Fryer was long gone by 1886. In the late 1840s, the young doctor moved down to Mobile, Alabama, then to New Orleans, where he advertised his manual on health (printed in Indianapolis) for sale nationwide. Early front-page ads in the New Orleans Daily Crescent alsocarry glowing testimonials (maybe fictional) from his former patients back in central Indiana.
As the number of college-trained doctors and dentists back East grew after the Civil War, “Indian doctors” were squeezed out to the West and Midwest — where many claimed to have learned their trade in the first place, straight from Native American healers and shamans. (It’s hard to say how many of these claims are true, but a few of them probably are.) Yet “folk doctors” weren’t necessarily bad and provided the rudiments of medical care to some patients who couldn’t afford a university-trained physician, who simply had no access to one, or who (like African Americans) were even cruelly experimented on by the medical establishment.
J.P. Dunn, an early Indianapolis historian, wrote that Indiana was a “free-for-all medical state” until 1885. During the 1800s, American doctors and state and local officials gradually began driving “quack” doctors out of business (or at least out of town) by requiring all practitioners to hold medical licenses. The establishment didn’t always succeed at this. As early as 1831, legislators in remote Arkansas Territory tried to outlaw quackery. Their law, known popularly as the “Medical Aristocracy Bill,” was vetoed by the territory’s one-armed governor John Pope, a former Kentucky senator. Pope objected to it on the grounds that it violated “the spirit of liberty” and said: “Let every man be free to employ whom he pleases where he alone is concerned.” The governor also took a swipe at college-trained “professionals,” pointing out that
many who have gone through a regular course in the medical schools are grossly ignorant of the theory or practice of medicine. They are mere smatterers in the science. With a piece of parchment in their pocket, and a little superficial learning, they are arrogant, rash and more dangerous quacks than those who adopt the profession from a sort of instinct, or a little practical observation.
Pope may have been right. Whether educated or not, pioneer doctors sometimes killed whole families by accident. (My great-grandmother’s grandfather, one of the first settlers of Rosedale, Indiana, was orphaned in 1846 by a doctor who prescribed a deadly concoction of some sort to his parents and one of his brothers. As late as 1992, then, there was a Hoosier woman still living who had actually been raised by a man victimized as a young boy by pioneer medicine.)
In 1885, Indiana finally passed a law requiring doctors either to show that they had studied at “some reputable medical college” or had practiced medicine in the Hoosier State continuously for ten years preceding the date of the act. In April 1885, the Indiana Medical Journal endorsed this new law, saying: “It will probably make a few of the hundreds of quacks who now infest Indiana seek more congenial climes, and if enforced will prevent quacks from other states from settling within our borders.”
Yet the number of known Indian doctors operating in the state that year was low:
As J.P. Dunn pointed out, the tough question became: what was a “reputable medical college?” County clerks, not medical organizations, issued doctor’s licenses. Dunn wrote that since a county clerk only got paid if he issued a license, “he was usually liberal in his views” about the meaning of the word “reputable.” A state examination board for licensing doctors wasn’t set up in Indiana until 1897.
By then, one of the most outrageously colorful Indian doctors had already had his day in the Hoosier State and gone to his own grave.
For a few summers in the early 1880s, Dr. J.I. Lighthall, “King of Diamonds,” crisscrossed the Midwest sporting a flashy, diamond-studded suit, selling his herbal remedies and often giving them away to the poor, while also earning notoriety as a “tooth-yanker.” Lighthall caught the interest of the press and annoyed local doctors in Terre Haute, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Richmond, Seymour and Columbus.
At the beginning of his Indian Household Medicine Guide, Lighthall claimed he was born in 1856 in Tiskilwa, a small Illinois River town north of Peoria. He announced that he was of one-eighth Wyandot heritage on his father’s side and had left home at age eleven to go out West to study botany with the Indians. If that’s true, in the 1870s the teenage Lighthall lived with tribes in Minnesota, Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma, picking up ethnobotanical knowledge on the Plains. He also grew out his hair, cultivating a look that some women, at least, found sultry and exotic.
By around 1880, Lighthall had set up shop in Peoria, Illinois. His mother apparently cooked barrels-full of his herb-, root-, and bark-based medicaments, then bottled them and shipped them by railroad or wagon. When it came to naming his drugs, he skipped the big Latin and Greek words of modern pharmacology and came up with colorful names like “King of Pain” and “Spanish Oil.” Some were probably cut with whiskey, cocaine, opium, and morphine. Lighthall also offered an array of 19th-century popular medicine’s omnipresent “blood purifiers” and “liver regulators,” miracle liquids commonly advertised in mainstream newspapers — partly to keep journalism itself afloat when subscriptions lagged.
As his business picked up, the doctor put together a brass band and went into makeshift dentistry on the street.
Educated skeptics abounded, but some of his herbal medications might actually have proven beneficial as “home remedies” for less serious ailments. The official medical view is that some patients were probably cured by the “placebo effect.” Curiously, one of the real health benefits of Lighthall’s medicine shows was that he got sick people to laugh.
Although the “doc” gave off an aura of the Wild West, most of his short career as an “Indian doctor” was spent in Indiana and Illinois. Lighthall typically rolled into a town and stayed for a few weeks or months, long enough to garner local notoriety. However angry the doctors and medical establishment got, “common folk” kept flocking to his medicine wagon. Dr. Lighthall’s entertainment troupe, newspapers reported, resembled a circus and was made up of about 60 “Spaniards,” “Mexicans” and “half-breeds” — and some Hoosiers from Fort Wayne.
Cleverly, Lighthall sympathized with the poor, sometimes handing out free medicine bottles wrapped in $10 and $20 bills to customers who couldn’t afford them. While the doctor won fame for such “charity,” thousands of others forked out their nickels and dimes for entertainment — money Lighthall would throw into the air to attract an even bigger crowd. Others came to have their teeth rapidly yanked, often for “free.” Yet in spite of all the freebies, within a year or two, Lighthall was rumored to be worth about $150,000 (maybe ten times that much in today’s money.) He wore clothes and a hat studded with valuable diamonds and cut an impressive appearance in public. Women were attracted to him. He put his gems on display at a Louisville jewel shop. A Kentucky hat store sold a line of Lighthall-inspired Texas hats.
Lawmen and doctors tried to do him in, but usually failed. A court in Decatur, Illinois, summoned him to appear in October 1883 for illegally practicing medicine there. Ironically, he had just come back to Decatur from Terre Haute, where “the Philistines” and Indiana’s “sun of civilization” drove him back over the state line.
The following summer, July 1884, Dr. Lighthall’s show rolled into Fort Wayne and camped out for a few months “near the baseball park. . . The joint resembles a circus.”
His tooth-yanking sometimes got him into legal trouble, as when he got sued for allegedly breaking a man’s jaw in Indianapolis during a complicated dental extraction. Lighthall’s apparent love for the ladies also turned public opinion against him. While camped out along East Washington Street in Indianapolis in 1885, he got booked by the cops for being “rowdy” at a “house of ill fame.” Locals accused him of trying to get two young girls near Fountain Square to run away with his troupe and “go on the stage.”
However dangerous and perhaps lecherous he might have been, Lighthall provided heavy doses of entertainment. On a trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee, in early 1885, the doctor got into a bloody tooth-yanking feud with a Frenchwoman engaged “in a similar line of business.” She was dressed as an “Indian princess.” The bizarre fight that followed deserves to be restored to the annals of history.
Lighthall may have engaged in just such a “contest” in Indianapolis:
After he left Louisville and the Jeffersonville area one summer, moving north to Seymour and Columbus, the Jeffersonsville News reported that local dentists were busy repairing the damage Doc Lighthall had done to Hoosier jaws.
For better or worse, the Indian doctor’s (and yanker’s) own days were numbered. By January 1886, he had headed south for the winter, encamping in San Antonio, where he was reported to be successfully filching Texas greenhorns of their greenbacks. Tragically, a smallpox epidemic broke out in un-vaccinated San Antonio that month. The 30-year-old’s medical knowledge couldn’t save him. He “died in his tent” on January 25, 1886. Several men from Fort Wayne who were performing with his troupe may also have succumbed to small pox.
News of his demise quickly flashed over Midwestern newspapers, in towns where he had become well-known in days just gone by:
Though rumor had it that Lighthall owned an expensive mansion and a medicine factory back in Peoria, he was buried at San Antonio’s City Cemetery #3, not far from The Alamo. Fittingly, there are bellflowers carved onto his gravestone:
He’s been forgotten today, but Dr. J.I. Lighthall’s fame briefly lived on, with at least one Hoosier writing to ask if he was alive or dead in 1888:
“Indian doctors” weren’t yet on their way out the door when Lighthall died in Texas in 1886. In 1900, in spite of efforts to regulate the practice of medicine, the patent medicine business was still reckoned to be worth about $80 million a year. Several major traveling shows thrived into the 1950s. By then, industrial pharmaceuticals and the discovery of antibiotics had launched medicine into a new era, but the entertainment aspect of the business kept it alive until radio and television killed it off.
Whatever the medicine shows did for the human body, they were definitely good for the soul, as the early 20th-century troupes helped fuel the rise of jazz, blues and country. In 1983, folklorist Steve Zeitlin and filmmaker Paul Wagner were still able to find some old medicine show performers in a rural North Carolina town — the subject of their documentary Free Show Tonight.
What’s the connection between Quakers, whalers, cancer and onions? Here’s some unexpected medical history from the Hoosier State.
While flipping through a few of the oldest Indiana newspapers, we ran across several “vintage cures” — including a couple of surprising ones for cancer, a disease that was as feared in 1816 as it is now, though the pioneers suffered from exponentially lower rates of it.
Oddly enough, the first remedy here, which claims to be able to treat cancer with onions, might not be bogus.
Modern medical research agrees with “folk” doctors on one thing, at least: regardless of the real havoc wreaked on your breath, garlic and onions are potent cancer-fighting foods. These veggies rank up there with broccoli, wild berries, ginger, olive oil, and a daily glass of wine as one of nature’s best weapons against tumors.
Onions have figured into medical practice for far longer than chemotherapy and radiation. Alternative practitioners and cancer patients often claim that vegetable-based remedies are at least as effective as chemo and radiation therapy — and they avoid the psychological side effects. Red onions, containing high amounts of a “flavonoid” called quercetin, are a strong antioxidant, antihistamine, and natural antibiotic. Quercetin helps protect cells and DNA against damage and reduces cholesterol and inflammation. Not only do onions lend a hand in preventing cancer to begin with, they seem to help rid the body of it.
Believe it or not, an onion remedy for cancer appears (as a reprint) in Indiana’s oldest newspaper, the Vincennes Western Sun. This 1811 remedy — published when Vincennes was still the capital of Indiana Territory and just a few months before the Battle of Tippecanoe — isn’t too far off from the “onion juice therapy” still touted in alternative medicine.
It’s doubly interesting that the list of “signers” who vouched for the cure is headed by a woman, Jane Starbuck.
Genealogical records indicate that the Jane Starbuck who had apparently gotten involved in “folk medicine” and tried to help cancer patients was probably a Quaker named Jane Taylor Starbuck (1755-1834). Her “receipt” (i.e., recipe) for an onion-based cure made its way into the Vincennes Western Sun by way of a copy of the Raleigh Star that was brought from North Carolina to the Wabash Valley and read by editor Elihu Stout. (The Western Sun contains almost no local news, which would have traveled by word of mouth in a small place like Vincennes. Stout, however, was always eager to pass on news from back East and down South.)
Jane Taylor Starbuck lived in Guilford County, North Carolina, birthplace of several thousand Quakers who began moving north to Indiana just before the War of 1812. Most came for new land, but many came to get away from slavery, which most — not all — Quakers opposed. Jane Taylor Starbuck seems to have stayed in the South, but her son Edward Starbuck, who also endorsed the cancer cure, joined the Quaker exodus to the Midwest. Edward, born in 1777, settled just east of Fountain City in Wayne County. His brother William Starbuck, another Quaker pioneer, is thought to have bought twenty-one slaves in North Carolina before he came north — a clever move against slavery, perhaps, since he set them all free when they got to Indiana. (Even free African Americans moving north often traveled with and settled near Quakers for protection.)
If the name “Starbuck” means more to you than coffee, you’ve probably read Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The Starbuck family, into which Jane Taylor married in 1776, were prominent whalers on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. While the Starbuck who served as chief mate of Captain Ahab’s doomed Pequod — sunk by the white whale in the South Seas — was a fictional cousin of these Hoosier pioneers, Melville’s story was based on the very real fate of the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship that was crushed and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820. The Essex’s crew, floating around the Pacific Ocean on rowboats, were reduced to cannibalism and drew lots to see who would die next. One of the unlucky victims was a teenage sailor from Nantucket, Owen Coffin.
Now if the name “Coffin” means more to you than a casket, maybe you’ve visited the home of the “President” of the Underground Railroad, Levi Coffin, in Fountain City, Indiana. Coffin’s house is just a few miles from Edward Starbuck’s farm. One of the bravest men in Hoosier history, Levi Coffin was another ardent Quaker from Guilford County, North Carolina. He moved to Indiana in 1826 and began funneling escaped slaves toward Canada almost as soon as he arrived.
Like the Starbucks, Levi Coffin was originally from New Garden, North Carolina, but had Nantucket family roots. He almost definitely knew Jane Taylor Starbuck and her son Edward. (Both families belonged to the New Garden Quaker Meeting.) Coffin himself was a cousin of Jane Starbuck’s husband, William, who was a Nantucket native, reared among the whalers and seafarers of colonial Massachusetts. From his Indiana farmhouse, Levi Coffin showed as much fearlessness as his New England cousins and grandparents did sailing the remote seas.
(Levi Coffin, 1798-1877, who with his wife Catherine fought the cancer of slavery and survived to see its death, lived just north of Richmond. Their Indiana home has been called the “Grand Central Station” of the Underground Railroad. They helped thousands evade slave catchers.)
In his memoirs, Coffin mentions an Edward Starbuck. He and the man who offered a cancer remedy in 1811 appear to be one and the same. (Coffin wrote that an Edward Starbuck also helped him found an anti-liquor society in Fountain City — then called Newport — in 1830, when the fugitive slave conductor was also beginning a “War on King Alcohol.”) Edward Starbuck himself lived on a farm between Whitewater and Fountain City, a few miles from Ohio. At some point, Starbuck apparently left the Quakers to become a Methodist minister.
Here’s the onion cure — which called for more than onions, by the way. It also required puccoon root (blood root), used in both European and American Indian pharmacology for generations as an antibiotic. (American Indians also used it as a dye.) The Western Sun of Vincennes printed this alleged cure on June 9, 1811.
A decade later, “cures for cancer” were still coming out in American newspapers. The 19th century turned out to be a golden age of questionable — if not downright dangerous — panaceas, some of them offered by doctors, some by quacks. Even some university-trained practitioners swore they could make a patient cancer-free.
It’s hard to blame anybody for trying, but this cure, reprinted in the Richmond Weekly Intelligencer in 1822 and which seems to recommend some kind of cauterization, would be impossible to vouch for.
In the wake of one presidential hopeful’s recent call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., we thought it appropriate to share a humorous anecdote about Muslim immigrants in Hoosier history. This story also evokes a mostly-forgotten episode that saw Chicago’s great film companies use the Indiana Dunes as a stand-in for Mexico and the Sahara Desert.
The story came out in both the Gary Daily Tribune and Chicago Record-Tribune. In the summer of 1910, if we can trust the Chicago reporter, some Muslim steel workers shouted excitedly, and maybe even suffered a bit of homesickness when the following scene played out in the streets of the new town of Gary.
(Chicago Record-Tribune, June 14, 1910.)
The Gary Daily Tribune had a different take:
(Gary Daily Tribune, June 13, 1910.)
In the early days of the silent movie industry, Chicago’s Essanay Studios predominated. Not until the 1920s did the big film producers relocate to Hollywood. Founded in 1907, Essenay’s headquarters were located in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. While best known for producing a series of fourteen Charlie Chaplin comedies in 1915 (The Tramp is the most famous), the company also turned out a few American movie “firsts” — including the first American Sherlock Holmes movie (1916) and the first American film version of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol (1908). This producer of silent films also scored hits with actor Francis X. Bushman (1883-1966), once hailed as “the handsomest man in the world.” One website calls him the “Brad Pitt of his day.”
(Bushman played the corrupt Roman tribune Messala in director Fred Niblo’s 1925 adaptation of another Middle Eastern tale with Hoosier connections. Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ was based on the 1880 novel by Indiana author Lew Wallace, who served as U.S. Minister to Turkey from 1881-1884.)
Chicago’s own sand dunes had mostly been destroyed by 1910, though just a hundred years earlier, they had been the scene of the dramatic beheading of frontier Hoosier soldier and Indian agent William Wells. (Wells, a white captive from Kentucky after whom Wells County was later named, was killed on the beach during the Battle of Fort Dearborn in 1812.) With the growing city looming up on Lake Michigan’s western shore, historic films set in exotic or far-away places had to be filmed across the lake in Indiana. In spite of its proximity to Chicago, swampy northwest Indiana was the last part of the state to be settled and was still largely undeveloped in 1900.
Some of the films Essenay at least partially shot in the area that became Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore include one called Lost in the Desert. That movie seems to have gotten lost itself, but it was apparently part of a series of films by American actor William V. Mong. (Two of his earlier films are entitled Lost in the Jungle and Lost in the Arctic.)
According to an article in The Times of Northwest Indiana, Mong played a “British officer who escapes from Bedouin bandits and wanders aimlessly in the desert until the cavalry rescues him. . .”
In a strange tale of life imitating art, [Mong] became lost in the Dunes after he fell asleep under a tree and the crew left without him. Mong was made up for his role, his clothing in tatters and a leopard skin covering his shoulders.
When he awoke, Mong couldn’t find his way out of the Dunes and was forced to spend the night, suffering from a lack of water and tormented by mosquitoes.
The next morning a trapper from the village of Crisman, making his way through the marshes, was startled to see a ragged, unkempt, half-naked man with long hair and a beard. The strange figure was stumbling through the sand, carrying a club. At times it paused, tried to shout, then moaned inarticulately, and went on his way. The frightened trapper hurried back to Crisman to tell what he had seen. A sheriff’s posse tracked down and rescued the lost man about sunset.
The trapper might have been even more scared if he’d come across Mong in the costume he wore in a 1921 film adaptation of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Mong appeared as the wizard Merlin.
A similar film was made in the Dunes in June 1910, Lost in the Soudan, by the Selig Polyscope Company. This was definitely the film that brought an unusual camel caravan parading through the streets of Gary, Indiana — to great acclaim from a segment of the town’s Muslim steelworkers. Lost in the Soudan starred the great cowboy actor Tom Mix, an early predecessor of John Wayne.
(Filmmakers on the set of Lost in the Soudan, partly filmed in the dunes near Miller Beach, Indiana, in the summer of 1910. Other films made there include The Fall of Montezuma, set during the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, and The Plum Tree, a tale of the Mexican Revolution. The Plum Tree used a regiment of the Illinois National Guard, who impersonated “Revolutionists” and “Federals” in a pitched battle filmed in an Indiana ravine.)
(Ex-president Theodore Roosevelt, left, riding a camel in Egypt or the Sudan, 1910. The man riding the other camel is the English-Austrian soldier, General Rudolf Carl von Slatin, who publicly converted to Islam to win the support of his soldiers.)
We take the Chicago Record-Herald’s statement on faith that the crowd who encountered a film company’s camel caravan in Gary in 1910 were actually Muslim. While some of the first immigrants ever to come over the Atlantic were Muslim — including an estimated 15-30% of the slaves carried here from Africa — the great wave of voluntary Muslim immigration to the U.S. didn’t really begin until just before World War I.
Yet according to a recent history of Islam in America, Bosnian Muslims had settled in Chicago and Gary, Indiana, by 1906, and they may have been the group that shouted “Allah! R-r-r-uum!” at the movie camels on Broadway in Gary. In the 1910s, Bosnians were also working in the copper mines around Butte, Montana, in and played a role in the labor struggles there. In 1906, Bosnian Muslims established a Dzemijetul Hajrije (Benevolent Society) in Chicago to provide mutual aid and help pay for funerals and healthcare. That society soon had a branch in Gary. By 2007, it was estimated that three-quarters of Bosnian Muslims in the U.S. lived in the Chicago-Milwaukee-Gary area.
As the Ottoman Empire collapsed, Muslim immigration picked up after 1918. It’s an interesting fact that one of the first mosques and Muslim cemeteries in the U.S. was founded by Syrian Muslims in Ross, North Dakota, in 1929. (Ross, a town in North Dakota’s remote Badlands, had a population of just 97 in 2010, though those numbers were much higher a hundred years ago.) Another mosque was soon built in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1934. Contrary to popular images, the Midwest has long been one of the cradles of Islam in America, with large numbers of Muslims, for example, settling around the auto factories of Dearborn, Michigan.
Several hundred thousand Middle Eastern Christians, mostly from Syria and Lebanon, also came to the U.S. in those years. (Famous Syrian Americans include former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, tech wizard Steve Jobs, filmmaker Terrence Malick, and actor F. Murray Abraham, who played composer Antonio Salieri in Miloš Forman’s Amadeus.)
As for camels in the U.S., their history, too, goes back farther than you might think.
In a 1909 article in Popular Science Monthly, Walter Fleming, who taught at Louisiana State University, claimed that the Spanish had brought camels to Cuba for work in mines and that the English had unsuccessfully tried out the use of dromedaries in Virginia in 1701. Fleming wrote that the English also gave camels a go in Jamaica, but the beasts were rendered useless when their feet got infested by Caribbean “chiggers” — a bug well-known to anybody who has hiked around grassy Hoosier fields in the summer.
In the wake of the Mexican War, the U.S. Army experimented with a short-lived camel corps in the 1850s. During Franklin Pierce’s administration, the War Department — then headed by Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis — tried out the practicability of using camels in the arid Southwest, which prior to exploration Americans still thought of as mostly a barren, useless desert. Under the command of U.S. Admiral David Dixon Porter, who had previously served in the Mexican Navy, the navy vessel USS Supplysailed to the Mediterranean and picked up thirty-three camels in North Africa, Turkey, Malta and Greece.
(An awful drawing from the Report of the U.S. Secretary of War, 1857, showing the transport of Middle Eastern camels on a ship bound for Texas.)
(U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis helped start the Camel Corps. The experiment led to the arrival of a group of Muslim caretakers for the camels.)
Jefferson Davis had seen Texas and the Southwest himself as a colonel in the Mexican War. Fleming wrote:
Davis, late colonel of the Mississippi Rifles, made extensive studies in regard to the different breeds of the animal, its habitat, the proper care of it, and its adaptability to the arid plains of Texas, New Mexico and California. . . In March, 1851, he proposed to insert in the army appropriation bill an amendment providing the sum of $30,000 for the purchase of fifty camels, the hire of ten Arabs, and other expenses. In support of his measure he made a speech reviewing the history of the camel as a servant of man and explaining the need for the animals in the west.
According to a correspondent for the Times-Picayune, “three Arabs and two Turks” landed with the USS Supply in New Orleans in 1856. They traveled with the camels on to Matagorda Bay, Texas, and beyond “to attend to their wants.” Some sources claim these men were actually Greek.
(Raftsman’s Journal, Clearfield, Pennsylvania, July 2, 1856.)
These Middle Eastern dromedaries were used in the Federal government’s war against the Mormons in Utah in the 1850s. While they came to be well-liked by some soldiers, the advent of train transportation made them impractical. The U.S. Army tried using camels to carry the mail between New Mexico Territory and California during the Civil War, though the camels were based primarily out of Camp Verde in the Texas Hill Country.
Lincoln’s war secretary Edwin Stanton ordered the beasts to be auctioned off in September 1863, yet sixty-six of them were still in army possession at war’s end. A few had fallen into the hands of Confederates during a raid on Camp Verde. One camel was said to have been at Vicksburg, Mississippi — in Jeff Davis’ home state — when that town was under siege in 1863.
Walter Fleming also reports that in the 1870s, miners were using some of the ex-army camels to transport salt and cord-wood between California and Nevada silver mines. Others figured into a popular camel race in Sacramento just after the Civil War. Like those who remained in Texas, however, these may have been interbred with commercially-imported animals brought in at a later date by speculators in San Francisco who thought the animals would prove popular in mining, logging, and perhaps even agriculture. By 1910, however, the only industries that found camels especially useful were the Ringling Brothers Circus and Chicago’s film industry.
(Ukiah Daily Journal, Ukiah, California, May 9, 1968.)
Most of the beasts brought over from the Mediterranean aboard the USS Supply — or their descendants — had apparently vanished by the early 1890s, when the last of them was reported to have been seen in Arizona. That one might have been shot. In fact, strange, scary stories had begun to circulate about the creatures.
By 1890, “ghost camels” had entered the folklore of the desert Southwest. At least one of these tales about the feral descendants of Jefferson Davis’ Army Camel Corps followed an old trajectory of Irish and American folklore. The humped creature carried around a headless rider. In another version, the devilish-looking beast carried the full skeleton of a rider who had died atop its back. Still another tale involved a Southwestern camel that was seen eating a bear.
News reports about the survival of these wandering dromedaries, believed to have been the abandoned beasts of the Army Camel Corps, kept on coming in. In April 1934, one alleged survivor who had been taken to the Los Angeles Zoo was crippled by paralysis and had to be put down by zookeepers there. Another siting of a “ghost camel” occurred near the ghost town of Douglas, Texas, in 1941. Newspapers were still syndicating these stories in 1968. Smithsonian Magazine even saw fit to re-tell a bit of the story earlier this year.
(Anderson Herald, Anderson, Indiana, April 18, 1968.)
The legend of the “Red Ghost,” in fact, lives on as an “Arizona oddity.” Likewise, the tomb of Hadji Ali. A Greek-Syrian born in 1828, Hadji Ali converted from Christianity to Islam, performed the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and was living in Algeria working for the French Army when the USS Supply came looking for camels. Hadji Ali joined the U.S. Army service, coming to California as a camel tender in 1857, later becoming an American citizen in Arizona Territory in 1880. He worked as a scout and mule packer for the army and participated in the campaign against Apache chief Geronimo.
Nicknamed “Hi Jolly” by neighbors who couldn’t pronounce his name, Ali prospected for minerals on the edge of the Mojave Desert near the Colorado River until his death at Quartzsite, Arizona, in 1902. Following his death, the fascinating pyramid that marks his grave site — erected by fond locals — became one of the roadside attractions of the Grand Canyon State.
(Hadji Ali, alias “Hi Jolly,” and his bride Gertrudis Serna in Tucson, Arizona, 1880.)
Around two o’clock on the morning of Saturday, September 5, 1891, Crawfordsville ice delivery men Marshall McIntyre and Bill Gray prepared their wagon for morning rounds when suddenly a feeling of “awe and dread” overcame them. Peering heavenward, the men saw a “horrible apparition.” The Crawfordsville Journal described what they witnessed:
[It was] about eighteen feet long and eight feet wide and moved rapidly through the air by means of several pairs of side fins. . . . It was pure white and had no definite shape or form, resembling somewhat a great white shroud fitted with propelling fins. There was no tail or head visible but there was one great flaming eye, and a sort of a wheezing plaintive sound was emitted from a mouth which was invisible. It flapped like a flag in the winds as it came on and frequently gave a great squirm as though suffering unutterable agony.
McIntyre and Gray observed the phenomenon hover three or four hundred feet in the air for nearly an hour before they retreated to the safety of the barn. They then quickly finished harnessing their horses and left the vicinity.
McIntyre and Gray weren’t the only witnesses that night. Perhaps the most reputable witness was G.W. Switzer, pastor of the First Methodist Church. Shortly after midnight, Rev. Switzer stepped out of his door to retrieve some water from the well when he espied the apparition. He woke his wife and they gawked as the thing “swam through the air in a writhing, twisting manner similar to the glide of some serpents.” As the Switzers watched, the mystery apparition seemed at one point as though it might descend on the lawn of Lane Place — home of late U.S. Senator Henry S. Lane’s widow — before it re-ascended and continued its circuitous route above the city.
When Crawfordsville residents heard of the sighting, ridicule came quickly to the eyewitnesses. On the heels of Professor Burton, “Keeley’s Institute for inebriates” in Plainfield reportedly wrote to Rev. Switzer and invited him to visit — obviously to seek a cure.
However, reports of the sightings also generated a number of believers. The Indianapolis Journal picked up the story, as did other newspapers across the country, including the Brooklyn Eagle. Mail regarding the sighting deluged the Crawfordsville postmaster. Some correspondents thought the sighting indicated that Judgment Day was near. A St. Louis woman, fearful of the spook’s western migration, wrote and asked if the apparition could be seen in the daytime, what color was it, and if the apparition had previously been in Ohio?
So what exactly did people see in the Crawfordsville sky that early September morning in 1891? Was it an apparition? UFO? A “rod,” like a 2008 episode of the History Channel’s Monster Quest implied? Or was it, as many internet sites suggest, an atmospheric beast!?!?
Fortunately, two eyewitnesses tracked the creature. John Hornbeck and Abe Hernley “followed the wraith about town and finally discovered it to be a flock of many hundred killdeer.” The many birds’ wings, white under-feathers, and plaintive cries contributed to the belief of many eyewitnesses that the creature(s) originated from the otherworld. Low visibility due to damp air likely compounded the misidentification. The Crawfordsville Journal hypothesized that the town’s newly installed electric lights caused the birds to become disoriented, hovering and wreathing their way above the city.
(Killdeer Plover, watercolor by John James Audubon.)
If that explanation does not satisfy, there is an alternative one. During the prior week, newspapers circulated another story from Crawfordsville. This one was about a “balloon parachute craze” taking hold among the town’s boys. While that could explain the billowing, sheet-like apparition, it fails to account for the “wheezing plaintive sound” emitting from the aerial monster. Well, the same report about the parachute craze also mentioned that the boys also liked to send cats up in their balloons. Could this have been what McIntyre, Gray, and the Switzers saw and heard instead?
As anti-climactic as these conclusions will be to modern readers — they’re also, no doubt, disappointing to cryptozoologists and ufologists — it is the complete story of the Crawfordsville monster as the Crawfordsville Journal reported it in early September 1891.
Incidentally, Crawfordsville published three newspapers in addition to the Journal. These were the Review, the Argus, and the Star. None of those papers so much as hinted that anything happened that September morning. This leads one to conclude that while a few citizens likely did see something unusual in the nocturnal sky, the Crawfordsville Journal overstated the incident to make an extra buck. And the nineteenth century was no more “gullible” than our own age. In other places around the world — like Fernvale, Australia, in 1927, and of course Roswell, New Mexico, since 1947 — reports of weird avian or other airborne visitors would pour in during the 20th century.
The Journal’s century old marketing ploy continues to generate lively discussion in the dark recesses of cyberspace and on late night radio talk-shows, where the Crawfordsville monster occasionally still goes out flying through the sky.