Category Archives: Notable Hoosier Obits

Notable Hoosier Obits: Schuyler Colfax

Schuyler Colfax, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives and Vice President. Library of Congress.

This week’s notable Hoosier obit focuses on one of Indiana political history’s most important, and slightly controversial, public figures. Schuyler Colfax, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and vice president under Ulysses S. Grant’s first term, was a major player within the Republican Party during the late nineteenth century. However, his political career ended in controversy when news broke that he was a minor player in the Credit Mobilier scandal that also threatened Grant’s tenure in the White House. News of Colfax’s death on January 13, 1885 was somewhat inconspicuous.

Indianapolis Sentinel, January 14, 1885. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Schuyler Colfax was born on March 23, 1823 in New York City. He and his family moved westward in 1836, settling in St. Joseph County, Indiana. As the Indianapolis Sentinel reported in his obituary, the “earlier years of his life were spent as a clerk in a county store, but when eighteen years of age he was appointed Deputy County Auditor, at South Bend, by his stepfather, who was Auditor.” This was the start of his life-long involvement in politics.

Daily Wabash Express, January 14, 1885. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Colfax also gained political experience when he served as an “apprentice in the [pro-Republican] Indiana State Journal office, when that paper was under the management of John D. Defrees.” Later, in 1845, he established his own newspaper, the St. Joseph Valley Register in South Bend. As the Indianapolis Sentinel reported, Colfax “was both editor and proprietor of this paper, and made for himself quite a reputation as a vigorous political writer.” He also “prepare[d] himself for the bar” during this period.

Masthead of the St. Joseph Valley Register, circa 1863-1865. South Bend Tribune Online.

In 1850-51, Colfax served as one of the delegates to the Indiana Constitutional Convention, where he staunchly “opposed by voice and vote the clause prohibiting free colored persons from coming into the State.” Defeated as a Whig party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1851, he eventually won election to the House as a member of the newly-formed Republican party in 1854. He served in this body for the next 14 years. After the election of 1860, President-elect Abraham Lincoln gave Colfax some consideration for a  cabinet post, before he settled on Indianan Caleb B. Smith. In 1863, during the height of the Civil War, House members elected Colfax as Speaker of the House. During his time leading the House, he helped secure congressional passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ending slavery, on January 31, 1865. The states ratified the amendment on December 18, 1865.

1868 presidential campaign print. Library of Congress.

In 1868, while still serving as Speaker, the Republican Party nominated him to be General Ulysses S. Grant’s running mate. They won the election on November 3, 1868. Colfax would serve only one term in Grant’s administration. In 1872, Colfax announced that he was retiring from politics. The Republican Party nominated Henry Wilson to replace Colfax on the 1872 reelection ticket. However, there was a practical reason for Colfax’s retirement and the party replacing him as vice president nominee.

New York Sun, September 4, 1872. Chronicling America.

During 1868, Colfax became involved in a railroad shell corporation called Credit Mobilier of America, investing his own money into the scheme and receiving a $1,200 dividend check from Oakes Ames, a Congressman who roped some of his colleagues into it. After the  New York Sun broke the story, Colfax was later implicated in the scheme and nearly impeached. The impeachment proceedings stalled because Wilson replaced Colfax on the ticket. (Consequently, Wilson also became implicated in the scandal, but died of a stroke in 1875.) After nearly 20 years of success in public life, Colfax left Washington in 1873 a defeated, slightly tarnished man.

Greencastle Times, January 15, 1885. Hoosier State Chronicles.

He spent the remaining years of his life rebuilding his reputation as a public speaker, traveling around the country sharing his memories of President Lincoln during the Civil War. On January 13, 1885, Colfax arrived in an extremely cold Mankato, Minnesota on another lecture tour. As the Greencastle Times reported, Colfax “walked from the Milwaukee [Railroad] depot, the distance of half a mile, and it is presumed the exertion superinduced an attack of heart of disease. He fell forward from the seat in the waiting room and died without uttering a word.”

The Indiana press’s reaction to Colfax’s death balanced its respect for the fallen leader but also acknowledged his Credit Mobilier foibles. The Greencastle Times described the scandal as the “wrongs and embitterments that wore put upon him through the hatred and malice of his enemies,” but that his reputation was left “unscathed in the estimation of his home constituency and all those who knew him best.” The Indianapolis News wrote that, “Of his connection with the “Credit Mobilier” nothing need be said now, for the country knows it all. It is alluded to here because, in nearly thirty years of public life in his state or in congress, this is the only imputation on his integrity.”

Indianapolis Sentinel, January 17, 1885. Hoosier State Chronicles.

On the other end of responses, the Terre Haute Express did not even mention the affair. Finally, on the day of his death, the Indianapolis News published a column that fully defended Colfax against accusations of impropriety. “The case against him, wrote the News, “as having received $1,200 in an ‘S. C. [presumably for Schuyler Colfax] or bearer’ check from Oakes Ames was a strong one circumstantially but lacked direct conclusive proof, and against it Mr. Colfax put a private life without stain and a long and honorable public career to that time unsullied.” The Odd Fellows, of which Colfax was a member, attended to Colfax’s remains, and escorted the body back to Indiana via train within a few days. He was buried on January 17, 1885 at City Cemetery, South Bend.

Colfax’s grave at City Cemetery, South Bend, Indiana. Findagrave.com.

Despite Colfax’s involvement in one of the nineteenth century’s most explosive political scandals, his career in the House of Representatives, especially his help in passing the thirteenth amendment, deserves some level of recognition. Like many leaders of the Gilded Age, Colfax involved himself in an unsavory business arrangement that ruined his chances for higher political office. Nevertheless, he tried to rehabilitate his reputation and enjoyed a few years of success on the lecture circuit. While most Americans may not think of Schuyler Colfax when discussing the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, he was one of Indiana’s statesmen that left an indelible, and slightly infamous, mark on political life during the times.

Schuyler Colfax statue in Indianapolis, 1904. Library of Congress.

A Hoosier Shackleton: Julius Frederick and the Greely Expedition

Julius R. Frederick, courtesy of NOAA.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, expeditions from multiple nations took on one of the most dangerous, treacherous parts of the globe: the north and south poles. The most well-known example is Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. His expedition to Antarctica in 1915 became world-famous for his actions to save all 22 men of his crew from extreme cold for 105 days. Biographies of this journey became best-sellers, inspiring many on-screen adaptations, most notably 2002’s Shackleton, starring Kenneth Branagh. However, Shackleton wasn’t the only artic explorer to receive accolades for his endurance and bravery. Julius Frederick, Indiana resident and survivor of the Lady Franklin Bay expedition, also endured harsh temperatures, food shortages, and crew disruptions while stranded in the arctic.

The crew of the Lady Franklin Bay expedition. Frederick is fifth from the left in the back row. Courtesy of NARA/Glenn Stein.

According to the Indianapolis News, Frederick was born in Dayton, Ohio on July 21, 1852. He spent most of his early years in St. Mary’s, Ohio before his mother died when he was thirteen. Without much keeping him in Ohio, Frederick moved to Chicago, taking odd jobs as a messenger boy and railroad worker before he enlisted in the US army in 1876. For many years, Frederick was a soldier in military campaigns against Native Americans, fighting the Sioux and Nez Pierce. Specifically, he fought in the battle of Muddy Creek against the Sioux on May 7, 1877.

Adolphus Greely, leader of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition. Courtesy of Google Books.

By 1879, Frederick was interested in a different course and signed up to join the Howgate expedition to the North Pole. However, the unstable condition of the ship stranded Frederick in Montana for another two years. Finally, in 1881, Frederick joined the Lady Franklin Bay expedition led by Adolphus Greely, a then-First Lieutenant of the Army’s 5th Cavalry Regiment. Lady Franklin Bay is by Ellesmere Island, Nanavut, Canada, making it one of the most northern spots on the globe to be explored. The expedition’s task, in Frederick’s words, was to “take scientific observations within the Arctic Circle.” This came in the form of weather recording devices and other techniques used to understand the intense climate of the arctic region. In August of 1881, the 21 person crew set course on the ship Proteus, a “steam whaler” that carried them from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Lady Franklin Bay. As historian Glenn Stein noted, Frederick’s “nick­name among his Arctic comrades was “Shorty” because of his five-foot, two-inch stature” and he “did little hunt­ing during the LFBE, but performed the various duties of a cook, steam-launch engineer, and shoemaker.”

Map of Fort Conger and Lady Franklin Bay. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Once they arrived at Lady Franklin Bay, Greely and his team began their months-long investigation of the region, complete with recordings of the climate and natives. This was all in accordance with a multinational project called the International Polar Year that, according to historian C. J. Taylor, sought to establish “14 research stations” to “study the geophysics and geodesy of the polar region.” Among these stations, they resided at Fort Conger, an outpost a few miles inland from the bay. During these investigations, Sergeants David Brainard and James Lockwood confirmed the “farthest north” record up to that time. Things were going well until the supply ship Neptune failed to reach Lady Franklin Bay and returned to the United States. With its failure went the expedition’s resupply of food and other necessities. Subsequently, the expedition went from a mission of knowledge to one of survival.

Fort Conger, the headquarters of the Greely Expedition. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Another image of their headquarters, Indianapolis Journal, January 7, 1904, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Greely and his men began to face intense supply shortages which ravaged the crew, leading many to die from the lack of food and the harsh temperatures. A first rescue attempt in 1883 had failed, when the ship Proteus had been sunk by ice collisions, permanently shifting the crew southward from Fort Conger. It was in this dire situation that Julius Frederick endured his most painful experience of the expedition. In April of 1884, only a few months before the party was rescued, Frederick and Sergeant George W. Rice trekked to Cape Isabella, Baird Inlet, “to attempt the recovery of the hundred pounds of English beef which had been abandoned in November, 1883.” As a profile in Scribner’s magazine wrote, Frederick and Rice risked “their lives at almost every step of the way . . . only to find, after hours of searching among the floes, that their triumph was a barren one. . . .” The meat “had drifted from the shore” and was not salvageable. Rice’s condition worsened dramatically and he asked Frederick to leave him to die. Frederick refused and stayed with Rice until the very end, wrapping Rice’s “frozen feet with the temiak, or fur-lined jacket taken from his [Frederick’s] own back for this purpose, and then sat and held his unfortunate comrade till the latter’s pain was relieved by death.” Frederick initially yearned to die but, dedicated to his mission, saved Rice’s food ration, laid Rice’s body to rest, gathered up their supplies, and returned to camp so his colleagues wouldn’t suffer during a search attempt. As Scribner’s wrote, “He would use what was his own, but would not rob the living or the dead.”

Sergeant George W. Rice. Frederick comforted him during his final minutes while there were on a supply run. Courtesy of Internet Archive.
Julius Frederick (right) helping comrade George Rice (left) stay comfortable before he died in April, 1884. Courtesy of Internet Archive.

While many died from malnutrition, immense cold, and sheer exhaustion during the Greely expedition, only one was executed for insubordination. Private Charles B. Henry was caught stealing food in excess of his ration and summarily punished for his crimes. As the Fort Wayne Sunday Gazette noted, Frederick recalled that Private Henry was shot in the back with “two balls taking effect and producing instant death.” The Gazette shared more details from Frederick about the grisly conditions:

He said further there may have been cannibalism, but of this he has no personal knowledge. Henry had been warned several times about stealing food, but he repeated the offense and finally Greely issued the order for his execution.

Private Charles B. Henry. He was executed for stealing food and supplies. Courtesy of NARA/Daily Mail.

Frederick’s account was also published in the New York Times. However, the Indianapolis News reported that survivor Maurice Connell claimed Henry had been falsely accused and that Greely had actually stolen food. “To these charges,” the News wrote, “Sergeant Frederichs [sic], of this city, gives an emphatic denial, claiming that he himself saw Henry commit the theft. . . .” Greely also defended his decision to the New York Times, exclaiming that “it was discovered that, with other articles [food], Henry had stolen and secreted the sealskin boots of the hunter of the expedition.” The execution of Private Henry was one of the more inhumane moments of the Greely expedition, an acknowledgement of the harsh environment encompassing the men.

The six survivors of the LFB expedition. Frederick is the first on the left, back row. Courtesy of Corbis/Getty Images.

On June 23, 1884, after three long and suffering years, the survivors of the Greely expedition were rescued by a slew of ships led by Commander Winfield Schley. When all was said and done, there were only six survivors: Frederick, Brainard, Biederbick, Connell, Long, and Greely himself. Frederick was promoted to Second Lieutenant for his service during the expedition. The rest had perished during the years-long process to resupply and then rescue the expedition party. Greely, as quoted in the Indianapolis Journal, lamented that “six out of twenty-five were brought home. Nineteen brave men remain in that land of desolation.” When the crew docked at Portsmouth, New Hampshire on August 4, 1884, the New York Times wrote:

Never before in the history of Portsmouth has there been so grand and imposing an event as the celebration of the return of Lieut. Greely and the survivors of the expedition. . . . They were enthusiastically greeted as they landed, and the crowd pressed forward to shake their hands.

New York Times, August 5, 1884, Historic New York Times.

The hero’s welcome they received from their fellow citizens underscored the almost unthinkable hardships these men faced while in the arctic.

After a few other postings, Frederick moved to Indianapolis in February 1885, on assignment for the federal Signal and Weather Bureau Services. His move back to the US required some adjustment, especially in regards to the climate. “Sergeant Frederick[s],” the Indianapolis Journal wrote on January 13, 1887, “was about, yesterday, in his shirtsleeves complaining that the weather was much too warm.” The article further quoted him:

“I suppose an Esquimau [sic],” said the Sergeant, “couldn’t be made to understand that heat, no matter how strong it might be, could under any circumstances, occasion suffering. A hereafter of unquenchable fire would have no terrors for him, and when missionaries are sent to the ever-frozen north, they will have to preach a future for the wicked of even more intense cold.”

Indianapolis Journal, January 13, 1887, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Despite his acclimation to the cold, Frederick never fully recovered from his expedition. In an interview with the Indianapolis News, when asked of why he chose to live more inland in Indiana, he cited “rheumatism” as a motivator.

Indianapolis News, June 10, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In 1902, after many years of lobbying by the state legislature, Julius Frederick received a final promotion, first-class Sergeant of the signal corps of the army, as well as a retirement with pension. Biederbick, Long, and Connell also received the same commendation. The measure was passed by the Congress and signed by President Theodore Roosevelt on June 12, 1902. This final tribute, explained by Indiana Congressman Jesse W. Overstreet in an article in the Indianapolis News, was to “give to these men the only recognition which it remains for a grateful nation to bestow upon those who have imperiled their lives in war or in pursuit of science. This expedition carried the American flag to the northernmost point it has ever been planted by any scientific expedition.” Frederick’s contributions to exploration were finally recognized by the United States and he could finally retire to focus on his health.

Unfortunately, by the fall of 1903, Frederick’s health steadily declined. As the Indianapolis Journal reported, Frederick was “lying in a critical condition at his home on Center Drive, Woodruff place. Acute gastritis, brought on by exposure while with the General A. W. Greely expedition to the North Pole nineteen years ago, is the cause of Sergeant Frederick’s illness.” Frederick died on January 6, 1904 from complications from stomach cancer. He was only 51 years old. Upon his death, the Monthly Weather Review applauded his work in meteorology and noted that he died “enjoying the respect and esteem of all who knew him.” His friend and fellow Greely expedition survivor, Henry Biederbick, traveled all the way from New Jersey to attend his funeral. Frederick was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis Journal, January 7, 1904, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Reflecting on the expedition, Frederick said to the Indianapolis News that:

The Greely expedition was most unfortunate. I am not going to criticise [sic]. It was a horrible experience. I think, however that the success of polar expeditions is largely a question of equipping well. My expedition for the most part had only the rigors of the climate to contend against.

Frederick’s humility and perseverance, in the face of unparalleled challenges, speaks to the importance of exploration. As astronomer Carl Sagan once wrote, “We have always been explorers. It is part of our nature. Since we first evolved a million years or so ago in Africa, we have wandered and explored our way across the planet.” Frederick was one of those explorers, a brave soul who dared to face the elements and survived. In his success the world grew more connected, more understood. Upon Frederick’s death, a friend recalled a motto that he had “made a precept throughout his life: ‘Nothing is impossible to him that does.” If that is the case, then Frederick thoroughly achieved the impossible.

LFB expedition memorial plaque, Pim Island, 2005. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Vesto Slipher: Uncovering the Cosmos

The Andromeda Galaxy. Courtesy of NASA.
The Andromeda Galaxy. Courtesy of NASA.

The known universe is big; insanely big! At a staggering age of 13.8 billion years, our observable universe has a diameter of 92 billion light-years. Over the last century, astronomers, physicists, and mathematicians have helped us understand a more precise measurement of the size of the universe and how it has changed over time. The prevailing theory is the “Big Bang,” which, “At its simplest, [it] talks about the universe as we know it starting with a small singularity, then inflating over the next 13.8 billion years to the cosmos that we know today.” A key component of Big Bang cosmology, “Expansion Theory,” stipulates that the universe is expanding, rather than a static state, which accounts for the changing distances of stars and galaxies. So, how did we come to this conclusion?

Red and blue shift. Courtesy of Caltech.
Blue and red shift. Courtesy of Caltech.

Part of our understanding of the expanding universe has benefited, in no small part, to an Indiana farmer’s son named Vesto Slipher. Slipher developed spectrographic methods that allowed researchers to see a Doppler effect in the distances of what were then called “spiral nebula,” what we today call galaxies. Simply put, by measuring the longer wavelength red shift (objects moving away) and shorter wavelength blue shift (objects moving closer), Slipher demonstrated that the universe was not static. In fact, it was expanding and often pushing objects towards each other. Slipher’s name doesn’t get regularly name-checked as one of the greatest scientists of all-time, but his contributions helped to establish our current view of the cosmos.

Vesto Melvin Slipher. Courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences.
Vesto Melvin Slipher. Courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences.

Vesto Melvin Slipher was born on November 11, 1875 on the family farm in Mulberry, Indiana. As biographer William Graves Hoyt noted, Slipher’s early life on the farm “helped him develop the strong, vigorous constitution that later stood him in good stead for the more strenuous aspects of observational astronomy.” Slipher received a B.A. (1901), M.A. (1903), and Ph.D (1909) in Astronomy from Indiana University. His Ph.D. dissertation paper, The Spectrum of Mars, which tentatively identified atmospheric characteristics (namely, water vapor) on the red planet.

The Indianapolis Journal, June 19, 1901. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
The Indianapolis Journal, June 19, 1901. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
The Indianapolis Journal, June 8 1903. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
The Indianapolis Journal, June 8 1903. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.

Slipher’s professional career in science began in August of 1901, when he moved to Flagstaff, Arizona to fill a vacancy at the Lowell Observatory. Founded by the idiosyncratic Dr. Percival Lowell, Lowell Observatory became one of the foremost institutions of astronomy during the early 20th century. As the Coconino Sun put it, the observatory, “is known and recognized all over world for its discoveries and correct calculations.”

Dr. Percival Lowell, founder of the Lowell Observatory. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Dr. Percival Lowell, founder of the Lowell Observatory. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Lowell Observatory. Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal/State of Arizona.
Lowell Observatory. Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal/State of Arizona.

Lowell’s chief pursuit with the observatory was to prove that there were inhabitants on Mars, and hired young Slipher to help him. As early as 1908, Slipher found evidence through his spectroscopic techniques that Lowell may be on to something. The Washington Herald reported that V. M. Slipher (newspaper articles almost always identified him in print with just his initials) and his brother, Earl C. Slipher, “discovered evidences of the presence of water in the atmosphere of Mars. . . .” Sometime later, on May 20, 1909, the Hopkinsville Kentuckian noted that Slipher’s observations, “favor the view that the whitecaps about Mars poles are composed of snow rather than of hoarfrost,” and that “prevalent conditions of Mars . . .are those of a mild but desert climate, such as Professor Percival Lowell has asserted exists there.”

The Washington Herald, April 05, 1908. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
The Washington Herald, April 05, 1908. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

Lowell’s interest in Mars, emboldened by Slipher’s results, intensified. In 1912, Slipher helped install a 13,000 feet high telescope in the San Francisco Mountains so as to refine his measurements. Slipher’s efforts culminated in a 1914 announcement of further confirmation to his Water Vapor hypothesis. The Washington, D.C. Evening Star wrote that, “while the amount of water is difficult to determine, the estimates placed it at about one-third that of the atmosphere of the earth.” While Slipher and Lowell never found Martians on the red planet, their findings established atmospheric models that are still corroborated by scientists to this day.

The Los Angeles Herald, November 24, 1909. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
The Los Angeles Herald, November 24, 1909. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

With his research on Mars, Slipher was only getting started. His real passion was observing the position and velocities of “spiral nebula,” and he used his spare time away from his Mars projects to advance his research. His early successes convinced Dr. Lowell to give him time devoted to this research. It came with spectacular results. In 1912, Slipher began recording spectrographic results of the Andromeda Nebula (now known as the Andromeda Galaxy) and found that they were blue-shifting, which indicated that the nebula was “not within our galaxy.” “Hence we may conclude,” Slipher observed in his published findings, “that the Andromeda Nebula is approaching the solar system with a velocity of about 300 kilometers per second.” Within the next couple of years, Slipher also discovered that the Andromeda Nebula was also rotating as it traveled, and published these results in a subsequent article. From there, the results went to the press; the Daily East Oregonian published the findings in its November 15, 1915 edition. The Caldwell Watchmen in Columbia, Louisiana also reported that the Nebula was traveling at an unprecedented speed of “186 miles a second.” Similar articles were published in the Ashland, Oregon Tidings and the Albuquerque Evening Herald.

The East Oregonian, November 25, 1915. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
The East Oregonian, November 25, 1915. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

Slipher eventually observed the speeds of 15 nebulae, shared his findings at the 1914 American Astronomical Society meeting, and “received a standing ovation.” His results were then published by the society in 1915, demonstrating that the average velocity of these nebulae at 400 kilometers a second. A few years later, in 1921, Slipher found a record-breaking nebula called Dreyer’s Nebula (known today as IC 447) that was traveling away from our galaxy at 2,000 kilometers a second! With nebulae moving at varying velocities and in varying directions, Slipher’s research had started a conversation about the need to reevaluate the static theory of the universe. Why were these nebula acting like this?

The Washington, D.C. Evening Star, January 17, 1921. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
The Washington, D.C. Evening Star, January 17, 1921. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
Edwin Hubble. Courtesy of Sonoma State University.
Edwin Hubble. Courtesy of Sonoma State University.

In comes Edwin Hubble, the lawyer-turned-astronomer with the dashing looks of a movie star who pushed our understanding of the universe even further (Like Slipher, Hubble also had an Indiana connection as he taught and coached basketball at New Albany High School during the 1913-14 academic year) . As physicist Lawrence Krauss noted, Hubble used Slipher’s data on spiral nebula, combined with new observations he obtained with colleague Milton Humason, to postulate a new cosmological law. This new theorem, called “Hubble’s Law,” argued that there was a direct “relationship between recessional velocity and galaxy distance.” In other words, the farther away a galaxy is, the faster it is moving. These results flew in the face of both Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein’s notions of the universe, which argued for a static universe. If Hubble was right, the universe was actually expanding.

To test this idea, Hubble began a new series of spectrographic experiments in the 1930s. The Muncie Post-Democrat reported on one of these experiments on November 25, 1938:

The answer [to the expansion theory], they said, may be found when the new 200-inch reflector, cast in Corning, N. Y., glassworks, is completed. If the universe is expanding, the giant reflector being built on Mt. Palomar, in California, may indicate the type of expansion. The new mirror will collect four times as much light as the 100-inch Hooker reflector now in use at Mt. Wilson.

The Muncie Post-Democrat, November 25, 1938. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
The Muncie Post-Democrat, November 25, 1938. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.

These further experiments reaffirmed Hubble’s earlier conclusions and the expansionary model of the universe became the standard-model. The evidence was so overwhelming that Einstein changed his mind and accepted the expansionary theory. Like with his work on Mars, Slipher’s early observations helped to uncover a field-altering discovery, and as biographer William Hoyt concluded, his research “enabled astronomers to gauge the approximate age and dimensions of the known universe.”

Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto. He was assisted by Slipher in his discovery. Courtesy of NASA.
Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto. He was assisted by Slipher in his discovery. Courtesy of NASA.

Even after his momentous research on spiral nebula, Slipher continued to be involved in key discoveries. For example, Slipher assisted in the discovery of the planet (now dwarf planet) Pluto! A January 2, 1920 article in the Coconino Sun recalled that, “Dr. Slipher said he believes it is true that there is an undiscovered planet. This belief is due to peculiar actions of Uranus, who gets kind of wobbly sometimes in her course around the sun.” To confirm these claims, Slipher brought young scientist Clyde Tombaugh onto the project in 1928. After many attempts of photographing the unknown body, and Slipher even missing it in some telescopic photographs, Tombaugh finally discovered Pluto on February 30, 1930. The New York Times later reported the discovery on April 16, 1930. “Denial to the contrary,” the Times wrote, “Dr. V. M. Slipher, director of the Lowell Observatory [here], believes evidence indicates that the recently discovered “Planet X” is the long-sought trans-Neptunian planet, and is not a comet.” While Tombaugh rightfully gets the credit for the discovery, Slipher’s hard work in assisting the young scientist should count as one of his accomplishments.

The Coconino Sun, January 2, 1920. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
The Coconino Sun, January 2, 1920. Courtesy of Chronicling America.
Slipher in his later years. Courtesy of the New York Times.
Slipher in his later years. Courtesy of the New York Times.

Slipher retired from the Lowell Observatory in 1952 and spent the remaining years of his life involved in minor astronomical work and community affairs before he passed away in 1969, at the age of 94. While not a household name, Slipher’s achievements in astronomy are legendary, from his discovery of the atmospheric conditions of Mars and assisting with the discovery of Pluto to his ground-breaking research on spiral nebulae that led to our understanding of the expanding universe. In short, he helped science, and in turn humanity, further uncover the mysteries of the cosmos. Pretty good for a farm boy from Mulberry, Indiana.

“Let Me Go Quickly Like a Candlelight”

James Dean Death -- Fairmount News, October 13, 1955

On a darkening California highway one September evening in 1955,  Indiana native son James Dean careened to his death in a Porsche 550 Spyder nicknamed “Little Bastard.”  Speeding to an auto race in Salinas and riding with a former Luftwaffe pilot and Porsche mechanic named Rolf Wüterich, Dean tried desperately to avoid a crash as a 23-year-old Cal Poly student, Donald Turnupseed, turned onto the highway.  Sometimes ironically misspelled”Turnupspeed,” the other driver was judged not at fault, but Dean was severely mangled and died before arrival at the emergency room.

Less than a month before the release of his greatest film, Rebel Without a Cause, the 24-year-old actor was being packed up at a morgue out West for his last trip home to the Hoosier State.

The date of his death was September 30 — sixty years ago tonight.


Dean Reading Riley 2

(Dean reads Indianapolis poet James Whitcomb Riley during a visit back to Grant County.)


Hoosier State Chronicles has recently digitized seventy-five years of James Dean’s hometown newspaper, The Fairmount News, which will be going up on Newspapers.com this November.  All Indiana residents can access over 1.25 million pages of Hoosier newspapers for free through the State Library’s INSPIRE portal.

A town of about 3,000 in Grant County, an hour northeast of Indianapolis, Fairmount was shocked by Dean’s horrific death.  He’s still the town’s greatest attraction today, and the onslaught of tourists and movie buffs visiting Fairmount’s Park Cemetery has hardly slackened since 1955.  One biographer has even referred to the hometown actor as an “industry” and “one of Fairmount’s most lucrative commodities.”  Doubly lucky, the community is also the childhood home of Garfield cartoonist Jim Davis, born in 1945.

The Fairmount News will be a boon to researchers trying to put together a fuller picture of the actor’s youth and background in this Indiana farm town.


James Dean Death -- Fairmount News, October 13, 1955 (5)

(The Fairmount News, October 13, 1955.  Before he moved to California to attend UCLA in 1949, James Dean — who was raised in an Indiana Quaker household — played basketball for Fairmount High’s team, the Quakers.)


James Dean Death -- Fairmount News, October 6, 1955 (2)

(The Fairmount News, October 6, 1955.  The actor’s body came through Indianapolis International Airport en route from California.)


The Fairmount News will also undoubtedly give insight into Grant County’s not always flattering history, especially in the 1920’s. Dean’s biographers have been quick to point out the actor’s feelings about the area’s history as a major base for the Ku Klux Klan a century ago.  (He wrote a negative poem about his hometown when he lived in New York.)  Times have changed in Grant County, but the past is never truly dead.  As William Faulkner said, it’s not even past.


Freedom's Banner, Marion, Ind., July 23, 1910

(Grant County history was tarnished by the most famous photo of an American lynching in 1930, just one year before Dean’s birth, but its past is more complicated.  Under the subtitles “We Want Justice, Not Charity” and “Liberty for the Masses–Not the Classes,” Freedom’s Banner, a short-lived Socialist newspaper, was once printed at 120 East Fourth Street in Marion, the county seat, back in 1910.  A selection of Indiana Socialist papers also goes online this fall.)


One looming figure is Fairmount’s history is a woman alleged by Jack Shuler, a historian of lynching, to have been the Hollywood star’s great-aunt.  This was the little-known “Quaker Klucker,” Daisy Douglass Barr, mentioned on Hoosier State Chronicles last week and in an article on HistoricIndianapolis.com.

A reformer gone astray, Barr died in 1938 when Dean was seven and she is buried just a few rows away from him at Park Cemetery.  In the mid-1920’s, she served as head of the women’s auxiliary of the powerful Indiana Ku Klux Klan.  Barr was also an influential evangelical Quaker minister, having taken to the pulpit at age 16 and led revivals and tent meetings all over the state — one of the few women to preach and lead congregations in those days.

From 1903 to 1910, Barr had been pastor of the Fairmount Friends church, the same church James Dean grew up attending and where his funeral was held in 1955.  Though Daisy Douglass Barr moved to Indianapolis around 1917 and died in a car wreck near Jeffersonville in 1938, the future star of East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause almost certainly met her.  He was born in 1931.  It’s tempting to think he may have attended her funeral in Fairmount.


The Fairmount News, April 7, 1938 (4)(The Fairmount News, April 7, 1938.  Barr was the head of the WKKK in Indiana from about 1923 to 1925.  A Klan hospital on North Alabama Street in Indianapolis, never built, was to be named after her.)


Another “specter” from Dean’s past will likely surface in The Fairmount News.  This was a minister, close friend  and mentor of the young Dean’s who gave a eulogy as his funeral.

The Reverend James A. DeWeerd, a Methodist preacher educated at Taylor University, Marion College, and Ball State was at the time of the actor’s death the pastor of Indy’s influential Cadle Tabernacle.  By some accounts the largest church in America, Cadle Tabernacle, too, had a dark history dating back to the 1920s, when the Invisible Empire held many rallies there.  Its founder, evangelist Howard Cadle, had allegedly lost control of the place, but managed to turn it around.  Cadle Tabernacle became the base of a popular evangelical radio ministry in the ’30s and James DeWeerd preached there in the 1950’s — as did Civil Rights heroes Martin Luther King and Billy Graham, for the record.

DeWeerd, who “grew to be Jimmy’s ‘hero’ during high school years,” is also thought by several biographers to have molested or had a relationship with Dean, whom most scholars now recognize as having been bisexual.  Hoosier State Chronicles won’t weigh in on that — many people in Fairmount dispute it — but the charge against DeWeerd continues to be a controversial and interesting part of James Dean scholarship.


James Dean Death -- Fairmount News, October 13, 1955 (2)

(The Fairmount News, October 13, 1955.)


James DeWeerd yearbook pic

(James A. DeWeerd was born in Olivet, Illinois, in 1916, to parents who had been missionaries in South Africa.  DeWeerd, who died in 1972, is also buried at Fairmount’s Park Cemetery.)


Here’s a few other historic clips from The Fairmount News from the fateful year 1955.  Look for more on Newspapers.com when the paper goes live this November.


The Fairmount News, Special Dean Edition

(The Fairmount News, special edition, October 1955.)


The Fairmount News, January 13, 1955

(Dean’s former high-school basketball team, the Quakers, won the Grant County basketball tournament in January 1955.  They won the sectionals in March.)


The Fairmount News, January 27, 1955

(An ironic victory for Dean’s old team…  The Fairmount News, January 27, 1955.)


The Fairmount News, Special Dean Edition (2)

(Reverend James A. DeWeerd read a poem by Black Elk Speaks author John G. Neihardt during Dean’s funeral.  The pastor’s words were later reprinted in The Fairmount News.)

The Lusitania Connection

Queenstown mass grave

The Lusitania disaster seems impossibly remote to some, but the great maritime tragedy occurred just a hundred years ago — within the living memory of our oldest citizens.

Photography was unable to capture the sinking itself.  Torpedoed by a German submarine eleven miles off the south coast of Ireland on a beautiful May afternoon in 1915, the ship went to the bottom in just fifteen minutes, with the loss of 1,200 lives.  Many still believe the ship’s unusually fast demise was caused by contraband explosives it carried in its hold, en route from the U.S. to Britain.  If true, the Germans would still be guilty of a war crime, having fired the torpedo that ignited the illegal cargo, though the behavior of the British government, smuggling weapons on a passenger liner, would be hard to excuse.

While the meticulous, body-by-body photographic record of the drowned victims is stashed away in the Cunard Line Archives in Liverpool, hundreds of the dead were never recovered at all.  Others remained unidentified.  A series of stark photos documented their burial in a mass grave in the town of Cobh (formerly called Queenstown) on Ireland’s south coast. Remarkably few American newspapers ever reprinted these somber photographs, which show a pile of old-fashioned “pincher coffins,” the kind that was beginning to go out of style in favor of modern, less “haunted-looking” caskets.

An exception was the Lake County Times in Hammond, Indiana, which published one of the gloomy images on May 25, 1915, almost three weeks after the sinking.

Lake County Times, May 25, 1915

(Old Church Cemetery, Cobh, County Cork, Ireland, where 169 bodies from the Lusitania were buried.)


South Bend News-Times, May 13, 1915

(South Bend News-Times, May 7, 1915.)


One of the anonymous victims who might lie in the Irish earth — but who probably went to the bottom of the sea — was a Hoosier man sailing aboard the doomed vessel.

Elbridge Blish Thompson was a promising 32-year-old sales manager from Seymour, Indiana, traveling to Holland with his wife Maude.  Though Maude survived and went on to have a remarkable, unusual life, Thompson drowned and his body was never officially recovered.

Born in southern Indiana in 1882, Thompson came from a family of prominent millers who ran the Blish Milling Company, one of the main businesses in Seymour.  Educated in Illinois and at the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Thompson went on to study at Yale, then metallurgy at the Sheffield Scientific School in New Haven.  Popular at Yale, he defended his home state by saying “A man from Indiana can do no wrong.”  In 1904, he married Maude Robinson of Long Branch, New Jersey.  Thompson’s work as a metallurgist took the couple out to Breckenridge, Colorado, but after a few years, they came back to Seymour, where he took charge of the Blish Milling Company and the Seymour Water Company.  It was the flour milling business that eventually led him to embark on a fateful trip to Holland in May 1915.

Elbridge Blish Thompson

In 1914, a strange instance of what the Indianapolis News called “kismet” (fate) led Thompson to disguise one of his cars in a strange costume — as a German U-boat.  The automobile was a blue National roadster built at the National Motor Vehicle Company in Indianapolis, a company headed by Arthur C. Newby, one of the founders of the Indianapolis 500.  Three days after the Lusitania was torpedoed by a real U-boat, the News carried an almost eerie story about the “mimic submarine” that Thompson once drove through a parade in Seymour:

Mr. Thompson is of an adventurous disposition and prolific with original ideas.  He was impressed with the work of submarines in the European war, and decided to imitate one in decorating this auto for the parade.  His submarine attracted much attention, and he was complimented for his originality.  When he started for Europe with his wife on the Lusitania May 1, his friends warned him he might learn what a real submarine could accomplish, but he ridiculed the idea of danger.  Now that he has felt the effects of a submarine’s torpedo, his friends are saying it was a “case of fate.”


Indianapolis News, May 10, 1915

(Indianapolis News, May 10, 1915.)


The News incorrectly reported that Blish Thompson had been saved. On the morning of May 15, he and Maude rose at 4:30 to watch the sunrise.  That afternoon, they were in the first class dining room when the torpedo struck, signaled by a thud, then followed by a huge explosion that was either a coal bunker or a cache of illegal ammunition going off, the alleged contraband being smuggled to the Western Front which had led the Germans to target the ship to begin with.  On deck, Blish gave his lifebelt to a woman.  Unable to get into lifeboats as the ship lurched almost perpendicular, the Thompsons were swept down the deck and sucked into the water.  Then the couple’s grasp was torn apart by the suction of the plunging vessel.

While a memorial service was held for Thompson in Seymour on June 18, his body never turned up.  The stone monument in Seymour’s Riverview Cemetery was erected over an empty grave.


Thompson grave 1

(Thompson’s memorial at the Riverview Cemetery, Seymour, Indiana.)


Indianapolis Star, May 11, 1915

(Indianapolis Star, May 11, 1915.)


A more interesting fate than “Blish” Thompson’s is that of his wife.  By the end of World War I, Maude Thompson had remarried, becoming one of that fascinating bunch of Americans who joined the European aristocracy.  For years, Seymour — a humble Hoosier farm town — had a direct connection to France’s old nobility.

Widowed by the Lusitania disaster, Maude Thompson went back to Europe to volunteer with the Red Cross in France.  On the boat with her this time, she brought not her husband, but Blish Thompson’s two automobiles — the National roadster he had disguised as a “mimic submarine” for the parade through Seymour and a National touring car.  Maude donated these Indianapolis-built vehicles to the French cause.  The re-outfitted roadster served as a scout car on the Western Front.  The touring car was given to the Red Cross.  During World War I, Maude met and fell in love with an ace French fighter pilot, Count Jean de Gennes (pronounced “Zhen.”)  Although she was twelve years his senior, the two were married in Paris in November 1917.


Jean de Gennes

(Count Jean de Gennes, second husband of Maude Thompson, served in the French air force and transatlantic air mail service.  His son was born in Seymour, Indiana.)


After the Allied victory over the Germans, the new Countess de Gennes moved to her husband’s spectacular Loire Valley estate, the historic Château de Longue Plaine, located 30 miles south of Tours in western France.  It was a fairy-tale twist to a marriage due in part to the deadly sinking of the Lusitania.  Their son, named after his father, was born in 1919 while his mother was on a visit back home to Seymour, where she served on the board of the Blish Milling Company.  The young Indiana-born count would later serve during World War II as a pilot in the French Resistance, also flying in night-time bombing raids over Germany with the R.A.F.’s Bomber Command.

Maude’s husband was often away from home.  During the 1920s, Count de Gennes was one of the great pioneer airmail pilots, navigating the dangerous South American and North African routes between France, Casablanca, and Buenos Aires.  One of his colleagues at the Compagnie Aéropostale was the great French pilot and novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince and several great early non-fiction classics of flight.  Like Saint-Exupéry, who vanished into the Mediterranean during World War II, Count Jean de Gennes — member of the French Legion d’Honneur — died in a plane crash off the coast of Morocco in 1929.

Six years before the count’s death, an unnamed reporter from the Indianapolis News paid a visit to the de Gennes family at their sprawling chateau near the Loire.


Indianapolis News, December 29, 1923 (1)

(Indianapolis News, December 29, 1923.)


As the Hoosier reporter described it, Maude — “a former Indiana woman” — had refurbished much of the old 17th-century castle, which had been revamped in the early 1800s but originally dated back to the Middle Ages.  Maude installed its first electric lights, a central heating system to replace “big hungry-mouthed fireplaces,” and put in a power plant out back.  She also brought over bits of the Hoosier State with her, incorporated into the house or stowed away.

It was a delightful experience to live in this charming old place in the midst of American furniture — for the complete contents of the Seymour home had been transported to France. . . While it may seem like carrying coals to Newcastle, to take our furniture to a country famous a thousand years for its beautiful cabinet work, the old Indiana bureaus and tables and other pieces fitted admirably into the delightful old French setting. . .

Baby Jean lives in a suite of his own that was all paneled and cupboarded with Indiana wood.  Even his furniture was built from Indiana lumber.

Much of this wood from Jackson County is probably still there today.

The reporter also found. . . Indiana newspapers:

Indianapolis News, December 29, 1923 (2)

(Indianapolis News, December 29, 1923.)


Chateau de Longue Plaine

(Château de Longue Plaine, where Maude Thompson lived into the 1940s.)


Jean de Gennes (World War II)(Hoosier-born French pilot Count Jean de Gennes served as a bombardier in the “Groupe Guyenne,” a segment of the R.A.F.’s Bomber Command that flew out of Tunisia and Britain, carrying out the controversial night-time raids over German cities that killed thousands of civilians.  Half of the squadron itself died in action.)


The Miami News, February 6, 1947(The Miami News, February 6, 1947.)


Though she could easily have found refuge in the U.S., the Countess de Gennes stayed in France during the Nazi occupation of her adopted country.  In 1946, she moved to New York City with her son, who was working for Air France.  Maude lived out her remaining days in Queens.  She died on May 17, 1951.  According to her last wishes, she was buried in France.

RMS Lusitania


South Bend News-Times, August 8, 1920

(South Bend News-Times, August 8, 1920.)

Harriet Colfax, Guardian of the Indiana Shore

Harriet A Colfax - Chicago Daily Tribune October 2 1904 (2)

Some people are shocked to find out that Indiana has a coastline, let alone six lighthouses.  You might be even more surprised to discover that for over forty years, the keeper of the Old Michigan City Lighthouse was a woman — and that in 1904, she was “the oldest lighthouse keeper in America.”

Harriet Colfax was born in 1824 in Ogdensburg, New York, a town on the St. Lawrence River looking over into Ontario.  As a young woman, she taught voice and piano in her hometown.  In the early 1850’s, Harriet moved west to Michigan City, Indiana, with her younger brother, Richard Wilson Colfax, who became editor of the Michigan City Transcript, a Whig journal.  (Richard died just after his twentieth-sixth birthday in February 1856 and is buried in the town’s Greenwood Cemetery.)  Some sources say Harriet worked at her brother’s newspaper as a typesetter, then taught school.  She never married, and after her brother’s death had few means of support.  So by 1861, when she was thirty-seven, she decided to do something totally different.

And the job would bring a house with it.

Until the 1890s, being a lighthouse keeper was still a political position, relying on appointments and sometimes even corruption.  On the Great Lakes and Atlantic Coast, these jobs were scarce and hard to come by.  Fortunately, Harriet had a relative who could pull some major political strings.

Her cousin Schuyler Colfax, born and raised in New York City, had also moved out to the promising new Hoosier State, where by age 19 he was editing the South Bend Free Press.  (In 1845, as the paper’s new owner, he changed its name to the St. Joseph Valley Register.)  In the 1840s, Schuyler Colfax wrote about Indiana politics for the influential editor Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune and as State Senator wrote for the Indiana State Journal.  In 1855, he got elected to Congress, where he spoke out against the extension of slavery into the West.  Nicknamed “The Smiler” — partly for his affability, partly for his intrigue — he was also one of the few people you ever see grinning in 19th-century photographs!


Schuyler Colfax

(Harriet’s cousin, South Bend newspaperman Schuyler Colfax, represented Indiana in the House of Representatives during the Civil War, served as Speaker of the House, then went on to become Ulysses S. Grant’s first Vice-President.  The Hoosier V.P. also helped found the Daughters of Rebekah, the women’s auxiliary of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.  Photo by Matthew Brady, National Archives.)

In March 1861, two years before he became Speaker of the House, Harriet’s cousin got her an appointment as the keeper of the Old Michigan City Lighthouse.

Contemporary accounts constantly referred to Harriet as small in stature and rather frail, so her cousin in Washington, D.C., might have had to exert some pressure — or selectively leave out that information — to get the family favor done.  Yet getting a post as lighthouse keeper wasn’t necessarily hard.  If we can believe one of his letters, in 1822 the English actor Junius Brutus Booth, father of John Wilkes Booth, was offered the position of lighthouse keeper at Cape Hatteras on North Carolina’s remote Outer Banks — a job he almost accepted.


Old Michigan City Lighthouse

(This photo from July 20, 1914, shows the Old Michigan City Lighthouse after it was converted into a duplex for the lightkeeper’s family and his assistant.  The tower and lantern dating from 1858 were removed.  U.S. Coast Guard photo.)


Michigan City lighthouse

(Harriet Colfax also tended the East Pier Lighthouse, which required a perilous walk down a long, icy causeway in winter.  The light is situated at the end of the breakwater at the mouth of Michigan City harbor, once a minor fishing and lumbering port.  Flickr Creative Commons photo, Tom Gill.)


Harriet A Colfax - Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail January 19 1895(Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, January 19, 1895.)


In the opening year of the Civil War, with her new appointment in hand, Harriet moved into the three-year-old lighthouse built among cottonwoods and willows by the Lifesaving Service just back from the harbor.  (The plan was almost identical to two other light stations — Grand Traverse Light on Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, and the station at Port Washington, Wisconsin, north of Milwaukee.)  A new Fresnel lens up top was visible for fifteen miles out on Lake Michigan.  Harriet Colfax had become the newest guardian of sailors along the occasionally storm-wracked Hoosier Coast.  She kept the difficult job for forty-three years.

Colfax’s most challenging task was getting out to the East and West Pier lights.  Until it collapsed in a windstorm in 1886, Colfax reached the West Pier beacon by rowboat.  Built in 1871 and situated at the end of a 1,500-foot long breakwater, the East Pier Light was replaced in 1904 and is still standing.  This light had to be lit every evening, fair weather or foul.  When “The Witch of November” blew in and Lake Michigan’s waves froze solid on top of the causeway, Harriet had her work cut out for her, and she had many harrowing brushes with a frigid death.  As the 49-year-old wrote in her logbook on May 28, 1873: “A terrible hurricane to-night at about the time of lighting up.  Narrowly escaped being swept into the lake.”

One of her main challenges in the days before kerosene was used to light lamps (a hazard in itself) was keeping oil from freezing while she carried it out to the beacons.  The West Pier could only be reached by rowboat.  In wintertime, whether she was walking or rowing, Colfax had to heat the lard oil at home, then act fast.  As she told the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1904 (the year of her retirement at age eighty):

The lard oil would get hard before I could get the lamp lighted, but once lit it never went out, you may be sure.  My lights never went out till I quenched them myself. . . I love the lamps, the old lighthouse, and the work. They are the habit, the home, everything dear I have known for so long. I could not bear to see anyone else light my lamp. I would rather die here than live elsewhere.

(Her cousin, Vice-President “Smiler” Colfax, lacked Harriet’s stamina.  He died in 1885, of a heart attack brought on by exposure to extreme cold after walking three-quarters of a mile in January weather in Minnesota.)


lighthouse lantern(Harper’s Young People: An Illustrated Weekly, May 2, 1882)


Harriet Colfax’s job, of course, wasn’t all hardship.  Life on the lake had plenty of attractions.  In her journals, she described spectacular rainbows and eclipses of the moon over the water.  Winter’s icy grip brought impressive displays of the Northern Lights.  And she sometimes got leaves of absence.  In 1876, she visited the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

Nor did she live by herself.  In the 1860’s, a friend of Harriet’s named Ann C. Hartwell moved into the station.  Born in Ontario in 1828, Ann had known Harriet back in upstate New York as  a child and, like her, moved out to Michigan City in the 1850’s.  A story, possibly folklore, about a dead lover being the reason why neither of the two women ever married made it into the Indianapolis Journal on December 21, 1884:

Harriet Colfax - Indianapolis Journal December 21 1884 (2)

Though they lived together as friends, Colfax and Hartwell worked side-by-side to keep the lanterns lit.  The bravery of the famous Ida Lewis, who kept Lime Rock Light in Newport, Rhode Island, stirred up a lot of public fascination — some of it annoying — about females in the Lifesaving Service and helped propel the two Michigan City women to local fame.  (They weren’t the only women involved with keeping the Hoosier coast safe, by the way.  Harriet C. Towner was Colfax’s successor from 1844 to 1853, and Mary Ryan was stationed at Calumet City, Indiana, from 1873 to 1880.)

When Colfax finally retired from her job in October 1904, she and Ann had to move out of the lighthouse, which was owned by the Lifesaving Service.  Separated from her old home, Ann’s mental and physical health immediately broke down.  On November 4, a report made it into the Jasper Weekly Courier in southern Indiana that she had gone insane from grief — and of course, love:

Ann Hartwell - Jasper Weekly Courier, November 4 1904

Ann died just a few months later, on January 22, 1905, aged 77.  John Hazen White, the Episcopal Bishop of Indiana, presided at her funeral at Michigan City’s Trinity Cathedral.  Harriet, also struck with grief at the loss of her home and long-time companion, passed away on April 16.  The two are buried next to each other at the Greenwood Cemetery.

Their names shine bright on the long list of women lighthouse keepers of the Great Lakes.  But lest you think that Harriet’s story is impressive, here’s one even better:  Kathleen Moore, keeper of the Black Rock Harbor Light on Long Island Sound in Connecticut, was credited with saving twenty-one lives.  She retired in 1878.  Claims about her age differ, but Moore was born sometime between 1795 and 1812, took up lighthouse keeping before she was a teenager, and died in 1899.  You do the math!


Harriet A Colfax - Chicago Daily Tribune October 2 1904

Harriet A Colfax - Chicago Daily Tribune October 2 1904 (3)

(Chicago Daily Tribune, October 2, 1904)

Henri Marion, Naval Interpreter and Pigeon Expert, Dead at Culver, Indiana

Culver Postcard 1906

You can thank Jonathan Jennings for making the Hoosier State a Great Lakes State two-hundred years ago, when he got Congress to nudge the border with Michigan a few miles north.  But even with our gorgeous sand dunes stretched out under the shadow of the steel mills, Indiana hardly jumps to mind when it comes to maritime history.

That didn’t stop me from fishing for some home-grown Hoosier connections to the Life Aquatic.  (Did you know that even far-inland parts of the state, like Leavenworth down on the Ohio River, once had thriving boatbuilding enterprises, with craftsmen turning out graceful wooden skiffs shipped around the U.S.?)

One of Indiana’s surprising links to the sea was Professor Henri Marion, whose obituary ran in the South Bend News-Times on August 15, 1913.

Marion was born in Tours, France, in 1857, and emigrated with his wife Jeanne Marie to America around 1883, when the couple were still in their twenties.  The Marions lived briefly in Charleston, South Carolina, where their son Paul Henry Marion, who later served in the Navy, was born in 1884.  In 1886, Henri Marion was a language teacher at the Norwood Institute on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C.  An ad for the school listed him as a graduate of the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris.

By 1891, though, Marion had become a French professor at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

An esteemed instructor there, Henri Marion may have been involved in the early use of the phonograph in teaching languages to naval cadets.   Curiously, the French professor also got involved in another “linguistic” innovation involving technology — not “pidgin” English, but another kind of “pigeon” entirely.


Outing October 1894

(A pigeon-cote on the armored cruiser Constellation around 1894.)


The instructor was at the forefront of a U.S. Navy effort to improve the sending of messages via homing pigeon.     An issue of Outing in October 1894 has this to say about it:

The military use of messenger pigeons has grown up since the Franco-Prussian war, when pigeons were first extensively used during the siege of Paris.  In France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain and Portugal, the organization of military pigeon posts is now very complete, some of the nations owning upwards of six-hundred thousand birds.  As homing pigeons are of no use as bearers of messages except after long and careful training, a service of messenger pigeons for naval or military use could not be improvised at short notice.

The United States messenger pigeon service has now been in existence for three years, under the charge of Prof. Henri Marion, United States Naval Academy, who has frequently urged that a permanent service be established along the Atlantic coast, from Portland, Maine, to Galveston, Texas. . .

In peace, the birds would be useful in giving notice of wrecks, fire at sea, lack of food, water or coal, or of any accident to vessels or machinery, if happening near the coast, and could frequently relieve the anxiety of friends of passengers on vessels overdue. . . When in October 1883 a light-ship broke from her moorings twenty-two miles from Tornung, off the mouth of the Eider, four pigeons were liberated from the ship and brought the news in fifty-eight minutes.

In 1896, Professor Marion filed a patent for a new watertight aluminum message holder that would be attached to the bird’s legs.  Scientific American reported that Marion’s improved “quill” weighed “less than eight grains” and can “be fastened to the pigeon in an instant.”


Henri Marion Homing Pigeon Patent 1896

(Marion’s patent for a message holder, October 1896.)


Around 1905, before he began spending his summers as a language teacher in northern Indiana, Henri Marion got involved with another strange naval odyssey:  the discovery of the remains of John Paul Jones.

The Scottish-born Revolutionary War hero was most famous for captaining the Bonhomme Richard in a famous battle against the British vessel Serapis, fought off Flamborough Head in Yorkshire in 1779.  Though hailed as the “Father of the U.S. Navy,” John Paul Jones fell from grace and entered the service of Catherine the Great’s Russian Navy in 1787, battling the Turks on the Black Sea, then wandered around Poland and Sweden, desperately looking for a country to serve.  Jones ended up in Paris in 1790 in the early days of the French Revolution.  Sick and miserably lonely, the 45-year-old hero died of a kidney ailment at his apartment in Paris in 1792.  One of the captain’s few friends found him dead, kneeling face-down at the edge of his bed, apparently in prayer before his spirit took flight (or set sail?)

Thinking (wrongly) that the U.S. government would be interested in repatriating the hero’s remains for an honorable burial in America, a French admirer sought to preserve his body, even as the American ambassador, Gouverneur Morris, refused to help give Jones a proper burial in Paris.  (“I had no right to spend money on such follies,” Morris wrote.)  Like his contemporary Mozart, who was chucked into a mass grave in Vienna just six months earlier, only a few servants and friends attended Jones’ burial in the St. Louis Cemetery, which was set aside for “foreign Protestants.”   The body was stuck in a lead-lined coffin filled with alcohol to aid preservation in case the American government ever ordered an exhumation.  Just a few weeks later, after 600 Swiss Guards died defending King Louis XVI at his palace and were tossed in a mass grave next to Jones’ new coffin, the exact site of his burial became more and more mysterious.

The horrible burying ground later became a garden, then a refuse dump covered by a midden full of animal bones and kitchen waste.  According to rumor, the neighbors held cock fights and dog fights at the site of the forgotten cemetery where America’s greatest naval hero lay.  Over the course of the 1800s, a grocery store, laundry, and apartment house had also been built on top of it.


John Paul Jones Last Cruise 1


In 1899, General Horace Porter, U.S. Ambassador to France from 1897 to 1905, began an amazing six-year search for Jones that culminated in the discovery, photography, and repatriation of his remains.  (I won’t spoil your lunch by posting the photos here, but I’ll just say he looks like King Tut.  You can see them here.)

Professor Henri Marion — of homing-pigeon fame — was Ambassador Porter’s interpreter in France.  Marion helped translate old documents and went on the archaeological digs that led to the discovery of John Paul Jones’ coffin.  Porter’s team battled worms, stench, and fetid water along the way.  His interpreter later wrote the definitive account of this search through subterranean Paris, a book published in 1906 as John Paul Jones’ Last Cruise and Final Resting Place at the United States Naval Academy.

Henri Marion accompanied the Revolutionary War hero as he sailed on his “final cruise” to Annapolis, Maryland, departing from Cherbourg, France, in July 1905, after lavish services at the American Church in Paris.   A 13-day crossing brought  Jones “home” to a ceremony presided over by President Theodore Roosevelt.  Jones’ bones were then laid to rest in a temporary vault at the Naval Academy on the shores of Chesapeake Bay.


Coffin of JPJ

(The coffin of John Paul Jones is lowered to the deck of the USS Standish off Annapolis Roads, July 23, 1905.  U.S. Naval Historical Center.)


Within a summer or two, the French interpreter who was so instrumental in the hunt for Captain Jones was in Marshall County, Indiana.  By about 1907, Henri Marion was serving as a French and Spanish instructor at the Culver Military Academy’s Summer Naval School, a preparatory program for teenagers interested in enrolling in the U.S. Navy.

Founded on the shores of Lake Maxinkuckee in 1894, the Culver Academy began its unique summer naval program, hailed as “the only naval school west of the Atlantic Coast,” in 1902.  Three years later, it had “125 students from twenty different states” (Plymouth Tribune).

An article in the nearby Plymouth newspaper reported on the mustering-in of a battalion of “Indiana state sailors” in 1909.  “A ship will be provided for them,” it said.

The naval instruction on Lake Maxinkuckee covers all the elementary work done by naval reserves and by the government naval training stations.  In addition, the formation of this battalion entitles Indiana to receive from the navy department a vessel for more extended drills and work in navigation on the Great Lakes.

Illinois has recently received the gunboat Nashville for this purpose and by next summer these Hoosier middies will probably receive a similar vessel.

A writer for the Indianapolis Journal in 1902 told potential tourists that “Visitors to Maxinkuckee during these months [July and August] will find the lake with quite a nautical appearance, the only feature lacking being the smell of the salt sea air.”

With the grounds illumined by Japanese lanterns, a ball was held at Culver that August.  By 1910, a floating dance pavilion called “The White Swan enticed local dancers at the popular lake resort to come enjoy the summer nights along Aubeenaubee Bay.  Guests sometimes arrived on the steamers that once plied Lake Maxinkuckee.  In 1903, Civil War naval veteran (and native Hoosier) Admiral George Brown came to visit the Culver cadets.


Culver Naval School Catalog 1904 (5)

(Naval students learn to dance at the Culver Summer Naval School.  This photo is from the institute’s debut 1902 catalog.  The cost of the 8-week program that year was $110, “including room, board, tuition and laundry.”)


Culver Naval School Catalog 1904 (3)

(“Marlinspike Seamanship,” as taught in the northern Indiana flatlands.  Students “will all be taught ship nomenclature, and the general principles which govern the building of wooden and iron ships.  They will be instructed in the use of the compass, and the lead-line and the log.  In connection with their work in seamanship, they will also be instructed in the courtesies and customs of the United States Naval Service. . . Cadets in the upper class will be taught the laws of gyratory storms. . . and will be required to learn thoroughly the ‘Rules of the Road’ for avoiding collisions at sea.”)


Country Life in America May 1907

(In May 1907, Henri Marion was mentioned in this ad from Country Life in America.  “Expert tutoring is given in any study; also a special course in modern languages, with the phonograph, under Professor Henri Marion, of the United States Naval Academy, and laboratory and other interesting special courses.”)


Culver Naval School Catalog 1904 (4)


Culver Naval School Catalog 1902 (7)


South Bend News-Times August 15 1913 (1)

South Bend News-Times August 15 1913 (2)

Possibly dealing with the effects of typhoid fever he contracted in Maryland in 1910, Henri Marion died in the hospital at Culver, Indiana, in August 1913 “after a general decline” — and not long after a fierce windstorm cut through the school and did huge damage.

The French instructor, interpreter, and pigeon-pioneer was buried at the Naval Academy’s cemetery in Annapolis.  The Culver Military Academy continues its summer naval school to this day.


Scene on Lake Maxinkuckee

(Culver-Union Township Public Library.)


Do you have a photo of Professor Marion?  I’m at staylor336 [at] gmail.com.  And take your own dive into history at Hoosier State Chronicles.

That Foulsome Air May Do No Harm

vajen mask

An entry in Hyman’s Handbook to Indianapolis recently caught my eye.  A strange masked man stalks this great guide to the old and now mostly vanished architecture of the city in 1909.

My thoughts raced to Jules Verne’s deep-sea divers, Renaissance plague doctors dressed like bizarre birds, steampunk fashion designers, and of course the epic villain, Darth Vader.

Even the name of the company that once manufactured this pioneer fireman’s oxygen mask in the Hoosier State had a science-fiction ring to it: the Vajen-Bader Company.

Smoke, sulphur, and ammonia pose problems similar to those faced by divers and even doctors wading into disease-ridden “miasmas” (the “bad air” mentioned in old medical manuals).  So it should come as no surprise that the invention of smoke helmets is part of a much bigger history.  The tragedy is that the protective devices used by groundbreaking medical men, underwater explorers, and firefighters evolved into the gas masks used in the chemical warfare that made World War I so uniquely terrifying at the time.

In 1893, Indianapolis hardware salesman and inventor Willis C. Vajen earned his place in the history of masks and life-saving.


Salt Lake Herald August 10 1896 (2)

(Salt Lake Herald, Salt Lake City, Utah, August 10, 1896.)


Vajen (whose name, I believe, is pronounced “Vie-en”) came from one of the capitol city’s most prominent and wealthy families.  His father, John Henry Vajen, emigrated from Bremen, Germany, to Baltimore with his parents in 1836, then moved west with them to Cincinnati, Ohio, and eventually Jackson County, Indiana.  (John Vajen, Sr., had been a professor in Germany, a talented organist, and a Lutheran minister, and served as pastor of a large log church near Seymour.)  Vajen, Jr., went into the hardware business and made a small fortune in trading and banking.  During the Civil War, J.H. Vajen became the thrifty Quartermaster General of Indiana and was known as Governor Oliver P. Morton’s right-hand man.  He died in 1917.

Willis Vajen ultimately followed in his father’s footsteps.  After attending a seminary in Hamburg, Germany, Earlham College in Richmond, and Wittenburg College in Ohio, he, too, went into the hardware business.  His sales knack probably had something to do with his skill in design.  (Vajen filed patents for tools and machinery, like this plumb bob and a rein support for horses.)  “Vajen & New” was located at 64 E. Washington St., offering Indianapolitans the best selection of lawn mowers, saw vises, rubber hoses, fishing tackle, fly-screen doors, White Mountain Ice Cream freezers, garden rakes, rubber hoses, and roller skates.


indianapolis news april 13 1886

(Indianapolis News, April 13, 1886.)

Indianapolis Journal October 9 1884

(Indianapolis Journal, October 9, 1884.)


No mere humble merchants of garden tools and sporting goods, the Vajens married into great families.  Willis Vajen was wed to Anna Claypool, daughter of the wealthy Connersville businessman Edward F. Claypool.  (Ironically, the majestic Claypool Hotel, named for the inventor’s father-in-law and once one of the great landmarks of the city, was destroyed by arson in 1967.)  Vajen’s sister Fannie Belle married Charles Stewart Voorhees, son of Senator Daniel Voorhees.  (Charles Voorhees represented Washington Territory in Congress.)  The Vajens often vacationed at their summer cottage on Lake Maxincuckee in northern Indiana, loaning it to the Hoosier novelist Booth Tarkington and his wife Laurel Fletcher in 1902.

Yet Willis Vajen’s claim to fame is the “smoke protector” that he perfected with William Bader in 1893.  Apparently one or both of these men had witnessed a tragic hotel fire where rescuers were unable to reach the fourth floor due to smoke, the inspiration for their efforts at invention.  A German immigrant, Bader was a piano maker by profession and may have come up with the idea first.  Testimony from a lawsuit filed in U.S. Court in 1899 has it that Vajen first saw a photograph of the device in the music store where Bader worked, and the  two worked together to improve efficacy of the mask, meanwhile helped along by Dennis Swenie, Chicago’s fire chief.  A clip in the Los Angeles Herald suggests that “William Baders” was the real genius, Vajen only “furnishing the capital for the enterprise.”  The court’s verdict, however, was that Vajen deserved most of the credit.


hyman's handbook 2

(Hyman’s Handbook to Indianapolis, 1909.)


The struggle to perfect a mask that can ward off the assault of smoke, water, noxious fumes, and even the plague goes back centuries.  News articles heralding the Vajen-Bader Patent Smoke Protector often remarked that it looked like a sea-diver’s helmet.  This, too, was a new invention.  English brothers Charles and John Deane had been inspired to invent their famous copper diving helmet in the 1820s after witnessing a fire at a smoke-filled horse stable.  When the Deanes attached a leather hose to pump fresh oxygen into their firefighting helmet, scuba-diving took a great leap forward.  (While wearing such an outfit in 1836, John Deane discovered Henry VIII’s long-lost warship Mary Rose, sunk off the Isle of Wight three-hundred years before.)


Deane Helmet

(English underwater explorers John and Charles Deane invented the diver’s helmet in 1823 while figuring out a better way to fight fires.  In 1893, French marine scientist Louis Boutan wore a similar diver’s suit and became the world’s first underwater photographer.)


Another fascinating European forerunner of the Vajen-Bader mask was the plague doctor’s costume.  While these seem like creatures of the fantastic imagination to us today, in the 17th century doctors venturing into epidemic-ridden cities sported masks resembling bird beaks, along with heavy protective suits that they believed gave protection from “miasmatic air.”  Filled with scented herbs and spices like ambergris, myrrh, mint, cloves, and rose petals, the doctor’s elongated “beak” was designed as a kind of air filter.   Credited to the Parisian doctor Charles de l’Orme, these ornithologically-inspired plague garments were in use as early as 1619 and later became a feature in the Venetian carnival.


plague doctors mask 2

(The crystal eyeballs and Moroccan leather in this 17th-century doctor’s get-up were oddly echoed by Hoosier innovator Willis C. Vajen, who outfitted his smoke helmets with delicate mica ear pieces to allow firefighters to hear and used sturdy leather that protected the neck and head against falling incendiary debris.)


plague doctors mask

(Doktor Schnabel von Rom, a.k.a. “Doctor Beak of Rome,” wears Kleidung wider den Tod — “clothing against death” — in this 1656 broadside.  The engraving is written in “macaronic language,” a mix of German and Latin.  Bilingualism was also common in Hoosier newspapers.)


When Willis Vajen and William Bader undertook work on their smoke helmet, other innovators had already tried out an array of devices, ranging from primitive sponges and lightweight “respiratory veils” to more sophisticated contraptions, like the one invented in the 1870’s by Irish physicist John Tyndall, who incorporated a cotton filter saturated with lime, charcoal,  and glycerin.  A different device was the respirator pioneered by Bernhard Loeb, who attached metal air canisters to the mask’s mouth.

Chicago’s Fire Chief Dennis J. Swenie endorsed Vajen and Bader’s invention early on — although as he wrote in a letter reprinted in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette in May 1897, a few technical snags stood in the way:

Some two years ago Willis C. Vajen, an Indianapolis inventor, brought me a smoke helmet or protector and asked me what I thought of it.  He will himself, no doubt, admit that it was a crude and cumbersome affair.  The principle material in its construction was sole leather, and its window was of a single thickness or pane of glass.  It did not have facilities for enabling the wearer to hear, and the tank for the compressed air was fully six times larger than was necessary.

However, it was clear that the inventor was on the right track. . .  As it stands now, the weight of the helmet is practically nothing, resting upon the shoulders.  The protector is made of asbestus tanned horsehide and is securely fastened by means of two straps which pass from the back under the arms and snap into rings in front.  Its top is padded and is also re-enforced with transverse seams of the hard leather, which stand up to the height of about an inch.  This makes it capable of withstanding a very heavy blow and forms an almost perfect protection against falling bricks and small stones.

Directly at the back of the neck is a small air tank, which can be filled by means of an ordinary force pump such as the bicyclists use for inflating their pneumatic tires.  It will hold 100 pounds of compressed air and has a tiny gauge attached which registers the pressure of air within.  The first five or ten minutes at a fire generally determines the result, and the total capacity of the air tank is sufficient to last a man for 40 minutes.

“Delicate mica diaphragms” for the ears and eyes helped with vision and hearing, as a did a double-paned window.  “Both eye and ear pieces are protected by strong wire guards. . .  On the front exterior, where it may be easily reached, is a signal whistle, which does not consume any of the pure air from the reservoir.  The operation of the signal, which is loud and sharp, makes no drain upon the breathing resources of the fireman.”

An article in Fire & Water Engineering in 1906 adds:  “It is neat; it weighs only six pounds; it can be put on as easily as a coat. . . There is no hose attachment which is liable to kink or break and thus impede the movements of the wearer.”


vajen mask 3


patent-vajen1


The Vajen-Bader Company’s life-saving invention caught on fast.  Praise came not only from American fire chiefs, but from international clients.  Operating out of a space on the second floor of the old Indianapolis Public Library a block north of Monument Circle (and later at a factory in Richmond, Indiana), the company filled orders from customers as diverse as meatpackers, mining and gas companies, breweries, and the British and Chilean navies.  Overseas agents in Johannesburg, London, and Yokohama marketed the smoke protector around the globe.  In 1897, fire fighters from Dublin, Ireland, to Wellington, New Zealand were “using them with entire satisfaction.”

The masks sold for $100, a large investment for some municipal fire departments, but Hyman’s Handbook claimed that “during the first year an estimated $3,000,000 worth of property was saved by the use of this new device.”


old indianapolis public library 1896

(A small team of workers made Vajen-Bader smoke protectors on the second floor of the old Indianapolis Public Library at the corner of Ohio and Meridian streets.  Demolished in the 1960s during the horrors of urban renewal, the library also once housed the Board of Public School Commissioners, at a site now occupied by the downtown Sheraton Hotel.)


A contemporary article from the Los Angeles Herald touts the value of the smoke helmet in preventing minor fires from turning into major ones.

Often a fire of insignificant proportions causes such a dense volume of smoke that it is quite impossible for its location to be discovered, and it smoulders thus until it has gained such headway that it is impossible to extinguish it. 

When Willis Vajen attended a firefighters’ convention in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1896, his cutting-edge device was the star of the show.  The Salt Lake Herald reprinted testimony from the fire department in Kansas City, Missouri, which had already put the mask to a rigorous test.  As KC’s Fire Chief George C. Hale (a great innovator himself) wrote, firemen found a house “which had a cellar underneath, with no ventilation whatsoever.”

In the cellar was dug a hole, in which was placed one of the worst smelling conglomerations of combustibles ever heaped together — sulphur, feathers, tar, wooden and cotton rags and burlap sacks.  Hardly had the match been touched to the pile, until a dense volume of smoke began to roll up out of the single trap door that led down into the cellar.  When the penetrating fumes of sulphur set everyone to coughing, there were many who shook their heads and said no one could possibly live five minutes in the cellar.  The smoke pushed its way up the brick wall and was coming out at the crevices.

Second Assistant Chief Henderson was selected to wear the helmet.  The cylinder was filled with air until there was a 100-pound pressure.  The whistle was tested to see if it would sound.  The helmet was dropped over Henderson’s head and strapped around his body.

“If you grow weak or begin to suffocate,” said Chief Hale, “blow your whistle vigorously and we will come after you.”

The rap door was then raised and the fireman disappeared into the sickening, penetrating smoke.  The door was shut tightly.  Not a breath of pure air could reach the man in the helmet.

Then the crowd began to wait.  Watches were looked at and after a couple of minutes had elapsed without hearing any sound from the fireman, several began to grow nervous, thinking that the sulphur fumes might have gotten in quick work and strangled him.  The door was partly raised and Chief Hale called to Henderson to blow his whistle.  A far-off sound came from the cellar, telling that Henderson was in good shape. . .

The smoke continued to grow denser and blacker, and the odor more vile.  Henderson’s whistle sounded frequently and no uneasiness was felt.  Eighteen minutes had elapsed from the time when he had gone into the cellar, when he knocked on the door. . .

“How did you stand it, Alec?” queried everybody.

“Stand it!  Why, I could have stayed down there all day.  It was dark as midnight, but I could breathe as easily as I do now. . .”

When the pressure gauge of the air cylinder was examined it was found that only ten pounds of air had been used, ninety pounds being left.


Squad 52 Cincinnati

(Two of this team of firefighters of Squad 52 in Cincinnati, Ohio, wear Vajen-Bader smoke protectors, circa 1920.)


Salt Lake Herald August 10 1896

(Salt Lake Herald, August 10, 1896.)


Indianapolis News October 1 1896

Firemen wearing the novel smoke helmets came to the rescue after an ammonia explosion at Schmidt’s Brewery, a subsidiary of the Indianapolis Brewing Company, nearly killed a number of workers on the night of September 31, 1896.  The Indianapolis News reported:

The fire that started in the second story of the building in the malt mill was subdued by the fire department.  It was a hard fire to reach as the fumes of ammonia were strong, and it was almost impossible for a man to get near the building.  The firemen say that this is the first difficult fire they have had since the Vajen-Bader smoke protector was adopted by the department, and that these helmets made it possible for the men to enter the building and reach the fire with the chemical engines.  They say that although the fumes of ammonia were strong enough to render an unprotected fireman unconscious, the men wearing the helmets suffered no inconvenience from the fumes.


willis c vajen obit 1900


Aged 49, Willis Vajen, who suffered from life-long anemia, died at his home at 23 E. Vermont St. on July 22, 1900 and was buried at Crown Hill.  In one of history’s bizarre twists, all the houses on Vajen’s block were demolished around 1921 to make way for the mammoth Indiana World War Memorial, the city’s enormous Egyptian-inspired temple to the veterans of World War I.

These soldiers, of course, were the first to use the terrifying invention whose evolution was partly due to the Vajen-Bader smoke protector.  When the 20th century was still young, the gas mask wove its way into sickening nightmares, both dreamed and awake, as Europe — and then the whole world — caught on fire.


Altoona Tribune March 26 1918

(Altoona Tribune, Altoona, Pennsylvania, March 26, 1918.)


german soldiers in gas masks

(German soldiers and a mule wear gas masks on the Western Front during World War I.  Spike-helmeted firemen in Berlin’s Fire Department had already supplanted the mule and the horse with the bicycle as early as 1899, as shown in this issue of the Louisville Courier-Journal.)


Victor_Bulla_-_Young_Pioneers_Defence - Leningrad 1937

(Young Pioneers Defense, Leningrad, Russia, 1937, by photographer and early filmmaker Viktor Bulla.)


tobruk onions

(American soldiers peel onions while wearing gas masks in Tobruk, Libya, during World War II.)


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com.

George C. Harding: Editor, Prankster, Gunman

george c harding

Nature lover, friend of dogs and underdogs, journalistic joker, and shooter-up of men he considered his enemies, George C. Harding once edited newspapers from Cincinnati to Houston but was always most connected with the Indianapolis Journal and the Indianapolis Herald, which he edited in the 1870’s.  Part Mark Twain, part Ambrose Bierce, part proverbial “man gone postal,” Harding was called “the most picturesque man in Indianapolis journalism” by city historian J.P. Dunn.

Since he wielded a pistol several times in the capitol city and may have suffered from a mental illness, it’s hard to know exactly how to see him today.  But since he’s also been mostly forgotten, here’s a bit of his story.

Born in Clinton, Tennessee, in 1830 to a family of thirteen kids, the future editor of the Indianapolis Journal lived in Knoxville until age seven.  In 1837, the family moved to Edgar County, Illinois, where his father, Jacob J. Harding, eventually edited the Prairie Beacon in Paris, twenty miles west of Terre Haute, Indiana.  At fourteen, Harding ran away to St. Louis, but came back “penniless and disheartened” and probably worked in a brick factory.

A long obituary published in the Indiana State Sentinel in 1881 says that  “When about fifteen or sixteen years of age [Harding] went to Terre Haute and learned the printing art in the office of the Terre Haute Express.”  When the Mexican War broke out, he enlisted as a private but got sick (either in St. Louis or New Orleans) and never made it to Mexico.  Around 1848, he was co-editing his father’s paper just over the Illinois state line.

George Orwell famously said in 1946 that “Bad writers – especially scientific, political, and sociological writers – are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones.”  When the Indiana State Sentinel published a piece that praised Harding for shooting the alleged seducer of his teenage daughter Flora in 1874, the paper curried public sympathy by praising everything about the man.  “His letters at this time, written in strong, sensible, and positive Anglo Saxon,” it said, reminiscing on Harding’s early days in the news business, “without redundancy, attracted considerable attention among readers of the Beacon.”

In the 1850s, he grew restless and floated down the Mississippi to New Orleans, where he may have gotten work as a newspaper correspondent for the Cincinnati Commercial.  Before the Civil War, Harding also edited the Courier in Charleston, Illinois, founded the Coles County Ledger in Mattoon, and did editorial work for papers in Louisville, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Houston.

During the Civil War, the itinerant news man served as Lieutenant in the 1st Indiana Heavy Artillery, the so-called “Jackass Regiment.”  (The name came from the Hoosier regiment’s use of mules to haul cannon and supplies.)  He saw action at the Battle of Baton Rouge and Port Hudson, Louisiana, before being captured by Confederate cavalry, allegedly while stumbling drunk over a fence.  While held as a POW at New Iberia, Louisiana, Harding and two other Indiana captives drank from gourd cups and used ox-shoulders as silverware.  Because he had given his word of honor not to attempt an escape, he was freed during a prisoner exchange at Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1863.


Indiana_Artillery_Port_Hudson_LA_1863

(Harding served with “The Jackass Regiment” in Louisiana.)


Harding’s knife-sharp prose is best when he’s telling the hard truth, though he could occasionally flip on the sentimentality switch if he had to, to sell papers.

One of the best things to come from his pen is this priceless description of U.S. Grant reviewing new recruits in Mattoon, Illinois, in 1861.  Watching Grant inspect the dirty “ragamuffins,” who “looked as if they had been run down with hounds in the wilds of Effingham County,” Harding found it hard to escape “the infernal odor of cabbage [wafting] right into my face” as the slovenly, smelly commander (not yet a famous general) smoked a cigar.  Originally published in the Indianapolis Mirror, the passage was syndicated in the Memphis Public Ledger in 1869, a paper Harding had connections with.  The passage reads like something his fellow Hoosier, the cynical skeptic of war Ambrose Bierce, might have written.  (Bierce grew up in Warsaw and Elkhart.)

Resigning his lieutenancy in 1864, Harding took an editorial position for six months on the New Orleans Times and the True Delta.  Some of what he wrote down South was reprinted after his death, including a humorous piece called “Duck Shooting in Louisiana.”  At war’s end, he came north to Cincinnati to work on the staff of the Commercial, then moved to Indianapolis.  Several dailies and weeklies that he wrote for or edited after the war include the Mirror, the Journal, the Saturday Herald, and the Sentinel.


george harding - dogs


Historian J.P. Dunn said that “Harding’s great forte was as a paragrapher. . . The public really enjoyed seeing a victim squirm when he gigged him.”  He often attacked public figures whom he considered a fraud.  The Rev. Myron Reed, who delivered his eulogy at Central Avenue Methodist Church in 1881, said: “Every abuser of money or official power, every masked man, every man who writes anonymous letters, will sleep more peacefully tonight because George Harding is dead.”

Yet the popular editor published several fraudulent stories on purpose as practical jokes, as George S. Cottman remembered in a 1922 op-ed piece on famous Hoosier hoaxes.

“Many remember the Charley Ross abduction, which took place on July 1, 1874,” Cottman wrote, referring to a famous Philadelphia kidnapping that was never solved.  (Dunn called the ensuing hoax Harding pulled off “a very plausibly written story.”)

Nearly two years later, or, to be exact, on April 1, 1876, there appeared in the Indianapolis Saturday Herald, edited by George C. Harding, a three-column article with this heading sensationally arranged in display type:

Charley Ross, the long lost boy, recovered at last.  He is found with Italian organ grinders on Potomac alley [in Indianapolis], dressed as a girl and called Telsla.  How Detective Hollywood worked up the case.  The father and the child at the Grand Hotel.

. . . As a consequence, within half an hour after the Herald appeared on the street, people began to throng the lobby of the Grand Hotel.  The hotel clerks, overwhelmed with questions, were at first bewildered, then “tumbling” to the situation, hung a few placards about, displaying the simple legend, “April fool!”


grand hotel indianapolis 1889

(The Grand Hotel at the corner of Maryland and Illinois Streets, seen in 1889, witnessed one of the city’s great April Fool’s jokes.  Today, this is the site of Circle Centre Mall. )


Harding himself was hoaxed by a fake space rock in 1879, as told in Wednesday’s post.

Whether the meteorite really killed a farmer named Grover or not, Harding himself tried to kill several men in the 1870s.

In 1879, he got into a hot mudslinging dispute with Calvin A. Light, a radical leader of the Knights of Labor and editor of a rival newspaper called The Democrat.  (Light had played a big role in the Railroad Strike of 1877.)  As Dunn put it, “Harding took an intense dislike to Light, and on one occasion ordered him out of the Herald office — with variations. . . On May 4, he went to Light’s house and tried to shoot him, but after one ineffective shot, was dragged away by neighbors.  The next day he went to The Democrat office and shot at Light three times, but only succeeded in wounding a printer named Lizius.  He was duly arrested and tried, and got off on a plea of insanity.


george harding - mental condition


In 1917, a writer named David Gibson remembered another shooting, or mixed up two shootings entirely, claiming that Harding also once shot at Sol Hathaway, editor of the “spicy” Independent.   In the midst of a raving editorial feud, “Harding printed an item in the paper alluding to Hathaway as ‘the long-nosed dead beat editor that loafed about hotel lobbies and slipped into the dining room when the manager was not looking.'”  As Gibson narrated it in a trade magazine, The Inland Printer:

Hathaway responded with a series of buck type interrogations, for in those days you could evade libel in Indiana by putting a charge in the form of a question. . .

The following Friday, Hathway was seated in his office at an old cherry desk with a flap that let down in front, with his back to the door, which certainly was a breach of the most ordinary editorial precaution.

Suddenly the door opened.  Harding appeared in a “beastly state of intoxication” and began showering the place with bullets as big as birds’ eggs from an army horse-pistol.  Hathaway jumped under the imposing table at the first shot.  Two printers, setting type at the front of the room, leaped out the open windows at their sides, lit on an awning over an undertaking establishment and rolled off onto the roof of a hearse that was standing at the curb.  The horses of the hearse proceeded to run away and started a stampede of other horses.

Gibson made the claim (I haven’t been able to verify this) that one of Harding’s bullets grazed a printing machine with type ready to go to press.  Later on, Hathaway “set up in large Gothic type an account of the affray, tore out a lot of type paralleling the furrow and set in two brass rules and a line of type: ‘The track of the would-be assassin’s bullet!'”  Harding kicked the Independent’s editor down the stairs, but Hathaway survived.  He committed suicide in 1911, aged eighty-two.


inland printer


Five years before his assault on labor leader Calvin Light, a tragic suicide had driven George Harding to his most celebrated shooting.  Perhaps he was, in fact, mentally insane, but the family tragedy that drove him to seek revenge was very real, and his gun was aimed at another man named Sol.

In 1874, Solomon Moritz was a 36-year-old merchant tailor in Indianapolis.  Born in Germany, he emigrated to Cincinnati at about age fifteen, then moved to Indiana in 1868.  The Sentinel wrote that “Mr. Moritz is well known in the city, and is one of the most prominent of the Jewish citizens of Indianapolis.”

A version of the events published in the Daily Record of the Times in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, says of Harding and Moritz:

These gentlemen have been warm friends and very intimate in their social relations.  Moritz, who is a Hebrew, aged about forty years and married, took advantage of this intimacy and succeeded in seducing Harding’s daughter, who is about eighteen years of age.  This was accomplished last March, and improper relations have been maintained by the parties since that time. . . Mrs. Harding, [the girl’s stepmother] has stated that Moritz had also made improper proposals to her.

Flora Harding, the editor’s eighteen-year-old daughter, was a talented writer and translator who taught German in the Seventh Ward district school.  “During the absence of her father to the Hot Springs [Arkansas?], she filled the editorial chair and most ably,” said the Sentinel.

Flora probably also suffered from lifelong depression and feared the ruin of her reputation.  If Moritz had in fact taken advantage of her, she would likely have become an outcast in those days of a strict female “honor” code.

On August 20, Harding’s daughter poisoned herself by taking “twenty-four grains of opium.”  Death was a few hours coming, and her father discovered her in her bedroom before she died.  She confessed to him that she had been having sex with Solomon Moritz.  Then, as he wrote in a tribute in his newspaper, “two great tears came from the filmy eyes and rolled over the face, across which was stealing the shadow of the Death Angel.”

She often jested on the subject of suicide, and, on one occasion, being reproved and told that God frowned on self-murder, she said, “Papa, I am not afraid of God.”

While walking to get a doctor, at about 1:30 in the afternoon Harding met Moritz “at the junction of New Jersey and Vermont Streets with Massachusetts Avenue.”

“Mr. Moritz’s first exclamation was ‘George, what are you doing here?’ Mr. Harding made no answer, but pulling out a pistol, began firing at Mr. Moritz.”


george harding - indianapolis horror


Harding chased Moritz up Vermont Street, toward an alley behind Roberts Park Methodist Church, sinking two bullets into him, and tried to get in two more, “the blood meanwhile flowing from [Moritz’s] mouth and nose.”  Luckily for his target, Harding’s fourth shot jammed his revolver and the alleged seducer escaped by hailing a wagon.  (Moritz supposedly lost an arm, but lived to see Harding go on trial.  When questioned by police, he denied that he had seduced Flora, instead blaming “a Jew liquor dealer on South Meridian.”)

Though the bereaved gunman was taken to jail that night, public opinion was overwhelmingly in his favor.  When Harding went to trial, one of his lawyers, Major Jonathan W. Gordon (profiled on this blog during his grave-robbing days), defended Harding on the basis of common law.

The whole community have fully approved and justified the act for which my friend Harding stands indicted. . . It is the common law of the West, and, indeed of the whole country, that he who seduces an innocent female

MAY BE SLAIN

by her father, brother, or husband with impunity, and in the case at bar the grand jury have, in effect, already said so by returning a bill of indictment for a simple assault and battery.


george harding - indianapolis horror 3


Harding was acquitted, and as the judge announced the verdict, “the pent up feeling of the large crowd broke forth in applause, which was both loud and protracted.”  Perhaps this free pass from the state criminal court made the editor consider other public shootings in the future.

In 1880, Harding moved to Minnesota, where he had bought the Lanesboro Journal.  But “his active brain required more scope,” says the Fillmore County history. Tragically, in May 1881 George C. Harding had an odd death back in Indianapolis.

The Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail picked up the story:

Dead!  How suddenly he went out!  Two weeks ago last Wednesday, he was walking along a street in Indianapolis, and stepped aside to allow some ladies to pass.  He stepped on a cellar grating, just as a man was raising it.  His right foot went into the opening, and the flesh of his leg was cut to the bone.  He died at six o’clock last Sunday morning, of congestion of the brain and blood poisoning, resulting from the accident.

In the death of George C. Harding, Indiana journalism has lost one of its oldest, most familiar and rarely original characters. . .  We know of no one who can take up the pen which Harding has dropped, never to pick up again. . .

Dying at the age of 51, his life was cut off in the very midst of his powers. . .  there is not another George C. Harding any more than there is another Charles Dickens.

March Mayhem Closed Out 1895 State House Session

An incident which occurred 120 years ago this month made headlines across the state of Indiana and gained national attention. An obscure reference to the time in 1895 when “Democrats and Republicans fought like beasts of the forest” was included in the chapter on Governor Claude Matthews in the book, The Governors of Indiana, Gugin, 2006, [call number Ind. 923 G721]. A bit more research led to the re-discovery of an epic veto battle between Indiana Governor Claude Matthews and the Speaker of the Indiana House, with the Governor’s private secretary Myron King caught in the middle.

Jasper Weekly Courier

The editorial column on page four of the March 15, 1895 Jasper Weekly Courier informed readers of the assault and battery committed upon Myron King earlier in the week as he tried to deliver a veto of a controversial bill to the Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives by the midnight deadline. The Jasper Weekly Courier, a Democratic leaning newspaper, set the tone with the alliterative editorial section headline, “Rowdy Republican Racket by Loud Legislative Looters,” recounting a laundry list of alleged offenses committed during the previous weeks and in the final minutes leading to the adjournment of the 59th session of General Assembly on March 11, 1895.

Even the Indianapolis German newspaper, Indiana Tribune, covered the events throughout the week of March 11th by including an update on Myron King’s condition on page one: March 16, 1895 Indiana Tribune.

HSC - Indiana Tribune

The translation: “Myron King, the Governor’s private secretary, is still confined to bed. To his friends’ worst fears, his condition deteriorated yesterday morning, but last night Dr. Cary said that he was much better. The battle in the state house will remain faithful to him in memory.”

Research Tip: When using the Hoosier State Chronicles with the Google Chrome browser, it can translate the OCR text automatically. As with most automatic translation software, there will be grammatical glitches due to OCR imperfections and language nuances.

Another source to access digitized newspapers is the NewspaperArchive database. This subscription database is available for on-site visitors to use at the Indiana State Library. A search found the April 6, 1909 issue of The Indianapolis Sun which recounted the 1895 incident.

Indy Sun

George W. Stout’s editorial column 14 years after the incident noted that “Democrats were turning back the clock while the Republicans were giving Myron King a free ride on the elevator, much against his will.” While Myron King was carrying the Fee and Salary Law signed by Governor Matthews, he also had in his possession the veto of the bill to take away the governor’s authority to appoint the Custodian of the State House. The bill would create a Board of Public Buildings and Property to appoint a Superintendent of the State House. It would automatically become a law unless the Governor’s veto made it back to the Speaker before the end of the session. House Democrats wanted to give King more time to deliver the veto before the deadline; House Republicans wanted to prevent him from getting into the House chambers.

FW sentinelThe Fort Wayne Sentinel called the previous day’s events a “Disgraceful Scene” in their March 12, 1895 issue. While the Tuesday morning page one headline of the daily Fort Wayne Gazette called the scene a “Mad Riot” and reported that men “fought like tigers.” Click here to view the PDF of page one: The_Fort_Wayne_Journal_Gazette_Tue__Mar_12__1895_.

Research Tip: As previously announced on this blog, Indiana residents can search and view the Fort Wayne papers and other select Indiana papers for free through a partnership between the Indiana State Library and Newspapers.com. via the INSPIRE portal. You will need to register for a free account before clipping, commenting, or saving.

The Fort Wayne Weekly Gazette had a different take on Myron King’s role in the battle as reported and editorialized in their March 21, 1895 issue.

FW Wkly Gazette p2 p4

Newspapers around the country covered the story, most certainly due to the sensational accounts of events that night. In fact, page one of the Tuesday, March 12, 1895 edition of the New York Times carried word of the Monday evening tumult in Indianapolis, with the headline, “King May Die of His Injuries.” While the headline conveyed sympathy for Myron King’s condition, it was also a prime example of the saying, “if it bleeds, it leads.” The local and national media could not resist covering this event, given the public’s appetite for the most fascinating and bizarre stories. These sort of stories sold papers. Telegraph wire services delivered news readily across the nation, but not necessarily accurately or in an unbiased fashion.

IMG_4795

Research Tip: Even without a paid subscription to the historical database, the New York Times archive’s index is a handy and free online tool. After finding an article citation, use the Indiana State Library’s out-of-state newspaper collection which includes the New York Times from May 1852 through December 2007 and the microfilm machines to view the microfilm reels.

NYT page 1

(The scan of the New York Times article shown above was made with one of the six new ViewScan digital microfilm scanners available to use on the second floor of the Indiana State Library.)

The Indiana legislature “Closed with Riots” according to page 3 of the March 12, 1895 San Francisco Call newspaper. The additional information about revolvers being drawn appears in some accounts, but not all reports in the Indiana newspapers.

SF call

Research Tip: The Chronicling America website is a comprehensive resource for discovering pre-1923 news stories in digitized newspapers from around the United States. The Indiana State Library participates in this project and receives grant funding to digitize the Indiana newspapers included.

What became of Myron King and did he recover after the events of March 1895? A jury was called to hear testimony about the fighting, but no charges were pursued against persons involved, according to page two of the Connersville Daily News, May 9, 1895. (Accessed via the library’s subscription to the NewspaperArchive database.)

Connersville

Revisiting post-1895 digital newspapers included in the Hoosier State Chronicles, an editorial column asking “Who broke Myron King’s ribs?” appeared in the September 29, 1914 South Bend News-Times. No one was ever charged with battery in the melee.

South Bend

Research Tip: A great resource for historical biographical information is the Indiana State Library’s Indiana Biography (card) Index. Also available as a free online database, the Indiana Biography Index Published Before 1990 contains images of the original index cards including one for Myron King. Visit the Great Hall of the Indiana State Library to view the card drawers in person!

Bio card index

While the index card above only cited two printed volumes, both are in the Indiana Collection and are also freely available in digital format on Internet Archive. Verifying the complete list of sources cited in the Indiana Biography Index helped to determine that “Memoirs of Indpls.” was the abbreviated title for the book, Pictorial and Biographical Memoirs of Indianapolis and Marion County, 1893, [call number Ind. 977.201 M341].

Memoirs

Since this book was published in 1893, prior to the 1895 incident, the information states that King was then serving as the private secretary to the governor. The sketch wraps up with a prediction that “his career is but fairly begun and his future promises to advance him far up the height of preferment, his talents and great personal popularity giving every assurance of a life in a wider and broader sphere of prominence and distinction.”

Men of Prog

Myron King’s biographical sketch and portrait appeared on pages 320-321 in the book Men of Progress, Indiana, by William Cumback, 1899, [call number Ind. 920 C969]. As was the style of biographical publications from the time period, the entry was most flattering to the subject. While no mention was made of the 1895 incident in the State House, it states that “Mr. King has always been faithful and untiring in the discharge of his duties as an officer, and especially was he attentive and earnest in the performance of his duties as the governor’s secretary.” As far as this limited research has shown, Myron King recovered enough from his injuries to continue serving as Governor Matthews’ private secretary.

Research Tip: A quick check of one of the Indiana Division’s favorite resources, the Indianapolis Newspaper Index, revealed a lone citation. The bulk of the years covered by the index, 1899-1978, are only available by checking the card drawers. Another great reason to visit the Indiana Division at the Indiana State Library for research!

IMG_4792

According to the index card, Myron King died March 21, 1940 having lived to the age of 88, and he also served as secretary to Indianapolis Mayor Thomas Taggart. Further examination of the microfilm holdings of the Indiana Newspaper Collection was the next step. Again, the image below was made from microfilm by using the new ViewScan digital scanners.

indystar1940

King’s obituary from the Indianapolis Star reveals more of his life and career path. However, no mention was made of the State House incident 45 years prior. While King’s obituary stated he died at City Hospital [later known as Wishard, recently renamed Eskenazi Health], his cause of death from arteriosclerosis was reported in the March 25 vital statistics column of the Indianapolis Commercial newspaper.

Indpls Commercial screen shot
Research Tip: The Indianapolis Commercial Newspaper Index is one of the Indiana State Library’s popular and free online resources, but it is not an obituary index, merely a vital statistics listing. This index can help to provide an approximate time in which to search for obituaries in other Indianapolis newspapers such as the Star, News, or Times. If a person died in Marion County and a listing is included in the Commercial, a good rule-of-thumb is to search the regular newspapers in the week before the statistical death entry appeared.

The 1895 Journal of the Indiana House of Representatives recorded nothing of the down-to-the-wire showdown; page 1624 notes that 12 midnight marked the termination of the session.

page 1624 House Journal 1895

Call it a wild brawl or call it politics as usual, the 1895 session ended with a bit of March mayhem. While the tale of Myron King and the veto battle was largely relegated to the cobwebs of history, with digitized newspapers the sensational details of the event can be rediscovered.

This blog post was written by Andrea Glenn, Librarian and State Documents Coordinator, in the Indiana Division of the Indiana State Library. For more information, contact the Indiana Collection Division at (317) 232-3670 or “Ask-A-Librarian” at http://www.in.gov/library/ask.htm.