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Ghoul Busters: Indianapolis Guards its Dead (or Does It?)

From the late 1800’s into the early years of the 20th century, Indiana’s capital city had a body problem.  How to protect people who were already dead?

Around 1900, even supernatural visitors to the city’s cemeteries would not have been surprised to find “the quick” prowling among the dead.  For decades, grave robbers and vandals regularly stalked Indianapolis’ burial grounds – until the city took bold steps to stop them.

An early description of how big the “body-snatcher” problem was comes from an article in the Indianapolis Journal, published just before Halloween on October 27, 1899. The story concerns a shocking discovery at the Greenlawn Cemetery.

You’d be hard pressed to find any trace of Greenlawn today, but for most of the nineteenth century, this was one of the major city cemeteries.  Founded in 1821, while Indianapolis was first being laid out, Greenlawn was the original city burying grounds. Situated along the White River just north of what became Kentucky Ave., the cemetery is thought to have been the oldest in Indianapolis.  (Tiny family cemeteries may have existed in the area before then, but no trace of them has been found.) Today, the once hallowed 25-acre spot is occupied by the Diamond Chain Company, just west of Lucas Oil Stadium and just north of where I-70 crosses the river.  (The company once manufactured about 60% of the bicycle chains in America.)

Greenlawn Cemetery map

Diamond Chain Company

Over 1100 Hoosier pioneers were interred at Greenlawn.  Vermont-born Indiana governor James Whitcomb (1795-1852) lay there until his daughter ordered his body moved to massive, prestigious Crown Hill Cemetery in 1898.  Among those who also found their first, but not final, resting place by the White River were 1200 Union soldiers and over 1600 Confederate POW’s who died of illnesses and battle wounds at the U.S. Army’s Camp Morton or in city hospitals nearby.

Greenlawn, however, shared the fate of all those who came to call it home in the nineteenth century.  The cemetery, too, died. Indianapolis’ downtown burying grounds faced all the normal cemetery problems, such as vandalism of tombstones by youth and overcrowding, especially after the numerous Civil War interments.  Spring and winter floods on the White River were also a major factor behind its closure to new burials in 1890.

But another cause also drove the city to declare Greenlawn itself “defunct”, and was far more disturbing in nature.  As Indianapolis newspapers reminded their readers in 1899, the problem had been around for decades.

While performing some of the earliest removals out to Crown Hill, families and city officials unearthed the grisly fact that “in reality, few if any bodies” buried at Greenlawn prior to the 1890’s were still in their graves.

Robbing a grave for jewels and other valuables is a tale as old as time.  Preventative measures against the desecration of graves and theft of items meant to stay with the dead had actually led to the creation of some of the greatest mortuary art, including Egypt’s pyramids. Even daring archaeologists were technically glorified grave robbers.  The plot of William Faulkner’s great novel Intruder in the Dust (1948) centers around a spinster and a teenager trying to clandestinely remove a body from a fictional cemetery in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, to prove a man innocent.

Outright theft of bodies themselves, however, was something that really only emerged after the 1500’s, when the more accurate study of human anatomy initiated the emergence of modern medical science.  In the early days of modern medicine, however, the primary provider of bodies for anatomical study was the public hangman, not the grave robber. Rembrandt’s famous painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp shows doctors-in-training gathered around the body of a Dutch thief, Aris Kindt, who had been strung up on a rope just a few hours before he went to the dissecting table.

Before many centuries were out, though, doctors began to find that live thieves were also useful. In the 1800’s, medical faculties often had trouble finding enough bodies for their students to dissect in classrooms.  Families were reluctant to donate their loved ones to science.  Tragically, the bodies that medical instructors typically got hold of came from the most victimized and outcast members of society.  When available, corpses for the dissecting room were found at poorhouses, jails, and mental asylums, for the simple reason that those who died there had often been abandoned by their families.

While many vocal opponents tried to stop the dissection of the poor, if none came to claim a body as a “friend,” medical faculties were legally allowed to use such corpses for the education of future doctors.  Most states passed so-called “Anatomy Acts,” modeled on Britain’s of 1832.

It should come as no surprise that the largest number of bodies dissected by medical students from the 1800’s into the 1930’s were those of African Americans.  A high number of those paid or encouraged to do the grave-robbing were also black. African Americans often served as medical assistants to white students, as many turn-of-the-century photographs of dissections show, but rarely became doctors then.

Photography, whose own invention was fueled by a desire to accurately explore and record the human form — in a way, to cheat death — also came into the dissection room, as John Harley Warner and James M. Edmonson show in Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine, 1880-1930.


(“A Student’s Dream”, R.A. Robinson photographer, 1906.)

Medical students and an African American assistant, University of North Carolina Medical Department, Raleigh, circa 1890. “The seated man is the janitor; the overturned bucket he’s sitting on was usually kept at the foot of the dissection table, and was used to collect waste.”

The clandestine pilfering of Indianapolis’ unguarded cemeteries stemmed from a constant need for fresh “instructional material” at central Indiana medical schools, including Indiana Medical College, the Physiomedrical College of Indiana, and Greencastle’s Asbury College (now DePauw).  Indiana University in Bloomington did not offer courses in anatomy or physiology until September 1903.

The Central College of Physicians and Surgeons, at 212 North Senate Avenue, was built in 1902 and immediately showed up in lurid news stories about illegal body snatching.  (The college was an early forerunner of IU Medical School.)  Readers of stories in the Indianapolis Journal could easily have formed an image of the college’s medical faculty scouring obituary notices and hiring thieves to steal fresh bodies as soon as the last family member left the cemetery after a funeral.  One such story was reported on September 22, 1902.  Mrs. Rosa Neidlinger, recently buried at Pleasant Hill Cemetery between Traders Point and New Augusta, was recovered at Central College a few days later.  Investigators returned her to her husband, a miller, for a second burial.

Indianapolis Journal, June 28 1884
(The “self-locking” Boyd Grave Vault “keeps out Vermin as well as Burglars.” Indianapolis Journal, June 28, 1884. The Flanner in this ad is Frank W. Flanner, whose mortuary firm Flanner & Buchanan went on to become early promoters of cremation.)

Central College of Physicians and Surgeons - N Senate Ave Indianapolis
The Central College of Physicians and Surgeons was built in 1902 and sat at 212 North Senate Avenue in Indianapolis. It became affiliated with the Indiana University School of Medicine in 1906.

The preferred word in newspapers for grave robbers was “ghouls” (a word that comes from Middle Eastern folklore.)  At least one story shows that ghouls and their employers were sometimes caught red-handed.

On February 26, 1890, the Journal reported that three prominent Louisville physicians had been apprehended and indicted for body-thievery at a New Albany, Indiana cemetery. Four “ghouls”, all African American, employed by the Kentucky doctors were involved.  One ghoul, George Brown, was shot through the heart by policemen in the cemetery.

The Journal article from October 1899 describes the bizarre dimensions of the problem at Greenlawn in Indianapolis. Families who ordered exhumations of their relatives at Greenlawn were discovering an astonishingly high rate of empty coffins — or to put it more accurately, coffins with only empty clothes left in them.  No bones, no hair.  Only shrouds and clothing.  Were robbers stripping the bodies at graveside?

A man presumably on trial in Marion County for grave-robbing explained this odd fact to the writer for the Journal, who reported:

At first it was customary to open a grave and take the body out, clothes and all, and either strip it naked on the ground or double it up in a sack and remove the clothes after taking it to a safe place.

This practice was discontinued when one day the city was thrown into an uproar over the finding of a girl’s slipper in the snow beside her newly made grave.  She had been buried one afternoon in winter when snow was falling and her relatives came back the following day to look at the grave.  Between visits the grave robbers got in their work, and, following the usual custom, did not remove the clothing from the body, but doubled it up and put it in a sack.  In doing so one of the dainty slippers fell from one of the feet, and, being white, was not noticed in the snow.  During the following morning the snow melted and the relatives, returning to the grave, saw the slipper, and, recognizing it, raised a hue and cry.  This made the grave robbers change their methods, and thereafter opening the boxes they stripped all bodies of their clothes and put the garments back in the caskets.

This when related to the authorities explained why in opening the graves within the last few months nothing was to be seen in the caskets but piles of discolored clothes thrown in heaps, with slippers where the head ought to have rested. . .

It has come to be generally understood by the city officials that while Greenlawn has all the outward signs of being a cemetery, there are in reality few, if any, bodies there, and that in view of this fact there should be no opposition to its being transformed into a park.

The Journal writer may not have been exaggerating.  Grave robbers and doctors were possibly reluctant to disturb the honored Union dead, who were removed to Crown Hill National Cemetery as early as 1866. Can the same be said of the Confederate dead? Greenlawn’s 1600 Confederate soldiers were the last bodies removed once the city decided to exhume every remaining coffin in Greenlawn for reburial at Crown Hill. This process began in 1912, and was sped up by the fact that the area around Greenlawn had become an unattractive industrial area, which it still is today. The Confederate soldiers were left here until 1931. Buried in a damp area by the river, few of their remains likely would have survived 70 years after the Civil War. Could some of them have been sent to medical schools just after burial?

Indianapolis Journal October 14 1902

(Indianapolis Journal, October 14, 1902)

One of the most fascinating criminal cases in Indianapolis history is the story of Rufus Cantrell.  An African American who had moved north from Gallatin, Tennessee with his family and settled in Indianapolis, he was prosecuted for extensive grave-robbing in 1903.  When pressed, and perhaps enjoying the media attention, Cantrell came clean, taking investigators around cemeteries all over the city where he and his “gang” had removed corpses.  Lawyers tried to prove their client insane, even getting his mother to testify that he had preached and talked to God when he was a teenager.

Cantrell was found guilty and sent to the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City, where he “lay dying of typhoid fever” in June 1904. He survived and later was transferred to the Jeffersonville Reformatory near Louisville.  Though few if any white doctors who paid ghouls for their services ever got such sentences, Dr. Joseph C. Alexander, who allegedly worked with Cantrell, went on trial in Marion County in February 1903.  When the court failed to convict him, angry farmers in Hamilton County hanged and burned effigies of Dr. Alexander and the judge in the middle of a street in Fishers, shouting “Death to the grave robbers!”  When they inspected the graves in a rural cemetery on what became Indianapolis’ North Side, half of the coffins there were found empty.

Indianapolis News, April 23, 1903
Indianapolis News, April 23, 1903

Rufus Cantrell was even accused of plotting to steal the body of ex-President Benjamin Harrison, who died in 1901. The ghouls might not have been bluffing here.  The fear that struck Hoosiers in those years, and especially the Harrison family, was great and well-founded.

In 1878, there had occurred the well-publicized heist of Benjamin Harrison’s own father from the family cemetery in North Bend, Ohio.  Former Congressman John Scott Harrison, son of Indiana territorial governor and U.S. President William Henry Harrison, was found hanging naked from a rope in an air shaft at Ohio Medical College in Cincinnati, shortly after his son Benjamin came from Indianapolis to oversee his secure burial in a secret grave.  Amazingly, John Harrison, Jr., armed with a search warrant, had discovered his father’s body while investigating the disappearance of yet another corpse, that of Augustus Devin, a young tuberculosis victim who had been buried next to the Harrison plot just days earlier.  Devin’s body turned up in a vat of brine at the University of Michigan.

John Scott Harrison, son and father of U.S. presidents, was snatched in 1878.

All this considered, a major factor driving the surge in burials at Crown Hill at the turn of the century was the increased security taken there to ward off robbers. Modeled on Louisville’s famous (and equally massive) Cave Hill Cemetery, Crown Hill was the resting place of most of Indianapolis’ elite.  It eventually became the third largest private burial ground in the country.

As a lengthy article in the the Journal reported on October 5, 1902, surveillance at Crown Hill was extensive. Security involved call boxes for quick communication. It also featured a curious system of “time stamps”.  Revolver-toting guards were forced to clock in at different corners of the cemetery every 20 minutes, thus ensuring they didn’t fall asleep or shirk their duties as they monitored every part of the park-like necropolis, which in 1902 housed over 32,000 graves. If they encountered prowlers, the guards were ordered to shoot to kill, and they patrolled the cemetery in all weather. The northwest section, near the future site of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, was considered Crown Hill’s “most dangerous district.”

Crown Hill patrol

Body-thieving never totally disappeared. (The actor Charlie Chaplin was stolen from his grave in Switzerland in 1978.) The public also feared other reasons for desecration. When Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was buried with his family at Terre Haute’s Highland Lawn Cemetery in 1926, no individual headstone was placed there. Though Debs’ body had been cremated, the Debs family and his supporters feared that unfriendly vandals or “souvenir”-snatchers, perhaps funded by his political enemies, would try to steal the urn.

Such stories are troubling to read, but a vital part of the city’s history, involving race, science, and medicine. Ultimately, it is a strange fact, surely part of the terror and beauty of the human predicament, that many a grave robber, who almost certainly came from the margins of Indianapolis society, ultimately did help advance medicine and the public welfare.

A Victim of His Valor: Great Lakes Daredevil Peter Nissen

In December 1904, two curious articles appeared in Indianapolis’ German-language daily, Indiana Tribüne (one of the many historic Hoosier newspapers digitized by NDNP).

Headlined “Peter Nissen und sein Ballonschiff”, the first small clip announces the disappearance of a remarkable Great Lakes daredevil and accountant, Chicago’s Peter “Bowser” Nissen, who had been in and out of American and international newspapers since 1900.

Nissen’s waterborne adventures by boat, “balloon ship”, and possibly even submarine are a strange tale, a confusing mix of fact and mixed-up news reportage.  Eleven years after his tragic death in 1904, and in the wake of another Great Lakes maritime tragedy, the little-known daredevil steps into mystery and even folklore.

On December 1, 1904, Indianapolis’ German readers encountered news of the adventurer’s disappearance on Lake Michigan just a few days earlier:

Chicago, Nov. 30 – It is feared that Peter Nissen has either drowned or frozen in his rolling balloon, which he dubbed “Foolkiller” – a name that now seems to have been well chosen.

Nissen began his dangerous journey over the lake yesterday afternoon.  No news has been had of him in 24 hours.

Nissen is the same daredevil who several years ago shot the rapids of Niagara Falls in a boat.

The assumption that Nissen has drowned grows more likely, since the only air supply at his disposal in the “Foolkiller” had already been depleted before he left the shore.  Nissen encountered a gale which pummeled the lake with winds of 48 miles an hour.

In the same news clip, the Tribüne includes a report from South Haven, Michigan, on the lake’s eastern shore, that a search along “various points of the coast from Michigan City to Muskegon has returned no word of Nissen, who dared the open lake in his Foolkiller, a canvas boat with air-cushions.  It is believed that Nissen has become a victim of his valor.”

The following day, December 2, the Tribüne brought a further report from Berrien County, Michigan:

indiana tribune 1 - Dec 2 1904

[Stevensville, Mich., 1 December.  Peter Nissen, who sought to traverse Lake Michigan in his balloon-boat, was found dead on the beach 2 ½ miles west of here today.  It is thought that his body was washed up on the local beach during the night.  The balloon was found about 20 rods away from him, in a very sorry state.  The body was brought here, where it is being kept in the town hall.  The hands and face were frozen and the lineaments of his face bore signs of infinite distress.  The clothing was rather torn.  The body was found by Mrs. Collier, who lives on a farm near the lakeshore.]

Who was this Peter Nissen, then, whose fantastic story the Tribüne barely digs into?

Born to Danish parents in Germany in 1862, Nissen was an immigrant himself.  One report said that he lived in poverty in Chicago, where he worked as a bookkeeper.  His death certificate issued in Michigan says that he was single and had worked as foreman in a furniture factory.


Nissen apparently first made national news headlines as early as 1900, when, at age 38, he successfully shot the Whirpool Rapids of the Niagara River in New York, just downstream from Niagara Falls.  Many previous Niagara daredevils shot or swam the Rapids, often in wooden barrels, and almost always at the cost of their lives.  Nissen’s was by far not the first attempt, but his was unique because of the strange boat he used to accomplish it.

Like the bizarre “balloon boat” he piloted to his death on Lake Michigan in 1904, this boat, too, was dubbed Foolkiller, and was actually one of at least three vessels Nissen called by that name.  The feat was celebrated in papers as far away as his ancestral Denmark, where Skandinaven picked up the story on July 11, 1900.  Probably translated from an American paper, this description of Nissen’s boat must have given Danish readers a picture of American bravado and the power of the American landscape.  It also gives us some details about the mysterious vessel itself:

The boat used by Mr. Nissen for his dangerous feat is twenty feet long and four feet deep, built of pine with frame and keel of elm. In addition to the ordinary keel, the boat has an iron keel weighing 1,250 pounds, and the total weight of the boat is over two tons. There is a screw driven by foot power, and the boat has six airtight compartments, two in the bow, two in the stern, and one on each side.

A short clip in the Marshall County, Ind., Independent (July 20, 1900) reads:

Peter Nissen of Chicago, who prefers to be known as “Bowser”, made a successful journey through the Niagara rapids and whirlpool Monday afternoon in his boat, the Foolkiller.  The boat struck the first foam-topped wave and turned over as easily as if it had been a stick and not a 1,250-pound keel.  Man and boat disappeared.  The watchers thought it was all over, when suddenly farther down stream “Bowser” reappeared, clutching the boat with one hand and waving his jersey cap with the other.  The boat had righted itself.  This occurred three times in the rapid journey, for it took only two and a half minutes for the whole trip through the rapids.  Then “Bowser” and his boat were flung straight into the whirlpool.  He was carried straight to the vortex which sucked in the boat, casting it up a minute later, with the drenched but plucky fellow clinging to its seat.  Here it remained for forty minutes while the whirlpool played with it, spinning it like a top, then rolling it around the outer rims of the whirlpool.  The man was finally rescued by three men who ventured into the water as far as they dared and caught a rope which he threw to them as his boat swung round on the outside of the pool.  “Bowser” said the trip was more terrible than he feared, although he came out unharmed.

The first Foolkiller, then, was essentially a 1200-pound, foot-powered, deep-keeled kayak.  In another section of the same issue of Marshall County’s Independent, Nissen’s craft is described as weighing

4,500 pounds, with a keel of iron which weighed 1,250 pounds.  The keel acted like a pendulum and the boat was never wrong side up for more than five seconds at a time.  The boat road the first wave like a duck.  The second engulfed it and Nissen disappeared.  He afterward stated that the wave nearly tore his head off.

To the eventual entertainment of many news readers, Nissen repeated his daring Niagara feat in 1901, in a restructured version of the boat, this time a longer, narrower craft featuring an eight-horsepower steam engine and a larger rudder.

The April 1902 Wide World Magazine includes several of the few photographs in existence of the second Foolkiller, hailing it as “The smallest decked steamer in the world,” a kind of steam-powered sea kayak.  Containing himself in a small crawlspace beneath the cockpit, Nissen successfully shot Whirlpool Rapids for a second time in October 1901.  An unknown cinematographer for the Thomas Edison Film Company even captured him in one of the earliest motion pictures. (The thrilling short is available on YouTube.)  Unfortunately, on a third venture down the Niagara River late in 1901, Foolkiller II sank and was never seen again, probably ending up in Lake Ontario.  Nissen and a colleague barely escaped drowning.

(Incidentally, Chicago’s accountant-daredevil wasn’t the only “fool” at Niagara Falls in October 1901.  Just a week after his steam-powered Foolkiller II made it through the rapids intact, a Bay City, Michigan, schoolteacher named Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to go over Niagara Falls itself in a wooden barrel and live to tell the tale.  Taylor did this on her 63rd birthday.)

With his second experimental vessel at the bottom of the Niagara River, Peter Nissen returned to the Midwest.  By November 1904, he had pioneered his weirdest and wildest vessel, Foolkiller III.

A Popular Science Monthly article in September 1933 (“Freak Vehicles for Air, Land and Water”) regales readers with an account of Nissen’s final, fatal incarnation of the Foolkiller.  The author claims that

In the early years of the present century, Nissen was seeking a way to reach the North Pole. One of his schemes for traversing the rough Arctic ice was to use an automobile equipped with huge, low-pressure tires.  Thus, thirty years before this time, Nissen dreamed of the modern balloon tire.  Unfortunately for him, he didn’t stop there.  The idea of the balloon tire kept growing in his mind.  It got bigger and bigger and eventually the automobile disappeared from his plans and only the tire remained!

Nissen’s “fantastic scheme” was not unlike his previous experiment with turning a kayak into a steamboat.  This time he would virtually turn a zeppelin into a ship.  According to the Popular Science Monthly article, Nissen eventually intended to create a canvas bag 115 feet long and 75 feet in diameter.  Filled with hydrogen gas, the balloon would sail north to the Arctic carrying the car underneath.  After landing on the ice, Nissen would deflate the balloon and drive the car through a special door in the canvas.  By means of a pump, the airtight “football” would reinflate once the car was inside.  Nissen planned to string the automobile itself on cotton ropes hanging from a revolving interior wooden axle that stretched from end to end of the “football”.  Air-tight glass portals allowed him to see out.  Powered by winds, and with the ability to sail over both water and Arctic ice sheets, Nissen would literally roll to the North Pole.

Amazingly, in the summer and fall of 1904, Nissen actually constructed a miniature 32-foot-long version of this contraption and was performing test runs a few miles out on Lake Michigan, just off the Chicago shoreline.  Photographs in the Chicago Daily News show the inventor at work next to his “pneumatic ball.”  Readers of the Indiana Tribüne, the Indianapolis Journal and other papers might not have known the background to this story when they read about the “Der Foolkiller” on December 1, less than 48 hours after Nissen set out on his fateful voyage.


Reporters at the time claimed that he left from Chicago’s Navy Pier bound for Michigan City, Indiana.  Caught in a gale (or did he deliberately go out in the gale to test Foolkiller’s ability to withstand bad weather?), Nissen may even have drifted within sight of Gary and the Indiana Dunes.

After his body was recovered on the beach just south of Benton Harbor, Michigan, doctors believed that Nissen had probably survived the gale itself, but either suffocated inside the balloon or drowned while trying to get out of the surf.  A handwritten note found in the balloon suggests he knew he was going to suffocate.  He may have died just offshore.  (The South-Bend Tribune claims that the only provisions found inside the balloon were biscuits, cheese, tobacco, and water.  The Indianapolis Journal claims that Nissen subsisted only on candy.)

nissen wreckage

[Glass plate negative of seven people walking along Lake Michigan in Chicago near wreckage believed to have been part of Nissen’s Foolkiller. DN-0001137, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.]

Readers in Indiana and elsewhere who heard of the navigator’s terrible fate might have thought it an end to Foolkiller stories.  But on November 25, 1915, eleven years later, the South Bend News-Times published this surprise item:

Chicago, Nov. 24 – Efforts were being made today to raise the “fool killer” submarine that has been buried in the mud of the Chicago River for 18 years.  The diving boat was found by William M. Deneau, a diver, who was laying a cable in the river bed.

The boat was owned by Peter Nissen, an old time mariner.  It was a cigar shaped craft, and could be submerged until an air pipe about 10 feet high was the only part that stuck out of the water.  Nissen, who never succeeded in putting the subsea craft into practical operation, lost his life trying to drift across Lake Michigan in a revolving boat, another of his spectacular inventions.

Where this submarine came from is a mystery.  As long ago as the 1840’s, a Michigan City, Indiana, shoemaker, Lodner D. Phillips, was actually building and patenting several unsuccessful submarines on the Great Lakes, all of which stayed on the bottom.  (A fascinating article from the Ann Arbor Chronicle tells a bit of Phillips’ story.)  Was this the wreck of a much older vessel?  At a time when the Chicago River was being dramatically re-engineered for human use, it is hard to imagine how a submarine could have gone unnoticed under three feet of mud right in the heart of the downtown business district, next to the Wells Street Bridge, for so many years.

Yet as photographs from the Chicago Daily News attest, something was definitely pulled out of the river in 1915.  (Interestingly, these photographs may have been taken by Jun Fujita, the first Japanese American photojournalist, who was employed by the Daily News.)


(“Raising Foolkiller submarine from Chicago River, December 20, 1915.”  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0065730, Chicago History Museum.)

Chicagoans’ morbid interest in the discovery of the submarine (which the Daily News called “Foolkiller,” “something out of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”) was due in part to its proximity to the site where the SS Eastland capsized six months before, killing 844 passengers boarding a vessel for Michigan City, Indiana – the deadliest disaster in Chicago history.  In a twist of fate, William “Frenchy” Deneau was one of the heroic divers who recovered about 250 bodies of Eastland victims from the river that summer.  After the submarine turned up in December, there were tales that Deneau, its 23-year-old discoverer, had also found the bones of a man and dog inside — not the first such find on the bottom of the river.

To cap the story off, the Chicago submarine’s ultimate destination is as murky as its origin and sudden reappearance.  Deneau reportedly got permission from the U.S. government to salvage the vessel.  He put it on exhibition on State Street for several months, charging 10 cents admission, then sent it out on a tour of Midwestern county fairs.  The bizarre vessel, it is thought, disappeared at a fair in Iowa in 1916.  No trace of it turned up again.


Groundbreaking Ceremony for The Multimillion-dollar Levi Coffin House Interpretive Center, Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A special groundbreaking ceremony for the multimillion-dollar Levi Coffin House Interpretive Center will be facilitated by the Indiana State Museum & Historic Sites and the Levi Coffin House Association on Wednesday, October 29, near the Levi Coffin House at 113 U.S. 27, Fountain City, Wayne County.

The new 5,156-square-foot facility will commemorate Levi and Catharine Coffin, conductors on the Underground Railroad, as well as the thousands of men and women who came to the couple’s home following the “mysterious railway tracks” to freedom.

According to Tom King, president and CEO of Indiana State Museum & Historic Sites, the Levi Coffin House “stands as a reminder of courage and conviction – not just that displayed by Levi and Catharine, but also of those whose desire for freedom and dignity led them to escape the burden of slavery.”

Levi Coffin House Historic Site
Levi Coffin House Historic Site

The budget for the new center, which includes the cost of repairs to the house, is $3.2 million. Nearly 70 percent of commitments for that amount have been received to date.

Model of the Future Levi Coffin House Interpretive Center, 2016
Model of the Future Levi Coffin House Interpretive Center, 2016

The projected completion date for the new interpretive center is sometime in 2016, which will coincide with Indiana’s Bicentennial celebration.


“I think the good Lord’s been watching over this building and given it all the right owners down through the years,” said Janice McGuire, president of the Levi Coffin House Association.

Read about the Wayne County Historical Society’s efforts to preserve the Levi Coffin home in 1899.


The Indianapolis Journal, Volume 49, Number 197, 16 July 1899

News Releases

Sheeley, Rachel E. “Levi Coffin House center to break ground.” October 25, 2014.

Indiana State Museum & Historic Sites. Immediate Release: “Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites move forward with Levi Coffin House Interpretive Center.”  October 14, 2014.


Levi Coffin House Historic Site:

Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites :

Archeological Dig at the Future Levi Coffin Visitor Center:

“Indiana’s Literature: The State in the Republic of Letters”

The Indiana State Sentinel - November 27, 1889 - Page 4Between 1880 and 1920, Indiana produced authors such as James Whitcomb Riley, Booth Tarkington, and Meredith Nicholson. This period became known as the Golden Age of Literature in Indiana. However, as J. W. Carr points out in his Indiana State Sentinel newspaper article, “Indiana’s Literature: The State in the Republic of Letters,” Indiana was the birthplace and home to numerous authors throughout the state’s history. Carr acknowledged that beyond the breathtaking landscapes and the hard working men who transformed the state from forests to homes, schools, churches, and the like, all connected by the man-made railroad, sat a far greater achievement produced by the State of Indiana: a man of culture, scholar, and genius.

Weaving a brief synopsis of Indiana’s history with biographical sketches and sample pieces from early Indiana authors, Carr discussed why Indiana’s literature deserved special attention.

First, Carr stated the territory of Indiana did not receive its first governor until 1800, thereby limiting the development of the state for the past seventy-five years. Carr exclaimed, “How short a time in which to uproot savagery and plant civilization in which to produce a literature! Such progress is wonderful. If it had occurred in ancient times it might probably have been called the eighth and greatest wonder of antiquity, but occurring in the nineteen century it is only a part of the last and greatest wonder of the world—the development of a great American state.”

Second, he pointed out the difference between the authors of Indiana and other states. Indiana produced so many poets or prose writers that “genius is the rule and not the exception.” Furthermore, Indiana had more than just poets and prose writers, the state’s writers encompassed historians, novelists, journalists, those who write on the subjects of legal, philosophy, and science. This was important to notate because despite producing “more than 200 writers who have achieved at least a local reputation in the republic of letters,” very few authors achieved national recognition and praise.

The Republic of Letters is an overarching term for philosophical ideas and principles spread through the written word. Particularly prevalent during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, ideas, concepts, and critiques were spread internationally where it then transformed/merged to fit various political, social, culture, religious, etc. groups. Overall, the Republic of Letters is a term used to describe the way ideas were spread within societies.

Third, within his biographical sketches of the authors, in particular those who also taught, Carr compared their work to well-known poets and teachers of Milton, Longfellow, and Lowell. By doing so, he drew the connection between well-known poets and Indiana poets to show why Indiana authors deserved fame and recognition.

The biographical sketches and sample works of five poets from Indiana’s early history Carr provides are: Julia L. Dumont, John Finley, John B. Dillon, Laura M. Thurston, and M. Louisa Chitwood.

Julia L. Dumont (neé Corey) was one of the first writers in Indiana’s history. She was born in October 1794, in Waterford, Ohio and received an education at Milton Academy, in Saratoga County, New York. In August 1812, she married John Dumont, and in March 1814, the couple moved to Vevay, Indiana, where she resided until her death on January 2, 1857. Carr states, “she was a poet of considerable ability, but she is chiefly remembered as the preceptress [a female teacher] of Edward Eggleston.” Carr published a few lines from her poem, “Poverty.”

Julia L. Dumont

John Finley was a state and local politician (he served as a member of Indiana Legislature, Enrolling Clerk of the State Senate, Clerk of Wayne County Courts, and the Mayor of Richmond, Indiana for eight years) and the editor of the Richmond Palladium. However, primarily, he was remembered for his poems, “The Hoosier’s Nest” and “Bachelors Hall.” He was born on January 11, 1797 in Brownsburg, Virginia and moved to Richmond, Indiana in his early twenties. He was married twice; first in 1826 to Rachel H. Knott in Yellow Springs, Ohio and after her death, he married Julia Hanson on April 9, 1830 in Indianapolis. In 1830, Finley wrote “The Hoosier’s Nest” for the Indianapolis Journal, which Carr published a portion of in his newspaper article. Additional information on John Finley can be found here.

John Finley

John B. Dillon was an historian, state librarian, secretary of the State Historical Society, and an early poet of the state of Indiana. He was born in Virginia, relocated to Cincinnati as a child where he subsequently learned the printer’s trade, and moved to Logansport, Indiana when he was 30 years old. Between 1846 and 1857, Dillon wrote the first history of Indiana, which received high praise and literary merit. Part of Dillon’s poem, “The Burial of the Beautiful,” was published in Carr’s article. Additional information on Dillon can be found here.

John B. Dillon

Laura M. Thurston (neé Hawley) was not only a poet, but also one of Indiana’s early teachers. She was born in Norfolk, Connecticut in December 1912 and educated at the Hartford Female Seminary. She taught in Hartford, New Bedford, Connecticut, Philadelphia, and New Albany, Indiana. In September 1839, she married Franklin Thurston, a New Albany merchant. On July 21, 1842, just shy of being 30 years old, she died in New Albany, Indiana. Two of her most popular poems are “Green Hills of My Fatherland” and “Crossing the Alleghanies.” Carr published a portion of “The Paths of Life,” which he described as “a farewell address, or rather, a parting song to a graduating class. This poem is a model of its kind—beautiful, didactic—a literary gem—a sermon.”

Laura M. Thurston

M. Louisa Chitwood was born on October 29, 1832 and educated in the small village of Mt. Carmel, Indiana in Franklin County. Prior to dying at the age of 23 on December 17, 1855 in Mount Carmel, Indiana from typhoid fever, Chitwood wrote beautiful poems that showed her extraordinary gifts as a writer. George D. Prentice, an editor, politician, and Chitwood’s friend, published her poems after she died. Carr included a stanza of “The Graves of the Flowers” to highlight Chitwood’s gift as a poet.

M. Louisa Chitwood

In addition to a stanza of “The Graves of the Flowers,” Carr included a sonnet that Benjamin S. Parker wrote as a tribute to Chitwood.

Benjamin S. Parker


For additional information on Indiana’s early poets and poetry, see Poets and Poetry of Indiana: A Representative Collection of the Poetry of Indiana During the First Hundred Years of its History as Territory and State, 1800-1900. Compiled and Edited by Benjamin S. Parker and Enos B. Heiney. (New York: Silver, Burdett and Company, 1900).

Indiana Makes International News and History with its Pivotal 1907 Eugenics Law

Between 1890 and 1920, the Progressive Era awoke one movement after another that advocated for better social, cultural, and political reforms that shook the core of American society. Even though part of the progressive movement was to create and enact new laws and policies, its primary purpose was to improve the morality and purification of Americans. One way to achieve that goal was to segregate those who were considered racially inferior to the Anglo-Saxon and Nordic races, meaning anyone who was not a descendant of a Northern European or English race.

Through the concept of eugenics, individuals in the Progressive Era began to segregate not only those who were inferior to the Anglo-Saxon and Nordic races, but also those who possessed undesirable characteristics. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines eugenics as “a science that tries to improve the human race by controlling which people become parents” and as “a science that deals with the improvement (as by control of human mating) of hereditary qualities of a race or breed.” At this time, medical professionals wrote articles stating that certain genes and traits were passed down from father and mother to their children. In particular, doctors, such as Harry C. Sharp, argued that if certain individuals who possessed undesirable characteristics procreated, the future of society looked bleak. As a result, on March 9, 1907, Indiana Governor J. Frank Hanly signed and enacted the eugenic sterilization law. Part of the law reads:

AN ACT entitled an act to prevent procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists; providing that superintendents and boards of managers of institutions where such persons are confined shall have the authority and are empowered to appoint a committee of experts, consisting of two (2) physicians, to examine into the mental condition of such inmates.

As long as two physicians verified an inmate had a mental illness, the law states that the prison or state mental hospital was required by law to sterilize said inmate.

The Plymouth Tribune - March 14, 1907, Page 5

The Plymouth Tribune. Volume 6, Number 23, 14 March 1907. Page 5.

In 1921, the Indiana Supreme Court deemed the law unconstitutional, thus making it illegal to involuntarily sterilize anyone who was thought to be undesirable or unfit to procreate. However, in 1927, Indiana repealed the 1921 decision and modified the 1907 law to state that as long as the individual had thirty days’ notice and the ability to make an appeal if he or she desired, the State of Indiana could continue to sterilize incarcerated individuals. It was not until 1974 that Indiana outlawed all forms of involuntary sterilization. The exact number of individuals who were involuntarily sterilized is unknown. However, an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 people were sterilized between 1907 and 1974. Since the repealing of the 1907 eugenics law, the State of Indiana has sought to rectify this piece of historic legislation through formal apologies and enacting historical markers.

Even though the concept of eugenics or sterilization was not new in the early twentieth century, Indiana made history when it became the first state both in the United States and in the world to pass a law that involuntarily sterilized incarcerated individuals. This landmark legislation helped pave the way for other states and countries to pass similar laws and policies, including laws that led to the Holocaust and other genocides.

1907 Indiana Eugenics Law 1  1907 Indiana Eugenics Law 2






Location of the Historical Marker: East lawn of the Indiana State Library, 140 North Senate Avenue, Indianapolis. (Marion County, Indiana)



General Laws of Indiana, chapter 215, House Document 364. Accessed August 1, 2014.

Heale, M. J. Twentieth-Century America: Politics and Power in the United States 1900-2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Indiana Historic Bureau. “Historical Marker of the 1907 Indiana Eugenics Law.” Accessed August 1, 2014.

Indiana State Library. “Eugenics Materials.” Accessed August 1, 2014.

Indiana University-Purdue University. “Indiana Eugenics History and Legacy, 1907-2007.” Accessed August 1, 2014.

Lears, Jackson. Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920. NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.

The Plymouth Tribune. Volume 6, Number 23, 14 March 1907. Page 5. Accessed August 1, 2014. Indiana Digital Historic Newspaper Program

Sharp, Harry C. “Vasectomy as a Means Preventing Procreation in Defectives.” Buck v Bell Documents. Paper 4. Accessed August 1, 2014.


Today, in 1915, the S.S. Eastland, a Cranky, Hoodoo Tub, Capsized and Dragged 844 of its 2,500 Passengers to their Watery Grave

On the gray, cloudy, and rainy Saturday morning of July 24, 1915, thousands of eager employees of Hawthorne Works and their family members, along with Chicago citizens who did not work for the company, flocked to downtown Chicago. They were to embark on the Hawthorne Club’s Fifth Annual Picnic for a day of parades, games, contests, and relaxation in Michigan City, Indiana. The first of five ships to leave was the S.S. Eastland, located at docks between Clark and LaSalle Streets, and by six forty-five in the morning, approximately 5,000 people were waiting to board the ship. However, by seven-thirty in the morning, this day of fun and laughter had turned into a scene of chaos, death, and despair when the Eastland capsized in the Chicago, River, killing 844 of its 2,500 passengers, which made it one of the worst naval catastrophes in American history.

Western Electric Company was one of the leading telephone and telegraph manufacturers in the world during the early twentieth century. One of its chief manufacturing plants was the Hawthorne Works, located right outside of the Chicago city limits in Cicero, Illinois. Hawthorne Works offered a variety of social activities for its employees, including the Hawthorne Club’s annual picnic excursion. The picnic committee promoted the fifth annual picnic relentlessly until the night before the excursion with parades through the Hawthorne Works and posters. The consequence of the promotions contributed to the rise of attendees from approximately 6,000 in 1914 to over 7,000 in 1915, and resulted in the need to charter five ships through the Indiana Transportation Company: the Eastland, the Roosevelt, the Petoskey, the Racine, and the Rochester.

The disaster quickly became a media sensation when newspapers immediately began to cover the rescue and relief efforts, as well as the court cases that followed.

As soon as the Eastland capsized, rescue efforts poured in from Chicago companies, the Red Cross, state and federal agencies, and Western Electric Company. The mayor of Chicago, William Hall Thompson (1915-1923 and 1927-1931), Western Electric Company, and newspapers established several monetary relief funds. Western Electric worked with local Chicago companies to set up information bureaus and temporary morgues, provided medical treatment, and gave $100,000 to pay for the funeral expenses of Western Electric employees. Overall, through the various relief efforts, over $500,000 was raised for the survivors’ and victims’ family members.

At the same time that businesses and individuals in the Chicagoland area came together to help with the rescue and relief efforts, speculations as to who was to blame and the causes of the disaster circulated around the city. The local Chicago newspapers published statements by prominent government and union leaders, such as Maclay Hoyne, the Illinois State Attorney, and Victor Olander, a union delegate leader who advocated for the American Federation of Labor, the International Seaman’s Union of America, and various other unions, placing blame and naming causes for the disaster. That led to a public outcry for justice, which encouraged the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois, and the federal government to intervene and investigate the cause of the disaster. Seven investigations and court cases, at both the local and federal levels, began on the afternoon of July 24, 1915. Speculations of why the Eastland capsized was not only a debate during the investigation, but also is a debate that continues today. Some of the causes include the Eastland’s history of stabilization (which came from its poor construction), human negligence, laws that emerged after the Titanic sank, in particular the La Follette Seamen’s Act, and the overcrowding of passengers on the vessel.

On November 21, 1917, the United States Navy purchased the Eastland, rebuilt her as a naval training vessel, and renamed her the U.S.S. Wilmette. Even though the disaster is not well-remembered today, hidden beneath the weight of two world wars and other disasters, the sinking of the Eastland was imprinted onto the regional and national psyches during the early twentieth century. In addition, several local historic societies and associations are actively commemorating those who lost their lives on the tragic S.S. Eastland and making this horrific event more well-known.


To learn more about the Eastland catastrophe and to read various newspaper’s accounts of the disaster, please see the following links:



The Jasper Weekly Courier, Volume 57, Number 43, July 30, 1915

The Library of Congress’s digitization project, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, has a plethora of newspapers articles on the Eastland catastrophe. For an alternative perspective of the disaster, The Day Book, a socialist newspaper in Chicago, provides an extensive coverage of the disaster from the working class perspective. Some of the other newspapers who covered the disaster include: the Chicago Eagle (Chicago, IL), the Evening World (New York), the New York Tribune, The Sun (New York, NY), Washington Herald (Washington, D.C.), and the Washington Times (Washington, D.C.).



Adams, Stephen B. and Orville R. Butler. Manufacturing the Future: A History of Western Electric. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Grossman, James R., Ann Durkin Keating, and Janice L. Reiff, eds. Michael P. Conzen, cartographic ed. The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Hilton, George W. Eastland: Legacy of the Titanic. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Wachholz, Ted. Images of America: The Eastland Disaster. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2005.

Western Electric News 4, no. 6 (August 1915).

Football season begins…in 1901

The Indianapolis Journal, September 3, 1901. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
The Indianapolis Journal, September 3, 1901. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.

Football season is upon us.  Hoosiers love their high school squads, college teams, and the Colts.  Indiana residents even loved football in 1901, when the state’s past-time of basketball was still in its infancy.  Read more about Indiana football at the dawn of the 20th century in the Indianapolis Journal to the right.

100 years ago today in Indiana, as reported in the Jasper Weekly Courier

Courtesy of Chronicling America.
The August 29, 1913 issue of the Jasper Weekly Courier. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

There are currently over 63,000 pages of historic Indiana newspapers available for free through the Chronicling of America website at the Library of Congress.  You can find many great pieces of the past there.  For instance, if you wanted to find out what happened 100 years ago today, you could check out the Jasper Weekly Courier for August 29, 1913.  The Courier ran a column titled “Happenings in Indiana,” click on the image to the right, and go to the sixth column.

You can also peruse the entire issue of the paper at this link Jasper Weekly Courier.