Tag Archives: 1920s

The Black Stork: Eugenics Goes to the Movies

The Black Stork 4

From 1917 into the 1920s, Hoosier movie-goers had a chance to see one of the most controversial — and arguably infamous — silent films ever produced, The Black Stork, later renamed Are You Fit To Marry? Identified by one film historian as among the earliest horror movies, The Black Stork was based on a real and gut-wrenching medical drama from 1915.

Billed as a “eugenics love story,” the movie’s script was authored by Chicago journalist, muckraker and theater critic Jack Lait.  Lait worked for news mogul William Randolph Hearst, the very man who inspired the lead figure in Orson Welles’ great 1941 movie Citizen Kane.  Hearst, king of American “yellow journalism,” relished controversies, which sold newspapers and theater tickets. His film company, International Film Service, produced The Black Stork.

Many Americans today have never heard the word “eugenics,” a once-popular scientific theory spawned by Victorian understandings of evolution and heredity in the wake of Charles Darwin.  The word comes from the Greek for “well-born” or “good stock” and refers to the social interpretation of scientific discoveries purporting to show how harmful genetic traits are passed on from parents to children — and how healthy children could be bred. Eugenics wasn’t strictly the same as science itself, but a social philosophy based on the discoveries of Darwin, the monk-botanist Gregor Mendel, and Darwin’s nephew, geneticist Francis Galton. Yet many scientists and doctors got involved with this social philosophy.

Once fairly mainstream, support for eugenic theories plummeted after the defeat of Hitler, its most notorious advocate. Aspects of eugenics — like the forced sterilization of repeat criminals, rapists, epileptics, the poor, and some African Americans — continued in twenty-seven American states into the 1950s and even later in a few.  The last forced sterilization in the U.S. was performed in Oregon in 1981.


U.S. Eugenics Advocacy Poster, 1926
U.S. eugenics advocacy poster, 1926. The authors ranked just 4% of Americans as “high-grade” and “fit” for creative work and leadership.

Indiana played an enormous role in the history of eugenics when the Hoosier State became the first to enact a compulsory sterilization law in 1907 — a law that lumped the mentally handicapped in with sex offenders, made it virtually illegal for whole classes deemed “unfit” to reproduce, segregated many of the disabled into mental hospitals, and enshrined white supremacy. Though the Indiana law was struck down in 1921, those ideas were hugely popular with many academics and activists all across the political spectrum.

Indiana Historical Bureau state historical marker.

Especially notable, the Indiana Eugenics Law wasn’t pushed by those designated as white racist “hillbillies.” “Poor white” Indianapolis slum-dwellers, in fact, were very much targeted by the eugenicists of the early 20th century.  Promoters of these spurious theories included mainstream biologists, doctors, many reform-minded Progressives, women’s rights advocates, college presidents, even a few Christian ministers and Socialists. The list of widely-admired people who spoke out in favor of simplistic eugenic proposals included Helen Keller, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Sir Winston Churchill, Planned Parenthood’s founder Margaret Sanger, author Jack London, IU and Stanford University president David Starr Jordan, Alexander Graham Bell, and the civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois.  One of the few well-known anti-eugenics crusaders was Senator William Jennings Bryan, a Christian Fundamentalist who lost caste with Progressives in the 1920s for opposing the teaching of evolution.


Murder rankings
American eugenic “scientists” blamed murder rates on heredity, ethnicity, and imaginary racial types like “Dinaric” and “Alpine.” “Pure Nordic,” the type idealized by Hitler, was deemed the least prone to criminal activity. Time would prove that theory wrong.

Eugenics, however, was neither “liberal” nor “conservative.” Americans of all political stripes supported its basic premise — the preservation of social order and the engineering of more a “humane” society.  Strong support for eugenics came from Americans concerned about the proliferation of poverty and urban crime and who sought a reason to keep certain nationalities from entering the U.S.  Eugenics did not begin to go out of favor until 1935, when scientists from the Carnegie Institute in Washington demonstrated the flimsiness of other scientists’ work at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island.  Yet even as eugenicists placed human reproduction on the level of horse- and livestock-breeding, the genetic abolition of any individual deemed “feeble-minded” — and the destruction of hereditary and sexually-transmitted diseases — was packaged as a positive goal, a social benefit to all, even to those who underwent involuntary sterilization and were occasionally killed.


Better Baby Contest, Indiana State Fair, 1931
Better Baby contest, Indiana State Fair, 1931. Eugenicists put reproduction and marriage on the level of agriculture and sought to manage human beings like a farm. Better Baby contests began at the Iowa State Fair in 1911.

Euthanasia was one component of eugenics.  Alongside the “positive eugenics” campaign for “Better Babies and Fitter Families,” “negative eugenics” partly revolved around the controversial view that infants born with severe disabilities should be left to die or killed outright.  In 1915, a case in Chicago plunged Americans into a heated debate about medical ethics.

That November, Dr. Harry J. Haiselden, chief surgeon at the German-American Hospital in Chicago, was faced with a tough dilemma.  A woman named Anna Bollinger had just given birth to a child, John, who suffered from severe birth defects.  John had no neck or right ear and suffered from a serious skin ailment, all judged to be the result of syphilis likely passed on by his father. Dr. Haiselden knew that he could save the child’s life through a surgical procedure.  But since he was familiar with the conditions into which Illinois’ “feeble-minded” were thrown after birth, he convinced the child’s parents to let John die at the hospital.  When the news came out that the doctor wasn’t going to perform the necessary surgery, an unknown person tried to kidnap the child and take it to another hospital.  The kidnapping attempt failed and John Bollinger died.


South Bend News-Times, November 18, 1915
The South Bend News-Times called “Baby Bollinger” a martyr, but later carried advertisements for the doctor’s film. South Bend News-Times, November 18, 1915. Hoosier State Chronicles.

While the Catholic Church, one of the few vocal critics of eugenics, was the only major group to initially protest the surgeon’s decision, Haiselden was soon called before a medical ethics board in Chicago. He nearly lost his medical license, but managed to keep it.  Public opinion was sharply divided.  Chicago social worker and suffragette Jane Addams came out against Haiselden.  Short of the death penalty for murder, Addams said, no doctor had the right to be an unwilling person’s executioner.  “It is not for me to decide whether a child should be put to death. If it is a defective, it should be treated as such, and be taught all it can learn,” she added.

Many of Haiselden’s critics, such as Addams, pointed out that if eugenicists had had their way, they would have killed some of the great “defectives” in history, like Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevksy, French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, children’s writer Edward Lear, and even the eugenicist Harry Laughlin himself — all of them epileptics.  (Biologist Laughlin, Superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor and one of the science’s greatest advocates, had suffered from epilepsy since childhood.)

Support for Dr. Haiselden, however, came from many famous social activists.  Among them was Helen Keller — advocate for the disabled, a Socialist, and a eugenics supporter (at least in 1915.) Keller, who was blind and deaf since the age of one but thrived against all odds, published her views on the Haiselden case in The New Republic. She thought that children proven to be “idiots” by a “jury of expert physicians” could and perhaps should be put to death. Chicago lawyer and civil liberties crusader Clarence Darrow — who famously went up against eugenics critic William Jennings Bryan at the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial — made no bones about his support for the surgeon: “Chloroform unfit children,” Darrow said.  “Show them the same mercy that is shown beasts that are no longer fit to live.” Indiana Socialist Eugene V. Debs also supported Haiselden’s decision.


Clarence Darrow    Helen Keller
(Clarence Darrow and Helen Keller supported Haiselden.)


Harry Haiselden held onto his job, but bolstered his position and kept the firestorm of public discussion brewing by starring as himself in a silent film based on the Bollinger case.  The Black Stork came to hundreds of American theaters, including many Hoosier ones.  Because public health workers and eugenicists often gave admonitory lectures before and after the movie, separate showings were offered for men and women.  Young children weren’t allowed to attend, but a South Carolina minister encouraged parents to bring their teenage children — so they could see what might come from sexual promiscuity, criminality, drinking and “race mixing.”  Some theater bills added the catchy subtitle: “The Scourge of Humanity.”


South Bend News-Times, November 9, 1917
The Black Stork enjoyed several screenings at the Oliver Theater in South Bend. South Bend News-Times, November 9, 1917. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The movie’s plot was partly fictional and not entirely based on the 1915 Bollinger euthanasia case.  The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette gave its readers the basic story line, which came with an interesting twist near the end:

The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, August 12, 1917 (2)

The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, August 12, 1917 (1)
The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, August 12, 1917.

The “taint of the Black Stork” was obviously bad genes and heritable diseases. Haiselden’s silent film has been called one of the earliest horror movies, though its promoters billed it as educational and even romantic in nature. It fueled the eugenics movement’s campaign about defectives but also tackled an ethical dilemma that’s still alive today:  is it ever humane to kill a person without their permission, on the grounds that the victim is doomed to live a miserable life and be only a “burden on society”?


The Black Stork 5


Since American eugenics was supported by known racists and would later be directly cited by the Nazis as inspiration for their  “racial science,” it’s uncomfortable to look deeper into it and realize how much turf it shares with Progressivists’ real concern for the treatment of the poor — and of mothers, some of whom would have been forced to raise severely disabled children. Some Americans thought the best way to eradicate poverty and disease was to eradicate the poor themselves by restricting their right to pass on the human “germ plasm” to the next generation.  Eugenics and even euthanasia became, for some, a way to avoid social reforms.  “Nurture vs. nature” lost out to inescapable hereditary destiny.

The Black Stork’s title was eventually changed to Are You Fit To Marry?  It ran in theaters and roadshows well into the Roaring Twenties.  It’s hard to believe that eugenicists begged Americans to ask themselves honestly if they were “fit to marry.”  One wonders how many Americans voluntarily abstained from having children after deeming themselves “unfit”?

Ads show that the film was screened at at least three theaters in Indianapolis (including English’s Theatre on Monument Circle) as well as at movie halls in Fort Wayne, East Chicago, Whiting, Hammond, Evansville, Richmond and probably many other Hoosier towns.


The Fort Wayne Sentinel, January 27, 1920.

The Black Stork 6


The “eugenics photo-drama” reminded Americans of the dangers that “bad” heredity posed not only to their own families, but to the nation.  When The Black Stork was shown in Elyria, Ohio, just a few months into America’s involvement in World War I, it clearly drew from the well of fear-mongering that linked crime and disease to alcohol, immigration, prostitution and rumors about German traitors and saboteurs — all clear threats to Anglo-Saxon ideals. Eugenics and euthanasia, by “saving our nation from misery and decay,” clearly got hitched to the wagon of nationalist politics. Viewing The Black Stork, like supporting the war effort, became “a solemn duty.”


The Chronicle-Telegram (Elyria, Ohio), December 17, 1917
The Chronicle-Telegram, Elyria, Ohio, December 17, 1917.

German scientists were promoting “racial hygiene” long before the Nazis came to power in the 1930s.  Fascism’s scientists and propagandists would also draw heavily on the work of British and American eugenicists — and point to laws like Indiana’s when opponents criticized them.  Racial Hygiene, in fact, was the title of an influential textbook by Hoosier doctor Thurman B. Rice, a professor at IU Bloomington, a colleague of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, and one of the founders of IU Medical School in Indianapolis.  In April 1929, Rice wrote an editorial in the Indiana State Board of Health’s monthly bulletin, entitled “If I Were Mussolini,” where he supported compulsory sterilization of “defectives.”


Thurman B. Rice 2
“If I Were Mussolini,” Monthly Bulletin of the Indiana State Board of Health, April 1929.

The Black Stork wasn’t the last film about euthanasia and eugenics. In 1941, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, commissioned one of the classics of Nazi cinema, Ich klage an (I Accuse).  The plot revolves around a husband who learns that his wife has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  He gives her a drug that causes her death, then undergoes a trial for murder.  The film’s producers argued that death was not only a right but a social duty.  A tearjerker, Ich klage an was intended to soften up the German public for the Nazis’ T4 euthanasia campaign, which led to the deaths of as many as 200,000 adults and children deemed a burden to the nation. (There’s some further irony that Ich klage an’s cinematic parent, The Black Stork, was based on events at Chicago’s German-American Hospital.)

Eugenics captivated Americans and Europeans for a few more decades after the Bollinger case. British writer G.K. Chesterton, a Catholic convert and a fierce opponent of eugenics, probably deserves the last word here. Chesterton called eugenics “terrorism by tenth-rate professors.”


Chesterton at Notre Dame, 1930
G.K. Chesterton in South Bend, Indiana, October 1930, when he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Notre Dame. Dr. Harry Haiselden himself once gave an address to South Bend’s Fork and Knife Club in May 1916.

In his 1922 book Eugenics and Other Evils: An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized State, Chesterton quipped that society has never really had all that much to fear from the “feeble-minded.” Rather, it’s the “strong-minded” who hurt society the most.  Tearing into eugenics advocates in Britain, Germany and America, Chesterton spotlighted their frequent class prejudices, then skewered them brilliantly:

Why do not the promoters of the Feeble-Minded Bill call at the many grand houses in town and country where such nightmares notoriously are?  Why do they not knock at the door and take the bad squire away?  Why do they not ring the bell and remove the dipsomaniac prize-fighter?  I do not know;  and there is only one reason I can think of, which must remain a matter of speculation. When I was at school, the kind of boy who liked teasing half-wits was not the sort that stood up to bullies.

Dr. Harry J. Haiselden was involved in the deaths of at least three more disabled infants.  He died of a cerebral hemorrhage while on vacation in Havana, Cuba, in 1919.


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

Jewels & Starvation

Goodrich on Relief Commission, February 1922 (1)

What is Indiana’s connection to one of Europe’s greatest unsolved mysteries:  the whereabouts of Russia’s lost crown jewels?   While some of the historic diadems are now back on display in Moscow, in the 1920s many were considered missing.  Some are still unaccounted for.  (One of the most credible stories claims that these famous gems lie buried in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.)

In 1922, former Indiana governor James P. Goodrich was allowed to take an unexpected peek at the elusive Romanov treasures when he went to the Soviet Union on a humanitarian aid mission.  And what he saw in Moscow bedazzled him.

Goodrich, a native of Winchester, Indiana, was governor during World War I. A lifelong Republican, he is best known for signing statewide Prohibition into law in 1917.  (He was also governor when women won the right to vote and when Indiana’s state park system was founded.) As a banker with a knack for investments, Goodrich was well-known for his success at marketing war bonds in Indiana, where sales skyrocketed.  Yet the governor himself barely the survived the war years.  In 1917, he contracted typhoid fever while visiting a northern Indiana prison. Then, a year later, Goodrich — like Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 — was struck by a streetcar, an accident that nearly killed him and left him walking with a cane for the rest of his life.


Goodrich with Theodore Roosevelt, 1918
Goodrich, right, with Theodore Roosevelt in 1918.

The Hoosier governor ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920, losing to Warren Harding.  Yet once Goodrich was out of the governor’s office in 1921, President Harding persuaded the banker to accept a humanitarian post in the new Soviet Union.

Tsarist Russia had collapsed during World War I.  During the Russian Revolution, Tsar Nicholas and his family were executed — reportedly while wearing hidden gems sown into their clothing — and the country engaged in a bloody civil war.  Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks came out on top in 1922, the year Goodrich arrived in Russia.  Yet by then, the combined effects of war, revolution, and famine had killed, and were still killing, millions.

Americans had already gotten involved in bringing humanitarian relief to hungry, war-ravaged Europe.  In addition to the work of American Mennonites, Jews, and Quakers, future U.S. president Herbert Hoover was directing the new American Relief Association (ARA).

Hoover, a geologist and Quaker from Iowa who had spent years living overseas, where he managed mining operations in Australia, China and Russia, was also a successful businessman.  During World War I, he managed food drives to help war-torn Belgium.  As director of various food initiatives, Hoover — known as “The Great Humanitarian” and “Master of Emergencies” — worked with the American Friends Service Committee and other groups to bring aid to millions of desperately hungry Europeans, including Russians, who soon found themselves caught in one of the deadliest famines in human history.


ARA poster
“Gift of the American People,” a poster advertising the American Relief Administration’s efforts against famine in Russia during the early 1920s.

Herbert Hoover was a friend to Russians, but not to communism. He wanted Russians to see Americans’ generosity, and America to see the results of communist cruelty.  When James Goodrich and his wife Cora left Winchester, Indiana, in 1921, sailing aboard the SS Kroonland for Europe, this was partly so that the former Hoosier governor could witness “what the real difficulties of this foolish economic system [Communism] are.”  Goodrich agreed to come and learn “the truth about Russia,” which turned out to be more horrifying than he bargained for.  He would spend two years there, off and on, as an ARA commissioner.  Yet ten years before the U.S. finally recognized the Soviet Union in 1933, Goodrich urged opening up diplomatic relations — partly because he saw the USSR as an unavoidable fact and partly because the survival of millions of humans might be found to rely on American aid.


James and Cora Goodrich 1921
James and Cora Goodrich’s passport application, 1921.

South Bend News-Times, September 18, 1921
South Bend News-Times, September 18, 1921. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Almost as soon as Goodrich got to Russia, he began to witness signs of a massive, mostly man-made disaster.  Like most famines, the one that killed six million Russians in the early 1920s was almost completely avoidable.  Nature wasn’t the biggest culprit.  The real killers were politics, greed, war, and deliberate human cruelty.

As early as 1919, Hoover’s food administration had offered help to Russia on the condition that Western relief agencies be given control of Russian railroads.  This was to make sure that food reached the people who needed it.  Lenin turned down that offer. During the Russian Civil War, armies used food as a weapon, stealing it from peasant farmers.  Russian peasants didn’t often support the Communists, and when they saw their food being stolen, many farmers cut their production back.  Other peasants, especially wealthier ones, were accused of hoarding food.  By 1921, Lenin — whom Governor Goodrich met — was ordering that food be deliberately taken away from peasants to crush their resistance to the revolution.

As he toured parts of the rural Volga region, Goodrich saw almost no dogs.  Dogs had been turned into sausages.  He found small children shivering and crying in sheds, abandoned or orphaned and living off cabbage leaves.  Many Russians were on the edge of death.  One winter, he saw a man eating green bread.  Asked what it was, the man told him this was “camel’s dung mixed with grass.”


Russian famine 1921
Starving children in Russia’s Volga region, 1921.

Though Goodrich saw mass graves, he was spared some of the worst sights, which involved cannibalism.  Yet his testimony about the Russian famine helped double the amount of relief authorized by Congress. He encouraged American cooperation in rebuilding Russia, which, he suggested, would partly require the export of American tractors.

At the height of the famine, it is estimated that the American Relief Administration was feeding about 10 million people a day.  This was only possible after Lenin finally agreed to let Western aid groups feed his own people.


Goodrich during Russian Famine
Goodrich, second from left, in Russia, February 1922.

So where do the crown jewels come in?

Although the Bolshevik government rejected capitalism, it needed more than just Western food.  It needed Western money.  As in Ireland during the Famine of the 1840s, Lenin’s government was exporting grain for cash while millions starved at home.  Money from abroad was to be used to build up Soviet industry.  Yet in addition to money from grain, the Bolsheviks also looked for outright loans from the West.

As collateral, Lenin was willing to use the most valuable items the Communists could get their hands on — the imperial Russian crown jewels.

The American press was full of wild stories about these gems in the 1920s.  As the South Bend News-Times told Hoosiers with disgust the Romanov dynasty’s orbs, scepters, crowns, and dazzling pearls were thought to be worth about 60 billion dollars, “equal to all the money that will be earned this year by all Americans combined,” the editors thought.  The Hoosier paper considered the allure and value attached to those fabled gemstones “preposterously ridiculous” — especially when so many humans were dead or dying of hunger.


South Bend News-Times, September 21, 1922
South Bend News-Times, September 21, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles..

To keep their treasures safe, the Romanov family had broken up the jewel collection, sending some of it to a monastery in Siberia. According to a 2009 story in the Los Angeles Times, another pile of the gems was clandestinely buried in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert when a Russian aristocrat who was hauling them to China got attacked by bandits.  He later fled to America, married an American silver heiress, and never made it back to dig up the jewels.

Though Lenin’s government had confiscated some of the stones and was offering them as collateral on foreign loans, the only Western country that took up the offer was the new Republic of Ireland. After photographs were taken in Moscow in 1922, the Russian imperial crown traveled to New York City, where it was given to Irish revolutionaries in exchange for a loan of just $25,000.  Almost forgotten, the Tsars’ crown stayed in Dublin until 1950, when the Soviet government under Joseph Stalin finally repaid the loan and got the crown back.


Soviets examing Russian crown jewels
Soviets examining the crown jewels, 1922.

USGS -- Russian crown jewels
In 2012, some previously undiscovered photos of the jewels that James Goodrich may have seen in Moscow turned up in the library of the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia. Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey.

On a trip to Russia in June 1922, Goodrich had an unusual experience.  One morning he was approached by a Soviet official and asked if he wanted to see some unnamed government property. Goodrich was annoyed, thinking this was probably going to be a pile of furs in a warehouse.  When he and his wife Cora arrived, however, they were introduced to a jeweler, who started showing them a book full of photos of rare gems.

To the Goodriches’ surprise, the jeweler then had three iron chests brought out.  Once the latches were broken open in the presence of “Red Guards,” the former Hoosier governor and first lady found themselves staring directly at the dazzling Russian crown jewels.

On June 14, 1922, Goodrich recorded in his diary:

It was a perfectly marvelous collection.  The old Czar’s crown, the crowns of the Czarina and the various members of the royal family, with diamonds varying from one to 200 carats, all of the purest water, and wonderful color. Crowns of diamonds, of diamonds and pearls, emeralds, rubies and amethysts; collars, bracelets, necklaces. The scene beggared description. I never saw anything like it; it did not seem possible there could be so many jewels in the world.

He looked at the gems “until my eyes were weary with the blaze of light.”


St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 3, 1922
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 3, 1922.

When this news got back to America, the press jumped on the story about the Hoosier governor’s encounter with the “royal toys.”

The South Bend News-Times stated that “Mrs. Goodrich wore a crown worth $4,000,000 which had belonged to the Empress Elizabeth. . . The governor remarked he didn’t want to see Mrs. Goodrich become accustomed to wearing $4,000,000 hats.”

Details about which jewels they saw are sketchy, but the crowns may have once been owned by Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.  Among the greatest gems in the collection is the famous Orloff diamond.  An ancient stone first mentioned almost 2,000 years ago in India, that diamond had been stolen from a Hindu temple in the 1700s by a French soldier and later came into the hands of Catherine the Great as a gift from her lover.


South Bend News-Times, August 25, 1922
South Bend News-Times, August 25, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Governor Goodrich wasn’t entirely sure why Lenin’s representatives showed him the crown jewels.  He guessed it was so he could go home and assure the U.S. government that the Soviets hadn’t broken up the hugely valuable collection.  Even communist countries needed capital, yet diamonds and pearls were useless to the Communists unless they could be exchanged for money.  Used as a guarantee on loans, the Romanov gems would, it was hoped, help the USSR develop industrially.

The American government wasn’t interested in the jewels, but the press and public definitely were.  Stories started to crop up.  In January 1923, a special agent from the U.S. Treasury Department told the New York Times that the crown jewels are “hardy perennials and bloom the year round.  We count the day lost when we don’t get a report about them.”

In Brooklyn that month, a rumor was going around that James Jones, an African American seaman who had sailed on a vessel out of Vladivostok, Siberia, was actively smuggling jewels for Soviet agents.  In 1920, Jones mysteriously died at sea off the coast of Gibraltar.  His embalmed body was sealed up in a metal coffin — alongside the crown jewels, so the story went.

Federal officials from the Treasury Department dismissed the tale at first.  But by February 1923, reports of suspicious activity around Jones’ grave at a military cemetery in Brooklyn forced the War Department to station an armed guard there.  To save expense on the guard, the coffin was exhumed, as heavily-armed soldiers stood by.  No crown jewels were found inside, but “reports” continued to come in.


Richmond Palladium, February 2, 1923 (2)
Richmond Palladium, February 2, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 14, 1923
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 14, 1923.

James Goodrich lived in Winchester until his death in 1940. Though he never approved of Communism and insisted that Russia’s new government was no better than “cheap east side politicians and shopkeepers,” it was said that the only time he ever approved of a Democratic politician’s actions was when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognized the USSR in 1933.

In June 1923, when the news came out that Lenin’s government was still exporting grain — even as millions of tons of it came in from American farmers — Herbert Hoover’s ARA shut down its aid operations in Russia.  The Soviet government took over the feeding of its own people, but had to work for years to undermine the good impressions that American relief workers had made.  Yet when Stalin came to power in the 1930s, “execution by hunger” continued. In 1932-33, a decade after the first famine, another six million people in the USSR were starved to death in the name of revolution.


South Bend News-Times, September 2, 1922
South Bend News-Times, September 2, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

Ku Klux U: How the Klan Almost Bought a University

Hagerstown Exponent, October 4, 1923

When the Hagerstown Exponent published this headline in October 1923, the editor had gotten the facts wrong.  The Ku Klux Klan’s powerful “Indiana Realm” had not bought itself a venerable institution of higher learning that summer.  But it had come close. For a few weeks, Valparaiso University — sixty miles from downtown Chicago, and formerly one of the largest private schools in the U.S. — teetered on the brink of becoming a “Ku Klux Kollege.” Once praised as the “Poor Man’s Harvard,” in 1923 many feared the university was about to become a “hooded Harvard.”

“Valpo” is a thriving university today, with some of the best programs in Indiana — and has no connections whatsoever to the KKK.  But a century ago, after its rapid rise to national fame, the highly-respected school was caught up in hard times. Yet its sudden nose-dive after World War I took many alumni and faculty by surprise.

Founded by Methodists in 1859, the original school — Valparaiso Male and Female College — took in students of all levels, from elementary to college age.  The pioneer school was also one of the few co-educational institutions in America before the Civil War. That war wreaked havoc on enrollment, leading the college to close its doors in 1871.  Two years later, it reopened as a teacher’s college. Until 1900, the school went by the name Northern Indiana Normal School and Business Institute.

Renowned for its economical tuition and low cost of living — as well as for admitting women and students from overseas — by 1905 “Old Valpo” enjoyed one of the highest enrollments of any private university in the U.S.  With over 5,000 students that year, the school ranked just behind Harvard.  Its affordability to working-class Americans led many to praise it as the “Poor Man’s Harvard.” (Harvard itself was sometimes jokingly called “The Rich Man’s Valpo.”)


Valparaiso University circa 1915
(Valparaiso University, circa 1915.)

Students from all over the U.S. and the world trained to be public school teachers here.  Some were busy teaching English to immigrants employed at Gary’s new steel mills.  Valpo’s programs in law, engineering, medicine, and dentistry were well-regarded. Its College of Medicine and Surgery had been brought over from Northwestern University in Chicago.  When the college moved back to the Windy City in 1926, it formed the nucleus of Loyola’s medical program.

Harvard and Yale might have been too good to take out ads in Chicago newspapers.  But this ad from 1905 appeared next to one for another great school on the rise, the University of Notre Dame.


The Inter Ocean, August 1, 1905
(The Inter Ocean, Chicago, August 1, 1905.)

Yet once enrollment peaked in 1907, venerable Valpo plunged into an unexpected, two-decade-long decline.  After accreditation of American colleges and universities began at the turn of the century  — partly driven by a desire to standardize high-school education and thereby “unify” the country — Valparaiso failed to win accreditation. Suddenly unable to transfer their credits, current and prospective students found the school a harder sell, especially as affordable new state universities, teachers’ colleges, and urban night schools entered the competition.  Valpo’s lack of a football team and Greek life were another stumbling block, though it hurriedly scraped together a football program in the early 1920s and even played Harvard.  (It lost 22-0 in its first game.)


VU


World War I issued another blow.  The famously affordable university had always attracted international students.  (One of the more unusual of them was future Soviet Comintern agent Mikhail Borodin, “Stalin’s Man in China,” who would die in a Siberian gulag in 1951.)  But after 1914, many of these students left to fight for their European homelands in WWI.  When America entered the war against Germany in 1917, student military enlistment left Valpo’s academic and residence halls almost empty.  And with plenty of war-related jobs now available to women, female students also tended to skip out on college for the duration of the war.


Journal Gazette (Mattoon, IL), July 17, 1923
(Journal Gazette, Mattoon, IL, July 17, 1923.)

In 1919, Indiana passed a new law requiring private colleges to maintain a half-million dollar endowment.  Cash-strapped Valparaiso University, burdened with a $350,000 debt (almost $5 million in today’s money) faced the real prospect of bankruptcy.  The school’s trustees even tried to sell it to the state that year for use as a public teacher’s college, but the Indiana legislature declined the offer.

Holding on by a thread — and led by controversial president Robert Hodgdon, who turned out to hold fake medical degrees — desperate trustees and the equally-desperate citizens of Valparaiso sought new owners.  That list of potential “saviors” grew to include the Presbyterian Church, the International Order of the Moose, and the owner of Cook Laboratories in Chicago, who wanted to turn the campus into a syringe factory and provide 1,000 jobs to townsfolk. (Their prosperity would have been shattered by the school’s demise.)

Then, in July 1923, a new bidder expressed interest.


Daily Republican (Rushville, IN), August 16, 1923
(Daily Republican, Rushville, Indiana, August 16, 1923.)

For some residents of Valparaiso — which hosted a parade of at least 5,000 Klansmen in May 1923, an event that attracted 30,000 visitors from around the Midwest — the offer to take over the struggling school seemed like a God-send.  Academics, alumni, and many students, especially “undesirable” Catholics and Jews, thought differently. Many teachers and students were ready to pack up and leave.

But incredibly, as far as the trustees were concerned, the question of selling Valparaiso University to the Ku Klux Klan mostly came down to whether that organization itself had the resources to made good on its own offer.

The efforts of the revived Klan proved more “sophisticated” than that which had died out in the 1870s.  Klan rallies and parades occurred all over the North and West, from Chicago to L.A., from Oregon to Maine.  And the flag they waved wasn’t the rebel flag.  KKK membership in those years peaked in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio, “ground zero” for some of the biggest Klan activity.  D.C. Stephenson, the “Grand Old Man of the Klan,” operated mostly out of his headquarters in Indianapolis, a city that was almost taken over by Klansmen and Klanswomen; It was also a city that fought a valiant battle in the press, courts, and churches to discredit the “Invisible Empire.”


KKK Members, Valparaiso, 1923
(Klansmen on Franklin Street, Valparaiso, Indiana, 1923.)

The Fiery Cross, May 11, 1923
The Fiery Cross, May 11, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The “Second” Klan defined itself as a hyper-patriotic organization of white Protestant Americans and was more mainstream than at any other point in its history.  During the ’20s, the Klan was less concerned with suppressing African Americans than with stemming the tide of new immigration coming from Southern and Eastern Europe — including to heavily-industrial towns like Gary, just thirty miles from Valparaiso.  The Klan sought to cripple an imaginary conspiracy contending that Catholics wanted to destroy American public schools and hand the U.S. government over to the Pope. It also warned of the activities of “Jewish Communists” and anarchists in the wake of the Russian Revolution and the 1919 Red Scare. (The fear provoked by deadly anarchist bombings wasn’t entirely groundless, however.)  Prohibition of alcohol, another cause taken up by the KKK, was a barely concealed way to crack down on immigrant culture.

These views were shared by thousands of Americans who didn’t belong to the Klan.  The Invisible Empire even found strange bedfellows in Progressivism, including women’s suffrage advocates, who espoused some of the same “reform” ideals promoted by the “kluckers,” albeit with different objectives. Newspapers, big mansions, and church services lent the “hoodlums” in “nighties,” as a Muncie editor quipped, credentials that midnight lynchings in cornfields didn’t.  In Indianapolis, the organization considered establishing a Klan hospital on North Alabama Street for white Protestants only.  (The hospital was never built.) Acquiring a university would help the Klan project a cleaner image. And since Valparaiso was a teacher’s college, the Klan could now propagandize American children from within schools.


Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923
The Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923 (4)
The Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

By July of 1923, the trustees of Valparaiso University and the Klan were talking.  Representing the Klan was Milt Elrod, whom Stephenson had recently made editor of The Fiery Cross, the major KKK newspaper, printed at the Century Building on South Pennsylvania Street in downtown Indianapolis.

Encountering obvious concern from much of the faculty and student body, Elrod assured the press that a Ku Klux takeover of the school would change nothing except the trustee board, which was to be packed with Klan appointees.  The school would remain open to women and would be non-sectarian, Elrod insisted — though Catholic students were already beginning to drop out and enroll elsewhere.  Ludicrously, Elrod initially claimed that the Klan would admit any applicant who met the proper “educational requirements,” including “Negros,” though he later admitted that the school would not have the “proper” facilities for African Americans.  (The sad irony is that Valparaiso University did not admit African Americans even before the Klan tried to buy it.)


Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, August 16, 1923 (2)
(Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, August 16, 1923.)

Few people — the trustees excepted, it seems — took Elrod at his word when he said that nothing else would change at the university except skyrocketing enrollment and the return of its once prestigious reputation.  (There were rumors that it would be renamed “National University”).  Yet Elrod’s enemies had already come out.  In The Fiery Cross, he was busy singling out “un-American” and “alien” opponents. Elrod may have been quick to pick up on campus rumors that Catholic priests from Notre Dame had visited town, spurring the Klan to act soon and not be outbid by the “agents of Rome.”


Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923 (3)
The Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Heavy opposition came from the press.  Even in Indiana, major urban newspapers tended to be anti-Klan, including the Indianapolis Star, Indianapolis News and most famously the Indianapolis Times, which won a Pulitzer for its battle against the group.  Some of the sharpest criticism, however, came from George R. Dale, the wildly colorful and energetic editor of the Muncie Post Democrat.  Dale, who endured death threats and assaults on his life and that of his family, ran a paper that could be called The Onion of its day.  His paper, virtually one long, rambunctious op-ed piece, employed a folksy humor to give sucker-punches to the powerful “Indiana Realm.” Dale went on to become mayor of Muncie in 1930.


Muncie Post Democrat, August 3, 1923
Muncie Post Democrat, August 3, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Editors and cartoonists nationwide– including E.H. Pomeroy, an illustrator for the Valparaiso Vidette — tore into Elrod’s proposal once it came out that he might, in fact, get hold of the $350,000 in cash needed to bail the school out of debt.  (Elrod also promised that the Klan would set it up on a million-dollar endowment, twice the amount required by Indiana law.)  As the story spread across the U.S., an illustrator in the New York Call went straight for the jugular, publishing a parody of Dante’s Inferno — “Abandon All Brains Ye Who Enter Here.”  The cartoon depicts book-burning, classes in whipping and tar-and-feathering, a “Klinik” to teach “100% Americanism,” and a commencement day ceremony where students sport an unconventional new style of cap and gown.


Literary Digest, September 15, 1923
(“Abandon All Brains, Ye Who Enter Here.” Republished in Literary Digest, September 15, 1923.)

Another critical broadside came from Helena, Montana.  The writer in Helena’s Independent Record thought that a bout of education for “kluckers” might at least have a few salutary side-effects.


The Independent Record (Helena, Montana), August 28, 1923

The Independent Record (Helena, Montana), August 28, 1923 (2)
(The Independent Record, Helena, Montana, August 28, 1923.)

One editorial appeared in Robert W. Bingham’s Louisville Courier-Journal.  Bingham fought a crusade against Southern poverty and criticized Fascism before even Franklin D. Roosevelt denounced it.  “Ku Klux and Kolleges” may have been Bingham’s own editorial.  It asks if there is no provision in the Indiana school’s original charter to prevent the sale to the Klan.  The Courier-Journal also pointed out that many teachers in Kentucky  had been trained at Valparaiso in its better days, and that Kentuckians should be concerned about its ultimate fate.


Louisville Courier-Journal, July 27, 1923 (3)
(Louisville Courier-Journal, July 27, 1923.)

Though excitement among some Valparaiso citizens allegedly ran high, Milt Elrod was probably too quick to make blustery promises about the Klan’s own financial strength.  His proposal to buy the school wasn’t a “joke,” but Elrod was a notorious booster and propagandist.

Through the sale of thousands of robes, newspaper subscriptions, and membership fees, the “Imperial hierarchy” of the Klan had amassed huge fortunes for itself.  D.C. Stephenson had gone from being a poor coal dealer in Evansville to a wealthy man by age 33, but he squandered Klan money on liquor, women, cars, and a yacht. Even the $350,000 needed to buy the Valparaiso campus — not to mention the $1,000,000 offered as an endowment — was apparently beyond the ability of bumbling Klan leadership to come up with (or hang onto).

The American press and higher education breathed a sigh of relief when, after just a few weeks, Elrod feebly announced that the Klan had changed its mind due to “legal technicalities.”  Some papers reported that — true to the Louisville Courier-Journal’s suggestion — a clause in the school’s original charter had been discovered, preventing control by any “fraternal, benevolent or charitable order” (an inaccurate description of the Klan, at any rate).


Fort Wayne Daily News, September 5, 1923 (2)
(Fort Wayne Daily News, September 5, 1923.)

“Legal technicalities” caused by the school’s charter might be a myth, a clever way for both the university and the Klan to save face after the embarrassing episode.  Most newspapers ran with it, but there seems to be little evidence that university trustees would have called off the sale if enough cash had been put down in front of them.


Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, September 11, 1923
(Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, September 11, 1923.)

Fortunately, Valparaiso University never fell into KKK hands. With the corrupt Klan itself in disarray by 1925, and with Stephenson headed to the nearby state prison at Michigan City for rape and murder, any future Klan bids were out of the question.

In the summer of 1925, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod rescued the run-down, almost abandoned school.  Lutherans at that time had several colleges and seminaries around the U.S., but no university.  They announced vague plans to use it as a theology school or teachers’ college.  Securing the deal was assisted by Reverend John C. Baur, a Lutheran minister and noted opponent of the Ku Klux Klan in Fort Wayne, Indiana.


The Republic (Columbus, IN), May 18, 1925
(The Republic, Columbus, Indiana, May 18, 1925.)

Under Lutheran guidance, Valparaiso University’s fortunes gradually turned around, though it barely survived the Great Depression.  By the 1950s, “Old Valpo” once again ranked among Indiana’s and the nation’s best colleges, a reputation it still holds today.


Hoosier State Chronicles provides searchable access to several years of The Fiery Cross on our site.

Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

A Short History of Hammond’s Lake County Times

It’s not cold enough in Indiana this year to get your tongue stuck to an icy flagpole.  But every holiday season, we Hoosiers are reminded that the comedy classic A Christmas Story (1983) is set in our fair state.

Though filmed in Cleveland, Ohio — where the original Ralphie Parker residence was sold on eBay in 2004, restored to its 1940 appearance, and turned into a museum — the tale is based on the semi-fictional remembrances of Hoosier writer Jean Shepherd. Born on Chicago’s South Side, Shepherd grew up just over the state line in East Chicago and Hammond, Indiana, where he graduated from high school in 1939.  After serving with the Army Signal Corps in World War II, the future author began his radio broadcast career at WJOB in Hammond before moving to Cincinnati and New York. Many of Shepherd’s stories began as on-the-air reminiscences before they appeared in Playboy.  Some would have been picked up by listeners in the Midwest.

If Ralphie’s dad, played by the late Darren McGavin, read any newspaper by the light of that short-lived leg lamp, it would probably have been the Hammond Times.  Hoosier State Chronicles will soon be uploading a long run of the Lake County Times, renamed the Times in 1933. Meanwhile, here’s a bit of its history. Who knows? It might even turn up some colorful background material on Jean Shepherd’s classic A Christmas Story.


June 12, 1920
Lake County Times, June 12, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Seventy years before Ralphie Parker came onto the scene, the young lumber port of State Line, Indiana, wasn’t producing enough news to keep a local newspaper afloat.  Most of its early settlers came from Germany and spoke and read English poorly.  The town’s success — and eventual name change — was overwhelmingly due to George H. Hammond, a Detroit butcher whose 1868 patent for refrigerated rail cars helped him rival Chicago’s great slaughterhouses. Mammoth stockyards along Lake Michigan attracted both immigrants and tourists to the greater Chicago area.  (When Rudyard Kipling visited the Windy City in 1899, he wrote a horrified description of the “disassembly line” at Philip Armour’s slaughterhouse.)  Abundant local lakes and rivers provided the ice that helped meatpacking thrive.

Yet the Hammond Packing Company’s preference for hiring German butchers and sausage-makers indirectly handicapped the development of an English-language press in northern Lake County. Most German residents of the “Hoosier Coast” got their news from thriving German-language newspapers in Chicago and Milwaukee. Even Hammond’s own Deutsche Volks-Zeitung didn’t start publishing until 1891.  It died out sometime before 1911.


Hammond Harbor
Hammond harbor during its days as a minor lumber port.

Though northwest Indiana soon became an industrial powerhouse, this was one of the last corners of the state to be settled.  In 1900, lumbermen, farmers, and engineers had barely cleared the forests and drained the swamps that defined the landscape of the Calumet region (or simply “Da Region,” in local parlance.)  Gary, whose steel mills made it Lake County’s most important city, was founded only in 1906.

The Hammond Packing Company burned down in 1901 and was never rebuilt.  Steel, railroads, and retail took over.   Ironically, the rapid development of Lake County led to “Da Region” becoming a cradle of American conservation, as nature enthusiasts and city dwellers successfully fought to save the famous Indiana Dunes — a favorite Chicago playground — from destruction.


April 17, 1920
Lake County Times, April 17, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In 1906, Hammond’s floundering English press got a boost when Sidmon McHie (1863-1944), a wealthy Chicago grain and stock broker, bought the struggling Hammond Times.  The enterprising McHie turned the paper around, using it to promote Lake County’s young industries and businesses.  At that time,  Calumet was fertile ground for venture capitalists like McHie.  As a 1943 tribute to him put it, the energetic owner used the paper to “get Hammond to believe in itself.”


Sidmon and Isabel McHie
Sidmon and Isabel McHie had a marriage even more colorful and tempestuous than Ralphie’s parents. U.S. Passport application, 1921.

Not content with marketing the news only to Hammond, McHie changed the paper’s name to the Lake County Times and pushed sales in Whiting, Gary, Indiana Harbor, and East Chicago. The daily’s circulation, which stood at just 137 when McHie bought it in 1906, jumped to 5,000 within a year and almost exceeded 10,000 in 1920.  As an investment scheme, McHie circulated many copies for free simply to promote the city.  By the time A Christmas Story was set in the early 1940s, the paper was reaching 130,000 readers — probably including “Old Man Parker” himself.

McHie (whose first name is often misspelled Simon and even Sidney) hired Chicago sportswriter Hugh E. Keough to be the Lake County Times’ first editor.  Best known for his Chicago Tribune sports column (“In the Wake of the News”), Keough served as an official at Midwestern and Southern horse-racing tracks, whose decline led him back into newspaper work by 1906.  Keough and the witty Ring Lardner were two of Chicago’s best writers on baseball.  Keough’s tenure on the Lake County Times was short-lived, however.  He was replaced by Percy A. Parry (who had emigrated to the U.S. from Wales at age nine.)  For decades, Parry and his brothers were part of a “dynasty” of Lake County news editors.

While Gary was becoming known for its mills, Sidmon McHie and his editors on the Lake County Times helped transform Hammond into a shopping mecca for northwest Indiana.  It’s no coincidence that the plot of A Christmas Story revolves around one of Hammond’s great department stores — where the line to see a drunken Santa Claus and some evil elves “stretched all the way back to Terre Haute.”


Lake County Times, July 9, 1920
Lake County Times, July 9, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

1937 Hammond Indiana directory
Though Hammond is referred to as “Hohman” in A Christmas Story, this was an avenue named after one of the city’s German founders. 1937 Hammond City Directory.

With a stock broker and capitalist at the helm, the Lake County Times became a colorful, flamboyant paper and enjoyed strong sales. While not known for deep investigative journalism at the time, the paper does provide a window into the social issues of the 1910s and ’20s – from the scandalous rise in American divorce rates to labor struggles at Indiana’s burgeoning steel mills.  Much of its “reporting,” however, was syndicated — and wasn’t serious news, anyway.


Lake County Times, December 6, 1922
Lake County Times, December 6, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Dick -- Lake County Times, March 25, 1920
Lake County Times, March 25, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Lake County Times wasn’t especially friendly to labor movements or to socialism.  During the lead-up to America’s entry into World War I in 1917, it also joined in the vilification of Germany.  The Hammond paper helped stoke up public fears during the 1919 “Red Scare,” which involved a crackdown by U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer on anarchists, Communists, and immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, whose politics were suspect in the wake of the Russian Revolution and a wave of anarchist bomb plots.  Gary, which participated in the great steel strike of 1919 and was home to thousands of Eastern Europeans, was deeply involved in the “Red Scare.”


January 3, 1920
Lake County Times, January 3, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Lake County Times, January 16, 1920 (1)
The “Red Raids” took place just a few weeks before Prohibition came into effect nationally. Though still too early for a Red Ryder BB gun, “Red Rye” and its dangerous bootleg derivatives drove liquor underground until the law’s repeal in 1933. Lake County Times, January 16, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

November 22, 1919
Lake County Times, November 22, 1919. Hoosier State Chronicles.

That last clip reminds us that women were at the forefront of Prohibition.  Yet even during the days of “Saharization,” the Lake County Times published colorful stories about the Jazz Age’s rejection of Victorian norms.  Divorcées, flappers, fast cars, and heartbreaks worthy of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel were often sprawled across the front page.

Publisher Sidmon McHie made national news in 1923 and again in 1935, when aspects of his own tempestuous marriage came to light. Daughter of a St. Louis multimillionaire and reportedly also a beauty queen at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Isabel Mulhall had briefly been a theater actress, got divorced, and “hastily” married Sidmon McHie in New York in 1906, when he was living at the Waldorf Astoria.  By the 1930s, however, the wealthy couple, who lived in New York and Illinois, ended up estranged.

Part of their divorce proceedings centered on a generous winter-time gift that Isabel had made to farmers near Battle Creek, Michigan, in March 1935.  But long before her flamboyant Depression-era “giveaway,” she had been generous to dogs.

In 1923, Isabel announced that she was willing her vast fortune to create a hospital for abused animals. While an earlier free animal hospital in New York City actually predated the New York Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children by a good eight years, the American public and press unfairly lampooned Mrs. McHie as a sour old eccentric who hated human beings.


The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, UT), February 11, 1923

(The Ogden Standard-Examiner, Ogden, Utah, February 11, 1923.)


The Ogden Standard-Examiner was one of the few papers to treat her with any kind of fairness.  Speaking to a reporter, she told about a cruel child that had mercilessly tortured a puppy, a scene that could have come straight out of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.    As she began to think about her own mortality and draw up a will, Isabel McHie considered leaving a large bequest to a “home for incurable children.”  But if the newspapers are correct, the hideous “screechings” of an Episcopal boy’s choir in New York put an end to that — or was it the child that broke a puppy’s leg on purpose?  (The McHies had no children of their own.)


Oakland Tribune (Oakland, CA), May 1, 1923
Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, May 1, 1923.

Though it never came into being, rumors had it that this would have been the largest animal hospital in the world.  A provision in the will specified that McHie’s own ashes be placed next to a marble bust of herself, carved by an Italian sculptor, and that the honored bust and ashes would sit in the entrance to the animal hospital.

In return for her generosity, she got hate mail.  Letters accused Isabel McHie of being “wicked” and that the money could have done more good for humans.   Why give money to “dumb animals”?  Some critics speculated that her motives came from a desire to have “revenge on mankind.”  McHie’s response?  Animals taught humans to be more humane.  (It’s ironic, however, that some of her fortune probably derived from the prosperity of Hammond, named for a butcher.)


Lenoir News-Topic (Lenoir, NC), February 27, 1923
Lenoir News-Topic, Lenoir, North Carolina, February 27, 1923.

Decatur Herald (Decatur, IL), January 16, 1923
Decatur Herald, Decatur, Illinois, January 16, 1923.

The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, UT), February 11, 1923 (5)
The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, UT), February 11, 1923 (6) The Ogden Standard-Examiner, Ogden, Utah, February 11, 1923.

Maybe the sneering news stories had an effect on her.  Maybe it was her pending divorce suit or ill health.  Or maybe she was just tired of being rich.  In any case, in March 1935, the 60-year-old Isabel McHie decided to dispose of a large amount of her wealth — before anybody else criticized her will.

On March 20, she withdrew $175,000 of her own or her husband’s money and boarded a passenger train from Chicago’s Dearborn Street Station to Montreal.  She was also carrying about $500,000 worth of jewels with her in a bag.

Somewhere outside Battle Creek, Michigan, a conductor noticed Mrs. McHie feeding unbelievably large bills through a ventilator — in currency denominations “as high as $10,000.”  This, after all, was one of the worst years of the Great Depression, and the wealthy philanthropist was literally throwing a fortune out the window. Reporters wrote that she also tossed $100 bills into the aisle of a Pullman car.  Most of the money seems to have been recovered, but farmers along the railroad tracks in southern Michigan eagerly joined the search for anything left of the money-throwing spree.


Marshall Evening Chronicle (Marshall, Michigan), March 21, 1935
Marshall Evening Chronicle, Marshall, Michigan, March 21, 1935.

Decatur Herald (Decatur, IL), March 21, 1935
Decatur Herald, Decatur, Illinois, March 21, 1935.

Arrested as “hysterical,” Isabel McHie was taken to a hotel in Hammond, where police wanted to investigate hospital records that she tried to withhold.  She later sued the Grand Trunk Western Railway for physical assault and false imprisonment — for a million dollars. Sidmon McHie was vacationing at the mineral springs in French Lick, Indiana, when his wife started throwing money away.  Their divorce was soon finalized.  Isabel McHie died in New York City on April 25, 1939. Contrary to the belief that she hated human beings, most of her estate went to Seeing Eye, Inc., an organization that trained guide dogs for the blind.

The Hammond Times’ owner didn’t survive his ex-wife by long. Sidmon McHie owned a vast stock farm and golf course on the Kankakee River near Momence, Illinois.  His obituary notes that “McHie, despite his advanced age, insisted on driving his own automobile because he said that to employ a private chauffeur would remove a man from an essential occupation.”  (World War II was still on.)  On August 25, 1944, the 81-year-old McHie was hit by a train while driving his car.  He died five days later.  McHie’s nephew, James S. DeLaurier, took control of the Hammond Times.

The Times dropped Hammond from its name in 1967 and began representing all of northwestern Indiana.  It moved its offices to Munster in 1989. Today, the Times of Northwest Indiana is the second-largest newspaper in the state, ranking only behind the Indianapolis Star. Local editions cover Munster, Crown Point, and Valparaiso.

Hoosier State Chronicles expects to have almost two decades of the Lake County Times uploaded and searchable on our website by mid-January 2016.


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

The Black Hole of Indiana

Muncie Post-Democrat, July 14, 1933
Muncie Post-Democrat, July 14, 1933. Hoosier State Chronicles.

“The most damnable spot in America.”  “A disgrace to civilization.”  “Filth and abomination.”  “Indiana’s Black of Hole of Calcutta.”

The Hoosier State sometimes get bad national press, but in 1923 the criticism was homegrown.  True to Hoosier stereotypes, the alleged horrors took place on a farm, the state penal farm,  and involved the abuse of prisoners.

On the eve of World War I, a new, “open-air” penitentiary opened about an hour west of Indianapolis.  Overcrowding at the major state prisons in Michigan City and Jeffersonville, as well as at county jails all over Indiana, led the legislature to pursue a “progressive” alternative to mere incarceration.  Many prisoners, after all, were behind bars for minor crimes like theft and assault and battery.  That changed in 1917, when Indiana Governor James Goodrich initiated statewide Prohibition, two years in advance of the Federal liquor ban that came with the Volstead Act in 1919.

Since some Indiana counties and towns had already passed local dry laws, by 1915 sheriffs were cracking down on operators of illegal saloons, moonshine distillers, and town drunks.  While most violators were never tossed in the clinker for more than a few weeks or months, as the war on alcohol got more serious, Hoosier jails began to fill up fast.  The temptation to make a profit off jails was a further problem, a situation that still exists today.


Indiana prohibition act, 1917
Governor James Goodrich signs Indiana up for early Prohibition in 1917.

Prohibition laws provide a fascinating glimpse into the dark side of reform movements.  As one Hoosier editor, Muncie’s George R. Dale, discovered while investigating allegations of prisoner abuse at the State Farm in Putnamville, punitive social reform — including the ban on alcohol sales — had scarcely hidden undertones of racism and class operating behind it.  Working-class Americans, African Americans, and Catholics bore the brunt of laws framed mostly by women’s rights advocates and middle-class white Protestants.  Liquor laws, oddly enough, turned out to be a major milepost on the intellectual superhighway that led to the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 — coincidentally, the year of the penal farm’s founding.  The original Klan had died off in the 1870s.  Revived just before Word War I, it found its highest membership not among stereotypical rural Southerners and defeated Confederates, but among white middle-class Midwesterners.  The ideology of “the second Klan,” moreover, wasn’t totally foreign to the reform movements of the 1910s.

Thomas Hart Benton’s “Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press” mural, courtesy of Indiana University, accessed Indiana Public Media.

In 1922, Dale, a civil liberties maverick, joined the campaign to investigate the penal farm — then went there twice as a prisoner, sentenced to hard labor for criticizing a Delaware County judge with Klan connections.

Though the farm would soon fall under suspicion, the plans behind its creation were full of good intentions.  Jailers and prison reformers had always been vexed by the failure of jail sentences to cure some criminals of their attraction to lawbreaking.  The theory was that inmates were bonding behind bars while living in “idleness.”  As a Hoosier paper, The Hagerstown Record, put it in 1916,

Jails are simply breeding places for vice.  Lawbreakers thrown together in sheer idleness day after day have opportunity and incentive for devising more lawlessness.  The hardened men create an atmosphere of viciousness that influences the less hardened, while the shiftless vagrant finds very little punishment in free board and no work.


The Fort Wayne News, November 2, 1914
The Fort Wayne News, November 2, 1914.

Penal labor, though not wrong in itself, had an enormously dark history — from Charles Dickens’ hellish “workhouses” in David Copperfield to British convict colonies in Australia and of course the Siberian gulags of Tsarist and Soviet Russia.

A 1913 law passed by the Indiana legislature made possible the establishment of a pioneering state penal farm.  That law appropriated $60,000 for the purchase of at least 500 acres of land.  To help prevent party control and graft, the bipartisan committee, like the prisoners themselves, would receive no salary for their work.

The committee eventually bought 1,600 acres around Putnamville, five miles south of Greencastle, in a hilly, rocky part of Putnam County.  Much of this acreage was considered “too broken for agriculture.”  Yet this didn’t put a halt to plans, since the penal farm would include several industries besides farming.  Underlain by Mitchell limestone, prisoners were put to work breaking rock in quarries, used for road building and the production of crushed limestone fertilizer used on fields.  Prisoners also sawed lumber from a neighboring forest reserve.  Additionally, the farm kept a dairy herd, apple and peach trees, and fields that grew corn, hay, soybeans, sorghum, pumpkins, and tobacco (a crop now practically extinct in Indiana).  In 1916, the prison kept 190 “fat and sleek” hogs.  Most of this produce went to fed patients and staff at state hospitals.

A brick plant came in 1918, with prisoners turning out 30,000 bricks a day.  The bricks were used in the construction of a new medical college and a military warehouse in Indianapolis and of the Indiana Village for Epileptics, later renamed the New Castle State Hospital.  (This happened at a time when epileptics were considered a menace to society and segregated.  Indiana’s 1907 eugenics laws forbade epileptics to get married, putting them virtually in the same class with criminals subjected to forced sterilization.)

The money-making possibilities of the state farm were already stirring up buzz among citizens of Putnamville, an old pioneer town on the National Road that nearly became a ghost town when the Putnam County seat was moved to Greencastle.  The Indianapolis News reported that rumor of the farm’s coming “spread over the hills and valleys like wildfire” and that residents believed it would “make the old village glow with new life.”  “Friends of prisoners” and “sightseers” will “come and go and Putnamville will thrive on the nickels and dimes they spend.”

Locals didn’t seem worried about having prisoners as neighbors, though the penal farm was barely guarded at all.  Punishment for escaping was apparently considered enough of a threat to deter the attempt.  Fugitives from the law would find their sentences, sometimes a mere 90 days, extended to two years in a state prison if caught.

Newspapers give insight into the type of criminal sent to the State Farm.  After Indiana’s prohibition law was ratified in 1917, more than half of the prisoners here came on liquor-related offenses — whether running a  “blind tiger,” a rural whiskey still, or being drunk in public.  Although bootleg whiskey could be very deadly, other prisoners were jailed for the slimmest of crimes.  One was an 18-year-old from Indianapolis who stole a penknife.


The Fort Wayne Sentinel, May 13, 1915
The Fort Wayne Sentinel, May 13, 1915.

Brazil Daily Times, June 18, 1915
Brazil Daily Times, June 18, 1915.

The Indiana State Penal Farm’s bleak reputation wasn’t long coming.  Less than a year after its founding, John Albright, a bootlegger from Terre Haute, actually requested deportation to his native Germany during the height of World War I rather than serve 90 days at the farm.


Brazil Daily Times, June 22, 1915
Brazil Daily Times, June 22, 1915.

Newspapers also documented escapes from the farm, a few of them dramatic.  In 1916, two prisoners who drove farm horses ran away with their steeds.  They tied them to trees in the woods around Greencastle, where the animals were later found starved to death, “tethered a few paces from an abundance of grass and water.”   A year earlier, two Indianapolis youths escaped, went on a burglary and horse-stealing spree near Terre Haute, and were then hunted down by a posse of Vigo County farmers.  When four men escaped in 1917, including an African American from Lake County,  a “sensational gun fight” ensued.  The African American, a man named Hall, was shot dead.

In May 1915, just a month after opening, there were 217 prisoners living at the farm, including 30 African Americans.  The total number that skyrocketed to almost 1,200 within a year.  In its first decade, the farm “entertained” about 25,000 prisoners.


The Huntington Press, July 30, 1921 (2)
The Huntington Press, July 30, 1921.

In 1920, a controversy broke out over allegations of cruelty at Putnamville.  Charles McNulty, an Indianapolis saloon keeper let out on parole, filed a complaint with the State Board of Health. McNulty’s claims about unsanitary conditions and violence were backed up a year later when Oscar Knight, a prisoner, filed a further complaint with a judge.  Knight claimed that jailers served inmates food that “is not fit for hogs.”

McNulty alleged that prisoners were routinely underfed and worked ten hours a day at hard labor.  Meat was only served once a week, “one slice of fat bacon,” less than what prisoners at other jails got while merely sitting in a cell.

Musty meal was used for making corn bread three times a week until Putnam County health officers forbade the use of it. . . On Sunday, five crackers is the substitute for the dry bread of weekdays.  Some of the paid guards are insulting and cruel and inhuman, especially to cripples and weaklings, using a loaded cane to beat them.

There were further allegations that Governor Goodrich’s family and “hirelings” of his administration profited from unpaid labor, since inmates at Putnamville were “farmed out” to the Globe Mining Company, partly run by the governor’s son.  Charles E. Talkington, superintendent of the penal farm, blew these charges off by claiming that McNulty was a member of the International Workers of the World (IWW) or “Wobblies” Talkington had previously been head of the Farm Colony for the Feeble-Minded in Butlerville and Bartholomew County’s school superintendent.  The “Feeble-Minded Farm” — also called the Muscatatuck Colony — was, like the epileptic “village” in New Castle, part of Indiana’s dark eugenics campaign, which blamed crime on mental retardation and figured into a backlash against immigrants and the poor.


The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, April 19, 1920
Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, April 19, 1920.

Yet early charges made about the farm were tame compared to those reported in one of the most fiery and flamboyant Hoosier newspapers Dale’s Muncie Post-Democrat.

Dale had just begun a landmark battle against the Ku Klux Klan. Though the Klan almost took over Indiana government in the 1920s, it was rooted in years of corrupt politics and arguably even social reform movements like Prohibition and eugenics.  During his long battle to expose the Muncie Klan, Dale would be attacked by gunmen who tried to shoot him and his son.  Yet the white-haired editor took on the Klan with humor, writing outrageous lampoons about “Koo-Koos” and “Kluxerdom” in his weekly paper, which was almost wholly dedicated to ridiculing the Invisible Empire.  Dale published lists of known or suspected Klan members.  He also grappled with the KKK’s powerful women’s auxiliary at a time when thousands of Hoosier Klanswomen spread hatred through families in ways that their male counterparts actually had less success at in their public roles.  Dale vocally supported blacks, Jews, Catholics, and immigrants, and anybody else targeted by the Klan.


George R. Dale
Muncie Post-Democrat editor George R. Dale, anti-Klansman extraordinaire.

Muncie Post Democrat, August 18, 1922
Muncie Post-Democrat, August 18, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In August 1922, Dale also came to the defense of prisoners at the State Farm.  The battle would go on for years.  Before it was over, he got a chance to see the terrors of the “Black Hole of Indiana” up close.  For criticizing a Muncie judge with links to the Klan — Clarence Dearth, a man he called “the most contemptible chunk of human carrion that ever disgraced the circuit bench in the state of Indiana” — Dale was sentenced for contempt of court and libel, fighting a four-year-long legal battle to stay out of the farm himself.  Dale’s campaign is an overlooked part of the history of freedom of speech in Indiana.

His first jab came on August 4, 1922.  That story was based on the accusations of “a man from Muncie” who had just visited Putnamville.  (Dale doesn’t give his name.)


Muncie Post Democrat, August 4, 1922


Muncie Post Democrat, August 4, 1922 (5)

Muncie Post Democrat, August 4, 1922 (4)

Muncie Post Democrat, August 4, 1922 (2)
Muncie Post Democrat, August 4, 1922 (3) Muncie Post Democrat, August 4, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

When Dale criticized a libel ruling Dearth, the judge handed him a 90-day sentence at Putnamville.  After eleven days in a Muncie jail, the editor entered the State Farm’s gates as “Convict 14,378.”  Partly through the efforts of his wife Lena, the Indiana Supreme Court ordered Dale’s release after just three days. He now had a chance to write “from actual experience”, not the reports of others.  Dale immediately set to work “serving notice on the Ku Klux Klan and its miserable tools in office.”

While wealthy bootleggers and Prohibition violators with connections in government often got off scot-free, Dale wrote that when he went to Putnamville, he stood in line with working-class men.


Muncie Post Democrat, March 23, 1923


Stepping into the prison barber’s, “in exactly ten seconds my head looked like a billiard ball.”  The 56-year-old and father of seven claimed he was then forced to strip down and shower in public, received filthy clothes that “smelled like sin,” got sprayed down by a fruit-tree sprayer, and was vaccinated by a veterinarian.  Of the eight meals he ate in the mess hall in the course of three days, he never got any meat.  He slept in a miserable, freezing dormitory with 204 other inmates, most of them sick and packed in “like sardines in a can.”


Muncie Post Democrat, March 23, 1923 (2)


Dale insisted that many of these inmates were jailed on trivial liquor charges.  He described one man whose family was left subsisting on charity while he rotted at the farm for almost two years, “having no money to pay his fine,” though prisoners were supposed to receive $1.00 a day for their labor.  Always keen to publish news about the discrepancies in punishment meted out to African Americans versus whites, Dale mentioned black teens at the penal farm sentenced for bicycle theft and other minor offenses.


Muncie Post-Democrat, April 13, 1923
Muncie Post-Democrat, April 13, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The editor put out an appeal to Governor Warren Terry McCray to investigate the “Putnamville Disgrace.”  While he commended the governor for investigating similar jail horrors in Marion County and at the new Indiana Reformatory in Pendleton, Dale insisted on “The Difference Between Men and Bulls.”  Cattle on McCray’s bull farm near Kentland lived better lives than prisoners at Putnamville, he announced.  Taking heed of these accusations, Dr. James Wilson, mayor of Wabash, Indiana, refused to send any further offenders to Putnam County “until that place of horror is changed from a torture pen into a place of punishment where convicts are treated like human beings instead of dumb brutes.”


Muncie Post-Democrat, September 1, 1922
Muncie Post-Democrat, September 1, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In 1926, two years after Ed Jackson, a Klansman, became Governor of Indiana, Judge Dearth and editor Dale were still fighting.  Dearth sent the newspaperman back to the penal farm once more when Dale continued to ridicule him.  Dale was also found guilty on a “trumped up” charge of liquor possession and of libeling George Roeger, a Muncie distributor of D.C. Stephenson‘s newspaper, The Fiery Cross (printed in Indianapolis).  Dale had accused him of being a “Ku Klux draft dodger.”)  A jury allegedly packed with Klansmen also declared him guilty of carrying a concealed weapon.  Dale appealed the case to the Indiana Supreme Court but lost.  Judge Julius C. Travis wrote the opinion that “the truth is no defense” and that Dale had held the law up to ridicule.  Newspapers in Chicago and elsewhere started a defense fund to support freedom of speech.

In July 1926, Dale spent a further nine days at Putnamville, digging a tile ditch.  He was released, strangely enough, by order of Governor Jackson himself.  He got another sentence in August 1927, but spent just half an hour there.  It was enough time, however, for him to be fingerprinted and booked as a convict.  He also described a conversation with a young African American, James Martin, sentenced to six months for stealing $5.00.  Martin had a wife and three children.

Judge Clarence Dearth of Muncie was later impeached.  George Dale went on to become Muncie’s mayor from 1930 to 1935.  As editor and mayor, he kept an eye on corrupt judges and police.


Muncie Post-Democrat, September 20, 1929 (2)
“The Police Carefully Pick Their Victims,” Muncie Post-Democrat, September 20, 1929. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Indianapolis Times began a series of articles about abuse allegations that continued to come out of the Indiana State Penal Farm.  Yet the farm survived, receiving many inmates throughout the Depression.  Most came on charges of larceny, liquor offenses and issuing fraudulent checks.  Some, though, were guilty of more serious crimes, like drunk driving and child molestation.  Still others came for downright strange reasons, like a Kendallville man arrested for selling “fake radium belts” for which he claimed curative powers. Then there were the sentences that now seem downright cruel.


The Evening Republican (Columbus, Indiana), January 2, 1930
The Evening Republican, Columbus, IN, January 2, 1930. A destitute, poorly-dressed Chicago man stole an overcoat from a car in Greencastle and got three months on the farm.

Heavy drinkers were packed off to Putnamville into the 1950s. Through the 1960s, inmates milked cows, tended an orchard, and grew vegetables, also raising 18 acres of tobacco.  About 40 convicts a year escaped in the 1970s and ’80s.  Staff and guards were unarmed.

In 1977, the farm was reclassified as a medium-security prison and began receiving convicted felons, which partly contributed to the decline of farming there in the 1980s.  The State of Indiana later tried to revive dairy farming at Putnamville in the 1990s.  In 1995, the prison was operating the largest dairy farm in the county.  Yet of the farm’s 1,600 inmates that year, less than 100 were working in agriculture.

Conditions in the mid-’90s had definitely improved since the days of Prohibition.  The Kokomo Tribune reported in 1994 that 900 gallons of food scraps a day were being taken from the dining hall, mixed with cow manure, and used in a composting initiative.  That project cut the prison’s garbage bill in half.


Kokomo Tribune, December 28, 1994
Kokomo Tribune, December 28, 1994.

Now called the Putnamville Correctional Facility, the institution survives.  Almost 2,500 prisoners are there today, more than at any time in its history.


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

“Koo Koo Side Lights”: George Dale vs. the Klan

Dale obit

If you enjoy today’s “farcical newspaper” The Onion, in 1922 you might have sent in two dollars for a subscription to George R. Dale’s eccentric and fascinating Muncie Post-Democrat.

While The Onion lampoons everything from politicians to microwaves to bad tippers, George Dale — Indiana’s Jazz Age version of a Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart — focused his ridicule on a powerful group famous for wearing nighties and “mother goose caps” around cornfields at night.  That group, of course, was the Ku Klux Klan, whose grip on big cities and small towns alike led to its near-domination of state politics in the 1920s.

Muncie and neighboring towns like Marion, Elwood, Fairmount and New Castle were once a stronghold of the Klan.  Warding off physical assaults and threats on his life, Dale fought in the belly of the beast, bravely using humor to expose a group that lured in tens of thousands of Hoosiers, many from the middle class, under the banner of “100% Americanism.”


November 9, 1923
Muncie Post-Democrat, November 9, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

December 15, 1922
Dale ridiculed Klan recruitment in the Muncie Post-Democrat, December 15, 1922. The “ten bucks” was for a Klan robe, which made millions of dollars for the Klan’s hierarchy.

Hoosier State Chronicles, in cooperation with Ball State University Libraries’ Digital Media Repository, is proud to bring a long run of Dale’s Muncie Post-Democrat online, from 1921 through 1950. Here’s a brief bio of the man whose war on the Klan is still little-known outside Muncie, where he served as mayor from 1930 to 1935.  We’re including some of his best comic barbs here, lobbed at the not-so-Invisible Empire.

In 1930, a writer named W.A.S. Douglas wrote a long piece in The American Mercury, a magazine edited by the acerbic literary critic H.L. Mencken.  (Mencken was a famous enemy of the Klan, though his own views bordered on anti-Semitism.)  Douglas recalled that he first met George Dale during the 1925 trial of D.C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the Klan in Indiana and many other Northern states.  Though Stephenson was indicted for the kidnap, rape and murder of an Indianapolis stenographer, a crime that involved her near-cannibalization while he was raping her, since the trial was held in Klan-dominated Noblesville, the Klansman seemed confident that his political machine could get him off the hook.  Stephenson, still in his thirties, was their “Old Man.”


Stephenson and Jackson
D.C. Stephenson and Indiana’s Klansman governor, Ed Jackson.

“There were Klansmen all around [Stephenson],” Douglas wrote about the courtroom in Hamilton County, “at the counsel-table, in the jury box, in the audience, and guarding the doors of the courtroom.  All were brothers in the secret bond.”  Then Stephenson looked over and saw a “shabby little old man,” scribbling with a pencil while casting a look that seemed to bore “right into his brain.”

This was George Dale, “a white-haired little man, well into his sixties and with the seat worn out of his pants — a man who had become a joke all over the state because alone, broke, and kicked from pillar to post, he dared to fight. . .”


George R. Dale and Family
George R. Dale and family, circa 1925.

Born in 1867 in Monticello, Indiana, Dale — son of a Civil War veteran — was orphaned by age 18.  He moved to Hartford City around 1885, where he worked for an uncle who owned the town’s first electric power plant.  In his twenties, Dale founded the Hartford City Times, then the Montpelier Call.  He married Lena Mohler in 1900 and the couple had seven children.  Around 1920, the Dales came to Muncie on the eve of the Klan’s takeover there.

In a study conducted by Hoosier-born sociologist Robert Staughton Lynd and his wife Helen, Muncie became the first American town to ever be systematically dissected on a sociologist’s “operating table.”  The Lynds chose Muncie mostly for its averageness.  Their 1929 book Middletown wasn’t flattering.  Nor was the description that W.A.S. Douglas left:  “I well remember this Indiana city when it weltered in starkness; when it tucked its tail between its legs and ran from the sound and the smell of cowshed-perfumed klansmen…”

Douglas’ stereotype wasn’t totally accurate.  Muncie wasn’t all Klan.  And the most influential Klansmen weren’t farmers.  Klan influence was strong in big cities, too, with large membership in Detroit, Chicago, and Indianapolis, where D.C. Stephenson turned out his own newspaper, The Fiery CrossAnd in the ’20s, the Klan had more support in the Midwest than in the Deep South.


Klansman at Union Station
“Klansman at Union Station,” Indiana, circa 1930. Courtesy Indiana Memory/Ball State University Libraries.

Klan ideology in the ’20s also differed from its focus during the Civil Rights Movement in the ’50s and ’60s. While never friendly to African Americans, the “second wave” of the Klan was mostly interested in halting immigration, undermining perceived Catholic and Jewish influence in American politics and schools, enforcing Prohibition, and protecting the “purity of American womanhood.”  A new religious movement, Protestant fundamentalism, also fueled the Klan’s rise, with ideologues hijacking religion to stir up nativism.  It’s no coincidence that 1925 was the year both of Stephenson’s trial in Indiana and the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee.

George Dale and others went to work documenting the hypocrisy of the Klan’s basic principles — from “100% Americanism” to a ludicrous KKK resolution passed in Muncie proclaiming that Jesus Christ was a white Protestant native-born American and not a Jew.


March 28, 1924
Muncie Post-Democrat, March 28, 1924. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Klan didn’t invent nativism.  Waves of immigrants like the Germans, Irish, Italians and Eastern European Jews all suffered the slander of earlier settlers. Anti-Semitism came into the mix whenever Jews joined labor unions, the Socialist Party, and supported the Russian Revolution.  (D.C. Stephenson himself, however, had briefly been a Socialist in Oklahoma.)

When Dale turned the spotlight on anti-Catholicism, he had to deal with fears going back decades, all the way back to the Reformation and the roots of the war in Northern Ireland.  As late as the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, many Americans feared that Catholics would take over American politics and schools, then hand the country over to the Pope.

Dale thought the Northern Irish roots of bigotry worth pointing out, especially when it turned out that a busy anti-Catholic editor had taken a long time to get American citizenship, something prized by the Klan.


April 11, 1924
Muncie Post-Democrat, April 11, 1924. Hoosier State Chronicles. Dale noticed that many professional anti-Catholics, like the editor of the The American Citizen, had serious moral failings.

When Dale took jabs at the shady goings-on in Newark, Ohio he was criticizing his own town on the sly.  It’s hard to say how truthful Dale’s “reportage” was, but his satire cut to the bone.


May 16, 1924 (2)
Muncie Post-Democrat, May 16, 1924. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Muncie Post-Democrat, May 4, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Helen Jackson -- January 4, 1924
Muncie Post-Democrat, January 4, 1924. Hoosier State Chronicles. Anti-Catholicism was probably stronger in parts of the Midwest than in the Deep South. At the height of Klan influence in 1928, Al Smith, the first Catholic and Italian-American to run for president on a major party ticket, carried six states in the Deep South.  He won just two in the North and none in the West, losing to Herbert Hoover.

When it came to mocking the thousands of women who got involved with the KKK, conventions regarding the treatment of “ladies” didn’t hold him back.  Dale even used two prominent “Camelias” — as the Women of the Ku Klux Klan were known — as journalistic target practice. One was the infamous Helen Jackson (mentioned above), a bogus “escaped nun” who helped spread Klan propaganda around the Midwest.  Jackson, daughter of Polish immigrants, had actually been a teenage prostitute who was sent to a Catholic reform school for “wayward” girls in Detroit.  In fairness, her experience there was probably harsh, but her stories of escaping from a convent — stories she told in a book called Convent Cruelties — drew on generations of anti-Catholic fiction and folklore.


Fiery Cross 12-08-1922-3
The Fiery Cross, December 8, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In the 1920s, Helen Jackson and a sidekick “ex-priest” — a French-Canadian Holiness preacher, L.J. King — gave lectures in American auditoriums and churches, where they mocked Catholic religious practices, spread fear about priestly tortures and Vatican takeover of the U.S., and incited riots, some of them deadly.  Jackson and King were busy stirring up religious hatred in Indiana just before the crucial 1924 election, when Hoosiers put a Klansman, Ed Jackson — no relation to Helen — in the governor’s seat.

Dale lampooned her as just another fraudulent “Koo Koo klucker” interested in profiting off the sale of hate.  He was eager to announce her arrival in Muncie in November 1922, when he could debunk her.  The “ex-nun” Helen Jackson actually visited Muncie several times, causing so much trouble there that she eventually got kicked even by Muncie’s Klan-friendly police.  Her companion, L.J. King, was also well-known to cops.  When he started charging extra admission rates for “men’s only” lectures — where he made lurid allegations about sex in confessionals — a few towns, like Phoenix, drove him out for insulting women and for spreading “verbal filth.” George Dale, who was not Catholic, relished the rumor that King had once had links to  an “Indian medicine show” and that his mother in Canada thought “he had always been a bad boy.”  Jackson and King were on the road throughout the 1920s, critical operatives of the Klan.


Helen Jackson -- November 10, 1922
Muncie Post-Democrat, November 10, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

May 16, 1924
Muncie Post-Democrat, May 16, 1924. Hoosier State Chronicles.

A favorite target for Dale, however, was the influential Hoosier Quaker minister Daisy Douglass Barr, who headed the women’s auxiliary of the KKK.  Barr had once been a well-known reformer in central Indiana, espousing Prohibition, shutting down red-light districts, and reforming prostitutes.  Well-meaning reformers like her often had their dark side, however, as the history of the Indiana Women’s Prison illustrates.  In theory, Klan rhetoric supported “womanly purity” and the banning of booze though a plethora of sex abusers, bootleggers, and rapists joined the rank and file of the Klan, including Stephenson, its leader.  (W.S.A. Douglass referred to Indiana’s Grand Dragon as a “booze-soaked printer.”)

George Dale despised Daisy Barr, who lived in Indianapolis for years but was influential in Muncie politics and in her native Grant County next door.  Dale put some of his best comic language to work to help take down Barr.  Mocking the Klan’s absurd titles, he called her the “Quakeress Fakeress,” “Daisy Doodle Barr,” “champion Kluxerino of Indiana,” and “prize gold digger of the Klan.”


December 7, 1923
Muncie Post-Democrat, December 7, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Women of the KKK — known as “Camelias” or “Kamelias” — attend a funeral in Muncie, circa 1923. They flew the Stars & Stripes, not the Confederate flag. Courtesy Indiana Memory/Ball State University Libraries.

Investigations eventually exposed the Reverend Barr’s greed.  The influential Quaker minister had pocketed a fortune from the sale of Klan robes to women.  George Dale was quick to argue that the business of the KKK’s leadership, in fact, was just that — a business, one that fleeced “suckers” out of their “boob money.”  Members got “nighties” in return.


June 6, 1924
Muncie Post-Democrat, June 6, 1924. “Hi” was Imperial Wizard Hiram Wesley Evans of Atlanta.

March 28, 1924 (5)
Muncie Post-Democrat, March 28, 1924. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The editor of the Muncie Post-Democrat wasn’t making millions from his poetry.  Nor did exposing the “Ku Klux Quaker” or anybody else help ensure his personal safety.   Yet in spite of death threats made against him and his family — with Klansmen shooting at him and attacking his home — Dale had the courage to continue publishing the names of Klansfolk in Ohio and Indiana as soon as he got his hands on membership lists.  For all their parading through the streets, many members still wanted their involvement with the Invisible Empire kept secret — including gubernatorial candidate Ed Jackson himself.  When the extent of Daisy Barr’s business with the Klan came out, she was forced to step down as chaplain of the Indiana War Mothers.


May 2, 1924
Muncie Post-Democrat, May 2, 1924. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Muncie Post-Democrat, August 1, 1924
Muncie Post-Democrat, August 1, 1924. Hoosier State Chronicles.

May 9, 1924
Muncie Post-Democrat, May 9, 1924. Hoosier State Chronicles.

June 13, 1924
Muncie Post-Democrat, June 13, 1924. Hoosier State Chronicles.

George Dale’s campaign against the KKK was part of a national movement to discredit it.  Newspapers and religious leaders led the campaign.  While religion had played a disturbing role in fueling the Klan’s growth, it also played a major role in debunking it.  Over the next few decades, the opposition of Protestant ministers like Reinhold Niebuhr — not to mention Martin Luther King — helped erode support for the Klan, though the organization survives.

In 1923, Catholic members of the Indianapolis police force did their own part, breaking into a Klan office on College Avenue, stealing a membership list, and publishing it in Tolerance, an anti-KKK paper in Chicago.  (In light of the deadly Paris attacks in November 2015, the activist group Anonymous is doing something similar, hacking websites and publishing the personal details, addresses and Twitter handles of suspected ISIS extremists.)   Other Hoosier newspapers, including the Indiana Jewish Chronicle, the Indianapolis Freeman, the Indiana Catholic & Record, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Indianapolis Times all attacked the misinformation and bigotry spouted by the Klan.  D.C. Stephenson’s murder trial, which exposed the organization’s hypocrisy at its worst, also helped debunk the Klan credo.

Even in Muncie, the tide had begun to turn.  Embattled and fearing for his life in the mid-1920s, George R. Dale won the 1929 mayor’s race. His first action was to fire the forty-two members of the Muncie police force.

An indictment for violating Prohibition laws in 1932 overshadowed Dale’s mayoral career.  When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt repealed Prohibition soon after coming into office, he issued Dale a presidential pardon on Christmas Eve 1933.

The editor’s journalistic battle for civil decency had taken a toll on his health and finances.  He had also gone blind in one eye.  Yet Dale was at work at a typewriter right up to the moment of his death.  Surrounded by his family, and having just typed out one last editorial, George Dale died of a cerebral hemorrhage on March 27, 1936, at his home in Muncie.


Dale obit 2
Muncie Post-Democrat, March 27, 1936. Hoosier State Chronicles.

 

Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

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
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 13, 1915. Hoosier State Chronicles.

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. Newspapers.com.

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. Newspapers.com.

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. Newspapers.com.

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. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Kisses of the Sun

Lewis Hine - Freckles (1)

What do folklore, lemon juice, Amelia Earhart and Calvin Coolidge all have in common?  They all battled freckles.

As summertime dwindles to a close, you might have developed some of these kisses of the sun yourself, especially if you’re fair-skinned and female.  Though scientists have determined that susceptibility to freckles depends on genes — most famously as a result of Irish DNA — anyone can get these marks, which are concentrations of melanin brought about by exposure to UV rays.

Today, definitions of male and female beauty actively embrace what was once considered a serious physical blemish.  Many even think a superficially bespeckled face is a mark of character deep-down.  One beauty commentator considers freckles helpful in building up women’s self-confidence.  “Outside the realm of ‘normal’ beauty,” she writes, “we freckled ladies have had to go against the grain and build our self-esteem without the help of the media.”

A hundred years ago, things were different.  Anti-freckle cream was a commonly advertised beauty product.  (It’s still sold today.)  Mostly directed toward women, nothing, however, prevented men from trying out this solution for “blemished” skin.  As you’ll see below, one man died trying to get “beautified.”

For generations, folklore and popular medicine provided alternatives to commercial freckle cream.  American newspapers promoted a variety of cures both from folk practice and the chemist’s lab.


Brazil Daily Times, October 25, 1912 (1)(Wilson’s Freckle Cream was manufactured in Charleston, South Carolina, but sold nationally.  Brazil Daily Times, October 25, 1912.)


In the early years of the twentieth century, Hoosiers read about some of these popular remedies.

One of the least-scientifically credible cures was, needless to say, superstition, but it peaked the interest of the American Folklore Society, whose findings were syndicated in a Wayne County, Indiana, newspaper in 1928.  Even if this cure had worked, it was far more time-consuming than daubing cream on your face.  Yet Hoosier youth probably gave it a shot.


Cambridge City Tribune, March 15, 1928(Cambridge City Tribune, March 15, 1928)


Twenty-five years earlier, a more plausible-sounding all-natural freckle cure had come out in the Indianapolis News at summer’s end:

Before going out in the sun it is advisable to rub on a little cucumber balm or any good old cream.  At night the face should be bathed with elderflower water, which cools and benefits the skin.

Never bathe the face while it is hot.  Wait until night, then touch up the freckles with a lotion.

One cure is a lotion made by adding half an ounce of lemon juice to half a pint of rosewater, and adding two drams of powdered alum.  Apply with a camels-hair brush.

Another remedy is to wash the face, neck and arms, and hands, too, if necessary, with elderflower water, and apply an ointment made by simmering gently together one ounce of venise soap and one dram each of deliquated oil of tartar and oil of bitter almonds.  When the mixture acquires consistency, two drops of rhodium may be added.  Wash the emollient off in the morning with elderflower water.  (Indianapolis News, September 3, 1903)

In 1916, the South Bend News-Times divulged another solution:


South Bend News-Times, July 24, 1916 (3)South Bend News-Times, July 24, 1916 (2)

(South Bend News-Times, July 24, 1916)


One common commercial anti-freckle ointment was called Othine, sometimes sold “double-strength” at drug stores.  Yet the beauty columnist Lucille Daudet, syndicated in the columns of the Fort Wayne Sentinel in 1916, was concerned about the potentially damaging effects of this kind of patent medicine.  A forerunner to today’s “pro-freckle” approach to beauty, Daudet spoke up against the very need for such products:

Just why these light brown marks of health should be so scorned is an open question, as they are usually more becoming than not.  But the fact is that most girls look upon freckles as the greatest bar between them and good looks.  In their anxiety to rid themselves of these brown “beauty marks” they go to the most ridiculous and often dangerous extremes — dangerous indeed in many cases, for scores of lovely skins have been ruined by the use of so-called freckle removers. . .

A great many of the patent removers contain either bismuth, which is apt to blacken the skin, or mercury or lead, which are active mineral poisons.  (Fort Wayne Sentinel, August 12, 1916)

Daudet recommended, instead, a concoction of horseradish root mixed with buttermilk and strained through a fine cheesecloth.


Huntington Herald, August 2, 1923(Huntington Herald, Huntington, Indiana, August 2, 1923)


One of the potentially “ridiculous and often dangerous extremes” Daudet decried was mentioned in a 1921 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.  The journal isn’t specific about what went wrong, but the incident concerned an apparently quack “naturopath” in Venice, California.  (For the record, laser treatment and cryosurgery — “a light freeze with liquid nitrogen” –are the more extreme procedures today.)


Journal of the American Medical Association, April 16, 1921

(Journal of the American Medical Association, April 16, 1921)


South Bend News-Times, October 31, 1921 (3)(Toots & Casper.  South Bend News-Times, October 31, 1921.)


Two well-known Americans of the Jazz Age had a reputation for their freckles.  One case was slightly mythic — and a Hoosier woman tried to sleuth her way to the bottom of it.

In 1923, Clara C. Gilbert, a Republican women’s organizer in Kendallville, Indiana, traveled to Washington, D.C., partly to discover if President Calvin Coolidge’s freckles, accentuated in news films, were as “real” in life as they looked on “reels.”  “People have brought reasons and reasons for wanting to see President Coolidge,” quipped the Fort Wayne Daily News, “but no one before had ever seemed interested in the freckle question.”

“Cal” Coolidge had, in fact, been a red-headed, freckle-faced kid back in Vermont, but his hair turned a sandy brown as a teenager and most of the spots on his face went away.  The silver screen’s lighting effects apparently brought them back.


Fort Wayne Daily News, September 15, 1923 (1)

(“Also, I want to see you because I want to see you…”  Fort Wayne Daily News, September 15, 1923.  Click to enlarge.)


Calvin Coolidge 3


A more famous example of sun-kisses was aviator Amelia Earhart, whose battle against freckles might have gone with her to own mysterious death.

In 2012, a broken jar of 1930’s freckle-cream was discovered on Nikumaroro Island in the Pacific Ocean.  Some investigators think this jar is a major clue toward unlocking the mystery of Earhart’s disappearance in July 1937 while flying around the world.  (The trip was funded by Purdue University, where she became a visiting faculty member and women’s career counselor in 1935.  She also spoke at DePauw University later that year.)

The dominant theory that Earhart’s plane ran out of gas and crashed into the Pacific was already called into question in 1940, when the skeletal remains of a castaway turned up on the remote island.  That the famous aviator was also known to have hated her own mild case of freckles provides a tantalizing link to researchers intent on establishing forensic evidence about her demise.  And as Lucille Daudet warned women two decades before, the cream found on Nikumaroro was found to contain mercury.

Though the theory has its critics, it’s fascinating to think that Earhart’s pointillistic sun-kisses might ultimately shine a light on her last voyage — and her still unknown whereabouts.


Amelia Earhart 2

(Amelia Earhart’s flight license, 1923.)


Fort Wayne Sentinel, September 16, 1922

(Joe Zucco, freckle contender of Fort Wayne.  Fort Wayne Sentinel, September 16, 1922.)

The Rotgut Record

January 2, 1920 (2-2)

Digitized newspapers provide a rich boon to researchers about American medical history.  From quack medicine ads to stories about diseases, from under-appreciated tales of wartime doctors to a gory list of “1000 Ways to Die,” old papers are gold mines.

Alcohol, of course, is part of medical history.  Prohibition-era journalists were divided on whether America should turn off the tap.  Indiana was one of several states to preempt the Federal ban on booze. the Volstead Act of January 1920, which officially ushered in Prohibition nationwide.  As early as 1855, the Hoosier State tried out a liquor-ban.  That law was repealed in 1858.  Yet agitators kept on fighting against the bottle and the bier stein.  In 1918, Indiana officially went “dry” again.

Nineteenth-century Americans were far heavier drinkers than today, and alcohol percentages tended to be higher.  On-the-job drinking was allowed, sometimes even encouraged.  Prohibitionists might seem prim today, but attempts to abolish beer and liquor were often tied to some real public health concerns.  “Liberal” and “conservative” politics have changed over the last century.  Many, perhaps most, anti-alcohol crusaders were progressives who also spearheaded the movement for women’s rights and child labor reform — and whose public health campaigns were frequently inspired by religious belief.  Patriot Phalanx, a Prohibition Party newspaper started by Quaker Sylvester Johnson in Indianapolis,  was a prominent mouthpiece.


Beer suicide
Singer and comedian Ernie Hare wasn’t happy about beer’s demise.

Unfortunately, shutting down saloons, often had as much to do with racial, ethnic, and religious tension as it did with health concerns, and the whole law was primarily directed at the poor.  Indiana’s powerful Ku Klux Klan was, at least officially, anti-liquor — partly because of booze’s association with German and Irish Catholics, whose leader at the Vatican the Hoosier KKK was virtually at war with during the 1920s, over issues like public schools.  And the urban poor were very often Catholic.

One of the real perils of Prohibition was this:  heavy drinkers and alcoholics still had a huge thirst to quench.  Chronic tipplers had a few legal sources, like medicinal alcohol — and communion wine.  Yet they often had fatal recourse to intoxicating liquids that nobody, of course, would normally drink.  A fascinating if sober aspect of Prohibition lies in the story of the “beverages” they sometimes resorted to.

“Rotgut,” cheap, low-quality, potentially toxic liquor, was a common news headline even before 1920.

Wood Alcohol

The “detox” problem — how to help out alcoholics — must have crossed the minds of Prohibitionists.  But where alcohol was banned, death began to follow in its wake.  And toxic liquor had become a global problem.

In 1914, Tsarist Russia banned the sale of alcohol except in restaurants, partly as a war measure to keep soldiers from getting drunk.  Throughout the Russian Revolution, until 1924, in fact, the ban survived.  But Russians’ sudden inability to get their famous national drink, vodka, led to many deaths.  The Jasper Weekly Courier reprinted a litany of shocking tales about the lengths to which Russians would go to get a stiff drink during World War I.  Forlorn men turned to guzzling perfume, cologne, khanza (red pepper mixed with spices and wood alcohol), and kvasok (a concoction of cider, yeast, wild hops, and snuff).  Kvasok, incidentally, is the Czech word for “sourdough.”


Jasper Weekly Courier, September 3, 1915
Jasper Weekly Courier, September 3, 1915

American newspapers had been advertising the dangers of wood alcohol for years.  Called methanol by chemists (not to be confused with methamphetamine), wood alcohol traditionally was produced like other spirits, through distillation.  Ancient Egyptians had figured out the process and often used the resulting spirit — called the “simplest alcohol” — in embalming the dead.  In the West, methanol was employed in a variety of industrial and other trades as a cleaner, in photography studios, and in tin and brass works.  Around 1914, barbers were using it in a lotion called bay rum.  Baltimore physician Dr. Leonard K. Hirshberg warned Americans that year about the danger of their barber causing them to lose their eyesight, since imbibing or inhaling wood alcohol could lead to blindness, even death.


Wood alcohol -- Indianapolis Star, October 19, 1914
Indianapolis Star, October 19, 1914

Industrially, methanol is used as a feedstock in making other chemicals.  Changed into formaldehyde, it is converted for products as diverse as paints, plastics, explosives, deicing fluid for airplanes, and copy-machine fluid.  As the automobile age dawned, methanol came to be a component of antifreeze.  Doctors as well as newspaper reporters were keen on reminding drivers and mechanics that too much exposure to the chemical, whether through breathing or touching, could cause blindness or worse.  At the time Dr. Hirshberg was writing, there was probably a lot of wood alcohol around Indianapolis and South Bend, pioneer towns of the auto industry.  Today, methanol is used as fuel in dirt trucks and monster trucks.  It’s also the required fuel of all race cars at the Indianapolis 500, adopted as a safety feature after a deadly crash and explosion at the Hoosier track in 1964.

You can imagine the perils of chugging the stuff.  Yet back in 1903, a couple in Columbus, Indiana, drank a deadly wood alcohol toddy, either by accident or through fatal ignorance of its effects.  A year later, three artillerymen, thinking wood alcohol was a joke, died at Fort Terry in New London, Connecticut.  In Philadelphia, the proprietor of a hat-cleaning shop who used the liquid in his trade had to mix red dye in it to try to deter his employees from stealing and drinking the stuff out back.  The trick didn’t work, and he claimed “they’re used to it” now.  It proved an effective means of suicide, as in the case of an 18-year-old girl in South Bend who fell in love with a high school teacher.


Wood Alcohol -- Indianapolis Star, November 12, 1910
Indianapolis Star, November 12, 1910.

Some people said that refined wood alcohol smelled like old Kentucky rye.  The toxic effects usually took a few hours to kick in, so group deaths often occurred after bottles of it were passed around among chums having a “drink orgy.”

After Congress passed the Volstead Act on January 17, 1920, the news was soon full of stories about desperate attempts to quench the literally killing thirst — and of unscrupulous efforts to profit off drinkers’ desperation.

A Brooklyn undertaker, John Romanelli, and four other men were indicted in 1920 on charges on selling wood alcohol mixed with “water, burned sugar and flavoring extracts.”   They had sold the batch for $23,000 and the resultant “whiskey” caused “scores of deaths” in New England around Christmas-time and New Years’.  In St. Paul, Minnesota, in March 1920, nine imbibers died in a 24-hour period.

Just two weeks before the new law went into effect, a Gary, Indiana, woman, Ella Curza, got a 60-day prison sentence and a $50 fine for possession of eighteen bottles of wood alcohol that she was allegedly peddling as an intoxicant.  Hammond’s Lake County Times was already covering glimmers of the story — including the sale of methanol cocktails to unwitting men and U.S. soldiers stationed in Gary during the 1919 national steel strike.


January 2, 1920
Lake County Times, Hammond, Indiana, January 2, 1920.

January 3, 1920 (6)
Lake County Times, January 3, 1920.

By 1922, with the crackdown on hootch in full swing, the editors of the South Bend News-Times — a liberal-minded paper — issued figures on the estimated toll of wood spirits.  “Wood alcohol is now killing 260 and blinding 44 Americans a year . . . In Pennsylvania the known deaths due to wood alcohol poisoning last year totaled 61 . . . Including unreported cases, wood alcohol’s death toll probably exceeds 1,500 a year.”


Wood Alcohol -- South Bend News-Times, August 29, 1922
South Bend News-Times, August 29, 1922.

In New York, in the first six months of 1922 alone, 130 deaths and 22 cases of blindness were reported, a figure some officials thought “incomplete.”

Future Hollywood comedic actor Charles Butterworth, who was a reporter in his hometown of South Bend in 1922, penned a story about a certain medical claim:  that alcohol-related deaths were actually higher after the Volstead Act came into effect than before.  The St. Joseph County Coroner, Dr. C.L. Crumpacker, and other local medical men thought this statement was preposterous, however:


Wood Alcohol -- South Bend News-Times, July 2, 1922

Wood Alcohol -- South Bend News-Times, July 2, 1922 (2)
South Bend News Times, July 2, 1922.

Prohibition clearly failed and would be lifted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in December 1933.  Yet as one latter-day journalist, Pulitzer Prize-winner Deborah Blum, has discovered, the U.S. government — faced with the continuing thirst that led some Americans to crime and the more ignorant to varnish and perfume — decided to try out a different tactic.

Just before Christmas 1926, federal agents deliberately began poisoning alcohols typically utilized by bootleggers.  In an attempt to deter the public — even scare them into staying dry — the agents essentially turned almost all alcohol into undrinkable “industrial” alcohol.  Bootleggers tried to re-distill what the government had actively poisoned, which led to the deaths of (by some estimates) 10,000 people, deaths indirectly caused by the government’s “poisoning program.”

Blum, who has taught journalism at MIT and the University of Wisconsin and is a columnist for the New York Times, is no conspiracy theorist.  In 2010, Blum authored The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York — a book made into a PBS/American Experience documentary in 2014.


PBS(Courtesy Penguin Books/PBS.)


Lake County Times, January 15, 1920
Lake County Times, January 15, 1920.

If you or someone you know is dealing with alcohol-related issues, please visit http://www.alcohol.org/ for resources on how to get help.