Tag Archives: accidents

James Dean: “Let Me Go Quickly Like a Candlelight”

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

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

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

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


Dean Reading Riley 2
Dean reads Indianapolis poet James Whitcomb Riley during a visit back to Grant County.

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

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

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


James Dean Death -- Fairmount News, October 13, 1955 (5)
The Fairmount News, October 13, 1955. Before he moved to California to attend UCLA in 1949, James Dean — who was raised in an Indiana Quaker household — played basketball for Fairmount High’s team, the Quakers.

James Dean Death -- Fairmount News, October 6, 1955 (2)
The Fairmount News, October 6, 1955. The actor’s body came through Indianapolis International Airport en route from California.

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


The Fairmount News, Special Dean Edition
The Fairmount News, special edition, October 1955.

The Fairmount News, January 13, 1955
Dean’s former high-school basketball team, the Quakers, won the Grant County basketball tournament in January 1955. They won the sectionals in March.

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

The Fairmount News, Special Dean Edition (2)
Reverend James A. DeWeerd read a poem by Black Elk Speaks author John G. Neihardt during Dean’s funeral. The pastor’s words were later reprinted in The Fairmount News.

When Theodore Roosevelt Was Hospitalized at St. Vincent’s

Indianapolis Journal, September 23, 1902
Indianapolis Journal, September 23, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

This week marks the anniversary of two historic events, neither of them well-known.  The scene?  St. Vincent’s Hospital in Indianapolis.

The story actually begins on September 3, 1902, when President Theodore Roosevelt was visiting Pittsfield in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts.  While traveling through town in a horse-drawn carriage, the president and his entourage crossed a set of trolley car tracks.  To their horror, a speeding electric interurban car rushing to beat the president’s arrival downtown didn’t come to a stop and knocked the carriage about forty feet.

Roosevelt was jettisoned onto the pavement, landing on his face. The Governor of Massachusetts, Winthrop Crane, escaped with only a few bruises.  But a Secret Service agent, William Craig, died a horrible death, “ground under the heavy machinery of the car into an unrecognizable mass.”  (Craig, a Scottish immigrant and former British soldier, was the first U.S. Secret Service agent ever killed in the line of duty.)  The trolley car’s motorman, Euclid Madden, spent six months in jail for his recklessness that almost cost the Commander in Chief his life.


Roosevelt Car, Pittsfield, Mass., 1902
The stricken presidential carriage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, September 3, 1902. Courtesy Harvard University Library.

While the press toned down the extent of Roosevelt’s injuries, the president developed a worrisome abscess on his leg, an infection that caused him no small amount of pain.  He even spent a short time in a wheelchair.

The burly and athletic Roosevelt, however, continued with his itinerary, stumping for Republican candidates during a national speaking tour slated to take him as far west as Nebraska.  He did, in fact, make it out to the Midwest, stopping in Detroit, Logansport, Kokomo, Tipton and Noblesville.  Twenty days after his narrow scrape with death in New England, however, the leg injury he sustained required an emergency surgery — in Indianapolis.


Roosevelt in Tipton, 1902
Roosevelt speaks to a crowd in Tipton, Indiana, September 1902.

On September 23, after giving a speech “in intense pain” at the Columbia Club on Monument Circle, Teddy Roosevelt, who was limping noticeably and wincing with pain at almost every step, had to have his infected leg lanced and drained at St. Vincent’s Hospital.

At that time, St. Vincent’s was still located downtown at the corner of South and Delaware Streets, just a short distance from the club. Surgeon Dr. John H. Oliver performed the operation, which kept Roosevelt clear of the threat of blood poisoning.  (Blood poisoning was serious business in those days and usually ended in death.  Tragically, its specter returned to presidential history in 1924, when Calvin Coolidge’s 16-year-old son, Cal, Jr., developed a blister on his toe while playing tennis on the White House lawn.  Young Coolidge died of the resulting infection within a week.)

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Doctors examined Roosevelt’s leg wound by natural light coming through a south window of the hospital.  “He took only a local anesthetic,” the Journal reported, “which was applied to the leg.  He seemed to feel that an unnecessary amount of fuss was being made over him. . .”  Yet as the surgery proceeded, the president’s “arms were thrown behind his head with his hands clasped.  Occasionally the pain became so severe that his elbows bent close to the sides of his head as if to ease the pain.  His eyes were closed and his teeth pressed close together.”

Accompanying Roosevelt to St. Vincent’s that day was U.S. Secretary of War Elihu Root.  (In spite of his bellicose job title, Root went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912 for promoting goodwill between the U.S. and Latin America.)  Root was one of the few government officials allowed inside the building.  An anxious crowd of several hundred Hoosiers gathered outside “and never removed their gaze from the hospital.”  Even Hoosier senators Charles Fairbanks and Albert Beveridge and Governor Winfield Durbin “were challenged by the guard and not permitted to enter.”  Militiamen and Secret Service agents were stationed outside St. Vincent’s.  All was silent, only the clip-clop of the occasional soldier’s horse passing on the street.


Indianapolis Journal, September 24, 1902
Indianapolis Journal, September 24, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Indianapolis News, September 24, 1902 (2)
Indianapolis News, September 24, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Roosevelt’s Midwest tour was called off after the Indianapolis surgery, and his own doctors ordered him sent back to Washington.  Guarded by the Secret Service (his successor, William McKinley, had been assassinated by an anarchist almost exactly a year earlier), Pullman porters carried Roosevelt on a stretcher about one block to the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks on South Street.  As the stretcher left St. Vincent’s, lit only by new electric street lamps, “there was a death-like stillness as people craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the president. . . He lay flat on his back and the covers were pulled up under his chin. . . Many men in the crowd removed their hats, believing that the president’s condition was very serious.”

Men might have taken their hats off out of respect for the president.  But the women who cared for Roosevelt at St. Vincent’s that day were justly famous not only for their dedication to the sick and needy but for their very hats.


Daughters of Charity 5


During Roosevelt’s hospitalization in Indy, he was cared for by Roman Catholic nuns.  The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, pioneers of American nursing and primarily devoted to the field of medicine, had taken charge of Indianapolis’ second city hospital back in 1881.  While recuperating, Teddy Roosevelt must have noticed the sisters’ distinctive and fascinating headgear — known as the cornette — as he lay in bed after the agonizing surgery.

Sister Mary Joseph attended to him alongside Dr. Oliver in the operating ward.  Assigned to his private room was Sister Regina, whom Roosevelt remembered from his Rough Rider days, when she was stationed at the U.S. Army’s Camp Wickoff at Montauk Point on Long Island, New York, at the end of the Spanish-American War.

We should doff our hats to them, too.

This week’s second unheralded anniversary?  Cornettes, which earned this order of dedicated women the epithet “Butterfly Nuns” or “Flying Nuns,” were abandoned on September 20, 1964. Designed to reflect 17th-century French peasants’ outfits, the nuns’ habits, in spite of the fact that they wore them out onto the carnage of Gettysburg Battlefield in 1863, were considered “impractical for modern use.”  A photo from the Greencastle Daily Banner announces the change in 1964.

The new garb marked a major change  in the visual spectacle of medical care in many major American cities, including Indianapolis. Amazingly, the nuns’ new outfit was planned by world-renowned French designer Christian Dior before he died in 1957.  The rumor in France at the time of Dior’s death — allegedly after he choked on a fish bone — was that he was “called back by God to re-outfit the angels.”

The Daughters of Charity Provincial Archives maintains a small exhibit about Roosevelt’s short time under the care of “God’s geese” in Indiana.


Daughters of Charity 2
Sister Justina Morgan, second from left, revolutionized health care in Evansville in the 1950s. Her predecessors took care of President Roosevelt in Indianapolis in late September 1902. Courtesy Evansville Courier Press.

Daughters of Charity 3
Hospital radium ward, New Orleans, 1963.

Daughters of Charity 1918
(Three wounded Canadian soldiers with a girl and a nurse from the Daughters of Charity, Paris, France, World War I. Founder Saint Vincent de Paul once told the sisters, “Men go to war to kill one another, and you, sisters, you go to repair the harm they have done. . . Men kill the body and very often the soul, and you go to restore life, or at least by your care to assist in preserving it.”)

Daughters of Charity 4
Reading with children, 1950s.

Daughters of Charity 1
The “Butterfly Nuns” drink 7-UP, circa 1960.

Kokomo Morning Times, September 1, 1964
The old “seagull’s wings” were swept away by contemporary design. Kokomo Morning Times, Kokomo, Indiana, September 1, 1964.