Tag Archives: Crawfordsville

The “Bird Bills”: A Tale of the Plume Boom

Woman's Feathered Hat circa 1913

Did you know that environmental laws, labor and women once clashed, causing feathers to fly?  One little known battle from the days of the “plume boom” took place in 1913.  The setting?  The Indiana State House.

Nineteen-thirteen happened to be the same year that W.T. Hornaday, one of America’s foremost wildlife biologists and conservationists, published a book called Our Vanishing Wildlife. Born on a farm near Plainfield west of Indianapolis but raised in Iowa, Hornaday had traveled around South Asia, served as Chief Taxidermist at the Smithsonian, then became the first director of the New York Zoological Society, later renamed the Bronx Zoo. In 1889, the former Hoosier published the first great book on the near-total destruction of the American bison — the species seen bounding across Indiana’s state seal but which was wiped out here long ago by the pioneers.

Already an expert on the buffalo’s demise, by 1913 Hornaday had begun lashing out at the wholesale slaughter of birds:

From the trackless jungles of New Guinea, round the world both ways to the snow-capped peaks of the Andes, no unprotected bird is safe. The humming-birds of Brazil, the egrets of the world at large, the rare birds of paradise, the toucan, the eagle, the condor and the emu, all are being exterminated to swell the annual profits of the millinery [hat-making] trade. The case is far more serious than the world at large knows, or even suspects. But for the profits, the birds would be safe; and no unprotected wild species can long escape the hounds of Commerce.

Feathers have been part of human attire for millennia.  But by the early 1900s, massive depredations by European and American hunters around the globe had wreaked havoc on avian populations. Bird hunters were now the arm of industrial capitalism, with the harvesting of birds for ladies’ hats belonging in the same category with other natural resources like coal, diamonds and oil.

Although the center of the global feather trade in 1913 was London — where feather merchants examined skins and quills in enormous sales rooms, then bid on them like other commodities — New York and Paris were involved a big part of the trade.  All three cities had become epicenters of women’s fashion.  And women weren’t only the consumers of feathers:  of the roughly 80,000 people employed in the millinery business in New York City in 1900, the majority were women.

In 1892, Punch, the British satirical magazine, took a jab at women, who it considered the driving force behind the decimation of wild bird species and their consumption in the West.  It failed to point out, of course, that the hunters themselves — the ones who did the slaughtering — were men.


A Bird of Prey, Punch, May 14, 1892

(“A Bird of Prey,” Punch, May 14, 1892.)


Woman's Feathered Hat 4

(Woman with an entire bird in her hat, circa 1890.  Late-Victorian and Edwardian fashions led to the deaths of several hundred million birds in the days before state, national, and international laws stepped in to help prevent the extinction of many of them.  A moral crusade among consumers and nature-lovers — as well as changing fashions — were even more important factors.)


Millinery advertisement, 1911

(Millinery advertisement, 1911.)


In the U.S. and Europe, bird-lovers created several societies to stem the global slaughter, with scientists helping to provide the grisly details that would provoke moral outrage.  Women made up most of the membership in these societies, including the new Audubon Society — named for John James Audubon, the French-American naturalist who lived for years along the Ohio River across from Evansville, Indiana.  An especially well-known voice was the great ornithologist and writer William Henry Hudson, born to American parents in Argentina, where he spent his childhood bird-watching in the South American grasslands.  Yet in the days before zoom lenses and advanced photography came along, even respected field naturalists like Audubon and Hudson had relied on guns to “collect” species and study them.

In 1913, W.T. Hornaday gave specifics on the “plume boom.”  At one London feather sale two years earlier, ten-thousand hummingbird skins were “on offer.”  About 192,000 herons had been killed to provide the packages of heron feathers sold at a single London auction in 1902.  Other popular feathers came from birds like the egret, eagle, condor, bustard, falcon, parrot, and bird of paradise. When exotic bird feathers weren’t available or affordable, millinery shops used the feathers of common barnyard fowl.


Hummingbird Skins at Millinery Sale, August 1912

(Hummingbird skins at a millinery sale, August 1912.)


While the Florida Everglades were a huge, popular hunting ground, the “Everglades of the North” — Indiana’s Kankakee Swamp, now mostly vanished — was another commercial source for feathers, mammal pelts, and another item that’s out of fashion today, frog legs.  Yet the worst of the commercial hunting was in Florida, where ornithologists wrote of how hunters shot mother birds, especially herons and egrets, and left nestlings to starve, endangering the entire population for quick profit, as the mother’s plumage was at its most spectacular during nursing.  Conservationist T. Gilbert Pearson described finding “heaps of dead Herons festering in the sun, with the back of each bird raw and bleeding” where the feathers had been torn off.  “Young herons had been left by scores in the nests to perish by exposure and starvation.”  The much-publicized murder of a young Florida game warden, Guy Bradley, in 1905 helped galvanize the anti-plumage campaign and spurred the creation of Everglades National Park.

Since bird feathers and skins were often valued at twice their weight in gold and were readily available to ordinary Americans and Europeans even in urban areas, women and children found a decent supplemental income in stoning birds to death or killing them with pea-shooters, stringing them up, and selling them to hat-makers. Children also robbed eggs for collections.  Farmers frequently shot or trapped even great birds like the eagle when they preyed on chickens, with one scowling, utilitarian farmer in New Hampshire blasting “sentimentalists” who thought the eagle had “any utility” at all.


Recreation, April 1902

(Recreation, April 1902.)


By 1913, legislators in the U.S. and Britain had been urged to consider “anti-plumage” bills.  Yet the profits involved in millinery — and the ability of consumers to buy hats in markets not covered by the laws — were big hurdles.  As early as 1908, anti-plumage bills were being debated in the British Parliament, but they took years to pass.  (Britain’s passed in 1921.)  States like New York and New Jersey were considering a ban on the trade in wild bird feathers around the same time.  New York’s went into effect in July 1911, but not without concern for its effects on feather workers, some of whom argued that they had no other way of supporting themselves.

The debate in New Jersey took a more comic turn.  If this news account can be trusted, women came to the Senate in Trenton and pelted legislators with paper balls.


The Inter Ocean, Chicago, April 8, 1910

The Inter Ocean, Chicago, April 8, 1910 (2)

The Inter Ocean, Chicago, April 8, 1910 (3)

(The Inter Ocean, Chicago, April 8, 1910.)


One crusader for wild birds was the former mayor of Crawfordsville, Indiana, Samuel Edgar Voris.  In 1913, he joined the likes of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Audubon Society by taking the battle to the Indiana Legislature.  For a few weeks early that year, Hoosier politicians and journalists debated what became known as the “Voris Bird Bill.”


Seymour Daily Republican, January 25, 1913

(Seymour Daily Republican, January 25, 1913.)


It was a strange fact that Voris authored the bill, since back in 1897 he’d been called “one of the crack shots of the United States,” often competing in shooting tournaments around the country.  Voris was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1854.  His father may have been the Jerry or Jeremiah Voris who ran a meat market in downtown Terre Haute. (According to one ad, that Jerry sold elk meat next door to the offices of the Daily Wabash Express, ran a grape farm, and might be identical with one of Crawfordsville’s first undertakers.  He also might have known something about preserving the bodies of birds — or at least had an interest in birds.  In 1870, the Terre Haute butcher offered one “fine healthy screech owl” to State Geologist John Collett to be put on display at the State Board of Agriculture.)

Samuel E. Voris was out West in 1876, the year the Sioux wiped out Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn.  The 21-year-old Voris must have seen the slaughter of American bison up close as he traveled in an overland wagon train to the Black Hills of South Dakota.  His 1920 obituary in the Crawfordsville Daily Journal mentions that Voris’ wagon team was attacked by Indians on the way out.  Yet the future Crawfordsville mayor “had the honor of being in the wigwam of Spotted Tail, one of the big chiefs of a noted tribe of Indians at that time.”


Spotted Tail

(Spotted Tail, Brulé Lakota Indian chief, liked feathers on his head.)


Voris came back to the Midwest, settling in Crawfordsville, where he was a member of General Lew Wallace’s “noted rifle team,” a group of crack recreational sharpshooters.  (The Hoosier soldier, ambassador and author of Ben-Hur was also an avid hunter and fisherman, often visiting the Kankakee Swamp.)  Voris’ obituary noted that the mayor “was a man of peaceful disposition in spite of his love for firearms.”  He knew about animals:  his investments in livestock and insurance made him one of the richest men in Crawfordsville.  He also served as postmaster and was involved in civic-minded masonic organizations, including the Tribe of Ben-Hur, Knights of Pythias and Knights Templar. General Wallace, former U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, probably had something to do with the fact that in 1898, Voris was granted an audience with the Turkish Sultan while traveling in the Middle East.  Voris apparently loved camels, too:  in 1914, he fell off one in Crawfordsville when the camel got spooked by an automobile.  The man landed on his head and suffered a scalp wound.

In 1911 and again in 1913, Montgomery County elected their former mayor to the Indiana House.  Representative Samuel E. Voris was the author of at least two bills in 1913 concerning the treatment of animals. (Another bill, written by a different representative, proposed “a fine of $500 for anyone who willfully poisons [domestic] animals.”)

The “Voris bird bill” won strong support from conservation and animals rights groups in the Hoosier State, but sparked a bit of humor on the floor of the House of Representatives.


Indianapolis News, February 4, 1913

(Indianapolis News, February 4, 1913.  Ostrich feathers often came from farms in South Africa, where Jewish feather merchants dominated the trade.  Jews and women also led the millinery business in the U.S.  In 1870, hat-making was the fourth-largest employer of American women.)


The “Voris bird bill” passed the Indiana House, but objections arose in the Senate, with a Senator Clarke arguing that it would harm Indiana milliners while not prohibiting the sale of hats made outside the state from being sold here.  Another senator objected on the grounds that national legislation was needed to make it truly effective — even though that was slow in coming.  The bird bill was killed in February.

Yet while some women opposed it, one correspondent for the Indianapolis Star came out in defense of the anti-plumage campaign.


Indianapolis Star, January 19, 1913


Marie Chomel, who wrote under the pen name Betty Blythe, had a weekly column in the Indianapolis Star for years.  (She came from a newspaper family.  Her father Alexandre Chomel, son of a nobleman exiled by the French Revolution, had been the first editor of the Indiana Catholic & Record.)  As a reporter for the Star, Betty Blythe became the first woman ever to lap the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a race car, riding shotgun with Wild Bob Burman “at a terrific speed” on a day when two drivers were killed there.  It happened in August 1909.

Chomel frequently wrote about fashion, but thought that exotic plumage was inhumane and had to go.  She published her views on the bird bill in the Star on February 13, 1913.


Indianapolis Star, February 13, 1913

(“Our Lawmakers as Betty Blythe Sees Them,” Indianapolis Star, February 13, 1913.)


Chomel agreed with Voris’ motives.  Yet like English novelist Virginia Woolf, who criticized a sexist statement from British radical journalist H.W. Massingham that pinned the blame for bird deaths squarely on irresponsible women, the Indianapolis Star didn’t let men off the hook, either.


Indianapolis Star, March 3, 1913 (2)

(Indianapolis Star, March 3, 1913.  The “feminine correspondent” was probably Betty Blythe.)


Though wildlife protection laws and groups like the Audubon Society helped make the case for saving birds, two other events were even more influential in ending the feather trade.

Oddly, the outbreak of World War I saved millions of birds. Disruptions to international shipping and wartime scarcity made the flamboyant fashions of the Edwardian period look extravagant and even unpatriotic.  Tragically, as women went into the workplace and needed more utilitarian clothing, “murderous millinery” gave way to murderous warfare, fueled by the same forces of imperialism and greed that had killed untold creatures of the sky.

Even more effective, fashion changes and class antagonism caused upper-class women to adopt new apparel like the “slouch” and “cloche” hats and new hairstyles like the bob.  As hair was being cut back, elaborate feather ornaments made no sense.  In the U.S. and the UK, where upper-class and upper-middle-class women made up most of the membership in groups like the Audubon Society, female conservationists sometimes targeted women of other classes for sporting feathers.  Slowly, they instigated change.

Fortunately, most fashion enthusiasts would probably agree that the cloche hats of the 1920s — which drove hunters and feather merchants out of business — are more natural and beautiful than the most literally “natural” hats of a decade or two before.


Cloche Hat

(The cloche hat of the 1920s and ’30s spelled extinction to commercial bird hunters.)


Contact: staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

War and Peach

Peach Stones 1

With Christmas Eve approaching, you might have the tune “Chestnuts Roasting Over an Open Fire” playing somewhere. A hundred years ago, chestnuts were actually on the path to becoming a rarity, as a huge blight that was killing off chestnut trees began dramatically reducing their numbers.  The blight got so bad that chestnut trees nearly became extinct in the U.S.  Yet as World War I was still raging in Europe, American chemists found a clever new use for chestnuts — alongside coconut shells, peach stones, and other hard seeds.  Disturbingly enough, this was for use in the gas mask industry.

During the last year of the “War to End All Wars,” the Gas Defense Division of the Chemical Warfare Service of the U.S. Army began issuing calls for Americans to save fruit seeds.  As refuse from kitchens and dining room tables, these would typically have been classified as agricultural waste.  Conscientious Americans began to put out barrels and other depositories for local collection of leftover seed pits.  These came from peaches, apricots, cherries, prunes, plums, olives, and dates, not to mention brazil nuts, hickory nuts, walnuts, chestnuts, and butternuts.  In the rarer instance that Americans had any spare coconut shells left over, these came in handy, too.


Peach Stones 3


How on earth could seeds and shells contribute to the war against Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany?

World War I was the first conflict to involve the use of toxic chemicals meant to incapacitate and kill soldiers.  Death would come at the fourth breath or less, soldiers were warned.  Fritz Haber, a German chemist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his research into the creation of synthetic fertilizers, also helped spearhead German use of ammonia and chlorine as poisonous weapons used in trench warfare. (Haber’s wife, also a chemist, committed suicide out of shame at her husband’s promotion of poison gas.)  Haber additionally pioneered a gas mask that would protect German soldiers from their own weapons. Ironically, Frtiz Haber was Jewish.  He later fled Germany in 1933 during the rise of Adolf Hitler, a few years before the poisons he experimented with were used by the Nazis to exterminate Jews and others during World War II.

Haber, however, wasn’t the only chemist at work on a gas mask. One such device was invented by a mostly-forgotten American chemist from the Hoosier State, James Bert Garner.


James Bert Garner

(Hoosier chemist James Bert Garner around 1918.)


Garner was born in Lebanon, Indiana, in 1870, and earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Science at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, where he studied under Scottish-American chemist Dr. Alexander Smith.  (Like many doctors and scientists, Dr. Smith had done his own graduate studies in Munich, Germany, in the 1880s.  He taught chemistry and mineralogy at Wabash for four years until moving to the University of Chicago and Columbia University.)  Dr. Garner served as head of Wabash’s chemistry department from 1901 to 1914, the year World War I erupted. The Hoosier chemist then took a job at the Mellon Institute for Industrial Research at the University of Pittsburgh.

After reading an account of a toxic gas attack on French and Canadian soldiers during the Battle of Ypres in 1915, Garner began working on a more effective respiratory mask than was then available.  Primitive versions of gas masks and protective apparatuses designed to ward off disease had been around for centuries, from 17th-century plague doctor’s outfits to a mask pioneered by the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt in 1799, when Humboldt worked as a mining inspector in Prussia.  In the 1870s, Irish physicist John Tyndall also worked on a breathing device to help filter foul air, as did a little-known Indianapolis inventor, Willis C. Vajen, who patented a “Darth Vader”-like mask for firemen in 1893.  (Vajen’s masks were manufactured in an upper floor of the old Indianapolis Public Library.)


Gas mask diagram

(This diagram of a World War II-era gas mask shows the importance of the charcoal filter “which absorbs the gas and retains the fumes.”


While working at Pittsburgh’s Mellon Institute, Dr. Garner advanced a method for air filtration that he had first experimented with at Wabash College and the University of Chicago.   Garner’s mask, co-designed by his wife Glenna, involved the use of a charcoal filter that absorbed sulphur dioxide and ammonia from the air stream. Garner’s World War I-era invention wouldn’t be his last attempt to reduce the deadly impact on the lungs of dangerous substances.  In 1936, he patented a process to “denicotinize” tobacco.

Manufacturers of Garner’s masks found that coconut shells actually provided one of the most useful materials for filtering toxic poison. With a density greater than most woods, hard fruit seeds and nuts were also found useful in the creation of charcoal filters.  All over the U.S., local Councils of Defense, citizens’ committees (sometimes highly intrusive) were set up to promote production of war materiel and monitor domestic waste.  These committees encouraged Americans to hang onto seed pits for Army use.


Peach Stones 2

(Photo from “peach stone” campaign, 1918.  U.S. National Archives.)


Popular Science Monthly, December 1918

(Popular Science Monthly, December 1918.)


Popular Science Monthly, December 1918 2

(Popular Science Monthly, December 1918.)


“Cleaned, dried, and then subjected to high temperature,” reported Popular Science Monthly, “the stones become carbonized, and the coal, in granulated form, is used as an absorbent in the manufacture of gas-masks.”  Charcoal rendered from fruit seeds, coconut shells, etc., was found to have a “much greater power of absorbing poisonous gases than ordinary charcoal from wood.”

How many seeds were needed?  One source cites a government call for 100 million of them.  In a letter from J.S. Boyd, First Lieutenant in the Chemical Warfare Service of the U.S. Army, which appeared in the Indianapolis News in September 1918, Boyd informed the public that “Two hundred peach stones, or seven pounds of nut shells, will make enough carbon for one mask.  Think of that!  And one mask may save a soldier’s life.”  At this rate, a hundred million peach stones could produce 500,000 gas masks.

Tolstoy’s classic novel needed a new title: War & Peach.


Variety of gas masks

(Variety of gas masks used on the Western Front during First World War.  Garner’s was just one of them.)


The seed-collection campaign quickly took to American newspapers.

In Indianapolis, the Marion County Council of Defense urged local consumers and businesses not to waste products and labor during Christmas shopping.  (The waste of certain human lives for political ends seemed to bother them less, and the Indiana council worked to censor all criticism of the war from pacifists and socialists.)  At the committee’s urging, local restaurants, hotels, and stores, including L.S. Ayres and the William H. Block Co. — the largest department stores in Indianapolis — collected agricultural leftovers in bins out front.  The Block Co. advertised its support for the peach stone campaign during a September call to “Buy Christmas gifts early.” Fortunately, the war was over by Christmas 1918.


Indianapolis News, September 21, 1918

(Indianapolis News, September 21, 1918.)


Local Councils of Defense chided businesses and Christmas shoppers for wasting labor and even kept up some surveillance on them.  Department stores were forbidden to hire extra help during the 1918 Christmas season, meaning no special workers could carry customers’ purchases back to their homes.  The councils explicitly asked Hoosiers to carry their own packages and urged managers and employees to report any business that was hiring “extra help” for the holiday.


South Bend News-Times, October 19, 1918

(South Bend News-Times, October 19, 1918.)


South Bend News-Times, September 3, 1918

(South Bend News-Times, September 3, 1918.)


Emphasis on gathering peach stones in particular picked up momentum in September 1918, since that month marked the beginning of harvest time.  As for wild nuts, children all over the U.S., including the Boy Scouts, scoured American forests for walnuts, hickories, and butternuts. One photo in Popular Science Monthly showed a “gang bombarding a horse-chestnut tree” and stated that they were “enlisted in war work.”  Children brought nuts and seed pits to 160 army collection centers.


Popular Science Monthly, December 1918 3

(Popular Science Monthly, December 1918.)


A call for peach stones in the film magazine Moving Picture World encouraged movie theater owners to offer special matinées to support seed-gathering.  The magazine suggested keeping admission at the regular price, but with the donation of one peach stone required for entry.  Once inside, moviegoers were likely to see a slideshow from the Army’s Gas Defense Service as a “preview.” One theater owner on Long Island was especially liberal to children. Children, however, apparently took unfair advantage of him:


The Moving Picture World, October 12, 1918

(The Moving Picture World, October 12, 1918.)


The call for seed pits should have come earlier.  Ninety-thousand soldiers died from toxic gas exposure in the First World War, with over a million more suffering debilitating health problems that often lasted for the rest of their lives.  Almost two-thirds of the fatalities were Russian.  And chemical warfare had just begun.

Though propaganda pinned the barbaric use of chemicals squarely on the Kaiser’s armies, the British used toxins during and after the war.  Under Winston Churchill — War Secretary in 1920 — the RAF dropped mustard gas during its attempt to put down Bolshevism in Russia, the same year that Churchill is alleged to have authorized the use of deadly gas in fighting an Iraqi revolt against British rule in the Middle East.  One English entomologist, Harold Maxwell-Lefroy, was allegedly curious about the use of bugs in “the next war” to spread disease behind enemy lines.

During World War II, the U.S. briefly experimented with the creation of biological weapons.  At the Vigo Ordinance Plant, an ammunition facility in Terre Haute, the Army looked into the production of deadly anthrax in 1944 as part of the little-known U.S. biological weapons program.  According to some sources, those chemicals were meant to have been used in proposed British anthrax bombs, which would have killed entire German cities. Fortunately, the end of the war came before any significant amount of the material was ever produced.  The Vigo County plant was later acquired by Pfizer.

As for native Hoosier chemist James Bert Garner, he kept on inventing, attempting to save lives in spite of the brutality of war. Garner lived with his family in Pittsburgh, where he worked as director of research for the Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel Company — the company that built the Gateway Arch in St. Louis starting in 1963.

Garner, however, died in 1960 at age 90.  Sometimes cited as the inventor of the gas mask — though he was really just one of many — he is buried at Pittsburgh’s Homewood Cemetery.

In spite of his efforts, chemical warfare has gone on to kill millions.


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 11, 1919

(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 11, 1919.)


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

When Jails Were Shaped Like Pies

The World (New York), October 3, 1897 (2)Crawfordsville, Indiana, has several claims to fame, most of them literary.  Once hailed as “The Athens of the Midwest,” the town was home to Ben-Hur’s author, the novelist and Civil War hero Lew Wallace.  For a few months in 1907 and 1908, it was also, briefly, home to the unconventional American poet Ezra Pound.

Born in Idaho, Pound was a flamboyant genius who later dabbled in Fascist politics in Mussolini’s Italy.  At the end of World War II, he was imprisoned by the U.S. Army, prosecuted for treason, and spent most of the 1950s confined at a mental hospital in Washington, D.C., where the Federal government kept him up under watch.  Yet Pound might have considered Crawfordsville as the site of his first “incarceration.”

While still in his twenties, Ezra Pound taught Romance languages at Wabash College but found the school too churchy and conservative for his liking.  After the professor invited a stranded prostitute or traveling entertainer to sleep in his room one winter night — later insisting that he slept on the floor while she took over the bed — the 22-year-old Pound got the axe from the college president, just into his second semester as a language professor at Wabash in February 1908.  He immediately moved to Europe, going into poetry and the Modernist art world, describing Crawfordsville as “The sixth circle of hell.”


Ezra Pound 2(Ezra Pound not long after abandoning the Hoosier State with $80 in his pocket.)


Ironically, both Lew Wallace and Ezra Pound had some unusual connections to incarceration — as did Crawfordsville itself.  In 1865, Wallace had headed the commission that investigated Henry Wirz, the infamous Swiss-born Confederate commandant of Andersonville prison camp in Georgia, where Union soldiers were starved during the Civil War and some were allegedly killed by Wirz’s bloodhounds.  (Wirz was executed following Wallace’s investigation.)  As for Pound’s own experience with jails, after the Allies and the Italian resistance toppled Benito Mussolini in 1944, the former Wabash College professor-turned-Fascist, who had done radio broadcasts in support of Il Duce, was shut up in one of the U.S. Army’s outdoor steel cages in Pisa, Italy.


Ezra Pound(Pound’s mugshot after turning himself in to the U.S. Army in Italy, May 1945.)


Pisa jail

(U.S. forces imprisoned the expatriate American poet in a special outdoor “security cage” in Pisa.  Pound was soon transferred to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a mental facility in Washington, D.C., under charges of being an “intellectual crackpot.”  He spent over a decade there, refusing to talk to doctors with Jewish-sounding names. Pound wasn’t released until 1958, when he returned to Italy.)


Like the army’s open-air “security cages” in Pisa, “benighted” Crawfordsville once experimented with ventilation.  The Indiana town actually helped pioneer a new type of jail in the 1880s, when “The Athens of the Midwest” became home to one of today’s few surviving “rotary jails.”  This was an architectural twist on the traditional one-room slammer that turned frontier clinkers into revolving, newfangled structures that looked something like a fresh-baked pie — at least on paper.  (Ezra Pound might have compared them to an Italian pizza pie.)


W.H. Brown Jail Door Patent 4


In 1881, two men from Indianapolis — architect William H. Brown and Benjamin F. Haugh, owner of the Haugh Iron Works on Indy’s West Side — filed a patent for an ingenious invention.  They later filed several variations on this patent, but the 1881 original begins:

The object of our invention is to produce a jail or prison in which prisoners can be controlled without the necessity of personal contact between them and the jailer or guard, and incidentally to provide it with sundry conveniences and advantages not usually found in prisons; and it consists, first, of a circular cell structure of considerable size (inside the usual prison-building) divided into several cells capable of being rotated, and surrounded by a grating in close proximity thereto, which has only such number of openings (usually one) as is necessary for the convenient handling of the prisoners; second, in the combination, with said cell structure, of a system of shafts and gears, or their equivalents, for the purpose of rotating the same;  third, in constructing within said circular cell structure a central space for the purposes of ventilation and the disposition of offal, &c.;  fourth, in constructing niches in the side of the cells next said central opening to serve as water-closets, and arranging underneath said niches a continuous trough to contain water, to receive and convey away into a sewer with which it is connected all the offal deposited therein by the prisoners in all the cells. . .

In other words, one of the primary goals of the revolving jail was to facilitate the disposal of human waste without having to ever release the prisoner from his cell or even to come into any contact with him at all.  The other goal was to render escapes and prison riots virtually impossible.


The World (New York), October 3, 1897

(The World, New York City, October 3, 1897.)


Operating a hand crank, a guard could literally spin an entire block of wedge-shaped cells.  Prisoners would be moved around without ever exiting through the block’s one access point.  In addition to improving ventilation and drainage — the system involved an advanced “soil-pipe” or sewer — Brown and Haugh’s patent explained that one of the real safety feature of the rotary jail was for the sheriff or guard himself:

The prisoners are handled without any possible chance for personal contact with any except the one desired, as the cell structure is rotated until the door-opening of the cell desired is brought opposite the general door opening in the outside grating, and while one cell occupies this position the rest must of necessity be securely closed. This arrangement makes the whole prison as convenient to the keeper as though it consisted of but a single cell, and as safe as if it contained but a single prisoner.


Crawfordsville Rotary Jail -- Library of Congress Photographs Division(Double-tiered rotary cell block, Montgomery County jail, 1970s.  Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey.)


Crawfordsville Rotary Jail -- Library of Congress Photographs Division (3)

(“General View of Circular Room in Cellar Showing Steel Support Structure for Rotating Cell Blocks,” 1970s. Montgomery County Jail.  Library of Congress.)


Crawfordsville Rotary Jail -- Library of Congress Photographs Division (5)

(Exterior view of the old Montgomery County Jail, built in 1882.  If the jail looks like a residence, it is: the county sheriff and his family lived in the front part of this building.  The impressive architecture of these old-time slammers, including one in Council Bluffs, Iowa, belies their popular name, “squirrel cages.”  Other nicknames included “lazy Susans” and “human rotaries.”)


Plans for a “rat trap” or “steel trap” prison were being considered by the New York Penological Society in 1897.  A syndicated news story incorrectly states that “It is an English idea.”  It was a Hoosier one.


Chicago Daily Tribune, October 10, 1897 (1)

Chicago Daily Tribune, October 10, 1897 (2)

(Chicago Daily Tribune, October 10, 1897.)


Columbus Journal (Columbus, Nebraska), January 19, 1898

(Columbus Journal, Columbus, Nebraska, January 19, 1898.)


San Francisco Call, October 12, 1897

(San Francisco Call, October 12, 1897.)


Constructed in 1882, the Montgomery County Jail was one of at least eight rotary jails built in the U.S., though by some accounts there were around eighteen total, spread between Kentucky and Utah.  Salt Lake City was the only large city that seems to have had one, and the plan was considered best for small-town jails.   Only four of them survive today, with none still operating as a jail.  The Pottawattamie County Jail in Council Bluffs, Iowa, was the last rotary jail to still be in use.  It was discontinued in 1969.

Although the website for Crawfordsville’s Rotary Jail Museum claims that the real motivation behind Brown and Haugh’s patent was “to help maintain strict Victorian social order,” revolving cell blocks were almost definitely an improvement on the pits that 19th-century prisoners were frequently chucked into.

Yet as these new jails were built, their advantages were soon shown to be mostly theoretical.  By the 1930s, in fact, the Montgomery County Jail came under criticism for poor ventilation, bad natural lighting, unsanitary conditions, and an “old, insecure, unsafe” structure — all problems that its designers had meant to resolve.  Over the years, too, the limbs of inmates in American rotary jails occasionally got caught in the rotating bars, crushing or maiming them.

A critic in Wichita, Kansas, in 1917 called the rotating cages a “medieval relic of barbarism.”


Wichita Beacon, October 9, 1917 (2)(Wichita Beacon, Wichita, Kansas, October 9, 1917.  Kansas reformers should probably not have imitated Indiana’s experiment with a penal farm.)


Crawfordsville jailers tried to make improvements, but the town’s old rotary jail was finally abandoned in 1967.  Montgomery County officially took it out of use in 1973.  Like a couple of its historic kindred in Missouri and Iowa, it survives as a museum known as the Rotary Jail Museum.


Moberly Monitor-Index, Moberly, Missouri, July 6, 1960

(Moberly Monitor-Index, Moberly, Missouri, July 6, 1960.)


W.H. Brown Illuminated Anti-Slipping Walkway 1899(Hoosier architect William H. Brown tried out various other designs for safety, both inside and outside jails.  This 1899 patent is for an “illuminated anti-slipping walkway.”)


Ironically, the iron that went into Indiana’s lone rotary jail came from Haughville on Indianapolis’ West Side.

Haugh, Ketchum & Co. Iron Works had moved from downtown west of the White River in 1880, just a year before owner Benjamin F. Haugh filed his patent with William Brown for a revolving cell block. Haughville or “Haughsville” in the 1880’s soon became known for its busy foundries, which included the rival National Malleable Castings Company, and it was considered a prosperous town when Indianapolis annexed it in 1897.  Local industries attracted thousands of German, Irish, and Slovene immigrants to the area.


Benjamin F. Haugh(Indianapolis iron industrialist Benjamin Franklin Haugh, 1830-1912.)


Hendricks County Union (Danville), January 4, 1871 (2)

(Hendricks County Union, Danville, Indiana, January 4, 1871.  This clip advertised the Haugh Iron Works’ old location on South Pennsylvania Street downtown.  The foundry moved west nine years later.  A decade before the rotary jail patent, the company was already turning out jail doors.)


Haugh -- Indianapolis News April 6 1882

(The new Haughville iron foundry created the material for many major government buildings around the U.S., including the old Marion County Courthouse, demolished in 1963 to make way for the City-County Building, one of the city’s worst eye-sores. Indianapolis News, April 6, 1882.)


By the early 1900s, Haughville had become the center of Indianapolis’ Eastern European population, including Slovenes, Croats, Macedonians, and Hungarians.  A wave of Southerners, both black and white, moved in after World War I.  Haughville’s industries, however, slowly declined.  When its two major employers, Link-Belt and National Casting, shut down in 1959 and 1962, the neighborhood slipped into serious decline and has never recovered.  The closing of Washington High School and the old Central State Hospital (a huge mental institution which probably incorporated a lot of locally-produced iron) also hurt the area.

Efforts have been made to revitalize Haughville, but this part of Indianapolis that once created iron for jails remains a feared part of the city, suffering from serious gang violence, drug addiction, and one of the highest rates of poverty and crime in the Midwest.


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

The Crawfordsville Monster

Around two o’clock on the morning of Saturday, September 5, 1891, Crawfordsville ice delivery men Marshall McIntyre and Bill Gray prepared their wagon for morning rounds when suddenly a feeling of “awe and dread” overcame them.  Peering heavenward, the men saw a “horrible apparition.”  The Crawfordsville Journal described what they witnessed:

[It was] about eighteen feet long and eight feet wide and moved rapidly through the air by means of several pairs of side fins. . . . It was pure white and had no definite shape or form, resembling somewhat a great white shroud fitted with propelling fins.  There was no tail or head visible but there was one great flaming eye, and a sort of a wheezing plaintive sound was emitted from a mouth which was invisible.  It flapped like a flag in the winds as it came on and frequently gave a great squirm as though suffering unutterable agony.

McIntyre and Gray observed the phenomenon hover three or four hundred feet in the air for nearly an hour before they retreated to the safety of the barn.  They then quickly finished harnessing their horses and left the vicinity.


Daily Journal, September 5, 1891Daily Journal, September 5, 1891 (2)Daily Journal, September 5, 1891 (3)(Crawfordsville Daily Journal, September 5, 1891.)


McIntyre and Gray weren’t the only witnesses that night.  Perhaps the most reputable witness was G.W. Switzer, pastor of the First Methodist Church.  Shortly after midnight, Rev. Switzer stepped out of his door to retrieve some water from the well when he espied the apparition.  He woke his wife and they gawked as the thing “swam through the air in a writhing, twisting manner similar to the glide of some serpents.”  As the Switzers watched, the mystery apparition seemed at one point as though it might descend on the lawn of Lane Place — home of late U.S. Senator Henry S. Lane’s widow — before it re-ascended and continued its circuitous route above the city.


Daily Journal, September 7, 1891Daily Journal, September 7, 1891 (2)(Crawfordsville Daily Journal, September 7, 1891.)


When Crawfordsville residents heard of the sighting, ridicule came quickly to the eyewitnesses.  On the heels of Professor Burton, “Keeley’s Institute for inebriates” in Plainfield reportedly wrote to Rev. Switzer and invited him to visit — obviously to seek a cure.


(Crawfordsville Daily Journal, September 9, 1891.)


However, reports of the sightings also generated a number of believers.  The Indianapolis Journal picked up the story, as did other newspapers across the country, including the Brooklyn Eagle.  Mail regarding the sighting deluged the Crawfordsville postmaster.  Some correspondents thought the sighting indicated that Judgment Day was near.  A St. Louis woman, fearful of the spook’s western migration, wrote and asked if the apparition could be seen in the daytime, what color was it, and if the apparition had previously been in Ohio?


(Crawfordsville Daily Journal, September 11, 1891.)


So what exactly did people see in the Crawfordsville sky that early September morning in 1891?  Was it an apparition?  UFO?  A “rod,” like a 2008 episode of the History Channel’s Monster Quest implied?  Or was it, as many internet sites suggest, an atmospheric beast!?!?

Fortunately, two eyewitnesses tracked the creature.  John Hornbeck and Abe Hernley “followed the wraith about town and finally discovered it to be a flock of many hundred killdeer.”  The many birds’ wings, white under-feathers, and plaintive cries contributed to the belief of many eyewitnesses that the creature(s) originated from the otherworld.  Low visibility due to damp air likely compounded the misidentification.  The Crawfordsville Journal hypothesized that the town’s newly installed electric lights caused the birds to become disoriented, hovering and wreathing their way above the city.


(Crawfordsville Daily Journal, September 8, 1891.)


Killdeer Aubudon(Killdeer Plover, watercolor by John James Audubon.)


If that explanation does not satisfy, there is an alternative one. During the prior week, newspapers circulated another story from Crawfordsville.  This one was about a “balloon parachute craze” taking hold among the town’s boys.  While that could explain the billowing, sheet-like apparition, it fails to account for the “wheezing plaintive sound” emitting from the aerial monster.  Well, the same report about the parachute craze also mentioned that the boys also liked to send cats up in their balloons.  Could this have been what McIntyre, Gray, and the Switzers saw and heard instead?


Wichita Daily Eagle, September 4, 1891

(Wichita Daily Eagle, Wichita, Kansas, September 4, 1891.)


As anti-climactic as these conclusions will be to modern readers — they’re also, no doubt, disappointing to cryptozoologists and ufologists — it is the complete story of the Crawfordsville monster as the Crawfordsville Journal reported it in early September 1891.

Incidentally, Crawfordsville published three newspapers in addition to the Journal.  These were the Review, the Argus, and the Star.  None of those papers so much as hinted that anything happened that September morning.  This leads one to conclude that while a few citizens likely did see something unusual in the nocturnal sky, the Crawfordsville Journal overstated the incident to make an extra buck.  And the nineteenth century was no more “gullible” than our own age.  In other places around the world — like Fernvale, Australia, in 1927, and of course Roswell, New Mexico, since 1947 — reports of weird avian or other airborne visitors would pour in during the 20th century.

The Journal’s century old marketing ploy continues to generate lively discussion in the dark recesses of cyberspace and on late night radio talk-shows, where the Crawfordsville monster occasionally still goes out flying through the sky.

Over 55,000 More Pages

The Rising Sun

Hey, readers.  Just a quick news flash.  Here’s a list of new content added to Hoosier State Chronicles over the last few days.

Check out some colorful titles — like Wabash Scratches — and a hilarious and witty antebellum paper from Indianapolis, The Locomotive.  A further decade of this comical weekly, one of the best papers ever published in the Hoosier State, is coming soon.

Additionally, we just added some early titles going back to 1807, when the sun was just rising on printing in Indiana Territory.  A huge run of Greencastle’s Daily Banner, digitized at DePauw University, brings us up to 1968.  Enjoy!

Lew Wallace and the Circassian Girl Hoax

an_odalisque_joseph_douglas

In the early 1880s, Indiana’s great novelist and war hero, General Lew Wallace, author of the bestselling Ben-Hur, got caught up in one of the more trumped-up tales of nineteenth-century journalism — a story which, it turns out, has an incredibly bizarre “cousin” today. The mildly erotic tale begins around 1883, when Wallace was a well-known American public figure.  To quickly recap his bio: son of Governor David Wallace of Indiana, the “militant romantic” had served in the worst battles of the Civil War; sat on the trials of the Lincoln conspirators and Henry Wirz, the Swiss-born Confederate commander of Andersonville prison; fought as a Juarista general in the Mexican Army during the French invasion of 1865; and as Territorial Governor of New Mexico, he helped reign in the outlaw Billy the Kid.

Slowly propelled to greater fame when the novel Ben-Hur came out, Wallace  went to Constantinople in 1881 as U.S. Minister to the Ottoman Empire.  The general and his wife, writer Susan Wallace, were ardent Orientalists. Yet Ben-Hur, set in Palestine, was published a year before they ever saw the Middle East, its description based on research in the Library of Congress.  The couple traveled around the eastern Mediterranean.

During his four years as an American diplomat in Constantinople, the Hoosier writer became close friends with Ottoman Sultan Abdül Hamid II — though Wallace famously became “the first person to demand that the sultan shake his hand.”  When Grover Cleveland was elected U.S. President in 1884, Wallace’s term ended.  Abdül Hamid tried to get his friend to stay on and represent Turkish interests in Europe.  Wallace, instead, came home to Montgomery County.


       feb14lewwallace      Sultan Abdul Hamid II


Lew Wallace Autobiography

(Lew Wallace described watching a Turkish infantry and Circassian cavalry drill with the Ottoman Sultan in his Autobiography, published in 1906.)


The gossip mill, however, was already rolling years before Wallace sailed home to the States.  As early as September 2, 1882, the Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail reprinted a dramatic story from The Wasp, San Francisco’s acerbic satirical weekly perhaps best-known for its lurid political cartoons attacking Chinese immigration to the West Coast.  (The Wasp has been called California’s version of Puck).

“An Unwelcome Present” was syndicated in other papers as far away as New Zealand and often got subtitled along the lines of “What the General’s Wife Thought of the Sultan’s Present.”

As far as I can tell, the tale first originated in the pages of The Wasp on August 5, 1882, where it ran under the title “That Present.”  What I find especially fascinating is that the magazine’s editor from 1881 to 1885 was no less than the sardonic Hoosier cynic Ambrose Bierce, whose Devil’s Dictionary had its genesis as a column in the California weekly.

Ambrose Bierce in Civil War

Like Wallace, Bierce fought at the terrifying Battle of Shiloh in 1862, serving as First Lieutenant in the ranks of the Ninth Indiana Infantry.  During his days as a journalist, Bierce also worked for William Randolph Hearst at The San Francisco Examiner.  To sell papers, the newspaper giant “routinely invented sensational stories, faked interviews, ran phony pictures and distorted real events.”


The Wasp August 2 1882
Collections of the California State Library at www.archives.org.

Did Bierce pen some “yellow journalism” about Lew Wallace and a Turkish harem girl?  I wouldn’t put it past him.  The Wasp’s  editor was one of the biggest misogynists of his day and took constant swipes at women.  To me, “An Unwelcome Present” sounds like one of Bierce’s tales or epigrams about the diabolical battle between the sexes, which he always portrayed as just slightly less gory than the bloodbath he and Wallace survived at Shiloh.  In any case, the gossipy piece about his fellow Hoosier got published on Ambrose Bierce’s editorial watch.

Here’s the whole comic tale as it appeared on the front page of the Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail:

An Unwelcome Present (1)

An Unwelcome Present (2)

An Unwelcome Present (3)

Writer and poet Susan Wallace, who grew up in Crawfordsville and married Lew in 1852, had no reason to fear her husband would take up with a concubine.  Yet Circassian beauties were all the rage during the long heyday of Orientalism.

The exotic Circassian mystique had been around for many decades.   Inhabiting the Caucasus Mountains at the eastern end of the Black Sea near Sochi (the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics), Circassians were hailed by 19th-century anthropologists as the apogee of the human form.  “Circassophilia” churned out many exotic myths about these people in Europe and America.  During the Enlightenment, the French writer Voltaire popularized a belief that Circassian women were the most beautiful on earth, “a trait that he linked to their practice of inoculating babies with the smallpox virus.”  In the 1790s, the invention of the so-called “Caucasian” race occurred when Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, one of the founders of physical anthropology, compared the anatomy of the beautiful, martial Circassians of what became North Turkey and southern Russia with the rest of humanity and categorized the mountain folk as the least “degenerate” humans.

Yet by the time of Wallace’s tenure in the Middle East in the 1880s, these tough mountaineers had been subdued by the Russians and Ottomans after long years of bloody warfare.  Legends about dazzling Circassian beauties abounded even as Circassia itself disappeared from the map.  One popular story went that the main source of wealth for fathers in the region was their breathtakingly beautiful daughters, whom they sold off to Turkish slave markets, though as writer in The Penny Magazine thought in 1838, Circassian women were “exceedingly anxious to be sold,” since life in a Turkish harem was “preferable to their own customs.”  In Constantinople, they were highly prized in harems — not to be confused with Western prostitution.  American abolitionist and women’s rights activist Lydia Maria Child devoted a chapter to Circassia in her 1838 History of the Condition of Women.


Circassian Cream
(Women from the Caucasus were known for their luxuriant hair and fueled idealized notions of female beauty in the West. So-called Circassian hair oils, dyes, and creams were enormously popular at the time of the American Civil War.)

circassian women 2
A photo of Circassian beauties, circa 1880.

The horrible trade in female slaves from the Caucasus was alive and well in the mid-1800s, when an alleged glut in the market led to their devaluation.  Good timing for American circus mogul P.T. Barnum.  In May 1864, he wrote to one of his employees, John Greenwood, who had traveled to Ottoman Cyprus to try to buy a Circassian girl on Barnum’s behalf.  Over a year after the Emancipation Proclamation in America, the circus owner wrote:

I still have faith in a beautiful Circassian girl if you can get one very beautiful. But if they ask $4000 each, probably one would be better than two, for $8000 in gold is worth about $14,500 in U.S. currency. So one of the most beautiful would do. . . But look out that in Paris they don’t try the law and set her free. It must be understood she is free. . .  Yours Truly, P.T. Barnum

Barnum’s fascination with acquiring and exhibiting women in his shows took on the elements of a personal erotic and racial fantasy.  Though most were “local girls,” as newspapers knew, Barnum billed his “Circassians” as escaped sex slaves and “the purest specimens of the white race.”  Figments of Barnum’s imagination, these women joined the ranks of the dime-show freaks, part of the offbeat spectacle of bearded ladies, sword-swallowers, and snake-handlers that drew in paying crowds.  Barnum’s harem girls enhanced their hair with beer to create a farfetched “Afro” look.


Circassian Girl - Matthew Brady New York 1861
Daguerreotype of a “Circassian beauty” by Matthew Brady, New York, circa 1861. These intentional freaks dressed in the very opposite attire of their modest Central Asian “sisters.”

Circassian Girl ad
(A major feature of the post-bellum American sideshows, Barnum’s racial and sexual fantasies showed up on postcards, cigarette advertisements, and fliers. An impressive gallery of “Moss-Haired Girls,” as these women were called, has been collected online at Sideshow World.

This was not the kind of Circassian girl alleged by a “yellow journalist” to have been bestowed to Lew Wallace in Turkey. On the eve of his return to America, the General tried to clear things up with the press.  The Indianapolis Journal carried this twist in the story on June 30, 1884:

Lew Wallace - That Circassian Girl - Indianapolis Journal June 30 1884The website of the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum in Crawfordsville gives a slightly different perspective altogether:

As his tour of duty as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to the Ottoman Empire came to an end in 1884, Lew Wallace was offered a number of gifts from his friend, Sultan Abdul Hamid II. These included Arabian horses, jewels, and works of art. As a representative of the government of the United States, Wallace graciously declined these expressions of friendship and gratitude. According to legend, as Wallace closed his office and packed his residence, the Sultan was able to secretly include the painting called The Turkish Princess, some elaborate carpets and a few other items in the shipping crates. The crates were delivered to Crawfordsville before Lew and Susan returned home. These items sent by the Sultan remained undiscovered by Wallace until he was back in Crawfordsville and opened the crates. The Turkish Princess, said to be one of the Sultan’s daughters, remains one of the highlights of the Study.

Wallace’s biographers Robert and Katharine Morsberger add a further note: “Malicious gossip-mongers claimed that the sultan had also provided Wallace a Circassian slave girl for his carnal pleasures and commiserated with Susan Wallace on her husband’s alleged concubine.  Both the sultan and the American minister had too much honor and mutual respect for such an arrangement.”


Lew Wallace Stuy
(The Turkish Princess, by Austrian Orientalist painter Leopold Müller, is the real Circassian girl and hangs in Wallace’s study in Crawfordsville to this day.)