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Outlaws, Pinkertons, and Vigilantes: The Reno Gang and its Enemies

John Reno. Wikipedia.

Tales of the “Wild West” abound in our cultural imagination, especially when it comes to robberies. Jesse and Frank James, Billy the Kid, and the Dalton Gang are just some of the famous examples from history. However, one of the “Wild West’s” earliest and most infamous robbery syndicates was not from Texas or Arizona— but from Jackson County, Indiana. The Reno Gang, often credited with the “first train robbery in America,” were a gang of outlaws that roamed the Indiana and Missouri countryside in the 1860s, stealing loot from banks and county treasuries. At their peak, the Renos and their copycats stole nearly half a million dollars within a span of two years. The gang’s core consisted of four brothers—John, Frank, Simeon, and William Reno—alongside a cadre of counterfeiters, ruffians, and petty thieves. While their crimes became legendary, the community’s response proved equally legendary. Local sheriffs, Allan Pinkerton’s men, Canadian detectives, and the Jackson County Vigilance Committee all stove to exact justice on the Renos and their accomplices. In this blog, we will uncover the trail of destruction left behind, not only by the Reno Gang, but by those who punished them.

Frank Reno. Wikipedia.

Our story begins with a sprawling family in a small Indiana town. Wilkinson Reno, the patriarch, arrived in Jackson County as an upland southerner from Kentucky. He and his family settled on a 1,200 acre farm in Rockford, a town slightly north of Seymour. “Wilkes,” as he was called, married Julia Ann Reno in 1835, “a woman sprung from the Pennsylvania Dutch.” They had six children; five boys (Frank, John, Simeon, Clint, and William) and one girl (Laura). Clint never involved himself in his brother’s criminal activities, which gave him the nickname “Honest” Reno. Laura proved more of a sympathizer than an accomplice and defended her brothers’ honor her entire life. Growing up, the boys caused trouble by “playing crooked card games to bilk travelers” and allegedly involving themselves in a series of town fires. During the Civil War, some of the Reno brothers gained a reputation for “bounty jumping,” joining the army for recruitment money, deserting the post, and pocketing the cash. While this seems bad enough, the Reno brothers were just getting started.

Frank Sparks. Wikipedia.

After the war, they returned to Rockford, formed a gang with other bounty jumpers, and carried out a series of petty robberies in the community. However, they took their thievery to the next level by “blowing a safe at Azalia, Bartholomew County, Indiana, by which they got $10,000.” This all culminated in the first major robbery of the Reno Gang’s Career: the Ohio and Mississippi express robbery.

Indianapolis Daily Herald, October 8, 1866. Hoosier State Chronicles.

On October 6, 1866, John Reno, Simeon Reno, and Frank Sparks robbed the Ohio and Mississippi Railway express car on its way out of Seymour. As the Indianapolis Daily Herald reported, “two men entered his [conductor’s] car from the front platform, . . . presented revolvers at either side of his head, took his key, opened the local safe, and rifled it of all moneys . . . .” They then “threw one of the safes out, pulled the bell chord, and escaped as they had entered.” They were arrested five days later, after a “vigorous search was immediately commenced by citizens and detectives . . . .” Eventually, Wilkes Reno also faced arrest for his involvement in the robbery, though his exact crime remained unclear in the newspapers. Simeon Reno and Frank Sparks posted bail (at $2,500 each) and Wilkes and Jack Reno also posted bail, for “$8,000 and $1,000 respectively.”

Indianapolis Daily Herald, October 16, 1866. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Within two days, the Gang committed another robbery, this time at the Hendricks County Treasurer’s office. They made away with a cool $900 that “belonged the County Agricultural Association.” Over the next few months, the Renos attempted a few more robberies of county treasuries and local banks. In Elkhart County, they blew the doors off of the treasurer’s safe, only to find it empty. County officials, growing wise to the gang’s antics, removed the money and deposited it in the local bank. They left the office with only a measly $50. However, their break-in at Muncie’s Exchange Bank on November 12 proved a massive success, making off with “$12,000 in greenbacks, and $6,000 in United States bonds” before escaping into the night. However, they ended 1866 in failure after a botched attempt at blowing open the safe of the White County treasury. The Indianapolis Daily Journal published a warning just days after the White County attempt, taking a swipe at the robbers: “Burglars are operating extensively in all parts of the State. County Treasuries seem to possess great attraction for them, though their success in realizing any large amount of greenbacks by such raids is anything but flattering.”

Indianapolis Daily Herald, November 13, 1866. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Despite the warnings, country treasuries felt the wrath of the Reno Gang into the spring of 1867. Ripley County’s treasury lost $500 in a break in, but fortunately, the inner safe kept and saved $30,000 from being lost. DeKalb and Jackson counties proved more successful for the Renos, where their treasury break-ins resulted in $70,000 worth of stolen assets. The Journal published another warning to country treasuries, pithily commenting that “the funds on hand would be as secure if thrown into an empty box or barrel in the treasurer’s office, as they are in what are facetiously termed fire-proof and burglar-proof safes.” The Renos and their accomplices caused much trouble, but their copycats proved to be the beginning of the gang’s unraveling.

Indianapolis Daily Journal, March 16, 1867. Newspaper Archive.

On September 28, 1867, copycats Walker Hammond and Michael Colleran robbed the Adams Express on the Ohio and Mississippi railroad, almost a year after the Renos’ attempt, and made off with $10,000. Hammond and Colleran, while successful in their robbery, were not successful in their escape. The Renos knew their plans and watched the hold-up from afar, and as the copycats attempted their getaway, the gang cut them off and “relieved the robbers of their plunder.” In an even brasher move, the Renos left Hammond and Colleran to the authorities, where they served time while the gang got away with their cash. This appeared to be the last straw for the community and for the Adams Express Company. As a response to constant terror, Adams Express employed Allan Pinkerton, the famous private detective, and his agents to hunt down the Renos. Jackson County locals also formed their own vigilance committee, hoping to exact their own brand of justice on their community’s most notorious criminals.

Allan Pinkerton. Wikipedia.

Some of the gang began to feel the heat. John Reno and Frank Sparks fled to Missouri, where they carried out another series of robberies in Daviess County. Upon returning to Indiana, Pinkerton and his men surrounded Reno’s train in Indianapolis and arrested him. Sparks was also arrested near Seymour. Authorities sent John Reno back to Daviess County where he faced charges of safe robbing and summarily sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. His days with the Reno Gang were over.

The Holt County Sentinel, December 13, 1867. Chronicling America.

The gang continued, under the leadership of Frank Reno, well into the summer of 1868. On May 22, the gang successfully robbed the Adams Express on the Jeffersonville line in Marshfield, 17 miles south of Seymour. The Renos pocketed approximately $96,000 from cracking three safes. The Indiana Daily Sentinel provided great detail on how the Renos pulled it off:

While the train was thus watering on Friday night, six men approached it suddenly, and at once commanded an assault on the engineer and fireman, with a view to the capture of the engine. . . .One of them struck him [the messenger] a terrible blow with one of the crowbars over the right side of the head, crushing in the skull and inflicting a terrible wound transversely from near the top of the head to the temple. . . .This done, the robbers at once commenced their work. All the safes were either broken open and robbed, or thrown overboard at designated places to be robbed by confederates of the six on the train. They were most likely robbed, however, before they were thrown off the car.

An artist rendition of the Reno Gang. Legends of America.

This attempt proved to be the Renos last successful train robbery. They tried it again on the Ohio and Mississippi line on July 10, 1868, but were met “with a volley from the pistols of the guard inside. The robbers were driven off, leaving one of their number very badly wounded, who was brought to this city this morning.”

Terre Haute Daily Express, July 13, 1868. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Terre Haute Daily Express reported that “A party of men who were hunting the thieves . . . chased the gang into a thicket near Rockford, Indiana, and succeeded in capturing one, named Charles Roseberry.” It is likely that the “party of men” described in the piece were Pinkertons, because they brought Roseberry into town for medical treatment and questioning. Gang members John Moore, Henry Jerrell, and Frank Sparks also suffered intense injuries.

Indiana Daily State Sentinel, July 14, 1868. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The citizens of Seymour had had enough. The Express also reported that the “citizens of Seymour met last night and formed a vigilance committee.” They fervently believed that “Frank Reno was at the head of the late robbery” and that his accomplices were “petty thieves” whose amateur mistakes resulted in injured citizens and plundered treasure. The Daily Sentinel minced no words when it declared that “the best thing that could be done for Seymour would be to hang the leading scoundrels and drive the others away, which, we are glad to see, the citizens are now likely to do.”

Terre Haute Weekly Express, July 22, 1868. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Sentinel’s prophecy occurred far faster than anyone could have predicted. On the night of July 20, 1868, just 10 days after the Reno’s last train robbery, the Jackson County Vigilance Committee lynched Reno gang members Thomas Volney Elliot, Charles Roseberry, and Frelinghuysen Clifton near Seymour. “When the train reached a point two miles west of Seymour,” the Terre Haute Weekly Express noted,” it was stopped by a mob of about two hundred men from Seymour and vicinity, the guard [was] overpowered and the prisoners [were] taken out and hanged.” As he faced his inevitable fate, Clifton “wept like a child, swore that he was innocent of all crime, and implored them to spare his life.” As for the others, Roseberry “said not a word” and Elliot railed against his captors, saying “Confess h—l; I’ll tell you nothing; you’ve got me here, a thousand of you, now do your worst.” They were strung up to a beech tree, “struggled greatly, and died hard.”

Terre Haute Weekly Express, July 29, 1868. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Frank Reno, by contrast, made his way to Windsor, Canada and started a new life. The Adams express company offered a reward to anyone who brought him back, either dead or alive. Gang members Frank Sparks, John Moore and Henry Jerrell also fled the state but were captured by authorities in Coles County, Illinois on July 24. They then were transferred to Brownstown and kept under surveillance at the Adams Express wagon office until their transfer to Seymour. However, like the first three, they did not make it. As the Express recounted:

[On July 25], . . . seventy-five men noiselessly surrounded the wagon, overpowered the night guards, and in turn placed them under surveillance; the wagon was driven back under the fated beech, and in less time than it takes to tell it, upon the same three limbs [as the others], Frank Sparks, Henry Jerrell, and John Moore ended their lives of crime.

Indianapolis Daily Journal, July 27, 1868. Newspaper Archive.

Within days of the second lynching by the vigilance committee, Simeon and William Reno were arrested in Indianapolis, subsequently jailed in New Albany, and transferred to the Lexington jail in Scott County. Authorities rightly believed they would be safer there than in Jackson County. The criminal career of the Reno gang crept closer to a conclusion.

Terre Haute Daily Express, July 30, 1868. Hoosier State Chronicles.

While many viewed the actions of the vigilance committee as honorable, the Grand Jury of Jackson County thought otherwise. The New York Times reported that the Grand Jury would “make the most rigorous examination in regard to acts of the Seymour mob, and indict those whom it can be ascertained were engaged in the recent hangings, for murder in the first degree.” As for specific charges elsewhere, “a number of the persons engaged in this outrage have been indicted for murder by the Grand Jury of Johnson County, and are now under $10,000 bail each to answer to the Circuit Court.” The courts continued to emphasize that despite the Reno Gang’s crimes, the murderous acts of the vigilance committee could not be justified. The Indianapolis Daily Journal used it as an opportunity to be brazenly partisan. “To put it concisely,” wrote the Journal, “three more great outlaws have received their deserts – by an illegal process – and the Republican Party thereby incidentally derives a net gain of six.”

New York Times, August 12, 1868. Newspapers.com.

Meanwhile, Windsor Constable Sam Port and his team finally arrested Frank Reno and associate Charles Anderson for the robbery of the Adams Express and the attempted murder of its messenger, Thomas Hawkins. Upon arraignment, the courts dropped the initial charge of attempted murder against Hawkins, mainly from a lack of evidence. However, they were re-arraigned on another charge: the assault and attempted murder of Americus Holden, the conductor of the Adams Express. Chief Justice William Henry Draper, upon reviewing the evidence and arguments for this new charge, ruled in favor of the state and ordered Reno and Anderson to be extradited to the United States and tried there. The two criminals, possibly weary of what awaited them back home, attempted to break out of jail. Unluckily for them, Detective Pinkerton and his men prepared for the thieves’ antics, endured two failed assassination attempts, and successfully carried out their charge by the US Government to bring them back to the states.

New York Times, October 16, 1868. Newspapers.com.

As Pinkerton and his men brought the two fugitives back to Indiana, the Jackson County vigilance committee sought to continue their own brand of justice. In mid-September of 1868, the vigilance committee caught word that Simeon and William Reno were jailed in Lexington. A cadre of “eighty-five men” traveled from Seymour to Vienna, made the eight mile trek to Lexington on foot, and barnstormed the local jail. However, the Renos were not there. That did not stop them from trying. A messenger altered the mob that the brothers might be traveling by train. Some of the mob stayed in Lexington while the others stayed in Vienna. “When the train arrived, consequently, about six o’clock A.M.,” the Daily Sentinel noted, “the platform of the depot was crowded with strange men, whose faces were unfamiliar to the citizens of the village and passengers on the cars.” They searched the train and found that the Renos were not on board; sensing a problem, local law enforcement returned the prisoners to New Albany. Discouraged, the members of vigilance committee in Vienna took another train home to Jackson County. The Renos escaped their clutches, one last time.

Indiana Daily State Sentinel. December 14, 1868. Hoosier State Chronicles.

By December, Frank Reno, Simeon Reno, William Reno, and Charles Anderson all faced trial for their crimes. Prosecutors tried them in New Albany in an attempt to stave off the vigilance committee. Despite all the precautions and stop-gap measures the local authorities took to stop the bloodshed, the vigilance committee got exactly what they wanted. On the night of December 12, “sixty to seventy Seymour Regulators, masked and heavily armed” walked out of the New Albany station of the Jeffersonville railroad and proceeded toward the jail house. They barged in, demanded the keys from the sheriff, and completely surrounded the premises. Frank Reno “fought the regulators, knocking three of them down,” but was beaten to a pulp. William and Simeon also tried to fight them off but to no avail. Anderson, sensing the end, asked if he could say a prayer but was denied. The mob hung all four men within an hour,  commandeered a train, and left by four in the morning.

“Lynch Law in Indiana.” Harper’s Weekly, January 2, 1869. Internet Archive. This lithograph depicts members of the vigilance committee surrounding the New Albany jail.

Within a span of six months, the vigilance committee lynched 10 men of the Reno Gang, including three of the four brothers. After the carnage, the brothers’ bodies were returned to Seymour and buried in City Cemetery. Wilkes, Laura, John, and Clint Reno were all that was left of the one of Seymour’s most notorious families. As for Anderson, his remains were buried in New Albany. Newspapers decried the mob violence wracked upon the Renos. “This high handed and murderous deed deeply concerns every citizen of Indiana. It is a reproach upon the State, which it will take years to efface,” wrote the Evansville Journal. The vigilance committee felt little remorse for their actions, going so far as to publish a warning to criminals in the Cincinnati Times (later reprinted in the New York Times). “We deeply deplore the necessity which called our organization into existence; but the laws of our State are so defective that, as they now stand on the statute books, they all favor criminals going unwhipt of justice.” Despite their initial moralizing, a more ominous intention appeared towards the end. “Do not trifle with us,” declared the committee, “for if you do we will follow you to the bitter end and give you a ‘short shrift and hempen collar.’ As to this, our actions in the past will be a guarantee of our conduct in the future.”

New York Times, December 26, 1868. Newspapers.com.

John Reno, the last surviving brother of the gang, finished his prison sentence in February of 1878, after receiving a commutation by Missouri Governor Benjamin Gratz Brown. After his release, Reno spoke to the Indianapolis News about his future. “I’m a rattling good stonecutter . . . and have put up a shed in Seymour, where I intend to go to work,” he said. Unfortunately, stone cutting was not the only work he was doing. Reno went back to prison in 1885 for “passing counterfeit money in Indianapolis” and served another three years. Little is known of what happened after his second release from prison. He died in 1895. With his death, the Reno Gang finally gave way to legend.

Half Sheet poster for Love Me Tender, 1956. Elvis Worldwide Movie Memorabilia. In his first feature film, Elvis Presley played Clint Reno.

The Reno brothers and their gang perpetuated a crime wave in Jackson County the likes of which had never been seen. Their infamous status served as an inspiration for the pioneering short film, The Great Train Robbery (1903). It also directly inspired two feature films: Rage at Dawn (1955), starring Hoosier Forrest Tucker as Frank Reno, and Love Me Tender (1956), with Elvis Presley as Clint Reno. However, in a historical sense, the Reno Gang’s story is more than just the films it inspired. At its heart, these men were some of the first modern criminals in American history, using technology and organization to steal great fortunes with skill and ease. Law enforcement appeared wildly unprepared to handle them. As a result, a vigilance committee took justice into its own hands, committing horrible violence against the gang and leaving order up for grabs. In their eyes, the law couldn’t contain men like the Renos, so they had to do it themselves.

The graves of Frank, Simeon, and William Reno, Cemetery Park, Seymour, Indiana. Atlas Obscura.

The acts of the vigilance committee tell us as much about the period as the Renos do. In an era of vast economic, social, and political change, criminals took advantage of an antiquated system of law enforcement that was never designed to suppress them. When the system did not evolve, the citizens forced it, through vigilantism and lynching. Indiana would continue to have a problem with vigilante groups and lynching throughout the early years of the twentieth century. While no one would ever deem the Renos innocent, their gruesome deaths parallel the very crimes they were killed for. In that sense, the crimes of the Reno Gang and the violence they instigated belong in the legendary mythos of the “Wild West.”

Erich Muenter, Pro-German “Peace Crank,” Dynamites the U.S. Senate

Thomas and Lois Marshall

Thomas R. Marshall is not a household name anymore, even in his native Indiana.  But a hundred years ago, from 1913 to 1921, this former Hoosier governor served as Vice President of the United States. If Woodrow Wilson had ever died in office, Marshall would have become Indiana’s second native son to serve as Commander-in-Chief.

As fate had it, though, the Vice President himself had to contend with threats from “cranks” and would-be assassins.  Most were probably hoaxes.  But the man who actually dynamited Marshall’s office in 1915 turned out to be a strange “crank” indeed.

Anti-government and anti-capitalist terrorism in the U.S. has been around for generations — and its earliest practitioners weren’t Muslim. During the early 1900s, numerous bomb plots originating with the American labor movement targeted both high government officials and Wall Street.  Union men carried out a deadly plot on the Los Angeles Times building in 1910.  A Polish-American anarchist from the Midwest assassinated William McKinley in 1901. Anarchists also targeted industrialists, the occasional high churchman, and came close to blowing up St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in 1915.  (This week, in fact, marks the 100th anniversary of the anarchist “soup plot” that would have been Chicago’s worst mass murder.)

In July 1915, just a few days after an explosion rocked the U.S. Senate outside his private office there, the V.P. told the press that he had been getting death-threats in the mail for at least six weeks. Marshall considered himself “more or less a fatalist” and ignored these threats from “cranks.”  He threw the letters in the trash and never even informed the Secret Service.


Indianapolis Star, July 5, 1915

(Indianapolis Star, July 5, 1915.)


Because those letters went straight to the waste bin, it’s hard to say if there was any connection to the man who dynamited the Senate just outside his private office door a few minutes before midnight on July 2, 1915.

If John Schrank and John Hinckley’s motivation behind their attempts to shoot Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan seemed far-fetched — Schrank was told to do it by the ghost of William McKinley in a dream, and Hinckley wanted to impress actress Jodi Foster — the story behind Erich Muenter’s attack on the U.S. Capitol is even weirder.

At a time when nativists wanted to shut off immigration to the poor, Muenter — an immigrant — had taught at Harvard and Cornell.  He was also a wife-murderer, an Ivy League scholar, and lived an incredible double-life.  Maybe the expert on German literature knew a bizarre tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr, told when a printer accidentally spliced together an artist’s autobiography and the views of an opinionated tomcat.


Erich Münter 3

(The bomber Muenter, left, first came to notoriety in 1906, when he poisoned his wife Leona just days after she gave birth to their daughter.)


Erich Muenter was born in Germany and immigrated to Chicago with his parents at age eighteen.  He studied languages at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1899, then taught at the University of Kansas for a year before moving to Harvard in 1904, where he was a star doctoral student.  In Chicago in 1901, he had married Leone Krembs, daughter of a rich Milwaukee druggist. Friends in Kansas considered Muenter brilliant and thought that he knew virtually “every living language.”  The Muenters were hugely popular with students and faculty both at Kansas and Harvard.

The couple, it is thought, were “mystics” and Christian Scientists, rejecting medication in favor of faith healing.  When Leone died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in April 1906, a few days after giving birth to a daughter, Muenter — who had been slowly poisoning her with arsenic — thought that Christian Science gave him the perfect cover-up, but hastily tried to ship the body to Leona’s parents in Chicago for burial.  A Massachusetts doctor, however, performed a secret autopsy and uncovered traces of poison in her stomach.

Now dubbed the “Harvard wife murder,” Muenter fled from the law. In spring 1906, he became a national news sensation, with some papers touting spectacular, tabloid-like theories about why he had killed his wife.  One theory had it that Muenter, like Goethe’s Faust, was a “slave to science” and had taken the hunt for knowledge too far.


The Pittsburgh Press, April 29, 1906

The Pittsburgh Press, April 29, 1906 (2)

(The Pittsburgh Press, April 29, 1906.)


Guilty or not, the fugitive eventually slipped over the border to Mexico, where he hid out for a few years, working as a bookkeeper at a mining operation outside Mexico City.

Some time before 1912, under the alias “Frank Holt,” he came back to the U.S. and re-invented himself — as another version of Erich Muenter.  Holt, incredibly, even enrolled at Texas Tech as an undergrad in the German department.  The former Harvard instructor naturally shone as a star student in College Station. And Muenter/Holt must have had a thing for women named Leona, since he married a fellow language student, Leona Sensabaugh, daughter of a prominent Methodist minister in Dallas.  The Holts had three children together.  Leona Holt went on to teach Latin American literature at Southern Methodist University and eventually became its dean of women.

After teaching at SMU himself, Frank Holt returned to the Ivy League, landing positions at Vanderbilt and Cornell.  So it was that less than a decade after he killed his first wife, he returned to academia… by another route and as another man.


The Fort Wayne News, July 8, 1915

(The Fort Wayne News, July 8, 1915.)


Muenter/Holt had also become a German nationalist.  Though President Wilson was trying hard to keep America out of the bloodbath of World War I, many Americans thought the U.S. should enter on the side of Britain.  Others favored Germany.  Socialists almost universally opposed any American involvement at all, arguing that the war only played into the interests of Wall Street. Anarchists agreed.

Some pro-British Americans were already turning a profit from the war by shipping munitions to the Allies, often secretly.  A load of illegal explosives allegedly sent aboard the passenger liner Lusitania led a German U-Boat to torpedo it just two months before Erich Muenter dynamited the Senate.  Germany and its U.S. sympathizers considered this version of “neutrality” a sham.   Some went to extremes to protest it.

In 1915, “Frank Holt,” Cornell University professor, read a book by a former Harvard colleague of his — from back when Holt was Erich Muenter.  The book was The War and America by Hugo Münsterberg, a well-known pioneer in forensic psychology and a German sympathizer. (In 1918, Münsterberg’s book showed up on a list of pro-German works banned from Indiana libraries.)  Convinced by Münsterberg’s argument and angered by American financiers’ profiting off the war, Frank Holt offered his services to the American branch of the German intelligence unit Abteilung IIIB. Founded in 1889, this was a long-standing military spy unit, but during World War I it worked to sabotage arms-carrying vessels departing from U.S. ports.  The unit also allegedly supported Erich Muenter’s attack on the Capitol Building — then on J.P. Morgan, Jr., Wall Street mogul.


Aftermath of bombing of Senate Reception Room, July 1915


On the night of July 2, 1915, Muenter broke into the Capitol with three sticks of concealed dynamite.  The Senate was actually out of session and few people were in the building other than a nightwatchman.  Finding the door to the Senate chamber locked, Muenter set the package under a telephone switchboard next to Vice President Marshall’s office.  Reports differ, but the attacker then either set the timer for just before midnight “to minimize casualties” or the timer went off eight hours early.  He then boarded a train from Union Station bound for New York City.

The blast that ensued at 11:23 PM rocked the Capitol. The watchman and other witnesses thought the great dome was collapsing.  In reality, damage spread little farther than the Senate Reception Room and Thomas Marshall’s office.  No one was injured.

Using a pseudonym, Muenter mailed a letter to The Washington Evening Star, expressing anger at American financiers.  The dynamiter argued that he didn’t want to kill anybody, even posing as a friend to America who wanted to save lives and “make enough noise to be heard above the voices that clamor for war.  This explosion is an exclamation point in my appeal for peace.”  Some papers later called him a “Christian” and a “peace crank.”  The anti-war American Socialist press even appears to have sympathized with Holt.


The Fool-Killer, Moravian Falls, North Carolina, July 1915 (2)

(Socialists — like James Larkin Pearson, editor of North Carolina’s satirical The Fool-Killer, were almost always against the war.  Indiana Socialist and presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs went to prison for speaking out against it.)


Indiana’s Thomas Marshall confessed that “he naturally was startled when he heard of the explosion at the Capitol,” but didn’t think there was any “special significance” in the fact that the dynamite had been placed “within a few feet of his desk.”  Muenter, in fact, was probably bluffing when he told the police that he’d sought to blow up the Vice President.  Marshall was headed to St. Louis and Hot Springs, Arkansas, for Fourth of July festivities.


The Topeka Daily Capital, July 5, 1915

(The Topeka Daily Capital, July 5, 1915.)


Marshall in his Senate office

(Marshall, former Hoosier governor, at his office in the Senate.  The blast occurred a few feet from where this photo was taken.)


J.P. Morgan, Jr., son of the great financier John Pierpont Morgan, was less fortunate than Marshall.  If Americans in 2016 are outraged by the actions of “banksters” and the “1%,” so too was Erich Muenter/Frank Holt a century ago — alongside many Americans less prone to engage in political assassination.

The morning after the Senate bombing, Muenter broke into Morgan’s estate on Long Island.  An epitome of Wall Street, “Jack” Morgan was already reeling in millions of dollars from war loans to the Allies. He also arranged for ammunition from American manufacturers to be shipped on vessels to Britain.  Regardless of what side was right or wrong in that war (probably neither was), Morgan’s profiteering jeopardized “neutral” shipping and American lives on the high seas.

Angry at the millionaire, the strange language instructor — who had committed murder once before — took a gun and broke into Morgan’s mansion, where the Wall Street tycoon was having breakfast with the British ambassador, Sir Cecil Spring Rice. Muenter shot Morgan twice before servants subdued him with a lump of coal.  Press headlines announced that the “war-crazed crank” had also planned to take Morgan’s wife and children hostage until he and other tycoons agreed to stop financing the Allies.

The banker survived. Muenter was hauled off for interrogation by the NYPD’s Bomb Squad, which normally tried to protect New Yorkers from attacks by anarchists.


Erich Münter

(Muenter in police custody.)


The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, July 4, 1915

(The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, July 4, 1915.)


Early reports on the events in Washington and New York came just in time for the Fourth of July.  Newspapers were full of hasty rumors. The Indianapolis Star told its readers that the would-be assassin, now identified as Frank Holt from Ithaca, was a “crack-brained teacher, believing himself the agent of God to stop the flow of munitions to Europe” — and that he had also targeted President Wilson, which was not true.  Much of the news flashed through the press came from a confession Holt gave to a New York bomb detective.  That confession made him seem like a pacifist, bent not on extinguishing but saving human lives.


Indianapolis Star, July 4, 1915 (4)

(Indianapolis Star, July 4, 1915.)


Indianapolis Star, July 4, 1915 (5)

(Indianapolis Star, July 4, 1915.)


By July 6, investigators had begun to believe that Frank Holt was identical with the long-lost “Harvard Wife Murderer,” Erich Muenter, missing for nine years. As Muenter’s incredibly successful mask fell off, he tried to kill himself in jail, slashing his wrists with a lead pencil. The Cornell professor successfully committed suicide on July 6 at a jail in Mineola on Long Island by jumping to a concrete floor, though reports about his suicide varied, some saying that he cracked his skull and “dashed his brains out,” others claiming that he ate a percussion cap, since a loud explosion was heard in his cell.

“Frank Holt” wrote a death note to his wife back in Texas, which read: “Pray that the slaughter will stop,” a reference to the European war.  Newspapers reported that the dead man was slated to become head of Southern Methodist University’s French department that fall.  A large cache of explosives thought to belong to him had just been found on West 38th Street in New York.


Evansville Press, July 6, 1915

(Evansville Press, July 6, 1915.)


News readers must have been driven mad by the twists and turns of the thrilling tale, especially as the anti-war “agent of God” metamorphosed into a bizarre fugitive and “uxoricide” (wife-murderer), then an Ivy League professor, then… a ship bomber.

In his suicide note, Muenter told his wife that while en route from the U.S. Capitol to Long Island, he stopped in New York and put several half-pound sticks of dynamite on an oceangoing vessel bound for Europe. Holt didn’t say which vessel, but it was loaded with sailors and ammunition.  Wireless signals frantically fired the information out to sea, warning captains and crew to search their cargo holds for a bomb.  On July 9, 1915, two days after Muenter’s suicide and on the very day he predicted there would an explosion, the SS Minnehaha caught fire after a blast.  (The Minnehaha had been built by the same Belfast company that constructed the Titanic and was once sailed on by Mark Twain.)  The blast in the ship’s hold caused a dangerous fire but failed to ignite the high explosives on board.  The vessel scurried into Halifax harbor.  Ironically, two years later, in September 1917, the Minnehaha was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the southwest coast of Ireland, just a few miles from where the Lusitania went down with 1,200 innocent lives.


SS Minnehaha

(The SS Minnehaha carried weapons from the U.S. to Britain.  Bombs were also reported on several other steamers.)


Indianapolis News, July 7, 1915

(Indianapolis News, July 7, 1915.)


Handwriting experts connected some more dots, giving further evidence that Frank Holt and Erich Muenter were one and the same.

Back in Texas, Leona Holt was in shock.  Her family refused to believe that Frank was the “Harvard wife murderer” — ironically, Muenter’s family and Chicago in-laws had had the same reaction after his first wife’s death in 1906. Leona blamed her husband’s severe headaches, overwork, and the effects of skeletal tuberculosis.  She was also quick to urge that he “had no Socialist tendencies.”  His father-in-law, Dr. O.F. Sensabaugh, insisted that Frank was from Wisconsin and, though he may have been a German sympathizer, he could never have been the Harvard poisoner. Touchingly, Sensabaugh added that even “If Holt really was a man who had dropped to life’s bottom — and I can’t believe it — I take my hat off to him for the way he came back.  No man could have been a more lovable husband and father and a better friend than he was while I knew him.”  Friends and family were convinced this was all an incredible case of mistaken identity.

The U.S. Army, however, had to station a guard over Muenter’s gravesite at Dallas’ Grove Hill Cemetery to prevent desecration of the body.  The name on the tombstone still reads “Frank Holt.”

The press soon printed allegations that the fugitive Muenter, possibly a real psychopath after all, had sent a letter from New Orleans in 1906 threatening to “annihilate” Chicago and Cambridge for accusing him of poisoning his first wife — and that the real reason he fled Massachusetts was to escape the severe punishment that state inflicted on Christian Scientists whenever a death occurred after refusing medical treatment.


Indianapolis Star, July 8, 1915

(Indianapolis Star, July 8, 1915.  Muenter’s daughter Leona, born just days before her mother’s murder in 1906, lived in Chicago and was active in Democratic Party politics there into the days of Mayor Richard Daley.  She died as recently as 1996.)


The truth behind the tragic 1906 murder in New England — whose long shadow eventually spread over a Texas family, a powerful Wall Street tycoon, a U.S. vice-president, and others — may never be fully known.  But Erich Muenter’s subterfuge led to one of the oddest and most twisted news stories ever covered by the press.

Whether Germany’s sympathizers were right or not, the actions of its saboteurs and spies on American soil — which led to some fascinating rumors about the Kaiser’s cross-dressers in New York — did nothing to help “the Fatherland.”  By 1917, when America finally declared war on Germany, such actions and the press’ role in portraying “Hun barbarity” fueled the equally frightening anti-German hysteria that gripped the country.


Chronicling America has put together a list of related news articles on Erich Muenter’s “Reign of Terror.”

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

Mike Inik the Monomaniac

Mike Inik -- Winnipeg Tribune, December 21, 1916In a certain town in Indiana, whose name I don’t wish to recall, there lived a gentleman with a lance in the rack and an old suit of armor . .”

Not exactly the canonical opening of Don Quixote.  Cervantes’ classic Spanish novel told of the comic adventures of an old man of La Mancha whose brain had dried up reading books about knights-errant and who went to war on windmills, thinking they were giants.  What happened to Mike Inik, “just a U.S. lunatic,” is a little less clear.

On December 4, 1916, while wearing a bizarre homemade suit made out of iron armor and kitchen pans, 49-year-old Inik shot up the Lake County Superior Court in Hammond, Indiana.  His grievance?  The disputed decimal value of a disability check he’d hung onto for seven years.

Inik’s origins are obscure.  A Google search for the last name turns up just a couple of examples, most of them in Turkey.  The Lake County Times says he was an immigrant from the Balkans, which used to be part of the Ottoman Empire.  Mike, however, had been the town “character” in Whiting, Indiana, as far back as 1889, when he was injured by a piece of pipe that hit him in the back or head while working at a Rockefeller-owned oil refinery.  Another account said he fell off a scaffold.  At that time, the Whiting Refinery on Lake Michigan, founded the year of Mike’s injury, was the largest in the United States.  Today it’s owned by BP.

Doctors judged that Inik suffered from “monomania.”  No longer used as a psychiatric term, in the 1800s it denoted a form of pathological obsession with one thing — yet an otherwise sound mind.  On the 1880 U.S. Census, monomania was listed as one of just seven recognized categories of mental illness.  Monomaniacs ranged from misers like Ebenezer Scrooge in his counting-house, to Poe’s madman fixated on an old man’s “vulture eye,” to the criminal in a Sherlock Holmes story hell-bent on smashing busts of Napoleon. Maybe the gold-obsessed Spanish conquistadors could be thrown in there, too.

Inik, who dressed like a conquistador, directed his “monomania” at John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.


Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (12)
Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In 1913, Inik even allegedly traveled to Washington, D.C., to take up his case with the President.

Escanaba Morning Press (Escanaba, Michigan), February 13, 1913
Escanaba Morning Press, Escanaba, Michigan, February 13, 1913.

The Lake County Times account gives the impression that this “lunatic” touted his suit of armor around town for a long time — perhaps to protect himself from falling pipes?


Lake County Superior Court
Lake County Superior Court, Hammond, Indiana.

When he came to court on December 4 to hear another trial about the status of his disability settlement, Inik was wearing his protective covering and arsenal.  Oddly, it seems nobody noticed the weapons.  He even spoke with a county prosecutor in his office beforehand while wearing full battle regalia under his clothes.  The gear Inik carried consisted of four .38-caliber revolvers, clubs, and “hatchets galore” — including a saber, hammer, butcher knife, and blackjack, plus 165 rounds of ammunition.  Somehow concealed from view, Inik’s bizarre get-up was put together out of bits of galvanized iron, dishpans and washboilers.

As Judge C.E. Greenwald berated the injured man and told him to go home and take a bath, Inik became irate and suddenly opened fire.  He managed to get off seven rounds, injuring a bailiff and a juror, before a group subdued him.

Lake County Times, December 4, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (8)
Did he pose for the press photographer? Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 4, 1916 (4)

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 4, 1916 (5)
Lake County Times, December 4, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles. 

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (5)
Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (6 crop)
Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Thrown in jail in Crown Point, Inik quickly went on trial again for his mental health.  This time, Judge Walter Hardy consigned him to the “booby hatch,” the psychiatric ward or “colony for the criminally insane” at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.

What became of him after 1916 is a mystery.

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (14)
Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (1)
Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Eugene Debs, Jesus & the “Woman in Scarlet”

Eugene V. Debs

American politics often repeats itself every generation or two.  In light of some of the top stories in the media in 2015 — including Pope Francis’ U.S. visit and the first major candidacy of a Socialist for the White House since 1920, that of Vermont’s Bernie Sanders — one fascinating, overlooked tale from the Indiana press is worth retrieving from the archives.

The story starts in Terre Haute, hometown of Eugene V. Debs, the great American labor leader who, as a Socialist, ran for president not once, but five times.  A passionate leader of railroad strikes — Terre Haute a century ago was one of the major railroad hubs of the nation — Debs was also a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World and a vocal opponent of American entry into World War I. When he clashed with President Wilson over the military draft in 1918, he was sent to prison under an espionage act.  Debs spent over two years of a ten-year sentence at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta, where he ran for the presidency in 1920 — the only candidate ever to run a campaign from a jail cell.


ireland is free why not debs
“Ireland is Free, Why Not Debs? Bring Debs Home for Christmas.” A scene on Wabash Avenue in Terre Haute, 1921. President Harding commuted his sentence, effective Christmas Day.

In the summer of 1913, however, Eugene Debs came to the defense of a scorned young woman tossed into Terre Haute’s own city jail. Slandered in the press, she’d been called a “woman in scarlet,” a “modern Magdalene” and a street-walker.  Local papers and the American Socialist press jumped on the story of how Debs showed compassion for her, but today the tale is almost unknown.

The alleged prostitute was Helen Hollingsworth Cox (sometimes spelled Hollinsworth in the papers.)  Born in Indiana around 1888, she would have been about 25 when her case electrified the city, including its gossips. Helen was the daughter of the Reverend J.H. Hollingsworth, a Methodist minister in Greencastle, Newport, Terre Haute and probably several other Wabash Valley towns.

As Mont Casey, a writer for the Clinton Clintonian, explained, the Reverend Hollingsworth had angered some of his flock by preaching the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth rather than giving “more attention to society and the golf links.” Though Debs was a famous “non-professor” when it came to religion, he and Hollingsworth saw eye-to-eye on issues like poverty, it seems. (In fact, the agnostic Debs, son of French immigrants, had been given the middle name Victor to honor Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, the great novel of the poor.)  Yet Mont Casey wrote that the Socialist and the Methodist were close friends.


Greencastle Herald, July 28, 1913(Greencastle Herald, July 28, 1913.)


Some papers had apparently gotten their version of Helen’s “fall from grace” wrong, prompting Casey to explain her “true history.”  Set among the debauched wine rooms and saloons of Terre Haute, Casey’s version ventures into the city’s once-flourishing red light district near the Wabash River and the world of the “soiled doves,” a popular euphemism for prostitutes.  The scene could have come straight from the urban novels of Terre Haute’s other famous son in those days, Theodore Dreiser, whose Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt were banned for their sexual frankness and honesty.


Greencastle Herald, July 28, 1913 (5)Greencastle Herald, July 28, 1913 (6)Greencastle Herald, July 28, 1913 (7)

(Greencastle Herald, July 28, 1913.)


Helen’s minister father may have been denied a pulpit because of his interpretations of the gospel.  He also may have been living in poverty and unable to help his daughter.  This isn’t clear.

Whatever the truth is, the story went international, perhaps through the efforts of Milwaukee’s Socialist press.  (The Socialist mayor of Milwaukee, Emil Seidel, had been Debs’ vice-presidential running mate in 1912.)  The tale eventually made it overseas, as far away as New Zealand, in fact, where The Maoriland Worker, published out of Wellington or Christchurch, mentions that Debs was a designated “emergency probation officer” in Terre Haute.


Maoriland Worker 2
(New Zealand’s major labor newspaper carried “Did Debs Do Right?” on October 3, 1913.)

The fires were being stoked.  Terre Haute’s well-heeled “Pharisees” — the same type, many pointed out, who had killed “the rebel Jesus,” as Jackson Browne and the Chieftains put it in an Irish Christmas song — apparently weren’t happy about Debs coming to Helen Cox’s defense.  When he took the “modern Magdalene” directly into his home (the phrase refers to Jesus’ female disciple, who was also falsely labeled a prostitute in popular memory),  Debs declared that his “friends must receive her.”

Son of a formerly Catholic French mother but a freethinker himself, this was a remarkable moment for Debs — who famously said that he would rather entrust himself to a saloon keeper than the average preacher but who was anything but hostile to religion at its best.


Lake County Times, June 22, 1913


Lake County Times, June 22, 1913 (2)
Lake County Times, June 22, 1913 (3)Lake County Times, June 22, 1913 (4) (Lake County Times, June 22, 1913. Hoosier State Chronicles recently portrayed Muncie’s Alfaretta Hart, a Catholic reformer and policewoman who would have agreed heartily with Debs’ take on Imitatio Dei.)

A clip from the Washington Post added this excerpt from the labor leader’s remarks to the press:

Washington Post 1

That summer, Debs’ healthy “challenge to the Christianity of Terre Haute” was taken up in the pages of a unique monthly called The Flaming Sword.  Published at a religious commune near Fort Myers, Florida, the periodical was the mouthpiece of the Koreshan Unity, an experimental utopian community based partly on Socialist and Christian principles.  The celibate group living on the outskirts of the Everglades had been founded by Dr. Cyrus Teed (1839-1908), a former Civil War doctor turned alchemist and messiah who came down to Florida from Chicago in the 1890s.  Teed also propounded a curious “Hollow Earth” theory.

Dr. Teed was dead by the time Debs threw down his challenge to the churches, but the Koreshans printed a spirited, sympathetic editorial about it — written by fellow utopian John S. Sargent, a former Civil War soldier and Wabash Valley native.

The Flaming Sword 2
The Flaming Sword, Estero, Florida, August 1913. The Koreshan Unity lingered on until 1961, when Hedwig Michel, a refugee from Nazi Germany who had joined the group, donated the property for use as a Florida state park.

The Flaming Sword 1


Helen Hollingsworth apparently got back on her feet thanks to Debs’ help.  But she did lose her daughter, Dorothy, born in 1908, who was raised by the wealthy Cox family and Helen’s “reprobate betrayer.”  That was Newton Cox, “petted profligate of an aristocratic family,” who died in 1934.  During the Great Depression, Dorothy Cox married a banker named Morris Bobrow.  She died in New York City in 2000.

Helen’s father, Reverend J.H. Hollingsworth, passed away in 1943. The Methodist pastor had followed his daughter up to Michigan, where in the early 1930’s, she was living in Lansing and Grand Rapids, having married a news broadcaster named King Bard.  The 1940 Census shows that the Bards had a 17-year-old “step-daughter” named Joan.  The 1930 Census states that Joan was adopted, and that — confusingly — the married couple’s name was Guerrier, at first.  It’s not clear why they changed their last name to Bard during the Depression.  King’s birth name had been John Clarence Guerrier, the same name on his World War II draft registration card, which lists him as “alias King Bard.”

Eugene V. Debs died in 1926.  Helen Bard retired with her husband to Bradenton, Florida, where she appears to have passed away in May 1974, aged 86.


Indianapolis Star, July 20, 1913
Indianapolis Star, July 20, 1913.

The Anarchist Soup Plot

La Grande Observer (La Grande, OR), November 23, 1916You like alphabet soup?  Well, if an anarchist chef prepared it, you’d better take your spoon and dig out these letters first:  A-R-S-E-N-I-C.

One of the weirdest stories ever to spill out of the annals of Midwestern crime is the tale of a bumbling European anarchist named “Jean Crones” who, at a banquet in Chicago in 1916, attempted to assassinate the city’s Roman Catholic archbishop, the Governor of Illinois, and three-hundred priests, bankers, and city officials — not with bullets, but with bouillon.  The “soup poison plot” belongs in any encyclopedia of infamy.  It’s also a fascinating glimpse into one of American labor’s most turbulent decades.  Yet few have ever heard of it.  As part of our ongoing series on hoaxes, hysteria and rumors in the news, Hoosier State Chronicles wants to resurrect this old, mostly forgotten story.

When modern anarchism came to the U.S. in the late 1800s,  it was closely tied to the struggles of German, Italian, and East European immigrants.  While hurling bombs and bullets was an ill-considered way to foster social justice, the conditions these immigrants faced were dire and very real.  Anarchism’s philosophical roots, however, were among Europe’s elite.  (One early proponent of anarchy was the British philosopher William Godwin, husband of feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Frankenstein‘s author, Mary Shelley.)  Iron-fisted reactions to Europe’s 19th-century revolutions spurred philosophers and workers to declare that “Property is Theft” and to strive for the abolition of all governments, including democracies. Because anarchists promoted ideas like “free love” (which critics confused with promiscuity), state and church authorities tried to wipe them out.

While few anarchists ever committed outright acts of murder and mayhem, extremists occasionally wreaked havoc on American cities and police forces.  By the time of World War I, headlines about real and mythical anarchist bomb plots were common news.

Since most anarchists had immigrated from countries with state religions, their animosity toward priestly authority should come as no surprise.  During the Russian Revolution and on into the 1920s and ’30s, radicals (anarchists among them) in Russia, Mexico and Spain launched all-out wars on religion, desecrating churches and even “executing” statues of Jesus, not to mention priests and nuns, who often suffered especially macabre fates.

Yet if Chicago’s anarchists had wanted to assassinate any powerful “prince of the Church” in 1916, the worst choice was probably George Mundelein.


George Mundelein, circa 1916
Archbishop, later Cardinal, George W. Mundelein in 1916.

Mundelein was born in a poor working-class immigrant neighborhood, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in 1872 and grew up in tenement housing.  Son of a German father and Irish mother, his dual ethnic heritage was a major reason why, in 1915, the young Bishop of Brooklyn was chosen to head the Chicago archdiocese, ethnically diverse and also teeming with ethnic conflict even among fellow Catholics.  At age 43, Mundelein was the youngest American archbishop.  Over the years, the leader of Chicago’s Catholics turned out to be a major pro-labor voice, an important ally of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and a staunch enemy of Nazism and anti-Semitism — including that of Father Charles Coughlin, a controversial American radio priest whose show, broadcast out of Detroit, often attacked Jews and bankers.  A friend of the Catholic Labor Movement, Mundelein reiterated to American Catholics that “our place is beside the workingman.”

George Mundelein, then, was a rather strange target for an aspiring assassin’s vial of poison on February 12, 1916.   The scene of the crime:  Chicago’s prestigious University Club.


South Bend News-Times, February 12, 1916
South Bend News-Times, February 12, 1916.

Dining Room, University Club of Chicago, 1909
Dining room of the University Club, 1909.

Coming together to honor both Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and Mundelein’s installment as Chicago archbishop, about three-hundred guests attended — from Illinois Governor Edward F. Dunne and ex-Governor Charles Deneen to Chicago’s ex-Mayor Carter Harrison, Jr.  Most of the other guests were Catholic priests from all over the U.S.

As Chicago’s health commissioner, city police investigators, and a chemist from the University of Chicago later determined, someone that day slipped enough arsenic into a pot of chicken bouillon to kill two-hundred people or more.  Various accounts floated around of how the University Club avoided becoming the scene of what would still be the biggest mass murder in Chicago history — worse even than the crimes of the “arch-fiend” H.H. Holmes back in the 1890s.

One version of the tale was that a “miracle” occurred.  At the last minute, ninety-six guests showed up unexpectedly, prompting kitchen staff to resort to a time-honored remedy: watering down the soup.  Yet apparently the real disaster was averted by slow, talkative eaters.  As Monsignor Evers, pastor of St. Andrew’s Church in New York, told the Chicago Daily Tribune, some guests were “so engrossed in conversation” that they missed out on the soup altogether or had only eaten a spoonful or two by time their neighbors started to have stomach cramps.


Chicago Daily Tribune, February 14, 1916
Chicago Daily Tribune, February 14, 1916

With many diners complaining of sudden stomach pains, a doctor at the banquet suspected that the animal fat used to prepare the soup stock must have gone sour — normal food-poisoning, in other words.  He went to the kitchen and quickly prepared an “emetic of mustard” to induce vomiting. The result is unappetizing to consider, but the elegant dining room must have become a surreal and disgusting scene.  Yet the doctor’s speedy remedy probably saved many lives.  Scores of guests were sickened, some violently, but only one guest, Father John O’Hara of Brooklyn, died.  Archbishop Mundelein himself was unaffected by the lethal soup, but Chicago authorities kept him under a guard of 150 mounted police and detectives for the next few days.


Chicago Daily Tribune, February 14, 1916 (2)
Chicago Daily Tribune, February 14, 1916

Police quickly traced the foiled murder plot to a certain “Jean Crones,” assistant chef at the University Club, said to be about 30 years old.  Crones “often inveighed” against social inequality, said the Club’s officials.  When police raided his apartment, Crones the “souper anarchist” was gone, but investigators discovered a stash of anarchist literature (“a library of hatred,” says one paper), a chemical laboratory and all the evidence of poison they needed to go after him.

As the manhunt for Crones spread out, he or someone masquerading as him began to tease the police with flippant, irreverent letters, taunting the cops for being unable to find him.  These letters and other baffling clues began to pour in from all parts of the country.  When the story made national news the next day, a hotel in Binghamton, New York, reluctantly announced that it was confident Crones had been their assistant chef.  “Crones was remembered by his fellow workers here as a dabbler in chemistry and photography. . . One day the whim seized him to have his own likeness snapped, and he had one of his kitchen comrades aim the camera.”  That photo and an artist’s sketch were plastered over many American newspapers.

What happened next rapidly turned into a comedy of errors — one that went on for years.


Scranton Republican, February 21, 1916
Scranton Republican, February 21, 1916.

During the run-up to World War I, when the loyalty of German-Americans constantly fell under suspicion, unfounded reports came in that Crones was a German immigrant, a saboteur and spy for the Kaiser.  Other reports insisted that he was French or Italian.  A biography of celebrated anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti claims that “Jean Crones” was an Italian named Nestor Dondoglio. Chicago’s Police Department officially called off its search for the mysterious fugitive in 1919.  Yet Dondoglio evaded police until 1932, when he died on a farm in Connecticut where an Italian family had given him shelter.

Whatever the elusive truth behind  Crones identity was, for several years after the failed “soup plot” he became a sort of comedic bogeyman, stalking America from sea to shining sea.  Souper spottings occurred all over:  in rural Mt. Airy and Oxford, North Carolina;  in the mining town of Leadville, Colorado; and in towns so obscure they weren’t even spelled right in newspapers (like Spalding, Nebraska, and Moberly, Missouri.) Crones — or a clever prankster, or a whole team of anarchists — harassed the police from New York City to Portland, Oregon.  A chef from Iowa City was arrested simply because he looked like the photograph snapped at a kitchen in Binghamton, as was another chef from Chicago while passing through Springfield, Ohio.

Illinois State Attorney Maclay Hoyne surmised that the “poison souper” invented something called the “McKinney-Finn powders… given by waiters to non-tipping patrons in local hotels and cafes.”

Most of the so-called “appearances” of Jean Crones, however, are probably imaginary — or even deliberate hoaxes.  In some cases, it even sounds like the police might have used the poison-souper scare as an excuse to terrorize workers.  Others had more comic twists.


South Bend News-Times, November 25, 1916
South Bend News-Times, November 25, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 25, 1916
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 25, 1916

Wilimington Morning Star, February 2, 1916
Wilmington Morning Star, February 2, 1916.

Logansport Pharos-Tribune, February 24, 1916
A watchman in Logansport, Indiana, spotted the “poison souper” at a railroad crossing there less than two weeks after the crime, as did hundreds of other Americans. Logansport Pharos-Tribune, February 24, 1916.

Within a few days of his apparent escape from Chicago, the phantom assassin or his clever doppelgänger was on the West Coast, teasing Chicago police from a distance, mailing them his own fingerprints and threatening to kill “some bishop” out in Oregon:

Fort Wayne Daily News, February 23, 1916 (2)
Fort Wayne Daily News, February 23, 1916.

On St. Patrick’s Day that March, Chicago Catholics were still so jittery that the Irish Fellowship Club had to appoint an official food taster for its annual banquet.  He tasted every dish for over an hour.  And survived.

It’s very possible that prank-minded Americans were just having fun with the police and the press.  Yet by the summer of 1916, the spate of “J.C.” sightings was still pouring in:

Chicago Daily Tribune, July 23, 1916
Chicago Daily Tribune, July 23, 1916.

Chicago Daily Tribune, May 14, 1916
Chicago Daily Tribune, May 14, 1916.

Two of the most humorous and unlikely sightings occurred on the East Coast.  In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that May, locals were convinced that Crones had become a nun:

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern (Oshkosh, WI), May 15, 1916
Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, May 15, 1916.

Pittsburgh Daily Post, May 15, 1916
Pittsburgh Daily Post, May 15, 1916.

And in Luzon, New York, an undercover sleuth wearing false hair and whiskers was arrested by a town cop who was confident he had nabbed the elusive Crones at last.  The man turned out to be a 26-year-old private eye from New York City, busy investigating a theft of $250 from the Hygienic Brush Company.  In spite of this legitimate alibi, county prosecutors charged the man with “masquerading.”

Middletown Times-Press (Middletown, NY), February 28, 1916
Middletown Times-Press, Middletown, NY, February 28, 1916.

The real Jean Crones never surfaced.  Yet the fictional specter he evoked — that of the violent, supposedly illiterate immigrant bent on destroying American institutions and lives — took on a frightening reality of its own at a time when immigrant loyalty was suspect.

It’s often forgotten that the Communist witch hunts inaugurated by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s were preceded by a more substantial “Red Scare” after World War I.  In 1929, Italian anarchists detonated bombs in Washington, D.C. — an attack that nearly killed Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt — and possibly carried out the 1920 Wall Street attack, which killed 30 people.  The reaction threatened to close America’s doors to immigrants.

Like most Catholics, Archbishop Mundelein was a strong supporter of immigration.  He blew off threats of assassination by anarchists and the hostility of anti-Catholics, saying:  “I have come to Chicago to help and bless its people all I can, and I think this is the best way to disarm prejudice.”

A fiery and brilliant editorial in the Kentucky Irish American, a pro-immigrant paper published in Louisville, conjures up the fear that the figure of “Jean Crones” actually created among nativists. For immigration’s enemies, the anarchist threat was reason enough for Congress to all but close down Ellis Island.  (Ironically, the Hans Schmidt mentioned in this passionate editorial was a German-American Catholic priest convicted of murder, then sent to the electric chair at Sing Sing on February 18, 1916.  Schmidt’s execution occurred just a week after the anarchist soup plot in Chicago.)

Kentucky Irish American (Louisville, KY), April 15, 1916 (1)


Kentucky Irish American, April 15, 1916.


Cardinal Mundelein, the target of one of those rare immigrants who turned to violence, spent the next few decades speaking out on behalf of the working poor.  Perhaps the shocking event at the start of his days as leader of Chicago’s Catholics brought home the need for justice in his city and elsewhere.

He died in his sleep in October 1939, an honored man.

Mundelein's Body, 1939 (2)
Mundelein during his funeral mass, Holy Name Cathedral, Chicago, October 4, 1939. An impressive Chicago Tribune photo gallery celebrates his life.

Mundelein 1
Cardinal Mundelein in 1933.

Trail of the Arch-Fiend: H.H. Holmes

HH Holmes photo

In 1873, Mark Twain coined the term “The Gilded Age” to describe  a superficially prosperous America undergirded with massive social problems, corruption, even deep wells of horror.  One of the more literal terror tales launched onto the front lawns of American newspaper readers in the 1890s was the story of mass murderer H.H. Holmes.

Erik Larson reintroduced us to Holmes in his non-fiction thriller The Devil in the White City in 2003.  Larson’s gripping book is a dual history, partly the story of Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, designer of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and partly the story of Holmes’ “murder castle,” a kind of dark mirror of the expo. At this specially-designed hotel, the “doctor” may have killed up to two-hundred victims, mostly women.  Replete with hidden soundproof vaults, a gas chamber, an iron-plated room where Holmes torched people to death, a crematorium, a suffocation room, and other gruesome architectural twists, the World’s Fair Hotel on West 63rd Street in Chicago was a demented perversion of the vaunted celebration of “progress.”

Holmes had been trained at the University of Michigan’s renowned but infamous medical school.  Like Indiana medical colleges, Ann Arbor’s was under fire in the late 1800s for supporting the ring of grave-robbers who fed its dissection rooms with corpses ransacked from midwestern cemeteries.  Allegedly fascinated with death ever since his childhood friends stuck him in a closet with a skeleton in a New England doctor’s office, Holmes continued to dissect the dead in his gory Windy City hotel — though not for the anatomical instruction of future medical professionals.


HH Holmes University of Michigan graduation photo
Born Herman Webster Mudgett in New Hampshire in 1861, H.H. Holmes, graduated from med school in Ann Arbor in 1884. This is his graduation photo. His third wife, Georgiana Yoke, was from Franklin, Indiana.

Chicago’s worst serial killer had several Indiana connections.  One of his better-known victims, Emeline Cigrand, was a beautiful 20-something stenographer from Lafayette whose skeleton Holmes may have sold to Rush Medical College.  Nineteenth-century Americans are sometimes called “buttoned up” and guilty of “leaving things in the closet,” but newspapers published details about the doctor’s victims in stories like this one that would probably not be printable in 2015 due to privacy laws.  And the cross-over with medical history is disturbing, to say the least.

What might have been Holmes’ last murder — the dismemberment and burning of young Howard Pitezel, son of his main accomplice, Benjamin Pitezel — occurred in Irvington, the Indianapolis neighborhood now famous for its “paranormal activity.”  As the Indianapolis Star reported last week in a gossipy news piece, there’s a small chance that actor Leonardo DiCaprio will visit Indiana while filming Martin Scorsese’s new film adaption of The Devil in the White City.  The cottage that Holmes briefly rented in the fall of 1894, and where he killed Howard Pitezel before mutilating and burning his body, then sticking part of up it a chimney, sat at the corner of Julian and Bolton Avenues in Irvington.  The original house on that site supposedly burned down in the 1930’s, but the cottage there today looks similar.


HH Holmes site
The scene of the Pitezel murder in Irvington, where Holmes masqueraded under the name “A.E. Cook.”

Philadelphia police detective Frank Geyer and Detective David Richards of the IPD were hot on Holmes’ trail in Indy even before he murdered Pitezel in Irvington a couple of weeks before Halloween.  Yet it was three Iocal boys who discovered Howard’s charred bones in the chimney, a find recalled a year later in a long article printed in the Indianapolis Journal called “The Pietzel Bones” (August 22, 1895).  After Holmes was finally apprehended, Howard Pitezel’s mother testified before Marion County Coroner Hiram C. Castor.  Shown some of the “trinkets” found in the flue, Mrs. Pitezel “went into hysterics” in the Indianapolis courtroom.

H.H. Holmes had tried to start up another “death trap” in Fort Worth, Texas, but he was arrested in Boston in November, 1894, just a month after leaving Irvington.  Though put on trial in Philadelphia for killing the Pitezels, he confessed to thirty murders in Chicago, Indianapolis, and Toronto.  Like many criminals with huge, almost unbelievable records, Holmes might have been an accomplished liar — he claimed to have been possessed — but his confession was definitely shocking.

While he sat in jail, a fire consumed the macabre World’s Fair Hotel in August 1895, possibly started by a former accomplice.  On May 7, 1896, the “arch-fiend,” aged 34, was hanged at Philadelphia’s Moyamensing Prison, a place where another master of spectral gloom, Edgar Allan Poe, had once been imprisoned for public drunkenness.


Holmes - Indianapolis Journal, May 8, 1896
Holmes’ execution was covered in the Indianapolis Journal, May 8, 1896. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Terre Haute Semi Weekly Express, May 8, 1896
Terre Haute Semi-Weekly Express, May 8, 1896. Hoosier State Chronicles.

A few decades after his crimes made it into the press, Chicago’s own Jack the Ripper was slipping out of popular memory.  Yet in 1919, a discovery in Lake County, Indiana, brought him back into the news.

In court twenty-four years earlier, Holmes had mentioned killing two people near Schneider, a tiny town on the outskirts of the old Kankakee Marsh in southern Lake County, Indiana’s doomed “Everglades.”  The remote spot forty miles south of Gary almost exactly straddled the Indiana-Illinois state line.  Back then, it was close to a place called Lineville.

Lineville is obscure, but the papers located it twelve miles east of Momence, Illinois.  It must have been a tiny station or railroad switch right on the state line.  This was probably the kind of place where trains took on duck meat and frog legs hunted in the swamp to be cooked up for breakfast in the dining cars or sold at the Water Street Market in Chicago.  Lineville, Indiana, isn’t on the map today and was apparently “ghosted” more than a century ago.

The identity of Holmes’ alleged victims is a more interesting mystery than Lineville’s disappearance.  In October 1919, two skeletons turned up on Ira G. Mansfield’s farm.  This clip, published on October 22 in Hammond’s Lake County Times (currently being digitized by Hoosier State Chronicles) must have reminded many readers of the grisly string of murders that rocked the dark underbelly of the heartland back in the 1890s.

HH Holmes - October 22, 1919
Lake County Times, October 22, 1919. Hoosier State Chronicles.

HH Holmes 4

HH Holmes 3

HH Holmes - October 22, 1919 (1)HH Holmes - October 22, 1919 (2)HH Holmes 2

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.

The Intriguing Tale of Pogue’s Run: A Civil War “Battle,” Ghosts, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Ghost 2

When you dig through old newspapers for a living, you find out pretty fast that almost every street corner has an entertaining story and sometimes a haunt or two.  Like the once-wild Pogue’s Run, a harnessed underwater ghost that trickles through subterranean Indianapolis, most of these stories are “out of sight, out of mind.”

Here’s a glimpse of the spectral history of the capitol city’s Near East Side.

Pogue’s Run, which in 1914 was re-channeled underground just north of New York Street before it flowed through downtown in tunnels, owes its name to a man who also vanished from sight.   Generally considered the first permanent white settler in Marion County, George Pogue, a “broad-shouldered,” dark-haired South Carolinian and blacksmith, was also, according to some accounts, the first recorded murder victim and the only man ever killed by American Indians in Indianapolis.

Settling in this isolated part of the new Hoosier state in March 1819, Pogue built a cabin for his family of seven, roughly where Pogue’s Run goes underneath today’s Michigan and Market Streets.  The family’s cabin sat near the old swamp that used to occupy most of the northeast outskirts of downtown.  Also called Perkins Run after another early settler who left the area “on account of loneliness,” the old stream in 1819 was wild and often flooded, not the sad open ditch and sewage channel it had become just a few decades later.


Indianapolis Journal January 5 1890


As an Indianapolis Journal article from January 5, 1890, reported, around the first of April, 1821, a Delaware or Wyandotte Indian known to whites as “Wyandot John” showed up at the Pogue family’s cabin.  Rumor had it that the wanderer was an outlaw among the Delawares.  He was probably also a horse thief — one of the worst offenses in those days.

Mrs. Pogue objected to Wyandot John being around the cabin, but the blacksmith gave him breakfast.  Some of Pogue’s horses had gone missing, and the visitor told him to go over to a Delaware  camp on Buck Creek twelve miles away.

Striking out into the woods, George Pogue, like the creek that still bears his name, never came back.  His murdered body may have been sent floating downstream.  (In 2013, a jaw bone showed up at Garfield Park, prompting investigators to ask if it was George Pogue’s.)

Indianapolis Journal January 5 1890 (2)

As the young city grew, the often rampaging creek rapidly came to be considered a “source of pestilence.”  Before legislators moved the Indiana capitol north from Corydon in 1825, they allotted $50 to rid Pogue’s Run of mosquitoes, which bred the malaria that killed off many infant towns on the Midwestern frontier.  Even as late as the Civil War, what became the Near East Side was thought of as remote from downtown and practically wild country.

***

On May 20, 1863, the creek became the site of the so-called “Battle of Pogue’s Run.”  At the Indiana State House, approximately 10,000 Democrats — including Copperheads and suspected members of the pro-Confederate Knights of the Golden Circle — gathered to protest the Lincoln administration.  Two months before the Battle of Gettysburg, the war was going badly for the Union, and Lincoln had just passed the Emancipation Proclamation, which angered Southern sympathizers.  With tensions running high, a large military force kept an eye on the Democrats downtown.  (Under the leadership of Dr. Thomas Bowles, the founder of French Lick, Indiana, the Knights eventually plotted to kidnap Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton and violently overthrow the state government).

That May, as Union soldiers confiscated pistols from Democrats at the Legislature, the crowd boarded trains to get out of the city.  Stopped on the tracks, one train car was raided for weapons.  On another, passengers (including many women, whom the Democrats believed wouldn’t be searched) threw somewhere between 500 and 2,000 pistols, rifles, and knives out the train window into the creek.  Republicans lampooned it as the “Battle of Pogue’s Run.”

A ghost story from the era appeared in the Indianapolis News on January 29, 1889:

Pogues Run Elm - Indianapolis News January 29 1889 (2)

Traditions of a Haunted Elm Tree in the Pogue’s Run Bottoms.

Nowhere on Hoosier soil has nature nourished such giant trees as in the Pogue’s Run bottoms.  In the days when trees were not appreciated the hand of the destroyer felled nearly all the great elm, walnut and sycamore peculiar to this district, but here and there a few remain, stately testimonials of the old-time forest grandeur.  There are elm trees here and there along the run that are wonders in this day.  On East Michigan street, beyond the creek, is one monarch whose branches have a diameter of over a hundred feet, and close to this one is the stump of a burnt-out sycamore, still showing signs of life, in which a family could comfortably live.  The interior of the hollow tree is eight feet across in the clear.

But one tree belonging to this group is better known than all the rest.  It is sometimes called “hangman’s elm,” sometimes “the gallows tree,” and occasionally the boys of the neighborhood speak of it as “the home of the ghost.”

The neighbors don’t believe in spooks, but somehow or other tradition has handed down a ghost story that will not die.  The public records and the memory of the “oldest inhabitant” furnish no evidence on this point, but there is a story in the air to this effect:  During the war, one day when there was bloody news from the front, and when human life was cheap, the body of an unknown man was found hanging from this particular tree.  Soldiers who climbed the tree to cut down the body found a curiously concealed opening in the tree.  It was instantly concluded that the hollow interior of the elm should be the place of sepulture.  The body was lowered into the hollow tree, but apparently it struck no bottom.  Certainly it gave forth no sound in falling.

It may have been that the dust and accumulation of rotted particles of the tree’s heart had made a soft, deep bed within so that no sound of the falling body came forth.  Or was it possible that the spreading roots of the elm walled in a deep “cave of the winds” or well?  At any rate nothing was heard when the body tumbled to its uncertain grave.

The spot where the supposed burial tree stood long ago became part of the city.  The site is beautiful.  Lots have been sold and houses built all about it.  A stranger bought the lot on which the tree stands.  But he will never build there.  One of the neighbors says:

‘From the swaying branches of the old elm come mournful sounds of distress, and many a man passing that way has been horrified at the footfalls of invisible pursuers.  Dim figures are sometimes seen in the neighborhood, but these always retrace their cloudy way to the tree and are, as it were, swallowed up by it . . .’


elm tree


By the 1890s, much of the eleven-mile course of Pogue’s Run was an open, festering sewer pit, clogged with industrial, animal and human waste.  Newspaper accounts from the time suggest that one of the most polluted sections of the creek was in the Cottage Home neighborhood just west of the federal arsenal (the building later became Arsenal Tech High School.) In 1897, Indianapolis city commissioners were already considering turning the de facto sewer into a controlled sewage conduit, as the creek “pulled pranks” in the form of deadly floods, doubly disastrous considering the amount of bacterial waste in the water.  In 1890, the Journal spoke of its appalling and unsanitary “odoriferous waters,” which boys who “Worked Like Beavers”  dammed up to make a swimming hole in 1903 — “for bathing purposes.”

The idyllic landscapes painted by pioneer Hoosier artists Jacob Cox and Christian Schrader show the creek before it was fouled up in the late 1800s.


pogue's run swimming hole - jacob cox 1840

(Pogue’s Run Swimming Hole by Jacob Cox, 1840s.  This spot is now the site of Indianapolis Union Station.)


Pogue's Run Covered Bridge 1850s Christian Schrader

(This drawing by Christian Schrader shows the Pogue’s Run Covered Bridge, which once sat on the National Road near the intersection of College Avenue and East Washington St.)


Several old-fashioned bridges, made of stone and wood, crossed Pogue’s Run  in the 1890s.  Stories circulated that at least one of these, at the intersection of Highland Avenue and what used to be called Campbell Street, had a ghost.

The Indianapolis Journal ran the story in 1896.  (Campbell was renamed East North Street that September, three months before “The Pogue’s Run Ghost” came out on December 11.)  This Gilded-Age paranormal site is at 603 N. Highland Ave., less than a block west of Arsenal Tech’s tennis court.

Pogue's Run Ghost 1

Pogue's Run Ghost 2 Pogue's Run Ghost 3

Pogue's Run Ghost 4

Could the “specter” have been the fog of the creek — or was it the spooky miasmas of sewage elevating into the air?  (That sounds sinister enough to me)!

As far as I can tell, this piece of ghost-lore never showed up again in the city’s newspapers, and might have dropped out of memory altogether when a modern concrete bridge was put here.  But maybe Google’s Nine-Eyes sees what we can’t see?  Like this blurry spot on the new bridge, captured here in June 2014:

564 N Highland Ave (6)


564 N Highland Ave (5)


Pogues Run Bridges - Indianapolis News May 13 1905

(The Indianapolis News portrayed some of the old stone bridges that once crossed Pogue’s Run in May 1905, on the eve of a dramatic re-engineering project that sent it through tunnels downtown.)


One last, and arguably far more amazing, story :

A few steps south of the “ghost bridge” is a parking lot at 564 N. Highland Avenue.  For decades, this was the site of a small shotgun house owned and occupied by Louisa Magruder, daughter of Thomas Magruder, whom many believe to be the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom.

As Joan Hostetler has shown over at HistoricIndianapolis.com, Louisa Magruder lived next to the so-called ghost bridge from the 1870s until her death in 1900 at age 92.  The elderly woman must have heard these spooky stories, since she was probably the phantom’s closest neighbor.


Louisa Magruder


Louisa’s land along Pogue’s Run had once been part of a farm and orchard owned by Indiana Governor Noah Noble, whose father kept the Magruders in slavery back in Virginia and Kentucky.  The Magruders were freed when the Nobles moved north to Indiana around 1820, though they continued to be employed as servants in the governor’s family.  Louisa, who had been a nanny for the Nobles, lived along the creek for almost thirty years after the Civil War.

What might have been the real inspiration for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — her father Thomas’ house at the corner of East Market St. and North College Ave. — sat barely a mile southwest of her house in Cottage Home.  The novelist Harriet Stowe’s brother, abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, was a Presbyterian minister in Indianapolis in the 1840s and often visited the Magruder cabin, where he must have known her, and Stowe herself lived in Cincinnati.  As pioneer historian J.P. Dunn writes in his 1910 History of Greater Indianapolis: “It is the testimony of the Noble family that ‘Mrs. Stowe was a frequent visitor at Uncle Tom’s cabin, and wrote much of her book there’. . . Uncle Tom had but two children, Moses and his younger sister Louisa, and they were middle-aged people when Mrs. Stowe knew them.”


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Concat: staylor336 [at] gmail.com

George C. Harding: Editor, Prankster, Gunman

george c harding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Indiana_Artillery_Port_Hudson_LA_1863

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


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

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

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


george harding - dogs


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

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

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

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

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

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


grand hotel indianapolis 1889

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


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

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

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


george harding - mental condition


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

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

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

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

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


inland printer


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


george harding - indianapolis horror


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

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

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

MAY BE SLAIN

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


george harding - indianapolis horror 3


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

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

The Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail picked up the story:

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

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

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