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The Black Stork: Eugenics Goes to the Movies

The Black Stork 4

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

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

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

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


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

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

Indiana Historical Bureau state historical marker.

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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


The Black Stork 5


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

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

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


The Fort Wayne Sentinel, January 27, 1920.

The Black Stork 6


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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

“Gary Camel Caravan Alarms”

In the wake of one presidential hopeful’s recent call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., we thought it appropriate to share a humorous anecdote about Muslim immigrants in Hoosier history. This story also evokes a mostly-forgotten episode that saw Chicago’s great film companies use the Indiana Dunes as a stand-in for Mexico and the Sahara Desert.

The story came out in both the Gary Daily Tribune and Chicago Record-Tribune.  In the summer of 1910, if we can trust the Chicago reporter, some Muslim steel workers shouted excitedly, and maybe even suffered a bit of homesickness when the following scene played out in the streets of the new town of Gary.


Gary Camel Caravan -- Chicago Record-Herald, June 14, 1910

(Chicago Record-Tribune, June 14, 1910.)


The Gary Daily Tribune had a different take:

Gary Daily Tribune June 13, 1910 (4)

Gary Daily Tribune June 13, 1910 (6)(Gary Daily Tribune, June 13, 1910.)


In the early days of the silent movie industry, Chicago’s Essanay Studios predominated.  Not until the 1920s did the big film producers relocate to Hollywood.  Founded in 1907, Essenay’s headquarters were located in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. While best known for producing a series of fourteen Charlie Chaplin comedies in 1915 (The Tramp is the most famous), the company also turned out a few American movie “firsts” — including the first American Sherlock Holmes movie (1916) and the first American film version of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol (1908).  This producer of silent films also scored hits with actor Francis X. Bushman (1883-1966), once hailed as “the handsomest man in the world.”  One website calls him the “Brad Pitt of his day.”


bushman -- ben-hur 2jpg

(Bushman played the corrupt Roman tribune Messala in director Fred Niblo’s 1925 adaptation of another Middle Eastern tale with Hoosier connections.  Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ was based on the 1880 novel by Indiana author Lew Wallace, who served as U.S. Minister to Turkey from 1881-1884.)


Chicago’s own sand dunes had mostly been destroyed by 1910, though just a hundred years earlier, they had been the scene of the dramatic beheading of frontier Hoosier soldier and Indian agent William Wells.  (Wells, a white captive from Kentucky after whom Wells County was later named, was killed on the beach during the Battle of Fort Dearborn in 1812.)  With the growing city looming up on Lake Michigan’s western shore, historic films set in exotic or far-away places had to be filmed across the lake in Indiana.  In spite of its proximity to Chicago, swampy northwest Indiana was the last part of the state to be settled and was still largely undeveloped in 1900.

Some of the films Essenay at least partially shot in the area that became Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore include one called Lost in the Desert.  That movie seems to have gotten lost itself, but it was apparently part of a series of films by American actor William V. Mong.  (Two of his earlier films are entitled Lost in the Jungle and Lost in the Arctic.)

According to an article in The Times of Northwest Indiana, Mong played a “British officer who escapes from Bedouin bandits and wanders aimlessly in the desert until the cavalry rescues him. . .”

In a strange tale of life imitating art, [Mong] became lost in the Dunes after he fell asleep under a tree and the crew left without him. Mong was made up for his role, his clothing in tatters and a leopard skin covering his shoulders.

When he awoke, Mong couldn’t find his way out of the Dunes and was forced to spend the night, suffering from a lack of water and tormented by mosquitoes.

The next morning a trapper from the village of Crisman, making his way through the marshes, was startled to see a ragged, unkempt, half-naked man with long hair and a beard.  The strange figure was stumbling through the sand, carrying a club.  At times it paused, tried to shout, then moaned inarticulately, and went on his way.  The frightened trapper hurried back to Crisman to tell what he had seen. A sheriff’s posse tracked down and rescued the lost man about sunset.

The trapper might have been even more scared if he’d come across Mong in the costume he wore in a 1921 film adaptation of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  Mong appeared as the wizard Merlin.

A similar film was made in the Dunes in June 1910, Lost in the Soudan, by the Selig Polyscope Company.  This was definitely the film that brought an unusual camel caravan parading through the streets of Gary, Indiana — to great acclaim from a segment of the town’s Muslim steelworkers.  Lost in the Soudan starred the great cowboy actor Tom Mix, an early predecessor of John Wayne.


Dunes camels

(Filmmakers on the set of Lost in the Soudan, partly filmed in the dunes near Miller Beach, Indiana, in the summer of 1910.  Other films made there include The Fall of Montezuma, set during the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, and The Plum Tree, a tale of the Mexican Revolution. The Plum Tree used a regiment of the Illinois National Guard, who impersonated “Revolutionists” and “Federals” in a pitched battle filmed in an Indiana ravine.)


Theodore Roosevelt riding a Camel, Khartoum, Sudan

(Ex-president Theodore Roosevelt, left, riding a camel in Egypt or the Sudan, 1910.  The man riding the other camel is the English-Austrian soldier, General Rudolf Carl von Slatin, who publicly converted to Islam to win the support of his soldiers.)


We take the Chicago Record-Herald’s statement on faith that the crowd who encountered a film company’s camel caravan in Gary in 1910 were actually Muslim.  While some of the first immigrants ever to come over the Atlantic were Muslim — including an estimated 15-30% of the slaves carried here from Africa — the great wave of voluntary Muslim immigration to the U.S. didn’t really begin until just before World War I.

Yet according to a recent history of Islam in America,  Bosnian Muslims had settled in Chicago and Gary, Indiana, by 1906, and they may have been the group that shouted “Allah! R-r-r-uum!” at the movie camels on Broadway in Gary.  In the 1910s, Bosnians were also working in the copper mines around Butte, Montana, in and played a role in the labor struggles there. In 1906, Bosnian Muslims established a Dzemijetul Hajrije (Benevolent Society) in Chicago to provide mutual aid and help pay for funerals and healthcare.  That society soon had a branch in Gary.  By 2007, it was estimated that three-quarters of Bosnian Muslims in the U.S. lived in the Chicago-Milwaukee-Gary area.

As the Ottoman Empire collapsed, Muslim immigration picked up after 1918.  It’s an interesting fact that one of the first mosques and Muslim cemeteries in the U.S. was founded by Syrian Muslims in Ross, North Dakota, in 1929.  (Ross, a town in North Dakota’s remote Badlands, had a population of just 97 in 2010, though those numbers were much higher a hundred years ago.)  Another mosque was soon built in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1934.  Contrary to popular images, the Midwest has long been one of the cradles of Islam in America, with large numbers of Muslims, for example, settling around the auto factories of Dearborn, Michigan.

Several hundred thousand Middle Eastern Christians, mostly from Syria and Lebanon, also came to the U.S. in those years.  (Famous Syrian Americans include former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, tech wizard Steve Jobs, filmmaker Terrence Malick, and actor F. Murray Abraham, who played composer Antonio Salieri in Miloš Forman’s Amadeus.)

As for camels in the U.S., their history, too, goes back farther than you might think.

In a 1909 article in Popular Science Monthly, Walter Fleming, who taught at Louisiana State University, claimed that the Spanish had brought camels to Cuba for work in mines and that the English had unsuccessfully tried out the use of dromedaries in Virginia in 1701. Fleming wrote that the English also gave camels a go in Jamaica, but the beasts were rendered useless when their feet got infested by Caribbean “chiggers” — a bug well-known to anybody who has hiked around grassy Hoosier fields in the summer.

In the wake of the Mexican War, the U.S. Army experimented with a short-lived camel corps in the 1850s.  During Franklin Pierce’s administration, the War Department — then headed by Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis — tried out the practicability of using camels in the arid Southwest, which prior to exploration Americans still thought of as mostly a barren, useless desert.  Under the command of U.S. Admiral David Dixon Porter, who had previously served in the Mexican Navy, the navy vessel USS Supply sailed to the Mediterranean and picked up thirty-three camels in North Africa, Turkey, Malta and Greece.


Camel corps 2

(An awful drawing from the Report of the U.S. Secretary of War, 1857, showing the transport of Middle Eastern camels on a ship bound for Texas.)


Jefferson Davis

(U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis helped start the Camel Corps.  The experiment led to the arrival of a group of Muslim caretakers for the camels.)


Jefferson Davis had seen Texas and the Southwest himself as a colonel in the Mexican War.  Fleming wrote:

Davis, late colonel of the Mississippi Rifles, made extensive studies in regard to the different breeds of the animal, its habitat, the proper care of it, and its adaptability to the arid plains of Texas, New Mexico and California. . . In March, 1851, he proposed to insert in the army appropriation bill an amendment providing the sum of $30,000 for the purchase of fifty camels, the hire of ten Arabs, and other expenses. In support of his measure he made a speech reviewing the history of the camel as a servant of man and explaining the need for the animals in the west.

According to a correspondent for the Times-Picayune, “three Arabs and two Turks” landed with the USS Supply in New Orleans in 1856. They traveled with the camels on to Matagorda Bay, Texas, and beyond “to attend to their wants.”  Some sources claim these men were actually Greek.


Raftsman's Journal, July 2, 1856

(Raftsman’s Journal, Clearfield, Pennsylvania, July 2, 1856.)


These Middle Eastern dromedaries were used in the Federal government’s war against the Mormons in Utah in the 1850s.  While they came to be well-liked by some soldiers, the advent of train transportation made them impractical.  The U.S. Army tried using camels to carry the mail between New Mexico Territory and California during the Civil War, though the camels were based primarily out of Camp Verde in the Texas Hill Country.

Lincoln’s war secretary Edwin Stanton ordered the beasts to be auctioned off in September 1863, yet sixty-six of them were still in army possession at war’s end.  A few had fallen into the hands of Confederates during a raid on Camp Verde.  One camel was said to have been at Vicksburg, Mississippi — in Jeff Davis’ home state — when that town was under siege in 1863.

Walter Fleming also reports that in the 1870s, miners were using some of the ex-army camels to transport salt and cord-wood between California and Nevada silver mines.  Others figured into a popular camel race in Sacramento just after the Civil War.  Like those who remained in Texas, however, these may have been interbred with commercially-imported animals brought in at a later date by speculators in San Francisco who thought the animals would prove popular in mining, logging, and perhaps even agriculture.  By 1910, however, the only industries that found camels especially useful were the Ringling Brothers Circus and Chicago’s film industry.


Ukiah Daily Journal (Ukiah, CA), May 9, 1968

(Ukiah Daily Journal, Ukiah, California, May 9, 1968.)


Most of the beasts brought over from the Mediterranean aboard the USS Supply — or their descendants — had apparently vanished by the early 1890s, when the last of them was reported to have been seen in Arizona.  That one might have been shot.  In fact, strange, scary stories had begun to circulate about the creatures.

By 1890, “ghost camels” had entered the folklore of the desert Southwest.  At least one of these tales about the feral descendants of Jefferson Davis’ Army Camel Corps followed an old trajectory of Irish and American folklore.  The humped creature carried around a headless rider.  In another version, the devilish-looking beast carried the full skeleton of a rider who had died atop its back.   Still another tale involved a Southwestern camel that was seen eating a bear.

News reports about the survival of these wandering dromedaries, believed to have been the abandoned beasts of the Army Camel Corps, kept on coming in.  In April 1934, one alleged survivor who had been taken to the Los Angeles Zoo was crippled by paralysis and had to be put down by zookeepers there.  Another siting of a “ghost camel” occurred near the ghost town of Douglas, Texas, in 1941. Newspapers were still syndicating these stories in 1968. Smithsonian Magazine even saw fit to re-tell a bit of the story earlier this year.


Anderson Herald (Anderson, IN), April 18, 1968

(Anderson Herald, Anderson, Indiana, April 18, 1968.)


The legend of the “Red Ghost,” in fact, lives on as an “Arizona oddity.”  Likewise, the tomb of Hadji Ali.  A Greek-Syrian born in 1828, Hadji Ali converted from Christianity to Islam, performed the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and was living in Algeria working for the French Army when the USS Supply came looking for camels.  Hadji Ali joined the U.S. Army service, coming to California as a camel tender in 1857, later becoming an American citizen in Arizona Territory in 1880.  He worked as a scout and mule packer for the army and participated in the campaign against Apache chief Geronimo.

Nicknamed “Hi Jolly” by neighbors who couldn’t pronounce his name, Ali prospected for minerals on the edge of the Mojave Desert near the Colorado River until his death at Quartzsite, Arizona, in 1902. Following his death, the fascinating pyramid that marks his grave site — erected by fond locals — became one of the roadside attractions of the Grand Canyon State.


Hadji Ali and Bride, Tucson

(Hadji Ali, alias “Hi Jolly,” and his bride Gertrudis Serna in Tucson, Arizona, 1880.)


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

DeWeerd, who “grew to be Jimmy’s ‘hero’ during high school years,” is also thought by several biographers to have molested or had a relationship with Dean, whom most scholars now recognize as having been bisexual.  Hoosier State Chronicles won’t weigh in on that — many people in Fairmount dispute it — but the charge against DeWeerd continues to be a controversial and interesting part of James Dean scholarship.


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Hoosier Actress — and Spy? — Who Became a German Silent Film Sensation

Fern Andra 3

“Eine der beliebtesten und bekanntesten Schauspielerinnen des deutschen Stummfilms… One of the most beloved and best-known actresses of the German silent movie industry.”

That’s the verdict of Die freie Enzyklopädie, Germany’s homegrown Wikipedia.  Yet this actress who skyrocketed to about a decade of European fame wasn’t German.

In the days when German Expressionism was pushing cinema forward — Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was probably the greatest film of the 1920s, alongside the silent horror classics Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — Fern Andra was almost a household name in Germany.   Yet her roots were deep in the American Midwest.   In addition to acting in bloody horror flicks, Fern worked as an American spy, married a German baron and a boxing champion, fell from the sky almost to her death with one of Germany’s great fighter pilots, and even tangled with one of the most evil men in history.


Fritz Lang 1

(Weimar-era German cinema was known for its revolutionary costume artistry, stage design, and the creative genius of its women.  One of the great characters of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was a “gynoid” robot called Maschinenmensch. C-3PO’s cinematic grandmother was played by actress Brigitte Helm, who died in 1996.  Lang’s movie was based on a novel by his wife, Thea von Harbou.)


Fern Andra was born Vernal Edna Andrews in 1894 in Watseka, Illinois, a small Kankakee Valley farm town about fifteen miles west of Kentland, Indiana.  Her parents were William P. Andrews and Sarah Emily Evett, also known as Sadie.  When Fern’s father died in 1898, Sadie remarried Frank St. Clair, a vaudeville actor, circus performer, and tight-rope walker.

Learning stunts from her stepfather, Fern began her stage career at the Stephens Brothers Opera House in Watseka.  Aged ten or eleven, she headed to Chicago with a theatrical troupe, performing at the Globe Theatre.  Between about 1905 and 1913, Fern went to school in Hammond, Indiana, where her mother and stepfather had relocated.  Sadie St. Clair owned or rented a house at 184 State Street and later lived in Gary.  Her daughter was remembered as a “Hammond girl” and would often come back and visit her family in northwest Indiana.

It’s not clear how she evaded her classes in Hammond, but by age fifteen she was part of the Millman Trio.  Headed by the famous high-wire walker Bird Millman, the trio performed for President Taft at the White House in 1909.  (Born Jennadean Engleman, Bird later became a dancer in the great “theatrical juggernaut,” the Ziegfeld Follies.)

By 1914, when World War I broke out, 20-year-old Fern had gone to Europe, where she was a popular stunt performer and minor stage actress.  That year, she found herself trapped in Germany.  But since the U.S. didn’t go to war against the Kaiser’s armies until 1917, she wasn’t considered an enemy alien and was even offered movie contracts. As “Fern Andrée,” she had already appeared in silent short films called Das Ave Maria (1913) and Mondfischerin (“The Fisher of the Moon,” 1914).  During World War I, the midwestern actress starred in over twenty German films.  She had probably become fluent in the language by then, but since these movies were all silent, her nationality wasn’t important. . .  until she was accused of being an American spy.

Fern Andra -- Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah), November 27, 1927
Ogden Standard-Examiner, Ogden, Utah, November 27, 1927.

The details are sketchy, but sources agree that Fern — who now went under the sultrier stage name “Andra” or even “The Andra” — was at least detained by German police.  In the 1950s, she claimed that her personal acquaintance with Kaiser Wilhelm himself saved her.  “I was accused of spying for the Allies,” she remarked:

It was true, but not for the reasons they thought. Actually, I was a courier, memorizing coded messages and repeating them to American contacts in Copenhagen…  I was lucky. I was a movie star at the time, living in Berlin and a friend of the royal family.  To save me, it was arranged for me to marry Baron Frederick von und zu Weichs, a member of the Hohenzollern family.

The rumor in America, however, was that Fern had been condemned to death by a firing squad.  Gossip about her death came out in the Hammond paper just three days before the war ended.


Fern Andra - LC Times, November 8, 1918
Ogden Standard-Examiner, Ogden, Utah, November 27, 1927.

Bavarian Baron Friedrich von und zu Weichs was said to be a nephew of Zita, the last Empress of Austria.  Fern and Friedrich were married September 28, 1918, and the “Hammond girl” immediately became Baroness Weichs.  About a month later, just a few weeks before the war ended, her husband was killed on the Western Front.

Fortunately, she’d come into some money.  By 1919, when the former Hoosier girl made the front page of the Lake County Times, Baroness Fern, who had briefly been detained as a P.O.W., was running her own film company in Berlin.


Fern Andra -- LC Times, May 3, 1919
Fern Andra — LC Times, May 3, 1919Lake County Times, May 3, 1919.

Lake County Times, May 3, 1919. Hoosier State Chronicles. 
Fern Andra -- LC Times, May 3, 1919 (2)
Lake County Times, May 3, 1919. Hoosier State Chronicles. 

Though its military was banned and its economy was in shambles, as the Jazz Age dawned, Germany entered a period of cultural brilliance known as the “Weimar Era.”  Berlin in the 1920s was chaotic but saw the rise of iconic German geniuses like the Bauhaus architects, Expressionist filmmakers and painters, and some of the best-known German philosophers and writers.  Fern Andra was part of this incredible, if often bizarre, cultural cocktail.

In 1920, she played a leading role in a new Stummfilm (silent film) called Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire.  Made by filmmaker Robert Wiene, Genuine was filmed in the same vein, part-horror/part-fantasy, of Murnau’s vampiric Nosferatu.  Fern plays a high priestess, named “Genuine,” who steps out of a painting and comes to life, then turns to bloodsucking.  In one scene, Andra caused a sensation by appearing in an outfit that had merely been painted onto her body.  Though it starred the actress hailed by many as “the most beautiful girl in Europe,” Wiene’s film wasn’t well-liked and critics called it a failure.  Twenty-first-century moviegoers would like it even less, but its stage design and outrageous costumes are still interesting — if only for the background, which evokes the kind of graffiti you could see sprayed on the side of a Burlington Northern freight car.


Fern Andra in Genuine
Fern Andra played a painting come to life in the 1920 film Genuine.

Genuine
Genuine played at the Marmorhaus on the Kurfürstendamm in 1920.

Fern Andra 1
Fern in a characteristic Weimar-era outfit.

When Genuine hit the silver screen, World War I was over.  But in 1921, Fern Andra was involved in a famous accident that cost the life of one of Germany’s greatest fighter pilots.

Lothar von Richthofen was the younger brother of Manfred van Richthofen, best-known to Americans as the “Red Baron,” Germany’s ace warrior of the sky.  Manfred was shot down and killed over France in April 1918, but Lothar was almost as famous.  After the war, he worked as an airmail pilot and taxied passengers between Hamburg and Berlin.

On July 4, 1922, while flying Fern Andra and her director Georg Bluen into Hamburg’s Fuhlsbüttel Airport, Richthofen’s engine gave out and the plane crashed.  The great pilot was killed, but Andra and Bluen, though injured, survived.


Lothar von Richthofen
Lothar von Richthofen died while flying Fern Andra to Hamburg in 1922.

In 1923, the Hoosier beauty married German middleweight boxing champion Kurt Prenzel, who had been interned as a POW at Knockaloe on the Isle of Man.  In 1925, Prenzel saved his wife from being bitten by a supposedly rabid dog and suffered a bite that kept him from boxing for about a year, a fact that reportedly figured into their divorce around the time he emigrated to New York City in 1928.


Fern Andra and Kurt Prenzel
Fern and her second husband, German boxing champion Kurt Prenzel, circa 1925. He had fought African American boxer Jimmy Lyggett, Sr., around 1920.

Ogden Standard-Examienr, Ogden UT, November 27, 1927
Ogden Standard-Examiner, Ogden, Utah, November 27, 1927.

In addition to acting, Fern wrote or directed about twenty German films, but called her German film career quits in 1927.  Her last movie made there was Funkzauber (Radio Magic).   Until about 1930, she remained active in the Hollywood film business, and even married actor Ian Keith in Tijuana, Mexico, in 1934.  Keith would star as Octavian in Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra and as Bill Thorpe, a Louisiana gambler, in the John Wayne film The Big Trail.  Andra and Keith divorced in Chicago a year after their wedding.

Meanwhile, she was paying visits to her mother, Sadie St. Clair.  In the 1930s, Sadie was living at 636 Washington Street in Gary, Indiana, in “a crowded flat over a furniture store.”  The address is right across the street from one of Gary’s most iconic and photographed ruins, the abandoned City United Methodist Church.  Though it has sat empty and gutted since the late 1970s, plans are on the table to transform the old church into a European-style “ruin garden.”  The German Expressionists would have been the first to use this gloomy Rust Belt ruin in their films.  One can easily imagine the specters of F.W. Murnau and Robert Wiene creeping out of the choir stalls, and Fritz Lang would have been fascinated by the fiery steel mills and modernist clamor of Gary before the city slipped into decline.


Lincoln Evening Journal, Lincoln, Nebraska, December 22, 1923
Lincoln Evening Journal, Lincoln, Nebraska, December 22, 1923.

Fern Andra with Mother
Fern with her mother on board a steamship, circa 1930. Sadie St. Clair, daughter of Midwestern pioneers, died in Hessen, Germany, in 1955. Her ashes were scattered in the Iroquois River in northern Illinois.

Springfield Republican, Springfield, MO, February 28, 1924
Springfield Republican, Springfield, MO, February 28, 1924.

Ferna Andra passport photo 1921 (5)
Andra’s emergency passport application, 1921.

Though she was spending most of her time in California by this time, Fern’s involvement with Germany wasn’t over.  In the early 1930’s, she challenged the rise of Nazism.  The militaristic party of thugs opposed almost everything Weimar culture stood for, to the point of burning its books and destroying its art.

There had once been unconfirmed rumors that Fern had had a love affair with Adolf Hitler’s “Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.”  Andra apparently knew the despised propagandist Joseph Goebbels before his rise to power, and she remembered him later as a “mousy tutor.” (Goebbels had studied philosophy at the University of Heidelberg and was the perfect example of a good education gone awry.)  In 1937, Andra and Goebbels clashed over the freedom of foreign artists to be active in Nazi Germany.  She had even testified before the U.S. Congress about the Third Reich’s discrimination against non-Aryan artists.

Engaging in a “verbal fusillade,” according to one account, Goebbels and Andra got into a fight during which the Propaganda Minister threatened to imprison her.  He then systematically went about trashing her reputation, even claiming that she was a Hungarian impostor, not an American.  If sources are correct (and there’s a chance they’re exaggerated) Fern escaped by plane into Romania, then headed back to the United States.  Since she spoke fluent German, she aided the Allies during World War II by broadcasting radio messages into Germany.  Her enemy Goebbels, Hitler’s master of lies, committed suicide in 1945 — after murdering his own children.

Fern Andra continued to visit and live in Germany after the war.  In November 1954, she was photographed talking to Baroness Kunigunde von Richthofen, mother of Manfred and Lothar.  They met up at the American Civilian Club in Wiesbaden.


Fern Andra with Richthofen's mother 2
Fern Andra, right, with “The Red Baron’s” mother, Wiesbaden, Germany, 1954.

Fern and her fourth husband, a playwright and soldier from Connecticut named General Samuel Edge Dockrell, seem to have lived in Wiesbaden and New England until the early 1970s, but often visited the Midwest.  They eventually moved to South Carolina, where Dockrell died two days after they got there.

Baroness Fern Andra, Hammond girl, succumbed to cancer at Azalea Woods Nursing Home in Aiken, South Carolina, at age 80 on February 8, 1974.

Her fame vanished in the 1940s, and few Americans would know her name today.  But Hoosier State Chronicles would like to put her back out there as one of the most interesting women who has ever lived within the borders of our state.