Tag Archives: politics

This Day in Indiana History: The “Black Day” of the General Assembly

The Indiana State House, photograph by Earl Brooks. Indiana Memory.

During intense political battles, particularly in the legislative branches of government, shouting matches sometimes turn into full on fights on the floor. This is especially evident with the intense, but weirdly funny, videos of legislators beating each other up. One from Time magazine, called “Politician Brawls Caught on Tape around the World,” displays this weird juxtaposition of suited politicians acting like completely foolish children. However, it would be naive to think that this type of behavior is limited to the present. In fact, one incident in Indiana’s legislature during the late nineteenth century demonstrates that political brawls go back much further.

Governor Isaac Gray, 1884 engraving, Indiana Memory.

Beginning as an electoral dispute that turned into outright violence, the “Black Day” of the Indiana General Assembly remains one of the darkest moments in Indiana political history. In 1885, Governor Isaac P. Gray, who had recently assumed the office, expressed public interest in an Benjamin Harrison’s U. S. Senate seat when Harrison’s term expired in 1888. The Republican-turned-Democrat Gray’s aspiration hit a snag when his lieutenant governor, Mahlon D. Manson, resigned. Some critics charged that Gray could not vacate the governorship if there was no successor in place. After consulting with Attorney General Francis T. Hord, Hord recommended that the lieutenant governor’s vacancy be filled at the next election in 1886.  Gray trusted that the Democratic nominee for the office, John C. Nelson, would win. Instead, the Republican challenger, Robert S. Robertson, won the election, thereby yoking the Democratic Gray with a Republican successor.

The Republican controlled house recognized the election, but the Democratic controlled senate fought the outcome.  As a countermeasure, Democrats defended their own Senate President, Alonzo Green Smith, and backed his move to be lieutenant governor, instead of Robertson. As the Indiana State Sentinel reported, “Indiana presents the singular spectacle of a State having an acting Democratic Lieutenant-Governor and a claimant for his seat in the person of a gentleman recently elected Lieutenant-Governor by Republican votes.”

Alonzo Green Smith, Indiana State Sentinel, March 2, 1887, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Robert Robertson, Indiana State Sentinel, March 2, 1887, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The 1886 lieutenant governor’s race contentiously pitted Democrats against Republicans. Smith even “appeared in the Circuit Court and instituted proceedings to restrain Robertson from assuming any duties of the office to which he claims to have been elected.” The court ruled against Robertson, but its decision was overturned by the Indiana Supreme Court on February 23, which gave Robertson the impetus to try to take his seat as president of the senate. The situation reached a tipping point on the morning of February 24, 1887. Lieutenant-Governor Elect Robertson tried to be seated in the chamber as president of the senate, but Smith would not allow it. Robertson pushed through the crowd into the chamber and demanded his seat, but Smith again denied him. At this point, according to the Indianapolis Journal, doorkeeper David E. Bulger stopped Robertson, catching him “by the throat, and with the other hand by the shoulder. Holding him thus for an instant, he threw him some fifteen and twenty feet from the steps” of the chamber’s dais. Robertson defended his right to be there, his “position to which the people elected me.” After some more rumblings inside the chamber, Smith declared, “If this man persists in speaking, remove him from the floor.”

Indianapolis Journal, February 25, 1887, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Robertson was forcibly removed from the chamber, and fighting and chaos broke out in the Senate chamber and its nearby hallways. Some legislators were even seriously injured. In regards to one incident, the Indianapolis News reported:

The trouble between Senators McDonald and Johnson occurred in about this way: . . . McDonald took hold of him, probably with no belligerent intention, and he was pushed over the arm of the sofa, near the door, when he got up. McDonald still had hold of him and Johnson struck him between the eyes, and then each man tried to impair the facial beauty of the other, but the crowd prevented. . . .Doorkeeper Pritchett [who] looked like he had been through a thrashing machine.

Indianapolis News, February 24, 1887, Hoosier State Chronicles.

It led to a complete breakdown of the state legislature that lasted throughout the 1887 session. As the Indianapolis News noted, “The one universal comment is that all legislation is now at an end. The two houses are running counter, or at least independent of each other. The house will never recede from the position taken yesterday, and advice is coming in from all directions that there must be no compromise now.”

Terre Haute Weekly Gazette, March 3, 1887, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The next day, Robertson attempted to be seated again but was “denied by the doorkeepers.” Not furthering legal action again Green and the Democrats, Robertson was never seated, and his election as lieutenant governor was never formally recognized. These ruckus machinations ruined Governor Gray’s campaign for the U.S. Senate and even fueled the campaign for the direct election of senators, which became the Seventeenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in 1912. Overall, the “Black Day” of the General Assembly remains one the darkest and most unsettling moments in Indiana political history. It reminds us that while the rancor and partisanship of our own time is certainly upsetting, historically speaking, it’s been much worse.

Consulted Works

  • Justin E. Walsh, The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1816-1978 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1987).
  • Mitchell Walsh, Dennis L. Walsh, and James E. St. Clair, “Isaac P. Gray,” in The Governors of Indiana, ed. Linda C. Gugin and James E. St. Clair (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society and Indiana Historical Bureau, 2006).

Some material for this blog originally appeared on my other historical blog, IGA History: http://bit.ly/2lzzZrJ.

The Crusader: J. Frank Hanly and the Election of 1916

Indiana Governor J. Frank Hanly. Courtesy of WikiCommons.
Indiana Governor J. Frank Hanly. Courtesy of WikiCommons.

Did you know that three Hoosiers appeared on national tickets for president or vice president in 1916?  The Democrats ran Thomas R. Marshall of Columbia City for re-election in 1916 alongside President Woodrow Wilson.  The Republican Party tabbed President Theodore Roosevelt’s former vice president Charles W. Fairbanks of Indianapolis as the running mate of GOP presidential nominee Charles Evans Hughes.  You may ask, who was the third Hoosier running for president or vice president in 1916?  If you guessed Terre Haute-native Eugene V. Debs, you would be wrong.  After being the  Socialist Party presidential nominee four times from 1900-1912, Debs sat out the 1916 campaign before running again (from prison) in 1920.

The third Hoosier and national party candidate in 1916 was a man who is not well-known today, but was a former governor of Indiana, and an influential leader in the prohibition movement.  As a third-party challenger, J. Frank Hanly ran as the Prohibition Party presidential nominee during the 1916 election. Founded in 1869, the Prohibition Party campaigned for laws to limit or ban the sale and manufacture of intoxicating liquors.  The party nominated candidates for office, but only found real success with local elections.  For Hanly, his candidacy in 1916 served as the culmination of decades of advocacy for making Indiana, and the nation, dry as a desert.

The Hanly Family Home in Williamsport, Indiana. Courtesy of Newspapers.com.
The Hanly Family Home in Williamsport, Indiana. Source: Indianapolis Star, May 7, 1904.

According to a 1904 profile in the Indianapolis News, James Frank Hanly was born on April 4, 1863 in Champaign County, Illinois. His early life exemplified the rough-hewn stereotype that politicians of the era both yearned to have and exploit when useful. As the News wrote, “The world had nothing to offer the cabin boy but poverty. His parents lived on a rented place and sometimes the Hanly’s wondered where the sustenance of coming days was to come from.” Hanly, described as a bookish child, reveled in debate during his schoolhouse days and had “victory perched on his banner very often.” With his mother blinded early in his life and the family thrown into even more intense poverty, Hanly was sent to live with friends of the family in Williamsport, Warren County, Indiana.

He held odd-jobs throughout his early years in Indiana, most notably ditch digging and teaching, before gaining an opportunity from a local judge named Joseph Rabb. Rabb provided Hanly with the tools to take the bar exam. After passing the exam, Hanly began work at Rabb’s office. Nearly two years later in 1890, he founded a law office with partner Ele Stansbury. Equipped with skills of law and oratory, Hanly was a natural fit for the role of public service. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1894 and served one term; his reelection was dashed due to redistricting. After some considerations for a seat in the U.S. Senate, Hanly decided to run for governor of Indiana in 1904 and won, defeating Democrat John W. Kern by 84,000 votes, according to the Plymouth Tribune.

Indianapolis Journal, November 8, 1894. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Journal, November 8, 1894, from Hoosier State Chronicles.
Governor J. Frank Hanly and military officers at Fort Benjamin Harrison Camp of Instruction, 1906. Courtesy of Indiana Memory.
Governor J. Frank Hanly (Center) and military officers at Fort Benjamin Harrison Camp of Instruction, 1906. Courtesy of Indiana Memory.

Hanly served as Indiana’s Governor from 1905-1909 and his tenure was marked by a controversial fight over Hanly’s central political issue: the sale of alcohol. He committed his tenure to enacting a stronger form of public policy in regards to the liquor traffic. In an op-ed for the Jasper Weekly Courier, Hanly wrote:

Personally, I have seen so much of the evils of the liquor traffic in the last four years, so much of its economic waste, so much of the physical ruin, so much of its mental blight, so much of its tears and heartache, that I have come to regard the business as one that must be held and controlled by strong and effective laws.

Jasper Weekly Courier, April 10, 1908, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

The type of “strong and effective laws” that Hanly wanted came in the form of a “county local option bill,” which Hanly foisted upon the Indiana General Assembly via a special session. This law strengthened the intent of the Nicholson Law, which required extended waiting periods for liquor licenses. Hanly saw this as the first step towards state-wide prohibition, but his opposition saw it as an opportunity. Due to his heavy-handed use of executive power during 1908, the Republican gubernatorial candidate James E. Watson was easily defeated by the Democratic challenger, Thomas Marshall.

Plymouth Tribune, September 24, 1908. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Plymouth Tribune, September 24, 1908, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hanly was undeterred. He reaffirmed his position against alcohol in a rousing speech at the 1908 Republican National Convention reprinted in the Indianapolis News. Concerning the liquor traffic, Hanly declared:

I hate it as Abraham Lincoln hated slavery. And as he sometimes saw in prophetic vision the end of slavery and the coming of the time when the sun should shine and the rain should fall upon no slave in all the republic, so I sometimes seem to see the end of this unholy traffic; the coming of the time when, if it does not wholly cease to be, it shall find no safe habitation anywhere beneath Old Glory’s stainless stars.

To Hanly, the sale of alcohol equaled slavery in its immorality, and akin to his political hero, viewed his indictment of alcohol as righteous as Lincoln’s position on slavery (at least on the surface).

Over the next eight years, Hanly dedicated himself to his cause with a near-religious fervor. He wrote and published pamphlets calling for stricter laws for state liquor trafficking and for nation-wide prohibition. He also formed an organization called the Flying Squadron Foundation that routinely gave speeches throughout the country in defense of outlawing alcohol.  He also founded a prohibitionist newspaper, the National Enquirer (not to be confused with the supermarket tabloid).

Lecturers of the Flying Squadron, a prohibitionist organization founded by J. Frank Hanly, 1917. Courtesy of Indiana Memory.
Lecturers of the Flying Squadron, a prohibitionist organization founded by J. Frank Hanly, 1917. Courtesy of Indiana Memory.

All of his activism proved valuable by the election of 1916. Originally, Hanly received the Progressive Party’s nomination for governor, after he ran unopposed in the March primary. Despite support from the party and the voters, Hanly felt ambivalent about his nomination. As the Indianapolis News reported, Hanly “spent nothing and made no promises when a candidate before the primary for the Progressive nomination as Governor.” The Progressive Party, in some respects, was a poor fit. Even though Hanly alienated himself from mainstream Republican politics due to his strict prohibitionist views, his dedication to fiscal conservatism and limited government did not align with the Progressives. While Hanly internally debated accepting the Progressives’ gubernatorial nomination, another political party began recruiting him for an even higher office.

Indianapolis News, June 15, 1916. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, June 15, 1916, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

In June 1916, Hanly abandoned the Progressive Party, and declined the nomination for governor. Later that summer, he received the Prohibition Party nomination for President of the United States. The Indianapolis News and the Indianapolis Star reported that Hanly would gladly accept this charge only after the party decided to abandon a plank in their party platform supporting “initiative, referendum, and recall” elections, which Hanly saw as anathema to his limited government views. The party acquiesced to Hanly’s demands, which later drew criticism from an editorial in the Indianapolis Star and later reprinted in the Jasper Weekly Courier.  On the day of his nomination, Hanly reiterated his resolve to the cause of Prohibition and argued that “legislative enactments, administrative action, judicial decision and constitutional amendment—all shall be used for its [alcohol’s] dethronement.” In eight short years, Hanly went from Republican, to reluctant Progressive, to ardent Prohibitionist.

Dr. Ira Landrith (Left) and J. Frank Hanly (Right) shaking hands at their nomination ceremony for the Vice-Presidential and Presidential nominations for the Prohibition Party, respectively. Source: Indianapolis Star, August 9, 1916.

His disassociation with the Republican Party led to a fairly embarrassing episode reported in the August 15 issue of the Indianapolis News. The paper wrote that, “state officials are wondering how a picture of J. Frank Hanly got on the wall in [Ed] Donnell’s office [at the state printing board’s office]. Mr. Hanly, former Governor of Indiana, is now the nominee for President on the Prohibition national ticket.” A little over a week later, on August 28, the portrait disappeared. When asked how it left, Donnell “referred questioners to [J. Roy] Strickland, who disclaimed all knowledge of any theft, other than to declare that he understood the picture had been confiscated by the Democratic state committee.” The installation and later removal of the painting remains a mystery, but this story exemplified one conclusion that many political observers were making about the Prohibition Party candidate: the major parties were done with him too.

Indianapolis News, August 28, 1916. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, August 28, 1916, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hanly’s presidential campaign began later that August with an announcement from Hanly and his Vice-Presidential running mate, Dr. Ira Landrith, that they would conduct a “two-months’ tour of the country, will stop at approximately 600 towns.” The slogan for their campaign was “A Million Votes for Prohibition.” As part of the Prohibition Party’s push for a million votes, Hanly heavily criticized the major party candidates, Republican Charles Evans Hughes and incumbent Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. On the issue of prohibition, Hanly said that “President Wilson has not changed his mind on the liquor question, not in the last six years, at least, but we know that during these six years he has changed his mind on every other question which has come before him.” Of Hughes, Hanly remarked that the Republican nominee “stands for nothing.” By supposed contrast, Hanly and Landrith stood for women’s suffrage, an eight-hour work day, environmental protections, and military preparedness in line with the Monroe Doctrine alongside its desire to end the liquor trade.

Indianapolis News, November 10, 1916, Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, November 10, 1916, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

By November 1916, the Prohibition Party appeared confident in their chances for some electoral success. The Indianapolis News covered their claims of success at a rally in Auburn, Indiana. “Ira Landrith, the vice-presidential candidate,” the News reported, “declared there now are 167 electoral votes in “dry” states; that next year there will be 200, and in 1930 there will be 300.” Their optimism was misplaced, for the election returns told a different story. Hanly and Landrith only captured 221,302 votes, or only 1.19 percent of the popular vote. They neither secured the one million votes they campaigned on, nor picked up a single electoral vote. Wilson won the election with 277 electoral votes and 49.25 percent of the popular vote. The Indianapolis News highlighted that the level of the vote for the Prohibition Party had dropped in Marion County alone by nearly 500 votes, from 1241 to 744, and throughout the State of Indiana, Hanly only garnered 16,680.

Indianapolis News, November 20, 1916. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, November 20, 1916, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

Of the returns, Hanly was delighted despite his small showing at the polls.  He stated, “I believe that of all the presidential candidates at the last election, I am the happiest. The returns were no disappointment to me.” Despite the Prohibition Party’s electoral loss, the prohibition movement made great strides after the election. The News wrote“More than one-third of the people of the whole nation now live in territory where prohibition will be effective.” After the election Hanly remained an active prohibition proponent.  He played a key role in lobbying for the state-wide prohibition of alcohol by 1918, two years before the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandated prohibition across the United States. Hanly celebrated its implementation by introducing National Dry Federation President William Jennings Bryan at a meeting in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis News, August 2, 1920. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, August 2, 1920, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hanly’s lifelong efforts advocating for prohibition came to an end with his untimely death on August 1, 1920, at the age of 57. He had been “fatally injured in an automobile accident near Dennison [Ohio],” reported the Indianapolis News. His funeral was held at Meridian Street Methodist Episcopal Church and he was buried in Williamsport, Indiana. In a eulogy by Indianapolis Phalanx publisher Edward Clark, Hanly was hailed as a “a national leader in the greatest moral and political reform of the century.” Clark concluded, “[Hanly] has ended life’s combat and laid down the weapons he wielded so heroically and so valiantly.”

Historian Jan Shipps argued that the choices Hanly made during his political career may have been pure opportunism, the mark of a true believer, or somewhere in the middle. The last argument seems to be the most accurate, because Hanly appeared to be a bit of both, at least in the press. He was an astute, masterful politician who used the workings of power to achieve his own prerogatives. At the same time, he was a deeply religious man whose moral judgement animated him to act as a crusader against alcohol. As Edward Clark’s eulogy intimated, Hanly knew that “to announce himself as a party prohibitionist meant unpopularity, scorn, ridicule, abuse, and political oblivion—but he hesitated not.” While he never saw the effects of Prohibition, both good and bad, in his state or in the country, Hanly’s contributions to the movement should not be neglected in our understanding of the era.

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

Woman's Feathered Hat circa 1913

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Bird of Prey, Punch, May 14, 1892

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


Woman's Feathered Hat 4

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


Millinery advertisement, 1911

(Millinery advertisement, 1911.)


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

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


Hummingbird Skins at Millinery Sale, August 1912

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


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

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


Recreation, April 1902

(Recreation, April 1902.)


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

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


The Inter Ocean, Chicago, April 8, 1910

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

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

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


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


Seymour Daily Republican, January 25, 1913

(Seymour Daily Republican, January 25, 1913.)


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

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


Spotted Tail

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


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

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

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


Indianapolis News, February 4, 1913

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


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

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


Indianapolis Star, January 19, 1913


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

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


Indianapolis Star, February 13, 1913

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


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


Indianapolis Star, March 3, 1913 (2)

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


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

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

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

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


Cloche Hat

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


Contact: staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

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 Fall of the House of Ford

lincoln indiana

Exactly 150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln, who spent part of his rail-splitting boyhood in Spencer County in southern Indiana, fell victim to the bullet of the 26-year-old actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater.  Soon, the president’s body headed west by train, stopping in Richmond, Indiana, for a public viewing at 2:00 in the morning on April 30, then on to Indianapolis and Michigan City, with short stopovers at small Hoosier train stations along the way.

In a downpour, possibly fifty thousand Hoosiers viewed Lincoln’s open casket in the rotunda of the old State House.  (At a time when the population of the capitol city was less than 40,000, the crowd of black-draped mourners must have been a spectacle in itself.  Many were African Americans clutching copies of the Emancipation Proclamation.)  Just before midnight, a carriage brought the president’s coffin through the rainy streets of Indianapolis, lit by torches and bonfires, to Union Depot, where it departed north by train for the south shore of Lake Michigan, en route to Chicago and eventually to Springfield, Illinois.


lincoln funeral michigan city

(Lincoln funeral cortege in Michigan City, 8:00 a.m., May 1, 1865.)


An exhibit running through July 7 at the Indiana State Museum, So Costly a Sacrifice: Lincoln and Loss, includes some actual “relics” of that fateful Good Friday in 1865 when Booth shot Indiana’s favorite son.  Among the artifacts are a few that seem like medieval religious relics:  clothing with spots alleged to be the blood of Honest Abe, and  a piece of the burning barn in Port Royal, Virginia, where the assassin met his own fate at the hands of a Union soldier, the eccentric street-preacher Boston Corbett.

One of the most interesting things to me about the Lincoln assassination and the funeral that came after is the apparent curse on the people and even the physical things involved in it.  Poe’s Raven could be telling the story, and the bird of death keeps on talking, quawking not “Nevermore” — just “More.”

What happened to Booth and Corbett is pretty bizarre and appalling.  Basil Moxley, a doorman at Ford’s Theater who claimed that he served as one of Booth’s pallbearers in Baltimore in 1865, fed a conspiracy theory in 1903 when he asserted that another man is buried in the plot and that Lincoln’s murderer actually escaped to Oklahoma or Texas.  A mummy hoax brought the assassin back to life as a sideshow attraction in the 1920s.  But perhaps the moody English-American actor would have been thrilled to know that the morbid tragedy he let loose wasn’t over yet.

For instance, Booth’s own killer probably went down surrounded by flames.  It is thought that Boston Corbett died in the massive forest fire that consumed Hinckley, Minnesota, in 1894.  And oddly enough, the very train car that carried Lincoln’s corpse west to Illinois from Washington also burned in Minnesota.  In March 1911, while in storage in the northeastern outskirts of Minneapolis, the historic Lincoln funeral car perished in a “spectacular prairie fire.”


lincoln funeral car

(Minneapolis Sunday Journal, March 19, 1911.)


photo

(This decorative fan now on display at the Indiana State Museum commemorates the Lincoln assassination.  John Wilkes Booth goes down in smoke on the far right.)


In 1893, a year before the inferno in the North Woods probably claimed Corbett’s life, news readers followed the ghastly story of Ford’s Theater’s own doom.  On June 10, the Indianapolis Journal ran this especially sentimental, tear-jerking news piece on the front-page:

fords theater collapse - indianapolis journal june 10 1893

As the Journal tells it:

Hundreds of men carried down by the floors of a falling building which was notoriously insecure; human lives crushed out by tons of brick and iron and sent unheralded to the throne of their Maker; men by the score maimed and disfigured for life; happy families hurled into the depths of despair. . . Words cannot picture the awfulness of the accident.  Its horrors will never be fully told.  Its suddenness was almost the chief terror. . . Women who kissed their loved ones as they separated will have but the cold, bruised faces to kiss to-night. . . In the national capitol of the proudest nation on earth there has been a catastrophe unparalleled in the annals of history, and in every mind there is the horrible conviction that its genesis is to be found in the criminal negligence of a government too parsimonious to provide for the safety of its loyal servants by protecting its property for their accommodation.

At 9:30 a.m. on June 9, the front part of Ford’s Theater, a notoriously rickety and rotten old structure then being used as a government office building, collapsed, sending beams, iron, and over a hundred employees plummeting toward the basement.  Twenty-eight years after Abraham Lincoln was shot here, twenty-two men were killed and sixty-eight injured in one of the deadliest disasters in Washington, D.C.’s, history.  (In a twist of irony, the same day the theater collapse made national headlines, John Wilkes Booth’s brother, the great American actor Edwin Booth, was laid to rest at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Many said that Edwin Booth’s life and death were overshadowed by two different tragedies and the curse of Ford’s Theater.)


fords theater collapse june 10 1893


fords theater draped

(Ford’s Theater draped in mourning for President Lincoln.)


Collapsing structures were a major news item in the 1890s.  Almost every week, American papers reported mass casualties at overcrowded factories and apartment buildings, especially in Chicago and cities back on the East Coast, where poor construction and dry rot led to the deaths of thousands of industrial workers and tenants — often women and children.  During the Progressive era, such tragedies inspired reformers like the photographers Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine (who documented child workers in Indianapolis in 1908) to illustrate the real peril of shoddy, dilapidated buildings in the workplace and at home.

In 1893, Ford’s Theater was probably one of the most dangerous structures in America.  Built in 1863 by the 34-year-old entrepreneur John T. Ford, the building occupied the site of a Baptist Church-turned-theater that had burned down a year earlier.  John Ford’s business was a victim of Booth, too.  After the Lincoln assassination, public opinion and the U.S. government both decided that it was inappropriate to use the site of the nation’s great tragedy for entertainment.  Ford wanted to re-open his theater, but received arson threats from at least one Lincoln mourner.  The Federal government appropriated the playhouse, compensating its owner with $88,000 in July 1866.

Even before the government actually paid for the building, renovations were underway.  In December 1865, the suitably morbid Army Medical Museum moved onto the third floor.  “A far cry from the once jovial theater,” the famous local landmark now housed an array of skeletons in glass cases, body parts, surgical tools, and other gory reminders of military medicine.  The Library of the Surgeon General’s Office soon occupied the second floor.


fords theater medical museum

(From 1866 to 1887,  Ford’s Theater housed medical exhibits.  An active theater for just two years, the place was a literal showcase of death for more than twenty.  The museum later moved to a new location at 7th & Independence.  A section of John Wilkes Booth’s vertebrae was on display here for years.)


fords theater medical museum 2


guiteau

(The Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail reprinted an incorrect rumor that the skull of Charles Guiteau, assassin of President James Garfield, was on display at Ford’s Theater when the building collapsed in 1893.  Guiteau’s skeleton did go on exhibit there, but had been moved to the new museum at 7th & Independence, where his brain and partial skeleton are still in the collections of the National Museum of Health and Medicine.  Guiteau’s head was also reported to be touring southern Indiana during World War I.)


The other floors of the former theater housed the War Department’s Office of Records and Pensions.  The unstable, visibly bulging building was the workplace of several hundred employees and was further imperiled by probably a few tons of heavy paperwork, the red tape of veterans’ pensions.

After the building succumbed to gravity and rot in 1893, American public opinion was almost as outraged as at the assassination of Lincoln.  The Indianapolis Journal wrote:

As long ago as 1885, this building. . .  was officially proclaimed by Congress an unsafe depository for even the inanimate skeletons, mummies and books of the army medical museum, for which a safer place of storage was provided by an act of Congress.  But notwithstanding the fact that in the public press, and in Congress, also, continued attention was called to the bulging walls of the building, its darkness and its general unsuitability and unsafety, it continued to be used for the daily employment of nearly five-hundred government clerks of the pension record division of the War Office.

According to a riveting coroner’s inquest that whipped up public excitement, workers at what the Indianapolis Journal dubbed “Ford’s death trap” had been intimidated and cowed into silence by their tyrannical boss, former army surgeon Col. Fred Ainsworth.  Afraid of being fired, the endangered clerks didn’t protest the condition of the building and later testified that Ainsworth’s assistants had told them to tip-toe on the stairway to keep from falling through.  Investigators determined that the “old ruin’s” collapse finally came while a low-bidding contractor, George W. Dant, was making repairs to the building.  (A support in the basement gave way.)

Court testimony relayed in the Journal resonated with public opinion.  “The government did not want skilled men to execute its contracts, and it would not pay fair prices for good work. . .” the paper claimed.  “An architect testified that the cement used in underpinning the piers supporting the old building was ‘little better than mud.’  A builder said the manner of the work was suicidal.”  Another report said that for years the decaying structure also suffered from “defective sanitary conditions.”

One of the public figures who weighed in on the federal investigation was Indiana Congressman William S. Holman.  A Dearborn County native, Holman sat in Congress from 1859 to 1897 and was  once ranked as the longest-serving U.S. Representative.  He was also a notoriously frugal hawk on government spending.  (Yet far from being a total naysayer, Holman passionately advocated the Homestead Act that tried to break up the domination of Western public lands by big railroads.  He also indirectly helped establish the U.S. Forest Service by providing for Federal timber reserves.)


william s. holman 2

(U.S. Representative William Steele Holman of Aurora, Indiana, kept a famously tight wallet but was a great opponent of land monopolies and unregulated corporations after the Civil War.  He helped establish Yellowstone National Park and was described as “a botanist of no mean ability” and a friend of public forests.)


mr holman talks - jasper weekly courier june 1893


As chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, the curmudgeonly Holman oversaw a lot of government funding.  On June 23, 1893, the Jasper Weekly Courier reported that after Ford’s Theater collapsed, even the arch-fiscal conservative was ready to “deal liberally in the matter of providing safe public buildings, and enact such legislation as would look to the preservation of human life.”  The Indiana Congressman supported moving the U.S. Government Printing Office — ranked with the old theater as one of the worst potential death traps in Washington, D.C. — to a new location.  (The weight of printing equipment housed on upper stories was part of the problem.)

Yet once it was rebuilt after the 1893 collapse, Ford’s Theater returned to government use — oddly enough, as a storage warehouse for the Government Printing Office.  The building narrowly survived being condemned for demolition by President Taft in 1912.  From 1931 until renovations in the mid-1960s, the historic structure housed a government annex and a first-floor Lincoln museum.  Restored to its 1865 appearance and now run by the National Park Service, it opened as a public museum in 1968.


liberty express

(Liberty Express, Liberty, Indiana, February 11, 1921.)


fords theater 1900s

(Ford’s Theater in an early 20th-century stereograph.)


edwin booth

(The Indianapolis Journal took note of the strange coincidence that Ford’s Theater crumbled on the very day that Edwin Booth was buried in Massachusetts.  Edgar Allan Poe, author of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” would have appreciated the irony.)


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com