Summer is upon us, and one of the staples of American summers is fast food. It’s always a blast to roll down the windows, crank up the tunes, and head on over to your favorite drive-thru. Now, we all know about the classics: McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC. But there’s one fast-food giant, wildly popular from 1950s through the 70s, which almost beat them all. That was Indianapolis-based Burger Chef.
Indiana, a state claimed as “free” from its statehood in 1816, was nevertheless the 7th highest non-southern state with racial terror lynchings, with 18 separate incidents. When searching through Indiana newspapers, many stories emerge of outlaw vigilantes who terrorized and brutalized African-Americans, sometimes for nothing more than alleged crimes. Since many were lynched before they received equal justice under the law, many of their lives ended tragically through injustice under the lariat.
While the vast majority of lynching occurred in the south, a sizable portion occurred in the Midwest. Indiana, a state claimed as “free” from its statehood in 1816, was nevertheless the 7th highest non-southern state with racial terror lynchings, with 18 separate incidents. One way historians have uncovered these horrific crimes is with newspapers. When searching through Indiana papers, many stories emerge of outlaw vigilantes who terrorized and brutalized African-Americans, sometimes for nothing more than alleged crimes. Since many were lynched before they received equal justice under the law, many of their lives ended tragically through injustice under the lariat.
One of the earliest lynchings in Indiana newspapers was chronicled by the Marshall County Republican on November 23, 1871. Three African-Americans, whose names were only given as “Johnson, Davis, and Taylor,” were accused of the murder of the Park family in Henryville, Clark County. Matthew Clegg, “a shystering lawyer” from Henryville, had a dispute with the Parks and when he likely had them murdered, he pushed the blame to the three local African-American men. When the grand jury couldn’t find enough evidence to indict them, the local vigilance committee took matters into their own hands. They broke through the jail, grabbed the three men, placed nooses around their neck, and dragged them through the street. They were then strung up next to each other on a tree. The Republican described their bodies in painful detail; Taylor’s description was the most gruesome: “His form was nude, save the slight remnants of a white shirt that was stretched across his lower limbs, while the hangman’s knot under his chin threw his head back in, a gasping movement, and his white teeth and distended lips grinned with a fiend-like scowl . . . .” It is unclear from the newspaper account if anyone was tried for the lynching.
In 1886, the Indiana State Sentinel reported the lynching of Holly Epps, who had been accused of the murder of a local farmer in Greene County. Around 12:50 on the morning of January 18, a “crowd of masked men” brandishing “sledgehammers and various other implements” descended on the Knox County jail. After failing to cajole the sheriff to open the door, the horde broke in, smashed through the jail cell, and dragged Epps out into the cold of night. Using the closest tree they could find, the mob strung Epps up and “for fully fifteen minutes he struggled for life, when death came to his relief.” The mob left his hanging remains on the courthouse grounds to be found by the county prosecutor. The sentiment of the citizens of the county, as recorded by the Sentinel, was one of satisfaction. “Citizens of all classes justify the lynching, and the moral sentiment is that the Greene County vigilants did a justifiable act in summarily removing the fiend from the face of the earth,” the Sentinel commented. The lynch mob were never prosecuted for their actions.
The 1889 lynching of Peter Willis in northern Kosciusko County received weird and contradictory coverage in the Indianapolis Journal. In its July 22, 1889 issue, the Journal ran a nondescript blurb about Willis’s lynching at the hands of a mob after he was charged with assaulting a little girl. The South Bend Tribune and the Indiana State Sentinel also ran stories with the same details. Then six days later, completely disregarding its previous coverage, the Journal published an editorial claiming “the assault and lynching episode referred to by the Sentinel [as well as the Tribune] never occurred, and is wholly an imaginary tragedy . . . .” The editorial further noted that “the only truth contained in the item is the superfluous information concerning the geographical location of Kosciusko county, which it says ‘is not in Mississippi or South Carolina,’ . . . and the further assertion that ‘it is the banner Republican county of Indiana.’” There’s nothing named Kosciusko in South Carolina and only a town named that in Mississippi; it was the Sentinel’s and Tribune’s way of saying it was in Indiana and highlighting that this can happen in the north. If the Journal thought they could drive a wedge of doubt through their phrasing, they were wrong. Furthermore, the fact that a county has Republican leanings says nothing about whether a lynching can occur there. This editorial was likely a political device to stave off criticism against a northern, Republican-leaning Indiana county. Sadly, it was misleading people about the unlawful execution of a person who had not yet been proven guilty in a court of law.
The beginning of the new century brought with it the same kinds of lawlessness that led to lynching, despite the Indiana General Assembly passing anti-lynching laws in 1899 and 1901. George Moore, an African American accused of assaulting two women and fleeing law enforcement, was lynched on the evening of November 20, 1902. He was “hanged to a telephone pole” in Sullivan County after a mob of roughly 40 men fought against the sheriff’s department. Moore had been a fugitive, attempting an escape to Illinois when he was captured by authorities in Lawrenceville, Illinois. The mob “beat him over the head with their weapons” before they hanged him. Governor Winfield T. Durbin was troubled by the situation and tried to stop it, but the requisite military and law enforcement officers couldn’t get there in time. It was another instance of mob violence instead of real justice, and the Indianapolis Journal said as much two days later in an editorial. “It is no excuse for mob law to say that the legal penalty in such cases is inadequate,” the Journal declared, “That is not for any mob or any community to say. If the penalty is not severe enough let the law be changed in a regular way, but while the law stands it should be observed.”
It is a common notion that lynching, much like racism, was a southern phenomenon in the United States. These select stories from Indiana newspapers illustrate just how wrong that notion is. The prejudice that people felt motivated them to take the law into their own hands, with disastrous consequences. Justice should be applied by democratic institutions, not by mob rule. That’s how we ensure the principle of equality under the law. But animus against African Americans was stronger than the virtue of justice. As a group of preachers declared in a 1910 article for the Indianapolis Recorder:
. . . so long as wild men will be permitted to roam at will with ropes, shot and torch, so long will a cloud of national shame hang over the government. It is known that almost all of the lynched are members of the colored race, and in many instances the color of their skin is their only crime. It is also known that in the section of the country where almost all this barbarous and un-Christian practice is loved and cherished the colored people have no voice at the courts of mercy.
In knowing these stories, we can begin the process of healing. It will neither be swift, nor easy, but it is vital for our democracy. We owe it to the names engraved on each corten steel beam in Montgomery, Alabama, of at least 18 are from the Hoosier state.
Thanks for watching. Please click “like” in you enjoyed this video and make sure to subscribe to keep updated on all new videos. To learn more about Flossie Bailey, check out Nicole Poletika’s article from the Indiana History Blog. Learn about other stories of lynching at Chronicling America and Hoosier State Chronicles. The links are in the description. Finally, have you visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice? Were you aware of lynchings in Indiana before? What do you think we can do today to advance peace and justice? Leave your answers in the comments below. We want to hear from YOU.
Articles from Chronicling America and Hoosier State Chronicles
At just 110 pounds, Sullivan, Indiana-native Will Hays was not exactly the imposing figure you’d expect to be the film industry’s regulator, but he nevertheless left a substantial mark on the movie industry during the first half of the twentieth century.
“Mother of Exiles: Hope for Those Seeking Freedom” . . . This headline ran in a Midwestern newspaper along with a picture of the Statue of Liberty and these relevant words:
At a time when isolation has become a fetish for many, it is fitting to recall some of the evidences of America’s pride as a place of refuge . . . One such landmark, symbolizing the hope of peoples who migrate from their homeland to this foreign shore, is the Statue of Liberty . . . There is a sonnet on the wall at the base of the statue that is worth re-reading today, when so many are again fleeing from the hand of oppression.
And while it seems that this article could run in today’s newspaper, the year was 1939.
The sonnet includes the well-known words:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
These words have come to symbolize America as a shining beacon of democracy and a safe harbor for those seeking a better life. However, not everyone knows that these words were written by a Jewish American poet named Emma Lazurus or that the poem was inspired by the plight of Jewish refugees fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century. In the full poem the statue is named “Mother of Exiles” and she tells the reader:
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
In June 1939, the United States had the opportunity to open that golden door to save the lives of over 900 Jewish refugees. However, the country whose ideals were embodied by powerful words inscribed upon the Statue of Liberty — words specifically written for persecuted Jews in need of America’s asylum — would fail them. Lady Liberty’s golden door was shut by indifference, xenophobia, and antisemitism.
History Unfolded and Alternative Viewpoints
The story of the St. Louis is well-known to many. Recently, however, several historians have attempted to revise the interpretation of the events, absolving the United States and the FDR administration of any responsibility towards these asylum seekers.  Thus, it remains valuable to go back to contemporary newspaper sources and decide for ourselves what really happened. And as Hoosiers, it is worth finding out what the average Indiana newspaper reader knew about the events and meditating on the uncomfortable question: Could we have done anything different?
Simply put, the U.S. did not act when the mainly Jewish refugees aboard the German liner St. Louispleaded for asylum in June of 1939. Most of these refugees had purchased visas that they believed would allow them to live in Cuba while waiting for their turn to immigrate to the U.S. when there was room within the quota. Instead, they were returned to Europe. While they were safe for a time in various host countries, after the Nazi occupation spread through Europe, many of these refugees were killed in ghettos and concentration camps. 
In this post, we will look at the incident through articles available in Indiana newspapers to ascertain what the average Hoosier, and by extension, the average American knew about this tragedy. We will place the newspapers in context using secondary source information from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The newspaper articles for this post have been submitted to the USHMM’s History Unfolded initiative which is attempting to find out what Americans knew about the Holocaust through their newspapers. You can join the effort here: https://newspapers.ushmm.org/
Refugees at Sea
By spring of 1939, newspapers were full of reports of the misery faced by Jewish refugees at sea and the refusal of country after country to give them shelter. For example, the Jewish Post, published in Indianapolis, reported on a Greek steamer seized off the Palestinian coast whose refugee passengers were denied entry by the British authorities there:
The sunny Mediterranean has been turned into a watery hell in which thousands of condemned souls – men, women and children – are floating in indescribable misery and physical agony . . . Uncounted Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution are drifting in a state equal to the worst horrors of the Dark Ages . . . they have been wandering for weeks and months on nightmare voyages, despairing of reaching any port except the bottom of the waters…
The Post reported on hundreds more turned away from Indian ports, as well as from Manila and Hong Kong. The Indianapolis News reported on another 104 Jewish refugees denied permission to land in Vera Cruz, Mexico. And reports from Bucharest described twenty hopeless Jewish refugees who jumped into the Black Sea rather than remain homeless.
The Passengers of the St. Louis
The hundreds of disparate people who boarded the German transatlantic liner St. Louis in May of 1939 all had one thing in common. They felt that the only choice left to them was to abandon their homes and loved ones for an uncertain life in a faraway land. Most were German Jews who had been forced from their jobs and sometimes their homes and subjected to increasing persecution by the Nazi regime. Some had even come out of hiding just for this journey. Some used the last of their savings to buy an expensive ticket, pay the “contingency fee” for an unplanned return voyage, and purchase pricey, inflated visas. Some of these individuals had been sent by the collective effort of their families, who pooled all of their money to save just one of their kin. Most were on a list awaiting U.S. visas which were limited by quotas. They hoped to pass time in Cuba until they could start anew in the U.S. 
Among the 937 passengers aboard the St. Louis were several German Jewish families who we can follow through the historical record thanks to the work of the USHMM assembled into the online exhibition “Voyage of the St. Louis.” Their stories were surprisingly similar at first and tragically different at the close of the war. We will follow four families through this story (introducing the patriarch first only for consistency and ease in following the records). 
Franz Blumenstein was a successful businessman living in Vienna with his wife Else, their son Heinz, and his mother Regina. During Kristalnacht, he was arrested and taken to Dachau concentration camp. Else was able to bribe officials for his release under the condition that he leave Germany immediately. He fled to Venezuela and then immigrated to Cuba where he made arrangements for his family to join him. He purchased landing certificates for Else, Regina, and Heinz who then booked passage on the St. Louis.
Siegfried Seligmann, a cattle dealer from Ronnenberg, Germany, was also arrested during Kristalnacht. He was taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp for a time but was somehow, likely through bribery, able to secure his release under the condition that he flee. Siegfried was able to purchase tickets on the St. Louis for himself, as well as his wife Alma, and their daughters Else and Ursula.
Julius Hermanns, a textile merchant from Monchen-Gladbach, Germany, was also arrested, sent to Dachau, transferred to Buchenwald, and released on the condition of immediate emigration. Like Franz Blumenstein, Julius had to leave his family behind. His brother-in-law in New York purchased him a Cuban landing certificate. Julius said goodbye to his wife Grete and his daughter Hilde and boarded the St. Louis.
Leopold Dingfelder owned a kosher meat shop in Plauen, Germany, where he lived with his wife Johanna and their son Rudi. An older son, Martin, had emigrated to America earlier. After persecution of German Jews intensified, the Dingfelders hoped to join Martin in the United States. They booked passage on the St. Louis to await U.S. visas in Cuba.
Regardless of how they began this journey, they must have boarded with some trepidation. For while the ship was owned by a private German company, it was still flying the swastika flag.
The Voyage to Cuba & Hope in the United States
The St. Louis left on May 13, 1939, at 8:00 p.m. Even before they set sail, their landing certificates had been invalidated by the Cuban government. Antisemitism, xenophobia, fear of competition for limited jobs, and Nazi propaganda had turned the Cuban people against further Jewish immigration. Only a few days before the St. Louis departed, 40,000 Cubans attended an antisemitic rally. Responding to this turn in public sentiment and backlash from widespread sale of illegal landing certificates, the Cuban government demanded additional paperwork and money from any potential immigrants.
The passengers were unaware that the tide had turned against them. As they sailed away from the Nazi empire, they likely relaxed a bit. The food was good, the crew showed movies, and children made new friends. The two-week journey was relatively uneventful except for two incidents of which most of the passengers were probably unaware. A man in poor health worsened, died, and was laid to rest at sea. A troubled crew member took his own life by jumping overboard late one night. 
The St. Louis entered the Havana harbor on May 27. According to the USHMM, of the 935 passengers, the Cuban government admitted twenty-eight: twenty-two Jewish passengers with valid U.S. visas, four Spanish citizens, two Cubans, and another man who had attempted suicide and needed hospital care.
908 people, including the Blumensteins, Seligmanns, Hermanns, and Dinfelders, were denied entry. The story soon captured the attention of the media around the world. Perhaps, it seemed, sympathetic news stories would lead to their rescue.
What Hoosiers Knew about the St. Louis
The Jewish Post ran a report by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) from Havana reporting that the St. Louis was “barred from landing under the presidential decree,” referring to Decree 937, which invalidated landing permits. Entry would now require written permission from the Cuban Secretaries of Labor and State and a $500 bond posted to ensure the refugees would not become dependent on the state. The passengers did not have this sum.
The Post article also reported on “intervention with the government by Jewish communal and refugee organizations.” The main negotiating force was American attorney Lawrence Berenson who represented the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JJDC). Berenson had previously worked as the president of the Cuban-American Chamber of Commerce and thus had important contacts in both the U.S. and Cuba. However, the Postreported on June 2, the negotiations proved “fruitless.” Cuban President Frederico Laredo Bru ordered the St. Louis to leave Cuban waters if the refugees could not pay the bonds totaling $453,500.
Meanwhile, the Jewish Post reported, two other ships, one French and one British, arrived with refugees, complicating the situation and increasing the antipathy of the Cuban people. They were also denied entry. The Post reported that the St. Louis passengers were growing “desperate” with some “seeking to commit suicide by throwing themselves overboard.” The Tipton Daily Tribune reported: “Twenty-five police were sent aboard the liner to guard others from any attempted self-destruction after Max Lowe, one of the refugees, slashed his wrists and jumped overboard.” The Indianapolis Star also relayed reports from ship guards who “reported the situation among the refugees as desperate,” that “women and children cried continuously,” and that “calls for meals for the most part went unanswered.”
It became increasingly clear to the passengers that they would not leave the boat. According to the JTA, an editorial in the Cuban newspaper Diaro de la Marino “predicted pogroms against the Jews” if they disembarked. And the JewishPost reported that “anti-Semitic activities have been increasing.”
Perhaps the most frustrating thing of all for the people on board was just how close they were to safety. Little boats began to encircle the St. Louis, some of them rented by family and friends of the refugees who had previously immigrated. They were close enough to wave and shout to each other, but not to be reunited.
Negotiations continued. The JJDC made an offer to President Bru to pay part of the requested $453,500. He refused to compromise and ordered the ship to leave or the Cuban navy would force it asea. The Indianapolis Star reported that Cuban marines stood at the ready. Buying time for further negotiations, the captain of the liner “aimlessly cruised the Caribbean,” travelling “around the West Indies for a time in hope some country would answer… appeals and offer the refugee[s] a home.” Over the following week, many United Press (UP) and Associated Press (AP) articles ran in Indiana newspapers. The Kokomo Tribune and the Indianapolis News ran the same UP article June 3 with two different but powerful headlines: “Jewish Refugees Adrift in Caribbean Appeal to Many Nations for New Homes” and “Refugee Vessel Appeals for Help.” The articles reported that the St Louis was “appealing by radio to nations of the new world to relieve her of her terrified passengers before there was a wave of suicides.”
One of those countries to which the refugees appealed for asylum was the United States. On June 5, the St. Louis “moved slowly southward into Caribbean waters along the Florida coast.” As the ship moved first north and then turned around and headed south, the passengers could see the lights of Miami. Indiana newspapers widely printed wire articles reported from Miami that the U.S. Coast Guard kept the St. Louis from landing. The Tipton Daily Tribune reported: “A coast guard patrol boat had trailed the ship as it passed near here watching its movements, guarding lest some of its desperate passengers jump overboard and attempt to swim ashore.” One headline from the (Lafayette) Journal and Courier perhaps summed up the situation most succinctly: “Refugee Ship Cruising Off Florida Coast: American Authorities Are Keeping Close Watch on Vessel that Has 907 Unwanted Jews Aboard.”
The article also reported: “For two hours the ship rode at anchor off the Miami channel light, easily visible from shore.” The Lafayette paper’s Miami report also noted, “Two coast guard planes were dispatched from Miami to keep the anchored craft under surveillance” and a “patrol boat hovered nearby.” The ship continued towards the Florida Keys “while negotiators sought to arrange for the refugees’ entry into Cuba, from where many hope to join relatives in the United States.”
Jewish organizations, led by the JJDC, finally raised and offered the entire bond requested by the Cuban president. Cuba, however, was no longer willing to welcome Jewish refugees and the president refused the offer. As the St. Louis turned around to head towards Europe on June 6, the United States was their last hope.
The Kokomo Tribune ran an AP article which reported: “Their hope crushed by the Cuban government’s refusal for the second time to give them asylum, victims of one of the strangest sagas of the sea renewed an appeal to President [Franklin] Roosevelt for last-minute intervention.” The Tribune closed the article by reporting: “Captain [Gustav] Schroeder decided to steer for Germany.” While, the ship ultimately did not land in Germany, for several days, the media reported that the Fatherland was the intended destination. The front page of the Indianapolis Star read: “Refugees Start Back to Germany” and the Kokomo Tribune headline read: “Jewish Refugees Reported Enroute to Germany After Cuba Refuses Landing.” According to the AP service, “The German liner St. Louis informed Tropical Radio at 11:40 o’clock tonight [June 6] that she had set her course for Europe, bearing back to Germany the 907 Jewish refugees who fled that country for Cuba . . . until they could get in the United States quota.”
Context and Contention
Most scholars agree that the United States, and more specifically President Roosevelt, did not do enough to help these refugees. Recently however, a vocal minority have argued that the blame lies only with Cuba and that FDR could legally have done nothing to help. Without wading into this academic and political mire, we can assert with confidence that the U.S. did little. According to the USHMM, “President Roosevelt could have issued an executive order to admit the St. Louis refugees.” FDR chose not to act because of “general hostility toward immigrants, the gains of isolationist Republicans in the Congressional elections of 1938, and [his] consideration of running for an unprecedented third term as president.” In short, while newspapers printed sympathetic stories and editorials, the cause was not popular enough or politically beneficial enough to justify intervention. 
Land and Loss
Fortunately, Jewish organizations, again led by the JJDC, were able to negotiate with four European countries for the placement of the refugees. Great Britain admitted 288; the Netherlands admitted 181, Belgium admitted 214, and France admitted 224 Jewish refugees.  The St. Louis unloaded her passengers to these countries between June 16 and June 20. Only those who arrived on British soil would find safety. 
Franz Blumenstein, who preceded his family and arranged their passage on the St. Louis, would have watched the ship carrying his wife Else, his three-year-old son Heinz, and his mother Regina turn around and sail back to Europe. They disembarked in the Netherlands and over the following years arranged for visas that would let them join Franz in an agricultural colony in the Dominican Republic. However, by 1940, the Nazis occupied the Netherlands and they could not procure the paperwork necessary to leave the country. Else missed Franz desperately and in 1941 wrote him:
It won’t be long and then we will, with G-d’s help, be re-united; that would be in any event the most beautiful present we could receive. There is some hope that the transport will depart and I am counting on it with all my heart. For two years, I have lived for the day when I will rejoin you, because you alone are my life. I have not lived in the time we have been separated; only our dear child helps me to survive.
After deportations of Jews from the Netherlands began in 1942, Regina was arrested by police. She somehow managed to hide Heinz during the arrest. Else and Heinz fled and went into hiding for a time in northern Holland. Despite the efforts of Dutch resistance, Else was arrested and on September 24, 1943. She was transported to Auschwitz. Heinz remained hidden throughout the war and was able to eventually join his father in the United States. Else and Regina died in Auschwitz.
The Dingfelder family of Leopold, Johanna and their 15-year-old son Rudi (their other son previously emigrated to New York) also disembarked in the Netherlands. Like the Blumensteins, the Dingfelders were arrested and deported in 1942. Leopold and Johanna were sent to Auschwitz, while Rudi was sent to Westerbork transit camp. He was forced to labor in an aircraft factory in Holland for a time before he was sent to the Vught concentration camp. After being sent back to Westerbork, he was taken to Auschwitz where he labored in the Siemens-Schuckert factory.
When the Soviets advanced in 1945, the Nazis evacuated Auschwitz. Rudi marched for two-weeks to Buchenwald and sent to another factory outside Berlin. As the Soviets closed in, the SS forced him to join a “death march.” He and four others attempted an escape near Schwerin. Most were shot. Rudi was soon rescued by Allied troops and eventually emigrated to the United States. Leopold and Johanna died at Auschwitz.
Siegfried Seligmann, his wife Alma, and their daughters Else and Ursala disembarked in Belgium and settled in Brussells. When the Nazis invaded in May 1940, Belgian police arrested Siegfried. He was sent to France and imprisoned at Les Milles, a factory converted to an internment camp. Alma and Ursala traveled to France, hoping to find him. They were arrested in Paris and taken to a different internment camp. Somehow, separately, the entire family managed to obtain the visas necessary to leave France. They settled in the United States.
Julius Hermanns, who had to leave his family behind when he boarded the St. Louis to flee Dachau, disembarked in France. He contacted his wife Grete and his teenage daughter Hilde to join him. After France declared war on Germany, Julius was arrested and taken to Saint-Cyprien, an internment camp on the French-Spanish border. Here he joined 50 other passengers of the St. Louis. Julius wrote to organizations and relatives begging for help:
We have written hundreds of letters to all possible places . . . In any event, war wins in every court against defenseless refugees. Everything else is lost irrecoverably.
Grete, Hilde, and several of their relatives were deported to the Riga ghetto December 11, 1941. After several transfers, Julius was sent to Auschwitz in August 1942.
Julius died at Auschwitz while Grete and Hilde likely died at Riga.
Mother of Exiles
Of the 620 St. Louis passengers returned to the European continent, “532 were trapped when Germany conquered Western Europe,” according to the USHMM. Of these Jewish refugees who were in sight of the palm trees of Havana and the lights of Miami, and who repeatedly radioed the United States for asylum, 254 died in the Holocaust.
As we continue to debate who is and who is not allowed through the Mother of Exile’s golden door, we should consider whether we can improve on her legacy.
Recently, scholars Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman have argued in their book FDR and the Jews that there was nothing that could be done for these refugees and that President Roosevelt, and the larger United States, do not deserve the condemnation that this incident drew. This position has been hotly contested and thoroughly dissected by Rafael Madoff in “Politicizing America’s Response to the Holocaust,” David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, accessed http://new.wymaninstitute.org/2013/08/politicizing-americas-response-to-the-holocaust/
 The main source for secondary and contextual information for this post is “Voyage of the St. Louis,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005267
 Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, Voyage of the Damned (New York, 1974); “U.S. Policy During the Holocaust: The Tragedy of S.S. St. Louis,” Jewish Virtual Library, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-tragedy-of-s-s-st-louis
 Information on the families of St. Louis Passengers accessed “The Voyage of the St. Louis,” Online Exhibition, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://www.ushmm.org/exhibition/st-louis/story/
 Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, Voyage of the Damned (New York, 1974); “U.S. Policy During the Holocaust: The Tragedy of S.S. St. Louis,” Jewish Virtual Library, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-tragedy-of-s-s-st-louis
 Breiman and Lichtman argue that there was no way FDR’s administration could have admitted the passengers because the quota was full. Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies argues that the refugees could have been easily admitted to the U.S. Virgin Islands where the governor and legislature offered asylum. Medoff argues, “The administration was too quick to find technical reasons to keep Jews out; and Breitmann and Lichtman are too quick to find excuses for what they did. See Medoff’s book FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith. Breiman and Lichtman argue that the fact that these refugees founds temporary safety, frees the United States of any blame for their eventual fate. The USHMM study Refuge Denied shows that passengers were desperately seeking menial jobs in Chile to get out of being sent to these “safe” countries.
 One St. Louis passenger who arrived in Great Britain died in an air raid. The rest survived the war.
$360. That was the cost in May 1938 to rescue a Jewish child from Nazi controlled Austria. $360 would pay for her relocation to a new home in Palestine, and care for her for two years. All this for $360. $360 to save the life of a child.
In May 1938, the national Youth Aliyah Committee identified 1,000 Jewish Austrian children who could leave the country with valid visas, but only until September 30 when the passes to leave Austria expired. One Indianapolis woman refused to allow this brief window of opportunity to close without trying to save these young Austrians. After all, Sarah Wolf Goodman was herself a Jew born in Austria who must have felt great empathy for those who shared her homeland. She was not alone. While the U.S. government was slow to act, many private citizens worked to aid refugees fleeing Germany and Austria after the Anschluss in 1938. And some of these notable American activists were Hoosiers.
Over the last year, we have been looking at Indiana newspapers to try and determine how much information Hoosiers received through the press about the events leading up the Holocaust. In the last History Unfolded post (Part 4) we also met the tireless and prescient diplomat, James G. McDonald, who tried to warn the world about the impending atrocities. In this post, we will examine the failed Evian Conference, news articles about the deepening refugee crisis, and editorials about how Hoosiers believed the U.S. should respond. We’ll continue to follow McDonald who attended the conference and we’ll meet Sarah Wolf Goodman, another bold and industrious Hoosier who showed her community what could be accomplished without leaving home.
The purpose of this project is twofold: 1. to contribute Indiana newspaper articles to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s History Unfolded database to help the museum determine what the average American knew about the Holocaust; and 2. to analyze these articles and share with our readers our findings on what Hoosiers knew and how they responded. Hopefully, a greater understanding of the events surrounding the Holocaust can inform our responses to current world crises. Anyone can contribute articles to History Unfolded. Find out how through the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum (USHMM).
In January 1933, Jewish Germans made up about one percent of the country’s total population. The greatest number of Jews resided in Berlin. Over the following years, the Nazis banned Jews from civil service, boycotted Jewish businesses, and stripped away their citizenship rights with the declaration of the Nuremberg Laws. By 1938, the Nazis made life so difficult for German Jews that about 150,000 left the country, according to the USHMM. This was one-fourth of the entire Jewish population. When Germany annexed neighboring Austria in March 1938, many more Jewish people were forced to flee their homes, resulting in a major refugee crisis.
Since the end of World War I, most Austrians supported a union with Germany. However, this consolidation of power was forbidden by the Versailles Treaty. By the mid-1930s, Austria, suffering under a poor economy, saw Hitler as the solution. A bombardment of Nazi propaganda solidified public opinion. Thus, on March 12, 1939, when Nazi troops entered Austria, they were greeted by cheering crowds.
This German-Austrian union, called Anschluss, brought another 185,000 Jews under Nazi rule – all of whom now faced persecution. According to the editors of Refugees and Rescue:*
Austrian anti-Semites, members of the Nazi Party, and police and SS officials immediately attacked, arrested, and humiliated Jews and political opponents in Austria. Confiscation of Jewish property and public scenes such as forcing Jews to scrub sidewalks were everyday occurrences. Hundreds of Austrian Jews committed suicide, and tens of thousands sought to leave as quickly as possible.
The German-Austrian Refugee Crises
These tens of thousands of Austrian Jews joined those from Germany who felt they had no choice other than to leave their homes. However, many who tried to flee were unable to find a country to accept them. According to the USHMM, “a substantial percentage tried to go to the United States.” However, the Immigration Act of 1924, passed during a period of xenophobia and Klan influence, sharply restricted immigration to the United States. Jews were among the ethnic groups deemed undesirable by the legislation and only a very small number were issued immigration visas in the years following the quota enactment. This did not change in 1938. Even in the face of the mounting refugee crises, the United States government largely turned its back on the Jews of Europe.
Widespread American prejudice and anti-Semitism that extending into federal government service definitely contributed to the lack of action, but there were other issues as well. The Great Depression still affected many Americans who feared further competition for jobs. African Americans faced racism and prejudice in addition to the horrors of lynching. It would be hard for many African Americans to see why they should care about injustices across the Atlantic when they faced injustice at home. For other Americans, it simply seemed like a faraway problem of little practical concern to them. Many people simply had their own immediate struggles and problems to make ends meet. Plus, the United States fought in “the war to end all wars” only twenty years earlier. Many just wanted to stay out of what was viewed as Europe’s problem.
For example, in an editorial for the Indianapolis Recorder, African American writer Fletcher Henderson called the annexation of Austria “interesting . . . headline reading for the American people,” but because Hitler was not threatening America, noted it was “nothing for us to become alarmed about.” He stated succinctly, “While we deplore the rape of any nation, it is none of our affair.” Henderson called for the U.S. government, and especially President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to mind its own business. He stated, “If the administration in Washington would bend all of its efforts to end the depression in the United States, it would not have the time even to read of the happenings in the rest of the world.”
James G. McDonald: Stirring the American Conscience
However, there were Americans of conscience who worked relentlessly to find ways to save the Jews of Austria and Germany, some of them Hoosiers. Starting as early as 1933, former Indiana University professor James G. McDonald shared his fears with world leaders that Hitler would eventually order the execution of all the Jewish people under Nazi rule. (Read more about McDonald in the previous post: Part 4). By the time of the Anschluss, McDonald worked tirelessly and traveled widely to spread this warning and raise awareness for the plight of fleeing Jewish refugees. His diary and letters* tell of the frustrating, often bureaucratic, work he undertook in an attempt to convince government, religious, and philanthropic organizations to work together and to connect those who had authority to act with those who had the means to act.
In March 1938, McDonald spoke to a group of potential Jewish donors in New City about the urgent need to give money to save the Jews of Europe who faced annihilation. According to a summary of his speech, McDonald stated:
The war that the Nazis are waging is not a war against the Jews of Germany, but against all Jews, whose influence must be obliterated and who themselves should either be exterminated or driven out of all civilized lands . . . If you think that because you live in the United States you are immune, you are very foolish. Nothing counts these days except money with which to carry on your work of relief, of emigration, and of service to your fellow Jews. Mass meetings, parades, demonstrations, resolutions, getting nice letters from friendly Christians, are all very well, but they don’t actually save a single Jewish life, feed a starving Jewish boy or girl, train a single youth, pay for his emigration, or enable him to start life anew anywhere else.
All over the country and to all kinds of audiences, McDonald reiterated his earlier statements that the refugee crisis was not a Jewish problem but a human one. McDonald called the Nazi persecution of Jews an “attack upon the principles of civilized society” and expressed his disappointment that all Americans were not rising to meet the crises. In accepting the Professor Albert Einstein Medal for Humanitarian Services, he stated:
Until Protestants and Catholics as well as Jews understand, come to see that the things they hold dear, even as the things Jews hold dear, are threatened – not until then will there be an adequate response to enable refugees from Central Europe to be cared for.
McDonald closed his speech by refuting other political leaders’ claims that these refugees who had been stripped of their assets would be a liability and reminded his American audience that they live in a “country of refugees.” In yet another speech, this time to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, he again appealed to his audience’s conscious and pocketbooks:
This problem will require thinking in terms not of a few million dollars, but in terms of tens of millions of dollars. Moreover, the problem is not a Jewish problem. The conscience of America has been stirred.
These Americans, whose consciences has been stirred, placed immense pressure on the U.S. government to act on behalf of those fleeing Nazi persecution. On April 29, 1938, the Jewish Post, published in Indianapolis, reported that “10,000 Americans visited the offices of HIAS (Hebrew Immigration Aid Society) since Anschluss to learn how to bring their relatives to the United States from Austria.” Charitable and religious organizations did not wait for the government to take the lead. For example, the Jewish Welfare Federation advertised a fundraising campaign in the Jewish Post with an $81,640 goal. The ad pleaded for Jewish American aid:
Against the storm, against the fold of misery, against dire suffering there is only one great barrier . . . the barrier erected by American help. Compared with the need, what we can do is perhaps little, But the little is the only hope of MILLIONS of our fellow Jews. So Give! Be glad you can Give! Give even if it means self-denial! Give so THEY may have a chance to LIVE!
Road to Evian
By May 1938, in response to mounting pressure, the U.S. government attempted to organize a solution in the form of the International Committee for Refugees (later Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees). On May 12, the New York Times reported that the U.S. government suggested the creation of an international committee “to facilitate the emigration of political refugees from Germany and Austria.” The article reported that the U.S. State Department had consulted with over thirty other countries and scheduled a meeting for July 6 in Evian, France. According to Refugees and Rescue, President Roosevelt “launched [this] initiative without consulting the state department, inviting a range of other governments” to attend the Evian Conference.**
Meanwhile, President Roosevelt also organized his own group of advisers on the refugee crisis. On May 16, this group, the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees, organized and elected James G. McDonald as chairman. According to an account of the founding meeting by Samuel McCrea Cavert of the Federal Council of Churches, President Roosevelt “opened the conference by remarking that the United States has always been deeply sympathetic with political refugees and that the time had come when our country had another historic opportunity to show this sympathy.” However, the president carefully called the emigrants “political refugees” and avoided the term “Jewish refugees.” He seemed more concerned about public opinion than proposed rescue efforts. According to Cavert, in response to proposals that the government loan money to private organizations in position to effect immediate rescue, President Roosevelt stated that “at least for the present it would be unwise to put forward any proposal which would occasion public dispute and controversy, such as a change in the immigration quotas or appropriations or loans from public funds.” It was clear that raising money would be the key to any successful rescue efforts. And if it were to come in time to help the Jews of Germany and Austria, it would have to come from private organizations, not the government.
As the world awaited the upcoming Evian Conference, the crises mounted. In an article printed in the Indianapolis News in late June, AP Foreign Correspondent, DeWitt Mackenzie described the problems facing the conference. Mackenzie estimated that 450,000 Jews in Austria and Germany were in need of a new country if they were to survive Nazi persecution. However, he speculated that this was perhaps only the beginning of the crisis. Mackenzie wrote:
The anti-Semitic forces in other central and eastern European countries such as Poland, Rumania [sic], Hungary and Lithuania, have been strengthened by events in Germany. Jewish leaders express fear the refugee problem may assume extraordinary proportions if anti-Semitic governments and organizations get the impression that they can solve their Jewish problem by expelling their Jews and trusting the rest of the world to absorb them.
Mackenzie continued by theorizing on how those diplomats about to meet in Evian would handle the crisis. He estimated that they would first attempt to determine the feasibility of convincing the oppressive governments to “diminish anti-Semitic pressure” and allow fleeing emigrants to bring the whole of their property with them. Second, they would try and determine where these refugees would find homes. Like McDonald, Mackenzie made clear that money would be the determining factor in how successful any rescue attempts would be.
On July 2, 1938, just a few days before leaving for the Evian Conference, McDonald served as a sponsor for a Youth Aliyah benefit in New York. “Aliyah” is the Hebrew word for a Jew immigrating to Israel. The Hadassah-sponsored organization aimed to rescue young Jewish refugees and find them new homes in Palestine. The New York Times reported that the proceeds would be used to transport German, Austrian, and Polish refugees to Palestine on 1,100 British visas available until they expired in September. While James G. McDonald worked in New York to raise the $360 per child needed for transportation and two years of care, another Hoosier was hard at work for the same cause back in Indianapolis.
Sarah Wolf Goodman’s “Immediate and Wholehearted Action”
Sarah Goodman was a fixture of Indianapolis society, a prominent Jewish civic leader and supporter of the arts. She was born in Vienna in 1886 and came to St. Louis as a young child. She moved to Indianapolis after her marriage in 1924 to Jack A. Goodman, founder of the Real Silk Hosiery Mills. She was smart, ambitious, and well-connected. She commanded respect and could sway public opinion. In May 1938, she did exactly that.
Goodman devised a plan to address the same issue that faced McDonald: raising enough money for Youth Aliyah to transfer child refugees to Palestine before the September 30 deadline. Goodman shared with the readers of the Jewish Post on May 20 a letter she received from a fourteen-year-old girl who started a “little club of girls, all of about her age” and raised $10 “energetically baking and selling cookies.” The girls sent the money to Goodman asking her to “please accept the enclosed check for $10 and send it on to help save the lives of these poor children” of Austria.
These selfless girls inspired Goodman. She wrote that she believed that young Jewish people in Indiana wanted to help those their age who were suffering Nazi persecution:
In a few weeks many of these eager youngsters will be confirmed or will be graduated from grade school, high school, or college. We, their relatives, will show our love for them by showering them with gifts, some of which will be useful, some of which will never be looked at . . . Children appreciate gifts and the thoughts they express, but more important this year is the fact that they want to share with the Austrian children who have nothing.
Goodman’s plan was simple. She encouraged the families and friends of graduates to make a donation in the name of the graduate, in lieu of a gift, which she would send to the Youth Aliyah fund. The graduate would then receive a “fine” card. She wrote that any amount was acceptable but “only immediate and wholehearted action will suffice,” as the visas expired in a matter of a few months. Goodman stated, “Every one unused represents an opportunity lost forever to snatch a boy or girl from the hell that has been made of a fair country.” The country where she was born.
It is to be hoped that Mrs. Goodman’s plan will be seized upon and carried through one hundred per cent. Let the card Mrs. Goodman described become so fashinable [sic] and popular that the tie or book as a gift will become outmoded and in its stead a symbol of Jewish charity on its highest plane – the salvaging of the life of a child will take its place as the finest present possible.
The Indianapolis Star briefly mentioned a lunch fundraiser for Youth Aliyah on its society page, but made no mention of Goodman’s plan. Other Indiana newspapers were silent.
The Evian Conference
Meanwhile, the world waited on the Evian Conference. New York Times reporter Clarence K. Streit wired a report from Evian back to New York on the eve of the parlay. His impression was that the gathered representatives of the world’s democracies were not taking the issue seriously enough and compared the atmosphere to a poker game.
Streit began his report with a reminder to the attendees that the refugees have lost everything “because of their refusal to recant what democrats believe to be true” or because they were born Jewish. He said he repeated this well-known fact in the article because “it seems to be in some danger of being lost at the start.” He took issue with the fact that the negotiations were starting from the perspective of viewing refugees as a burden; their humanity was being lost among the poker-like game of negotiating how that burden would be shared. His impression was spot on.
The conference began July 6, 1938 at a lavish resort on Lake Geneva. Delegates from thirty-two countries attended. President Roosevelt sent Myron C. Taylor as the U.S. representative and James G. McDonald to advise him. Taylor was a wealthy businessman with little previous diplomatic experience. The U.S. agenda for the conference, as determined in a series of June meetings between U.S. State Department representatives and the President’s Advisory Committee chaired by McDonald, represented a weak compromise between their opposing visions. The U.S. would allow political refugees from any country (not just Germany as argued by the State Department) but only within existing quotas (to the chagrin of McDonald and the committee). They would tread carefully on the subject of Palestine to not upset the British delegation, which controlled the region. McDonald was cautiously optimistic that the conference would encourage other countries to accept Jewish refugees. He would be disappointed.
Myron C. Taylor addressed the conference on the opening day. He expressed sympathy for the plight of the refugees but noted that all of the countries present were dealing with a depressed economy and widespread unemployment. He noted that the assembled governments must act “promptly and effectively in a long-range program” to aid the refugees, but also noted that “the problem of political refugees” was “thrust upon them by the policies of some other governments.” He reviewed a world history of voluntary migration and then stated:
Now we have a form of compulsory migration, artificially stimulated by governmental practices in some countries which force upon the world at large great bodies of reluctant migrants who must be absorbed in abnormal circumstances with a disregard of economic conditions at a time of stress.
Taylor stated that the problem was so large, the conference could do nothing more than “put in motion the machinery, and correlate it with existing machinery.” He meant well, but his hands were tied by a U.S. government afraid of public criticism for easing quotas. Again, citing the enormity of the problem, he tried to focus the conference on addressing only German and Austrian refugees (despite the position of McDonald and others on the Advisory Committee). He spent a good amount of his address pondering how the participating governments would document the refugees, and of course, how this immigration would be funded. He offered no solutions other than advising delegates to speak to McDonald about his knowledge of aiding and financing refugees. The other countries followed Taylor’s lead. According to the USHMM:
During the nine-day meeting, delegate after delegate rose to express sympathy for the refugees. But most countries, including the United States and Britain, offered excuses for not letting in more refugees. Only the Dominican Republic agreed to accept additional refugees.
A New York Times article from July 14, succinctly summed up the Evian Conference. The reporter stated that the delegates “did not find a landing place for the thousands of refugees cast upon the world” and that “no doors were thrown open to the involuntary exiles.” The Times writer concluded: “All the delegates professed a sincere desire to do what they could, but none offered to relax the quotas and restrictions that every country has put on immigration.”
Before the conference even ended, McDonald turned his attention to gaining approval and support from the Vatican on addressing the human crisis. He left for Rome immediately after the conference closed. He did not even record his reaction to the Evian Conference in his diary. (Check back for Part 6 which will look at the widely varying Catholic response to the events leading up to the Holocaust and McDonald’s work to influence the Vatican.)
Goodman and “The Dignity of Man”
With little encouragement from world events, Sarah Goodman continued her campaign in Indiana to raise funds for the rescue of children from Austria. In all, she was able to save two children, with a total of $750 dollars raised, through her plan to collect donations in lieu of graduation gifts. This might not seem like much. However, this was in the midst of the Great Depression. The average income was just over $1,000 a year. Thus, Goodman raised almost a year’s salary for the effort. Additionally, she received no promotion for her idea from any newspapers beside the Jewish Post. Her plan, however, managed to spread. Cincinnati, Nashville, Memphis, Miami, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington followed suit.
In September, the Jewish Post enthusiastically reported:
Out from under the blighting shadow of the Nazi swastika over Austria, Jewish boys and girls are sailing away to a life of opportunity and human service in Palestine as the result of a plan translated into action by Indianapolis’ own Mrs. Jack Goodman.
On Thanksgiving Day, appropriately, Goodman shared the thanks of two children with the readers of the Post. She wrote:
On this our Thanksgiving weekend I have been instructed to transmit to all of you the heart-felt thanks of two young people whose lives will be forever yours. They are the youths whose lives were saved by the graduation, confirmation, birthday and other gifts which were made in your names last summer.
A thousand children were saved by this push for the Youth Aliyah fund. Goodman wrote that “it will never be forgotten that two of this number were saved by the young people of Indiana.” And really, it was the children who led the way, from the young girl who inspired Goodman’s actions to those who sacrificed gifts to help others. One recently confirmed child told the Post that the fund was “a living memorial of the fact that we are lucky to be giving and not getting.”
By September of 1939, around 282,000 Jews had fled from Germany and 117,000 from Austria, according to the USHMM. However, around 202,000 German Jews and 57,000 Austrian Jews were unable to escape, many because of old age. Their numbers fell to 163,000 by October 1941, when then Nazi regime ended Jewish emigration. Again according to the USHMM, “The vast majority of those Jews still in Germany were murdered in Nazi camps and ghettos during the Holocaust.”
Sarah Wolf Goodman did not quit after the drive to help Austrian children ended. She did not quit as the horrific details of the Holocaust trickled and then flooded into newspapers. She spoke around the country, continued to raise money for Hadassah and Youth Aliyah, and helped form new chapters in other cities. She traveled to Palestine to visit the clinics, schools, and scientific farms set up by the Hadassah, of which she was vice-president by the 1940s. Despite her gender, the Jewish Post named her Indiana’s Jewish Man of the Year for 1945. In 1953 she became the first woman president of the Indianapolis Jewish Welfare Federation. In 1956, the Post referred to her as “without a doubt the most prominent Jewish woman in the state” and in 1958 she became chairman of the United Jewish Appeal.
At her 85th birthday, she looked back on her accomplishments, and perhaps to the 1938 drive to save the children of Austria. She stated:
Anything one does that helps in any way to make the life of another more livable is the greatest reward one can reap. My interest is in the dignity of man – regardless of his denomination.
Primary sources cited concerning McDonald, Roosevelt, the U.S. State Department, and the President’s Advisory Committee were accessed:
Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald Stewart, and Severin Hochberg, Eds, Refugees and Rescue: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press & Washington, D.C.: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2009), 121-159.
Contextual information on the Refugee Crisis and the Evian Conference was accessed via the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum at ushmm.org. Articles cited include: “German Prewar Expansion,” “Austria,” “German Jewish Refugees- 1933-1939,” “Emigration and the Evian Conference,” and “The Evian Conference.”
Other newspapers accessed Newspapers.com, ProQuest Historical Newspapers, and NYTimes.com.
*Refugees and Rescue is the second of a three-volume set of McDonald’s papers and diaries. Cited above.
**President Franklin D. Roosevelt left behind a complex legacy from this period. He called for the Evian Conference but did not ease immigration quotas. He had many Jewish advisors and yet provided no public funds to aid Jewish refugees. According to the USHMM, he took “significant, yet limited action, in response to the persecution of Jews in Germany, the refugee crisis of the 1930s, and the ’Final Solution.’” For a comprehensive study of FDR’s response to the crisis, see Allan J. Lichtman and Richard Breitman, FDR and the Jews (Belknap Press, 2013).
In Indiana during the 1890s, a creature feature known today as the “Crawfordsville Monster” became fodder for newspaper headlines. People throughout the town claimed they saw this “horrible apparition” in the sky. While the monster’s origins were eventually discovered to be earthly bound, the legendary status of the monster speaks to the power of fake news.
It turns out that James P. Hornaday’s coverage of the Martinique and St. Vincent earthquakes was not the only big story in the Indianapolis News in the summer of 1902. A heavily-covered murder trial also graced the front pages during those months. William Fodrea, a young man with a penchant for engineering, stood accused of the murder of John Seay, an employee of the Noblesville Mining Company. Seay’s mysterious death and Fodrea’s equally mysterious alibi opened up a tale of unrequited love, obsession, and murder that captivated readers of both the News and the IndianapolisJournal. The resulting trial took many twists and turns before the jury’s surprising, unexpected decision. In the end, many walked away from the trial with more questions than answers and the details of that fateful night still remain obscured.
The murder of John Seay occurred on a cold, snowy night in 1901, just three days before Christmas. “About 1 o’clock yesterday morning,” the Indianapolis News reported, “while John E. Seay, in the employ of the Noblesville Milling Company, was resting on a stairway, a load of buckshot, fired by an assassin through a nearby window, entered his neck and head and he fell dead.” Within hours of the murder, attention turned to likely culprit William Fodrea, the twenty-five-year-old son of a former county prosecutor and aspiring engineer. Fodrea’s name rose to the top of officials’ list because he was reportedly obsessed with Seay’s girlfriend, nineteen-year-old Carrie Phillips. “Fodrea was infatuated with the girl and insanely jealous, and, it is said, made threats against Seay,” the News wrote. When Phillips rejected his advances, Fodrea increasingly fixated on her, “lingered” in her neighborhood, and was even “found hiding under the veranda” of her home. When she chose Seay instead, he was said to have lost all composure, resulting in the other suitor’s murder.
Fodrea, “perfectly calm and collected when arrested,” claimed total innocence. Even so, local authorities used a “‘sweat box’ examination,” but it “failed to compel the accused to implicate himself.” For context, a “sweat box” was an often-used torture device in US prisons that isolated the incarcerated in a small room with a tin roof. Due to a lack of ventilation, these small rooms greatly increased in temperature during the day and made prisoners “roast in the grueling heat, enough in some cases to cause death, or little better, madness.” It apparently did neither to Fodrea and he stayed locked up in the Hamilton Country jail while authorities began to sort out the crime.
From the initial investigations and throughout the trial, only circumstantial evidence linked Fodrea to the crime. Fodrea claimed to have never known Seay, and when asked to identify him in a photo, said that, “So far as that man is concerned, I never saw him before.” Despite his claims of innocence, other clues began to trickle in. The first piece of evidence found was a gun barrel, discovered by “school boys under a brush pile on the outskirts of the city.” As for testimonial evidence, Carrie Phillips and her mother both claimed that Fodrea’s obsession bubbled into a frenzy, with him finally declaring that “if he could not go with the young woman no one else could.” Phillip Karr, night manager of the Model Mill, said he saw Fodrea “loafing about the place late one night about a week before the shooting.” While these developments seemed damning on the surface, authorities noted that “these incidents will fall far short of being sufficient to convict him, if there are no new developments in the case.”
Ralph Kane, a veteran prosecutor, replaced J. Frank Beals after he withdrew from the case, citing his wife’s familial relationship to Fodrea. Judge William Neal began the process of establishing a grand jury to investigate the murder in more detail. The Hamilton County Council also convened, “acting on a petition signed by fifty business men,” to appropriate funds towards “a reward for the arrest and conviction of the assassin of John E. Seay.” One indication that the prosecution might have a case against Fodrea was that Seay did not appear to have any enemies in his former home of Richmond, Virginia. The grand jury first met on February 18, 1902. The Journal noted that, “Judge Neal, in his instructions to the jury, said no indictment could be returned against Fodrea unless there was a probability of guilt.” The case still hinged on circumstantial evidence. As such, Judge Neal further “instructed the jury to devote all of its time to the inquiry.”
The trial for the murder of John E. Seay began on June 9, 1902, at the Hamilton County Circuit Court. Billy Blodgett, a titan of turn-of-the-century investigative journalism, covered the proceedings for the Indianapolis News. The prosecution argued that William Fodrea shot Seay at close range while he was resting on a step. The alleged round from Fodrea’s shotgun “struck Seay in the neck and head, tearing a ghastly wound in his throat, and several of the grains of shot penetrating his brain.” Despite the cursory investigations indicated “no trace of the murderer,” a police officer had heard that Fodrea made threats against Seay. Fodrea, maintaining his innocence, “said he had gone downtown between 7 and 8 o’clock that evening, and visited different places, returning home about 10 o’clock. Being unable to sleep, he went back down-town an hour later, and for some time sat on the steps on the north and west sides of the court house.” He returned home around 2am. Due to the immense cold that wracked Noblesville that December night, the police were not sold on Fodrea’s story, especially his lounging on the courthouse steps. He was arrested soon thereafter.
The prosecution hung the success of their case on the testimony of Carrie Phillips. They again remarked of his odd behavior directed towards Miss Phillips—the passing her by home every day, hiding under her veranda, and his intense jealousy of Seay’s apparent courtship of Phillips. Her mother recalled that Fodrea called on the young woman shortly before the murder, asking for her whereabouts and the full name of her new suitor. Fodrea “said he would get even before long,” according to the State. These circumstantial accounts, while wholly based on the imperfect testimony of other people, painted a grim picture of the young man. The murder also highlighted a growing problem within Hamilton County. As Blodgett wrote in his first article for the News, “The killing of Seay was the third crime committed in Hamilton County within a short time, and consequently there was great indignation, not only at the murder, but because of what is termed ‘the epidemic of crime’.” The first day also focused on the selection of a jury, of which only two of twelve men would be over forty. This measure was taken to accommodate Fodrea, who was only 25 at the time and to ensure a fair trial. Leota Fodrea, William’s sister and a “prominent schoolteacher of the county,” showed “her devotion to her brother by her consistent presence by his side.”
The next day, the prosecution laid out its case in greater detail. Ralph Kane, lead prosecutor for the State, reiterated the problematic behavior of Fodrea and his supposed threats to Seay and Carrie Phillips. He argued that witnesses claimed to have seen Fodrea “lurking around the mill late at night and was seen standing at another time on the spot at the mill where the murderer stood” as well as “peering into the mill when Seay was there.” He also “caused a sensation when he declared that the State will show that the night of the murder, William Fodrea was seen within two squares of the mill with a shotgun in his hand.” These conclusions were based on the testimony of twenty-five witnesses, one of which was Frank Bond, a co-worker with Seay at the mill. He discovered the body as well as “12-gauge shotgun wads near it.” Bond then called Dr. Fred A. Tucker, another witness, who examined the body and concluded that Seay died instantly. Head miller Daniel H. McDougall also testified against Fodrea and claimed that he had applied for a job at the mill multiple times and even visited the grounds on three separate occasions.
The second day also provided the jury with details about the lives of both Fodrea and Seay. Fodrea, in his mid-twenties, called Hamilton County his home for most of his life. As the News wrote, “he has always been modest and unassuming and did not have a large circle of friends.” His life had taken for the worse after his laundry business went belly up as a result of a bad business partner, which prompted the young man to say, “It seems as if everyone that has anything to do with me beats me.” Seay, much like his accused assailant, lived a quiet life and kept to himself, likely the result of a speech impediment. He had very few close friends and lived modestly, dying with only a few hundred dollars to his name. What linked these two seemingly innocuous men was their relationship to Carrie Phillips.
Fodrea’s mother and father corroborated that their son was at home during the times he described and spoke of his good character. In particular, his mother noted that he was “very fond of machinery and wanted a job at the mill,” which paints his intentions with the mill in a different light. Additionally, the court came to a near stand-still when Fodrea’s sister took the stand. “She told of the dolls he made her,” Billy Blodgett’s wrote in the News, “the mechanical toys he constructed and the engines he built. Everyone in the room realized that the delicate sister was pleading for her brother, and it had effect at the time.” In all, the defense produced nearly 20 character witnesses for Fodrea, who all spoke positively of him and doubted the claims of the prosecution.
Even though many people testified to the goodness of Fodrea’s character, the testimonies of Carrie Phillips and Myrtle Levi described a completely different man. “Miss Phillips said she had known Fodrea for four years, and that during that time she had frequently told Fodrea that she did not want him to come to see her any more, but that he persisted in making calls at different times,” wrote the Journal. Phillips’s mother corroborated her daughter’s impressions of Fodrea and further noted that he threatened her and Seay. The defense pounced on this, arguing that “the State could not prove that Phillips went with other company, unless it also proved that Fodrea knew of it and talked about it.” The court agreed, the testimony was challenged, and Phillips was asked “not to say when she began going with Seay.” Regardless, her testimony displayed a man obsessed and incapable of thinking clearly about his relationships. Conversely, Myrtle Levi’s testimony proved more compelling, because she was the only one who directly connected Fodrea to the crime. As written in the News, “She testified that she knew Fodrea, and that on the night of the murder he and a companion came to her house and tried to enter.” He was accused of holding a shotgun, which two other witnesses claimed they saw on his person when he appeared at Levi’s residence. The defendant, asked by his lawyers not to take the stand to defend himself, calmly watched the proceedings as they developed.
On June 16, 1902, after six days of deliberation, the jury shockingly acquitted William Fodrea of all charges; a unanimous verdict was reached on the fourth ballot. The Journal described the atmosphere of the courtroom:
When the verdict, “We, the jury, find the defendant not guilty,” was read there was a sigh of relief from the crowd. Fodrea was as calm and undisturbed as any person in the room. His mother was the first to clasp his hand. Quietly he took the hand of each juror and thanked him while a smile played over his face. His relatives and friends then engaged in a love feast that lasted some time. His devoted sister Leota was not present when the verdict was returned, but after met and embraced him and escorted him to the home from which he had been absent for six months.
Some last-minute developments likely changed the direction of the jury. Thomas Levi, Myrtle Levi’s father, told the court that she did not originally identify Fodrea as one of the men who visited her home. While this important detail likely persuaded the jury, Levi’s personal life may have influenced them as well. As Hamilton County Historian David Heighway pointed out, Levi was a well-known prostitute in the community whose lifestyle might have weighed heavily on their verdict. Heighway’s evidence about her lifestyle comes from the Hamilton County Ledger.
This explanation seems incomplete, in some respects. First, the changing nature of her testimony could have had a stronger impact on the jury’s decision. Second, some of the jury may not have taken her lifestyle into consideration or may have not even known about it. Third, her profession should not have had any bearing on whether her testimony was true or not. The last of these hypotheses is sadly anachronistic; at the turn of the century, Victorian values were still in full swing and it is less than likely that the jury, if they had known about Levi, would have ignored it. Biases are an inherent part of everyone’s experiences, so the jury may have been biased against her from the start. Heighway’s explanation only answers part of this puzzle.
Alongside the knowledge of Levi’s lifestyle and changing testimony, it should be noted that Fodrea was accused of stalking, intimidation, threats, and eventually murder. It is not absurd to suggest that he could have killed Seay as a tragic conclusion to a failed courtship. Yet, as his defense pointed out, Fodrea was only connected to this crime via the woman his alleged victim was interested in. A full murder weapon was never found, eyewitnesses only described a gentleman in an overcoat at the mill, and the only witness who directly connected him to the crime had changed her story before it came to trial. There was enough doubt to acquit Fodrea, but the newspaper accounts of the trial acknowledge that Fodrea’s acquittal came from a weak prosecution, not a strong defense.
William Fodrea eventually picked up the pieces of his life, but in the most surprising way imaginable. Between 1908 and 1909, he co-founded the Fodrea-Malott Manufacturing Company, where he used his improved transmission design to build a better type of automobile. They developed only one vehicle during their lifetime, the “Beetle Flyer,” which was built by a staff of 8 (including Fodrea). When his partner, Charles Malott, suffered an auto accident in 1909 that destroyed much-needed supplies, the company folded. Malott moved to California and Fodrea moved to Arkansas, “to work on mechanical devices.” To this day, Fodrea-Malott remains the only known automobile company from Hamilton County. Fodrea died around 1945, according to Social Security and Census records.
The death of John Seay and the murder trial of William Fodrea captivated the citizens of Hamilton County and both of Indianapolis’s major newspapers. It displayed all the classic elements of a pulp-crime novel: unrequited love, intrigue, obsession, and murder, hence its extensive coverage by the News and the Journal. Fodrea’s acquittal put to rest, at least for the newspapers, whether or not he actually committed the horrendous deed, but his subsequent move to Arkansas suggests that it continued to haunt him. We may never know what exactly happened on that brisk, December night, but its effects left a deep influence on the community for years after.
WHAT:History Unfolded Research Sprint WHEN: Thursday, February 1, anytime between 9 a.m. and noon WHERE: Indiana State Library
315 West Ohio Street
Indianapolis, IN 46202 (Map) (Parking) QUESTIONS: jweiss@history.IN.gov
Please join us next Thursday, February 1 ( anytime between 9 a.m. and noon) in the Indiana State Library for a History Unfolded “Research Sprint.” Our coordinated research over just a few hours has the potential to impact a nationally significant project.
History Unfolded is a project of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. It asks students, teachers, and citizen historians throughout the United States what was possible for Americans to have known about the Holocaust as it was happening and how Americans responded.
For the “Research Sprint” we’ll be using Newspapers.com to find articles in the Indianapolis News and the Indianapolis Star (which were the most widely read newspapers at the time) reporting on 34 different Holocaust-era events that took place in the United States and Europe. We will then submit our findings to the History Unfolded database, providing resources and raising questions for scholars that will inform the USHMM’s initiatives. Basically, it’s up to us to contribute information on what the average Hoosier would have read about the events leading up to the Holocaust.
This event is open to citizen historians, teachers, and students of all levels. Indiana Historical Bureau staff will be there to help you:
Create a History Unfolded log-in.
Choose and briefly learn about an event that interests you.
Find two relevant articles on the event, one in the Indianapolis Star and one in the Indianapolis News using Newspapers.com.
Submit your topic to History Unfolded
Tweet if you can @HolocaustMuseum and @HS_Chronicles #HistoryUnfolded
Follow Hoosier State Chronicles on Twitter to see examples of the articles we’ve already found. Or check out our more in-depth History Unfolded series on the HSC blog to see how we are using these newspapers to analyze what Hoosiers knew about the Holocaust and how they responded.
You can even make your History Unfolded profile now and get started! Hope to see you on February 1.
Indiana’s own Richard Wigginton Thompson, former Secretary of the Navy, was an emblematic product of American corruption during the Gilded Age. In many ways, he was the living embodiment of failing upward; despite being clearly incapable of serving as Naval Secretary, he continued to rise through the ranks of the political establishment. In effect, his story is but one, small part of a larger story about how government is not always staffed by the “best and brightest,” but rather its exact opposite.