Shades State Park: What’s in a Name?

shades 3

When one of western Indiana’s most beautiful natural areas was turned into a state park in 1947, conservationists who had fought to protect it were faced by a publicity problem:  what to do about its name, the one it had been known by for about a century?

Located along Sugar Creek, 45 miles west of Indianapolis, Shades State Park sits in the “shadow” of its better-known neighbor, Turkey Run in Parke County.  But as 19th-century tourists knew, the steep, even vertical scenery in these wild gorges — atypical of Indiana’s landscapes — is a powerful lure.

The canyons and cliffs at Shades and Turkey Run stand out in this part of the Midwest, which was scoured, bulldozed, and mostly flattened by glaciers.  Ecologically, too, these unique parks are outliers, reminders of a time when Indiana looked more like Wisconsin or Canada.  Pine Hills Nature Preserve, now part of Shades, contains one of the southernmost stands of white pines in America.  Other geological vestiges of a “primitive,” ancient Indiana are the fern- and lichen-covered sandstone gorges, strewn with small waterfalls, along Sugar Creek.

In fact, as the founders of the Indiana state park system knew when they created the first parks to commemorate Indiana’s 1916 centennial, Turkey Run and Shades are among the few Hoosier landscapes that pioneers would recognize today.

Yet most pioneers avoided Shades.  Mostly because of geology:  the steep area was too difficult to farm or even log.  But partly, it could be, because of folklore and a name.

From sometime in the mid-1800s until 1947, what we call Shades was almost always known by its old pioneer name, the “Shades of Death.”  Although the spot was a popular tourist destination as early as the 1880s, and the name didn’t seem to scare many visitors away, an unknown writer in the July 22, 1888, Indianapolis Journal suggests changing it to something less ominous.

“The popularity of the ‘Shades of Death,'” he wrote, “one of Indiana’s most beautiful summer resorts, would undoubtedly be greatly enhanced by a change of name.”

shades 1
The Indianapolis Journal, July 22, 1888. Hoosier State Chronicles.

A man naturally hesitates before saying that he has sent his family to the Shades of Death, and does not find it altogether agreeable to be congratulated on his own safe return from there.  It casts a chill over otherwise fascinating society notes to read of distinguished citizens who have gone down to the Shades of Death. To be sure, they are heard of the next week as coming back, but the emotions which arise over their return are of the sympathetic sort that go out to those who have been to the gates of death. . .

The Shades of Death should become the ‘Indiana Eden,’ or ‘Montgomery County Paradise,’ or, being a Crawfordsville adjunct, the ‘Litterateur’s Retreat’ – anything to relieve the gloom.

(A stretch of Sugar Creek near the “Shades of Death” had been a favorite fishing spot of Hoosier literary giant General Lew Wallace, author of Ben-Hur.  Wallace lived in nearby Crawfordsville.)

In fact, a quick search through news articles digitized by Hoosier State Chronicles turns up plenty of strange mentions, like these:  “This train also available for Shades of Death and Montezuma…”  “The Odd Fellows of Indiana will hold a picnic at the Shades of Death…”  “Miss Anna Moore will go to the Shades of Death this week to spend the summer…”

What was the origin of this old Indiana place name?

In his Sugar Creek Saga (1959), Montgomery County historian Theodore Gronert thought it came from the pioneers’ morbid associations with danger (Native Americans and animals) lurking in the shades.  Few settlers, in fact, came to this part of the county.   Yet one of those who did settle in the vicinity, an Irishman named Alexander Weir, reportedly chose the area because of its wild beauty.  Weir was said to have named the spot on Sugar Creek where he lived “Balhinch” after his native village in Ireland, which this rugged place supposedly reminded him of.

Others speculate that the name “Shades of Death” actually comes from a lost Native American name for the canyons along the creek.  Miami and Shawnee bands are thought to have lived in this area just before European settlement.

Though not well substantiated, there is a Potawatomi legend about a huge pitched battle against the Miami, an event that may have taken place on the steep terrain of Pine Hills and Shades in the 1770s, when these tribes fought each other for control of the Illinois prairies and part of the Wabash Valley.  The legend alleges that nearly 600 warriors on both sides were slaughtered in these canyons, with only seven Potawatomi living to tell the tale as the last five Miami scattered into the woods in defeat.  The truth of the story is nearly impossible to tell.

devils inn shades

What is certain is that in 1836, a frightened woman-or perhaps teenage girl-went to trial in Montgomery County, the first woman ever tried for murder here.  Surviving records at the courthouse in Crawfordsville show that she was known only as “Mrs. Rush”.  She lived with her husband, a pioneer named Moses Rush, whom folklore claims was also an outlaw, along part of Sugar Creek near what became Shades.  H.W. Beckwith’s 1881 history of Montgomery County says the Rush cabin was “just below where Deer and Canine’s Mill now stands.”  (This is the Deer Mill covered bridge at the edge of the park near Pine Hills.)  The remote spot probably suited Rush, who seems to have been a wild man, a drunk, and a brutal wife beater.

Probably nothing at all is known about Moses Rush except that one night in 1836, according to his wife’s court testimony, he came back to their cabin drunk and threatened to kill her.  Fortunately, Rush decided to take a nap first.  Fearing for her life, his battered wife took an axe and split his skull open — then went to a neighbor and reported her crime.  The trial was short.  The judge and jury were sympathetic.  Moses Rush’s widow was acquitted and possibly even congratulated for ridding Montgomery County of him.

According to Virginia Banta Sharp’s History of Waveland, “The husband’s body was buried near the house where he had lived and on a tree by the grave was cut the letters, Moses Rush, 1836. For many years the words could be seen and much later, a party of picknickers unearthed the remains and found the skull with a 3-inch deep cut in it.”

W.H. Blodgett mentioned the famous braining in the Indianapolis News on June 6, 1898, in a piece on Crawfordsville folklore:

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Indianapolis News, June 6, 1898. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Another murder took place right outside the boundaries of what became Shades State Park back in 1865, as the Parke County Republican reported on February 15.  This story, too, may have reinforced the murderous association with the name “Shades of Death.”

Fearing he was going to be cheated of his inheritance, a 33-year-old farmer, Milton Wineland, brought a double-barreled shotgun to the farm of his father, Frederick.  Frederick Wineland “resided in Montgomery county, about four miles northwest of Waveland, but was murdered in this county [Parke], the county line running between his house and the field in which he was at work.” Milton “inquired of his helpless mother where his father was,” then went out in the field, hid behind a fence row, and shot his father and cousin dead.

The murderer then took off as a fugitive, perhaps finding temporary refuge in the gullies and canyons of Shades and Pine Hills.  Wineland’s own mother posted $1000 reward for his capture.  But a week later, the Parke County Republican thought he had fled to Canada. “Wineland doubtless imagines that a murderer will be safe within the realms of the Queen’s domains,” it was written from Rockville, “inasmuch as deserters, bounty jumpers, and Copperheads fleeing the draft, there find a place of safety.”

PC Republican 02-23-1865 p 2

Despite the murders, the future park was a peaceful place, considered wild and romantic.  It was probably an early stomping ground of Indiana’s most famous painter.  Though best known for his Impressionist paintings of Brown County in southern Indiana, T.C. Steele grew up in Waveland, the closest town to “Shades of Death”.  When he was given a box of paints, Steele began his formal art training at the Waveland Collegiate Institute, later called Waveland Academy, then at Asbury College (now DePauw University) thirty miles down the road in Greencastle.

A young T.C. Steele, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Steele’s boyhood home in Waveland, a ca.-1850 cottage, was bought for restoration in 2014 for $12,500.

Newspapers digitized by Hoosier State Chronicles show the popularity of Shades long before it became a state park and the words “of Death” were dropped from its name.  Visitors from Indianapolis and Terre Haute especially were drawn here.  (Two-hundred acres of forest were owned by a Dr. Moore from Irvington, on Indianapolis’ East Side.)

Though the “gloomy” name was briefly changed to Garland Dell sometime around 1890 (as the Indianapolis Journal writer had hoped), the old name stuck.  Hundreds of city-folk came for outings, including members of the German Männerchor and Socialer Turnverein of Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Botanical Club, cyclists, Shortridge High School’s zoology club, and the Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur (a fraternal organization whose rituals were based on the novel Ben-Hur.)

Indianapolis physicians planned to build a sanitarium at the Shades of Death around 1890 and there was even a controversial push to connect it to an electric tram line serviced by the Vandalia Railroad.  (Waveland in those days had passenger trains.)

devils backbone
These passenger pigeons or doves were carved onto a natural rock bridge called the Devil’s Backbone at Pine Hills in the late 1800s. A portrait of the Devil himself was also graffitied here. Photo by the author.

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(Devils Back Bone near Bluff Mills, Ind., circa 1900. Waveland Photo Album.)

Shades of Death was mostly a happy place, but one last story from the turn of the century nearly led to a student’s tragic end.

In February 1903, a gang of fifteen freshmen at Wabash College “entered the Wells Club at the supper hour” and kidnapped a member of the rival sophomore class, a student from Iowa named Andrew Thornell (some papers call him Thornley.)  Thornell was the captain of the Wabash College baseball team.

Handcuffed, blindfolded, and shoved into a buggy waiting in an alleyway, Thornell ended up being taken at night to a lonely hut or solitary farmhouse near the Shades of Death, twenty miles southwest of Crawfordsville.  Three freshmen fastened him to a wooden block on the floor and kept watch over him.  The freshmen must have fallen asleep, since Thornell broke loose, jumped from a window, and struck out through the woods around Shades and Pine Hills.  Exposed to the elements, the “kidnapped” student got lost and “walked many miles” before he found a farmhouse where someone offered him shelter and food.

Thornley caught pneumonia that night and nearly died, leading Wabash College to investigate the prank.  The sophomore’s escape from captivity made several state newspapers.  His “brutal treatment” near the Shades of Death even appeared in Indianapolis’ German-language Indiana Tribüne.

Almost every landscape has a story or two that brings it to life.  Many will surely remain untold forever, lurking in the “Shades of Death” where old stories go.

Ghoul Busters: Indianapolis Guards its Dead (or Does It?)

From the late 1800’s into the early years of the 20th century, Indiana’s capital city had a body problem.  How to protect people who were already dead?

Around 1900, even supernatural visitors to the city’s cemeteries would not have been surprised to find “the quick” prowling among the dead.  For decades, grave robbers and vandals regularly stalked Indianapolis’ burial grounds – until the city took bold steps to stop them.

An early description of how big the “body-snatcher” problem was comes from an article in the Indianapolis Journal, published just before Halloween on October 27, 1899. The story concerns a shocking discovery at the Greenlawn Cemetery.

You’d be hard pressed to find any trace of Greenlawn today, but for most of the nineteenth century, this was one of the major city cemeteries.  Founded in 1821, while Indianapolis was first being laid out, Greenlawn was the original city burying grounds. Situated along the White River just north of what became Kentucky Ave., the cemetery is thought to have been the oldest in Indianapolis.  (Tiny family cemeteries may have existed in the area before then, but no trace of them has been found.) Today, the once hallowed 25-acre spot is occupied by the Diamond Chain Company, just west of Lucas Oil Stadium and just north of where I-70 crosses the river.  (The company once manufactured about 60% of the bicycle chains in America.)

Greenlawn Cemetery map

Diamond Chain Company

Over 1100 Hoosier pioneers were interred at Greenlawn.  Vermont-born Indiana governor James Whitcomb (1795-1852) lay there until his daughter ordered his body moved to massive, prestigious Crown Hill Cemetery in 1898.  Among those who also found their first, but not final, resting place by the White River were 1200 Union soldiers and over 1600 Confederate POW’s who died of illnesses and battle wounds at the U.S. Army’s Camp Morton or in city hospitals nearby.

Greenlawn, however, shared the fate of all those who came to call it home in the nineteenth century.  The cemetery, too, died. Indianapolis’ downtown burying grounds faced all the normal cemetery problems, such as vandalism of tombstones by youth and overcrowding, especially after the numerous Civil War interments.  Spring and winter floods on the White River were also a major factor behind its closure to new burials in 1890.

But another cause also drove the city to declare Greenlawn itself “defunct”, and was far more disturbing in nature.  As Indianapolis newspapers reminded their readers in 1899, the problem had been around for decades.

While performing some of the earliest removals out to Crown Hill, families and city officials unearthed the grisly fact that “in reality, few if any bodies” buried at Greenlawn prior to the 1890’s were still in their graves.

Robbing a grave for jewels and other valuables is a tale as old as time.  Preventative measures against the desecration of graves and theft of items meant to stay with the dead had actually led to the creation of some of the greatest mortuary art, including Egypt’s pyramids. Even daring archaeologists were technically glorified grave robbers.  The plot of William Faulkner’s great novel Intruder in the Dust (1948) centers around a spinster and a teenager trying to clandestinely remove a body from a fictional cemetery in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, to prove a man innocent.

Outright theft of bodies themselves, however, was something that really only emerged after the 1500’s, when the more accurate study of human anatomy initiated the emergence of modern medical science.  In the early days of modern medicine, however, the primary provider of bodies for anatomical study was the public hangman, not the grave robber. Rembrandt’s famous painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp shows doctors-in-training gathered around the body of a Dutch thief, Aris Kindt, who had been strung up on a rope just a few hours before he went to the dissecting table.

Before many centuries were out, though, doctors began to find that live thieves were also useful. In the 1800’s, medical faculties often had trouble finding enough bodies for their students to dissect in classrooms.  Families were reluctant to donate their loved ones to science.  Tragically, the bodies that medical instructors typically got hold of came from the most victimized and outcast members of society.  When available, corpses for the dissecting room were found at poorhouses, jails, and mental asylums, for the simple reason that those who died there had often been abandoned by their families.

While many vocal opponents tried to stop the dissection of the poor, if none came to claim a body as a “friend,” medical faculties were legally allowed to use such corpses for the education of future doctors.  Most states passed so-called “Anatomy Acts,” modeled on Britain’s of 1832.

It should come as no surprise that the largest number of bodies dissected by medical students from the 1800’s into the 1930’s were those of African Americans.  A high number of those paid or encouraged to do the grave-robbing were also black. African Americans often served as medical assistants to white students, as many turn-of-the-century photographs of dissections show, but rarely became doctors then.

Photography, whose own invention was fueled by a desire to accurately explore and record the human form — in a way, to cheat death — also came into the dissection room, as John Harley Warner and James M. Edmonson show in Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine, 1880-1930.


(“A Student’s Dream”, R.A. Robinson photographer, 1906.)

Medical students and an African American assistant, University of North Carolina Medical Department, Raleigh, circa 1890. “The seated man is the janitor; the overturned bucket he’s sitting on was usually kept at the foot of the dissection table, and was used to collect waste.”

The clandestine pilfering of Indianapolis’ unguarded cemeteries stemmed from a constant need for fresh “instructional material” at central Indiana medical schools, including Indiana Medical College, the Physiomedrical College of Indiana, and Greencastle’s Asbury College (now DePauw).  Indiana University in Bloomington did not offer courses in anatomy or physiology until September 1903.

The Central College of Physicians and Surgeons, at 212 North Senate Avenue, was built in 1902 and immediately showed up in lurid news stories about illegal body snatching.  (The college was an early forerunner of IU Medical School.)  Readers of stories in the Indianapolis Journal could easily have formed an image of the college’s medical faculty scouring obituary notices and hiring thieves to steal fresh bodies as soon as the last family member left the cemetery after a funeral.  One such story was reported on September 22, 1902.  Mrs. Rosa Neidlinger, recently buried at Pleasant Hill Cemetery between Traders Point and New Augusta, was recovered at Central College a few days later.  Investigators returned her to her husband, a miller, for a second burial.

Indianapolis Journal, June 28 1884
(The “self-locking” Boyd Grave Vault “keeps out Vermin as well as Burglars.” Indianapolis Journal, June 28, 1884. The Flanner in this ad is Frank W. Flanner, whose mortuary firm Flanner & Buchanan went on to become early promoters of cremation.)

Central College of Physicians and Surgeons - N Senate Ave Indianapolis
The Central College of Physicians and Surgeons was built in 1902 and sat at 212 North Senate Avenue in Indianapolis. It became affiliated with the Indiana University School of Medicine in 1906.

The preferred word in newspapers for grave robbers was “ghouls” (a word that comes from Middle Eastern folklore.)  At least one story shows that ghouls and their employers were sometimes caught red-handed.

On February 26, 1890, the Journal reported that three prominent Louisville physicians had been apprehended and indicted for body-thievery at a New Albany, Indiana cemetery. Four “ghouls”, all African American, employed by the Kentucky doctors were involved.  One ghoul, George Brown, was shot through the heart by policemen in the cemetery.

The Journal article from October 1899 describes the bizarre dimensions of the problem at Greenlawn in Indianapolis. Families who ordered exhumations of their relatives at Greenlawn were discovering an astonishingly high rate of empty coffins — or to put it more accurately, coffins with only empty clothes left in them.  No bones, no hair.  Only shrouds and clothing.  Were robbers stripping the bodies at graveside?

A man presumably on trial in Marion County for grave-robbing explained this odd fact to the writer for the Journal, who reported:

At first it was customary to open a grave and take the body out, clothes and all, and either strip it naked on the ground or double it up in a sack and remove the clothes after taking it to a safe place.

This practice was discontinued when one day the city was thrown into an uproar over the finding of a girl’s slipper in the snow beside her newly made grave.  She had been buried one afternoon in winter when snow was falling and her relatives came back the following day to look at the grave.  Between visits the grave robbers got in their work, and, following the usual custom, did not remove the clothing from the body, but doubled it up and put it in a sack.  In doing so one of the dainty slippers fell from one of the feet, and, being white, was not noticed in the snow.  During the following morning the snow melted and the relatives, returning to the grave, saw the slipper, and, recognizing it, raised a hue and cry.  This made the grave robbers change their methods, and thereafter opening the boxes they stripped all bodies of their clothes and put the garments back in the caskets.

This when related to the authorities explained why in opening the graves within the last few months nothing was to be seen in the caskets but piles of discolored clothes thrown in heaps, with slippers where the head ought to have rested. . .

It has come to be generally understood by the city officials that while Greenlawn has all the outward signs of being a cemetery, there are in reality few, if any, bodies there, and that in view of this fact there should be no opposition to its being transformed into a park.

The Journal writer may not have been exaggerating.  Grave robbers and doctors were possibly reluctant to disturb the honored Union dead, who were removed to Crown Hill National Cemetery as early as 1866. Can the same be said of the Confederate dead? Greenlawn’s 1600 Confederate soldiers were the last bodies removed once the city decided to exhume every remaining coffin in Greenlawn for reburial at Crown Hill. This process began in 1912, and was sped up by the fact that the area around Greenlawn had become an unattractive industrial area, which it still is today. The Confederate soldiers were left here until 1931. Buried in a damp area by the river, few of their remains likely would have survived 70 years after the Civil War. Could some of them have been sent to medical schools just after burial?

Indianapolis Journal October 14 1902
Indianapolis Journal, October 14, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

One of the most fascinating criminal cases in Indianapolis history is the story of Rufus Cantrell.  An African American who had moved north from Gallatin, Tennessee with his family and settled in Indianapolis, he was prosecuted for extensive grave-robbing in 1903.  When pressed, and perhaps enjoying the media attention, Cantrell came clean, taking investigators around cemeteries all over the city where he and his “gang” had removed corpses.  Lawyers tried to prove their client insane, even getting his mother to testify that he had preached and talked to God when he was a teenager.

Cantrell was found guilty and sent to the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City, where he “lay dying of typhoid fever” in June 1904. He survived and later was transferred to the Jeffersonville Reformatory near Louisville.  Though few if any white doctors who paid ghouls for their services ever got such sentences, Dr. Joseph C. Alexander, who allegedly worked with Cantrell, went on trial in Marion County in February 1903.  When the court failed to convict him, angry farmers in Hamilton County hanged and burned effigies of Dr. Alexander and the judge in the middle of a street in Fishers, shouting “Death to the grave robbers!”  When they inspected the graves in a rural cemetery on what became Indianapolis’ North Side, half of the coffins there were found empty.

Indianapolis News, April 23, 1903
Indianapolis News, April 23, 1903

Rufus Cantrell was even accused of plotting to steal the body of ex-President Benjamin Harrison, who died in 1901. The ghouls might not have been bluffing here.  The fear that struck Hoosiers in those years, and especially the Harrison family, was great and well-founded.

In 1878, there had occurred the well-publicized heist of Benjamin Harrison’s own father from the family cemetery in North Bend, Ohio.  Former Congressman John Scott Harrison, son of Indiana territorial governor and U.S. President William Henry Harrison, was found hanging naked from a rope in an air shaft at Ohio Medical College in Cincinnati, shortly after his son Benjamin came from Indianapolis to oversee his secure burial in a secret grave.  Amazingly, John Harrison, Jr., armed with a search warrant, had discovered his father’s body while investigating the disappearance of yet another corpse, that of Augustus Devin, a young tuberculosis victim who had been buried next to the Harrison plot just days earlier.  Devin’s body turned up in a vat of brine at the University of Michigan.

John Scott Harrison, son and father of U.S. presidents, was snatched in 1878.

All this considered, a major factor driving the surge in burials at Crown Hill at the turn of the century was the increased security taken there to ward off robbers. Modeled on Louisville’s famous (and equally massive) Cave Hill Cemetery, Crown Hill was the resting place of most of Indianapolis’ elite.  It eventually became the third largest private burial ground in the country.

As a lengthy article in the the Journal reported on October 5, 1902, surveillance at Crown Hill was extensive. Security involved call boxes for quick communication. It also featured a curious system of “time stamps”.  Revolver-toting guards were forced to clock in at different corners of the cemetery every 20 minutes, thus ensuring they didn’t fall asleep or shirk their duties as they monitored every part of the park-like necropolis, which in 1902 housed over 32,000 graves. If they encountered prowlers, the guards were ordered to shoot to kill, and they patrolled the cemetery in all weather. The northwest section, near the future site of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, was considered Crown Hill’s “most dangerous district.”

Crown Hill patrol

Body-thieving never totally disappeared. (The actor Charlie Chaplin was stolen from his grave in Switzerland in 1978.) The public also feared other reasons for desecration. When Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was buried with his family at Terre Haute’s Highland Lawn Cemetery in 1926, no individual headstone was placed there. Though Debs’ body had been cremated, the Debs family and his supporters feared that unfriendly vandals or “souvenir”-snatchers, perhaps funded by his political enemies, would try to steal the urn.

Such stories are troubling to read, but a vital part of the city’s history, involving race, science, and medicine. Ultimately, it is a strange fact, surely part of the terror and beauty of the human predicament, that many a grave robber, who almost certainly came from the margins of Indianapolis society, ultimately did help advance medicine and the public welfare.

A Victim of His Valor: Great Lakes Daredevil Peter Nissen

In December 1904, two curious articles appeared in Indianapolis’ German-language daily, Indiana Tribüne (one of the many historic Hoosier newspapers digitized by NDNP).

Headlined “Peter Nissen und sein Ballonschiff”, the first small clip announces the disappearance of a remarkable Great Lakes daredevil and accountant, Chicago’s Peter “Bowser” Nissen, who had been in and out of American and international newspapers since 1900.

Nissen’s waterborne adventures by boat, “balloon ship”, and possibly even submarine are a strange tale, a confusing mix of fact and mixed-up news reportage.  Eleven years after his tragic death in 1904, and in the wake of another Great Lakes maritime tragedy, the little-known daredevil steps into mystery and even folklore.

On December 1, 1904, Indianapolis’ German readers encountered news of the adventurer’s disappearance on Lake Michigan just a few days earlier:

Chicago, Nov. 30 – It is feared that Peter Nissen has either drowned or frozen in his rolling balloon, which he dubbed “Foolkiller” – a name that now seems to have been well chosen.

Nissen began his dangerous journey over the lake yesterday afternoon.  No news has been had of him in 24 hours.

Nissen is the same daredevil who several years ago shot the rapids of Niagara Falls in a boat.

The assumption that Nissen has drowned grows more likely, since the only air supply at his disposal in the “Foolkiller” had already been depleted before he left the shore.  Nissen encountered a gale which pummeled the lake with winds of 48 miles an hour.

In the same news clip, the Tribüne includes a report from South Haven, Michigan, on the lake’s eastern shore, that a search along “various points of the coast from Michigan City to Muskegon has returned no word of Nissen, who dared the open lake in his Foolkiller, a canvas boat with air-cushions.  It is believed that Nissen has become a victim of his valor.”

The following day, December 2, the Tribüne brought a further report from Berrien County, Michigan:

indiana tribune 1 - Dec 2 1904

[Stevensville, Mich., 1 December.  Peter Nissen, who sought to traverse Lake Michigan in his balloon-boat, was found dead on the beach 2 ½ miles west of here today.  It is thought that his body was washed up on the local beach during the night.  The balloon was found about 20 rods away from him, in a very sorry state.  The body was brought here, where it is being kept in the town hall.  The hands and face were frozen and the lineaments of his face bore signs of infinite distress.  The clothing was rather torn.  The body was found by Mrs. Collier, who lives on a farm near the lakeshore.]

Who was this Peter Nissen, then, whose fantastic story the Tribüne barely digs into?

Born to Danish parents in Germany in 1862, Nissen was an immigrant himself.  One report said that he lived in poverty in Chicago, where he worked as a bookkeeper.  His death certificate issued in Michigan says that he was single and had worked as foreman in a furniture factory.


Nissen apparently first made national news headlines as early as 1900, when, at age 38, he successfully shot the Whirpool Rapids of the Niagara River in New York, just downstream from Niagara Falls.  Many previous Niagara daredevils shot or swam the Rapids, often in wooden barrels, and almost always at the cost of their lives.  Nissen’s was by far not the first attempt, but his was unique because of the strange boat he used to accomplish it.

Like the bizarre “balloon boat” he piloted to his death on Lake Michigan in 1904, this boat, too, was dubbed Foolkiller, and was actually one of at least three vessels Nissen called by that name.  The feat was celebrated in papers as far away as his ancestral Denmark, where Skandinaven picked up the story on July 11, 1900.  Probably translated from an American paper, this description of Nissen’s boat must have given Danish readers a picture of American bravado and the power of the American landscape.  It also gives us some details about the mysterious vessel itself:

The boat used by Mr. Nissen for his dangerous feat is twenty feet long and four feet deep, built of pine with frame and keel of elm. In addition to the ordinary keel, the boat has an iron keel weighing 1,250 pounds, and the total weight of the boat is over two tons. There is a screw driven by foot power, and the boat has six airtight compartments, two in the bow, two in the stern, and one on each side.

A short clip in the Marshall County, Ind., Independent (July 20, 1900) reads:

Peter Nissen of Chicago, who prefers to be known as “Bowser”, made a successful journey through the Niagara rapids and whirlpool Monday afternoon in his boat, the Foolkiller.  The boat struck the first foam-topped wave and turned over as easily as if it had been a stick and not a 1,250-pound keel.  Man and boat disappeared.  The watchers thought it was all over, when suddenly farther down stream “Bowser” reappeared, clutching the boat with one hand and waving his jersey cap with the other.  The boat had righted itself.  This occurred three times in the rapid journey, for it took only two and a half minutes for the whole trip through the rapids.  Then “Bowser” and his boat were flung straight into the whirlpool.  He was carried straight to the vortex which sucked in the boat, casting it up a minute later, with the drenched but plucky fellow clinging to its seat.  Here it remained for forty minutes while the whirlpool played with it, spinning it like a top, then rolling it around the outer rims of the whirlpool.  The man was finally rescued by three men who ventured into the water as far as they dared and caught a rope which he threw to them as his boat swung round on the outside of the pool.  “Bowser” said the trip was more terrible than he feared, although he came out unharmed.

The first Foolkiller, then, was essentially a 1200-pound, foot-powered, deep-keeled kayak.  In another section of the same issue of Marshall County’s Independent, Nissen’s craft is described as weighing

4,500 pounds, with a keel of iron which weighed 1,250 pounds.  The keel acted like a pendulum and the boat was never wrong side up for more than five seconds at a time.  The boat road the first wave like a duck.  The second engulfed it and Nissen disappeared.  He afterward stated that the wave nearly tore his head off.

To the eventual entertainment of many news readers, Nissen repeated his daring Niagara feat in 1901, in a restructured version of the boat, this time a longer, narrower craft featuring an eight-horsepower steam engine and a larger rudder.

The April 1902 Wide World Magazine includes several of the few photographs in existence of the second Foolkiller, hailing it as “The smallest decked steamer in the world,” a kind of steam-powered sea kayak.  Containing himself in a small crawlspace beneath the cockpit, Nissen successfully shot Whirlpool Rapids for a second time in October 1901.  An unknown cinematographer for the Thomas Edison Film Company even captured him in one of the earliest motion pictures. (The thrilling short is available on YouTube.)  Unfortunately, on a third venture down the Niagara River late in 1901, Foolkiller II sank and was never seen again, probably ending up in Lake Ontario.  Nissen and a colleague barely escaped drowning.

(Incidentally, Chicago’s accountant-daredevil wasn’t the only “fool” at Niagara Falls in October 1901.  Just a week after his steam-powered Foolkiller II made it through the rapids intact, a Bay City, Michigan, schoolteacher named Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to go over Niagara Falls itself in a wooden barrel and live to tell the tale.  Taylor did this on her 63rd birthday.)

With his second experimental vessel at the bottom of the Niagara River, Peter Nissen returned to the Midwest.  By November 1904, he had pioneered his weirdest and wildest vessel, Foolkiller III.

A Popular Science Monthly article in September 1933 (“Freak Vehicles for Air, Land and Water”) regales readers with an account of Nissen’s final, fatal incarnation of the Foolkiller.  The author claims that:

In the early years of the present century, Nissen was seeking a way to reach the North Pole. One of his schemes for traversing the rough Arctic ice was to use an automobile equipped with huge, low-pressure tires.  Thus, thirty years before this time, Nissen dreamed of the modern balloon tire.  Unfortunately for him, he didn’t stop there.  The idea of the balloon tire kept growing in his mind.  It got bigger and bigger and eventually the automobile disappeared from his plans and only the tire remained!

Nissen’s “fantastic scheme” was not unlike his previous experiment with turning a kayak into a steamboat.  This time he would virtually turn a zeppelin into a ship.  According to the Popular Science Monthly article, Nissen eventually intended to create a canvas bag 115 feet long and 75 feet in diameter.  Filled with hydrogen gas, the balloon would sail north to the Arctic carrying the car underneath.  After landing on the ice, Nissen would deflate the balloon and drive the car through a special door in the canvas.  By means of a pump, the airtight “football” would reinflate once the car was inside.  Nissen planned to string the automobile itself on cotton ropes hanging from a revolving interior wooden axle that stretched from end to end of the “football”.  Air-tight glass portals allowed him to see out.  Powered by winds, and with the ability to sail over both water and Arctic ice sheets, Nissen would literally roll to the North Pole.

Amazingly, in the summer and fall of 1904, Nissen actually constructed a miniature 32-foot-long version of this contraption and was performing test runs a few miles out on Lake Michigan, just off the Chicago shoreline.  Photographs in the Chicago Daily News show the inventor at work next to his “pneumatic ball.”  Readers of the Indiana Tribüne, the Indianapolis Journal and other papers might not have known the background to this story when they read about the “Der Foolkiller” on December 1, less than 48 hours after Nissen set out on his fateful voyage.


Reporters at the time claimed that he left from Chicago’s Navy Pier bound for Michigan City, Indiana.  Caught in a gale (or did he deliberately go out in the gale to test Foolkiller’s ability to withstand bad weather?), Nissen may even have drifted within sight of Gary and the Indiana Dunes.

After his body was recovered on the beach just south of Benton Harbor, Michigan, doctors believed that Nissen had probably survived the gale itself, but either suffocated inside the balloon or drowned while trying to get out of the surf.  A handwritten note found in the balloon suggests he knew he was going to suffocate.  He may have died just offshore.  (The South-Bend Tribune claims that the only provisions found inside the balloon were biscuits, cheese, tobacco, and water.  The Indianapolis Journal claims that Nissen subsisted only on candy.)

nissen wreckage
Glass plate negative of seven people walking along Lake Michigan in Chicago near wreckage believed to have been part of Nissen’s Foolkiller. DN-0001137, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

Readers in Indiana and elsewhere who heard of the navigator’s terrible fate might have thought it an end to Foolkiller stories.  But on November 25, 1915, eleven years later, the South Bend News-Times published this surprise item:

Chicago, Nov. 24 – Efforts were being made today to raise the “fool killer” submarine that has been buried in the mud of the Chicago River for 18 years.  The diving boat was found by William M. Deneau, a diver, who was laying a cable in the river bed.

The boat was owned by Peter Nissen, an old time mariner.  It was a cigar shaped craft, and could be submerged until an air pipe about 10 feet high was the only part that stuck out of the water.  Nissen, who never succeeded in putting the subsea craft into practical operation, lost his life trying to drift across Lake Michigan in a revolving boat, another of his spectacular inventions.

Where this submarine came from is a mystery.  As long ago as the 1840’s, a Michigan City, Indiana, shoemaker, Lodner D. Phillips, was actually building and patenting several unsuccessful submarines on the Great Lakes, all of which stayed on the bottom.  (A fascinating article from the Ann Arbor Chronicle tells a bit of Phillips’ story.)  Was this the wreck of a much older vessel?  At a time when the Chicago River was being dramatically re-engineered for human use, it is hard to imagine how a submarine could have gone unnoticed under three feet of mud right in the heart of the downtown business district, next to the Wells Street Bridge, for so many years.

Yet as photographs from the Chicago Daily News attest, something was definitely pulled out of the river in 1915.  (Interestingly, these photographs may have been taken by Jun Fujita, the first Japanese American photojournalist, who was employed by the Daily News.)

“Raising Foolkiller submarine from Chicago River, December 20, 1915.” Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0065730, Chicago History Museum.

Chicagoans’ morbid interest in the discovery of the submarine (which the Daily News called “Foolkiller,” “something out of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”) was due in part to its proximity to the site where the SS Eastland capsized six months before, killing 844 passengers boarding a vessel for Michigan City, Indiana – the deadliest disaster in Chicago history.  In a twist of fate, William “Frenchy” Deneau was one of the heroic divers who recovered about 250 bodies of Eastland victims from the river that summer.  After the submarine turned up in December, there were tales that Deneau, its 23-year-old discoverer, had also found the bones of a man and dog inside — not the first such find on the bottom of the river.

To cap the story off, the Chicago submarine’s ultimate destination is as murky as its origin and sudden reappearance.  Deneau reportedly got permission from the U.S. government to salvage the vessel.  He put it on exhibition on State Street for several months, charging 10 cents admission, then sent it out on a tour of Midwestern county fairs.  The bizarre vessel, it is thought, disappeared at a fair in Iowa in 1916.  No trace of it turned up again.