On a darkening California highway one September evening in 1955, Indiana native son James Dean careened to his death in a Porsche 550 Spyder nicknamed “Little Bastard.” Speeding to an auto race in Salinas and riding with a former Luftwaffe pilot and Porsche mechanic named Rolf Wüterich, Dean tried desperately to avoid a crash as a 23-year-old Cal Poly student, Donald Turnupseed, turned onto the highway. Sometimes ironically misspelled”Turnupspeed,” the other driver was judged not at fault, but Dean was severely mangled and died before arrival at the emergency room.
Less than a month before the release of his greatest film, Rebel Without a Cause, the 24-year-old actor was being readied at a morgue out West for his last trip home to the Hoosier State.
The date of his death was September 30 — sixty years ago tonight.
Hoosier State Chronicles has recently digitized seventy-five years of James Dean’s hometown newspaper, The Fairmount News, which will be going up on Newspapers.com this November. All Indiana residents can access over 1.25 million pages of Hoosier newspapers for free through the State Library’s INSPIRE portal.
A town of about 3,000 in Grant County, an hour northeast of Indianapolis, Fairmount was shocked by Dean’s horrific death. He’s still the town’s greatest attraction today, and the onslaught of tourists and movie buffs visiting Fairmount’s Park Cemetery has hardly slackened since 1955. One biographer has even referred to the hometown actor as an “industry” and “one of Fairmount’s most lucrative commodities.” Doubly lucky, the community is also the childhood home of Garfield cartoonist Jim Davis, born in 1945.
The Fairmount News will be a boon to researchers trying to put together a fuller picture of the actor’s youth and background in this Indiana farm town.
The Fairmount News will also undoubtedly give insight into Grant County’s not always flattering history, especially in the 1920’s. Dean’s biographers have been quick to point out the actor’s feelings about the area’s history as a major base for the Ku Klux Klan a century ago. (He wrote a negative poem about his hometown when he lived in New York.) Times have changed in Grant County, but the past is never truly dead. As William Faulkner said, it’s not even past.
(Grant County history was tarnished by the most famous photo of an American lynching in 1930, just one year before Dean’s birth, but its past is more complicated. Under the subtitles “We Want Justice, Not Charity” and “Liberty for the Masses–Not the Classes,” Freedom’s Banner, a short-lived Socialist newspaper, was once printed at 120 East Fourth Street in Marion, the county seat, back in 1910. A selection of Indiana Socialist papers also goes online this fall.)
One looming figure is Fairmount’s history is a woman alleged by Jack Shuler, a historian of lynching, to have been the Hollywood star’s great-aunt. This was the little-known “Quaker Klucker,” Daisy Douglass Barr, mentioned on Hoosier State Chronicleslast week and in an article on HistoricIndianapolis.com.
A reformer gone astray, Barr died in 1938 when Dean was seven and she is buried just a few rows away from him at Park Cemetery. In the mid-1920’s, she served as head of the women’s auxiliary of the powerful Indiana Ku Klux Klan. Barr was also an influential evangelical Quaker minister, having taken to the pulpit at age 16 and led revivals and tent meetings all over the state — one of the few women to preach and lead congregations in those days.
From 1903 to 1910, Barr had been pastor of the Fairmount Friends church, the same church James Dean grew up attending and where his funeral was held in 1955. Though Daisy Douglass Barr moved to Indianapolis around 1917 and died in a car wreck near Jeffersonville in 1938, the future star of East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause almost certainly met her. He was born in 1931. It’s tempting to think he may have attended her funeral in Fairmount.
Another “specter” from Dean’s past will likely surface in The Fairmount News. This was a minister, close friend and mentor of the young Dean’s who gave a eulogy as his funeral.
The Reverend James A. DeWeerd, a Methodist preacher educated at Taylor University, Marion College, and Ball State was at the time of the actor’s death the pastor of Indy’s influential Cadle Tabernacle. By some accounts the largest church in America, Cadle Tabernacle, too, had a dark history dating back to the 1920s, when the Invisible Empire held many rallies there. Its founder, evangelist Howard Cadle, had allegedly lost control of the place, but managed to turn it around. Cadle Tabernacle became the base of a popular evangelical radio ministry in the ’30s and James DeWeerd preached there in the 1950’s — as did Civil Rights heroes Martin Luther King and Billy Graham, for the record.
Here are a few other historic clips from The Fairmount News from the fateful year 1955. Look for more on Newspapers.com when the paper goes live this November.
Banned Books Week is here. We thought we’d take a look at a few volumes of “insidious poison” the Indiana State Council of Defense asked to be withdrawn from Hoosier library shelves in 1918, during the height of America’s involvement in World War I. Hoosier State Chroniclesneither endorses nor criticizes these books, many of which are hard to find and might even have been destroyed. Some aren’t as interesting as the lives of their fascinating and controversial authors. But we do support your right to read and discuss them — if you ever happen to find a copy.
We focus on three books. A “behind the scenes” look at some of these titles reveal fascinating back stories.
State and county defense councils emerged after America’s late entry into the war against Germany in 1917. Indiana’s defense council was organized on May 19.
When it comes to freedom of speech, these groups had a sketchy record. Though much of what they did was simply ordinary work to contribute to the war effort — arranging food drives, relief for wounded soldiers, the sale of Liberty Loans, and urging Americans to conserve grain — the councils had a dark underbelly. The conservation of grain, for example, was an underhand way to enforce contentious “dry” laws, since corn and wheat were used in alcohol production — and alcohol was being labeled “German” and “foreign.” Under the influence of women’s and church groups, Indiana ushered in statewide Prohibition in 1917, three years before the national ban on booze, and at the same time that insidious rumors about spies and terrorists were lurking in the press. It’s an overlooked fact that the Prohibition movement was often tied at the hip to nativism, and that “unpatriotic” German beer-lovers were accused of wasting grain to undermine the war effort.
In many states, notably Iowa and Nebraska but also in Indiana, defense councils and local “Liberty Leagues” stood behind bans on the German language, an interdict that in some states forbade the speaking of any language other than English. In 1919, Indiana made it a criminal offense to teach German to children in elementary schools — largely out of concern that militaristic foreign propaganda and love of the “old country” was being spread by German-language textbooks and pamphlets (which were allegedly being burned in Indianapolis.) In many American schools, German classes weren’t offered again until the 1920s and the subject never recovered its pre-war popularity. World War I also virtually exterminated the once-flourishing German-language press in the U.S.
Much American news coverage drew on allegations from the British press, including illustrations and tabloid journalism. The British had exploited and exaggerated the very real human suffering of the 1914 “Rape of Belgium” for political ends and to encourage the U.S. to enter on the British side. Soon Hoosiers were reading about the sadistic sexual perversions of German commanders and soldiers, including accusations that the Kaiser’s “book of instructions” to officers authorized the rape and mutilation of children and the elderly. Many of these events did occur, though reports weren’t rigorously fact-checked. Yet American feminist writer Susan Brownmiller argues persuasively against the attempt to redeem German honor by downplaying the amount of rape during the war.
Defense councils typically consisted of ten or fifteen men and one woman, though “Woman’s Sections” were established in many states and counties. Indiana’s State Council of Defense in Indianapolis was headed by Senator Charles W. Fairbanks, who had been Theodore Roosevelt’s vice-president. Other male members of the committee included Irish-born former Indianapolis mayor Thomas Taggart (known as a Progressive); H.R. Kurrie, president of the Monon Railroad; former IU football coach and U.S. Representative Evans Woolen; and the famous Will Hays, granddaddy of film censorship in America. Among the officers of the Woman’s Section of the State Council was Anne Studebaker Carlisle of South Bend — daughter of Clement Studebaker of carriage- and auto-manufacturing fame — and Mrs. Samuel L. Ralston, wife of the future governor of Indiana, who also happened to be a Klan favorite in the 1920s.
(The much-misunderstood Will H. Hays, from Sullivan, Indiana, served on the State Council of Defense during World War I. Hays was chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1918 to 1921, then served as U.S. Postmaster General, when he became known for his opposition to sending pornography by mail. In 1934, he instituted the restrictive Hays Code to regulate the U.S. film industry, but the Hoosier native is also credited with helping the movie business get on its feet and provide truly quality films. Time Magazine, September 13, 1926.)
The Indiana State Council of Defense was definitely interested in what Hoosiers were reading and took a strong interest in “education.” In hindsight, its patriotism was part of an undisguised government program to promote optimism and a single view of the war. In this sense, it was propaganda in the true meaning of the word, which comes from the Latin for “to spread” information — not necessarily the unbiased kind.
The Report of the Woman’s Section, published after the war was over in 1919, demonstrates the interest the Indiana council took in promoting pro-war perspectives and how it went about making sure the government’s view came out on top. The primary target: pacifists and the “apathetic,” a word typically spelled “slacker” in war-hungry American newspapers like the Lake County Times.
The fiercest opposition to American involvement in World War I hadn’t come from German-Americans or “hyphenated” Americans of any stripe, but from isolationists and Socialists. Among the most outspoken critics was Indiana native son Eugene V. Debs, who went to prison for protesting the draft, and Wisconsin Senator Robert M. LaFollette. In the debate over intervention vs. isolation, graphic newspaper illustrations served not only to vilify German militarists — who may have richly deserved such treatment — but also the American labor movement, which criticized the war as a distraction from problems at home. Socialists and pacifists were labeled enemies and “slackers.”
Thus it comes as no surprise that a number of the books and pamphlets on the 1918 Indiana banned books list weren’t written by German militarists, but by American and British labor activists.
One of these books was a pamphlet called Morocco and Armageddon, penned by British pacifist and anti-slavery crusader E.D. Morel.
Anti-slavery? In 1917? Morel’s work combating illegal slave trading in the Congo Free State — Belgium’s huge African colony — linked him to British consul Roger Casement. Their investigations into the atrocities of Belgian King Leopold’s Congo, which shocked the world, figures into the background of Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece Heart of Darkness (1899). Morel’s investigations into greed and murder were supported by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain, among many others. The equally anti-imperialist Roger Casement was later executed by the British during World War I under allegations of being a German spy after he helped spark the 1916 Easter Rising of Irish Republicans in Dublin. Casement’s fate was virtually sealed when the British government published excerpts from his diary that suggested he was a homosexual.
Labor leader Morel’s opposition to World War I, which he considered a distraction from the atrocities of colonialism — including Belgium’s, some of the worst — earned him a spot on the Indiana banned books list just about a year after Casement’s execution. Morel was also severely critical of the harsh Treaty of Versailles, which many argue was an extension of the demonization of Germany and paved the way for the Second World War.
Another major name on the list is the great anthropologist Franz Boas. Born in Germany, Boas came to the U.S. and Canada in the 1880s to study the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest and the Arctic North. His studies of linguistics and culture made him one of the fathers of modern anthropology and folklore studies. Boas later taught at Columbia University. Having famously insisted that the origins of racial inequality are social, not biological, he later clashed with Adolf Hitler. The German-American anthropologist, who died in New York City in 1942, helped many German and Austrian scientists escape from the Nazis.
Boas had a different view of World War I though. His pamphlet “Nationalism and Europe,” printed by the Germanistic Society of Chicago in 1916 — spelled “Germanatic” in the Hammond, Indiana, newspaper — runs to fifteen pages. While he starts with a dispassionate criticism of Slavic nationalism — which threatened to break up the German domination of central Europe and was one of the main causes of the war — Boas rips into American reasons for getting involved, even specifically criticizing American hypocrisy when it came to “making the world safe for democracy.” After mentioning the sinking of the USS Maine and the famously yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst that had propelled the U.S. into war against Spain back in 1898, Boas comments:
One of the more disturbing figures to show up on the Indiana list was wrongly identified as “Edward Emerson.” In fact, this is the controversial and little-known Edwin Emerson, Jr. (1869-1959). No relation to the American philosopher Ralph Waldo, Edwin Emerson led a strange, complex life, much of it overseas.
Before the Civil War, Emerson’s father had written for Harper’s Magazine and worked with Noah Webster of dictionary fame. During the war, Emerson, Sr., went to Europe as a secret envoy for Abraham Lincoln, where he tried to prevent England and France from recognizing the Confederacy. Close to leaders like Otto von Bismarck and William Gladstone, “agent” Emerson was living in Dresden, Germany in 1869, when his son was born there. Edwin, Jr., seems to have grown up entirely in Germany, but later came to the United States. He graduated from Harvard in 1891, afterwards writing for the Boston Post and New York Evening Post and Sun as a foreign correspondent.
During the Spanish-American War — the war Franz Boas criticized for being an example of “How Americans Reason” — Emerson served in the Rough Riders with Theodore Roosevelt. Due to his native fluency in German, however, he posed as a German newspaper correspondent in Puerto Rico. Actually an American spy, Emerson acquired a critical map and helped spearhead the invasion of the Spanish island. Colonel Emerson also served as Teddy Roosevelt’s regimental clerk in Cuba. He then spent some time as a liaison in the Venezuelan army.
After the war, he went to Korea as a war correspondent and was imprisoned by the Japanese during the Russo-Japanese War. Then in 1906, in the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake, Emerson got married in San Francisco — in the house of Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson (an Indianapolis native). His new bride had actually declined his offer of marriage. But he didn’t get her telegram. . . so she married him anyway.
Emerson was one of just a handful of American journalists to report on the German side of the struggle during World War I, at a time when he wrote for the Chicago Daily News and other major papers. In “The Destruction of Louvain,” the pro-German reporter downplayed the horrors of the Rape of Belgium. As early as 1915, the New York Timeshad run an article on a speech Emerson was said to have given in Berlin. The German press quoted him as saying that under similar circumstances, American soldiers would have committed the same outrages on civilians as German troops did at Louvain. Understandably, this view did not win Emerson friends in America. His pamphlet explaining his purportedly eyewitness perspective on the Belgian atrocities was banned in Indiana.
Just after the November 1918 armistice, the news correspondent was in Guatemala, where that country’s president accused him of being a German spy. In the early 1920’s, he also got expelled from Austria and Switzerland as an undesirable alien and subversive.
Unfortunately, Edwin Emerson Jr.’s, politics soon took a turn for the worse. By the early 1930’s, this friend of Germany had become one of the most outspoken advocates of Nazism. In 1933 and 1934, on East 92nd Street in New York City, he helped found the Society of American Friends of Germany. This group quickly merged with the Chicago-born Friends of the New Germany (Bund der Freunden des Neuen Deutschland), an organization of American Nazis also known as FONG. The Friends later became the German American Bund, founded in Buffalo, which under police guard paraded through the streets of New York in 1937. A pro-Aryan organization, forty percent of their membership was allegedly Irish.
The Dresden-born newspaperman, who now edited the first pro-Nazi newspaper in America — Amerikas Deutsches Post — met with the German Führer himself in February 1934. The monthly paper had an English-language supplement, American Observer. The German American Bund also published a bilingual weekly, Deutscher Weckruf und Beobachter (Wake-Up Call and Observer.) In 1937, that paper became a youth magazine, but stopped publishing after Pearl Harbor.
The homegrown National Socialist groups that Emerson supported held multiple rallies at Madison Square Garden, events estimated to have drawn crowds of up to 50,000. Just like during the First World War, individuals who opposed entry into the Second had complicated reasons that often strayed far from mere pacifism. The controversial and probably anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh, “fallen hero,” was among them. Whether he deserved it or not, Lindbergh’s career was destroyed.
An author of books on Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Halley’s Comet and the Gutenberg Bible, Edwin Emerson, Jr., died in 1959 in San Francisco, California. He was buried at Golden Gate National Cemetery — under a Rough Rider’s tombstone.
In 1914, a fascinating and controversial woman in Muncie, Indiana, threatened to “tear the town wide open.” At least that was her credible claim, made during a speech in Columbus on July 8, 1914.
Toting a mace around Muncie’s streets, a pistol at night, and wearing a police uniform designed and made by herself, Alfaretta Hart — Badge Number 9 — was on a personal crusade to redeem “fallen women” and clean up the “commercialized vice district.” She was also married to one of the city’s great industrialists. The swirl of controversy around her, which involved everyone from teetotaling ministers to the Socialist press, is an incredible glimpse into the shifting landscape of American politics and feminism.
For a millionaire, it’s ironic that Alfaretta Hart was born Alfaretta Martha Poorman in 1860 in St. Clairsville, Ohio, an Appalachian mining town just over the river from Wheeling, West Virginia. Poorman married Pittsburgh businessman Thomas F. Hart (1851-1934), who later ran several big factories in Muncie during its lost heyday as a manufacturing town. Hart’s industries included the Inter-State Automobile Company — where glass-maker Frank Ball, of Ball State fame, was a major investor — and several Hoosier paper mills and glass factories that turned out windows and jars. Alfaretta Hart served on the board of these industries and ranked among the wealthiest Hoosier women.
Yet there is little information about her in the newspapers until 1914, when the 53-year-old became Muncie’s first — and at that time only — policewoman.
The history of policewomen is fascinating in itself. Closely tied to Progressive politics and the women’s rights movement, the inclusion of females on American police forces was specifically meant to help combat big social problems like juvenile crime, prostitution, rape and sex trafficking. Unfortunately, some of the more sensational early 20th-century news stories about women in law enforcement focus on what seem like silly distractions today — like the years when they enforced the size of bathing suits on beaches. During World War I, women officers were even drawn into the popular hysteria about German spies and saboteurs stalking the United States. The South Bend News-Times ran an especially bizarre piece in 1918 about how New York City’s policewomen were helping uncover other “women” who just happened to be the Kaiser’s cross-dressers. A hundred years later, it’s tough to say if this story is truth or urban legend.
Side-shows like these took away from the truly valuable work of female police officers. Minnie Evans, who served on South Bend’s police force in 1917, consistently urged that “Only a Woman Judge Can Handle Women’s Cases,” especially in “cases involving a woman’s honor” (i.e., sexual in nature.) Many of those “honor” cases began at dance halls, which older American females considered hot-beds of vice. Cigarettes, booze and dancing were the feared “gateway drugs” to extra-marital affairs and out-of-wedlock pregnancies which often ended in botched abortions. If you scour newspapers from the early 1900s, it doesn’t take long to find some truth behind these accusations. But lecherous men, of course, were a huge part of the problem.
Mary Clark, a writer for the South Bend News-Times, interviewed a Miss Anderson, “present custodian of our accused women in the [St. Joseph] county jail.” When Clark asked if South Bend needed a policewoman — like Chicago, which already had several on its force and asked for fifteen more that year — Anderson replied with a vigorous yes. So did the city’s male police chief, Millard Kerr. Female police, Anderson believed, were most valuable in protecting lone women from the sexual advances of men in train stations and other public places. The interview still makes for fascinating reading today.
It’s unclear if any specific event spurred Alfaretta Hart to seek the post, but in January 1914 she was appointed Muncie’s first policewoman by Mayor Rollin Bunch. Citing “health reasons,” Hart would end up leaving the job in December. But almost immediately, the reformer began making enemies as she threatened to throw the doors of hypocrisy and corruption wide open.
One of the ironic things about Hart — who always went under the name “Mrs. Thomas F. Hart” — is how little she fits the stereotypical image of what a “matronly” policewoman might be like. “Liberal” and “conservative” aren’t useful words here, since today they evoke a different set of political views than what might have gone together in 1914. Whereas Hart considered herself a crusader trying to help the wayward, her enemies portrayed her as a nosy prude and even, surprisingly, as a friend of the liquor interests.
At a time when many reformers, especially women, were in favor of Prohibition and supported “dry” laws, Alfaretta Hart was “wet.” This may have had something to do with the fact that she was a Roman Catholic.
The always-complicated relationship between Catholics and alcohol surfaces again here. It was Protestants who almost always spearheaded local and state Prohibition laws — partly because they had seen good men and families destroyed by drink, but partly also because some of the biggest imbibers were working-class Catholic immigrants, who evoked both old European animosities and the specter of Socialism and labor unions. Tragically for the Protestant churches, Prohibitionists later filed en masse into the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. During its heyday in the 1920s, the Klan was at least as much anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic as anti-African American.
By the ’20s, the Indiana Klan reached the height of its power and had a large following in Muncie. Muncie’s Klan is especially fascinating, since a large number of Klansmen there were actually Klanswomen. One of the leaders of the WKKK — “the Women of the Ku Klux Klan” — was Daisy Barr, a Muncie Quaker who became a well-known “Klan Klucker.”
In addition to the KKK’s opposition to liquor and perceived Catholic interference in American schools, ideas about guarding female purity spurred many Hoosier women to join the infamous organization, which dominated state politics at the beginning of the Jazz Age.
Oddly, it was the Quaker Klucker Daisy Barr who first pressed Muncie’s Mayor Bunch to appoint a policewoman. Most women agreed that the city’s brothels, illicit drug dealers, “blind tigers,” etc., needed to be driven out or regulated, and that prostitutes and “fallen women” should be reformed. Yet the anti-Catholic Quaker Prohibitionist and local women’s groups were shocked that the mayor chose the “wet” Catholic Alfaretta Hart for the job.
On March 4, 1914, Hart went to war against Muncie’s hypocritical “drys.” To a packed hall at the Wysor Grand Opera House, the new policewoman skewered the opposition, accusing Prohibitionist men of frequenting the red light district, cheating on their wives, and seducing young girls on the street. She had little more sympathy for what she saw as moralizing, puffed-up women.
In fact, the Klan’s hyper-patriotic ideals were dashed by the huge amount of corruption in its ranks. Most famously, D.C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the Hoosier Klan, would go on trial in 1925 for the rape and murder of Madge Oberholtzer, an Indianapolis schoolteacher. The sex and booze scandals that rocked the organization a decade after Alfaretta Hart went to work were, ironically, exactly the kind of things she warned Muncie about back in 1914. When she threatened to “tear the town apart,” it was over the hypocrisy of a society that ignored the abuse of women. She received many threatening letters in return.
Hart took to the newspapers, referencing her religion as she defended “Magdalenes” and arguing that “wayward” girls and drunkards were often just “un-moral rather than immoral.” To give them a helping hand, she called for wholesale reform of Indiana’s criminal justice system.
“Badge Number 9” had been a voice crying in the wilderness since at least 1911. That year, part of another colorful speech where she lashed out at the drys appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer:
Taking on social conformity, Hart proclaimed: “A person who would participate in a dry parade for policy or business reasons would follow a brass band to Hades.”
Yet the valiant, perhaps even quixotic Hart was no “modern woman” per se. Some of her views would probably clash with 21st-century feminism. She announced, for instance, that “I am no suffragette. Muncie already has enough troubles with the women trying to vote.” (Voting rights for American women didn’t come until 1920, the year nationwide Prohibition also began.) And at the dawn of the Flappers, she had this to say about young people and sex:
I would rather take my chances with the self-educated young man who knows how to work with his hands than I would with the vast majority of high school and college graduates.
The young people of the present day know too much already about sex matters. We need more “old-fashioned” mothers who are fully awake.
Girls? Why, we have no girls today, for as soon as they are out of swaddling clothes they are ushered into society with all the airs of grown-up women.
When not defending herself against the barbs of Muncie’s “dry” press and the broadsides of hostile Protestant churches — both of which later morphed into the powerful Indiana Klan — Hart was dodging shots from the Socialist press, which normally might have stood behind her.
One fervent attack came from Girard, Kansas, where a major Socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason, took a jab at Hart’s millionaire status and the “rip-snortin’, high-flying tutelary team” she formed with her industrialist husband. Thomas Hart had had bad times with his workers during labor strikes. The editorial is a fascinating commentary on how low wages figure into the birth of crime:
Appeal to Reason, Girard, Kansas, February 21, 1914. The radical Kansas newspaper’s ancestral roots were actually in Greensburg, Indiana, where Hoosier editor Julius Wayland began The Coming Nation, a major Socialist paper, in 1893. Wayland, who was once driven out of Versailles, Indiana, by a lynch mob for his Socialist views, also commissioned Upton Sinclair’s great labor novel The Jungle — first serialized in Appeal to Reason in 1905.
Though Policewoman Hart gave up her position at the end of 1914, citing “health reasons,” many considered that she had been “singularly successful” in reforming the “fallen,” though attacks continued. The Indianapolis News praised Hart for maintaining a downtown office and devoting her salary as policewoman “to the aid of fallen girls and women. In addition she has spent much from her private income.”
The Harts went on a tour of the world in 1915. Their only son Lawrence, a graduate of Notre Dame, Columbia and Yale, later went into the furniture-making business in Dallas, Texas, where he died in 1929. His parents also moved South.
Widowed in 1934 and already past the age of seventy, Alfaretta Hart became a Texas newspaperwoman, writing for the Dallas Journal under the name “Martha,” her middle name. She died at the Melrose Hotel in Dallas on January 16, 1951, aged ninety. Her funeral was held at St. Lawrence Catholic Church back in Muncie. Burial was at Beech Grove Cemetery, just south of Ball State University.
The Lusitania disaster seems impossibly remote to some, but the great maritime tragedy occurred just a hundred years ago — within the living memory of our oldest citizens.
Photography was unable to capture the sinking itself. Torpedoed by a German submarine eleven miles off the south coast of Ireland on a beautiful May afternoon in 1915, the ship went to the bottom in just fifteen minutes, with the loss of 1,200 lives. Many still believe the ship’s unusually fast demise was caused by contraband explosives it carried in its hold, en route from the U.S. to Britain. If true, the Germans would still be guilty of a war crime, having fired the torpedo that ignited the illegal cargo, though the behavior of the British government, smuggling weapons on a passenger liner, would be hard to excuse.
While the meticulous, body-by-body photographic record of the drowned victims is stashed away in the Cunard Line Archives in Liverpool, hundreds of the dead were never recovered at all. Others remained unidentified. A series of stark photos documented their burial in a mass grave in the town of Cobh (formerly called Queenstown) on Ireland’s south coast. Remarkably few American newspapers ever reprinted these somber photographs, which show a pile of old-fashioned “pincher coffins,” the kind that was beginning to go out of style in favor of modern, less “haunted-looking” caskets.
An exception was the Lake County Times in Hammond, Indiana, which published one of the gloomy images on May 25, 1915, almost three weeks after the sinking.
(Old Church Cemetery, Cobh, County Cork, Ireland, where 169 bodies from the Lusitania were buried.)
One of the anonymous victims who might lie in the Irish earth — but who probably went to the bottom of the sea — was a Hoosier man sailing aboard the doomed vessel.
Elbridge Blish Thompson was a promising 32-year-old sales manager from Seymour, Indiana, traveling to Holland with his wife Maude. Though Maude survived and went on to have a remarkable, unusual life, Thompson drowned and his body was never officially recovered.
Born in southern Indiana in 1882, Thompson came from a family of prominent millers who ran the Blish Milling Company, one of the main businesses in Seymour. Educated in Illinois and at the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Thompson went on to study at Yale, then metallurgy at the Sheffield Scientific School in New Haven. Popular at Yale, he defended his home state by saying “A man from Indiana can do no wrong.” In 1904, he married Maude Robinson of Long Branch, New Jersey. Thompson’s work as a metallurgist took the couple out to Breckenridge, Colorado, but after a few years, they came back to Seymour, where he took charge of the Blish Milling Company and the Seymour Water Company. It was the flour milling business that eventually led him to embark on a fateful trip to Holland in May 1915.
In 1914, a strange instance of what the Indianapolis News called “kismet” (fate) led Thompson to disguise one of his cars in a strange costume — as a German U-boat. The automobile was a blue National roadster built at the National Motor Vehicle Company in Indianapolis, a company headed by Arthur C. Newby, one of the founders of the Indianapolis 500. Three days after the Lusitania was torpedoed by a real U-boat, the News carried an almost eerie story about the “mimic submarine” that Thompson once drove through a parade in Seymour:
Mr. Thompson is of an adventurous disposition and prolific with original ideas. He was impressed with the work of submarines in the European war, and decided to imitate one in decorating this auto for the parade. His submarine attracted much attention, and he was complimented for his originality. When he started for Europe with his wife on the Lusitania May 1, his friends warned him he might learn what a real submarine could accomplish, but he ridiculed the idea of danger. Now that he has felt the effects of a submarine’s torpedo, his friends are saying it was a “case of fate.”
The News incorrectly reported that Blish Thompson had been saved. On the morning of May 15, he and Maude rose at 4:30 to watch the sunrise. That afternoon, they were in the first class dining room when the torpedo struck, signaled by a thud, then followed by a huge explosion that was either a coal bunker or a cache of illegal ammunition going off, the alleged contraband being smuggled to the Western Front which had led the Germans to target the ship to begin with. On deck, Blish gave his lifebelt to a woman. Unable to get into lifeboats as the ship lurched almost perpendicular, the Thompsons were swept down the deck and sucked into the water. Then the couple’s grasp was torn apart by the suction of the plunging vessel.
While a memorial service was held for Thompson in Seymour on June 18, his body never turned up. The stone monument in Seymour’s Riverview Cemetery was erected over an empty grave.
A more interesting fate than “Blish” Thompson’s is that of his wife. By the end of World War I, Maude Thompson had remarried, becoming one of that fascinating bunch of Americans who joined the European aristocracy. For years, Seymour — a humble Hoosier farm town — had a direct connection to France’s old nobility.
Widowed by the Lusitania disaster, Maude Thompson went back to Europe to volunteer with the Red Cross in France. On the boat with her this time, she brought not her husband, but Blish Thompson’s two automobiles — the National roadster he had disguised as a “mimic submarine” for the parade through Seymour and a National touring car. Maude donated these Indianapolis-built vehicles to the French cause. The re-outfitted roadster served as a scout car on the Western Front. The touring car was given to the Red Cross. During World War I, Maude met and fell in love with an ace French fighter pilot, Count Jean de Gennes (pronounced “Zhen.”) Although she was twelve years his senior, the two were married in Paris in November 1917.
(Count Jean de Gennes, second husband of Maude Thompson, served in the French air force and transatlantic air mail service. His son was born in Seymour, Indiana.)
After the Allied victory over the Germans, the new Countess de Gennes moved to her husband’s spectacular Loire Valley estate, the historic Château de Longue Plaine, located 30 miles south of Tours in western France. It was a fairy-tale twist to a marriage due in part to the deadly sinking of the Lusitania. Their son, named after his father, was born in 1919 while his mother was on a visit back home to Seymour, where she served on the board of the Blish Milling Company. The young Indiana-born count would later serve during World War II as a pilot in the French Resistance, also flying in night-time bombing raids over Germany with the R.A.F.’s Bomber Command.
Maude’s husband was often away from home. During the 1920s, Count de Gennes was one of the great pioneer airmail pilots, navigating the dangerous South American and North African routes between France, Casablanca, and Buenos Aires. One of his colleagues at the Compagnie Aéropostale was the great French pilot and novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince and several great early non-fiction classics of flight. Like Saint-Exupéry, who vanished into the Mediterranean during World War II, Count Jean de Gennes — member of the French Legion d’Honneur — died in a plane crash off the coast of Morocco in 1929.
Six years before the count’s death, an unnamed reporter from the Indianapolis News paid a visit to the de Gennes family at their sprawling chateau near the Loire.
As the Hoosier reporter described it, Maude — “a former Indiana woman” — had refurbished much of the old 17th-century castle, which had been revamped in the early 1800s but originally dated back to the Middle Ages. Maude installed its first electric lights, a central heating system to replace “big hungry-mouthed fireplaces,” and put in a power plant out back. She also brought over bits of the Hoosier State with her, incorporated into the house or stowed away.
It was a delightful experience to live in this charming old place in the midst of American furniture — for the complete contents of the Seymour home had been transported to France. . . While it may seem like carrying coals to Newcastle, to take our furniture to a country famous a thousand years for its beautiful cabinet work, the old Indiana bureaus and tables and other pieces fitted admirably into the delightful old French setting. . .
Baby Jean lives in a suite of his own that was all paneled and cupboarded with Indiana wood. Even his furniture was built from Indiana lumber.
Much of this wood from Jackson County is probably still there today.
The reporter also found. . . Indiana newspapers:
(Château de Longue Plaine, where Maude Thompson lived into the 1940s.)
(Hoosier-born French pilot Count Jean de Gennes served as a bombardier in the “Groupe Guyenne,” a segment of the R.A.F.’s Bomber Command that flew out of Tunisia and Britain, carrying out the controversial night-time raids over German cities that killed thousands of civilians. Half of the squadron itself died in action.)
Though she could easily have found refuge in the U.S., the Countess de Gennes stayed in France during the Nazi occupation of her adopted country. In 1946, she moved to New York City with her son, who was working for Air France. Maude lived out her remaining days in Queens. She died on May 17, 1951. According to her last wishes, she was buried in France.
This week marks the anniversary of two historic events, neither of them well-known. The scene? St. Vincent’s Hospital in Indianapolis.
The story actually begins on September 3, 1902, when President Theodore Roosevelt was visiting Pittsfield in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. While traveling through town in a horse-drawn carriage, the president and his entourage crossed a set of trolley car tracks. To their horror, a speeding electric interurban car rushing to beat the president’s arrival downtown didn’t come to a stop and knocked the carriage about forty feet.
Roosevelt was jettisoned onto the pavement, landing on his face. The Governor of Massachusetts, Winthrop Crane, escaped with only a few bruises. But a Secret Service agent, William Craig, died a horrible death, “ground under the heavy machinery of the car into an unrecognizable mass.” (Craig, a Scottish immigrant and former British soldier, was the first U.S. Secret Service agent ever killed in the line of duty.) The trolley car’s motorman, Euclid Madden, spent six months in jail for his recklessness that almost cost the Commander in Chief his life.
While the press toned down the extent of Roosevelt’s injuries, the president developed a worrisome abscess on his leg, an infection that caused him no small amount of pain. He even spent a short time in a wheelchair.
The burly and athletic Roosevelt, however, continued with his itinerary, stumping for Republican candidates during a national speaking tour slated to take him as far west as Nebraska. He did, in fact, make it out to the Midwest, stopping in Detroit, Logansport, Kokomo, Tipton and Noblesville. Twenty days after his narrow scrape with death in New England, however, the leg injury he sustained required an emergency surgery — in Indianapolis.
On September 23, after giving a speech “in intense pain” at the Columbia Club on Monument Circle, Teddy Roosevelt, who was limping noticeably and wincing with pain at almost every step, had to have his infected leg lanced and drained at St. Vincent’s Hospital.
At that time, St. Vincent’s was still located downtown at the corner of South and Delaware Streets, just a short distance from the club. Surgeon Dr. John H. Oliver performed the operation, which kept Roosevelt clear of the threat of blood poisoning. (Blood poisoning was serious business in those days and usually ended in death. Tragically, its specter returned to presidential history in 1924, when Calvin Coolidge’s 16-year-old son, Cal, Jr., developed a blister on his toe while playing tennis on the White House lawn. Young Coolidge died of the resulting infection within a week.)
Doctors examined Roosevelt’s leg wound by natural light coming through a south window of the hospital. “He took only a local anesthetic,” the Journal reported, “which was applied to the leg. He seemed to feel that an unnecessary amount of fuss was being made over him. . .” Yet as the surgery proceeded, the president’s “arms were thrown behind his head with his hands clasped. Occasionally the pain became so severe that his elbows bent close to the sides of his head as if to ease the pain. His eyes were closed and his teeth pressed close together.”
Accompanying Roosevelt to St. Vincent’s that day was U.S. Secretary of War Elihu Root. (In spite of his bellicose job title, Root went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912 for promoting goodwill between the U.S. and Latin America.) Root was one of the few government officials allowed inside the building. An anxious crowd of several hundred Hoosiers gathered outside “and never removed their gaze from the hospital.” Even Hoosier senators Charles Fairbanks and Albert Beveridge and Governor Winfield Durbin “were challenged by the guard and not permitted to enter.” Militiamen and Secret Service agents were stationed outside St. Vincent’s. All was silent, only the clip-clop of the occasional soldier’s horse passing on the street.
Roosevelt’s Midwest tour was called off after the Indianapolis surgery, and his own doctors ordered him sent back to Washington. Guarded by the Secret Service (his successor, William McKinley, had been assassinated by an anarchist almost exactly a year earlier), Pullman porters carried Roosevelt on a stretcher about one block to the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks on South Street. As the stretcher left St. Vincent’s, lit only by new electric street lamps, “there was a death-like stillness as people craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the president. . . He lay flat on his back and the covers were pulled up under his chin. . . Many men in the crowd removed their hats, believing that the president’s condition was very serious.”
Men might have taken their hats off out of respect for the president. But the women who cared for Roosevelt at St. Vincent’s that day were justly famous not only for their dedication to the sick and needy but for their very hats.
During Roosevelt’s hospitalization in Indy, he was cared for by Roman Catholic nuns. The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, pioneers of American nursing and primarily devoted to the field of medicine, had taken charge of Indianapolis’ second city hospital back in 1881. While recuperating, Teddy Roosevelt must have noticed the sisters’ distinctive and fascinating headgear — known as the cornette — as he lay in bed after the agonizing surgery.
Sister Mary Joseph attended to him alongside Dr. Oliver in the operating ward. Assigned to his private room was Sister Regina, whom Roosevelt remembered from his Rough Rider days, when she was stationed at the U.S. Army’s Camp Wickoff at Montauk Point on Long Island, New York, at the end of the Spanish-American War.
We should doff our hats to them, too.
This week’s second unheralded anniversary? Cornettes, which earned this order of dedicated women the epithet “Butterfly Nuns” or “Flying Nuns,” were abandoned on September 20, 1964. Designed to reflect 17th-century French peasants’ outfits, the nuns’ habits, in spite of the fact that they wore them out onto the carnage of Gettysburg Battlefield in 1863, were considered “impractical for modern use.” A photo from the Greencastle Daily Banner announces the change in 1964.
The new garb marked a major change in the visual spectacle of medical care in many major American cities, including Indianapolis. Amazingly, the nuns’ new outfit was planned by world-renowned French designer Christian Dior before he died in 1957. The rumor in France at the time of Dior’s death — allegedly after he choked on a fish bone — was that he was “called back by God to re-outfit the angels.”
You like alphabet soup? Well, if an anarchist chef prepared it, you’d better take your spoon and dig out these letters first: A-R-S-E-N-I-C.
One of the weirdest stories ever to spill out of the annals of Midwestern crime is the tale of a bumbling European anarchist named “Jean Crones” who, at a banquet in Chicago in 1916, attempted to assassinate the city’s Roman Catholic archbishop, the Governor of Illinois, and three-hundred priests, bankers, and city officials — not with bullets, but with bouillon. The “soup poison plot” belongs in any encyclopedia of infamy. It’s also a fascinating glimpse into one of American labor’s most turbulent decades. Yet few have ever heard of it. As part of our ongoing series on hoaxes, hysteria and rumors in the news, Hoosier State Chronicles wants to resurrect this old, mostly forgotten story.
When modern anarchism came to the U.S. in the late 1800s, it was closely tied to the struggles of German, Italian, and East European immigrants. While hurling bombs and bullets was an ill-considered way to foster social justice, the conditions these immigrants faced were dire and very real. Anarchism’s philosophical roots, however, were among Europe’s elite. (One early proponent of anarchy was the British philosopher William Godwin, husband of feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Frankenstein‘s author, Mary Shelley.) Iron-fisted reactions to Europe’s 19th-century revolutions spurred philosophers and workers to declare that “Property is Theft” and to strive for the abolition of all governments, including democracies. Because anarchists promoted ideas like “free love” (which critics confused with promiscuity), state and church authorities tried to wipe them out.
While few anarchists ever committed outright acts of murder and mayhem, extremists occasionally wreaked havoc on American cities and police forces. By the time of World War I, headlines about real and mythical anarchist bomb plots were common news.
Since most anarchists had immigrated from countries with state religions, their animosity toward priestly authority should come as no surprise. During the Russian Revolution and on into the 1920s and ’30s, radicals (anarchists among them) in Russia, Mexico and Spain launched all-out wars on religion, desecrating churches and even “executing” statues of Jesus, not to mention priests and nuns, who often suffered especially macabre fates.
Yet if Chicago’s anarchists had wanted to assassinate any powerful “prince of the Church” in 1916, the worst choice was probably George Mundelein.
Mundelein was born in a poor working-class immigrant neighborhood, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in 1872 and grew up in tenement housing. Son of a German father and Irish mother, his dual ethnic heritage was a major reason why, in 1915, the young Bishop of Brooklyn was chosen to head the Chicago archdiocese, ethnically diverse and also teeming with ethnic conflict even among fellow Catholics. At age 43, Mundelein was the youngest American archbishop. Over the years, the leader of Chicago’s Catholics turned out to be a major pro-labor voice, an important ally of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and a staunch enemy of Nazism and anti-Semitism — including that of Father Charles Coughlin, a controversial American radio priest whose show, broadcast out of Detroit, often attacked Jews and bankers. A friend of the Catholic Labor Movement, Mundelein reiterated to American Catholics that “our place is beside the workingman.”
George Mundelein, then, was a rather strange target for an aspiring assassin’s vial of poison on February 12, 1916. The scene of the crime: Chicago’s prestigious University Club.
Coming together to honor both Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and Mundelein’s installment as Chicago archbishop, about three-hundred guests attended — from Illinois Governor Edward F. Dunne and ex-Governor Charles Deneen to Chicago’s ex-Mayor Carter Harrison, Jr. Most of the other guests were Catholic priests from all over the U.S.
As Chicago’s health commissioner, city police investigators, and a chemist from the University of Chicago later determined, someone that day slipped enough arsenic into a pot of chicken bouillon to kill two-hundred people or more. Various accounts floated around of how the University Club avoided becoming the scene of what would still be the biggest mass murder in Chicago history — worse even than the crimes of the “arch-fiend” H.H. Holmes back in the 1890s.
One version of the tale was that a “miracle” occurred. At the last minute, ninety-six guests showed up unexpectedly, prompting kitchen staff to resort to a time-honored remedy: watering down the soup. Yet apparently the real disaster was averted by slow, talkative eaters. As Monsignor Evers, pastor of St. Andrew’s Church in New York, told the Chicago Daily Tribune, some guests were “so engrossed in conversation” that they missed out on the soup altogether or had only eaten a spoonful or two by time their neighbors started to have stomach cramps.
With many diners complaining of sudden stomach pains, a doctor at the banquet suspected that the animal fat used to prepare the soup stock must have gone sour — normal food-poisoning, in other words. He went to the kitchen and quickly prepared an “emetic of mustard” to induce vomiting. The result is unappetizing to consider, but the elegant dining room must have become a surreal and disgusting scene. Yet the doctor’s speedy remedy probably saved many lives. Scores of guests were sickened, some violently, but only one guest, Father John O’Hara of Brooklyn, died. Archbishop Mundelein himself was unaffected by the lethal soup, but Chicago authorities kept him under a guard of 150 mounted police and detectives for the next few days.
Police quickly traced the foiled murder plot to a certain “Jean Crones,” assistant chef at the University Club, said to be about 30 years old. Crones “often inveighed” against social inequality, said the Club’s officials. When police raided his apartment, Crones the “souper anarchist” was gone, but investigators discovered a stash of anarchist literature (“a library of hatred,” says one paper), a chemical laboratory and all the evidence of poison they needed to go after him.
As the manhunt for Crones spread out, he or someone masquerading as him began to tease the police with flippant, irreverent letters, taunting the cops for being unable to find him. These letters and other baffling clues began to pour in from all parts of the country. When the story made national news the next day, a hotel in Binghamton, New York, reluctantly announced that it was confident Crones had been their assistant chef. “Crones was remembered by his fellow workers here as a dabbler in chemistry and photography. . . One day the whim seized him to have his own likeness snapped, and he had one of his kitchen comrades aim the camera.” That photo and an artist’s sketch were plastered over many American newspapers.
What happened next rapidly turned into a comedy of errors — one that went on for years.
During the run-up to World War I, when the loyalty of German-Americans constantly fell under suspicion, unfounded reports came in that Crones was a German immigrant, a saboteur and spy for the Kaiser. Other reports insisted that he was French or Italian. A biography of celebrated anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti claims that “Jean Crones” was an Italian named Nestor Dondoglio. Chicago’s Police Department officially called off its search for the mysterious fugitive in 1919. Yet Dondoglio evaded police until 1932, when he died on a farm in Connecticut where an Italian family had given him shelter.
Whatever the elusive truth behind Crones identity was, for several years after the failed “soup plot” he became a sort of comedic bogeyman, stalking America from sea to shining sea. Souper spottings occurred all over: in rural Mt. Airy and Oxford, North Carolina; in the mining town of Leadville, Colorado; and in towns so obscure they weren’t even spelled right in newspapers (like Spalding, Nebraska, and Moberly, Missouri.) Crones — or a clever prankster, or a whole team of anarchists — harassed the police from New York City to Portland, Oregon. A chef from Iowa City was arrested simply because he looked like the photograph snapped at a kitchen in Binghamton, as was another chef from Chicago while passing through Springfield, Ohio.
Illinois State Attorney Maclay Hoyne surmised that the “poison souper” invented something called the “McKinney-Finn powders… given by waiters to non-tipping patrons in local hotels and cafes.”
Most of the so-called “appearances” of Jean Crones, however, are probably imaginary — or even deliberate hoaxes. In some cases, it even sounds like the police might have used the poison-souper scare as an excuse to terrorize workers. Others had more comic twists.
Within a few days of his apparent escape from Chicago, the phantom assassin or his clever doppelgänger was on the West Coast, teasing Chicago police from a distance, mailing them his own fingerprints and threatening to kill “some bishop” out in Oregon:
On St. Patrick’s Day that March, Chicago Catholics were still so jittery that the Irish Fellowship Club had to appoint an official food taster for its annual banquet. He tasted every dish for over an hour. And survived.
It’s very possible that prank-minded Americans were just having fun with the police and the press. Yet by the summer of 1916, the spate of “J.C.” sightings was still pouring in:
Two of the most humorous and unlikely sightings occurred on the East Coast. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that May, locals were convinced that Crones had become a nun:
And in Luzon, New York, an undercover sleuth wearing false hair and whiskers was arrested by a town cop who was confident he had nabbed the elusive Crones at last. The man turned out to be a 26-year-old private eye from New York City, busy investigating a theft of $250 from the Hygienic Brush Company. In spite of this legitimate alibi, county prosecutors charged the man with “masquerading.”
The real Jean Crones never surfaced. Yet the fictional specter he evoked — that of the violent, supposedly illiterate immigrant bent on destroying American institutions and lives — took on a frightening reality of its own at a time when immigrant loyalty was suspect.
It’s often forgotten that the Communist witch hunts inaugurated by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s were preceded by a more substantial “Red Scare” after World War I. In 1929, Italian anarchists detonated bombs in Washington, D.C. — an attack that nearly killed Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt — and possibly carried out the 1920 Wall Street attack, which killed 30 people. The reaction threatened to close America’s doors to immigrants.
Like most Catholics, Archbishop Mundelein was a strong supporter of immigration. He blew off threats of assassination by anarchists and the hostility of anti-Catholics, saying: “I have come to Chicago to help and bless its people all I can, and I think this is the best way to disarm prejudice.”
A fiery and brilliant editorial in the Kentucky Irish American, a pro-immigrant paper published in Louisville, conjures up the fear that the figure of “Jean Crones” actually created among nativists. For immigration’s enemies, the anarchist threat was reason enough for Congress to all but close down Ellis Island. (Ironically, the Hans Schmidt mentioned in this passionate editorial was a German-American Catholic priest convicted of murder, then sent to the electric chair at Sing Sing on February 18, 1916. Schmidt’s execution occurred just a week after the anarchist soup plot in Chicago.)
Kentucky Irish American, April 15, 1916.
Cardinal Mundelein, the target of one of those rare immigrants who turned to violence, spent the next few decades speaking out on behalf of the working poor. Perhaps the shocking event at the start of his days as leader of Chicago’s Catholics brought home the need for justice in his city and elsewhere.
He died in his sleep in October 1939, an honored man.
“The aroma of woodchuck scalps, crow heads and wolf scalps will not be diffused throughout the sacred precincts of the Putnam County temple of justice, and of the office of the auditor, in particular. That will pertain to the year 1941, at least.”
In a meeting that week, Putnam County commissioners finally eliminated payment in cash for the hides of animals deemed “pests of economic life.” On the eve of World War II, this legal relic of pioneer days was still lingering around in the statute books.
In recent years, the expenditure on such bounties has not amounted to much, but the bounty offer was still in effect and occasionally some claimant for such payments would go to the auditor’s office to file claims for payments, and would bring along tangible proof. Out of which arose the odor.
The statutes of Indiana in 1875 [it was actually much earlier than this] provided that county commissioners “may” offer a bounty of $20 for wolf scalps, with a $3 bounty of wolves under 6 months of age; also, $5 for each fox scalp; or $1.50 when under 6 months. A year or two ago, Putnam County commissioners were called upon to pay a bounty for a wolf scalp.
In a later law, a bounty was provided for wood chuck (or ground hog) scalps, and owl or hawk heads, but with screech owls and sparrow hawks excepted. That was in the year 1883.
In 1911, crow heads and eggs were added to the list of outlaws, and a bounty was provided of 10 cents for each crow head and 5 cents for each crow egg, the eggs to be in lots of 10 or more.
(American hunters with wolf hides, Northern Rockies, circa 1920.)
In 2011, no less a paper than The New York Times reported on Terre Haute’s recurring crow problem — a major ornithological nightmare that migrated down to Bloomington early in 2015. For months, urban crows left the Monroe County courthouse, downtown parking meters, and city sidewalks soaked in bird droppings. Surely this was avian revenge for the county commissioner’s bounties placed against their ancestors?
The interesting story of animal bounties goes back deep into Indiana history — as do the wolf terror tales that go along with it.
When Indiana became a state just two-hundred years ago, the area bounded by the Ohio River, Lake Michigan, and the Illinois prairies was one of the wildest spots on earth, full of buffalo, black bears, and cougars. (Abraham Lincoln wrote a ballad about a bear hunt.) Old-growth timber could still be found in most Hoosier counties at the time of the Civil War. Though fur-bearing animals had been the main lure for French explorers, one of the French nuns who founded St. Mary-of-the-Woods in the 1840s wrote that “wood is commoner than dust.” In northwest Indiana, parts of the Kankakee Swamp — formerly one of the biggest wetlands in North America — weren’t drained until the 1920s. Modern agriculture in some northern Indiana townships is less than a hundred years old.
At the start of the Jazz Age, the Kankakee’s ancient but dying wilderness was still a hideout for wolves. In 1918, the Lake County Times reminded readers about their fanged and rarely-seen neighbors on the far outskirts of Chicagoland. Gray wolves, Canada lynxes and possibly even massive timber wolves also occasionally migrated down from the wilder parts of northern Michigan. While these creatures tried to avoid human beings, swamp fires sometimes drove them out onto the farms encroaching on the ragged edge of the marshland.
The bounty on hides that Putnam County eliminated in 1940 originated in pioneer days, when Hoosiers could actually pay their taxes with animal hides. Meant to encourage the war on the wilderness, bounties figured into state budgets as early as 1817. State funds forked out in exchange for this “public service” sometimes amounted to more than the dollar amount spent on road improvements, presidential elections, the state prison — and even our own State Library:
The Indiana State Sentinel carried one colorful story in 1881 — entitled “Early Times” — about how wolf scalps were used literally as dollar bills. Signed “M.F.H.,” the author recalled a conversation with a man in Columbus, Indiana, a Kentuckian who — if the date of his birth is correct — would have been 102 years old at the time this story was printed. The frontiersman, who came north in 1826, once served as Bartholomew County treasurer:
By the early 1900s, the misunderstood canine specter peering out of Indiana’s diminishing forests and swamps was a rare sight — as were the mangled carcasses of farm animals that wolves were known to attack. Yet the morbid imagination spawned by European folklore was brought into play to defend farmer’s property, as the war on wolves continued unabated in the American West.
Hoosiers heard wolf tales stretching back hundreds of years — from the Grimm Brothers’ gory version of the old Black Forest tale Rotkäppchen (“Little Red Riding Hood,” later bowdlerized and Disneyfied for delicate audiences) to the quintessentially Russian tale of a pack of wolves that killed and ate a wedding party traveling by sleigh at night. That story was told in the pages of Willa Cather’s great novel My Ántonia (1918), set in Nebraska. In the early 1980s, Paul Schach of the University of Nebraska collected wolf stories brought to the Great Plains by German immigrants whose families had lived in Russia for a few generations before coming to America. Russian-German tales almost definitely inspired Cather’s miniature horror story in My Ántonia. Yet American newspapers were already carrying chilling wolf tales long before Cather’s novel.
(Edmund Spenser, “Nocturnal Battle with Wolves” in Russia, 1855. Most fatal wolf attacks still take place in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The words volk [male wolf] and volchitsa [female] cause a shiver in Russian spines yet.)
(“The Wolf of Ansbach” was a nightmarish creature said to have terrorized part of Germany in 1685, when it carried off and ate several children. Villagers believed it was either a werewolf or the reincarnation of their local burgomaster, “whose death had gone unlamented.” The animal was eventually driven into a well, killed, and dressed in human clothing — including a wig and mask — then hung on a gibbet. France’s Beast of Gévaudan, killed in 1767, was even scarier.)
In the winter of 1880, Willa Cather’s old Russian “wedding” story found an echo in Terre Haute’s Daily News, which printed a pioneer’s reminiscence entitled “A Night with Wolves.” The tale, told in first person, sounds like non-fiction but the dialogue is dramatized. Set around 1845, the hair-raising event took place one frozen, snowy night in the Upper Midwestern wilds a few miles outside the young town of Lansing, Michigan, where the author claimed that a hungry pack of wolves attacked a stagecoach he was traveling in by moonlight. As the terrified horses race away in a panic, dragging the coach and passengers behind them, the driver — his father — climbs out on the reins to cut part of his team loose, letting them drop as sacrificial victims to the bloodthirsty wilderness. With their flanks and throats ripped open by the wolves’ teeth, the horses collapse and are devoured, until one horse makes it into Lansing and spreads the news.
Long, scary and possibly fictional stories like these became rare over the years. Bears are usually the protagonist now, as in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. But even today, headlines still announce occasional sightings of and attacks by potentially dangerous animals in the rural Midwest. Early 20th-century readers encountered plenty of these headlines.
In October 1922, seven wild wolves were reported attacking livestock on a farm near Warsaw, Indiana. Farmers there were scared enough to keep their children away from school for a few days.
(U.S. Army officers hunting a wolf on the ice of the Upper Mississippi River, 1843. The story was that the clever wolf would race toward an air hole in the ice, spin around quickly, and leave the hounds to fall in. American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine.)
Tall tales often bleed over into news reportage. But fact and fiction can be hard to separate. In 1920, the South Bend paper carried the story of one Kansas farmer’s desperate battle with three wolves trying to break into his farmhouse.
Horace E. Jackson, “a wealthy Chicago board of trade broker,” was allegedly stalked by “skulking wolves” in Minnesota’s North Woods in 1916, though exposure to the cold was an even bigger danger.
Fear-mongering news stories about wolves were partly discredited by a writer — possibly a naturalist — in the Greencastle Herald in 1913. Wolves, he reminded readers, usually fear men more than men fear them.
The Indiana DNR still gets plenty of crazy phone calls about unusual animal sightings. One recent report that turned out to be true was the migratory mountain lion that was stalking parts of Greene County near Bloomfield in 2010 and has also been reported near Brazil, Greencastle, and Bloomington. The lion was photographed by one of the DNR’s motion-sensitive cameras and was originally thought to have been a tiger escaped from the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in nearby Center Point, Indiana.
What the DNR shouldn’t take seriously is any reports about the Wolf family, who once lived on Notre Dame Avenue in South Bend. This 1920 headline sounds like another one of those grisly folktales.