“Herman Billik Must Die”: Whiting’s Own Palm Reader, Hypnotist, and . . . Murderer?

V. de Metz, Handbook of Modern Palmistry (New York: Brentano Publishing, 1883, accessed babel.hathitrust.org
V. de Metz, Handbook of Modern Palmistry (New York: Brentano Publishing, 1883), accessed Hathi Trust Digital Library.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the man who called himself Herman Billik  (also Billick) was “plying his trade as a charmer, palm reader and hypnotist in Whiting,” according to the Hammond Times. He was well-known among Whiting residents for his involvement in strange incidents involving the occult. By 1906 he was well-known to the entire country as the poisoner of six people in Chicago.

Greetings from Whiting, postcard, circa 1914, Whiting Public Library, accessed www.whiting.lib.in.usl
Greetings from Whiting, postcard, circa 1914, Whiting Public Library, accessed Whiting Public Library/Flikr.

The establishment of the Standard Oil Refinery in Whiting in 1889 brought many recent immigrants to the area in search of employment. According to Archibald McKinley, historian of the Calumet Region, these new arrivals found a “barren, lonely place, devoidof trees, grass, sidewalks, telephone, theaters, streetlights, parks and other amenities of civilization.”  While many immigrants found community in their religious organizations, others formed clubs and founded theaters, such as Goebel’s Opera House.  Others looked for more sinister entertainment.

Herman Billick, 1908, photographed by the Chicago Daily News, accessed Explore Chicago Collections, http://explore.chicagocollections.org/image/chicagohistory/71/g15tk09/
Herman Billick, 1908, photographed by the Chicago Daily News, accessed Explore Chicago Collections.

One of these new immigrants to Whiting set up shop in an office building on John Street near this new opera house. His name was Herman Vajicek in his country of origin which was referred to in contemporary newspapers as “Bohemia” (likely the Czech  Republic). Now going by Herman Billik or “the Great Billik,” he was “doing a rushing business” before the turn of the century. His business was in palm reading, hypnotism, charms . . . and curses.

Hammond Times, December 20, 1906, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, December 20, 1906, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Billik soon befriended a Standard Oil employee named Joseph Vacha, also described by the Hammond Times as a “bohemian.” Vacha described the story of a curse Billik used when hired to break the engagement of “a young Whiting man and a widow.”  According to the Hammond Times:

The mother of the young man objected to the engagement and all of her efforts to break it up being in vain she went to Billik, clairvoyant. He promised to do the deed for the sum of three dollars. To make his charm effective, however, he said that it was necessary for him to have one of the young man’s socks and his handkerchief, and that furthermore permission be given him to enter the home of the young man while everybody in the family was asleep.  Anything to break up the engagement was consented to by the mother, although without her son’s knowledge, The sock, handkerchief and permission were readily given and whatever Billik may or may not have done, it is known that the young man and the widow broke up their engagement shortly after Billik’s midnight visit.

Before Whiting residents greeted the new century, Billik “pulled stakes one night and was never seen again.”

He didn’t go far.

According to the Chicago Tribune, around 1900, he had set up his shop in the East Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago.  The neighborhood was settled by Czech immigrants who worked in the mills, sweatshops, and railroad yards.  According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, these Czech immigrants established their residences along 18th street.  According to the Chicago Tribune, on this same street Billik opened his shop and “made a practice of duping women with money.”  The article continued:

Billick’s Chicago record is dotted with ‘aliases, victims of his love potions and stories of how he spent his easily gained wealth in automobiles, theaters, wine suppers, and rioutous living . . . Billick had headquarters in a richly furnished flat at 645 West Eighteenth street and was known as ‘Prof. Herman.’ To this flat many women went daily. Billick boasted that he made as much as $100 a day.

Image: Pilsen Neighborhood, postcard, circa 1870s, in Frank S. Magallon, "A Historical Look at Czech Chicagoland," Czech-American Community center, accessed https://blog.newspapers.library.in.gov/wp-admin/post.php?post=601634&action=edit
Image: Pilsen Neighborhood, postcard, circa 1870s, in Frank S. Magallon, “A Historical Look at Czech Chicagoland,” accessed Czech-American Community Center.

According to this same article, Billik left Chicago for Cleveland sometime in 1901 after one of these women threatened to expose him as a fraud.  It is not clear when he returned to Chicago and again began selling potions and telling fortunes.

In 1904, Mary Vrzal, the twenty-two-year-old daughter of a Chicago businessman, found herself in need of a love potion.  She visited “the Great Billik” at his Chicago location and sometime during the exchange must have mentioned her father’s thriving milk business. Billik soon visited Martin Vrzal at work where he spoke in tongues and convinced the businessman that he had a vision of an enemy working actively working to destroy him.  Martin trusted the “fortune-teller” perhaps because he was also a Czech immigrant or perhaps because he was indeed engaged in intense battle with a rival businessman.  Either way, Martin Vrzal invited Herman Billik home to meet his family and cast a spell on his enemy. What followed over the next year was clouded in disparate retelling and testimony.  The details were murky, but what was completely clear was that the Vrzal family members began turning up dead.

The family patriarch went first. Martin Vrzal died March 27, 1905, leaving a $2000 life insurance policy to his children. Martin was followed in death by his daughter Mary a few months later and her sister Tilly that December. Their insurance policies totaled $1400. Another two daughters were killed in the first few months of 1906, leaving just a few hundred dollars in life insurance behind.  Finally, the police became involved. The only Vrzal family member left were the late Martin’s wife Rosa, their eldest daughter, Emma, and their only son, Jerry.

Image: Grave of Martin Vrzal, Bohemian National Cemetery, Chicago, Find-A-Grave.
Grave of Martin Vrzal, Bohemian National Cemetery, Chicago, accessed Find-A-Grave.

The police suspected that Herman and Rosa had been having an affair.  They accused Herman of promising Rosa marriage and a life off of the insurance money if they poisoned both his wife and child and Rosa’s husband and children.  However, Herman neither poisoned nor left his family.  He did somehow end up with the insurance money.

Lake County Times, December 18, 1906, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles
Lake County Times, December 18, 1906, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The police then suspected Rosa of poisoning her own family under Herman’s influence.  They issued a warrant for the arrest of both suspects. As the law closed in, Rosa committed suicide — by poisoning. Jerry Vrzal accused Herman of her death, claiming that he hypnotized her into taking her own life.

In December 1906, the  police took Emma Vrzal to the residence to view her mother’s body, only they did not tell Emma that she was dead.  According to Steve Shukis’s well-researched book Poisoned, the detective would sometimes use shock tactics to surprise suspects into confessing.  He took emma into the bedroom and an officer yanked the cover off the body.  She puportedly fainted and when she regained consciousness stated: “Now you must get that man . . . Billik . . . I want him hung.” She then wrote on a piece of paper, “Billik gave father medicine  — and gave some to Mary.”  She went on to tell the police that Billik had “special power” over the family.

The police brought Billik into the station and searched his apartment.  They found letters from the late matriarch, one signed “with ten thousand kisses — Rosa.”

The Chicago police questioned Billik for five hours, according to the Chicago Tribune. The Chicago Daily News took a bizarre series of photographs of Billick and his family from several of his visits to the Hyde Park Police Department and throughout his trials which available digitally through the Chicago History Museum.

Chicago Daily News Photograph, circa 1906, accessed Chicago History Museum. Collection caption: Three-quarter length portrait of Herman Billick, Sr., who was suspected of poisoning members of the Martin Vrzal family, sitting in a room in the Hyde Park police station in the Hyde Park community area of Chicago, Illinois.
Herman Billick, Sr., at the Hyde Park police station in Chicago, Illinois, Chicago Daily News Photograph, circa 1906, accessed Chicago History Museum.

Chicago Daily News Photograph, circa 1907, accessed Chicago History Museum. Collection caption: [Mrs. Mary Billick, sitting, and Edna Billick, standing, looking at each other.
Mary Billick, wife of Herman Billick, and their daughter Edna Billick, Chicago Daily News Photograph, circa 1907, accessed Chicago History Museum.
The coroner opened an inquest and demanded the bodies of the Vrzal family be exhumed and tested for poison.  The inquest continued into 1907 with witnesses bringing forward more an more incriminating stories about Billik.  By February the coroner was through with testing the bodies.  He found arsenic in Martin, Rosa, and Tillie, but also concluded that it had been administered slowly over a period of weeks of months.  This evidence was added to the testimony and the jury indicted Herman Billik on six counts of murder.

The case went to trial in May 1907. The judge sided with the prosecution’s argument that all six charges of murder should have separate hearings.  Billik would have to be found not guilty by six different juries.  The trial for the murder of Mary Vrzal began July 3, 1907.  The jury heard dozens of testimonies but none more damning than that of Jerry Vzral who described Billik’s witching and eventual poisoning his family.  The defense, on the other hand, made a strong case that no one profited more from these deaths than Emma, who inherited the house and business. (Shukis details each day of trial in his book, Poisoned). Hermann admitted to swindling the Vrzal family but not to an affair with Rosa and maintained he was innocent of any of the murders.

On July 18, 1907, Billik was found guilty and sentenced to hang.

Plymoth Tribune, July 25, 1907, 4, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Plymouth Tribune, July 25, 1907, 4, Hoosier State Chronicles.

There were still many questions about the case and much evidence that pointed to Emma as the murderer. His defense attorney began working to appeal.  Several people believed him innocent, including a Catholic nun helping Billik’s family.  She brought his case to the attention of an energetic Catholic priest named Father P.J. O’Callaghan.

Digging for information that would help the appeal, O’Callaghan found more evidence pointing to Emma and a former boyfriend of hers. The priest gathered more information from the immigrant community along with donations that would help Billik.  He visited Jerry where he was in school at Valparaiso University and encouraged him to change his testimony if he had lied. Meanwhile, Emma began a smear campaign against the priest.

Suddenly, in a twist that some though should have cleared Billik entirely, Emma’s husband William Niemann sickened and died in a matter of days (though Emma claimed he had been sick for some time).  Though it didn’t clear him, Billik got his appeal hearing.  More importantly, Jerry returned to Chicago to correct his testimony.  He stated that Billik never gave the family potions or plotted against them. The appeal was read by the Illinois Supreme Court in January 1908.  They decided there was no error in the record to reverse the decision.  Billik would hang April 24, 1908.

The defense attorney, the priest, and Jerry continued to work for a new hearing… and continued noticing other patterns in the testimony and evidence that pointed to Emma. On April 18, 1908, just days before the scheduled execution, the Illinois Governor and a pardon board granted a hearing. After long hours of arguments, the governor granted a reprieve for the board to further review the evidence.

Lake County Times, April 20, 1908, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles
Lake County Times, April 20, 1908, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles

O’Callaghan managed to persuade more than 20,000 people from Chicago’s immigrant community to sign a petition  on behalf of Billik’s claim of innocence. O’Callaqghan’s efforts combined with a demonstration of prayer by 400 of Ballik’s fellow prisoners at the Cork County Jail, drew thousands of people to the jail on execution day.

Lake County Times, June 12, 1908, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Lake County Times, June 12, 1908, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The presiding judge granted an appeal based on a flaw in the prosecuter’s case. He was reprieved until January 29, 1909 when as one newspaper put it, “Herman Billik Must Die.”

Alburquerque (NM) Citizen, January 21, 1909, 1, accessed Chronicling America, Library of Congress.
Alburquerque (NM) Citizen, January 21, 1909, 1, accessed Chronicling America.

However, he was again spared the gallows.  Just before his execution date, the Governor of Illinois commuted his sentence to life in prison.

Plymouth Tribune, February 4, 1909, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Plymouth Tribune, February 4, 1909, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Suspicion remained on the newly widowed Emma Vzral Niemann.  Newspapers reported that Billik’s conviction for the murder of William Niemann was based on circumstantial evidence. Father O’Callaghan and others were convinced of Emma’s guilt.  However, at her inquest the “many details of circumstantial evidence which had been collected against her were successfully explained by her testimony.”  The witness that proved Emma’s innocence was somehow Emma herself.

Topeka Daily State Journal, August 27, 1908, 5, accessed Chronicling America.
Topeka Daily State Journal, August 27, 1908, 5, accessed Chronicling America.

Conclusive evidence seemed to be presented showing that Billik had no access to arsenic, the poison found in all of the bodies except William Niemann’s.   However, the assistant coroner may have been pressured into reporting the lack of arsenic in William’s body.  In his book Poisoned, author Steve Shukis writes that political corruption distorted the facts.  He writes, “Clues were brought forward, but only some were investigated.”  It seems clear that there were people in positions of power that did not want arsenic to be found in the body of Emma’s husband. “It would have cast an enormous cloud over Billik’s conviction” and suggest that leading Chicago figures from the Police Chief to the State Attorney to the judge “condemned an innocent man,” according to Shukis.

Billik spent the next several years in prison, maintaining his innocence and continuing to lobby for a pardon.  Finally, at the end of 1916,  he received a hearing. The evidence was examined by new eyes and Jerry returned to remake testimony. Herman Billik was pardoned in January 1917 and died soon after.

Indianapolis News, January 4, 1917, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, January 4, 1917, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

After his pardon, Emma, now remarried, told the Chicago Tribune:

If ever a man deserved hanging, Herman Billik did. I am the one who first suspected that he killed my father and my sisters. I exposed him. I had him arrested. I never ceased in my efforts at vengeance until I saw him sent to the penitentiary. I have nothing in my heart but bitterness for Billik now. I could cheerfully stone him to death. It would be a joy to me to pull on the rope that choked his life out.

Though we focused on Herman here because of his Indiana connection, several key players at the time were convinced of Emma’s guilt and Herman’s innocence.  For more information see Steve Shukis’s book Poisoned: Chicago 1907, A Corrupt System, an Accused Killer, and the Crusade to Save Him. Shukis’s book gives a much more thorough treatment of what we have only scratched the surface of here. He also presents a myriad of primary sources from the period we had no room to cover here.  The more you dig, the stranger it gets; it’s  a perfect read for the season.  Happy Halloween!

Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1917, 1, http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1917/05/25/page/1/article/herman-billik-dies-protesting-his-innocence
Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1917, accessed Chicago Tribune Archives.

Devil Cats, Magic Mirrors, and Fortune-Telling Cabbage: 19th Century Love-Sick Hoosiers and Ancient Halloween Traditions

"Hallowe'en," postcard, n.d., William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University, accessed http://digitalcollections.lmu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/hpostcards/id/94
“Hallowe’en,” postcard, n.d., William H. Hannon Library, accessed Loyola Marymount University Digital Collections.

On the night of All Hallows Eve in 1868, two young Irish girls left a party to pick cabbage in a neighbor’s field. Their neighbor fired at them with a large navy revolver and killed young Bridget Murry.  Upon his arrest, the murderer “appeared perfectly unconcerned and indifferent,” according to the Daily Wabash Express. The main question is, of course, why would someone commit murder over the theft of a few vegetables? But there is a second mystery here too: Why would two young girls leave the festive atmosphere of a Halloween party to pick cabbage?   Let’s dig in!

We found some delightfully colorful 19th-century Indiana newspaper articles on Halloween celebrations, pranks, spells, and superstitions while searching Hoosier State Chronicles. Some of what we found was surprising! Each October 31 was a night of bonfires, spells, pranks, devilish black cats, and . . . future divining fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

In the decades after the Civil War, Hoosiers continued centuries-old, Celtic-influenced Halloween traditions, carried over from the old world.  These traditions and superstitions included the belief that spirits walked the earth on October 31 and could be called upon for favors or glimpses into the future.  While we are familiar with the imprint of some of these superstitions today, other traditions have been lost.  We were surprised to find that many of the spells and rituals involved young people looking to the spirits to determine their future husband or wife.

Daniel Maclise, Snap Apple Night, oil on canvas, 1833, accessed WikiCommons.
"All Hallow Eve," Terre Haute Daily Gazette, November 1, 1870, 4, Hoosier State Chronicles
“All Hallow Eve,” Terre Haute Daily Gazette, November 1, 1870, 4, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The day after Halloween in 1870, the Terre Haute Daily Gazette reported:

Of all the quaint superstitions that have been handed down to us, there are none that have taken a deeper hold upon the popular imagination than the observance of yesterday, the 31st of October, known as All Hallow Eve, or Halloween.

The leading belief in regard to Halloween, is that of all others, it is the time when supernatural influences prevail, the time when spirits, both the visible and invisible world, walk abroad and can be invoked by human powers for the purpose of revealing the mysterious future, and spirits may be called from the vasty [sic] deep at will.

A few years later, in 1872, the Terre Haute Gazette reported on Halloween in Titusville.  This small town in Ripley County celebrated with a festival based on the Scottish folk song “Auld Lang Syne,” which traditionally bids farewell to the previous year – fitting for the end of the harvest season.  Scottish poet Robert Burns, the author of the song’s  lyrics, was also known for his 1785 poem “Halloween.” The newspaper began its Halloween coverage with a few stanzas from that famous poem:

"Halloween Fun," Terre Haute Evening Gazette, November 7, 1872, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.
“Halloween Fun,” Titusville Press, reprinted in Terre Haute Evening Gazette, November 7, 1872, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.

“Some merry, gentle, country folks
Togthe did convene,
To burn their nits, and pou their stocks,
And hay their Halloween.”

The article went on to describe how Hoosiers celebrated Halloween that year:

This anniversary of the “Auld Lang Syne” festival, was pretty generally celebrated in town last evening, in the peculiar manner that has ever marked its recurrence. Out door, gates were unhinged, door-bells were pulled, stumbling blocks tripped unsuspecting pedestrians upon the sidewalks, or if they escaped these dangers below, their hats were knocked off by strings tied across the sidewalks above. A gentleman residing on Main street fell over a washtub upon entering his own domicile, and hardly ceased rubbing his shins before a peck of potatoes pattered down upon his defenseless head. There were hundreds of other similar experiences in town, but we have no time to speak of all the tricks played which the occasion makes allowable, though some of the most ludicrous are worth mentioning.

In addition to committing pranks, young Hoosiers  in 1872 called on spirits to see their future.  They were particularly interested in whether there was romance in store for them.  This idea too is based in Scottish, Celtic tradition, and we’ll explore that in a bit.  First, though, some pranks and a divination gone terrible awry – thanks to the Devil, or maybe just an old tom cat. The article continued:

A young man of our acquaintance who prides himself on his “make up,” called at the house of an acquaintance for an evening visit, and found several young ladies assembled there, all deeply engaged in trying to peer into the future by the aid of such agencies as tradition has named as potent, but facts have marked as “too thin.” None of the girls in the party were willing to undergo the ordeal of walking backward down the cellar stairs, with a candle in one hand and a mirror in the other. Our friend thought he would like to see his future wife, and amidst the admiring remarks if the girls at his courage, prepared to go cellarward. His face blanched a little as he began to descend the gloomy stairway amid the whispered utterances of his friends. He stepped firmly, however, with the candle held closely in one hand and the looking-glass, in which the reflection of his future wife’s face was to appear in the other, but when about half way down the stairs, a horrible, unearthly shriek came from below, which sent the feminine crowd around the entranceway to the cellar precipitately to the parlor. At the same time a something, which our hero described as being  the Devil, rushed between his legs.

Postcard, 1900, Charleston County Public Library, South Carolina Digital Library, acccessed Digital Library of America, http://lcdl.library.cofc.edu/lcdl/catalog/lcdl:37058
Postcard, 1900, Charleston County Public Library, South Carolina Digital Library, acccessed Digital Library of America.

Though naturally brave, this was too much for him, and he dropped both candle and mirror, and losing his balance, fell head first into a barrel of apple butter clear to his arm-pits, and no sooner had he escaped from the butter barrel than he stepped on a potato that was lying on the cellar bottom, his feet slipped out from under him, and he sat down in a crock of lard, at the same time hitting his head against a swinging shelf, which fell, bringing down with it a shower of dough-nuts, pickles canned fruit, and other eatables. The owner of the house appeared upon the scene at this juncture, and escorted the young man to the upper world, where, after scraping the lard and apple butter from his clothes, and combing the dough-nuts out of his tangled hair, he was advised to go home. The Thomas cat, whose hasty exit from the cellar caused the catastrophe, rubbed fondly against the young man’s legs and departed.

George Yost Coffin, "Hallow-eve, 1896," drawing on paper, 1896, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, accessed http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016679883/
George Yost Coffin, “Hallow-eve, 1896,” drawing on paper, 1896, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Halloween’s origins can be traced back some 2,000 years to the Celtic festival of Samhain.  (Learn more about the ancient traditions from the University of the Highlands and Islands). The Celts celebrated their new year at the end of the harvest season on October 31, seemingly like the “Auld Lang Syne” festival mentioned by the Terre Haute newspaper. On this night, the boundary between the world of the living and the dead was more permeable, allowing for premonition and divination. Remarkably, despite the attempt of the Church to replace Samhain with All Saints Day, some of the old traditions carried over into the nineteenth century.  For example, the same 1872 article reported on a mishap with a Halloween divination:

A young “fellah” in his teens took some chestnuts to the residence of his girl on Perry street, to tell fortunes with, upon a hot stove. Everything worked pleasantly at first; the old folks went to bed early, and the young couple sat by the kitchen stove, which diffused a glow scarcely warmer than that which emanated form their own hearts. Two plump chestnuts, which had been named after the two beings who were there to watch their movements, were placed upon the heated stove. They reposed for a moment side by side, then the nut named “John” began to waltz around the surface of the stove, and was followed a moment later by “Mary,” the other proxy.  As they grew warmer their speed and eccentric evolutions increased, and the young couple were very much interested in the final movements which were to indicate the fate of their own hearts, when unfortunately, “John” exploded and a piece of hot chestnut striking the original Mary in the eye, she took no more interest in the antics of fortune-tellers, but sat down, while her admirer, in his haste to relieve her sufferings, stepped on the cat’s tail.

A howl of mortal agony followed, and a moment later the enjoyment of the evening was marred by the young lady’s father opening the kitchen door, and though clad in a single and nameless garment, he insisted on knowing if it was ‘necessary to raise such a hullabaloo at his time of night’ before he departed. Everything was amicable adjusted, however, and the remainder of “Halloween” enjoyed by the young folks in a more quiet manner.

But the jokes were not all confined to the young people. We hear this morning of flax-seeds emptied into beds, where it occasioned much emotion by it resemblance to “yearling” bed-bugs. Those who retired early were pretty certain to find a cabbage or pumpkin between the sheets. Tempting pieces of pie, with saw-dust stuffing, were generally tendered by loving wives to their husbands, and various other jokes, practical and otherwise, were played in a manner that threatened to take from “All Fools day” the distinction it has hitherto enjoyed.

The practice of removing gate hinges, mentioned in the previous article, seems to have remained popular as it was again mentioned the following year:

Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, November 1, 1873, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, November 1, 1873, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Despite the scolding, it appears that young Hoosiers of the 1870s were generally allowed to get away with their pranks without getting into too much trouble. The newspaper allowed this perpetrator to go unnamed:

"Personal," Terre Haute Staurday Evening Mail, November 4, 1876, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.
“Personal,” Terre Haute Staurday Evening Mail, November 4, 1876, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In the following decade, Hoosiers were still keeping many of the old Halloween traditions alive. An 1885 article from the Terre Haute Evening Mail describes Halloween as the perfect time to divine one’s future spouse using various spells.

"Halloween," Terre Haute Staurday Evening Mail, October 31, 1885, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.
“Halloween,” Terre Haute Staurday Evening Mail, October 31, 1885, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

There are several such articles to be found in Hoosier State Chronicles, but none more interesting than this 1889 article written for the Indianapolis Journal. The article notes the aforementioned failure of the Church to replace the pagan celebration with All Saints Day and even mentioned Burns’ poem “Halloween” alluded to in Indiana newspapers a decade earlier.  An interesting stanza of this poem describes the Scottish tradition of uprooting kale or cabbage plants and reading them for information about one’s future spouse. Hopefully one didn’t pick a kale stalk that was too short or withered and hopefully its roots were covered in dirt – a sign of god fortune or a large dowry.  Learn more via the Smithsonian Magazine.

"Comartie Fool," accessed K. Annabelle Smith, "The Halloween Tradition Best Left Deas: Kale as Matchmaker, Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian.com
“Comartie Fool,” accessed K. Annabelle Smith, “The Halloween Tradition Best Left Deas: Kale as Matchmaker, Smithsonian Magazine.

While the Journal article didn’t mention the kale superstition, it did refer to several related traditions:


"Mysteries of Hallow-Eve," Terre Haute Express, October 31, 1889, 2 , Hoosier State Chronicles.
“Mysteries of Hallow-Eve,” Terre Haute Express, October 31, 1889, 2 , Hoosier State Chronicles.

All boys and girls know what next Thursday, October 31, will be All-Hallow Even, though most of them corrupt its name to “Hallow Eve.” They know that it is a night of mirth and mystery, specially devoted to mischief, fun, incantations, divinations, charms and spells, but very few of them or their elders understand its real significance, or can tell whence it derives its name.

It is many centuries since the Roman Church, finding it impossible, from the great and constantly increasing multitude of the saints, to set apart a separate day for each one, decreed that November 1st should thenceforward be kept as a day in honor of all the saints and that it should be known as All Hallowmas or All Saints’ day, and that the night of October 31st, immediately preceding it, should thereafter be kept as a vigil, and be known as All Hallow Eve, these occasions being still observed in the Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran Churches.

From its first origination Hallow Eve has been invested with a peculiarly mystic character. It is an almost universal superstition that supernatural influences then have unusual power” that devils, witches and fairies are abroad; that all spirits are free to roam through space, and that the spiritual element in all living humanity can be detached from corporal restraint and made to read his own future, or to reveal to others what fate may have in store for them. A there is nothing in the church celebration of the ensuing All Saints to justify these singular ideas and customs associated with Hallow Eve, and as none of them are of a religious character, we may justly regard them as relics of pagan times.

Image in Better Days Books Vintage Halloween Reader, accessed ChicagoNow.com
Image in Better Days Books Vintage Halloween Reader, accessed ChicagoNow.com.

In all ages and countries Hallow Eve has been deemed, as it still is, the occasion par excellence for divining the answer to that momentous question which absorbs so large a share of the thought of romantic young men and maidens: “Who is to marry whom?” The means employed to gain this much-desired information are as quaint and curious as they are numerous and varied. For this purpose every time and every country – almost every district of every country – has had its own charms and spells, peculiar to itself, and they have furnished an almost inexhaustible theme for folk-poets and compilers of folklore.

William Nicholson, "Robert Burns," etching, 1819, Library of Cngress Prints and Photographs Division, accessed http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2013645279/
William Nicholson, “Robert Burns,” etching, 1819, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Those of Scotland have been most graphically described by that greatest of all poets of the people, Robert Burns. In his poem of “Hallow’een” he has given us a most vivid account of more than half a score of Hallow Eve charms and spells peculiar to the Scottish peasantry.

The remainder of the article goes on to detail several spells for reading the future.  The first involves throwing blue yarn into an old lime-kiln in order to hear one’s future spouse’s name.  The paper notes the slight “difficulty of finding an old lime kiln.”


The second requires a sliver of wood in a glass of water next to one’s bed on Halloween night in order to dream of one’s future husband or wife rescuing them from a river.


Another allows the love-sick to find out if the object of their affection returns their feelings using a pair of roses and a spell.


A young man seeking to see the face of his future wife may do so in a walnut tree with the right incantation at midnight on Halloween.


Sometimes the fates needed only a lock of hair and a strong breeze.


Be careful, however, in choosing a spell. The article’s author has a strong warning from personal experience about the sliver of wood in water and dreams of drowning.  Someone may have to die before the dreamer’s true love can be found in real life. In this case, the writer’s own brother. We don’t want to give it all away; read his story on Hoosier State Chronicles!

And in case you were worried that none of the Indiana newspapers covered the spell allowing kale or cabbage to divine one’s mate, do not fear! The Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail has it covered with this article on “Modes of Divination.”

Terre Haute Sturday Evening Mail, May 19, 1894, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles
Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, May 19, 1894, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.

According to the article, besides various spells involving nuts and apples, “young women determined the figure and size of their husbands by drawing cabbages blindfold.” Perhaps this information from  Indiana newspapers not only gives us a glimpse into Halloween traditions maintained by 19th-century Hoosiers, but also explains the 1868 murder from the beginning of this post:

"A Young Girl Shot and Killed," Daily Wabash Express, November 3, 1868, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.
“A Young Girl Shot and Killed,” Daily Wabash Express, November 3, 1868, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Be careful this Halloween, especially if you plan on going hunting for some midnight cabbage!

A Socialist’s Poem on Heaven

With the 2016 presidential primaries upon us, there’s more buzz than usual this year about a word with deep roots in Hoosier history — socialism.  And, as always, religion remains a factor at the polling booths.  This is also the first time in about a century that a major presidential candidate has openly disavowed “organized” religion.  The last candidate to do so was Eugene V. Debs, a Socialist, skeptic, and native Hoosier who ran for president five times just before and after World War I.  (Debs ran his last campaign from a federal prison in Atlanta in 1920, where he’d been sent for opposing the military draft.)

The topics of socialism and religion were hot as ever back in Debs’ day.  In some ways, that debate looks eerily familiar, with skeptics accusing churches of abetting social inequality, and believers often firing back with equally broad strokes about the dangers of revolution.  While plenty of American labor activists were religious — including major voices like Mother Jones and Terence Powderly — Debs and many more were agnostic.  Indiana Socialist, the newspaper of the Marion County Socialist Party in Indianapolis, tended toward religious skepticism, often printing ads for books that questioned Christian beliefs and especially church authorities. Since most American workers were Christian, however, Socialist leaders were wary of alienating them, and Debs found much in the ethics of the New Testament to applaud.

Some of the barbs thrown at religion are about as nuanced as the ravings of any old street preacher.  But some it even believers might find stirring.  In July 1913, on the heels of a Fourth of July visit by Mother Jones to Irvington on Indianapolis’ East SideIndiana Socialist published just such a poem.

Indiana Socialist, April 26, 1913

(The “Socialist literature wagon” once sat at the corner of Market and Pennsylvania streets in downtown Indianapolis.  Indiana Socialist, April 26, 1913.  The Socialist Party of Indianapolis’s 1913 campaign platform called for such things as public playgrounds, urban beautification, and equal pay for equal work. The newspaper estimated that Marion County, Indiana, alone had about 8,000 Socialist voters in 1913, plus others whom it alleged were kept from voting by their employers.)

The poem’s author was Henry M. Tichenor (1858-1924). Along with fellow Midwesterners Clarence Darrow and Robert Ingersoll, Tichenor was one of the most outspoken American freethinkers of his time.  An influential Socialist writer and editor in Missouri, Tichenor loathed organized Christianity.  Contrary to popular belief, many Americans were disgruntled with churches a century ago, and Tichenor’s popular, down-to-earth style made him popular even in the Midwest, whose radical history runs almost as deep as its reputation for staunch conservatism.

Henry M. Tichenor

(Harry M. Tichenor in 1914.)

Unlike the Marxist intellectuals who twisted Socialism to serve the greed of dictators and party elites, Tichenor was no high-falutin’ “comrade” inventing totalitarian “Newspeak” — the language of George Orwell’s memorable dystopian lampoon, 1984.  Yet his long, comic tirades against “holy humbug” (books with titles like The Life and Exploits of Jehovah) are basically the scribblings of a humorist, not a serious historian.  They probably never bothered anyone except fundamentalists who insisted on a literal reading of every story in the Bible.

In 1913, Tichenor was a regular poetry contributor to the St. Louis-based National Rip-Saw, “America’s Greatest Socialist Monthly.”  He was also cranking out fiery anti-capitalist pamphlets with titles like “The Rip-Saw Mother Goose,” “Rip-Saw Socialism Songs,” and “Woman Under Capitalism.”  That year he started printing a socialist journal of his own, The Melting Pot, a political and comic firecracker.

The International Socialist Review, April 1913

(The International Socialist Review, April 1913.)


The Good Green Earth - Tichenor

(Rhymes of the Revolution, 1914.  Courtesy Debs Collection, Indiana State University.)


Indiana Socialist, July 5, 1913


“Oh Boy! She’s Coming to Richmond”: Mamie Smith Brings the “Crazy Blues,” 1921

The Talking Machine World, January 15, 1921, 27, accessed archive.org.

Historians of blues music and folk culture consider Mamie Smith to be the first African American woman to record blues vocals.  In 1921, only a year after this historic recording, Smith performed to sold-out crowds in Indiana.  Newspapers covered the release of Smith’s records and her Indiana performances extensively. We were interested especially in a spring 1921 performance by this African-American star in Richmond, Indiana, a Ku Klux Klan stronghold at the time.

Before 1920, African American entertainer Mamie Smith, who was born in Cincinnati,  worked in Harlem as a chorus girl and cabaret singer. Here she met the black pianist, singer, and composer Perry Bradford who had found success in theater and minstrel circuits in New York.  Bradford, who was interested in preserving African-American musical traditions in recordings, convinced Fred Hager, recording director of the obscure label OKeh Records to take a chance on recording Mamie Smith.  Bradford convinced Hager that African American music lovers were an untapped market and that “they will buy records if recorded by one of their own, because we are the only folks that can sing and interpret hot jazz songs just off the griddle correctly.”

"A studio headshot portrait of American blues singer Mamie Smith," photograph, circa, 1923, Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images accessed "Mamie Smith and the Birth of the Blues Market," All Things Considered, NPR, http://www.npr.org/2006/11/11/6473116/mamie-smith-and-the-birth-of-the-blues-market
“A studio headshot portrait of American blues singer Mamie Smith,” photograph, circa, 1923, Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images accessed “Mamie Smith and the Birth of the Blues Market,” All Things Considered, NPR.

In February 1920, Smith recorded “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” for OKeh Records. Blues music historians consider this to be the first blues recording by an African American woman. Record producer Hager received boycott threats if he recorded Smith or any other African American singer. In the face of the controversy, Bradford convinced Hager to continue backing Smith, as opposed to the white singer Sophie Tucker, who Hager was alternatively considering.  Bradford recalled:

Mr. Hager got a far-off look in his eyes and seemed somewhat worried, because of the many threatening letters he had received from some Northern and Southern pressure groups warning him not to have any truck with colored girls in the recording field. If he did, OKeh Products – phonograph machines and records – would be boycotted. May God bless Mr. Hager, for despite the many threats, it took a man with plenty of nerves and guts to buck those powerful groups and make the historical decision which would echo aroun’ the world. He pried open that old ‘prejudiced door’ for the first colored girl, Mamie Smith, so she could squeeze into the large horn – and shout with her strong contralto voice.

Smith recorded another set of songs penned by Bradford for Okeh in August of 1920. The track “Crazy Blues” became massively popular and in less than a year the record sold over a million copies. According to long-time music writer Jas Obercht, Smith’s “Crazy Blues” “could be heard coming from the open windows of virtually any black neighborhood in America.” Okeh Records called it “a surprise smash hit.” According to New Orleans jazz musician Danny Barker:

There was a great appeal amongst black people and whites who loved this blues business to buy records and buy phonographs.  Every family had a phonograph in their house, specifically behind Mamie Smith’s first record.

Image of "Crazy Blues" on OKey Records accessed: Jas Obrecht, "Mamie Smith: The First Lady of the Blues," http://jasobrecht.com/mamie-smith-the-first-lady-of-the-blues/
Image of “Crazy Blues” on OKey Records accessed: Jas Obrecht, “Mamie Smith: The First Lady of the Blues,”

This was certainly true in Indiana.

Indiana newspapers ran ads for Mamie Smith’s records not long after the release of “Crazy Blues.”  Often the ads for Smith’s records were also attempts to sell phonographs as Barker mentioned in the above quote. A downtown Indianapolis music store ran this advertisement in the Indianapolis News in November:

Indianapolis News, November 30, 1920, 16, Hoosier State Chronicles
Indianapolis News, November 30, 1920, 16, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The C. W. Copp Music Shop ran an advertisement in the South Bend News-Times in December for the hit “Crazy Blues,” but also let an interested public know that they stocked other Mamie Smith records. Hoosier interest in Smith’s records continued into the new year.  In March of 1921, the same South Bend music shop ran several advertisements for five new Smith records and the Hammond Times ran an advertisement for Okeh Records releases, featuring Smith, and to sell listeners the phonograph  to play them on:

Hammond Times, March 4, 1921, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles
Hammond Times, March 4, 1921, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

According to Obrecht, Mamie Smith recorded 22 songs this year and “between sessions, she kept a grueling schedule of concert appearances.” The Talking Machine World magazine reported that Smith and a revue of entertainers were going to perform in all the major U.S. cities. By April 1921, many Hoosier music fans were familiar with Mamie Smith, as we can see from the newspaper ads.  So when the news broke that she was booked to play in Indiana, the coverage continued almost daily until the performance.

According to the Talking Machine World she performed in Indianapolis and Evansville on this tour, but a search of Hoosier State Chronicles and our recent work to digitize the Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram shows that she also performed to sold out crowds in Richmond and South Bend. This is especially interesting considering 1920s Richmond was only about 5% African American, while perhaps as many as 45% of white males belonged at some point to Whitewater Klan #60, an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. We wondered, what brought Smith to Richmond and how was she received?

The Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram ran a notice of Smith’s Saturday, April 23, 1921 performance at the Coliseum for weeks before the date.  Here are some great examples:

Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921, 7.
Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921. Hoosier State Chronicles.


Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 19, 1921, 7.
Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 19, 1921. Hoosier State Chronicles.

On April 21, 1921 alone there were three ads for Smith’s upcoming performance and records, including this extensive listing of popular songs:

Richmond Palladium and Sun Telegram, April 21, 1921, 3.
Richmond Palladium and Sun Telegram, April 21, 1921. Hoosier State Chronicles.
"Famous Colored Star Sings Here Saturday," Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921. 9
“Famous Colored Star Sings Here Saturday,” Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Advertisements were not the only coverage of Smith’s upcoming appearance in Richmond. On April 18, 1921 the Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram reported on the “forthcoming appearance here of Mamie Smith, the popular phonograph star of the colored race, and her All-Star Jazz Revue next Saturday night at the Coliseum,” and called it “the greatest jazz concert that has ever been sent on tour.” The newspaper called Smith “a phonograph star of the first rank” and claimed that she “has done more than any other singer perhaps in America to popularize the genuine ‘blues’ song of the day.” The writer continued to laud Smith for her ability to make songs into “living, potent things charged with a pulsing and individual rhythm.” The paper reported that the popularity of her record had made Richmond residents excited to see her perform live and that they were expecting a “sold-out house when she reaches this city.”

Jazz Revue Seats On Sale Wednesday," Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921, 4.
Jazz Revue Seats On Sale Wednesday,” Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 18, 1921. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Perhaps the most interesting article in the Palladium was the one that appeared the following day, April 19, and covered not Smith but the revue company traveling with her. Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds were the headlining, crowd-drawing act, but her tour included other acts as well: dancers, vaudevillian comedians, and minstrel performers. The appearance of a newly-minted  blues and jazz star on the same stage as the historically popular minstrel performers marks and intersection of trends in African American music and performance history. While minstrel performers had both conformed to stereotypes out of employment necessity and defied them through their self-presentation (learn more), Mamie Smith’s rise to stardom ushered in a new era of music divas who presented themselves as upper class, educated, rich, and demanding of respect.

Obrecht writes:

While blues music had been performed in the American South since the very beginning of the twentieth century, no one had made recordings of it before, largely due to racism and the assumption that African-Americans couldn’t – or wouldn’t – buy record players or 78s. “Crazy Blues” changed all that, sparking a mad scramble among record execs to record blues divas. The stars they promoted in this short-lived era of “classic blues” were not the down-home country singers who’d record later in the Roaring Twenties, but the glittering, glamorous, and savvy veterans of tent shows, minstrel troupes, and the vaudeville stage. These mavericks defied stereotypes…

"Colored Star Wears Exprensive Creations," Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram, April 22, 1921, 11.
“Colored Star Wears Exprensive Creations,” Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 22, 1921. Hoosier State Chronicles.

As if in response to this very idea, on April 22 the Palladium followed the coverage of the revue with an article detailing the glamorous appearance and presentation of Smith. The newspaper stated that through her record royalties “the popular young colored star is enabled to indulge her fancy in the latest creations both from Paris and New York, and in each city in which she has appeared a gasp of astonishment has greeted her every appearance, for her gowns are described as riots of color and beauty.”

In a telling sentence, the article called Smith “one of the most gorgeously dressed stars of the musical comedy world.”  This notes both the respect for her appearance and success and a misunderstanding of her role in music history.  While African American music fans were connecting to Smith’s sincere and authentic portrayal of the blues music that they grew up with, this white Midwestern newspaper still saw her as part of the vaudeville and perhaps even minstrel genres — understandably perhaps since it was marketed as such.  While Smith had come from such a tradition, through her work with the blues and and jazz performers she had transcended her past.  Black newspapers understood her importance much earlier than white newspapers.  On March 13, 1920, the Chicago Defender wrote:

Well, you’ve all heard the famous stars of the white race chirping their stuff on the different makes of phonograph records . . . but we have never – up to now – been able to hear one of our own ladies deliver the canned goods. Now we have the pleasure of being able to say that at last they have recognized the fact that we are here for their service; the OKeh Phonograph Company has initiated the idea by engaging the handsome, popular and capable vocalist, Mamie Gardner Smith.

Similarly, the African American gospel, jazz, and blues music Thomas A. Dorsey explained, “Colored singing and playing artists are riding to fame and fortune with the current popular demand for ‘blues’ disk recordings and because of the recognized fact that only a Negro can do justice to the native indigo ditties such artists are in demand.”

There were African American audience members at the Richmond performance, who likely had a better understanding of the significance of Smith’s success.  The Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram reported: “The best seats are selling fast from the plat at Weisbrod Music company as white and colored folk alike are wager to see and hear the ‘Queen of the Blues,’ a capacity house is predicted for Saturday night.”

Unfortunately, there are no extant issues of the historic African American newspaper the Indianapolis Recorder for this period. It would be interesting to explore the differences in the coverage of Smith’s performances between a white and black newspaper and perhaps this could be accomplished using the Chicago Defender, but is outside the scope of this post.

As expected, Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds sold-out the Richmond Coliseum, which held 2,500 people, for the April 23, 1921 performance.  The next year, the KKK also sold-out the same venue.  The Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram reported on December 12, 1922 that a crowd awaiting a Klan rally “taxed the space at the Coliseum waiting for the ceremonies quite a long time before the Klansmen finally arrived.”  So how was the white population of Richmond able to enjoy an African American musician one year and then attend a Klan rally the next?

While this contradiction may seem surprising, there was (and some argue still is) a tendency for white Americans to de-contextualize African American music from African American culture.  That is, the white residents of Richmond were able to appreciate black music while continuing to oppress black people.  There has been much written on this topic (two good places to start are Imamu Amiri Baraka‘s The Music: reflections on Jazz and Blues and Perry Hall’s “African American Music: Dynamics of Appropriation and Innovation“) and an extensive analysis of Smith’s career through this lens is outside the scope of this post.  However, advertisements continued after her performance, from which we can draw that she was a hit regardless of why.  Notice the advertisement claims that there was “a capacity audience.”

Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 25, 1921, 5
Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April 25, 1921. Hoosier State Chronicles.

While we were unable to find an article reviewing the Richmond performance or the crowd’s reception, it likely went well because she returned to Indiana the next month.  On May 31, 1921, she performed to another capacity crowd at the Oliver Theater in South Bend.  The South Bend News-Times covered her performance in much the same manner as the Richmond Palladium.  The paper noted in various articles, her fame, her genius, and her status as “the first colored girl artist to attain world-wide fame as a singer and phonograph record star.”

Mamie Smith’s importance to music history is hard to overstate, according to a story on NPR’s All Things Considered for which famed activist Angela Davis (now a professor at University of California/Santa Cruz ) was interviewed.  Davis summed up Smith’s importance succinctly:

“The recording of ‘Crazy Blues’ led the way for the professionalization of black music, for the black entertainment industry, and indeed for the immense popularity of black music today.”

Search Hoosier State Chronicles for yourself to find more on Mamie Smith in Indiana. For more on Mamie Smith’s long career see Jas Orbrecht’s well-researched article, “Mamie Smith: The First Lady of the Blues.”