All posts by Jill Weiss Simins

“America First:” The Ku Klux Klan Influence on Immigration Policy in the 1920s

United States immigration laws reflect a long history of debate over who should be included and excluded in differing visions of American identity. In 1924, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act or the Immigration Act of 1924, “a measure which was a legislative expression of the xenophobia, particularly towards eastern and southern European immigrants, that swept America in the decade of the 1920s.”[1] This legislation drastically limited immigration to the United States through a quota system that targeted specific groups for exclusion. While the annual quota for German immigrants was set at over 51,000 people, the quota for Syrian immigrants, for example, was 100 people.[2] Thus, U.S. policy officially distinguished between races and backgrounds of people included or excluded as future Americans. The Ku Klux Klan was crucial to the passage of this legislation, which had dire consequences for those seeking asylum in the U.S. over the following decades in which the quota system remained in place.

Fiery Cross, April 25, 1924, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In the 1920s, the Klan spread across the United States and especially thrived in Indiana. Historian James Madison explains that the Klan was especially successful at recruiting Hoosiers. As many as one in four white Protestant men born in the state were Klan members by one estimate. And some of these men were in positions of political power. In considering past debates over immigration, it’s worth re-examining the Klan’s stance on the subject. Why? Because the Klan of the 1920s was an influential mainstream movement. And those Hoosiers who put on robes and lit up the night with their fiery crosses were representative of the feelings of much of the population of the state.[3]

The first Klan, which emerged after the Civil War was a Southern terrorist organization led by former Confederate soldiers aimed at suppressing African Americans with intimidation and violence. The Klan that reemerged in the 1920s purposefully evoked the imagery of the Reconstruction Era Klan to instill fear in its “enemies,” but was much different. It was not a band of rogue vigilantes, but a nationwide organization composed of average white, Protestant Americans. It included farmers, bankers, railroad workers, suffragists, ministers, mayors, and governors. The second Klan also largely abandoned violence for civic action. They dressed their anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, antisemitic message in patriotism and Christian righteousness. Wearing their white robes and masks, they held picnics and parades, attended church and funerals. For many white Protestant Americans, the Ku Klux Klan was a respectable pastime for the whole family. [4]

Fiery Cross, December 21, 1923, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Because the Klan published their newspaper, the Fiery Cross, for several years in Indianapolis, we know a lot about who joined, what exactly they believed and feared about immigration and race, and what they did to prevent people from certain countries from becoming Americans. The Fiery Cross served both as an official mouthpiece of the national organization and as a source for local Klan news. The Indiana State Library also has a large collection of Klan documents. In conversation, these sources paint a clear picture of Klan beliefs and influence on both Indiana and national policy.

Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Kloran, 1916, United Klans of America Collection, Rare Books and Manuscripts Division, Indiana State Library. Also accessible digitally at Archive.org.

In an early KKK handbook, called the Kloran, the national organization suggested ten questions that must be answered satisfactorily before “naturalizing” a new member. Most of them asked about the potential member’s allegiance to the U.S. government and Christian principles with questions such as:

Do you esteem the United States of America and its institutions above any other government, civil, political or ecclesiastical, in the whole world?

The “ecclesiastical” reference in this question is to the Roman Catholic Church. The Klan claimed that Catholic immigrants to the U.S. served the Pope who headed a conspiracy to undermine American values. Thus they were not loyal American citizens. This anti-Catholic sentiment and rhetoric was especially strong in the Midwestern Klan, as seen in the pages of the Fiery Cross. However, not all of the membership questions veiled their hateful message. One question asked potential members bluntly:

Do you believe in and will you faithfully strive for the eternal maintenance of white supremacy?

In their minds, the white supremacy the Klan valued so dearly was presently under attack. Like the earlier Reconstruction Klan, the 1920s Klan viewed African Americans as members of an inferior race. In Indiana, members worried about the mixing of white and black races, especially as young Hoosiers gained access to cars, jazz clubs, and Hollywood movies. [5] In 1922, the Fiery Cross blamed jazz for “inflaming the animal passions of romance-seeking youth.” And in 1924, the newspaper declared, “At this time the whole civilized structure is being threatened by the mixing of the white and black races.” It continued:

It is God’s purpose that the white man should preserve purity of blood and white supremacy in this country. Those who would have it otherwise or show leniency toward the mixing of white and colored races do not deserve the respect of anyone, much less of those who are trying to preserve American institutions, ideals and principles. A mongrel race and a mongrel civilization mean decay and ruin.

Fiery Cross, May 16, 1923, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Thus, throughout Klan literature, any reference to Christian virtue or Protestant values, should be understood as being imbued with white supremacy. The Klan believed that God valued people of Anglo-Saxon, German, and Scandinavian decent more than people of other backgrounds. And they believed that it was their sacred duty to protect white domination of the U.S. For the Midwestern Klan, the main obstacle to this goal was not African Americans. Many Indiana towns had small numbers of Black residents, and there were plenty of institutionalized practices and laws in place by the 1920s to suppress African Americans. The Klan helped to keep these as standard practice. However, they saw immigrants, mainly Catholics but also Jews, as the main threat to a white, Protestant America. [6]

Fiery Cross, September 21, 1923, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

D. C. Stephenson, the recently appointed Grand Dragon of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan, clearly laid out the organization’s stance on immigration in a September 1923 speech to Hoosier coal miners. The Fiery Cross printed Stephenson’s address in its entirety under the headline “Immigration is Periling America.” First, he distinguished between “old” and “new” immigrants. The old immigrants were the Anglo-Saxon, German, and Scandinavian “progenitors of the Republic of America” who brought their strong work ethic and “social, moral, and civic ideals” to the new land. Omitting any mention of native peoples or the contributions of the many other immigrant groups who helped found the United States, Stephenson continued to provide the history of an imagined past created solely by and for white people.

William Arthur Swift, “Ku Klux Klan Gathering of Muncie Klan No. 4,” photograph, 1922, W. A. Swift Photographs Collection, Ball State University Libraries, https://dmr.bsu.edu/digital/collection/swift/id/700

Second, Stephenson plainly identified the enemy of white Protestant America as the “new” immigrants who were arriving in “greater in numbers” than the “old” immigrants.  These “new” immigrants were “from the races of southern and eastern Europe.”

Third, he cited the various ways that the “new immigrant has been shown to be much inferior to the older type and to the native American stock.” By “native American,” Stephenson meant white European people who immigrated in previous generations, not the native Indian peoples who originally called North America home. Using examples based in the (later discredited) pseudo-science of eugenics, Stephenson furthered his argument about the inherent inferiority of  the “new” immigrants.[7] Eugenicists assumed that some traits like mental illness or poverty could be prevented by limiting reproduction of people demonstrating such traits in order to breed a better race of humans.[8]

For Klan leaders, however, the language of eugenics gave them “scientific facts” to present as evidence for the need for blocking immigration. In his speech, Stephenson presented reports from eugenicists claiming that the “new” immigrants were less intelligent and more prone to mental disorders and criminal tendencies. Stephenson cited a report by influential eugenicist Harry H. Laughlin, who was essential in shaping both eugenics legislation and immigration restriction. [9] Stephenson used Laughlin’s “elaborate statistics” throughout his speech, claiming:

In reference to feeblemindedness, insanity, crime, epilepsy, tuberculosis and deformity, the older immigrant stocks are vastly sounder than the recent.

and

The countries which ran lowest in crime are those which have contributed most to the elementary foundation of the population of the United States – such as Great Britain, Scandinavia, Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands . . . Those immigrant groups that run high in crime are from the countries of southern and eastern Europe’

The conclusion he intended his listeners to draw from such reports was that these  people must be excluded from the country. Stephenson stated:

My friends, the significance of authoritative statements like these can hardly be overestimated. Unrestricted immigration would appear to result in a gradual contraction of our native American stock.

Fourth, Stephenson claimed that English, German, and Scandinavian “old immigrants” spread out across the country, establishing farming communities. On the other hand, the “new” immigrants settled only in already congested cities and refused to assimilate. And finally, Stephenson claimed, in these cities, the immigrant was to blame for a decreased standard of living and reduction in wages. He continued:

There is no assimilation to American standards and ideals, in the case of the great majority of the newer immigrants. Masses of human beings of inferior races, ignorant of all the ideals which Americans hold dear, are poured into our factories as so much raw material – and they are not ‘digested.’ The new immigrant comes here as a foreigner and he remains a foreigner – a citizen of a lower class, who, just as the negro, is a constant menace to the standards of civilization which Americans hold dear.

The solution was clear. The powerful Klan, with its millions of members, demanded in 1923 that “the next Congress must adopt a permanent immigration law.” Stephenson concluded his speech to the Indiana coal miners:

So the unchecked importation now of hordes of southern Europeans will bring its inevitable harvest in fearfully deteriorating the character of the American nation of the future. The immigration policy which we adopt today will not produce its vital effects at once; these will come a generation or two later, and the American citizenship, American standards of living and American qualities of manhood and womanhood of that time will be largely dependent upon the character of the racial stock that today we permit to become the percentage of the nation.

William Arthur Swift, “Ku Klux Klan Women’s Auxiliary Rally in New Castle, Indiana,” photograph, 1923, W. A. Swift Photographs Collection, Ball State University Archives and Special Collections, https://dmr.bsu.edu/digital/collection/swift/id/622.

Hoosier Klan members were on board with this message, despite the fact that Indiana’s own immigration history proved the racist claims false at every turn. For example, Jews like John Jacob Hays, an Indiana agent for the U.S. government, were among the first of European descent to settle in the Northwest Territory. Jewish Hoosier Samuel Judah settled in Vincennes in 1818 began the first of his five terms in the state legislature in 1827.[10] Black Hoosiers were also among the first to clear and farm Indiana land in communities across the state, building thriving communities like Roberts Settlement by the 1830s.[11] Catholic immigrants to Indiana like Saint Theodora Guerin in 1840 braved the wilderness and prejudice to establish schools and orphanages.[12] And at the same time the Fiery Cross claimed that immigrants were responsible for draining the economy, Terre Haute newspapers praised the Syrian immigrants to their community on the Wabash River for stimulating the local economy.[13] The examples of immigrant contributions to the Hoosier state are endless. But despite the local lessons to be learned, many Hoosiers held on to their prejudices. And the Indiana Klan gave them an outlet.

William Arthur Swift, “Ku Klux Klan Initiation and Cross Burning,” photograph, 1922, W. A. Swift Photographic Collection, Ball State University and Special Collections, https://dmr.bsu.edu/digital/collection/swift/id/724

How do we know that the average Hoosier who joined the Klan, actually supported this message of white supremacy? One way Indiana Klan members made their support public and highly visible was through large and elaborate parades. In September 1923, the Fiery Cross reported that between 1,200 and 1,500 Klansmen marched in a “huge parade” through the main streets of Terre Haute. They were led by the Terre Haute No. 7 Klan band. Signs on floats read “Uphold the Constitution” and “America First.” Local police helped handle traffic and a traction company provided “special cars” to transport Klansmen and women to “the Klan grounds, north of the city.” Here there were speakers and new member initiation ceremonies for “several hundred candidates.” While these new Hoosier Klan members took their oaths of allegiance, “a fiery cross was lighted.”

Fiery Cross, May 23, 1924, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In July 1923, the Fiery Cross reported on a huge Ku Klux Klan gathering in Kokomo. The city hosted “a throng in excess of any ever before entertained by an Indiana city, not excepting Indianapolis on Speedway day,” with Klan members coming from surrounding states as well. At this meeting Klan leaders announced “the establishment of a stated organization for the Hoosiers” and “charters granted to each and ever county in Indiana” for local Klan “klaverns.” The Fiery Cross continued:

Americanism has engulfed the Hoosier state and the growth of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana has been as a tidal wave.

In October 1923, the Fiery Cross claimed 10,000 people turned out for a Klan parade in Bloomington organized by the Monroe County Klan and the Women of the Ku Klux Klan. In November, Klan members held a similar event in Fort Wayne. And the Fiery Cross estimated that 100,000 would attend the night parade of Klansmen in May 1924 in Indianapolis, marching from the State Fairgrounds, to  Monument Circle, led by Klan bands and drum corp.

Fiery Cross, June 27, 1924, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Klan grew their membership in other ways too. Donning robes and masks, they marched into churches and made donations to grateful ministers. They held picnics and social events. They showed Klan propaganda movies.[14] Klan bands recorded albums and Indianapolis even had a KKK  record store, the American Record Shop. Members advocated for prohibition of alcohol and supported prayer in school, issues that especially interested women. Thus, the number of women’s Klan groups increased across the state as well.

Fiery Cross, September 21, 1923, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Not all Klan members hid behind costumes. Many felt comfortable taking off their hoods in pictures or running an ad for their business in the Fiery Cross. While some business owners advertised in order to avoid boycott, others proudly proclaimed that their business was “100 per cent American” or incorporated the letters “KKK” into the ad.

Fiery Cross, December 21, 1923, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles
Fiery Cross, February 23, 1923, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Some mainstream newspapers, such as the Indianapolis Times, were harsh critics of the Klan. But others ran ads for Klan gatherings or speakers on “the principles of 100 per cent Americanism.” Some mainstream newspapers may have even ran more subtle versions of the “100 Per Cent” ads for businesses sympathetic to the Klan that ran regularly in the Fiery Cross.

Greencastle Herald, September 21 [left] and November 17, 1923 [right], Hoosier State Chronicles.
These efforts to build membership, influence, and solidarity were successful in Indiana and across much of the country. By 1924, the Klan was a powerful force. They gave white Protestants an organization dedicated to defending the perceived threat to their political and cultural dominance. The more enthusiastic Klansmen used intimidation techniques such as burning crosses on front lawns or stopping cars to search for illegal alcohol.[15] However, they mainly focused their intimidation into written and verbal attacks on immigrants using stereotyping, dehumanizing language, and eugenic pseudo-science. Cloaking their hateful message in patriotism and virtue made it palatable to many.

Cartoon from Denver Post reprinted in Fiery Cross, May 9, 1924, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Klan’s championing of white supremacist principles had real world consequences. To many Indiana politicians, the people had spoken. The Indiana Republican Party was the most sympathetic, but there were Democratic supporters as well. Most politicians were complicit in their failure to denounce the Klan for fear of losing votes, as opposed to any direct participation in the organization. But the Klan did influence Indiana elections. Stephenson openly revealed that the Klan would distribute sample ballots to members with candidates who were favorable to the organization clearly marked.[16] Several candidates won seats directly because the Klan proclaimed their support. Others sympathetic to the Klan won offices perhaps because the Klan had disseminated so much propaganda that voters did not know what to believe. As the Klan accused opposing candidates of various indiscretions, voters may have become confused and apathetic.[17] Regardless of how it was gained, directly or indirectly, their influence prevailed for some time. In fact, Stephenson released the names of several politicians who were Klansmen themselves, including John L. Duvall, the Mayor of Indianapolis, and Ed Jackson, the Governor of the State of Indiana.

Indiana’s congressmen who neither joined nor denounced the Klan still furthered the organization’s “America first” agenda. For example, as governor, Samuel Ralston proved to be a fairly progressive-minded democrat, advocating for women’s suffrage, child labor laws, and workman’s compensation. When he was elected to the U. S. Senate in 1922, he tried to avoid talking about the Klan altogether. Like most moderate Hoosier politicians Ralston was not a Klan member, but he also he never publicly denounced the organization.[18] However, when the Senate voted on the Immigration Act of 1924, Ralston voted in favor of restriction as did his counterpart James Watson.[19] All of Indiana’s representatives had also voted in favor of the bill.[20] President Calvin Coolidge signed the bill into law May 24, 1924. The President told Congress, “America must be kept American.”[21]

The Immigration Act of 1924 and its quota system remained in effect until 1952. The legislation had dire consequences in the 1930s for the hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution who applied to the United States for immigration visas. Jews were specifically targeted in the legislation as undesirable candidates for refuge and only a handful were admitted. As newspapers reported on the escalating violence and injustices perpetrated by the Nazis, some Americans called for a loosening of the restrictions. However, while the Klan may have disappeared by the 1930s, the nativist and xenophobic attitude of many Americans remained the same as it had been when they wore masks and robes. Fortune magazine took a large poll in 1938 and found that only 5% of Americans wanted to allow “political refugees to come into the United States.”[22] Even a bill requesting a temporary easing of the quotas to rescue child refugees of Nazi terror failed in the Senate. The persecuted Jews of Europe would not find refuge in the United States. Many of those denied entry were murdered in the Holocaust.[23]

With each new shift in demographics throughout American history, certain groups have feared losses of power or wealth. However, those groups who rally around nativism and hate, as powerful as they might grow for a time, lose out to the more powerful vision of America as a leader in justice and democracy. Eventually, eugenics was discounted and its practice outlawed, the quota system overturned, and the Klan was made a laughing stock. Even so, the Klan’s vision of white supremacy and exclusion still simmers beneath the surface of American politics. Vigilant Hoosiers are needed to make sure that never again will we “fear difference and demand a conformity that contradict[s] . . . the state’s best traditions.”[24] According to UCLA’s Re-Imagining Migration project, we live in an age of mass migration and immigration. When we understand that migration is “a shared condition of our past, present, and future” we can “develop the knowledge, empathy and mindsets that sustain inclusive and welcoming communities.”

Update: The Midwest History Association keynote by James Madison cited below is now available to watch: https://www.c-span.org/video/?460982-1/ku-klux-klan-1920s-midwest

Notes

[1] United States House of Representatives, “Historical Highlights: The Immigration Act of 1924,” History, Art & Archives, https://history.house.gov/Historical-Highlights/1901-1950/The-Immigration-Act-of-1924/.
[2]  American Social History Project at City University of New York and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University “Who Was Shut Out? Immigration Quotas, 1925-1927,” History Matters, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/expansion.html.
[3] James Madison, “Flappers and Klansmen Challenge Traditions: The 1920s,” in Hoosiers (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press and Indiana Historical Society Press, 2014), 234-253; James Madison, “Who’s an American? The Rise and Fall of the Klan in the Midwest,” Plenary Address, Fifth Annual Midwestern History Conference, Grand Valley State University, May 31, 2019. In his 2019 address, Madison clearly stated that the 1920s Klan was a mainstream movement at the center, not margins, of the nation’s history.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7]PBS, “Eugenics Movement Reaches Its Height,” A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/dh23eu.html.
[8] Indiana Historical Bureau, “1907 Indiana Eugenics Law,” State Historical Marker Text and Notes, https://www.in.gov/history/markers/524.htm. The pseudo-science of eugenics led to mass sterilization in Indiana and elsewhere before it was determined to be a violation of human rights by state and federal courts [
[9] University of Missouri, “Harry Laughlin: Workhorse of the American Eugenics Movement,” Controlling Heredity: The American Eugenics Crusade: 1870-1940, University of Missouri Special Collections and Rare Books, https://library.missouri.edu/exhibits/eugenics/laughlin.htm; Andrea Den Hoed, “The Forgotten Lessons of the American Eugenics Movement,” New Yorker, April 27, 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-forgotten-lessons-of-the-american-eugenics-movement.
Laughlin’s influence was lasting. He later praised Hitler for understanding that the “central mission of all politics is race hygiene.” The Reichstag modeled their eugenics laws after Laughlin’s model and the American eugenicist continued to give support for the Third Reich throughout his life.
[10] American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, “Indiana Jewish History,” Jewish Virtual Library, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/indiana-jewish-history.
[11] Stephen A. Vincent, “History,” Roberts Settlement, http://www.robertssettlement.org/history.html.
[12] Indiana Historical Bureau, “Saint Theodora Guerin,” Indiana State Historical Marker Text and Notes, https://www.in.gov/history/markers/4330.htm.
[13] Indiana Historical Bureau, “Little Syria on the Wabash,” Indiana State Historical Marker Text and Notes, https://www.in.gov/history/markers/4404.htm.
[14] Madison, Plenary Address, 2019.
[15] Madison, Hoosiers, 247.
[16] Jill Weiss Simins, “Complicity in Neutrality? Samuel Ralston Denies Klan Affiliation, Hoosier State Chronicles Blog, July 17, 2018, https://blog.history.in.gov/samuel-ralston-denies-klan-affiliation/
[16] Jill Weiss Simins, “History Unfolded Part 7: Child Refugees, Hoosier Resistance,” Hoosier State Chronicles Blog, January 25, 2019, https://blog.newspapers.library.in.gov/tag/immigration-quotas/.
[17] Madison, Hoosiers, 253.
[18] Simins, “Complicity in Neutrality? 2018.
[19] Senate Vote #126 in 1924 (68th Congress) “To Agree to Report of Conference Committee on H.R. 7995 . . .  A Bill to Limit the Immigration of Aliens into the United States, https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/68-1/s126.
[20] House Vote #90 in 1924 (68th Congress) “To Agree to the Report of Conference Committee on H.R. 7995, to Limit the Immigration of Aliens into the United States,” https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/68-1/h90.
[21] University of Virginia, “Harding, Coolidge, and Immigration,” July 6, 2016, Miller Center, https://millercenter.org/issues-policy/us-domestic-policy/harding-coolidge-and-immigration.
[22] Jill Weiss Simins, “History Unfolded Part 7: Child Refugees, Hoosier Resistance,” Hoosier State Chronicles Blog, January 25, 2019, https://blog.newspapers.library.in.gov/tag/we-remember/.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Madison, Hoosiers, 238.

Students, Teachers, and Citizen Historians! Help Us Find Out What Hoosiers Knew About the Holocaust

WHAT: History Unfolded Research Sprint
WHEN: Thursday, February 1, anytime between 9 a.m. and noon
WHERE: Indiana State Library
Fourth Floor
315 West Ohio Street
Indianapolis, IN 46202 (Map) (Parking)
QUESTIONS: jweiss@history.IN.gov

Please join us next Thursday, February 1 ( anytime between 9 a.m. and noon) in the Indiana State Library for a History Unfolded “Research Sprint.” Our coordinated research over just a few hours has the potential to impact a nationally significant project.

History Unfolded is a project of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. It asks students, teachers, and citizen historians throughout the United States what was possible for Americans to have known about the Holocaust as it was happening and how Americans responded.

For the “Research Sprint” we’ll be using Newspapers.com to find articles in the Indianapolis News and the Indianapolis Star (which were the most widely read newspapers at the time) reporting on 34 different Holocaust-era events that took place in the United States and Europe. We will then submit our findings to the History Unfolded database, providing resources and raising questions for scholars that will inform the USHMM’s initiatives. Basically, it’s up to us to contribute information on what the average Hoosier would have read about the events leading up to the Holocaust.

This event is open to citizen historians, teachers, and students of all levels. Indiana Historical Bureau staff will be there to help you:

  1. Create a History Unfolded log-in.
  2. Choose and briefly learn about an event that interests you.
  3. Find two relevant articles on the event, one in the Indianapolis Star and one in the Indianapolis News using Newspapers.com.

  4. Submit your topic to History Unfolded
  5. Tweet if you can @HolocaustMuseum and @HS_Chronicles #HistoryUnfolded
  6. Repeat!

Follow Hoosier State Chronicles on Twitter to see examples of the articles we’ve already found. Or check out our more in-depth History Unfolded series on the HSC blog to see how we are using  these newspapers to analyze what Hoosiers knew about the Holocaust and how they responded.

You can even make your History Unfolded profile now and get started! Hope to see you on February 1.

The 20% Solution: An Unlikely Breakthrough in Eye Surgery, 1884

Thomas Eakins, Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), oil on canvas, 1875, Philadelphia Museum of Art. {Painting depicts surgery in front of a class of medical students; note the man applying a rag, likely soaked with ether.]
Thomas Eakins, Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), oil on canvas, 1875, Philadelphia Museum of Art. [Painting depicts surgery in front of a class of medical students; note the man applying a rag, likely soaked with ether.]
By 1884, Indianapolis newspapers were reporting on the success of eye surgeries and procedures, including tattooing the cornea, by using a brand new anesthetic… cocaine.

Dr. Carl Koller, photograph, circa 1885, accessed the Foundation of the American Academy of Opthamology
Dr. Carl Koller, photograph, circa 1885, accessed the Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology

According to A. Grzybowki’s 2008 article “Cocaine and the Eye: A Historical Overview,” doctors had been experimenting with coca leaves in Europe since the 15th century.  However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that they learned to extract the active component: cocaine.  Early studies focused on the “many physiological and pathological effects,” as opposed to any numbing effects.

An Austrian ophthalmologist named Carl Koller is credited with discovering the effective use of cocaine as a local anesthetic for eye surgery in 1884. Koller found that a cocaine solution applied to the cornea left the eye temporarily unable to move or feel pain.  Before this discovery, it was almost impossible to operate on the eye because of its involuntary movements. His findings, published on September 18, 1884, were widely accepted and reproduced in the United States. Newspapers throughout the Midwest began reporting on the wonder drug almost immediately.  In fact, the first articles we found in searching Hoosier State Chronicles date to only one month after Koller’s discovery. The rising popularity of the drug was apparently driving up the cost.

The New Anesthetic in Indiana Apothecaries

As early as October 1884, the Indianapolis News listed the price of the “new and successful anesthetic.”

Indianapolis News, October 24, 1884, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, October 24, 1884, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The following month, the Daily Wabash Express noted that 18 karat gold cost about $16 an ounce while cocaine cost $224 an ounce.

[Terre Haute] Daily Wabash Express, November 30, 1884, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.
[Terre Haute] Daily Wabash Express, November 30, 1884, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.
In December 1884, a Bloomington dentist wrote a letter to the editor of the Indianapolis News  encouraging his Indianapolis colleagues that they advertise their use of the new anesthetic in an article titled “Try Cocaine.” This tongue-in-cheek letter is referencing the high price of cocaine.  Thus, he jokes that if the city doctors advertise this expensive service, “great will be the reward reaped from their country cousins,” as most people would rather deal with the physical pain and the cost.

Indianapolis News, December 25, 1884, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles
“Try Cocaine,” Indianapolis News, December 25, 1884, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles
cocaine-indianapolis-news-december-26-1884-4-hsc
S.C., “Try Cocaine,” Indianapolis News, December 26, 1884, 4, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In response to the “country cousin” dentist, an Indiana man with the initials “S.C.,” also wrote to the editor of the Indianapolis News about the new anesthetic.  He wrote: “Hydrochlorate of Cocaine has been in use in the United States about two months . . . The anesthetic solution requires four grains in 100 drops of water.” He too complains about the high price and predicts that it will go up more, encouraging some patients to “grin and bear it” without the pain reliever.  S.C. continued: “The writer has a sample which he uses, not as a reward reaper, but to facilitate matters in examining ‘sore eyes.’ It has wonderful analgesic power in many directions, and physicians and dentists are using is as fast as they can obtain a supply – and a paying customer.”

Cocaine Solution and Eye Surgery

Antonio Baratti, engraving, 1772, National Library of Medicine, accessed U.S. National Library of Medicine Digital Collections, https://collections.nlm.nih.gov/catalog/nlm:nlmuid-101425480-img
Antonio Baratti, engraving, 1772, National Library of Medicine, accessed U.S. National Library of Medicine Digital Collections.
cocaine-article-long-indianapolis-news-march-18-1885-2-hsc
“Surgery without Pain,” Indianapolis News, March 18, 1885, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In March 1885 the Indianapolis News reprinted “Surgery without Pain,” from the New York Tribune, describing the success of one “prominent eye surgeon” at the New York Post Graduate School of Medicine using cocaine as an anesthetic. When asked by the reporter if he uses the drug in surgery, the doctor replied: “Well, I should say so; in operations upon the eye I feel now that I could not get along without it. In general practice it has driven ether and chloroform out of the field. It is not only a wonderful discovery, but it is astonishing how rapidly it has risen into favor.”

The surgeon went on to tell the story of Dr. Koller’s recent discovery of cocaine as a local anesthesia in September 1884 and its immediate experimental adoption in the US.  He stated: “There is hardly a field in which it has not been used with success. Too much cannot be said in its praise in surgical operations upon the eye, ear and nose.”

"The New Anaesthetic," [Terre Haute] Saturday Evening Mail, February 21, 1885, 8, Hoosier State Chronicles.
“The New Anaesthetic,” [Terre Haute] Saturday Evening Mail, February 21, 1885, 8, Hoosier State Chronicles.
On February 21, 1885, the [Terre Haute] Saturday Evening Mail ran an article detailing the history and medical uses for cocaine, including eye surgery.  By dropping a cocaine solution “2 to 20 percent” the eye was made insensitive  “and the most trying operations may thus be performed . . . without pain.” The article also contained a deadly-sounding recipe for a crystallized version of the drug that not only used ether, but also lead.

Indianapolis News, April 15, 1885, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, April 15, 1885, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.

On April 15, 1885, the Indianapolis News also reported on “Cocaine, the new anesthetic” and how a patient not only “submitted to the ball of his eye being punctured by a delicate spearhead knife,” but also “chatted pleasantly with the operator” during the surgery.

Surgery Under
“Surgery Under Cocaine,” Indianapolis News, June 2, 1885, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.

One June 2, 1885, the Indianapolis News ran a story claiming a patient felt “no pain during the section of ciliary or optic nerves” when a 20% cocaine solution was applied before the operation and dropped on the eye throughout.

cocaine-dog-eye-surgery-greencastle-times-march-14-1889-8-hsc
“The Use of Cocaine,” Greencastle Times, March 14, 1889, 8, Hoosier State Chronicles

The Greencastle Times reported on a doctor who used cocaine for eye surgery in 1889, only this time the patient was “a very fine hunting dog, who had got a thorn in his eye.”  The good doctor applied a 5% cocaine solution to the dog’s eye, removed the thorn, and the dog “soon trotted home as well as ever.”

Tattooing the Eye

Crawfordsville Review, December 11, 1897, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles
Crawfordsville Review, December 11, 1897, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Perhaps most interestingly, the Crawfordsville Review reported that “the latest discovery of scientific medical men is that the human eye may be tattooed any color.” The procedure is recommended for blind or “dead” eyes in order to “restore it to its natural appearance, so that nothing but the closest scrutiny can detect the difference between it and its fellow.” The eye was covered thickly with India ink and then punctured “by means of a little electrical machine which operates a specifically made needle.” Of course, this 19th-century medical miracle was also brought to us by cocaine.  According to the article, “The operation of tattooing is performed by first treating the eye with cocaine until it becomes absolutely senseless to pain.”

Indianapolis News, February 10, 1900, 6, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, February 10, 1900, 6, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The following year that this very procedure was successfully performed by a surgeon at the nearby Miami Medical College in Ohio.  The Indianapolis News reported, “Miss Ada Duhrens . . . has had the color of the pupil of her eye restored by tattooing with india ink.”  We can only assume she has cocaine to thank for the “lost color restored” in her eyes.

Advertisement, Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, October 24. 1885, 3.
Advertisement, Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, October 31, 1885, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.

By this time, cocaine was also being used as an anesthetic for nose, throat, and for dental procedures. It was completely unregulated. Anyone could walk into a pharmacy and purchase cocaine powder or tablets. It was also the main ingredient in many “stimulating tonics” designed to combat fatigue and even soothe kids’ tooth aches. Ads appear throughout Indiana newspapers in the 1880s promoting it as a cure for hay fever, hair loss, and recommending cocaine lozenges as essential for speakers and singers.

Later, it turned out, there were some complications with the wonder drug.

 Edward Jackson, Essentials of Refraction and the Diseases of the Eye (Philadelphis: W. B. Sanders, 1890), 136, accessed U.S. National Library of Medicine Digital Collections.

Edward Jackson, Essentials of Refraction and the Diseases of the Eye (Philadelphis: W. B. Sanders, 1890), 136, accessed U.S. National Library of Medicine Digital Collections.

For more information on cocaine and eye surgery see:

  1. Grzybowski, “Cocaine and the Eye: A Historical Overview,” Ophthalmologica 222: 5 (September 2008, accessed Karger Medical and Scientific Publishers, https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/140625
  2. Goerig, D. Bacon, and A. van Zundert, “Carl Koller, Cocaine, and Local Anethesia,” Reg Anesth Pain Med 37:3 (May-June 2012), accessed PubMed.gov, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22531385

“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.

snap-apple-night
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.”

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.

wood-sliver

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.

rose-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.

walnut-tree

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

hair

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!

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

talking-machine-jan-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.

And:

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.”

WWI and the Bathing Suit: “Fashion Decrees Satin and Wool Jersey for Bathing Suits This Summer!”

http://palni.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15705coll8/id/75
“Bathing Beach,” postcard, 1904, Winona Lake Postcard Collection, Grace College & Theological Seminary, Morgan Library, accessed Indiana Memory.

Bathing suits and policing decency have often been a topic of discussion and contention, as noted in a previous Chronicles post. However, while looking through reels of newspapers from 1916-17,  we became intrigued by the affect of World War One on the loosening of gendered fashion restrictions, especially as exemplified by the bathing suit. Here we look through articles, illustrations, photographs, and advertisements at the ways Hoosier women reacted to trends in the context of WWI when bathing suits had become shorter and sleeveless, but fabrics were still thick and heavy, a holdover from an older era.

"Mermaids at Brighton" by William Heath (1795 - 1840), c. 1829, in Emily Spivack, "How Bathing Suits Went From Two-pieces to Long Gowns and Back, Smithosonian Magazine, accessed www.smithsonianmag.com
“Mermaids at Brighton” by William Heath (1795 – 1840), c. 1829, in Emily Spivack, “How Bathing Suits Went From Two-pieces to Long Gowns and Back, Smithsonian Magazine.

The Victorian bathing gowns of the previous century were floor-length and made of dark heavy fabric that wouldn’t float up or become transparent.  According to the Smithsonian Magazine, some women even sewed lead weights into the hems to prevent exposure of the calf. By the early 1900s bathing costumes became knee-length dresses or tunics and were paired with bloomers or tights, “all of which were made from heavy, flannel or wool fabric that would weigh down the wearer, not quite convenient for negotiation the surf,” according to the same article.

"Bathers at Bass Lake," photograph, circa 1900, Starke County Historical Society, accessed Indiana Memory, http://cdm16066.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p181901coll014/id/41
“Bathers at Bass Lake,” photograph, circa 1900, Starke County Historical Society, accessed Indiana Memory.

World War One changed fashion dramatically in large part because women’s roles changed  in wartime as they took on physical jobs such as factory and farm work, in addition to nursing. Manufacturing jobs also made shorter hair more practical and the corset impossible.  Gendered fashion rules relaxed in general to the point where it was even acceptable for women to wear pants for manual labor activities — though it would be decades before they were acceptable beyond certain activities, according to Nina Edwards’ Dressed for War: Uniform, Civilian Clothing & Trappings, 1914 to 1918

"Female employees of the Jeffersonville Quartermaster Depot, New Albany, Ind." photograph, circa 1918, New Albany - Floyd County Public Library, accessed Indiana Memory, https://digital.library.in.gov/Record/PPO_NAFCHistoricArchive-46C194E1-0380-4F2D-9A10-268786332926
“Female employees of the Jeffersonville Quartermaster Depot, New Albany, Ind.” photograph, circa 1918, New Albany – Floyd County Public Library, accessed Indiana Memory.

The rules of decorum were also relaxing in the world of sports as women took up tennis, skiing, and swimming in greater numbers. Pants were allowed on the tennis court and slopes. While bathing suits generally maintained their dress-like appearance for the average beach goer, athletic and competitive swimmers opted for suits that didn’t impede their sport.  These swimsuits that allowed for actual swimming eventually infiltrated the mass market as well.

"Amateur Acrobats Performing on Bass Lake," postcard, circa 1910, Starke County Historical Society, accessed Indiana Memory, https://digital.library.in.gov/Record/ISL_p181901coll014-59
“Amateur Acrobats Performing on Bass Lake,” postcard, circa 1910, Starke County Historical Society, accessed Indiana Memory.

 

"Frances Owen and Marium Mueller Dressed in Bathing Suits, New Harmony, IN," glass plate negative, 1925, University of Southern Indiana, accessed Indiana Memory https://digital.library.in.gov/Record/ISL_p181901coll18-2638
“Frances Owen and Marium Mueller Dressed in Bathing Suits, New Harmony, IN,” glass plate negative, 1925, University of Southern Indiana, accessed Indiana Memory.

These images accessed through Indiana Memory show how Hoosier women, following the general bathing suit trends, shifted from dresses layered over tights or bloomers to more formfitting tunics.

Hoosier women found out about these trends and where to purchase their beach attire through newspaper articles and advertisements.  Indiana newspapers regularly ran illustrated articles about the newest fashions from the east coast beaches, such as this snippet from the Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram:

Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, June 7, 1916, 8.
Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, June 7, 1916, 8.

Articles could be more extensive as well, taking up almost an entire page such as this 1917 article from the South Bend News-Times with the intriguing headline:

fashion-decrees-headline

The article notes the relationship between sportswear trends and swim wear:

South Bend News, June 17, 1917, 23, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
South Bend News, June 17, 1917, 23, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

This season sees the bathing suits carrying out the same colorful note that predominates in all sports clothes and in materials there is also a similarity, namely, in the use of one of the most favored of fabrics — wool jersey. This versatile material seems to make itself at home in any sphere. After having made its importance felt in sports clothes, one-piece frocks and semi-informal suits, the bathing suit has been lately added to its conquests.

The article continues to describe  and illustrate the season’s other popular fabrics:

South Bend News, June 17, 1917, 23, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
South Bend News, June 17, 1917, 23, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Yet, other materials compare very favorably with jersey cloth at the fashionable beaches. Black satin has lost none of its usual charms; taffeta, mohair, alpaca and poplin still retain their popularity; and the rubberized cloths are likewise favored to a great extent.

In the summer of 1917, the Lion Store in Hammond, Indiana, encouraged its neighbors to “spend Sunday in the cool, refreshing waters of Lake Michigan” through this advertisement in the Hammond Times [below].  And what is more cool and refreshing on the skin than dark-colored wool?  The women’s “All-Wool Bathing Suits” were available with a fitted waist, wing sleeves, and “piping and trimmings in contrasting colors” for the low price of $3.98.  However, one would still need the appropriate matching rubber “Swim Kap” ($.50) and “Beach of Swim Shoes, made of sateen with canvas covered soles” ($.25). For just a bit more, however, one could purchase one of “The New ‘Liberty’ Swim Caps, made of all rubber, red crow, blue band with white stars, finished with rubber rosette. As the South Bend News-Times reported:

A complete bathing outfit by no means ends with the selection of the suit. Beach wraps, hats and caps, shoes and stockings, are quite as important.

Hammond Times, August 3, 1917, p. 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, August 3, 1917, p. 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Also in the summer of 1917, the nearby competing department store, the E. C. Minas Company, advertised that they could beat the Lion Store’s prices! As advertised also in the Hammond Times, some of their suits were only $2.00 and they offered Bathing Tights.  Bathing tights were usually dark in color and meant to compensate for the shorter hemlines and sleeveless styles of the era’s new suits. They could be worn instead of the looser bloomers.  If you weren’t quite ready for such a propriety-challenging costume, however, they also offered the “bathing corset.”

Hammond Times, July 2, 1917, 10, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, July 2, 1917, 10, Hoosier State Chronicles.

E. C. Minas also had the gentleman bather covered.  They could choose between the “all-worsted,” aka wool, one-piece suit pictured in this advertisement in the Hammond Times [also below] or a two-piece version with flannel pants. The straw hat was a must as well, apparently.

Hammond Times, July 2, 1917 p. 10, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, July 2, 1917 p. 10, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Besides loosening rules for women (and to a lesser extent) men to keep pace with changes in work and sport, the war changed the outlook of those affected by it and, in turn, the way they dressed.  The horrors of war and personal loss contributed to a greater consciousness  mortality and feeling that anything could happen at any time.  For some, this meant that they should live for today and in the moment, thus setting the stage for the fashions and attitudes of the Jazz Age, when fashion would “decree” much different aesthetic rules.  Search Hoosier State Chronicles for more articles on bathing suits!  Combine terms “beach” and “bathing” with “suit,” “outfit,” and “costume.” Let us know what you find on Twitter: @HS_Chronicles