There’s a lot of talk these days about presidents being removed from office. We’ve seen at least three times in American history when Congress nearly did just that. But, there’s always other politicians whose actions garner so much controversy that they’re kicked out altogether. In this video, we consider the case of Jesse Bright, a US Senator from Indiana whose coziness with the Confederacy led to his ouster from Congress.
Despite its status as a free state in the federal union, Indiana maintained a complicated relationship with the institution of slavery. The Northwest Territory, incorporated in 1787, banned slavery under Article VI of the Articles of Compact. Nevertheless, enslaved people were allowed in the region well after lawmakers organized the Indiana Territory in 1800. As historians John D. Barnhart and Dorothy L. Riker noted, there were an estimated 15 people enslaved in and around Vincennes in 1800. This number only represented a fraction of the 135 slaves enumerated in the 1800 census. When Indiana joined the Union as a free state in 1816, pockets of slave-holding citizens remained well into the 1830s.
Making matters more complicated, Indiana ratified a new constitution in 1851 that included Article XIII, which prohibited new settlement of African Americans into the state. Article XIII also encouraged colonization of African Americans already living in the state. The Indiana General Assembly even passed legislation creating a fund for the implementation of colonization in 1852. It stayed on the books until 1865. This, along with a litany of “black codes,” limited the civil rights of free African Americans and harsher penalties for African Americans seeking freedom. As historian Emma Lou Thornbrough observed, Indiana’s policies exhibited an “intense racial prejudice” and a fear of free, African American labor. One window into understanding complex history of fugitive slaves is by analyzing newspapers. Ads for runaways, fugitive slave narratives, and court case proceedings permeate Indiana’s historic newspapers. This blog will unearth some of the stories in Indiana newspapers that document the long and uneasy history of African American freedom seekers in the Hoosier state.
Runaway advertisements predominantly chronicled fugitive slavery in Indiana newspapers during the antebellum period. These ads would provide the slave’s name, age, a physical description, their last known whereabouts, and a reward from their owner. One of the earliest ads comes from the September 18, 1804 issue of the Indiana Gazette, while Indiana was still a territory. It described two slaves, Sam and Rebeccah, who had run away from their owner in New Bourbon, Louisiana. Sam was in his late twenties and apparently had burns on his feet. Rebeccah was a decade younger than Sam and “was born black, but has since turned white, except a few black spots.” This might have been a case of vitiligo, a skin pigment disorder. In any event, their owner offered a fifty dollar reward for “any person who will apprehend and bring back said negroes, or lodge them in any jail so that the owner may get them.”
On December 9, 1807, the Western Sun ran a similar ad with a small, etched illustration of a runaway slave. Slaveholder John Taylor offered thirty dollars for the capture and return of three slaves (two men and one woman) who had taken two horses and some extra clothes. “Whoever secures the above negroes,” Taylor said, “shall have the above reward, and all reasonable charges if taken within the state; or ninety dollars, if out of the state . . . .”
These ads escalated after Indiana’s statehood in 1816, leading to expansions of the role of local officials. As Emma Lou Thornbrough noted, African Americans “were sometimes arrested and jailed on the suspicion that they were fugitives enough though no one had advertised them.” For example, the Western Sun & General Advertiser published a runaway ad on June 27, 1818 asking for the return of Archibald Murphey, a fugitive from Tennessee who had been captured in Posey County. Sheriff James Robb, and not Murphey’s supposed owner, took it upon himself to run an ad for the runaway’s return. “The owner is requested to come forward [,] pay charges, and take him away,” the ad demanded.
Owners understood the precarious nature of retrieving their slaves, so some resorted to long ad campaigns in multiple newspapers. A slave named Brister fled Barren County, Kentucky in 1822, likely carrying free papers and traveling north to Ohio. His owner offered a $100 reward for his return for at least three months in the Western Sun & General Advertiser. He had also advertised in the Cincinnati Inquisitor, Vincennes Inquirer, Brookville Enquirer, Vandalia Intelligencer, and Edwardsville Spectator.
Other ads provided physical descriptions that indicated the toll of slavery on a human being. Two runaways, named Ben and Reuben, suffered from multiple ailments. Ben had his ears clipped “for robbing a boat on the Ohio river” while Reuben lived with a missing finger and a strained hip. Lewis, a fugitive from Limestone County, Alabama, had a “cut across one of his hands” that caused “one finger to be a little stiff.” They could also be rather graphic. The Leavenworth Arena posted an ad in its July 9, 1840 issue requesting the return of a slave named Smallwood, who scarred his ankles from a mishap with a riding horse; reportedly a “trace chain” wrapped around his legs, “tearing off the flesh.” The pain these men, among many others, endured from the years of their bondage was sadly treated as mere details in these advertisements.
While ads represented a substantial portion of newspaper coverage, articles and court proceedings also provided detail about the calamitous lives of fugitive slaves. First, court cases provide essential insight into the legal procedures regarding fugitive slaves before the Civil War. The Western Sun & General Advertiserpublished the court proceedings of one such case in its November 21, 1818 issue. John L. Chastian, a Kentucky slaveholder, claimed a woman named Susan as his slave and issued a warrant for her return. Corydon judge Benjamin Parke ruled in favor of Chastian on the grounds that Susan had not sufficiently demonstrated her claim to freedom and the motion for a continuance on this question was overruled. Even if Susan had been a free person, the legal system provided substantial benefits to the slaveholders, and since she could not demonstrate her freedom, she was therefore obligated to the claimant.
As for abolitionists, they faced court challenges as well. In 1843, Quaker Jonathan Swain stood before a grand jury in Union Circuit Court, “to testify in regard to harboring fugitive slaves, and assisting in their flight to Canada.” When asked to testify, Swain refused on grounds of conscience. The judge in the case granted him two days to reconsider his choice. When Swain returned, “he duly presented himself before the Judge, Bible under his arm, and declared his readiness to abide the decision and sentence of the Court.” The judge cited Swain in contempt and jailed him, “there to remain until he would affirm, or should be otherwise discharged.” This episode was one of many that demonstrated the intense religious and moral convictions of Quakers and their resistance to slavery.
By contrast, many of those who sought slaves faced little challenge. The Evansville Tri-Weekly Journal reported that Thomas Hardy and John Smith, on trial in the Circuit Court of Gibson County for kidnapping, were acquitted of all charges. The judge’s ruling hinged only on a fugitive slave notice. This notice provided “sufficient authority for any person to arrest such fugitive and take him to his master.” As with the case involving Susan, the alleged slaves procured in this case received less legal protection than the two vigilantes that captured them. These trends continued well into the 1850s through the end of the Civil War.
Second, numerous articles and narratives concerning fugitive slaves and free persons claimed as fugitives were published during the antebellum period. The passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, of which Indiana kept its obligation to enforce, exacerbated coverage. Some articles were merely short notices, explaining that a certain number of alleged fugitive slaves were passing through a town or getting to a particular destination. The Evansville Daily Journalran a brief description in 1859 about two men “who had the appearance of escaped slaves, came upon the Evansville road, last night, and passed on to Indianapolis.” It was also reported that they “had a white adviser with them on the cars,” supposedly a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. In another piece, the Journal wrote uncharitably about a “stampede of slaves” that:
. . . left their master’s roofs, escaped to the Licking river where they lashed together several canoes, and in disguise they rowed down the Licking river to the Ohio and crossed, where they disembarked and made a circuitous route to the northern part of Cincinnati.
After their travel to Cincinnati, the twenty-three fugitives began their route to Canada via the Underground Railroad.
Conductors of the Underground Railroad also faced arrest for the aid of fugitive slaves. Another article from the Evansville Journal chronicled the arrest of a man known simply as “Brown” who aided four female slaves to an Underground Railroad stop at Petersburgh, Indiana. A US Marshal and a local Sheriff “charge[d] on the ‘worthy conductor,’ and he surrendered.” The officers returned Brown to the Henderson jail for processing. It was later discovered that he received $200 from a free African American for his last job. The Journal described Brown as a “notorious abolitionist, and if guilty of the thieving philanthropy with which he is charged, deserved punishment.” Indiana’s free state status did not lessen the prejudice against African Americans and abolitionists; it only obscured it.
One of the more elaborate, yet challenging methods fugitive slaves used to seek freedom involved shipping boxes. The Evansville Daily Journalreported of a fugitive slave captured aboard the steamer Portsmouth, a shipping vessel traveling from Nashville to Cincinnati. He was in the box, “doubled up like a jack-knife,” for five days before authorities discovered him and took the appropriate actions. The ship docked at Covington, Kentucky and they “placed the negro in jail to await the requisition of his owner.” It was learned later that the fugitive slave had an agreement with a widow to move to Ohio on condition that he work for her for a year. “He had fulfilled his part of the contract,” the Journal wrote, “and she was performing her stipulations, and would have enabled him to escape had it not been for the unlucky accident.” This story was also covered in the Terre Haute Daily Union and similar stories ran in later issues of the Journal, the Nashville Daily Patriot, and the Richmond Palladium.
Sadly, the ultimate risk for a fugitive slave was death, and Indiana newspapers chronicled these events as well. The Crawfordsville Weekly Journal published an article on August 16, 1855 detailing the death of a fugitive slave by drowning. It appeared to the authorities that the fugitive, resting near Sugar Creek in Crawfordsville, was discovered by a group of men and questioned about his status. Under pressure, the fugitive leaped into the water and tried to flee, which spurred one man to shoot off his gun in an attempt to stop him. As the Journal wrote, “this alarmed the negro, and he plunged beneath the waters, and continued to rise and then dive, until exhausted, and he sank to rise no more until life was extinct.” His body was discovered a few days later. While some deemed his death a mere drowning, others thought it more “suspicious.” The Journal continued:
Putting the most favorable construction on the circumstances, there was a reckless trifling with human life which nothing can justify. He was doubtless a fugitive, but they knew it not, and had no right to arrest him or threaten his life. They knew of no crime of which he had been guilty, and only suspected him of an earnest longing after that freedom for which the human heart ever pants; and because he acted upon this feeling, so natural and so strong, they threaten to tie and imprison, and when struggling with overwhelming waters, he is threatened with being shot if he does not return ; and then when strength and life were fast failing, stretched not forth a helping hand to save him from immediate death.
If the facts as stated be true, (of which we have no doubt,) there is high criminality, of which the laws of our country should take cognizance; and when the news of the negroe’s [sic] death shall have reached his owner, he will doubtless prosecute those men; it may be for murder in the second degree, or at least for the value of the slave.
The Journal eloquently elucidated why the application of fugitive slave laws, especially by vigilante citizens, harmed the civil rights and lives of both free people and those still in servitude (of which there were a mere few).
Free African Americans additionally faced threats to their lives and livelihood from the enforcement of fugitive slave laws. A well-known instance in Indiana regarded the arrest and release of John Freeman. Arrested and jailed on June 21, 1853, Freeman faced a charge from Pleasant Ellington of Missouri that he was one of his slaves. Freeman hired a legal team and after a lengthy trial that testified to his status as a free-born African American, he was released on August 27, 1853. It turned out that Ellington misidentified Freeman as a slave named Sam, who fled from servitude in Greenup County, Kentucky and likely escaped to Canada. Due to the diminution of his character, Freeman sued Ellington in civil court for 10,000; it was later ruled in favor of Freeman and he received $2,000 and additional unnamed damages. What Freeman experienced is but a snapshot into how fugitive slave laws harmed the rights of free people as well as slaves.
After the Civil War began, fugitive slaves continued to elicit concern, and coverage, in Indiana newspapers. In the spring of 1861, the Sentinel reprinted a piece from the Jeffersonville Democrat about the rise of fugitive slaves traveling through the Ohio River region: “the number of fugitive slaves caught on the Indiana side of the river, and returned to Kentucky within the past three months, is greater than that of any like period during the past ten years.” Kentucky’s government still offered a reward of $150 for each returned slave. That summer, the Indiana State Guardpublished President Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts on the issue. Lincoln, in a manner characteristic of his own political calculus, declared that Union soldiers were not “obliged to leave their legitimate military business to pursue and return fugitive slaves” but also cautioned that “the army is under no obligation to protect them, and will not encourage nor interfere with them in their flight.” The new President offered a nuanced position that possibly placated the Border States while satisfying the abolitionist wing of his own party. Realistically, it was a long way away from the Emancipation Proclamation.
The end of the Civil War brought the end of slavery as a federally-protected policy, and thus eliminated the need for fugitive slave laws. Their end brought a larger fulfillment of the Declaration of Independence’s commitment to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” Yet, the history of fugitive slaves often fell into tales of folklore and hyperbole. Looking at a primary source like newspapers helps to dispel many of the myths and provides nuance to the controversial subject of human enslavement in the United States. These stories represent a small fraction of the larger narrative about American slavery. To learn more, visit the Library of Congress’ page about fugitive slave ads in historical newspapers: https://www.loc.gov/rr/news/topics/fugitiveAds.html. You can also search Hoosier State Chronicles for more fugitive slave ads and articles.
Montgomery County, Indiana has a rich, colorful history of newspapers, both in their coverage and the personalities that ran them. In this post, we will share some highlights of this heritage and emphasize some of the papers that are available in Hoosier State Chronicles (HSC).
The earliest paper from Montgomery County in HSC is the Crawfordsville Record. Editor Isaac F. Wade and printer Charles S. Bryant published its first issue on October 18, 1831. As Herman Fred Shermer noted in an article about Montgomery County publishing, the “type and presses for the Record plant were brought by freight wagons from Cincinnati, Ohio” and the cost of the publishing the first issue was approximately $400. While Wade and Bryant intended for the Record’s first issue to arrive in September, they were delayed a month because the printer required a capital “D” for typesetting. Wade, as a good Whig, believed that having that capital “D” was essential, as the paper would regularly refer to “Democrats and the Devil.” The paper ran until 1838, after the death of subsequent publisher William Harrison Holmes. A brief revival of the paper in 1839-40, led by William H. Webb and Henry S. Lane, never regained the paper’s subscription base and it ceased altogether.
The Journal’s Jeremiah Keeney and the Review’s Charles H. Bowen (Stover sold out to Bowen six months after their acquisition) maintained a years-long feud in their respective papers. As a recent article in the Crawfordsville Journal-Review noted, Keeney and Bowen exchanged pointed barbs at each other in the press. Here’s a few additional examples we found in Hoosier State Chronicles. In the June 7, 1855 issue of the Journal, Keeney wrote an editorial called “Clean Streets,” where he commended the public workers who swept the streets but then derided Bowen’s supposed quibble with cleanup. “Count Bowen and his clique are probably the only men in town, who will object to cleanliness, and the protection of shade trees,” Keeney declared. Keeney preferred name for the Review’s editor was “Count Bowen,” likely a jab at his purported leadership status in the town.
Bowen didn’t take insults lightly and routinely shot back at Keeney in the Review. In its October 7, 1865 issue, Bowen slammed Kenney for his comments on Democratic leaders in the county and threw his own rhetorical venom at the Journal’s publisher. Bowen wrote that Keeney’s targets should:
[P]ay no attention to the filthy slang of this poor miserable creature, half idiotic and totally irresponsible, he should be passed by with total indifference and regarded only as a canker, a plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle upon the body of a corrupt and depraved humanity which purity should shun as a pestilence.
Bowen certainly elucidated his point, in the most elaborate way possible. Imagine if these two men were alive today, trading jabs on Twitter or in Facebook comments. Some things don’t change, after all.
Bayless Hanna was seen to-day walking down Main street with his music box, following a one-armed soldier who had a hand-organ in a little boy’s express wagon. The soldier would occasionally stop in front of a business house and play a tune, while Bayless and Rodgers would stare with mouth wide open, at the wonderful machine.
As for Lew Wallace, a post about Montgomery County and newspapers wouldn’t be complete without a quick discussion of its most famous son. Wallace’s tenure during the Civil War received differing perspectives from the Crawfordsville newspapers. This stemmed from Wallace’s own political evolution; he started the war as a Democrat and ended it a Republican. This changed his relationship with the Crawfordsville Review, who held it against him in editorials. For example, a short piece in their May 19, 1866 issue took umbrage with his military assignment during the second French intervention in Mexico.The Review wrote:
Lew Wallace, who has been rusticating in our city for several weeks past, left suddenly for New York a few days since. Rumor has it that he is about to join a filibustering expedition against Mexico. Should he be so unlucky as to suffer capture by the French mercenaries of Maximillian, we trust he may be granted a fair trial before a drum-head court martial. We should regret very much to hear of his being arraigned before a civil tribunal.
Much like with Keeney and Bowen’s feud, the Review‘s strongly-worded opprobrium against Wallace emanated from intense political partisanship.
Outside of the county seat, one of the more interesting Montgomery County papers available in Hoosier State Chronicles is the New Richmond Record. It ran from 1896 until 1924 under the sole ownership and editorship of Edgar Walts. Here’s an account of its publication from the A. W. Bowen’s History of Montgomery County (1913):
It is a six-column, six-page paper, run on a gasoline propelled power press. It is independent in politics, and makes a specialty of as much local news as is possible to furnish its readers with. It circulates in Montgomery, Tippecanoe and adjoining counties. It meets the requirements of the town and with it is connected a good job department.
During its run, the Record often praised its subscribers for continuing to patronize the paper, in a segment called the “Record’s Honor Roll.” The “honor roll” listed all the “new subscribers and renewals to THE RECORD during the past week” from Montgomery County, Indiana, and across the country. His “honor roll” likely helped circulation; by 1920, the Record had a circulation of 500 (for a town whose population was 496, but whose readership likely extended into rural Coal Creek Township and the rest of the county).
In all, Montgomery County’s newspapers often displayed the rough-and-tumble political winds of the nineteenth century, an era whose partisanship and vitriol mirrors our own. It wasn’t, however, the only part of their story. Montgomery County also facilitated forward-thinking pioneers like Mary Hannah Krout, Samuel Coffman, and Edgar Walts. Like much of history, Montgomery County’s heritage of newspapers exemplifies a nuanced, intriguing legacy.
This week’s notable Hoosier obit focuses on one of Indiana political history’s most important, and slightly controversial, public figures. Schuyler Colfax, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and vice president under Ulysses S. Grant’s first term, was a major player within the Republican Party during the late nineteenth century. However, his political career ended in controversy when news broke that he was a minor player in the Credit Mobilier scandal that also threatened Grant’s tenure in the White House. News of Colfax’s death on January 13, 1885 was somewhat inconspicuous.
Schuyler Colfax was born on March 23, 1823 in New York City. He and his family moved westward in 1836, settling in St. Joseph County, Indiana. As the Indianapolis Sentinel reported in his obituary, the “earlier years of his life were spent as a clerk in a county store, but when eighteen years of age he was appointed Deputy County Auditor, at South Bend, by his stepfather, who was Auditor.” This was the start of his life-long involvement in politics.
In 1850-51, Colfax served as one of the delegates to the Indiana Constitutional Convention, where he staunchly “opposed by voice and vote the clause prohibiting free colored persons from coming into the State.” Defeated as a Whig party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1851, he eventually won election to the House as a member of the newly-formed Republican party in 1854. He served in this body for the next 14 years. After the election of 1860, President-elect Abraham Lincoln gave Colfax some consideration for a cabinet post, before he settled on Indianan Caleb B. Smith. In 1863, during the height of the Civil War, House members elected Colfax as Speaker of the House. During his time leading the House, he helped secure congressional passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ending slavery, on January 31, 1865. The states ratified the amendment on December 18, 1865.
In 1868, while still serving as Speaker, the Republican Party nominated him to be General Ulysses S. Grant’s running mate. They won the election on November 3, 1868. Colfax would serve only one term in Grant’s administration. In 1872, Colfax announced that he was retiring from politics. The Republican Party nominated Henry Wilson to replace Colfax on the 1872 reelection ticket. However, there was a practical reason for Colfax’s retirement and the party replacing him as vice president nominee.
During 1868, Colfax became involved in a railroad shell corporation called Credit Mobilier of America, investing his own money into the scheme and receiving a $1,200 dividend check from Oakes Ames, a Congressman who roped some of his colleagues into it. After the New York Sunbroke the story, Colfax was later implicated in the scheme and nearly impeached. The impeachment proceedings stalled because Wilson replaced Colfax on the ticket. (Consequently, Wilson also became implicated in the scandal, but died of a stroke in 1875.) After nearly 20 years of success in public life, Colfax left Washington in 1873 a defeated, slightly tarnished man.
He spent the remaining years of his life rebuilding his reputation as a public speaker, traveling around the country sharing his memories of President Lincoln during the Civil War. On January 13, 1885, Colfax arrived in an extremely cold Mankato, Minnesota on another lecture tour. As the Greencastle Times reported, Colfax “walked from the Milwaukee [Railroad] depot, the distance of half a mile, and it is presumed the exertion superinduced an attack of heart of disease. He fell forward from the seat in the waiting room and died without uttering a word.”
The Indiana press’s reaction to Colfax’s death balanced its respect for the fallen leader but also acknowledged his Credit Mobilier foibles. The Greencastle Timesdescribed the scandal as the “wrongs and embitterments that wore put upon him through the hatred and malice of his enemies,” but that his reputation was left “unscathed in the estimation of his home constituency and all those who knew him best.” The Indianapolis News wrote that, “Of his connection with the “Credit Mobilier” nothing need be said now, for the country knows it all. It is alluded to here because, in nearly thirty years of public life in his state or in congress, this is the only imputation on his integrity.”
On the other end of responses, the Terre Haute Expressdid not even mention the affair. Finally, on the day of his death, the Indianapolis News published a column that fully defended Colfax against accusations of impropriety. “The case against him, wrote the News, “as having received $1,200 in an ‘S. C. [presumably for Schuyler Colfax] or bearer’ check from Oakes Ames was a strong one circumstantially but lacked direct conclusive proof, and against it Mr. Colfax put a private life without stain and a long and honorable public career to that time unsullied.” The Odd Fellows, of which Colfax was a member, attended to Colfax’s remains, and escorted the body back to Indiana via train within a few days. He was buried on January 17, 1885 at City Cemetery, South Bend.
Despite Colfax’s involvement in one of the nineteenth century’s most explosive political scandals, his career in the House of Representatives, especially his help in passing the thirteenth amendment, deserves some level of recognition. Like many leaders of the Gilded Age, Colfax involved himself in an unsavory business arrangement that ruined his chances for higher political office. Nevertheless, he tried to rehabilitate his reputation and enjoyed a few years of success on the lecture circuit. While most Americans may not think of Schuyler Colfax when discussing the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, he was one of Indiana’s statesmen that left an indelible, and slightly infamous, mark on political life during the times.
For most Americans, the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley is no longer a household name. He’s mostly remembered for “Little Orphant Annie,” an 1885 poem about an Indiana girl who warns children against misbehaving, scaring them with the refrain: “The gobble-uns’ll get youEf you don’t watch out!”
Riley died a hundred years ago this July. When President Woodrow Wilson got the news at the White House, he is said to have broken down in tears, then sent an express telegram to the poet’s family in Indianapolis. As Riley’s body lay in state at the Indiana Capitol in July 1916, thirty-five thousand people filed past. American children, who adored the old man, were devastated. The press overflowed with eulogies. Novelist Booth Tarkington, another once-famous Hoosier name in American letters, eulogized Riley in the Indiana Daily Times, calling him “the first and foremost distinctively American poet, and at the time of his death . . . the greatest American.” The New York Sun mourned: “The Hoosier Poet blew heart bubbles . . . In his verses Indiana spoke to the world.” And the Philadelphia Inquirer noted: “There is no doubt that he was the most popular poet of this generation in America… If there is a child today that is not regaled with ‘Orphant Annie’ that child is to be pitied.”
Though Riley was mostly known for his folksy childhood lyrics, he was also a civic-minded poet, fierce in his defense of the downtrodden.
In 1898, during one of those periodic battles over immigration that heat up American politics, the “Poet of Childhood” grappled with anti-Irish prejudice — though it wasn’t personally directed against him. Riley, whose own grandparents came from Ireland to Pennsylvania before moving to the Midwest, defended the valor and patriotism of the “Sons of Erin” who fought in the Civil War and Mexican War. In so doing, he took aim at the religious and ethnic hostility of nativist groups like the American Protective Association, a cousin of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Irish, especially Irish Catholics, were frequently misunderstood and feared as disruptors of society. Long before the Civil War, American nativists like the Know-Nothings had been actively exploiting fears about the Irish and “Rome,” alien forces ready to undermine American democracy and Anglo-Saxon values. Though some of those fears may sound downright bizarre today, Irish immigrants were often mired in poverty, violence and alcoholism, facts that scared their neighbors. While the brutal living conditions of many Irish were no myth, catastrophic events like the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s were partly to blame. With their situation made worse by the greed of landowners and brutal utilitarian social theories, many of Ireland’s sons and daughters were reduced to sub-human conditions. Millions went overseas or found themselves driven into the arms of death.
The Irish had been targeted by some of the worst 19th-century science and philosophy. Racialized by other whites during the early days of Darwinism, the “native” Irish in particular were type-cast as little better than apes, doomed by biology itself to crime, degradation and — some theorists hoped — gradual extinction. One famous drawing compares the “Anglo-Saxon” features of English nurse Florence Nightingale to the ape-like face of “Bridget McBruiser” across the Irish Channel.
That drawing, however, was an American drawing, published in Samuel R. Wells’ New Physiognomy(New York, 1866). Wells was one of the foremost American phrenologists of his time, studying “character” as he imagined it to be written on the human face and skull. It took decades for the science of head bumps and nose shapes to be debunked as nonsense, but the fallout proved catastrophic for many immigrants.
Bad science and hyper-patriotic conspiracy theories were the target of one of James Whitcomb Riley’s lesser-known poems, “Brother Jonathan Lectures His Adopted.” That poem appeared in Songs of Two Peoples, an 1898 collection set partly in New England, partly in Ireland.
Originally written in broad New England dialect, “Brother Jonathan” recounts the anti-Catholic ravings of a recent Northern Irish immigrant voting for “the fust time” at a small-town polling booth in America. Jonathan showed himself an eager campaigner against foreign influence, “tearin’ up an’ deown’ on platforms,” lashing out at Rome’s priests who “eat heretics at feasts” — dark tales from European history carried by folklore and immigrant ships into American election booths well into the 1960s and even beyond. Catholics, Jonathan warns, were gearing up to crush the American public school system and democracy. He gets a stinging rebuke from the embodiment of Uncle Sam, “His Adopted.”
Though Riley’s poem is set just after the Civil War, it spoke to the issues of 1898, when America’s generously open door did bring many problems. Yet the looming figure of “Brother Jonathan” was still fresh decades later when George R. Dale, the brave editor of the Muncie Post-Democrat, reprinted it as part of his long battle against the powerful Hoosier Klan.
In 1924, Dale found Riley’s poem as apt as ever. Dale was at the start of a practically one-man battle against the KKK in his town, using humor to transform the Muncie Post-Democrat into a rollicking 1920s version of The Onion. Though Dale faced routine death threats and assaults from Klansmen, the Muncie editor bravely tore into chauvinism at a time when the Klan was as much against new waves of Eastern and Southern European immigration as it was opposed to African Americans coming up from the South. Dale slightly abbreviated Riley’s poem — missing the fact that Brother Jonathan was an immigrant himself and had brought Old World animosities across the Atlantic, a prelude to the Irish “Troubles.”
Though many Irish immigrants were racists themselves, stirring up some of the worst race riots of the 1800s, George Dale found an ally in both history and the Catholic Church. Virtually every issue of Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson’s Klan paper The Fiery Cross contained attacks on the church, sharpest during the Indiana gubernatorial election of 1924, the year Dale reprinted “Brother Jonathan” in Muncie. It’s not surprising that, since they were long targeted by nativists, Catholics became a major force in undermining the Klan and helped hobble half-baked social and medical theories like eugenics. (The barely-concealed “science” of white supremacy, eugenics had deep roots in Indiana.)
While Riley was of Irish descent, he wasn’t Catholic himself — in fact he wasn’t much of a church-goer at all. Yet Riley knew plenty of immigrants: they were his neighbors in Lockerbie, an Indianapolis neighborhood first called “Germantown” and settled partly by refugees from Europe’s 1848 revolutions.
But even Riley’s support had a dark irony in it. A frequent visitor at his house in Lockerbie was Indiana Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs. The son of French immigrants, Debs was a champion of the working class but often hostile to the new wave of immigration, which he thought undermined American labor and played into the hands of big business. Debs may have been right about the effect of cheap labor on the American workers’ movement, but history repeated itself in a sad way when even the great Socialist leader made disparaging remarks in 1891 about Chinese and “Dagos” (Italians). They “fatten on garbage,” Debs said, live “more like a savage or a wild beast,” and “are able to underbid an American workingman.” It took years for Debs to temper those views, as even the Socialist Party succumbed to nativism and fear of the “degraded foreigner.”
When the “Grand Arsonist of the Republic,” General William Tecumseh Sherman, addressed a room full of cadets at Michigan Military Academy in 1879, he coined a famous anti-war quote. There are different versions of Sherman’s speech, where he chides young soldiers eager to find “glory” in carnage. One goes like this:
I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here. Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars [the Mexican and the Civil] and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!
Like Hoosier writers Ambrose Bierce, who survived Shiloh, and Kurt Vonnegut, who witnessed the Dresden firebombing as a POW and helped pile civilian corpses onto crematory pyres in its aftermath, Sherman despised romantic images of war — written, he knew, by fools. With his Catholic religious faith destroyed by what he’d seen in the Civil War, the general would have relished such anti-war movie classics as Cold Mountain, Apocalypse Now, The English Patient and even (yes!) Jaws. (Spielberg’s first major hit came out in June 1975, just two months after the Fall of Saigon brought the Vietnam War to a close, and carried a subtle anti-war message.)
History repeats itself in strange ways. Take the famous, eerie monologue of Quint, the professional shark-hunter played by Robert Shaw in Jaws and partly modeled on the obsessed Captain Ahab. Quint’s chilling monologue, sometimes called “The Indianapolis Speech,” tells of how he sailed aboard the doomed USS Indianapolis in the last days of World War II. On July 30, 1945, just after the vessel delivered the components of Little Boy — the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima — a Japanese torpedo sent the Indianapolis to the blue depths. Out of 880 sailors who went into the water, over 500 died of hypothermia, starvation, dehydration and the scariest death of all: shark attacks. World War II came to an end just two weeks later.
Horrible as the loss of the Indianapolis was, it wasn’t the worst tragedy in American maritime history. That event happened after a war was over, at 2:00 a.m. on April 27, 1865, when the wooden steamboat Sultana — loaded with exhausted, traumatized ex-POWs, many of them headed home to Indiana — exploded on the Mississippi River seven miles north of Memphis. Most investigators and historians blame overheated boilers for the blast, but one intriguing theory has it that the real culprit was a Confederate terrorist. Other strange parallels evoke the loss of both the ill-fated Titanic and the Indianapolis.
The Sultana, built at John Litherbury’s boatyard in Cincinnati and launched on January 3, 1863, plied the Ohio and Mississippi during the worst days of the Civil War. At a time when steamboats carried cargo and passengers faster and more comfortably than slow-moving trains, the Daily Evansville Journal kept track of riverboat passages. Though midwestern river towns feel abandoned today, in the 1860s they were teeming with life and activity.
The Sultana mostly transported passengers and agricultural wares. Yet travel on the Mississippi River past Memphis had been cut off by the Civil War. Only when U.S. Navy gunboats helped capture that city in June 1862 did river travel start up again, finally brought back to life by the fall of Vicksburg on the Fourth of July, 1863, after an epic siege. That August, the Sultanacarried furloughed soldiers north from Vicksburg. But the wartime dangers of river travel weren’t over yet. Nocturnal Confederate guerrillas shot at the steamboat near Waterproof, Louisiana, in December 1863. Another boat traveling alongside it was hit with artillery shells and musket fire, provoking a Federal gunboat to fire indiscriminately into the dark woods.
On April 15, 1865, just days after the Civil War ended, the Sultana was docked in Cairo, Illinois. Telegraph wires that morning were shooting out news from Washington, D.C. — Abraham Lincoln had died from a gunman’s wound at 7:22 a.m. The Sultana’s captain, J. Cass Mason of St. Louis, knew that since wires had been cut all over the South, Southerners wouldn’t get the news of the assassination quickly, so he grabbed an armload of newspapers and headed for Vicksburg, arriving downstream a few days later.
Vicksburg’s corrupt Union quartermaster, Lt. Col. Reuben Hatch, wanted to make Captain Mason a deal. With the war over, the Federal government was offering steamboat captains $5 for each enlisted man and $10 per officer they agreed to take back north. With the South in ruins, even former Confederate soldiers from Kentucky and Tennessee found it easier to get home by going up the Mississippi to the Cumberland River, which flows into the Ohio across from southern Illinois. Hatch and Mason agreed on a deal, whereby over 2,000 soldiers — mostly former Union POWs staying at a Vicksburg parole camp — would be carried back to their homes in the Midwest. About two-thirds of them were from Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois, though others had served in Union regiments from Kentucky. Captain Mason would have netted about $10,000, a small fortune. Mason agreed to give Quartermaster Hatch a kickback.
The freed POWs waiting to go home had already experienced some of the worst conditions war can offer. Most had been incarcerated at the notoriously cruel and unsanitary Confederate camps at Andersonville, Georgia, and Cahaba, Alabama, where Union POWs regularly suffered and died from diarrhea, exposure, scurvy, frostbite, dysentery, hookworm, and had to contend with abuse by prison guards and even dog attacks. By the time they made it west to Vicksburg and onto the Sultana, many ex-POWs were still recovering from hunger, disease, PTSD, and physical exhaustion — and surely excruciating homesickness, as well. Yet the worst was still to come.
The Sultana had paddled down to New Orleans before returning to Vicksburg on April 24. When it backed out of port, it carried about 2,100 ex-soldiers and civilians, alongside a few women and children traveling on the river. Some of the women were serving with the United States Christian Commission, a medical relief organization that also provided religious literature to Union troops and helped army chaplains.
Passengers were crammed into virtually every open space on the boat, whose legal carrying capacity was just 376. Decks sagging under the weight even of emaciated men had to be supported with emergency beams. Yet if Captain Mason could get his boat upriver safely, he was bound to strike it rich.
As the over-burdened boat chugged desperately north, it had to fight a huge spring flood on the Mississippi, which had burst the levees and spilled out for as much as five or six miles in some spots. The river, always treacherous to steamboats, had reached the canopy of trees along the banks and ran icy cold with snowmelt. The weight of the passengers caused the Sultana to roll from side to side, which probably caused hot spots in its boilers, as the water that produced steam to power the paddles and keep the boilers from exploding under heat and pressure sloshed back and forth and spilled out. Sudden pressure surges were probably the culprit of the explosion that came at 2:00 a.m. on April 27.
The steamboat had just passed Memphis that night, where it unloaded a cargo of sugar. Seven miles farther upriver, still fighting the massive current, the enormous blast occurred, followed by a fire that hit the coal and wood furnace boxes and rapidly turned the wooden Sultana into a blazing inferno. Some thought lightning had struck the boat.
Passengers who weren’t thrown into the river were faced with a horrible choice: burn to death, or fight for their lives in the frigid, raging Mississippi.
Weakened by incarceration, trauma and disease, many soldiers stood no chance. They drowned or burned, or gave out to hypothermia while clinging to debris and fighting a brief struggle in the water. The Tennessee and Arkansas riverbanks were hard to find, shrouded in darkness and high floodwaters. Survivors told of the stench of burning flesh coming off the boat. Decomposing corpses would be found along more than a hundred miles of the river for months — including Captain Mason’s, who never made his fortune. Bodies had to be picked out of trees as far south as Vicksburg. Many victims were never found.
When survivors and the dead began to float past Memphis, citizens and riverboat crews hurriedly paddled out in skiffs and recovered as many as they could. (It is fascinating to reflect that labor activist Mother Jones, who lived in Memphis during the war, was probably a witness.) The city hospitals filled up with men and the few women and children who were on board, victims of severe burns from steam and fire, exposure and hypothermia. A large number of Hoosiers were among the wounded and dead.
Around 1,800 people died, a bigger toll than the Titanic. Yet newspaper accounts of the horrors on the river gave surprisingly few details. Like another devastating blast — the Allegheny Arsenal explosion in Pittsburgh, which blew up 78 ammunition workers, mostly young women, on the day of the Battle of Antietam in 1862 –and like the USS Indianapolis sinking in 1945, which was overshadowed by the atomic bomb, the news got drowned out by bigger events: the end of the Civil War, coverage of Lincoln’s funeral train, and the death of John Wilkes Booth, who was shot to death in a burning barn in Virginia the night before the Sultana exploded.
The St. Louis Republican — a river-town paper, like the Evansville Daily Journal — provided some of the scanty coverage that made it into the press. The stories are hair-raising and gloomy.
William D. Snow, U.S. Senator-elect from Arkansas, had been awakened by the boiler explosion. Opening his door, he was confronted by “a large volume of steam” careening through the cabin and many scalded passengers. Snow said that as he prepared to jump ship and swim almost a mile to the Arkansas shore, the river presented itself as “a sea of heads, so close together that it was impossible to leap without killing one or more.” Amazingly, in those days before government safety regulations, Snow saw “several husbands fasten life-preservers to their wives and children, and throw them overboard into the struggling mass below.” The Senator washed up, alive, among “overflowed cottonwood lands” at about 4:00 in the morning. He was rescued by a passing steamer.
One of the Hoosier survivors, Uriah J. Maverty, came from Lebanon, Indiana, west of Indianapolis. Maverty, who survived incarceration at Andersonville and Cahaba, was an invalid in a wheelchair when he wrote a graphic account of the disaster before his death in 1910. He remembered that “several times was I pulled under water by others drowning,” but a love of his mother in Indiana helped him hang on. “If you ever longed to see your mother, even in the prison-pen or on the battlefield, you know the feelings which came over me were too deep to be described.”
Maverty watched an Irish soldier, whose face had been crushed by “flying missiles,” cry out in loud prayer, but he died just after they were dragged to shore. Grown men were seen weeping profusely as they floated among dead comrades and severed body parts. Veterans of Gettysburg and Chickamauga thought the sight was worse than things they had seen on the battlefield.
Though no one was ever prosecuted for the disaster and investigations pinned the explosion on carelessness, one theory sprouted up right away: a coal torpedo or bomb planted by a disgruntled Confederate had destroyed the boat. The website Civil War St. Louis even presents a lengthy, detailed (though skeptical) case for-and-against the sabotage of the Sultana.
Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay, a native of Belfast, Ireland — where the Titanic was built and launched in 1912 — had immigrated to St. Louis in 1844, aged 22, and also lived around Vicksburg. Ironically, Courtenay sold fire and marine insurance in St. Louis and even served as sheriff of St. Louis County in 1860. The Irish immigrant’s loyalties were to the Confederacy, and early in the war he joined up with the Confederate Secret Service as a clandestine agent.
In 1863, Courtenay invented the coal torpedo, a hollow iron casting loaded with explosives and disguised inside a clump of hardened coal dust. Hidden in Union coal piles by Confederate saboteurs, coal torpedoes were meant to be shoveled unsuspectingly into the boilers of vessels, where they would heat up, cause the boiler to burst and lead to a larger, catastrophic secondary explosion. Confederate President Jefferson Davis approved a plan to target Union gunboats with Courtenay’s secret bombs. Several U.S. Navy vessels were actually blown up by coal torpedoes, including one in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1864.
After the war, Courtenay traveled overseas and tried to sell his deadly invention to foreign governments, with no success. To protest the British occupation of Ireland, the Fenian Brotherhood, radical Irish nationalists based in the U.S. and Australia, reportedly considered putting coal torpedoes into furnaces in New York City hotels and aboard English transatlantic steamships. Fenian coal bombs were blamed for the explosion of a British Navy vessel in Patagonia in 1880, which inspired a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, inventor of Sherlock Holmes.
As bodies started to float in, a mate aboard the Sultana told a writer for the Memphis Argus that he suspected a bomb. And during a yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans in 1867, Robert Louden, a Confederate agent and “terrorist” who sank several Union vessels on the waterfront in St. Louis, claimed on his deathbed to have planted a bomb on the Sultana — probably while its crew were unloading sugar at Memphis. Louden may have been bluffing, and the evidence is not totally convincing, especially since some of the passengers aboard the steamboat were ex-Confederates headed home to Kentucky and Tennessee.
The ruins of the Sultana floated downstream a few miles, burned to the waterline, and sank in a mud bank. In 1982, archaeologists discovered what may be the steamboat’s remains — but they aren’t in the river. The ever-meandering Mississippi has moved two miles east since 1865, placing the site of the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history square in the middle of an Arkansas soybean field.
Survivors’ reunions were held well into the 20th century. The last two survivors — one from the North, one from the South — were still alive in the 1930s. Though the memory of many was consigned forever to the restless river, the lights finally went out on January 9, 1936, with the death of 94-year-old Albert Norris. A private in the 76th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Norris, aged 23, had been lying directly above the boilers and fell down onto the hot furnace as men came raining down around him from the hurricane deck. Though he was one of the closest to the blast, he lived the longest to tell the tale.
The “religion vs. science” debate has been a hot media sensation since 9/11. Syria’s refugee crisis is causing further argument over why some believers haven’t helped people obviously in need, though many have. But venomous debates over religion and refugees aren’t new to American history.
Black History Month reminds us that religious voices have played a profound role in American struggles for justice — with many of the most religious Americans being treated as criminals for their pains on behalf of others. Some historians have even remarked that the Civil Rights movement was “primarily a religious and spiritual movement.” The work of Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, William Wilberforce, David Livingstone, and many others drew powerfully on their interpretation of faith. In fact, you could even argue that the African and African American encounter with Christianity — and vice-versa — eventually unlocked religion for many Europeans and Americans who were only nominally Christian to begin with.
Whatever the truth there may be, radical Christianity rang out loud and clear during one of America’s (and Canada’s) first refugee crises — the exodus of fugitive slaves seeking asylum under “the North Star.” That exodus took thousands of refugees across the rural Midwest.
Abolitionist history is certainly full of iconic Christian imagery. When a slave from Virginia, Henry Brown, experienced a “heavenly vision” and decided to mail himself out of bondage in 1843, he had himself concealed inside a 3-foot by 2-foot dry goods box or “pine coffin.” Lined with wool and containing only a few biscuits and some water, the box and its occupant were carried north, delivered after a week on the road to the office of Passmore Williamson, a Quaker merchant active with the radical Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. Like a well-known Byzantine icon of Jesus, “the Man of Sorrows” — which shows Jesus rising from the dead and an equally tiny box — Henry “Box” Brown climbed out in front of a group of Philadelphia abolitionists and asked “How do you do, gentlemen?” A fabulous engraving of the event was given the name “The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown.”
(Passmore Williamson, a Pennsylvania Quaker, at Moyamensing Prison in 1855, where he was jailed for helping Jane Johnson and her two sons escape from slavery. Williamson was also an early advocate of voting rights for women.)
Several major “routes” of the Underground Railroad passed through Indiana, leading to farmhouses and barns in the Wabash Valley, the fields around Quaker-dominated Richmond and Fountain City, and the swamps and prairies north of Indianapolis. Yet Hoosiers — like other Americans — were deeply torn over whether to obey the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, a controversial law that made it illegal for any citizen to assist a runaway slave and exacted harsh penalties for helping refugees. The federal law was absolutely designed to protect humans defined as “property” and even as “livestock.”
Many Christians, of course, were slaveholders themselves, though their views often depended on whether they lived in the North or South. Northern and Southern Baptists, for example, had sharp differences of opinion on slavery. Though Methodism’s founder John Wesley wrote against human bondage in 1778, Southern Methodists often owned slaves. Ministers who didn’t take their congregation’s — or government’s — line on slavery were sometimes kicked out of the pulpit or physically attacked. At least a dozen chapels built by anti-slavery Baptists and Methodists in Jamaica were burned down by white settlers.
The religious situation was never simple. The Jesuits, whose famous South American missions were admired by Enlightenment philosophers as an experiment in earthly utopia, had long owned slaves. Just two years before Pope Gregory XVI spoke out against the slave trade in 1839, Jesuit priests in Maryland were putting slaves to work on plantations to support Georgetown University, a Catholic school built by slave labor and where students brought their slaves to class. (In 1838, the Jesuits sold thirty of them to the ex-governor of Louisiana, whose son was a student of theirs.) One Maryland priest used the Bible to defend slave ownership. Yet the Jesuits were no more guilty than the religious freethinker Thomas Jefferson, who along with forty other signers of the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves while announcing “All men are created equal.” Jefferson used a blade to create a famous Bible of his own, cutting out the miracles and superstition to focus on Jesus’ ethics and morals. Jefferson, however, went to his grave a slave-owner, having thought about it for fifty years.
(The cutting-room floor of Jefferson’s Bible. Though he included Luke 12:48 — “To whomever much is given, of him much shall be required” — the master of Monticello must have been uncomfortable with the next passage, “I am come to cast fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! …Do you suppose that I am come to send peace on earth? Nay, but a sword.” Jefferson sliced it out. As the English critic of slavery, Dr. Samuel Johnson, put it, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negros?” Contemporary science was no help to Africans. Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, the most famous American scientist of his time, commissioned the best-known daguerreotypes of African slaves to provide evidence for the old theory of “polygeny,” or “separate creation” of the human races. Originally a heretical religious theory, the scientific version was given credence by the atheists Voltaire and David Hume. Voltaire believed that whites and blacks were different species.)
Not all American Christians appreciated the politicizing of the pulpit. Under the pen name “Q.K. Philander Doesticks, P.B.,” humorist Mortimer Thomson satirized their reaction to “politico religious hash” — i.e., hyper-political sermons. “Doesticks,” who grew up in the Midwest, wrote for Horace Greeley’s anti-slavery New York Tribune and even did a famous undercover report on a huge slave sale in Savannah, Georgia, where he posed as a potential buyer to get the full scoop. Thomson received death threats for his exposé of slave auctioneering. As a satirist, he was much admired by Mark Twain.
Indiana was no stranger to this religious battle. In 1855, the year Passmore Williamson went to prison in Pennsylvania, the Reverend Thomas B. McCormick got into hot water with congregations and the law in Princeton and Mechanicsville, Indiana, two small towns between Evansville and Vincennes. Gibson’s flock were Cumberland Presbyterians, a branch mostly centered in Kentucky and Tennessee.
Princeton lay on a main line of the Underground Railroad running up the Wabash Valley. Unlike most “agents” and “stationmasters” on the Railroad, Rev. McCormick made no secret of his hatred for the Fugitive Slave Act. He actively aided runaways from Kentucky and preached on the topic of slavery and its sinfulness. A native Kentuckian himself, McCormick had been a minister in southern Indiana for fourteen years when he ran afoul of the law.
At a session of the Indiana Presbytery of the Cumberland Presbyterians, who met at Washington in Daviess County in 1855, church elders passed a resolution (17-3) stating “That it is not expedient to discuss the subject of American Slavery from the pulpit.” McCormick had just preached an anti-slavery sermon. He ignored the elders.
When the Cumberland Presbyterians tried to silence Thomas McCormick from preaching, the reverend left and joined the Congregationalists — a denominational cousin of the Presbyterians but who were more united in their condemnation of slavery. McCormick’s activity piloting fugitives north toward Michigan and Canada, however, soon got him indicted by a Kentucky grand jury.
Under the 1850 federal law, Kentucky Governor Lazarus Powell was authorized to request the governor of neighboring Indiana — a technically “free” state, though many Hoosiers were pro-slavery — to extradite any Hoosier caught helping refugees evade slave catchers, who often traipsed onto Indiana soil. Governor Joseph Wright (namesake of Wright Quadrangle at Indiana University) complied with the noxious law. Like those he helped, Rev. McCormick himself had to flee to either Ohio or Canada, as “a large sum of money was offered for his body.” McCormick ran for the governorship of Ohio in 1857 on “the Abolition ticket” and wasn’t able to return to Indiana until 1862, when Governor Oliver P. Morton assured him he would be safe here. He died in Gibson County in 1892.
Calvin Fairbank, an abolitionist and Methodist minister who ferried slaves over the Ohio, was less fortunate than McCormick. For over a decade, Fairbank helped at least forty runaways slip into the interior of Indiana, many of them making it to the farm of Levi and Catherine Coffin in Fountain City, just north of Richmond. Coffin, a Quaker from North Carolina, was called the “President” of the Underground Railroad.
In 1851, with the complicity of Governor Wright and the Clark County sheriff in Jeffersonville, Fairbank was arrested on the way to church by Kentucky marshals, who extradited him across the river to Louisville. (Some versions say he was “kidnapped.”) Fairbank eventually spent thirteen years at the old Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort, where guards mercilessly beat him and lashed him with whips, by some accounts a thousand times, by others 30,000 times. With his body broken, he moved to western New York, where he died in poverty in 1898, an almost forgotten hero of American freedom.
The great abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, who lashed out at American hypocrisy, once proclaimed: “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.” The Anti-Slavery Bugle, a newspaper published in Lisbon, Ohio, quoted Douglass’ words on the fervently Baptist Newton Craig, cruel superintendent of the Kentucky State Penitentiary and Fairbank’s torturer.
According to an 1860 history of the prison, written by a friend of Captain Craig’s, the jailer’s ancestors had been imprisoned in colonial Virginia “for preaching the gospel” as dissenting Baptists, against the Anglican state church. In spite of his fervent religion, Craig, as abolitionists said, nevertheless had “the most inveterate hatred” toward “negro-stealers.” The jail-master earned a small fortune during his eleven years in charge, using convicts on nearby plantations, and is said to have “delivered long sermons to the inmates in his care.” According to a story mentioned by Frederick Douglass, he broke an expensive cane on Calvin Fairbank’s head:
(Frederick Douglass on Newton Craig. Anti-Slavery Bugle, Lisbon, Ohio, April 12, 1856.)
(Kentucky State Penitentiary. The note reads: “This is some Bird Cage. Looks like a church.” Frederick Douglass once wrote of America: “The church and the slave prison stand next to each other… [T]he church-going bell and the auctioneer’s bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneer’s block stand in the same neighborhood.”)
Not long after Fairbank’s arrival behind bars, several other resisters joined him, including Delia Webster (a Vermont-born schoolteacher from Lexington and the only woman at the prison) and former slave Lewis Hayden. A lesser-known inmate was the Irish immigrant Thomas Brown, who with his wife Mary McClanahan Brown had posed as a traveling merchant and “notions pedlar” downstream from Evansville, Indiana. Operating on the Kentucky side of the river near Henderson, the Browns smuggled refugees under curtains in their wagon to the riverbank. Brown was arrested by marshals near the mouth of the Wabash and sentenced to a prison term in Frankfort, where he witnessed the murder of a free black man from Evansville by guards. Released in 1857, Brown wrote an exposé of the wardens, published in Indianapolis that year as Three Years in Kentucky Prisons.
By the end of the 1850s, anti-slavery voices had grown stronger than ever. The religious undertones were clear: from the fascinating dream-visions and out-of-body experiences of Harriet Tubman to the fiery Old Testament furor of John Brown. While the actions of Christians like prison warden Newton Craig and many more made Frederick Douglass’ suspicion of the churches a fair criticism, the “voice in the wilderness” was now crying strong.
A statement from a Senate report arguing that the Underground Railroad would be cause for war with a foreign nation, Evansville Daily Journal, January 23, 1861.
A reprint from the New York Express, written during the Civil War, mocking abolitionists as part of a procession leading the American people toward “the Limbo of Vanity and the Paradise of Fools,” Daily State Sentinel, October 17, 1862.
When the fiery abolitionist John Brown, “The Meteor” who tried to ignite a slave rebellion in the South, was hanged for treason, authorities turned the body over to his family. In December 1859, Brown’s remains traveled north by train from the hanging grounds in Charles Town, Virginia, to the family farm in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Around Christmastime, he was laid to rest next to a huge chunk of Appalachian granite.
Twenty-three years later, a Hoosier geologist who studied such rocks for a living helped ensure that one of John Brown’s fellow raiders at Harper’s Ferry — his son Watson, who was gunned down during the raid — would finally be buried next to his father. In the meantime, Watson’s bones went on a long odyssey out to the Midwest.
Watson Brown was born October 7, 1835, in Franklin Mills, Ohio. His father, the great abolitionist, moved back and forth between northern Ohio and his native New England several times. After John Brown went out to “Bleeding Kansas” to fight the extension of slavery into the West, Watson left home, too, though he apparently didn’t join in the combat on the Plains. His father and brothers, however — considered terrorists by some — waged war on pro-slavery factions with guns, fire and on one occasion, with broadswords used to hack their enemies to death. A letter from Watson to his mother Mary, written in Iowa in 1856, mentions that on his own way west with a team of emigrants — armed with “Sharp’s rifles and cannon” — they met with ex-slave Frederick Douglass and the reformer Gerrit Smith. Smith, a failed presidential candidate, secretly financed the later raid on Harper’s Ferry. Watson himself may have helped carry caches of firearms out to the Great Plains, guns paid for by New England anti-slavery committees.
John Brown traversed the Midwest many times on trips back East to win the support of reformers like William Lloyd Garrison, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and even Henry David Thoreau. In 1859, Brown and a small band of followers — sixteen white and five black — tried to pull off their most spectacular assault on slavery yet, an attack on the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry, where the Shenandoah flows into the Potomac. The target: 100,000 muskets, to be handed over to slaves for use in a massive insurrection.
Optimistic supporters in the U.S. and Canada originally planned for 4,500 men to participate in the raid. Instead, just twenty-one attacked Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859. After cutting telegraph wires and taking hostages on nearby farms, Brown’s band moved into town. Local militia, farmers and shopkeepers, opening fire, quickly pinned down the abolitionists, driving them into a brick engine house. Under siege, John Brown sent his son Watson and another man out with a white flag. The crowd shot them. Watson, aged twenty-four, with a bullet just below his stomach, struggled back to the engine house, fatally wounded. He begged his father and comrades to “dash out his brains,” then tried to commit suicide.
The outbreak of the Civil War was still a year and a half away. In fact, the raid was put down by Colonel Robert E. Lee — of the U.S. Army. John Brown was hanged for treason in December. Spectators at his execution included Stonewall Jackson, John Wilkes Booth, and the poet Walt Whitman.
Ten of Brown’s men died in the raid, including two sons. What became of their mortal remains is a fascinating and rarely told part of the tale.
Eight of the bodies were gathered up by townspeople of Harpers Ferry. The locals, understandably, didn’t want the raiders buried in the town’s cemetery. They gave a man named James Mansfield five dollars to take care of the corpses.
Packing eight men into two large wooden store boxes, Mansfield buried them along the Shenandoah River about a half-mile from town. The grave, half forgotten, remained there until 1899, when Dr. Timothy Featherstonehaugh, Captain E.P. Hall, and Orin Grant Libby, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, exhumed the corpses for transfer to the Brown family farm in upstate New York. Professor Libby took femur notes while examining the skeletal remains, comparing them for size against his own leg. On August 30, 1899, the mingled raiders’ bones were re-interred at the Brown plot — in a single silver-handled casket.
This wasn’t the first time, however, that a box of old bones was brought to North Elba, New York, to lie next to John Brown’s. Two of his followers were never initially buried at all. One of them was his son Watson.
Remarkably common in the nineteenth century, body-stealing was a feature of reality at a time when medical schools had trouble acquiring corpses for anatomy classes. Rarely able to do so legally, they had to steal them, giving rise to the “resurrectionists” who nabbed the dead out of fresh graves.
Yet other examples of body-theft involved mere curiosity seekers and bogus scientists. During the heyday of phrenology — the long-discredited study of bumps on the skull, which, it was believed, actually determined one’s personality, creative genius, or propensity to crime — “cranioklepty” (the theft of skulls) was far from rare.
The more famous the head, the better. When the composer Joseph Haydn died in Vienna in 1809, wealthy robbers paid a cemetery attendant to open up the new grave and cut off his head. “Scientists” then boiled off the flesh or used acid to remove the skin and muscle in order to examine Haydn’s cranial bumps. Until 1954, the famous skull remained on display in a glass case in Vienna, when it was reunited with the rest of Haydn’s bones. After the coffins of Beethoven and Schubert were exhumed for relocation in the 1860s, their skulls were also examined, as was the entire mummified body of American naval hero John Paul Jones, unearthed in subterranean Paris in 1905 — a hundred-and-thirteen years after he died.
Watson Brown and Jeremiah Anderson — two Midwesterners gunned down at Harpers Ferry — were considered “fine physical specimens.” Southern doctors took them to Winchester Medical College in Virginia, where, like Joseph Haydn, they had (most of) the flesh stripped off them. John Brown’s 24-year-old son, who had left behind a widow, Isabella, and a young child who died in 1863, was turned into a model skeleton for the instruction of future Southern medical men.
Yet Winchester, Virginia, just thirty miles from Harper’s Ferry and the Potomac River, changed hands several times during the Civil War.
In the spring of 1862, two and a half years after Watson Brown’s death, the 27th Regiment of Indiana Volunteers marched into town with the Union Army. Among them was regimental surgeon Dr. Jarvis Jackson Johnson. Born in Bedford, Indiana, in 1828, Johnson practiced medicine in Martinsville, half way between Indianapolis and Bloomington. He would have been 34 when he walked into Winchester Medical College and found out what doctors had done to the remains of Watson Brown — an action for which, Virginians believed, Union troops burned down the college, the only case of arson during Winchester’s military occupation.
In 1882, the Indianapolis Journal printed the most widely-accepted version of the tale. It came in the aftermath of a visit by John Brown, Jr., who visited Morgan County, Indiana, with several other investigators to examine a set of human remains there.
Dr. Johnson had stated that while serving as commander of a military hospital in Winchester, he acquired Watson Brown’s body from the museum of the medical college — then shipped it on a train to Franklin, Indiana, the nearest railroad depot to his home in Martinsville. Like the Virginia doctors, Johnson kept the body in a case at his medical office. For twenty years, the raider’s bones were a strange part of the life of a Hoosier country town.
In 1882, word of the skeleton’s whereabouts came to John Brown, Jr., Watson’s elder brother and the abolitionist’s oldest son, after Jarvis Johnson put a notice in the Chicago Tribune looking for family members. The doctor claimed, probably disingenuously, that he hadn’t realized any of the Brown brothers were still living, and he hadn’t wanted to upset Watson Brown’s mother. Though John Brown, Jr., had fought in “Bleeding Kansas,” he in fact wasn’t part of the raid on Harpers Ferry. During the Civil War, he helped recruit troops for the famous “Jayhawk” border fighter James H. Lane. (Before Lane became an anti-slavery senator from Kansas and a famous target for Confederates, he had been the lieutenant governor of Indiana.)
Brown, Jr., visited Indiana in September 1882, having already moved back east to Ohio, where he grew grapes for the wine business on South Bass Island in Lake Erie and took an interest in geology.
The other main forensic investigator to come to Martinsville that September was one of Indiana’s most prominent scientists, the impressively-bearded State Geologist John Collett. Remembered as a beloved “Santa Claus” figure, Collett was a Wabash Valley native who lived in Indianapolis and often weighed in on scientific and agricultural questions — from the study of caves and killer meteorite hoaxes to how to improve celery crops. Collett traveled to Martinsville with several doctors to look over the badly-treated remains of the bygone Harpers Ferry raider.
The Indianapolis Journal printed this description of the scene at Dr. Johnson’s office:
The body has received careless treatment during the last few years. It has been carted about from place to place, and has been doing duty in all the anatomical exhibitions about town. During the first few years it was in the possession of Dr. Johnson it was in a remarkably fine state of preservation, but ill usage has ruined it. For several years, it has been lying in the Knights of Pythias hall, and, it is whispered, was used in the mystic ceremonies of the order. The best of care had not been bestowed upon it, and it was infested with worms and insects. Knowledge of its ill-usage was sedulously kept from Mr. Brown. When he intimated that he would like to see the body, he was considerately kept in waiting until it could be removed from the lodge-hall to the residence by way of a back street, and there placed in better condition for the examination.
At the time, it wasn’t clear whether the skeleton was that of Watson or 22-year-old Oliver, John Brown’s other son killed in October 1859. Watson and Oliver looked alike. Both stood six feet tall.
An office assistant of Dr. Jarvis’ showed John Brown, Jr., a “coffin-shaped box standing against the wall.” Then he removed a cloth covering, exposing “a bare and hideous skeleton.”
“Gentlemen, if it is either of my brothers, I am now inclined to think that it is Oliver,” Brown exclaimed after picking up and poring over skeletal fragments and examining the shape of a half-missing skull. Yet the more he looked, the more he came to think he was looking at his other brother, Watson.
Geologist John Collett wasn’t a qualified expert in forensic facial reconstruction, a process that would actually be pioneered in the next decade. (When Johann Sebastian Bach’s bones showed up at a church in Leipzig, Germany, in 1894, Swiss anatomist Wilhelm His reconstructed a face from the skull, which resembled an old painting of Bach — who became an unwitting helper in the baby science of crime-scene forensics.) After comparing all the forensic evidence available, however, including written descriptions of Watson Brown’s gun wound, it was John Collett’s opinion that the cadaver standing before him in Martinsville, Indiana, was, in fact, the man in question.
True to the often bogus science of the time, though, some of the “professor’s” statements expose how ludicrous phrenology was.
Then came a fascinating insight. Dr. Jarvis Johnson’s written affidavit, notarized by Morgan County lawyers, also shed light on why doctors in Virginia wanted to preserve Brown’s corpse in the first place.
When he was put in charge of local Union Army medical operations, “A number of the prominent citizens of Winchester called upon me at the hospital, and each and all declared that [these were] the remains of a son of John Brown.” Amazingly, the doctor who “prepared” the body, whom Johnson never identifies by name, also stopped by — and pleaded with Johnson to give him back this “exceedingly valuable piece of property.”
Like the medieval Europeans who condemned criminals to be drawn-and-quartered, Virginia doctors held up the corpse as a warning to their state’s enemies. Sic semper tyrannis?
Who was this doctor, then?
He was surely on the faculty list — and it’s a small one. Founded by Dr. Hugh Holmes McGuire, Winchester Medical College had only four instructors in 1859, including the founder’s son, Hunter Holmes McGuire (1835-1900). At age 24, Hunter McGuire, already a professor anatomy at his father’s school, would have been an exact contemporary of the “fine specimen” killed at Harpers Ferry.
Hunter McGuire, however, was probably not the culprit. In late 1859, he was studying medicine in Philadelphia. The young doctor was even there during the famous walk-out of Southern medical students, which occurred after John Brown’s body was paraded through the streets by Northern admirers. Insulted, McGuire led an exodus of about three-hundred Southern students from Jefferson Medical College, who dropped out, went down to Richmond, and re-enrolled at the Medical College of Virginia. Some sources say that he financed the trip of all these students with his own savings.
Dr. Hunter McGuire later enlisted in the Confederate Army and even served as Stonewall Jackson’s personal surgeon, amputating the general’s arm after Chancellorsville. He went on to become the president of the American Medical Association. In the 1890s, McGuire would contribute to the debate over eugenics, racial purity, and the castration of rapists, especially African Americans — arguments that eventually led to Virginia’s “Racial Integrity Act” of 1924, a major victory for the controversial eugenics movement and one of the worst misapplications of science in history. He also strove to ensure that Southern school textbooks “would not poison the minds of Virginia schoolchildren” by teaching a northern revisionist history of the Civil War.
The Medical Pickwick (1918) states that Watson Brown was “dissected by students.” McGuire, as stated, was in Pennsylvania in the aftermath of Harper’s Ferry. But did he have anything at all to do with this man’s bizarre fate?
It seems that he did. Mary Greenhow Lee, a famous diarist in Winchester during the Civil War, wrote that when Union soldiers torched the medical school on May 16, 1862, “They buried in the yard what they supposed were [Oliver Brown’s] bones, but the genuine ones had been removed by Hunter McGuire, thus foiling their malicious designs.” Were the bones buried those of Jeremiah Anderson, a native of Wisconsin who fought with John Brown? Lee might have been mistaken about the identity of the bones. It’s harder to believe she was mistaken about Dr. McGuire. After all, he was fighting in northern Virginia and may have been the doctor who approached Jarvis Johnson.
Twenty years later, Johnson willingly handed over to the Brown family the cadaver he claimed to have shipped by train from the Shenandoah Valley to the Midwest. In October 1882, Watson Brown’s strange post-mortem odyssey finally came to an end. On an autumn day in the Adirondacks, he was laid to rest in a patch of soil near his famous father, who — as the old Union song put it — had long lain “mouldering in the grave.”
Isabella Thompson, aged just 22 when the Harpers Ferry raid left her a widow, married Watson’s cousin, Salmon Brown. For decades, the couple lived in Kilbourn City, Wisconsin — later renamed Wisconsin Dells. Isabella may have died near Traverse City in northern Michigan in 1907. Her second husband died in neighboring Antrim County, Michigan, in 1921. “Bella” was buried at North Elba, New York, near her first husband, his final whereabouts pinned down at last.
John Collett passed away in March 1899 and was buried in Terre Haute. Dr. Johnson died that September, just a few weeks after the mass re-interment of Brown’s other missing men, among whom was his son Oliver, who had lain in a merchant’s box on the Shenandoah for forty years. Johnson rests at East Hill Cemetery in Morgantown, Indiana.
Exactly 150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln, who spent part of his rail-splitting boyhood in Spencer County in southern Indiana, fell victim to the bullet of the 26-year-old actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater. Soon, the president’s body headed west by train, stopping in Richmond, Indiana, for a public viewing at 2:00 in the morning on April 30, then on to Indianapolis and Michigan City, with short stopovers at small Hoosier train stations along the way.
In a downpour, possibly fifty thousand Hoosiers viewed Lincoln’s open casket in the rotunda of the old State House. (At a time when the population of the capitol city was less than 40,000, the crowd of black-draped mourners must have been a spectacle in itself. Many were African Americans clutching copies of the Emancipation Proclamation.) Just before midnight, a carriage brought the president’s coffin through the rainy streets of Indianapolis, lit by torches and bonfires, to Union Depot, where it departed north by train for the south shore of Lake Michigan, en route to Chicago and eventually to Springfield, Illinois.
An exhibit running through July 7 at the Indiana State Museum, So Costly a Sacrifice:Lincoln and Loss, includes some actual “relics” of that fateful Good Friday in 1865 when Booth shot Indiana’s favorite son. Among the artifacts are a few that seem like medieval religious relics: clothing with spots alleged to be the blood of Honest Abe, and a piece of the burning barn in Port Royal, Virginia, where the assassin met his own fate at the hands of a Union soldier, the eccentric street-preacher Boston Corbett.
One of the most interesting things to me about the Lincoln assassination and the funeral that came after is the apparent curse on the people and even the physical things involved in it. Poe’s Raven could be telling the story, and the bird of death keeps on talking, quawking not “Nevermore” — just “More.”
What happened to Booth and Corbett is pretty bizarre and appalling. Basil Moxley, a doorman at Ford’s Theater who claimed that he served as one of Booth’s pallbearers in Baltimore in 1865, fed a conspiracy theory in 1903 when he asserted that another man is buried in the plot and that Lincoln’s murderer actually escaped to Oklahoma or Texas. A mummy hoax brought the assassin back to life as a sideshow attraction in the 1920s. But perhaps the moody English-American actor would have been thrilled to know that the morbid tragedy he let loose wasn’t over yet.
For instance, Booth’s own killer probably went down surrounded by flames. It is thought that Boston Corbett died in the massive forest fire that consumed Hinckley, Minnesota, in 1894. And oddly enough, the very train car that carried Lincoln’s corpse west to Illinois from Washington also burned in Minnesota. In March 1911, while in storage in the northeastern outskirts of Minneapolis, the historic Lincoln funeral car perished in a “spectacular prairie fire.”
In 1893, a year before the inferno in the North Woods probably claimed Corbett’s life, news readers followed the ghastly story of Ford’s Theater’s own doom. On June 10, the Indianapolis Journal ran this especially sentimental, tear-jerking news piece on the front-page:
Hundreds of men carried down by the floors of a falling building which was notoriously insecure; human lives crushed out by tons of brick and iron and sent unheralded to the throne of their Maker; men by the score maimed and disfigured for life; happy families hurled into the depths of despair. . . Words cannot picture the awfulness of the accident. Its horrors will never be fully told. Its suddenness was almost the chief terror. . . Women who kissed their loved ones as they separated will have but the cold, bruised faces to kiss to-night. . . In the national capitol of the proudest nation on earth there has been a catastrophe unparalleled in the annals of history, and in every mind there is the horrible conviction that its genesis is to be found in the criminal negligence of a government too parsimonious to provide for the safety of its loyal servants by protecting its property for their accommodation.
At 9:30 a.m. on June 9, the front part of Ford’s Theater, a notoriously rickety and rotten old structure then being used as a government office building, collapsed, sending beams, iron, and over a hundred employees plummeting toward the basement. Twenty-eight years after Abraham Lincoln was shot here, twenty-two men were killed and sixty-eight injured in one of the deadliest disasters in Washington, D.C.’s, history. (In a twist of irony, the same day the theater collapse made national headlines, John Wilkes Booth’s brother, the great American actor Edwin Booth, was laid to rest at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many said that Edwin Booth’s life and death were overshadowed by two different tragedies and the curse of Ford’s Theater.)
Collapsing structures were a major news item in the 1890s. Almost every week, American papers reported mass casualties at overcrowded factories and apartment buildings, especially in Chicago and cities back on the East Coast, where poor construction and dry rot led to the deaths of thousands of industrial workers and tenants — often women and children. During the Progressive Era, such tragedies inspired reformers like the photographers Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine (who documented child workers in Indianapolis in 1908) to illustrate the real peril of shoddy, dilapidated buildings in the workplace and at home.
In 1893, Ford’s Theater was probably one of the most dangerous structures in America. Built in 1863 by the 34-year-old entrepreneur John T. Ford, the building occupied the site of a Baptist Church-turned-theater that had burned down a year earlier. John Ford’s business was a victim of Booth, too. After the Lincoln assassination, public opinion and the U.S. government both decided that it was inappropriate to use the site of the nation’s great tragedy for entertainment. Ford wanted to re-open his theater, but received arson threats from at least one Lincoln mourner. The Federal government appropriated the playhouse, compensating its owner with $88,000 in July 1866.
Even before the government actually paid for the building, renovations were underway. In December 1865, the suitably morbid Army Medical Museum moved onto the third floor. “A far cry from the once jovial theater,” the famous local landmark now housed an array of skeletons in glass cases, body parts, surgical tools, and other gory reminders of military medicine. The Library of the Surgeon General’s Office soon occupied the second floor.
The other floors of the former theater housed the War Department’s Office of Records and Pensions. The unstable, visibly bulging building was the workplace of several hundred employees and was further imperiled by probably a few tons of heavy paperwork, the red tape of veterans’ pensions.
After the building succumbed to gravity and rot in 1893, American public opinion was almost as outraged as at the assassination of Lincoln. The Indianapolis Journal wrote:
As long ago as 1885, this building. . . was officially proclaimed by Congress an unsafe depository for even the inanimate skeletons, mummies and books of the army medical museum, for which a safer place of storage was provided by an act of Congress. But notwithstanding the fact that in the public press, and in Congress, also, continued attention was called to the bulging walls of the building, its darkness and its general unsuitability and unsafety, it continued to be used for the daily employment of nearly five-hundred government clerks of the pension record division of the War Office.
According to a riveting coroner’s inquest that whipped up public excitement, workers at what the Indianapolis Journal dubbed “Ford’s death trap” had been intimidated and cowed into silence by their tyrannical boss, former army surgeon Col. Fred Ainsworth. Afraid of being fired, the endangered clerks didn’t protest the condition of the building and later testified that Ainsworth’s assistants had told them to tip-toe on the stairway to keep from falling through. Investigators determined that the “old ruin’s” collapse finally came while a low-bidding contractor, George W. Dant, was making repairs to the building. (A support in the basement gave way.)
Court testimony relayed in the Journal resonated with public opinion. “The government did not want skilled men to execute its contracts, and it would not pay fair prices for good work. . .” the paper claimed. “An architect testified that the cement used in underpinning the piers supporting the old building was ‘little better than mud.’ A builder said the manner of the work was suicidal.” Another report said that for years the decaying structure also suffered from “defective sanitary conditions.”
One of the public figures who weighed in on the federal investigation was Indiana Congressman William S. Holman. A Dearborn County native, Holman sat in Congress from 1859 to 1897 and was once ranked as the longest-serving U.S. Representative. He was also a notoriously frugal hawk on government spending. (Yet far from being a total naysayer, Holman passionately advocated the Homestead Act that tried to break up the domination of Western public lands by big railroads. He also indirectly helped establish the U.S. Forest Service by providing for Federal timber reserves.)
As chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, the curmudgeonly Holman oversaw a lot of government funding. On June 23, 1893, the Jasper Weekly Courier reported that after Ford’s Theater collapsed, even the arch-fiscal conservative was ready to “deal liberally in the matter of providing safe public buildings, and enact such legislation as would look to the preservation of human life.” The Indiana Congressman supported moving the U.S. Government Printing Office — ranked with the old theater as one of the worst potential death traps in Washington, D.C. — to a new location. (The weight of printing equipment housed on upper stories was part of the problem.)
Yet once it was rebuilt after the 1893 collapse, Ford’s Theater returned to government use — oddly enough, as a storage warehouse for the Government Printing Office. The building narrowly survived being condemned for demolition by President Taft in 1912. From 1931 until renovations in the mid-1960s, the historic structure housed a government annex and a first-floor Lincoln museum. Restored to its 1865 appearance and now run by the National Park Service, it opened as a public museum in 1968.
Nature lover, friend of dogs and underdogs, journalistic joker, and shooter-up of men he considered his enemies, George C. Harding once edited newspapers from Cincinnati to Houston but was always most connected with the Indianapolis Journal and the Indianapolis Herald, which he edited in the 1870’s. Part Mark Twain, part Ambrose Bierce, part proverbial “man gone postal,” Harding was called “the most picturesque man in Indianapolis journalism” by city historian J.P. Dunn.
Since he wielded a pistol several times in the capitol city and may have suffered from a mental illness, it’s hard to know exactly how to see him today. But since he’s also been mostly forgotten, here’s a bit of his story.
Born in Clinton, Tennessee, in 1830 to a family of thirteen kids, the future editor of the Indianapolis Journal lived in Knoxville until age seven. In 1837, the family moved to Edgar County, Illinois, where his father, Jacob J. Harding, eventually edited the Prairie Beacon in Paris, twenty miles west of Terre Haute, Indiana. At fourteen, Harding ran away to St. Louis, but came back “penniless and disheartened” and probably worked in a brick factory.
A long obituary published in the Indiana State Sentinel in 1881 says that “When about fifteen or sixteen years of age [Harding] went to Terre Haute and learned the printing art in the office of the Terre Haute Express.” When the Mexican War broke out, he enlisted as a private but got sick (either in St. Louis or New Orleans) and never made it to Mexico. Around 1848, he was co-editing his father’s paper just over the Illinois state line.
George Orwell famously said in 1946 that “Bad writers – especially scientific, political, and sociological writers – are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones.” When the Indiana State Sentinel published a piece that praised Harding for shooting the alleged seducer of his teenage daughter Flora in 1874, the paper curried public sympathy by praising everything about the man. “His letters at this time, written in strong, sensible, and positive Anglo Saxon,” it said, reminiscing on Harding’s early days in the news business, “without redundancy, attracted considerable attention among readers of the Beacon.”
In the 1850s, he grew restless and floated down the Mississippi to New Orleans, where he may have gotten work as a newspaper correspondent for the Cincinnati Commercial. Before the Civil War, Harding also edited the Courier in Charleston, Illinois, founded the Coles County Ledger in Mattoon, and did editorial work for papers in Louisville, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Houston.
During the Civil War, the itinerant news man served as Lieutenant in the 1st Indiana Heavy Artillery, the so-called “Jackass Regiment.” (The name came from the Hoosier regiment’s use of mules to haul cannon and supplies.) He saw action at the Battle of Baton Rouge and Port Hudson, Louisiana, before being captured by Confederate cavalry, allegedly while stumbling drunk over a fence. While held as a POW at New Iberia, Louisiana, Harding and two other Indiana captives drank from gourd cups and used ox-shoulders as silverware. Because he had given his word of honor not to attempt an escape, he was freed during a prisoner exchange at Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1863.
(Harding served with “The Jackass Regiment” in Louisiana.)
Harding’s knife-sharp prose is best when he’s telling the hard truth, though he could occasionally flip on the sentimentality switch if he had to, to sell papers.
One of the best things to come from his pen is this priceless description of U.S. Grant reviewing new recruits in Mattoon, Illinois, in 1861. Watching Grant inspect the dirty “ragamuffins,” who “looked as if they had been run down with hounds in the wilds of Effingham County,” Harding found it hard to escape “the infernal odor of cabbage [wafting] right into my face” as the slovenly, smelly commander (not yet a famous general) smoked a cigar. Originally published in the Indianapolis Mirror, the passage was syndicated in the Memphis Public Ledger in 1869, a paper Harding had connections with. The passage reads like something his fellow Hoosier, the cynical skeptic of war Ambrose Bierce, might have written. (Bierce grew up in Warsaw and Elkhart.)
Resigning his lieutenancy in 1864, Harding took an editorial position for six months on the New Orleans Times and the True Delta. Some of what he wrote down South was reprinted after his death, including a humorous piece called “Duck Shooting in Louisiana.” At war’s end, he came north to Cincinnati to work on the staff of the Commercial, then moved to Indianapolis. Several dailies and weeklies that he wrote for or edited after the war include the Mirror, the Journal, the Saturday Herald, and the Sentinel.
Historian J.P. Dunn said that “Harding’s great forte was as a paragrapher. . . The public really enjoyed seeing a victim squirm when he gigged him.” He often attacked public figures whom he considered a fraud. The Rev. Myron Reed, who delivered his eulogy at Central Avenue Methodist Church in 1881, said: “Every abuser of money or official power, every masked man, every man who writes anonymous letters, will sleep more peacefully tonight because George Harding is dead.”
Yet the popular editor published several fraudulent stories on purpose as practical jokes, as George S. Cottman remembered in a 1922 op-ed piece on famous Hoosier hoaxes.
“Many remember the Charley Ross abduction, which took place on July 1, 1874,” Cottman wrote, referring to a famous Philadelphia kidnapping that was never solved. (Dunn called the ensuing hoax Harding pulled off “a very plausibly written story.”)
Nearly two years later, or, to be exact, on April 1, 1876, there appeared in the Indianapolis Saturday Herald, edited by George C. Harding, a three-column article with this heading sensationally arranged in display type:
Charley Ross, the long lost boy, recovered at last. He is found with Italian organ grinders on Potomac alley [in Indianapolis], dressed as a girl and called Telsla. How Detective Hollywood worked up the case. The father and the child at the Grand Hotel.
. . . As a consequence, within half an hour after the Herald appeared on the street, people began to throng the lobby of the Grand Hotel. The hotel clerks, overwhelmed with questions, were at first bewildered, then “tumbling” to the situation, hung a few placards about, displaying the simple legend, “April fool!”
(The Grand Hotel at the corner of Maryland and Illinois Streets, seen in 1889, witnessed one of the city’s great April Fool’s jokes. Today, this is the site of Circle Centre Mall. )
Harding himself was hoaxed by a fake space rock in 1879, as told in Wednesday’s post.
Whether the meteorite really killed a farmer named Grover or not, Harding himself tried to kill several men in the 1870s.
In 1879, he got into a hot mudslinging dispute with Calvin A. Light, a radical leader of the Knights of Labor and editor of a rival newspaper called The Democrat. (Light had played a big role in the Railroad Strike of 1877.) As Dunn put it, “Harding took an intense dislike to Light, and on one occasion ordered him out of the Herald office — with variations. . . On May 4, he went to Light’s house and tried to shoot him, but after one ineffective shot, was dragged away by neighbors. The next day he went to The Democrat office and shot at Light three times, but only succeeded in wounding a printer named Lizius. He was duly arrested and tried, and got off on a plea of insanity.“
In 1917, a writer named David Gibson remembered another shooting, or mixed up two shootings entirely, claiming that Harding also once shot at Sol Hathaway, editor of the “spicy”Independent. In the midst of a raving editorial feud, “Harding printed an item in the paper alluding to Hathaway as ‘the long-nosed dead beat editor that loafed about hotel lobbies and slipped into the dining room when the manager was not looking.'” As Gibson narrated it in a trade magazine, The Inland Printer:
Hathaway responded with a series of buck type interrogations, for in those days you could evade libel in Indiana by putting a charge in the form of a question. . .
The following Friday, Hathway was seated in his office at an old cherry desk with a flap that let down in front, with his back to the door, which certainly was a breach of the most ordinary editorial precaution.
Suddenly the door opened. Harding appeared in a “beastly state of intoxication” and began showering the place with bullets as big as birds’ eggs from an army horse-pistol. Hathaway jumped under the imposing table at the first shot. Two printers, setting type at the front of the room, leaped out the open windows at their sides, lit on an awning over an undertaking establishment and rolled off onto the roof of a hearse that was standing at the curb. The horses of the hearse proceeded to run away and started a stampede of other horses.
Gibson made the claim (I haven’t been able to verify this) that one of Harding’s bullets grazed a printing machine with type ready to go to press. Later on, Hathaway “set up in large Gothic type an account of the affray, tore out a lot of type paralleling the furrow and set in two brass rules and a line of type: ‘The track of the would-be assassin’s bullet!'” Harding kicked the Independent’s editor down the stairs, but Hathaway survived. He committed suicide in 1911, aged eighty-two.
Five years before his assault on labor leader Calvin Light, a tragic suicide had driven George Harding to his most celebrated shooting. Perhaps he was, in fact, mentally insane, but the family tragedy that drove him to seek revenge was very real, and his gun was aimed at another man named Sol.
In 1874, Solomon Moritz was a 36-year-old merchant tailor in Indianapolis. Born in Germany, he emigrated to Cincinnati at about age fifteen, then moved to Indiana in 1868. The Sentinel wrote that “Mr. Moritz is well known in the city, and is one of the most prominent of the Jewish citizens of Indianapolis.”
A version of the events published in the Daily Record of the Times in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, says of Harding and Moritz:
These gentlemen have been warm friends and very intimate in their social relations. Moritz, who is a Hebrew, aged about forty years and married, took advantage of this intimacy and succeeded in seducing Harding’s daughter, who is about eighteen years of age. This was accomplished last March, and improper relations have been maintained by the parties since that time. . . Mrs. Harding, [the girl’s stepmother] has stated that Moritz had also made improper proposals to her.
Flora Harding, the editor’s eighteen-year-old daughter, was a talented writer and translator who taught German in the Seventh Ward district school. “During the absence of her father to the Hot Springs [Arkansas?], she filled the editorial chair and most ably,” said the Sentinel.
Flora probably also suffered from lifelong depression and feared the ruin of her reputation. If Moritz had in fact taken advantage of her, she would likely have become an outcast in those days of a strict female “honor” code.
On August 20, Harding’s daughter poisoned herself by taking “twenty-four grains of opium.” Death was a few hours coming, and her father discovered her in her bedroom before she died. She confessed to him that she had been having sex with Solomon Moritz. Then, as he wrote in a tribute in his newspaper, “two great tears came from the filmy eyes and rolled over the face, across which was stealing the shadow of the Death Angel.”
She often jested on the subject of suicide, and, on one occasion, being reproved and told that God frowned on self-murder, she said, “Papa, I am not afraid of God.”
While walking to get a doctor, at about 1:30 in the afternoon Harding met Moritz “at the junction of New Jersey and Vermont Streets with Massachusetts Avenue.”
“Mr. Moritz’s first exclamation was ‘George, what are you doing here?’ Mr. Harding made no answer, but pulling out a pistol, began firing at Mr. Moritz.”
Harding chased Moritz up Vermont Street, toward an alley behind Roberts Park Methodist Church, sinking two bullets into him, and tried to get in two more, “the blood meanwhile flowing from [Moritz’s] mouth and nose.” Luckily for his target, Harding’s fourth shot jammed his revolver and the alleged seducer escaped by hailing a wagon. (Moritz supposedly lost an arm, but lived to see Harding go on trial. When questioned by police, he denied that he had seduced Flora, instead blaming “a Jew liquor dealer on South Meridian.”)
Though the bereaved gunman was taken to jail that night, public opinion was overwhelmingly in his favor. When Harding went to trial, one of his lawyers, Major Jonathan W. Gordon (profiled on this blog during his grave-robbing days), defended Harding on the basis of common law.
The whole community have fully approved and justified the act for which my friend Harding stands indicted. . . It is the common law of the West, and, indeed of the whole country, that he who seduces an innocent female
MAY BE SLAIN
by her father, brother, or husband with impunity, and in the case at bar the grand jury have, in effect, already said so by returning a bill of indictment for a simple assault and battery.
Harding was acquitted, and as the judge announced the verdict, “the pent up feeling of the large crowd broke forth in applause, which was both loud and protracted.” Perhaps this free pass from the state criminal court made the editor consider other public shootings in the future.
In 1880, Harding moved to Minnesota, where he had bought the Lanesboro Journal. But “his active brain required more scope,” says the Fillmore County history. Tragically, in May 1881 George C. Harding had an odd death back in Indianapolis.
Dead! How suddenly he went out! Two weeks ago last Wednesday, he was walking along a street in Indianapolis, and stepped aside to allow some ladies to pass. He stepped on a cellar grating, just as a man was raising it. His right foot went into the opening, and the flesh of his leg was cut to the bone. He died at six o’clock last Sunday morning, of congestion of the brain and blood poisoning, resulting from the accident.
In the death of George C. Harding, Indiana journalism has lost one of its oldest, most familiar and rarely original characters. . . We know of no one who can take up the pen which Harding has dropped, never to pick up again. . .
Dying at the age of 51, his life was cut off in the very midst of his powers. . . there is not another George C. Harding any more than there is another Charles Dickens.