“Indiana history is the product of local events, and local events tend to be captured within the pages of the community newspapers. The Indiana State Library has worked tirelessly to provide Hoosiers with free access to this information, traditionally on microfilm. Digitization of these newspapers is the ‘next step’ in providing 21st century access for Hoosiers to local events in Indiana history.”
Indiana’s long and rich history of newspaper publishing produced not only major papers of record but also some of the more obscure and oddly-named titles. For example, Hoosier State Chronicles, the state’s historic digital newspaper program, has digitized such titles as the New Albany Microscope and General Advertiser, the Danville Butcher-Knife, and Smithville’s iconic newspaper, Name It & Take It! Yet, one obscure title lingers in the Hoosier imagination more than any other and it likely did not even exist: Rushville’s Dog Fennel Gazette.
The story of the Dog Fennel Gazette is much like any other tall tale. It emerged out of the wildness of Indiana’s early years as a state (1820s) and it continued to be repeated without skepticism for much of the state’s history. According to legend, printer William D. M. Wickham published the weekly newspaper in Rushville starting in either 1822 or 1823, and utilized a peculiar printing schedule. Historian Fred Cavinder noted that the paper was “published on one side of the page and sent to subscribers, who read it and returned it to the publisher so the next edition could be printed on the other side.” The apocryphal journal of record received a huge boost of credibility after John Arnold included the story, as fact, in his history of Rush County. It was oft reprinted in other histories and journals, even appearing in a Pulitzer-Prize winning book on the Northwest Territory. During decades of spreading the tale, very few ever questioned it.
Despite many years of tacit acceptance of the story, an undercurrent of scholarship emerged that challenged the well-entrenched narrative. John W. Miller, in his Indiana Newspaper Bibliography, argued “the existence of this paper is highly questionable.” Historians Winifred Gregory also did not include the Gazette in her omnibus of American newspaper titles. However, the scholar who put the nail in the coffin for this myth was communications scholar Fredric Brewer in his 1993 article for the Indiana Magazine of History. In “Rushville’s Dog Fennel Gazette: Indiana’s Mythical Newspaper,” Brewer carefully examined the claims of the paper’s existence and came to a resounding conclusion: there was no Dog Fennel Gazette. As he noted, “no acknowledgement of the Dog Fennel’s founding appears in any of the extant issues of the Indiana, Kentucky, or western Ohio sheets that would have been contemporary. The simple reason the Dog Fennel earned neither a citation nor a welcome is because they newspaper never existed, probably not even as a proposal.”
While the Dog Fennel Gazette is not a real newspaper, the term “dog fennel” was used throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In fact, a Google n-gram analysis of the term “dog fennel” shows peaks of use from the 1820s and ’30s, the 1840s to the 1860s, and 1880 well into the 1900s. The term is used most of the time to describe a type of “strong-scented c[h]amomile (Anthemis cotula)” that is colloquially referred to as a weed. Specifically, Frederic G. Cassidy and Joan Houston Hall note in their Dictionary of American Regional English that “dog fennel” is also called “chiggerweed,” “stinkweed,” and “Johnny-Appleseed’s-weed,” among others. Hoosier author Booth Tarkington even used this definition in one of his novels. Yet, when one does additional research in digitized newspapers, “dog fennel” is often given another definition, one less descriptive and more judgmental. Throughout the decades of Indiana newspapers in Hoosier State Chronicles and Chronicling America, “dog fennel” is often used as a term of derision, akin to “nasty,” “backwater” or “uncivilized.” This essay shares some of these findings and indicates places of potential research for any scholar interested in expanding our understanding of this term and its relationship to the Hoosier State.
One of the earliest uses of “dog fennel” in this variety shows up in the Indiana State Sentinel on March 16, 1848. In an editorial about the most-recent state legislative session, the writer decries the passage of over 600 new laws and uses a colorful analogy to demonstrate their superfluity. As the opinionated citizen writes:
“Does an old lady in some dog fennel town [emphasis added] want room for another onion bed, by having an alley adjoining her garden vacated, it is a matter of so much magnitude, that the wisdom of the Legislature must be invoked, and Legislature cannon must loaded to batter down the obstacle!”
It is implied in the editorial that “dog fennel” means a town in the middle of nowhere with little or no importance to the affairs of big-city state legislators. Now, the author did not use the term in a patronizing way; in fact, it was used to differentiate the simpler lives of small town Indiana from the legislator’s “grey-bearded wisdom and rampant eloquence.” Today, we might use a regionalism like “Podunk” to describe a similar small town.
Clearer indications of this meaning come from two issues of the Sentinel during the 1850s. The first concerns the minister Eli P. Farmer, a Whig candidate for Congress who was essentially called a liar by the Decatur Local Press. The Sentinel, not particularly a fan of Farmer and definitely not a Whig paper, found this accusation beyond the pale and called out the Local Press in an editorial. “What has Eli P. Farmer done to set the whole Whig press yelping at him? And what does the editor of this little dog fennel Gazette know about Eli P. Farmer?,” the Sentinel noted. The term “dog fennel gazette” is directly used in this editorial to connote the Local Press’s unprofessionalism and sensational nature. A year later, the Sentinel published another editorial calling newspapers like the Winchester Patriot “dog fennel papers.” Both references indicate that the term was used among newspaper publishers and editorialists much like the terms “rag” or “yellow papers,” indicating the cheap paper and even cheaper reporting. It does not seem like much of a stretch to go from people calling newspapers “dog fennel gazettes” and people actually thinking one existed.
This trend of referring to newspapers as “dog fennel” continued well into the twentieth century. In another editorial from the September 26, 1907 Plymouth Tribune, they called Plymouth Daily Independent publisher C. W. Metsker “unholy” and “a reprobate” and the paper he ran a “dog fennel sheet.” This was in reference to Metsker’s support of a local interurban company subsidy that would raise local taxes. Plymouth’s local government eventually killed the subsidy proposal, likely with some help from the Tribune’s continued campaign against Metsker. Between the previous two examples and this one, using “dog fennel” as a pejorative against newspapers appears to have had staying power among newspaper editorialists.
Referring to towns, municipalities, and districts as “dog fennel” continued in newspapers as well. The April 20, 1865 issue of the Plymouth Weekly Democrat republished an editorial from the Buffalo Banner that called the city of Bluffton a “gilt-edged, dog fennel municipality.” In 1882, a short blurb in the Indianapolis News reaffirmed that the capital city was not a “dog fennel town,” so long as the local authorities enforced the Sunday liquor law. Finally, in a 1916 article in the aforementioned News, two officers were reassigned to patrol what were called “undesirable districts,” or “in the police vernacular, the ‘dog fennel.’” In each instance, the use of “dog fennel” was with a negative connotation, namely that these towns or districts were uncivilized or even potentially dangerous. Also notice the timeframe for the three articles: there is a consistent use of the vernacular of “dog fennel” for over 60 years.
Three more instances of referring to people as “dog fennel” are also worth note. The Evansville Daily Journal published a piece in 1864 calling a group of anti-Union protesters a “dog fennel militia.” In a moment of unintentional, existential reverie, the Crawfordsville Weekly Journal ran a solitary question in their editorial section: “Are you a dog fennel man?” Colonel Robert Ingersoll, noted Republican Party insider and public speaker, referred to the 1888 Democratic presidential ticket of Grover Cleveland and Allen G. Thurman as “dog fennel candidates,” meaning that they did not fight on behalf of the union or had sympathies with the copperheads during the Civil War. This meaning is exactly the same as the “dog fennel militia” comment from the Evansville Daily Journal. According to the Greencastle Times, this particular usage of “dog fennel” emerged from another newspaper man, James K. Magie of the Canon, Illinois Register. Magie used it to denounce the Knights of the Golden Circle, an organization of the rebellion that would dig for gold on the outskirts of towns near dog fennel plants. Ingersoll then broadened its definition to apply to anyone who was ambivalent about the cause of the Union or held sympathies with the Confederacy. As with the other usages described throughout this survey, the definition of “dog fennel” varies but its intent to criticize or condemn is consistent.
Evaluating each of these newspaper articles from Chronicling America and Hoosier State Chronicles provides researchers with a new avenue with which to analyze the term “dog fennel” and its usage throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Not only a term signifying a weed, “dog fennel” became synonymous with a wide array of negative connotations and was used exactly for that purpose. Within this climate, it is conceivable that an idea like “dog fennel gazette” turned it into a supposedly real newspaper, in this case the mythical Dog Fennel Gazette of Rushville. The first step for future researchers on this topic is using Hoosier State Chronicles (hoosierstatechronicles.org) and Chronicling America (chroniclingamerica.loc.gov) to find examples of this usage in other Indiana newspapers as well newspapers from across the country. Finding more instances of this usage in newspapers, as well as letters, books, magazine, and other primary sources, would expand our understanding of midwestern vernacular and its relationship to social, political, and economic life for much of the previous two centuries.
 Fred Cavinder, Indiana Book of Records, Firsts, and Fascinating Facts (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 129.
 John W. Miller, Indiana Newspaper Bibliography (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1982), 392.
 Fredric Brewer, “Rushville’s Dog Fennel Gazette: Indiana’s Mythical Newspaper,” Indiana Magazine of History Indiana Magazine of History (March 1, 1993), accessed July 26, 2018, IU Scholar Works.
 Frederic G. Cassidy and Joan Houston Hall, Dictionary of American Regional English, Volume II: D-H (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), 109-110.
 “The Last Session,” Indiana State Sentinel, March 16, 1848, 2, accessed February 27, 2018, Chronicling America.
 “Eli P. Farmer, Indiana State Sentinel, July 10, 1851, 1, accessed February 19, 2018, Chronicling America.
 “Where they get their Cue,” Indiana State Sentinel, September 9, 1852, 1, April 2, 2018, Chronicling America.
 “Against the People Again,” Plymouth Democrat, September 26, 1907, 4, accessed February 19, 2018, Chronicling America.
Plymouth Weekly Democrat, April 20, 1865, 1, accessed February 27, 2018, Chronicling America.
Indianapolis News, July 7, 1882, 4, accessed July 27, 2018, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, September 2, 1916, 1, accessed April 2, 2018, Hoosier State Chronicles
Evansville Daily Journal, October 4, 1864, 2, accessed February 27, 2018, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Crawfordsville Weekly Journal, January 18, 1872, 2, accessed February 27, 2018, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Greencastle Times, July 19, 1888, 6, accessed February 27, 2018, Hoosier State Chronicles.
“Mother of Exiles: Hope for Those Seeking Freedom” . . . This headline ran in a Midwestern newspaper along with a picture of the Statue of Liberty and these relevant words:
At a time when isolation has become a fetish for many, it is fitting to recall some of the evidences of America’s pride as a place of refuge . . . One such landmark, symbolizing the hope of peoples who migrate from their homeland to this foreign shore, is the Statue of Liberty . . . There is a sonnet on the wall at the base of the statue that is worth re-reading today, when so many are again fleeing from the hand of oppression.
And while it seems that this article could run in today’s newspaper, the year was 1939.
The sonnet includes the well-known words:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
These words have come to symbolize America as a shining beacon of democracy and a safe harbor for those seeking a better life. However, not everyone knows that these words were written by a Jewish American poet named Emma Lazurus or that the poem was inspired by the plight of Jewish refugees fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century. In the full poem the statue is named “Mother of Exiles” and she tells the reader:
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
In June 1939, the United States had the opportunity to open that golden door to save the lives of over 900 Jewish refugees. However, the country whose ideals were embodied by powerful words inscribed upon the Statue of Liberty — words specifically written for persecuted Jews in need of America’s asylum — would fail them. Lady Liberty’s golden door was shut by indifference, xenophobia, and antisemitism.
History Unfolded and Alternative Viewpoints
The story of the St. Louis is well-known to many. Recently, however, several historians have attempted to revise the interpretation of the events, absolving the United States and the FDR administration of any responsibility towards these asylum seekers.  Thus, it remains valuable to go back to contemporary newspaper sources and decide for ourselves what really happened. And as Hoosiers, it is worth finding out what the average Indiana newspaper reader knew about the events and meditating on the uncomfortable question: Could we have done anything different?
Simply put, the U.S. did not act when the mainly Jewish refugees aboard the German liner St. Louispleaded for asylum in June of 1939. Most of these refugees had purchased visas that they believed would allow them to live in Cuba while waiting for their turn to immigrate to the U.S. when there was room within the quota. Instead, they were returned to Europe. While they were safe for a time in various host countries, after the Nazi occupation spread through Europe, many of these refugees were killed in ghettos and concentration camps. 
In this post, we will look at the incident through articles available in Indiana newspapers to ascertain what the average Hoosier, and by extension, the average American knew about this tragedy. We will place the newspapers in context using secondary source information from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The newspaper articles for this post have been submitted to the USHMM’s History Unfolded initiative which is attempting to find out what Americans knew about the Holocaust through their newspapers. You can join the effort here: https://newspapers.ushmm.org/
Refugees at Sea
By spring of 1939, newspapers were full of reports of the misery faced by Jewish refugees at sea and the refusal of country after country to give them shelter. For example, the Jewish Post, published in Indianapolis, reported on a Greek steamer seized off the Palestinian coast whose refugee passengers were denied entry by the British authorities there:
The sunny Mediterranean has been turned into a watery hell in which thousands of condemned souls – men, women and children – are floating in indescribable misery and physical agony . . . Uncounted Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution are drifting in a state equal to the worst horrors of the Dark Ages . . . they have been wandering for weeks and months on nightmare voyages, despairing of reaching any port except the bottom of the waters…
The Post reported on hundreds more turned away from Indian ports, as well as from Manila and Hong Kong. The Indianapolis News reported on another 104 Jewish refugees denied permission to land in Vera Cruz, Mexico. And reports from Bucharest described twenty hopeless Jewish refugees who jumped into the Black Sea rather than remain homeless.
The Passengers of the St. Louis
The hundreds of disparate people who boarded the German transatlantic liner St. Louis in May of 1939 all had one thing in common. They felt that the only choice left to them was to abandon their homes and loved ones for an uncertain life in a faraway land. Most were German Jews who had been forced from their jobs and sometimes their homes and subjected to increasing persecution by the Nazi regime. Some had even come out of hiding just for this journey. Some used the last of their savings to buy an expensive ticket, pay the “contingency fee” for an unplanned return voyage, and purchase pricey, inflated visas. Some of these individuals had been sent by the collective effort of their families, who pooled all of their money to save just one of their kin. Most were on a list awaiting U.S. visas which were limited by quotas. They hoped to pass time in Cuba until they could start anew in the U.S. 
Among the 937 passengers aboard the St. Louis were several German Jewish families who we can follow through the historical record thanks to the work of the USHMM assembled into the online exhibition “Voyage of the St. Louis.” Their stories were surprisingly similar at first and tragically different at the close of the war. We will follow four families through this story (introducing the patriarch first only for consistency and ease in following the records). 
Franz Blumenstein was a successful businessman living in Vienna with his wife Else, their son Heinz, and his mother Regina. During Kristalnacht, he was arrested and taken to Dachau concentration camp. Else was able to bribe officials for his release under the condition that he leave Germany immediately. He fled to Venezuela and then immigrated to Cuba where he made arrangements for his family to join him. He purchased landing certificates for Else, Regina, and Heinz who then booked passage on the St. Louis.
Siegfried Seligmann, a cattle dealer from Ronnenberg, Germany, was also arrested during Kristalnacht. He was taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp for a time but was somehow, likely through bribery, able to secure his release under the condition that he flee. Siegfried was able to purchase tickets on the St. Louis for himself, as well as his wife Alma, and their daughters Else and Ursula.
Julius Hermanns, a textile merchant from Monchen-Gladbach, Germany, was also arrested, sent to Dachau, transferred to Buchenwald, and released on the condition of immediate emigration. Like Franz Blumenstein, Julius had to leave his family behind. His brother-in-law in New York purchased him a Cuban landing certificate. Julius said goodbye to his wife Grete and his daughter Hilde and boarded the St. Louis.
Leopold Dingfelder owned a kosher meat shop in Plauen, Germany, where he lived with his wife Johanna and their son Rudi. An older son, Martin, had emigrated to America earlier. After persecution of German Jews intensified, the Dingfelders hoped to join Martin in the United States. They booked passage on the St. Louis to await U.S. visas in Cuba.
Regardless of how they began this journey, they must have boarded with some trepidation. For while the ship was owned by a private German company, it was still flying the swastika flag.
The Voyage to Cuba & Hope in the United States
The St. Louis left on May 13, 1939, at 8:00 p.m. Even before they set sail, their landing certificates had been invalidated by the Cuban government. Antisemitism, xenophobia, fear of competition for limited jobs, and Nazi propaganda had turned the Cuban people against further Jewish immigration. Only a few days before the St. Louis departed, 40,000 Cubans attended an antisemitic rally. Responding to this turn in public sentiment and backlash from widespread sale of illegal landing certificates, the Cuban government demanded additional paperwork and money from any potential immigrants.
The passengers were unaware that the tide had turned against them. As they sailed away from the Nazi empire, they likely relaxed a bit. The food was good, the crew showed movies, and children made new friends. The two-week journey was relatively uneventful except for two incidents of which most of the passengers were probably unaware. A man in poor health worsened, died, and was laid to rest at sea. A troubled crew member took his own life by jumping overboard late one night. 
The St. Louis entered the Havana harbor on May 27. According to the USHMM, of the 935 passengers, the Cuban government admitted twenty-eight: twenty-two Jewish passengers with valid U.S. visas, four Spanish citizens, two Cubans, and another man who had attempted suicide and needed hospital care.
908 people, including the Blumensteins, Seligmanns, Hermanns, and Dinfelders, were denied entry. The story soon captured the attention of the media around the world. Perhaps, it seemed, sympathetic news stories would lead to their rescue.
What Hoosiers Knew about the St. Louis
The Jewish Post ran a report by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) from Havana reporting that the St. Louis was “barred from landing under the presidential decree,” referring to Decree 937, which invalidated landing permits. Entry would now require written permission from the Cuban Secretaries of Labor and State and a $500 bond posted to ensure the refugees would not become dependent on the state. The passengers did not have this sum.
The Post article also reported on “intervention with the government by Jewish communal and refugee organizations.” The main negotiating force was American attorney Lawrence Berenson who represented the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JJDC). Berenson had previously worked as the president of the Cuban-American Chamber of Commerce and thus had important contacts in both the U.S. and Cuba. However, the Postreported on June 2, the negotiations proved “fruitless.” Cuban President Frederico Laredo Bru ordered the St. Louis to leave Cuban waters if the refugees could not pay the bonds totaling $453,500.
Meanwhile, the Jewish Post reported, two other ships, one French and one British, arrived with refugees, complicating the situation and increasing the antipathy of the Cuban people. They were also denied entry. The Post reported that the St. Louis passengers were growing “desperate” with some “seeking to commit suicide by throwing themselves overboard.” The Tipton Daily Tribune reported: “Twenty-five police were sent aboard the liner to guard others from any attempted self-destruction after Max Lowe, one of the refugees, slashed his wrists and jumped overboard.” The Indianapolis Star also relayed reports from ship guards who “reported the situation among the refugees as desperate,” that “women and children cried continuously,” and that “calls for meals for the most part went unanswered.”
It became increasingly clear to the passengers that they would not leave the boat. According to the JTA, an editorial in the Cuban newspaper Diaro de la Marino “predicted pogroms against the Jews” if they disembarked. And the JewishPost reported that “anti-Semitic activities have been increasing.”
Perhaps the most frustrating thing of all for the people on board was just how close they were to safety. Little boats began to encircle the St. Louis, some of them rented by family and friends of the refugees who had previously immigrated. They were close enough to wave and shout to each other, but not to be reunited.
Negotiations continued. The JJDC made an offer to President Bru to pay part of the requested $453,500. He refused to compromise and ordered the ship to leave or the Cuban navy would force it asea. The Indianapolis Star reported that Cuban marines stood at the ready. Buying time for further negotiations, the captain of the liner “aimlessly cruised the Caribbean,” travelling “around the West Indies for a time in hope some country would answer… appeals and offer the refugee[s] a home.” Over the following week, many United Press (UP) and Associated Press (AP) articles ran in Indiana newspapers. The Kokomo Tribune and the Indianapolis News ran the same UP article June 3 with two different but powerful headlines: “Jewish Refugees Adrift in Caribbean Appeal to Many Nations for New Homes” and “Refugee Vessel Appeals for Help.” The articles reported that the St Louis was “appealing by radio to nations of the new world to relieve her of her terrified passengers before there was a wave of suicides.”
One of those countries to which the refugees appealed for asylum was the United States. On June 5, the St. Louis “moved slowly southward into Caribbean waters along the Florida coast.” As the ship moved first north and then turned around and headed south, the passengers could see the lights of Miami. Indiana newspapers widely printed wire articles reported from Miami that the U.S. Coast Guard kept the St. Louis from landing. The Tipton Daily Tribune reported: “A coast guard patrol boat had trailed the ship as it passed near here watching its movements, guarding lest some of its desperate passengers jump overboard and attempt to swim ashore.” One headline from the (Lafayette) Journal and Courier perhaps summed up the situation most succinctly: “Refugee Ship Cruising Off Florida Coast: American Authorities Are Keeping Close Watch on Vessel that Has 907 Unwanted Jews Aboard.”
The article also reported: “For two hours the ship rode at anchor off the Miami channel light, easily visible from shore.” The Lafayette paper’s Miami report also noted, “Two coast guard planes were dispatched from Miami to keep the anchored craft under surveillance” and a “patrol boat hovered nearby.” The ship continued towards the Florida Keys “while negotiators sought to arrange for the refugees’ entry into Cuba, from where many hope to join relatives in the United States.”
Jewish organizations, led by the JJDC, finally raised and offered the entire bond requested by the Cuban president. Cuba, however, was no longer willing to welcome Jewish refugees and the president refused the offer. As the St. Louis turned around to head towards Europe on June 6, the United States was their last hope.
The Kokomo Tribune ran an AP article which reported: “Their hope crushed by the Cuban government’s refusal for the second time to give them asylum, victims of one of the strangest sagas of the sea renewed an appeal to President [Franklin] Roosevelt for last-minute intervention.” The Tribune closed the article by reporting: “Captain [Gustav] Schroeder decided to steer for Germany.” While, the ship ultimately did not land in Germany, for several days, the media reported that the Fatherland was the intended destination. The front page of the Indianapolis Star read: “Refugees Start Back to Germany” and the Kokomo Tribune headline read: “Jewish Refugees Reported Enroute to Germany After Cuba Refuses Landing.” According to the AP service, “The German liner St. Louis informed Tropical Radio at 11:40 o’clock tonight [June 6] that she had set her course for Europe, bearing back to Germany the 907 Jewish refugees who fled that country for Cuba . . . until they could get in the United States quota.”
Context and Contention
Most scholars agree that the United States, and more specifically President Roosevelt, did not do enough to help these refugees. Recently however, a vocal minority have argued that the blame lies only with Cuba and that FDR could legally have done nothing to help. Without wading into this academic and political mire, we can assert with confidence that the U.S. did little. According to the USHMM, “President Roosevelt could have issued an executive order to admit the St. Louis refugees.” FDR chose not to act because of “general hostility toward immigrants, the gains of isolationist Republicans in the Congressional elections of 1938, and [his] consideration of running for an unprecedented third term as president.” In short, while newspapers printed sympathetic stories and editorials, the cause was not popular enough or politically beneficial enough to justify intervention. 
Land and Loss
Fortunately, Jewish organizations, again led by the JJDC, were able to negotiate with four European countries for the placement of the refugees. Great Britain admitted 288; the Netherlands admitted 181, Belgium admitted 214, and France admitted 224 Jewish refugees.  The St. Louis unloaded her passengers to these countries between June 16 and June 20. Only those who arrived on British soil would find safety. 
Franz Blumenstein, who preceded his family and arranged their passage on the St. Louis, would have watched the ship carrying his wife Else, his three-year-old son Heinz, and his mother Regina turn around and sail back to Europe. They disembarked in the Netherlands and over the following years arranged for visas that would let them join Franz in an agricultural colony in the Dominican Republic. However, by 1940, the Nazis occupied the Netherlands and they could not procure the paperwork necessary to leave the country. Else missed Franz desperately and in 1941 wrote him:
It won’t be long and then we will, with G-d’s help, be re-united; that would be in any event the most beautiful present we could receive. There is some hope that the transport will depart and I am counting on it with all my heart. For two years, I have lived for the day when I will rejoin you, because you alone are my life. I have not lived in the time we have been separated; only our dear child helps me to survive.
After deportations of Jews from the Netherlands began in 1942, Regina was arrested by police. She somehow managed to hide Heinz during the arrest. Else and Heinz fled and went into hiding for a time in northern Holland. Despite the efforts of Dutch resistance, Else was arrested and on September 24, 1943. She was transported to Auschwitz. Heinz remained hidden throughout the war and was able to eventually join his father in the United States. Else and Regina died in Auschwitz.
The Dingfelder family of Leopold, Johanna and their 15-year-old son Rudi (their other son previously emigrated to New York) also disembarked in the Netherlands. Like the Blumensteins, the Dingfelders were arrested and deported in 1942. Leopold and Johanna were sent to Auschwitz, while Rudi was sent to Westerbork transit camp. He was forced to labor in an aircraft factory in Holland for a time before he was sent to the Vught concentration camp. After being sent back to Westerbork, he was taken to Auschwitz where he labored in the Siemens-Schuckert factory.
When the Soviets advanced in 1945, the Nazis evacuated Auschwitz. Rudi marched for two-weeks to Buchenwald and sent to another factory outside Berlin. As the Soviets closed in, the SS forced him to join a “death march.” He and four others attempted an escape near Schwerin. Most were shot. Rudi was soon rescued by Allied troops and eventually emigrated to the United States. Leopold and Johanna died at Auschwitz.
Siegfried Seligmann, his wife Alma, and their daughters Else and Ursala disembarked in Belgium and settled in Brussells. When the Nazis invaded in May 1940, Belgian police arrested Siegfried. He was sent to France and imprisoned at Les Milles, a factory converted to an internment camp. Alma and Ursala traveled to France, hoping to find him. They were arrested in Paris and taken to a different internment camp. Somehow, separately, the entire family managed to obtain the visas necessary to leave France. They settled in the United States.
Julius Hermanns, who had to leave his family behind when he boarded the St. Louis to flee Dachau, disembarked in France. He contacted his wife Grete and his teenage daughter Hilde to join him. After France declared war on Germany, Julius was arrested and taken to Saint-Cyprien, an internment camp on the French-Spanish border. Here he joined 50 other passengers of the St. Louis. Julius wrote to organizations and relatives begging for help:
We have written hundreds of letters to all possible places . . . In any event, war wins in every court against defenseless refugees. Everything else is lost irrecoverably.
Grete, Hilde, and several of their relatives were deported to the Riga ghetto December 11, 1941. After several transfers, Julius was sent to Auschwitz in August 1942.
Julius died at Auschwitz while Grete and Hilde likely died at Riga.
Mother of Exiles
Of the 620 St. Louis passengers returned to the European continent, “532 were trapped when Germany conquered Western Europe,” according to the USHMM. Of these Jewish refugees who were in sight of the palm trees of Havana and the lights of Miami, and who repeatedly radioed the United States for asylum, 254 died in the Holocaust.
As we continue to debate who is and who is not allowed through the Mother of Exile’s golden door, we should consider whether we can improve on her legacy.
Recently, scholars Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman have argued in their book FDR and the Jews that there was nothing that could be done for these refugees and that President Roosevelt, and the larger United States, do not deserve the condemnation that this incident drew. This position has been hotly contested and thoroughly dissected by Rafael Madoff in “Politicizing America’s Response to the Holocaust,” David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, accessed http://new.wymaninstitute.org/2013/08/politicizing-americas-response-to-the-holocaust/
 The main source for secondary and contextual information for this post is “Voyage of the St. Louis,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005267
 Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, Voyage of the Damned (New York, 1974); “U.S. Policy During the Holocaust: The Tragedy of S.S. St. Louis,” Jewish Virtual Library, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-tragedy-of-s-s-st-louis
 Information on the families of St. Louis Passengers accessed “The Voyage of the St. Louis,” Online Exhibition, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://www.ushmm.org/exhibition/st-louis/story/
 Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, Voyage of the Damned (New York, 1974); “U.S. Policy During the Holocaust: The Tragedy of S.S. St. Louis,” Jewish Virtual Library, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-tragedy-of-s-s-st-louis
 Breiman and Lichtman argue that there was no way FDR’s administration could have admitted the passengers because the quota was full. Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies argues that the refugees could have been easily admitted to the U.S. Virgin Islands where the governor and legislature offered asylum. Medoff argues, “The administration was too quick to find technical reasons to keep Jews out; and Breitmann and Lichtman are too quick to find excuses for what they did. See Medoff’s book FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith. Breiman and Lichtman argue that the fact that these refugees founds temporary safety, frees the United States of any blame for their eventual fate. The USHMM study Refuge Denied shows that passengers were desperately seeking menial jobs in Chile to get out of being sent to these “safe” countries.
 One St. Louis passenger who arrived in Great Britain died in an air raid. The rest survived the war.
$360. That was the cost in May 1938 to rescue a Jewish child from Nazi controlled Austria. $360 would pay for her relocation to a new home in Palestine, and care for her for two years. All this for $360. $360 to save the life of a child.
In May 1938, the national Youth Aliyah Committee identified 1,000 Jewish Austrian children who could leave the country with valid visas, but only until September 30 when the passes to leave Austria expired. One Indianapolis woman refused to allow this brief window of opportunity to close without trying to save these young Austrians. After all, Sarah Wolf Goodman was herself a Jew born in Austria who must have felt great empathy for those who shared her homeland. She was not alone. While the U.S. government was slow to act, many private citizens worked to aid refugees fleeing Germany and Austria after the Anschluss in 1938. And some of these notable American activists were Hoosiers.
Over the last year, we have been looking at Indiana newspapers to try and determine how much information Hoosiers received through the press about the events leading up the Holocaust. In the last History Unfolded post (Part 4) we also met the tireless and prescient diplomat, James G. McDonald, who tried to warn the world about the impending atrocities. In this post, we will examine the failed Evian Conference, news articles about the deepening refugee crisis, and editorials about how Hoosiers believed the U.S. should respond. We’ll continue to follow McDonald who attended the conference and we’ll meet Sarah Wolf Goodman, another bold and industrious Hoosier who showed her community what could be accomplished without leaving home.
The purpose of this project is twofold: 1. to contribute Indiana newspaper articles to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s History Unfolded database to help the museum determine what the average American knew about the Holocaust; and 2. to analyze these articles and share with our readers our findings on what Hoosiers knew and how they responded. Hopefully, a greater understanding of the events surrounding the Holocaust can inform our responses to current world crises. Anyone can contribute articles to History Unfolded. Find out how through the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum (USHMM).
In January 1933, Jewish Germans made up about one percent of the country’s total population. The greatest number of Jews resided in Berlin. Over the following years, the Nazis banned Jews from civil service, boycotted Jewish businesses, and stripped away their citizenship rights with the declaration of the Nuremberg Laws. By 1938, the Nazis made life so difficult for German Jews that about 150,000 left the country, according to the USHMM. This was one-fourth of the entire Jewish population. When Germany annexed neighboring Austria in March 1938, many more Jewish people were forced to flee their homes, resulting in a major refugee crisis.
Since the end of World War I, most Austrians supported a union with Germany. However, this consolidation of power was forbidden by the Versailles Treaty. By the mid-1930s, Austria, suffering under a poor economy, saw Hitler as the solution. A bombardment of Nazi propaganda solidified public opinion. Thus, on March 12, 1938, when Nazi troops entered Austria, they were greeted by cheering crowds.
This German-Austrian union, called Anschluss, brought another 185,000 Jews under Nazi rule – all of whom now faced persecution. According to the editors of Refugees and Rescue:*
Austrian anti-Semites, members of the Nazi Party, and police and SS officials immediately attacked, arrested, and humiliated Jews and political opponents in Austria. Confiscation of Jewish property and public scenes such as forcing Jews to scrub sidewalks were everyday occurrences. Hundreds of Austrian Jews committed suicide, and tens of thousands sought to leave as quickly as possible.
The German-Austrian Refugee Crises
These tens of thousands of Austrian Jews joined those from Germany who felt they had no choice other than to leave their homes. However, many who tried to flee were unable to find a country to accept them. According to the USHMM, “a substantial percentage tried to go to the United States.” However, the Immigration Act of 1924, passed during a period of xenophobia and Klan influence, sharply restricted immigration to the United States. Jews were among the ethnic groups deemed undesirable by the legislation and only a very small number were issued immigration visas in the years following the quota enactment. This did not change in 1938. Even in the face of the mounting refugee crises, the United States government largely turned its back on the Jews of Europe.
Widespread American prejudice and anti-Semitism that extending into federal government service definitely contributed to the lack of action, but there were other issues as well. The Great Depression still affected many Americans who feared further competition for jobs. African Americans faced racism and prejudice in addition to the horrors of lynching. It would be hard for many African Americans to see why they should care about injustices across the Atlantic when they faced injustice at home. For other Americans, it simply seemed like a faraway problem of little practical concern to them. Many people simply had their own immediate struggles and problems to make ends meet. Plus, the United States fought in “the war to end all wars” only twenty years earlier. Many just wanted to stay out of what was viewed as Europe’s problem.
For example, in an editorial for the Indianapolis Recorder, African American writer Fletcher Henderson called the annexation of Austria “interesting . . . headline reading for the American people,” but because Hitler was not threatening America, noted it was “nothing for us to become alarmed about.” He stated succinctly, “While we deplore the rape of any nation, it is none of our affair.” Henderson called for the U.S. government, and especially President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to mind its own business. He stated, “If the administration in Washington would bend all of its efforts to end the depression in the United States, it would not have the time even to read of the happenings in the rest of the world.”
James G. McDonald: Stirring the American Conscience
However, there were Americans of conscience who worked relentlessly to find ways to save the Jews of Austria and Germany, some of them Hoosiers. Starting as early as 1933, former Indiana University professor James G. McDonald shared his fears with world leaders that Hitler would eventually order the execution of all the Jewish people under Nazi rule. (Read more about McDonald in the previous post: Part 4). By the time of the Anschluss, McDonald worked tirelessly and traveled widely to spread this warning and raise awareness for the plight of fleeing Jewish refugees. His diary and letters* tell of the frustrating, often bureaucratic, work he undertook in an attempt to convince government, religious, and philanthropic organizations to work together and to connect those who had authority to act with those who had the means to act.
In March 1938, McDonald spoke to a group of potential Jewish donors in New City about the urgent need to give money to save the Jews of Europe who faced annihilation. According to a summary of his speech, McDonald stated:
The war that the Nazis are waging is not a war against the Jews of Germany, but against all Jews, whose influence must be obliterated and who themselves should either be exterminated or driven out of all civilized lands . . . If you think that because you live in the United States you are immune, you are very foolish. Nothing counts these days except money with which to carry on your work of relief, of emigration, and of service to your fellow Jews. Mass meetings, parades, demonstrations, resolutions, getting nice letters from friendly Christians, are all very well, but they don’t actually save a single Jewish life, feed a starving Jewish boy or girl, train a single youth, pay for his emigration, or enable him to start life anew anywhere else.
All over the country and to all kinds of audiences, McDonald reiterated his earlier statements that the refugee crisis was not a Jewish problem but a human one. McDonald called the Nazi persecution of Jews an “attack upon the principles of civilized society” and expressed his disappointment that all Americans were not rising to meet the crises. In accepting the Professor Albert Einstein Medal for Humanitarian Services, he stated:
Until Protestants and Catholics as well as Jews understand, come to see that the things they hold dear, even as the things Jews hold dear, are threatened – not until then will there be an adequate response to enable refugees from Central Europe to be cared for.
McDonald closed his speech by refuting other political leaders’ claims that these refugees who had been stripped of their assets would be a liability and reminded his American audience that they live in a “country of refugees.” In yet another speech, this time to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, he again appealed to his audience’s conscious and pocketbooks:
This problem will require thinking in terms not of a few million dollars, but in terms of tens of millions of dollars. Moreover, the problem is not a Jewish problem. The conscience of America has been stirred.
These Americans, whose consciences has been stirred, placed immense pressure on the U.S. government to act on behalf of those fleeing Nazi persecution. On April 29, 1938, the Jewish Post, published in Indianapolis, reported that “10,000 Americans visited the offices of HIAS (Hebrew Immigration Aid Society) since Anschluss to learn how to bring their relatives to the United States from Austria.” Charitable and religious organizations did not wait for the government to take the lead. For example, the Jewish Welfare Federation advertised a fundraising campaign in the Jewish Post with an $81,640 goal. The ad pleaded for Jewish American aid:
Against the storm, against the fold of misery, against dire suffering there is only one great barrier . . . the barrier erected by American help. Compared with the need, what we can do is perhaps little, But the little is the only hope of MILLIONS of our fellow Jews. So Give! Be glad you can Give! Give even if it means self-denial! Give so THEY may have a chance to LIVE!
Road to Evian
By May 1938, in response to mounting pressure, the U.S. government attempted to organize a solution in the form of the International Committee for Refugees (later Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees). On May 12, the New York Times reported that the U.S. government suggested the creation of an international committee “to facilitate the emigration of political refugees from Germany and Austria.” The article reported that the U.S. State Department had consulted with over thirty other countries and scheduled a meeting for July 6 in Evian, France. According to Refugees and Rescue, President Roosevelt “launched [this] initiative without consulting the state department, inviting a range of other governments” to attend the Evian Conference.**
Meanwhile, President Roosevelt also organized his own group of advisers on the refugee crisis. On May 16, this group, the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees, organized and elected James G. McDonald as chairman. According to an account of the founding meeting by Samuel McCrea Cavert of the Federal Council of Churches, President Roosevelt “opened the conference by remarking that the United States has always been deeply sympathetic with political refugees and that the time had come when our country had another historic opportunity to show this sympathy.” However, the president carefully called the emigrants “political refugees” and avoided the term “Jewish refugees.” He seemed more concerned about public opinion than proposed rescue efforts. According to Cavert, in response to proposals that the government loan money to private organizations in position to effect immediate rescue, President Roosevelt stated that “at least for the present it would be unwise to put forward any proposal which would occasion public dispute and controversy, such as a change in the immigration quotas or appropriations or loans from public funds.” It was clear that raising money would be the key to any successful rescue efforts. And if it were to come in time to help the Jews of Germany and Austria, it would have to come from private organizations, not the government.
As the world awaited the upcoming Evian Conference, the crises mounted. In an article printed in the Indianapolis News in late June, AP Foreign Correspondent, DeWitt Mackenzie described the problems facing the conference. Mackenzie estimated that 450,000 Jews in Austria and Germany were in need of a new country if they were to survive Nazi persecution. However, he speculated that this was perhaps only the beginning of the crisis. Mackenzie wrote:
The anti-Semitic forces in other central and eastern European countries such as Poland, Rumania [sic], Hungary and Lithuania, have been strengthened by events in Germany. Jewish leaders express fear the refugee problem may assume extraordinary proportions if anti-Semitic governments and organizations get the impression that they can solve their Jewish problem by expelling their Jews and trusting the rest of the world to absorb them.
Mackenzie continued by theorizing on how those diplomats about to meet in Evian would handle the crisis. He estimated that they would first attempt to determine the feasibility of convincing the oppressive governments to “diminish anti-Semitic pressure” and allow fleeing emigrants to bring the whole of their property with them. Second, they would try and determine where these refugees would find homes. Like McDonald, Mackenzie made clear that money would be the determining factor in how successful any rescue attempts would be.
On July 2, 1938, just a few days before leaving for the Evian Conference, McDonald served as a sponsor for a Youth Aliyah benefit in New York. “Aliyah” is the Hebrew word for a Jew immigrating to Israel. The Hadassah-sponsored organization aimed to rescue young Jewish refugees and find them new homes in Palestine. The New York Times reported that the proceeds would be used to transport German, Austrian, and Polish refugees to Palestine on 1,100 British visas available until they expired in September. While James G. McDonald worked in New York to raise the $360 per child needed for transportation and two years of care, another Hoosier was hard at work for the same cause back in Indianapolis.
Sarah Wolf Goodman’s “Immediate and Wholehearted Action”
Sarah Goodman was a fixture of Indianapolis society, a prominent Jewish civic leader and supporter of the arts. She was born in Vienna in 1886 and came to St. Louis as a young child. She moved to Indianapolis after her marriage in 1924 to Jack A. Goodman, founder of the Real Silk Hosiery Mills. She was smart, ambitious, and well-connected. She commanded respect and could sway public opinion. In May 1938, she did exactly that.
Goodman devised a plan to address the same issue that faced McDonald: raising enough money for Youth Aliyah to transfer child refugees to Palestine before the September 30 deadline. Goodman shared with the readers of the Jewish Post on May 20 a letter she received from a fourteen-year-old girl who started a “little club of girls, all of about her age” and raised $10 “energetically baking and selling cookies.” The girls sent the money to Goodman asking her to “please accept the enclosed check for $10 and send it on to help save the lives of these poor children” of Austria.
These selfless girls inspired Goodman. She wrote that she believed that young Jewish people in Indiana wanted to help those their age who were suffering Nazi persecution:
In a few weeks many of these eager youngsters will be confirmed or will be graduated from grade school, high school, or college. We, their relatives, will show our love for them by showering them with gifts, some of which will be useful, some of which will never be looked at . . . Children appreciate gifts and the thoughts they express, but more important this year is the fact that they want to share with the Austrian children who have nothing.
Goodman’s plan was simple. She encouraged the families and friends of graduates to make a donation in the name of the graduate, in lieu of a gift, which she would send to the Youth Aliyah fund. The graduate would then receive a “fine” card. She wrote that any amount was acceptable but “only immediate and wholehearted action will suffice,” as the visas expired in a matter of a few months. Goodman stated, “Every one unused represents an opportunity lost forever to snatch a boy or girl from the hell that has been made of a fair country.” The country where she was born.
It is to be hoped that Mrs. Goodman’s plan will be seized upon and carried through one hundred per cent. Let the card Mrs. Goodman described become so fashinable [sic] and popular that the tie or book as a gift will become outmoded and in its stead a symbol of Jewish charity on its highest plane – the salvaging of the life of a child will take its place as the finest present possible.
The Indianapolis Star briefly mentioned a lunch fundraiser for Youth Aliyah on its society page, but made no mention of Goodman’s plan. Other Indiana newspapers were silent.
The Evian Conference
Meanwhile, the world waited on the Evian Conference. New York Times reporter Clarence K. Streit wired a report from Evian back to New York on the eve of the parlay. His impression was that the gathered representatives of the world’s democracies were not taking the issue seriously enough and compared the atmosphere to a poker game.
Streit began his report with a reminder to the attendees that the refugees have lost everything “because of their refusal to recant what democrats believe to be true” or because they were born Jewish. He said he repeated this well-known fact in the article because “it seems to be in some danger of being lost at the start.” He took issue with the fact that the negotiations were starting from the perspective of viewing refugees as a burden; their humanity was being lost among the poker-like game of negotiating how that burden would be shared. His impression was spot on.
The conference began July 6, 1938 at a lavish resort on Lake Geneva. Delegates from thirty-two countries attended. President Roosevelt sent Myron C. Taylor as the U.S. representative and James G. McDonald to advise him. Taylor was a wealthy businessman with little previous diplomatic experience. The U.S. agenda for the conference, as determined in a series of June meetings between U.S. State Department representatives and the President’s Advisory Committee chaired by McDonald, represented a weak compromise between their opposing visions. The U.S. would allow political refugees from any country (not just Germany as argued by the State Department) but only within existing quotas (to the chagrin of McDonald and the committee). They would tread carefully on the subject of Palestine to not upset the British delegation, which controlled the region. McDonald was cautiously optimistic that the conference would encourage other countries to accept Jewish refugees. He would be disappointed.
Myron C. Taylor addressed the conference on the opening day. He expressed sympathy for the plight of the refugees but noted that all of the countries present were dealing with a depressed economy and widespread unemployment. He noted that the assembled governments must act “promptly and effectively in a long-range program” to aid the refugees, but also noted that “the problem of political refugees” was “thrust upon them by the policies of some other governments.” He reviewed a world history of voluntary migration and then stated:
Now we have a form of compulsory migration, artificially stimulated by governmental practices in some countries which force upon the world at large great bodies of reluctant migrants who must be absorbed in abnormal circumstances with a disregard of economic conditions at a time of stress.
Taylor stated that the problem was so large, the conference could do nothing more than “put in motion the machinery, and correlate it with existing machinery.” He meant well, but his hands were tied by a U.S. government afraid of public criticism for easing quotas. Again, citing the enormity of the problem, he tried to focus the conference on addressing only German and Austrian refugees (despite the position of McDonald and others on the Advisory Committee). He spent a good amount of his address pondering how the participating governments would document the refugees, and of course, how this immigration would be funded. He offered no solutions other than advising delegates to speak to McDonald about his knowledge of aiding and financing refugees. The other countries followed Taylor’s lead. According to the USHMM:
During the nine-day meeting, delegate after delegate rose to express sympathy for the refugees. But most countries, including the United States and Britain, offered excuses for not letting in more refugees. Only the Dominican Republic agreed to accept additional refugees.
A New York Times article from July 14, succinctly summed up the Evian Conference. The reporter stated that the delegates “did not find a landing place for the thousands of refugees cast upon the world” and that “no doors were thrown open to the involuntary exiles.” The Times writer concluded: “All the delegates professed a sincere desire to do what they could, but none offered to relax the quotas and restrictions that every country has put on immigration.”
Before the conference even ended, McDonald turned his attention to gaining approval and support from the Vatican on addressing the human crisis. He left for Rome immediately after the conference closed. He did not even record his reaction to the Evian Conference in his diary. (Check back for Part 6 which will look at the widely varying Catholic response to the events leading up to the Holocaust and McDonald’s work to influence the Vatican.)
Goodman and “The Dignity of Man”
With little encouragement from world events, Sarah Goodman continued her campaign in Indiana to raise funds for the rescue of children from Austria. In all, she was able to save two children, with a total of $750 dollars raised, through her plan to collect donations in lieu of graduation gifts. This might not seem like much. However, this was in the midst of the Great Depression. The average income was just over $1,000 a year. Thus, Goodman raised almost a year’s salary for the effort. Additionally, she received no promotion for her idea from any newspapers beside the Jewish Post. Her plan, however, managed to spread. Cincinnati, Nashville, Memphis, Miami, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington followed suit.
In September, the Jewish Post enthusiastically reported:
Out from under the blighting shadow of the Nazi swastika over Austria, Jewish boys and girls are sailing away to a life of opportunity and human service in Palestine as the result of a plan translated into action by Indianapolis’ own Mrs. Jack Goodman.
On Thanksgiving Day, appropriately, Goodman shared the thanks of two children with the readers of the Post. She wrote:
On this our Thanksgiving weekend I have been instructed to transmit to all of you the heart-felt thanks of two young people whose lives will be forever yours. They are the youths whose lives were saved by the graduation, confirmation, birthday and other gifts which were made in your names last summer.
A thousand children were saved by this push for the Youth Aliyah fund. Goodman wrote that “it will never be forgotten that two of this number were saved by the young people of Indiana.” And really, it was the children who led the way, from the young girl who inspired Goodman’s actions to those who sacrificed gifts to help others. One recently confirmed child told the Post that the fund was “a living memorial of the fact that we are lucky to be giving and not getting.”
By September of 1939, around 282,000 Jews had fled from Germany and 117,000 from Austria, according to the USHMM. However, around 202,000 German Jews and 57,000 Austrian Jews were unable to escape, many because of old age. Their numbers fell to 163,000 by October 1941, when then Nazi regime ended Jewish emigration. Again according to the USHMM, “The vast majority of those Jews still in Germany were murdered in Nazi camps and ghettos during the Holocaust.”
Sarah Wolf Goodman did not quit after the drive to help Austrian children ended. She did not quit as the horrific details of the Holocaust trickled and then flooded into newspapers. She spoke around the country, continued to raise money for Hadassah and Youth Aliyah, and helped form new chapters in other cities. She traveled to Palestine to visit the clinics, schools, and scientific farms set up by the Hadassah, of which she was vice-president by the 1940s. Despite her gender, the Jewish Post named her Indiana’s Jewish Man of the Year for 1945. In 1953 she became the first woman president of the Indianapolis Jewish Welfare Federation. In 1956, the Post referred to her as “without a doubt the most prominent Jewish woman in the state” and in 1958 she became chairman of the United Jewish Appeal.
At her 85th birthday, she looked back on her accomplishments, and perhaps to the 1938 drive to save the children of Austria. She stated:
Anything one does that helps in any way to make the life of another more livable is the greatest reward one can reap. My interest is in the dignity of man – regardless of his denomination.
Primary sources cited concerning McDonald, Roosevelt, the U.S. State Department, and the President’s Advisory Committee were accessed:
Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald Stewart, and Severin Hochberg, Eds, Refugees and Rescue: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press & Washington, D.C.: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2009), 121-159.
Contextual information on the Refugee Crisis and the Evian Conference was accessed via the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum at ushmm.org. Articles cited include: “German Prewar Expansion,” “Austria,” “German Jewish Refugees- 1933-1939,” “Emigration and the Evian Conference,” and “The Evian Conference.”
Other newspapers accessed Newspapers.com, ProQuest Historical Newspapers, and NYTimes.com.
*Refugees and Rescue is the second of a three-volume set of McDonald’s papers and diaries. Cited above.
**President Franklin D. Roosevelt left behind a complex legacy from this period. He called for the Evian Conference but did not ease immigration quotas. He had many Jewish advisors and yet provided no public funds to aid Jewish refugees. According to the USHMM, he took “significant, yet limited action, in response to the persecution of Jews in Germany, the refugee crisis of the 1930s, and the ’Final Solution.’” For a comprehensive study of FDR’s response to the crisis, see Allan J. Lichtman and Richard Breitman, FDR and the Jews (Belknap Press, 2013).
In Indiana during the 1890s, a creature feature known today as the “Crawfordsville Monster” became fodder for newspaper headlines. People throughout the town claimed they saw this “horrible apparition” in the sky. While the monster’s origins were eventually discovered to be earthly bound, the legendary status of the monster speaks to the power of fake news.
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.
Usually we use the Hoosier State Chronicles blog to tell you stories about Hoosiers and the State of Indiana by using local newspapers. For this project, we are examining world events through the eyes of the Hoosier newspaper reader. Because many of these articles were reported through the Associated Press and United Press news services, what we are really seeing is not just what Hoosiers knew, but what the average American knew, about the events leading up to the Holocaust.
Over the next several months, we will be contributing newspaper articles to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum‘s project titled History Unfolded: US Newspapers and the Holocaust. Using digitized newspapers mainly accessible via Hoosier State Chronicles, we are looking at key events suggested for research by the museum to see what Hoosiers knew when. The overall goal of the project is to contribute to the scholarship on how American media reported and under-reported Nazi atrocities. Anyone can submit their research; find out how at History Unfolded.
In retrospect, it’s hard to understand how the world could possibly not know that the Nazis were planning a horrific “Final Solution” to their “Jewish problem.” The signs were everywhere and the Nazis were not quiet about their intentions, but most people could not have imagined the unprecedented mass murder that would become known as the Holocaust. However, the average Hoosier, like Americans everywhere, had access to more than enough clues in their daily newspaper. On August 9, 1935, the (Indianapolis) Jewish Postquoted this foreboding statement from Joseph Goebbels, director of the Nazi Propaganda Ministry: “No foreign protest will prevent Germany from annihilating the Jew – the enemy of the German state. The next few weeks will show what we will do to the Jews.” The Post also reported that “Reichministers [Bernhard] Rust and [Karl Hermann] Frank added fuel to the flames with addresses at Essen and Cologne promising that the government will not compromise on its present racial policy and that no let-up can be expected until the Jew is completely eliminated from German life.”
While they did not hide their goal of eliminating the German Jews, Nazi leaders bristled at criticism from the Allied powers who they blamed for many of their problems after WWI. In the same speech in which he spoke of “annihilating the Jew,” Goebbels complained about the treatment of Germany in foreign press. Goebbels stated: “Whenever someone looks cross-eyed at a Jew on the Kurfuerstendamm [a popular street in Berlin], there is a hullabaloo from London to Peiping. But why does the foreign press insist on converging on Germany? Let it cease about the world and it will readily find topics of greater urgency.”
This theme of encouraging the world to mind its own business was often an effective one. Before the horrors of the concentration camps came to light, some African American newspapers even agreed. After all, black Americans had reason to fear persecution and even lynching by their neighbors and couldn’t trust their own government to protect them. Prominent African American newspapers asked: how could the U.S. throw stones, when it systematically denied rights and opportunities to its citizens based on race?
On September 14, 1935, the Indianapolis Recorder printed a brief but telling article on this point. The Recorder quoted Julius Streicher, the publisher of an anti-Semitic, Nazi propaganda newspaper, reporting that Streicher “took occasion to advise the Southern States of the American Union to mend their own vicious ways before attempting to point a finger of scorn at the misdeeds of others.” The paper quoted Streicher regarding lynching in the South: “We do not kill Jews in Germany . . . we have other ways of punishing them.” The Recorder then responded to his comments saying that while the “ugly plight of Jews in Germany” should not be discounted, Streicher’s words “should be solid food for thought” for Americans. The Recorder concluded, “Yes, Americans should set about putting their own house in order before telling Germany what to do about her own affairs.” Despite Streicher’s claims, the Nazi party was already moving towards the systematic killing of Jews and the Nuremberg Laws would soon provide them the legal framework needed to intensify persecution by codifying racial antisemitism.
Antisemitism before the rise of the Third Reich can be generally described as discrimination against Jewish people for their religious views. Nazi ideology, however, refocused antisemitism by creating racial theories that defined Jewish people as a race separate from Aryan people. According to this ideology, Jews were now identified not as people subscribing to a particular religion, but as members of a race who could be identified through blood and genealogy.
Nazis had to use genealogy (that is determining whether a person had Jewish ancestors) to define a person as a Jew because there is no science behind identifying Jews racially. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), “the Nazis had long sought a legal definition that identified Jews not by religious affiliation but according to racial antisemitism” because “Jews in Germany were not easy to identify by sight.” While some Jewish Germans continued traditional religious practices and wore distinctive clothing, most Jews in the 1930s looked the same as any other modern German man or woman. However, if they could codify this racial antisemitism by passing it into law, Nazis would have “the legal framework for the systematic persecution of Jews in Germany.”
This was Hitler’s goal in September 1935 when he called the Reichstag, or Nazi Parliament, to convene in Nuremberg in the midst of a Nazi party rally. Newspapers across Indiana announced the convening of the Reichstag, albeit without the illuminating quotes published by the Jewish Post. However, an AP article that ran September 13, 1935 in the (Columbus) Republic noted that the Reichstag’s meeting during the Nazi party rally meant that “the party and the state are identical.”
In other words, the Nazi party was now the German government. In a move that symbolized this solidification of party and government, Hitler prepared to declare the “nazi swastika flag . . . the one and only flag of the Third Reich” at the Reichstag meeting, according to an International News Service (INS) article published by the (Hammond) Times. The article continued to report that Hitler wished to demonstrate “the complete unity of the German state and the nazi party.” Thus, by the fall of 1935, there were no longer any government officials with the power to defend the rights of the Jewish people of Germany.
On September 15, 1935, Hitler announced the two laws, which together are known as the Nuremberg Race Laws: the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor. According to the USHMM, the Reich Citizenship Law declared that only people of “German or kindred blood” were German citizens. The law also declared that “Jews were a race defined by birth and by blood,” not religion. Anyone, even Christians, with Jewish grandparents or parents was considered Jewish. The law declared that they were no longer German citizens and had no rights, but were instead “subjects of the state.” The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor outlawed marriage and sexual relationships between “Aryan” Germans and Jewish Germans. Violating this law was condemned as “race defilement” and punishable with imprisonment or deportation to concentration camps. (Read the complete text of the laws through the USHMM here).
Indiana newspapers printed wire service articles on the announcement of the laws, but many missed their significance. For example, the Daily Clintonian (from Clinton, Indiana) ran a United Press (UP) article that focused on the promises of peace made by Hitler in his speech before the Reichstag. The article stated: “From the world standpoint his reference to peace was of paramount importance. It appeared to say plainly that Germany would not encourage Benito Mussolini’s ambitions and would adopt an attitude of neutrality similar to the United States.” However, in the same speech where he promised peace, Hitler threatened Lithuania. The article also naively interpreted the exclusion of Jews from German society as an opportunity for them, stating that “Germany’s new, drastic restrictive laws against the Jews will make it possible for them to have their own community life in Germany.” However, even this misguided article clearly printed the new laws, noting that Jews were no longer German citizens with rights but instead “state subjects.”
On the same day, the (Seymour) Tribune printed an Associated Press (AP) article that more accurately conveyed the significance of the Nuremburg Laws under the headline “Jews Placed in Medieval Status.” The newspaper reported on the specifics of the laws and that “Aryan citizens . . . will be separated sharply from ‘belongers to the state.’” Perhaps most foreboding, the article mentioned that Nazis hoped the rest of their ideology would become law in a similar manner. The article stated: “These acts inspired Der Fuhrer’s followers with the hope that the rest of the Nazi tenets would be translated into practical politics, step by step, just as fast as political expedience permitted.” To that end, the Reichstag gave Hermann Goring (the highest ranking Nazi official after Hitler) the power “to summon it into session at will” to create new laws. According to an AP article ran by the Kokomo Tribune also on September 16, Hitler concluded his speech by threatening “to enact even more stringent laws if today’s legislation fails to solve the Jewish problem.”
For the most part, Indiana newspapers were quiet in the days following the announcement of the Nuremburg Laws. The Indianapolis Jewish post was not. On September 20, 1935, in an article for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, writer and editor Boris Smolar criticized other newspapers for putting a positive spin on Hitler’s address to the Reichstag and for focusing on Hitler’s orders to Nazi officials prohibiting “individual acts of terrorism against Jews” as opposed to the real message of the address: Jews had lost even basic rights. Smolar’s criticism could be directly applied to the aforementioned UP article in the Daily Clintonian which posited that Jews would be able to have their own community now that they were officially separated from the rest of Germany. However, while Hitler was promising protection for Jews, the Nazis were in reality relentlessly persecuting them. Smolar wrote:
The press generally hails the new laws relegating the Jews back to the medieval ghetto and warns the Jews not to make the necessary revision threatened by Hitler in his address to the Reichstag. Newspapers point out that these laws give the Jews official protection . . . Meanwhile, reports indicate that the campaign to deprive the Jews of food is going ahead apace . . . In other fields too, the campaign to segregate the Jews goes on relentlessly.
Smolar’s greatest fear however was that “the Jews will be held as hostages” if foreign countries including the United States continued their economic boycott.
In the same issue, the Jewish Post reprinted an editorial from the Indianapolis News bluntly stating that Hitler’s address to the Reichstag cleared up many misconceptions that might remain about separation between Germany and the Nazi party or any thoughts that Hitler would tone down the anti-Semitism or become more moderate once his power was established. The News stated:
Such doubt as recently existed as to whether the Nazi swastika was to be regarded as the German national emblem has been removed by the Reichstag’s declaration Sunday that the Nazi swastika is to be the flag of the Reich and nation. Whatever doubt existed as to whether Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitism was as great as in the earlier days of his rise to power was also removed. . . The speech of Hitler to the Reichstag, however, and the measures promptly adopted at his urgence, give little support to those who had hoped for moderation. By these new enactments citizenship is denied the Jews. . . These enactments and the fanatical declarations so often made by Hitler and repeated by him Sunday, attributing virtually all of Germany’s troubles to the machinations of a race singled out for opprobrium can hardly tend to create confidence in the prospective sanity of a government completely under his control.
Other Indiana newspapers seemed slow to grasp the significance of the Nuremberg laws or even report on the announcement. For example, the Hammond Times did not report on the laws until November 15, two months after their enactment. However, Indiana newspapers did continue to report on the growing threat of Hitler’s Reich and on the debate over whether the United States should participate in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. What very few Hoosiers or Indiana newspapers were talking about, however, was how to help the people seeking refuge from the oppressive Nazi regime.
Not everyone remained silent, however. Hoosier James G. McDonald worked for most of his life to awaken the world’s conscience to the plight of German Jews seeking aid and refuge. In meetings and in letters to foreign leaders, the League of Nations, high-ranking diplomats, leading businessmen, newspaper editors, and President Franklin Roosevelt, McDonald expressed his fears for how the Nazis were planning to solve the “Jewish problem” and pleaded the case of German refugees. Fortunately his letters and journals from this period (published by Indiana University and the USHMM as Advocate for the Doomed and Refugees and Rescue) can be combined with newspaper articles to help us understand the work of one brave Hoosier at this time of crisis.
James Grover McDonald grew up in Albany, Indiana, attended Indiana University and Harvard, and returned to IU to teach from 1914-1918. In 1919, he became chairman of the League of Free Nations Association which worked to encourage the United States to join the League of Nations. The League of Free Nations Association soon evolved into the Foreign Policy Association and McDonald remained at its head until October 1933 when he accepted the position of High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations. He was given the almost impossible task or finding homes for refugees from Germany.
During regular trips to Germany and meetings with high ranking Nazi officials, McDonald gleaned enough to suspect that the Nazis might be planning a tragic solution to the “Jewish problem,” though he could not have predicted the extent of the coming horrors. In a trip to Berlin in 1933, McDonald had a surprising amount of access to leading Nazi officials and policy information through Hitler’s press secretary at the time, Ernst Hanfstaengl. On April 3, 1933, McDonald wrote in a letter to the Foreign Policy Administration (published in Advocate for the Doomed) about a disturbing conversation with Hanfstaengl on the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses in retaliation for a foreign boycott of Nazi goods. McDonald wrote:
Eventually we reached the subject of the Jews, especially the decree just announced for Monday’s boycott. He defended it unqualifiedly, saying: “When I told Hitler of the agitation and boycott abroad, Hitler beat his fists and exclaimed, ‘Now we shall show them that we are not afraid of international Jewry. The Jews must be crushed. Their fellows abroad have played into our hands.’”
McDonald wrote that he tried to explain to Hanfstaengl that there was no international Jewish conspiracy, but that the Nazi then “launched into a terrifying account of Nazi plans.” McDonald’s letter continued to quote Hanfstaengl:
The boycott is only a beginning. It can be made to strangle all Jewish business. Slowly, implacable it can be extended with ruthless and unshakable discipline. Our plans go much further. During the [first world] war we had 1,500,000 prisoners. 60,000 Jews would be simple. Each Jew has his SA [storm trooper]. In a single night it could be finished.
Here McDonald added his own thoughts in response to Hanfstaengl’s diatribe. He wrote: “He did not explain, but I assume he meant nothing more than wholesale arrests and imprisonments.” At this point, anything more was unimaginable. Still, he was kept awake that night with an impending sense of doom. He concluded his letter by describing a late-night walk through the beautiful but troubled city:
I reached my hotel before midnight. But there could be no thought of going to bed. So I walked alone to the Unter den Lindedn (a boulevard) and the Tiergarten (a park) – a beautiful night, spring-like, bright stars, many lovers in the park, a world seemingly at peace and yet these ghastly hatreds breeding such shocking plans for heartless oppression of a whole section of the people.
Any illusion that the Nazi’s were planning anything other than the literal destruction of the Jewish people would soon disappear. Only a month later McDonald responded to a reporter-friend’s question on what he thought would happen “if there were a Franco-Polish occupation of Germany” with the answer: “Of course, I don’t know, but my guess is that the first thing would be a wholesale slaughter of the Jews” (May 16, 1933 diary entry in Advocate for the Doomed). What had happened over the previous month to change McDonald’s outlook? On April 7, 1933 he wrote in his journal:
I was at the Chancellery at 12:30 to keep my appointment with Hitler.
McDonald asked Hitler directly about the Nazi party’s policies towards the German Jewish people and recorded Hitler’s response in his journal entry for that date. Hitler responded defensively, stating that they weren’t only attacking Jews, but also communists and socialists. Hitler said that unlike the United States, Germany had previously accepted such people and therefore “cannot be blamed if we now take measures against them.” Hitler continued, “Besides, as to the Jew, why should there be such a fuss when they are thrown out of places, when hundreds of thousands of Aryan Germans are on the streets? No, the world has no just ground for complaint.”
Later, when he returned to the United States, McDonald gave more details of this meeting to the prominent Rabbi Stephen Wise. McDonald told Wise of a chilling threat from Hitler. Hitler had stated: “I will do the thing that the rest of the world would like to do. It doesn’t know how to get rid of the Jews. I will show them” (Advocate for the Doomed, 48, fn 73).
Over the next several years, in his role as High Commissioner for Refugees, McDonald worked hard to alert the world of the impending catastrophe and find people willing to help the refugees. However, while the Commission was organized by the League of Nations and affiliated with it, the League provided no financial backing. He pleaded with international government leaders, religious and charitable institutions, and individuals for aid and funding. For example, On May 11, 1934, after visiting ten European and Eastern European countries and meeting with leaders encouraging them to accept refugees, McDonald told the London Jewish Chronicle:
I think we have made a beginning. There is a clearer recognition of the difficulties involved, and, at the same time, of the acute urgency of finding a solution promptly . . . If only the governments could be made to realize that the refugees would constitute advantages to the material, moral and spiritual wealth of their new homes, the task of securing the necessary permission for the refugees to stay in the older countries or to enter into the newer countries would be immeasurably easier.
McDonald’s public statements were more positive and encouraging than his private reflections and letters. By 1935, he was completely overwhelmed by the need to help the growing number of refugees, by the inadequate response by the United States and her allies, and by the worsening crisis in Germany as epitomized by the Nuremberg Laws. Since the laws went into effect in September, he had been disheartened by increasingly bleak accounts of what faced the German Jews. Speaking with prospective British financial investors in October about a possible reorganizing of the Committee and plans to secure more funding, he saw little hope. He wrote in his diary:
He [a British banker] confirmed stories I had heard from other directions about food and medical shortages, the probability of radical action in implementing the Nuremberg Laws, and the waiving of all favors on behalf of the front-line soldiers or their children. In short, he sees the situation as hopeless . . .
He was equally disheartened that private organizations, especially Jewish ones were not responding adequately in contributing to refugee aid campaigns. In a letter to New York Governor Herbert Lehman which the governor forwarded to President Roosevelt, McDonald wrote:
The Jewish communities, particularly in Great Britain and in the United States, must at last realize the truth, bitter and terrible though it is, which you and I and some of the rest of us have tried to drive home to them for more than two years – there can be no future for Jews in Germany.
The Nuremberg Laws were the last straw for McDonald. As a protest against the failure of the world to act on behalf of Jewish refugees, McDonald resigned his post as High Commissioner in a letter to the Secretary General of the League of Nations dated December 27, 1935. His lengthy letter of resignation ran in the New York Times on December 30, 1935 and was widely reprinted and commented on in the international press. (Read the entire letter.) In future posts here and at the Indiana Historical Bureau’s blog, Blogging Hoosier History, we will look closer at the important work McDonald dedicated himself to, but here we will end with an excerpt from his resignation letter in order to convey the significant turning point that was the Nuremberg Laws.
McDonald explained that since the laws had reclassified Jews as a separate race, along with the increasing intensity of their persecution, the critical problem was no longer placing Jewish refugees (as important as this still was to him) but instead intervening politically with the German state to stop the persecution. This was beyond the capabilities of an unfunded committee tenuously aligned with the League of Nations. It was time for the League and its member countries to confront Germany, peaceably but sternly “in the name of humanity and of the principles of the public law of Europe.” McDonald concluded his resignation letter thusly:
. . . I gave in my former office frequent and tangible proof of my concern that justice be done to the German people. But convinced as I am that desperate suffering in the countries adjacent to Germany, and an even more terrible human calamity with the German frontiers, are inevitable unless present tendencies in the Reich are checked or reversed, I cannot remain silent . . . When domestic policies threaten the demoralization and exile of hundreds of thousands of human beings, considerations of diplomatic correctness must yield to those of common humanity. I should be recreant if I did not call attention to the actual situation and plead that world opinion, acting through the League and its member States and other countries, move to avert the existing and impending tragedies.
James Grover McDonald continued to speak out on behalf of those persecuted by the Nazis, eventually serving as Chairman of the President’s Advisory Commission on Political Refugees under FDR. Check back here and at Blogging Hoosier History for more on McDonald’s life’s work. Please visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s summary of the Nuremberg Laws for more information, photographs, and the personal stories of Holocaust survivors. Don’t forget that you can also participate in the History Unfolded project. Hoosiers can also learn more about the Holocaust and its survivors through CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald Stewart, and Severin Hochberg, eds., Advocate for the Doomed: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1932-1935 (Indianapolis and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Published in Association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C., 2007).
Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald Stewart, and Severin Hochberg, eds., Refugees and Rescue: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1935-1945 (Indianapolis and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Published in Association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C., 2009).
“Nuremberg Laws,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed USHMM.
Read the previous Hoosier State Chronicles post contributing to the History Unfolded Project on Nazi Book Burnings.
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.