Detroit, Michigan, March 30, 1965. Two men meet at a small press conference before the funeral of a slain civil rights activist. Their meeting seems like an unlikely pairing for us today—one a slick haired, brash, and controversial labor leader and the other a measured, eloquent, and inspirational pastor who had galvanized the civil rights movement. The former was there to present a check for $25,000 for the latter’s work on racial equality. Their stories varied tremendously but, at this moment, they intersected, manifesting all the complicated and contradictory impulses of American life during the middle of the twentieth century. Those two men were Jimmy Hoffa and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Music: “The Things That Keep Us Here” by Monomyth, “Almost A Year Ago” by John Deley and the 41 Players, “Crate Digger” by Gunnar Olsen, “Crimson Fly” by Huma-Huma, “Dreamer” by Hazy, “Eternity” by Lahar, and “I Am OK” by Vishmak
Indiana history is replete with trailblazers, those who stood against the norm and fought for what they believed in. One such trailblazer was Eugene Victor Debs, founder of the American Railway Union (ARU) and perennial candidate for president of the United States under the Socialist Party banner. Before his presidential runs, before the “legend” of Debs took hold in the American psyche, a series of events in 1894-95 catapulted Debs’ status from obscure labor leader to “the ideal of the workingmen of America.”
Another seminal character in Debs’ rise was Clarence Darrow, the famed litigator and labor supporter who used his considerable legal talents to defend Debs and the ARU. Coincidentally, Darrow’s rise to American consciousness, in some measure, parallels Debs’ own emerging prominence. They both supported and emboldened each other during an era of immense fortunes for those at the top and very little for those at the bottom. This blog details their partnership during one of organized labor’s most trying times and how these two men facilitated each other’s mythos during America’s Gilded Age.
It all began with a labor strike. On May 11, 1894, 2,000 employees walked out of their jobs at the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago. While the press concluded that the exact nature of the walk out was unknown, the strike had been brewing for months. The economic Panic of 1893 left hundreds of thousands unemployed or underpaid. As the New York Evening World wrote in their report on the initial walk out, “Trouble had been brewing for some time, the men demanding the restoration of a 33 1/3 per cent cut in the wages made last year.” Conditions worsened when the majority of Pullman workers, living in a company town established by the eponymous owner, found rent, food, and other goods too expensive for their slashed wages. The Pullman Company refused to lower prices, despite the wage decreases. These, among other factors, led to the walkout.
We are going to bankrupt George M. Pullman, and we are going to do it in a short space of time. We have shut up his works at Ludlow and St. Louis and we shall be able to close his last door at Wilmington by next week. He will be rendered completely helpless inside of ten days unless he comes to terms before that time.
Despite walkouts, threats, and the boycott, the General Managers Association decided to keep the Pullman cars running, including “twenty-two Chicago terminal lines.” The company wouldn’t budge on its commitment to lower wages. A police presence, led by Chief Michael Brennan, was asked for by Pullman “in case of trouble as a result of the boycott by the American Railway Union.” Strikers in St. Louis spoke with its police chief in an effort to stave off violence that might “throw discredit on them.” Things were heating up.
By early July, Chicago erupted in a fury. The Indianapolis News reported that “two strikers were killed outright and others injured in a riot in the Illinois Central yards at Kensington.” Meanwhile, some “five hundred men were rushing up and down the yards, overturning freight cars and blocking the tracks in every possible manner.” Law enforcement descended on the mob, “150 United States Marshalls and Cook County deputies,” using everything at their disposal to quell the melee. This resulted in gunshots rippling through the crowd, a short stammering by the mob, and then a full-on retreat by police forces as the hordes of laborers charged at them. This continued well into the afternoon, with hundreds of freight cards either ripped from the tracks or burned to the ground. In all, six men died and the railways suffered roughly $2,000,000 worth of damage (over $56,000,000 in 2016 dollars).
In the middle of all this carnage, both physical and political, was ARU founder and President Eugene V. Debs. During the July 6 riots, Debs released a statement that rankled the capitalists as well as the public, subtly acknowledging the chaos. “If the corporations refuse to yield, and stubbornly maintain that there is ‘nothing to arbitrate,’ the responsibility for what may ensue will be upon their heads and they can not escape the penalties,” Debs declared. However, his tune changed slightly the next day, telling the strikers that “I deem it my duty to caution you against being a party to any violation of law” and “those who engage in force and violence are our real enemies.” Despite his pleas for peace, the ARU’s boycott and ensuing violence animated the United States Court in Chicago to file an injunction against Debs and the ARU. “The injunction was served as Debs was leaving the Sherman House this morning,” the News wrote.
The injunction proved fatal to the strike and to Debs’ hopes of representing the workers in their negotiations with the Pullman Company. On July 10, Debs, ARU Vice President Howard, and two other ARU representatives were arrested in Chicago under alleged violation of the US Court’s injunction. “They are charged with conspiracy to commit an unlawful act—that is, to block the progress of the United States mails,” the Indianapolis Journal reported. The men were arraigned in front of a grand jury and ordered to jail unless they posted bond at “$10,000 each.” Debs’ mail and other ARU materials were seized by the government, as potential evidence in the trial. Debs appeared particularly upset about this action. “…I cannot understand under what law the postoffice [sic] authorities are a party to the seizure of my private mail,” Debs barked, “It is an outrage and you call this a free county? It seems to me not to be compatible with the stars and stripes.” Despite his anger, Debs reached out to his fellow laborers and told them to stay vigilant, refrain from violence, and “maintain law and order.”
The attorney who defended Debs and the ARU was none other than Clarence S. Darrow. Before his legendary status in American life as one of the country’s greatest litigators, Darrow was a young attorney making a career for himself in Chicago. After leaving a lucrative practice representing the Chicago and North Western Railway Company, Darrow rose to prominence as the public defender of Patrick Eugene Prendergast, the man who murdered Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison during the 1893 World’s Fair. Darrow toiled well over a year to get Prendergast an insanity plea, and when that failed, he diligently worked with state government to stay his client’s execution. Darrow, who sternly against capital punishment, felt it his duty to stand against its use in such a unfortunate case. Sadly, Darrow’s crusade was unsuccessful and the state executed Prendergast by hanging on July 13, 1894, three days after Debs faced arrest in Chicago.
Darrow, disappointed in the state’s decision in the Prendergast case but emboldened in his desire to defend those deemed indefensible, took on the Debs case right away, according to the Indianapolis News and the Omaha Daily Bee. The Bee also reported that a “large number of telegrams sent by Debs from his headquarters” provided “directions which extended the blockade of trains. . . .” Western Union initially withheld the telegrams from the United States Court, but Judge Peter S. Grosscup issued a subpoena and the company relented. To make things worse, the press wrote scurrilous descriptions of Darrow and Debs. The Wichita Daily Eagle called Darrow “an outspoken Anarchist and no party has the courage to nominate him for any position. His political feelings are dangerous.” As for Debs, the Eagle painted him as the “most indignant citizen . . . the dictator of his union and the regulator of the commerce of the country.” Darrow knew as much as Debs that this case could upend their careers – or gain them the public support they craved.
The first trial against Debs and the ARU began in Chicago on July 23, 1894. As biographer John A. Farrell noted, the Feds “launched a two-track legal defense on Debs and his men: the contempt proceeding in which there were accused of violating the federal court’s injunction banning anyone from ‘inciting’ workers to strike, and a criminal case that charged the union with conspiring to stop the mails and to interfere with interstate commerce.” Darrow led a defense team with attorneys William W. Erwin and Stephen S. Gregory. They intended to dismiss the charges against Debs and the alleged conspirators by challenging the legality of the federal injunction. “It will be contended that what the court has done amounts to a usurpation of power not given to the federal judiciary [by] either constitution or law,” the Topeka State Journal wrote. The defendants also denied that Debs and the ARU directed the strikers to leave their posts, but rather its members voted in favor to strike. As for the telegrams, the only approved communication between Debs and the strikers came on July 6, when Debs counseled “every one to stand firm,” not to use violence or to block rail lines. Defense attorney Gregory reiterated this point in a passage from the Indianapolis Journal: “The attorney contended that as long as people obeyed the laws they could not be held responsible for the lawlessness of others.” Each defendant consulted extensively with Darrow and his team before their case was filed.
On September 26, 1894, arguments were continued in the Seventh Circuit Court in Chicago under presiding Judge Woods. In his four and a half hours of arguments, Clarence Darrow’s defense of Debs became legendary. The Chicago Tribune published a piece the next day entitled, “Darrow Hurts Debs: Counsel for the Ex-Dictator Flies into a Rage,” where Darrow “was credited with having made an exceedingly able argument.” (The article’s splashy title doesn’t match what is said of Darrow; in that regard, it’s a 1890s version of “clickbait.”) Darrow’s argument was twofold. First, the ARU did direct strikers via telegram after the injunction, “but had a perfect right to do so . . . .” Second, the prosecution’s basis for the injunction, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, was legally unfounded. “He argued at length,” the Tribune reported, “to prove the act had no reference to strikes, but was designed exclusively to correct the outrages of the railroad companies. He thought it a shame the railroads should use it against other people.” Darrow also went after prosecuting attorney Milchrist, saying that “I never knew a man who had more abused an office in which chance placed him . . . .” Milchrist was incensed, and fired back with, “I am responsible for my words. I will not take lessons from you in professional ethics.” To which Darrow snapped, “You ought to take lessons from some one [sic].”
Darrow’s strident defense of Deb’s found coverage throughout the nations newspapers, including the Crawfordsville Journal, the Indianapolis Journal, and the San Francisco Morning Call. The Call’s write up was particularly insightful; Darrow’s reasoning on the right of workers to strike found clearer elucidation than had been in the Tribune. “He said the defendants had not committed any wrong and declared that every man had the right to abandon his position either for a good or bad reason. No court could put a citizen into a condition of servitude,” the Call wrote.
Despite Darrow’s passionate and astute defense of his clients, Judge Woods ruled against Debs and the ARU. On December 15, 1894, Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to six months in prison for violating the federal injunction against the ARU. Seven others, including ARU Vice President Howard, received 3 month sentences. In his ruling, Judge Woods declared: “I think there is no doubt these defendants had power to make the men who looked up to them do as they pleased and that they continued to violate this injunction.” As Darrow feared, Judge Woods sentenced them under his reading of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The act was created to protect the laboring classes, instead Woods applied the law as a weapon against them. “The decision is bad law,” Darrow said, “but the sentence is remarkably lenient.” As for Debs, he was quoted in the Greencastle Daily Banner Times, saying:
I am a law abiding man and I will abide by the law as construed by the judges. But if Judge Woods’ decision is law, all labor organizations may as well disband. According to him, every strike is a conspiracy and unlawful. . . . In the strike of last summer every effort was made by the leaders to prevent violence. Judge Woods intimates that this advice was given to the effect it would have on the public and that the strikers were not expected to heed it. What right has he to draw such an inference? There is nothing in the evidence to support it.
I think it [Supreme Court] is one of the worst demoralized organizations in the country. When the law in the Debs case was made it was intended to apply to check the greed of corporations. No one ever thought it would be twisted to apply to labor organizations. The decision will be a great blow to railroad labor organization. Railroad men will hardly dare to act, under this interpretation.
While Debs served out his sentence, Darrow, Trumbull, and scores of labor organizers worked on a big reception for the ARU leader upon his release. They rented out Battery D in Chicago, a venue of 6,000 seats. In a subtle bit of goading, they even invited Judge Woods to attend. On November 22, 1895, Eugene V. Debs was released from jail. A throng of supporters rushed from the train depot to pick up their embattled leader and escort him to the reception awaiting in Chicago. The Greencastle Democrat reported that nearly 4,000 attendees crowded into Battery D to hear Debs speak “for about two hours on topics which have become familiar to all labor advocates.” “I have had time for meditation and reflection,” Debs said among his supporters, “and I have no hesitancy in declaring that under the same circumstances I would pursue precisely the same policy. So for as my acts are concerned I have neither apology nor regret.” That night, Debs evolved from regional labor leader into emerging legend in radical politics.
As for Darrow, he became one of America’s celebrated, as well as infamous, lawyers. He set up a law practice (with aspiring poet Edgar Lee Masters) that helped the poor, immigrants, labor activists. In particular, he represented the McNamara brothers in the Llewellyn Iron Works explosion trial and saved Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb from execution in their 1924 trial for murder. However, the trial he is best remember for is the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925. Darrow defended schoolteacher John T. Scopes, on trial for the teaching of evolution. This led to his legendary court battles with William Jennings Bryan, who led the prosecution. Despite Scopes’ conviction, which was later overturned on a technicality, Darrow’s defense of science, secularism, and freedom of thought still resonates today. Darrow died in 1936, at the age of 80.
Both of these men forged indispensable paths during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The eight-hour work day, child labor laws, and workplace protections; all these rights were defended, and often won, as a result of their efforts. The ARU trials of 1894-95 propelled their lives into the national conversation and supplied them a platform for their crusades. So while Debs didn’t win the battle in the courts, he often won in the war of ideas. As a result, Debs’ fight became Darrow’s. Reflecting in his memoir years later, Darrow wrote:
Eugene V. Debs has always been one of my heroes . . . . There may have lived some time, some where, a kindlier, gentler, more generous man than Eugene V. Debs, but I have never known him. Nor have I ever read or heard of another. Mr. Debs at once became the head of the Socialist party of America. I never followed him politically. I never could believe that man was so constructed as to make Socialism possible; but I watched him and his cause with great interest. He was not only all that I have said, but he was the bravest man I ever knew. He never felt fear. He had the courage of the babe who has no conception of the word or its meaning.
Debs and Darrow used their Midwestern smarts, guff, and gumption to take on the biggest powers of their time, from the railroad barons to the Supreme Court. In doing so, their battles changed each other—and changed America.
Boxing holds a revered place in the history of American life. From Jack Johnson and Rocky Marciano to Muhammad Ali, the sport has captivated audiences and broken barriers. One boxer who did just that was Ray Bronson, known as the “Indianapolis Pugilist.” Starting his boxing career in his teens, Bronson fought in 104 matches, with 48 wins and 22 Knock-Outs. His skill in the ring took him all over the world, from Sydney to London, where he was one of the first American boxers to fight abroad. Later in life, he cultivated upstart boxers, acting as their manager, and worked to promote the sport. Bronson’s name has largely been forgotten by sports aficionados, but his mark on boxing remains.
Ray Bronson was born on August 2, 1887 in Webster City, Iowa. As an article in the May 1912 issue of Horseshoers’ Magazine wrote, “When Ray was just a little kid he was thrown upon his own resources.” It is unclear as to how he ended up in Indianapolis, but what is clear is his chosen profession before life in the ring: horseshoeing. Working as an apprentice to Indianapolis “horsehoer” (or farrier) Dennis Egan, young Bronson learned his craft as well as built up his physique. Within six months on the job, it was said that “there was never a horse too frisky for Ray to shoe.” He belonged to the International Journeymen Horseshoers and served as the Vice-President of its local lodge 24 until 1906. After that, the boxing gig took off.
He began his boxing career in 1905, as a seventeen-year-old kid, and racked up wins almost immediately. As the Indianapolis News wrote on February 21, 1905, “Young Bronson made a splendid showing in the first preliminary of four rounds. His opponent was Billy Hinkle. Bronson had the better of each of the rounds, in which there was hardly an idle moment, and easily won the decision.” A month later he fought Jimmy Casey to a draw, where he was willing to “rough it with his smaller opponent” but couldn’t secure a clear victory.
Nevertheless, Bronson was on his way to becoming one of the country’s most capable fighters. About a year later, in another article in the Indianapolis News, Bronson’s budding prowess was described in detail:
Bronson apparently has all the requisites of a successful fighter. He has appeared in almost every boxing entertainment held in this city during the last two years, and has nearly always won by the knockout route. He can weigh in at 120 pounds. A blacksmith by profession, he is as strong as a bull and has hands like a heavyweight. Although there has been a great deal of boxing in this city, the good fighters that have been developed are extremely rare.
Bronson’s victory against Willie Riley in 1906 at the Empire Theater in Indianapolis cemented the newspaper’s opinion of the upstart boxer. In another editorial, Bronson was described as “all muscle and bone” and lauded for his defeat of Tommy Grant, which took him only “one minute and fifty seconds.” He “appears to be most promising candidate for high pugilistic honors this city [Indianapolis] has produced in a long time.”
His only defeat came at the hands of Hughie Mehegan, then lightweight champion of Australia, likely the result of his physical condition, which was described by the press as “drawn and pocky around the face, his eyes [were] sunk deeply, and a plainly visible black ring [shown] under both ribs.” Nevertheless, he “staved off serious trouble, and remained on his feet until the end,” losing only by points. His final two bouts, against Arthur Douglas and Jim Armstrong, ended with knock-out victories for the Indianapolis lightweight. Before returning home, he had a final overseas bout in London, England, fighting against Sid Burns at the Olympia. He would have won this fight had it not been for a foul called in the eighteenth round against him. Nevertheless, he returned home to a hero’s welcome, having cemented his place in the boxing world.
Within a year after coming home from Australia, Bronson achieved his greatest triumph when he won the welterweight championship against “Young” Erne in Indianapolis on February 24, 1912. As the Hammond Times reported, the two “battled ten furious rounds” and while “No decision was rendered by the referee, [but] on points Bronson had the lead and earned the unanimous newspaper verdict.” That same year, he fought career rival Packey McFarland again, to a capacity crowd during the week of the Indianapolis 500. While they fought to what amounted to a draw, McFarland was given a slight points edge and awarded the victory. The Indianapolis News reported that Bronson “did not put up his usual exhibition of good boxing, and about his only damage was done at infighting and at close range.”
This was the beginning of Bronson’s decline as a professional boxer; he would never again stack up wins as he did before he held the championship. He lost the welterweight title on January 13, 1913 against Spike Kelly in Memphis, Tennessee and continued to have lackluster showings against Tommy Howell and Hillard Lang, despite Bronson holding his own in the latter match until the eighth round. He even returned to Australia in 1914 to try recapture his former edge, but to no avail. His first match against Waldemar Holberg on New Year’s Day 1914 in Melbourne ended in defeat, with Bronson taking most of the damage during twenty rounds. His second match against Frank Picato was especially disappointing. As the Sydney Referee reported, “Neither Ray Bronson nor Frank Picato was in condition to do justice to his reputation,” and “at one stay the galleryites counted both men out.” His final match in Australia against Matt Wells on February 28, 1914 ended in defeat, with Wells knocking him out in the seventh round. His days as a prime boxer were over.
However, with endings come beginnings, and Bronson reconfigured his career with the same determination outside of the ring as he had shown in. On a personal level, he finally settled down. Bronson married Marguerite Ryan on June 26, 1913, and as the Hammond Times noted, “Bronson has done well financially in the fighting game and will probably devote himself to business interests with which he is now connected.” In 1914, he began devoting more of his energies to managing boxers. As the Tacoma Timesreported, “Ray Bronson, Indianapolis welterweight champion, [is] now managing Milburn Saylor. . . and has a number of crack battlers under his wing. . . .” Saylor became one of Bronson’s key fighters during his years as a manager. Under Bronson’s wing, Saylor had many victories, including a knockout of New York fighter Leach Cross and a ten round romp against Jimmy Murphy.
In 1916, Bronson started managing young Philadelphian Jack McCarron, a middleweight who “started fighting in 1909 and has never been knocked out.” McCarron also had a slew of wins under Bronson’s management, including his “lacing” of Joe Borrell, noted as “one of the fastest bouts ever staged here” by the Indianapolis News. He also gained victories against Silent Martin and Tommy Burke, with the latter bout being “the worst lacing that the blond haired boy [Burke] ever received.” Managing and promoting boxers became Bronson’s second life within the sport and continued to provide him with a generous income. However, as theIndianapolis News editorialized, Bronson “believes the boxing game is getting into the seer and yellow,” and that boxing’s key fighters should treat it as a “business” rather than “side-show attractions.” It is interesting to contemplate what Bronson would have thought of the sport’s big-time spectacle today, given his opinion in 1916.
Despite all his success as a manager, he wanted to try fighting one more time. On September 7, 1920, after nearly six years out of the ring, Bronson fought Jack Britton in Cedar Point, Ohio. The Indianapolis News’s coverage of the bout wasn’t kind to the veteran boxer:
Jack Britton, welterweight champion, jogged along to an easy victory over Ray Bronson who essayed a comeback after six years out of the ring.
Bronson apparently lasted the full ten rounds through generosity of Britton, who toyed with his opponent throughout the fight and never appeared to be in danger. In a statement, the champion claimed he could have knocked Bronson out in the first round, had he been so disposed.
His comeback was short-lived. Within a month, Bronson announced his formal retirement from boxing. As the Collyer’s Eye in Chicago reported, “Ray Bronson, welterweight, has retired from boxing to devote his time to managing football and basketball teams and promoting bouts.” While his name did appear on a boxing card in 1922, according to the Richmond Palladium, it is unclear whether he was there as a manager or fighter. Either way, Ray Bronson’s boxing career was finally done.
With a “young man’s clean-cut face” and a “horseshoe punch,” Ray Bronson rocked the boxing world during the early 20th century. His considerable wins, international bouts, and successful management of other boxers put him a cut above most fighters. He was also a Hoosier, with a Midwestern work ethic and dedication to clean living, that buttressed his success in and out of the ring. As the Horseshoer’s Magazine wrote in 1912, “The Horseshoer’s Union may well be proud of this boy, for every one [sic] in Indianapolis is.”
With the 2016 presidential primaries upon us, there’s more buzz than usual this year about a word with deep roots in Hoosier history — socialism. And, as always, religion remains a factor at the polling booths. This is also the first time in about a century that a major presidential candidate has openly disavowed “organized” religion. The last candidate to do so was Eugene V. Debs, a Socialist, skeptic, and native Hoosier who ran for president five times just before and after World War I. (Debs ran his last campaign from a federal prison in Atlanta in 1920, where he’d been sent for opposing the military draft.)
The topics of socialism and religion were hot as ever back in Debs’ day. In some ways, that debate looks eerily familiar, with skeptics accusing churches of abetting social inequality, and believers often firing back with equally broad strokes about the dangers of revolution. While plenty of American labor activists were religious — including major voices like Mother Jones and Terence Powderly — Debs and many more were agnostic. Indiana Socialist, the newspaper of the Marion County Socialist Party in Indianapolis, tended toward religious skepticism, often printing ads for books that questioned Christian beliefs and especially church authorities. Since most American workers were Christian, however, Socialist leaders were wary of alienating them, and Debs found much in the ethics of the New Testament to applaud.
(The “Socialist literature wagon” once sat at the corner of Market and Pennsylvania streets in downtown Indianapolis. Indiana Socialist, April 26, 1913. The Socialist Party of Indianapolis’s 1913 campaign platform called for such things as public playgrounds, urban beautification, and equal pay for equal work. The newspaper estimated that Marion County, Indiana, alone had about 8,000 Socialist voters in 1913, plus others whom it alleged were kept from voting by their employers.)
The poem’s author was Henry M. Tichenor (1858-1924). Along with fellow Midwesterners Clarence Darrow and Robert Ingersoll, Tichenor was one of the most outspoken American freethinkers of his time. An influential Socialist writer and editor in Missouri, Tichenor loathed organized Christianity. Contrary to popular belief, many Americans were disgruntled with churches a century ago, and Tichenor’s popular, down-to-earth style made him popular even in the Midwest, whose radical history runs almost as deep as its reputation for staunch conservatism.
(Harry M. Tichenor in 1914.)
Unlike the Marxist intellectuals who twisted Socialism to serve the greed of dictators and party elites, Tichenor was no high-falutin’ “comrade” inventing totalitarian “Newspeak” — the language of George Orwell’s memorable dystopian lampoon, 1984. Yet his long, comic tirades against “holy humbug” (books with titles like The Life and Exploits of Jehovah) are basically the scribblings of a humorist, not a serious historian. They probably never bothered anyone except fundamentalists who insisted on a literal reading of every story in the Bible.
In 1913, Tichenor was a regular poetry contributor to the St. Louis-based National Rip-Saw, “America’s Greatest Socialist Monthly.” He was also cranking out fiery anti-capitalist pamphlets with titles like “The Rip-Saw Mother Goose,” “Rip-Saw Socialism Songs,” and “Woman Under Capitalism.” That year he started printing a socialist journal of his own, The Melting Pot, a political and comic firecracker.
For most Americans, the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley is no longer a household name. He’s mostly remembered for “Little Orphant Annie,” an 1885 poem about an Indiana girl who warns children against misbehaving, scaring them with the refrain: “The gobble-uns’ll get youEf you don’t watch out!”
Riley died a hundred years ago this July. When President Woodrow Wilson got the news at the White House, he is said to have broken down in tears, then sent an express telegram to the poet’s family in Indianapolis. As Riley’s body lay in state at the Indiana Capitol in July 1916, thirty-five thousand people filed past. American children, who adored the old man, were devastated. The press overflowed with eulogies. Novelist Booth Tarkington, another once-famous Hoosier name in American letters, eulogized Riley in the Indiana Daily Times, calling him “the first and foremost distinctively American poet, and at the time of his death . . . the greatest American.” The New York Sun mourned: “The Hoosier Poet blew heart bubbles . . . In his verses Indiana spoke to the world.” And the Philadelphia Inquirer noted: “There is no doubt that he was the most popular poet of this generation in America… If there is a child today that is not regaled with ‘Orphant Annie’ that child is to be pitied.”
Though Riley was mostly known for his folksy childhood lyrics, he was also a civic-minded poet, fierce in his defense of the downtrodden.
In 1898, during one of those periodic battles over immigration that heat up American politics, the “Poet of Childhood” grappled with anti-Irish prejudice — though it wasn’t personally directed against him. Riley, whose own grandparents came from Ireland to Pennsylvania before moving to the Midwest, defended the valor and patriotism of the “Sons of Erin” who fought in the Civil War and Mexican War. In so doing, he took aim at the religious and ethnic hostility of nativist groups like the American Protective Association, a cousin of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Irish, especially Irish Catholics, were frequently misunderstood and feared as disruptors of society. Long before the Civil War, American nativists like the Know-Nothings had been actively exploiting fears about the Irish and “Rome,” alien forces ready to undermine American democracy and Anglo-Saxon values. Though some of those fears may sound downright bizarre today, Irish immigrants were often mired in poverty, violence and alcoholism, facts that scared their neighbors. While the brutal living conditions of many Irish were no myth, catastrophic events like the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s were partly to blame. With their situation made worse by the greed of landowners and brutal utilitarian social theories, many of Ireland’s sons and daughters were reduced to sub-human conditions. Millions went overseas or found themselves driven into the arms of death.
The Irish had been targeted by some of the worst 19th-century science and philosophy. Racialized by other whites during the early days of Darwinism, the “native” Irish in particular were type-cast as little better than apes, doomed by biology itself to crime, degradation and — some theorists hoped — gradual extinction. One famous drawing compares the “Anglo-Saxon” features of English nurse Florence Nightingale to the ape-like face of “Bridget McBruiser” across the Irish Channel.
That drawing, however, was an American drawing, published in Samuel R. Wells’ New Physiognomy(New York, 1866). Wells was one of the foremost American phrenologists of his time, studying “character” as he imagined it to be written on the human face and skull. It took decades for the science of head bumps and nose shapes to be debunked as nonsense, but the fallout proved catastrophic for many immigrants.
Bad science and hyper-patriotic conspiracy theories were the target of one of James Whitcomb Riley’s lesser-known poems, “Brother Jonathan Lectures His Adopted.” That poem appeared in Songs of Two Peoples, an 1898 collection set partly in New England, partly in Ireland.
Originally written in broad New England dialect, “Brother Jonathan” recounts the anti-Catholic ravings of a recent Northern Irish immigrant voting for “the fust time” at a small-town polling booth in America. Jonathan showed himself an eager campaigner against foreign influence, “tearin’ up an’ deown’ on platforms,” lashing out at Rome’s priests who “eat heretics at feasts” — dark tales from European history carried by folklore and immigrant ships into American election booths well into the 1960s and even beyond. Catholics, Jonathan warns, were gearing up to crush the American public school system and democracy. He gets a stinging rebuke from the embodiment of Uncle Sam, “His Adopted.”
Though Riley’s poem is set just after the Civil War, it spoke to the issues of 1898, when America’s generously open door did bring many problems. Yet the looming figure of “Brother Jonathan” was still fresh decades later when George R. Dale, the brave editor of the Muncie Post-Democrat, reprinted it as part of his long battle against the powerful Hoosier Klan.
In 1924, Dale found Riley’s poem as apt as ever. Dale was at the start of a practically one-man battle against the KKK in his town, using humor to transform the Muncie Post-Democrat into a rollicking 1920s version of The Onion. Though Dale faced routine death threats and assaults from Klansmen, the Muncie editor bravely tore into chauvinism at a time when the Klan was as much against new waves of Eastern and Southern European immigration as it was opposed to African Americans coming up from the South. Dale slightly abbreviated Riley’s poem — missing the fact that Brother Jonathan was an immigrant himself and had brought Old World animosities across the Atlantic, a prelude to the Irish “Troubles.”
Though many Irish immigrants were racists themselves, stirring up some of the worst race riots of the 1800s, George Dale found an ally in both history and the Catholic Church. Virtually every issue of Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson’s Klan paper The Fiery Cross contained attacks on the church, sharpest during the Indiana gubernatorial election of 1924, the year Dale reprinted “Brother Jonathan” in Muncie. It’s not surprising that, since they were long targeted by nativists, Catholics became a major force in undermining the Klan and helped hobble half-baked social and medical theories like eugenics. (The barely-concealed “science” of white supremacy, eugenics had deep roots in Indiana.)
While Riley was of Irish descent, he wasn’t Catholic himself — in fact he wasn’t much of a church-goer at all. Yet Riley knew plenty of immigrants: they were his neighbors in Lockerbie, an Indianapolis neighborhood first called “Germantown” and settled partly by refugees from Europe’s 1848 revolutions.
But even Riley’s support had a dark irony in it. A frequent visitor at his house in Lockerbie was Indiana Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs. The son of French immigrants, Debs was a champion of the working class but often hostile to the new wave of immigration, which he thought undermined American labor and played into the hands of big business. Debs may have been right about the effect of cheap labor on the American workers’ movement, but history repeated itself in a sad way when even the great Socialist leader made disparaging remarks in 1891 about Chinese and “Dagos” (Italians). They “fatten on garbage,” Debs said, live “more like a savage or a wild beast,” and “are able to underbid an American workingman.” It took years for Debs to temper those views, as even the Socialist Party succumbed to nativism and fear of the “degraded foreigner.”
Did you know that environmental laws, labor and women once clashed, causing feathers to fly? One little known battle from the days of the “plume boom” took place in 1913. The setting? The Indiana State House.
Nineteen-thirteen happened to be the same year that W.T. Hornaday, one of America’s foremost wildlife biologists and conservationists, published a book called Our Vanishing Wildlife. Born on a farm near Plainfield west of Indianapolis but raised in Iowa, Hornaday had traveled around South Asia, served as Chief Taxidermist at the Smithsonian, then became the first director of the New York Zoological Society, later renamed the Bronx Zoo. In 1889, the former Hoosier published the first great book on the near-total destruction of the American bison — the species seen bounding across Indiana’s state seal but which was wiped out here long ago by the pioneers.
Already an expert on the buffalo’s demise, by 1913 Hornaday had begun lashing out at the wholesale slaughter of birds:
From the trackless jungles of New Guinea, round the world both ways to the snow-capped peaks of the Andes, no unprotected bird is safe. The humming-birds of Brazil, the egrets of the world at large, the rare birds of paradise, the toucan, the eagle, the condor and the emu, all are being exterminated to swell the annual profits of the millinery [hat-making] trade. The case is far more serious than the world at large knows, or even suspects. But for the profits, the birds would be safe; and no unprotected wild species can long escape the hounds of Commerce.
Feathers have been part of human attire for millennia. But by the early 1900s, massive depredations by European and American hunters around the globe had wreaked havoc on avian populations. Bird hunters were now the arm of industrial capitalism, with the harvesting of birds for ladies’ hats belonging in the same category with other natural resources like coal, diamonds and oil.
Although the center of the global feather trade in 1913 was London — where feather merchants examined skins and quills in enormous sales rooms, then bid on them like other commodities — New York and Paris were involved a big part of the trade. All three cities had become epicenters of women’s fashion. And women weren’t only the consumers of feathers: of the roughly 80,000 people employed in the millinery business in New York City in 1900, the majority were women.
In 1892, Punch, the British satirical magazine, took a jab at women, who it considered the driving force behind the decimation of wild bird species and their consumption in the West. It failed to point out, of course, that the hunters themselves — the ones who did the slaughtering — were men.
In the U.S. and Europe, bird-lovers created several societies to stem the global slaughter, with scientists helping to provide the grisly details that would provoke moral outrage. Women made up most of the membership in these societies, including the new Audubon Society — named for John James Audubon, the French-American naturalist who lived for years along the Ohio River across from Evansville, Indiana. An especially well-known voice was the great ornithologist and writer William Henry Hudson, born to American parents in Argentina, where he spent his childhood bird-watching in the South American grasslands. Yet in the days before zoom lenses and advanced photography came along, even respected field naturalists like Audubon and Hudson had relied on guns to “collect” species and study them.
In 1913, W.T. Hornaday gave specifics on the “plume boom.” At one London feather sale two years earlier, ten-thousand hummingbird skins were “on offer.” About 192,000 herons had been killed to provide the packages of heron feathers sold at a single London auction in 1902. Other popular feathers came from birds like the egret, eagle, condor, bustard, falcon, parrot, and bird of paradise. When exotic bird feathers weren’t available or affordable, millinery shops used the feathers of common barnyard fowl.
While the Florida Everglades were a popular hunting ground, the “Everglades of the North” — Indiana’s Kankakee Swamp, now mostly vanished — was another commercial source for feathers, mammal pelts, and another item that’s out of fashion today: frog legs. Yet the worst of the commercial hunting was in Florida, where ornithologists wrote of how hunters shot mother birds, especially herons and egrets, and left nestlings to starve, endangering the entire population for quick profit, as the mother’s plumage was at its most spectacular during nursing. Conservationist T. Gilbert Pearson described finding “heaps of dead Herons festering in the sun, with the back of each bird raw and bleeding” where the feathers had been torn off. “Young herons had been left by scores in the nests to perish by exposure and starvation.” The much-publicized murder of a young Florida game warden, Guy Bradley, in 1905 helped galvanize the anti-plumage campaign and spurred the creation of Everglades National Park.
Since bird feathers and skins were often valued at twice their weight in gold and were readily available to ordinary Americans and Europeans even in urban areas, women and children found a decent supplemental income in stoning birds to death or killing them with pea-shooters, stringing them up, and selling them to hat-makers. Children also robbed eggs for collections. Farmers frequently shot or trapped even great birds like the eagle when they preyed on chickens, with one scowling, utilitarian farmer in New Hampshire blasting “sentimentalists” who thought the eagle had “any utility” at all.
By 1913, legislators in the U.S. and Britain had been urged to consider “anti-plumage” bills. Yet the profits involved in millinery — and the ability of consumers to buy hats in markets not covered by the laws — were big hurdles. As early as 1908, anti-plumage bills were being debated in the British Parliament, but they took years to pass. (Britain’s passed in 1921.) States like New York and New Jersey were considering a ban on the trade in wild bird feathers around the same time. New York’s went into effect in July 1911, but not without concern for its effects on feather workers, some of whom argued that they had no other way of supporting themselves.
The debate in New Jersey took a more comic turn. If this news account can be trusted, women came to the Senate in Trenton and pelted legislators with paper balls.
One crusader for wild birds was the former mayor of Crawfordsville, Indiana, Samuel Edgar Voris. In 1913, he joined the likes of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Audubon Society by taking the battle to the Indiana Legislature. For a few weeks early that year, Hoosier politicians and journalists debated what became known as the “Voris Bird Bill.”
It was a strange fact that Voris authored the bill, since back in 1897 he’d been called “one of the crack shots of the United States,” often competing in shooting tournaments around the country. Voris was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1854. His father may have been the Jerry or Jeremiah Voris who ran a meat market in downtown Terre Haute. (According to one ad, that Jerry sold elk meat next door to the offices of the Daily Wabash Express, ran a grape farm, and might be identical with one of Crawfordsville’s first undertakers. He also might have known something about preserving the bodies of birds — or at least had an interest in birds. In 1870, the Terre Haute butcher offered one “fine healthy screech owl” to State Geologist John Collett to be put on display at the State Board of Agriculture.)
Samuel E. Voris was out West in 1876, the year the Sioux wiped out Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn. The 21-year-old Voris must have seen the slaughter of American bison up close as he traveled in an overland wagon train to the Black Hills of South Dakota. His 1920 obituary in the Crawfordsville Daily Journal mentions that Voris’ wagon team was attacked by Indians on the way out. Yet the future Crawfordsville mayor “had the honor of being in the wigwam of Spotted Tail, one of the big chiefs of a noted tribe of Indians at that time.”
Voris returned to the Midwest, settling in Crawfordsville, where he was a member of General Lew Wallace‘s “noted rifle team,” a group of crack recreational sharpshooters. (The Hoosier soldier, ambassador and author of Ben-Hurwas also an avid hunter and fisherman, often visiting the Kankakee Swamp.) Voris’ obituary noted that the mayor “was a man of peaceful disposition in spite of his love for firearms.” He knew about animals: his investments in livestock and insurance made him one of the richest men in Crawfordsville. He also served as postmaster and was involved in civic-minded masonic organizations, including the Tribe of Ben-Hur, Knights of Pythias and Knights Templar. General Wallace, former U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, probably had something to do with the fact that in 1898, Voris was granted an audience with the Turkish Sultan while traveling in the Middle East. Voris apparently loved camels, too: in 1914, he fell off one in Crawfordsville when the camel got spooked by an automobile. The man landed on his head and suffered a scalp wound.
In 1911 and again in 1913, Montgomery County elected their former mayor to the Indiana House. Representative Samuel E. Voris was the author of at least two bills in 1913 concerning the treatment of animals. (Another bill, written by a different representative, proposed “a fine of $500 for anyone who willfully poisons [domestic] animals.”)
The “Voris bird bill” won strong support from conservation and animals rights groups in the Hoosier State, but sparked a bit of humor on the floor of the House of Representatives.
The “Voris bird bill” passed the Indiana House, but objections arose in the Senate, with a Senator Clarke arguing that it would harm Indiana milliners while not prohibiting the sale of hats made outside the state from being sold here. Another senator objected on the grounds that national legislation was needed to make it truly effective — even though that was slow in coming. The bird bill was killed in February.
Yet while some women opposed it, one correspondent for the Indianapolis Star came out in defense of the anti-plumage campaign.
Marie Chomel, who wrote under the pen name Betty Blythe, had a weekly column in the Indianapolis Star for years. (She came from a newspaper family. Her father Alexandre Chomel, son of a nobleman exiled by the French Revolution, had been the first editor of the Indiana Catholic & Record.) As a reporter for the Star, Betty Blythe became the first woman ever to lap the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a race car, riding shotgun with Wild Bob Burman “at a terrific speed” on a day when two drivers were killed there. It happened in August 1909.
Chomel frequently wrote about fashion, but thought that exotic plumage was inhumane and had to go. She published her views on the bird bill in the Star on February 13, 1913.
Though wildlife protection laws and groups like the Audubon Society helped make the case for saving birds, two other events were even more influential in ending the feather trade.
Oddly, the outbreak of World War I saved millions of birds. Disruptions to international shipping and wartime scarcity made the flamboyant fashions of the Edwardian period look extravagant and even unpatriotic. Tragically, as women went into the workplace and needed more utilitarian clothing, “murderous millinery” gave way to murderous warfare, fueled by the same forces of imperialism and greed that had killed untold creatures of the sky.
Even more effective, fashion changes and class antagonism caused upper-class women to adopt new apparel like the “slouch” and “cloche” hats and new hairstyles like the bob. As hair was being cut back, elaborate feather ornaments made little sense. In the U.S. and the UK, where upper-class and upper-middle-class women made up most of the membership in groups like the Audubon Society, female conservationists sometimes targeted women of other classes for sporting feathers. Slowly, they instigated change.
Fortunately, most fashion enthusiasts would probably agree that the cloche hats of the 1920s, which drove hunters and feather merchants out of business, are more natural and beautiful than the most literally “natural” hats of a decade or two before.
While browsing through an old issue of the Madison Daily Courier (February 20, 1850), we stumbled across this eye-catching inventory from James Roberts’ store in the antebellum river town of Madison, Indiana. Two unusual items stood out: mushroom catsup and walnut catsup. What on earth was the history of these things?
In the days before H.J. Heinz, a former horseradish salesman, muscled in and mastered the art of making a pure, healthy tomato ketchup, Americans enjoyed an amazing variety of ketchups or “catsups.” Many antebellum Hoosiers could have bought these at the store. Others would have been able to make them from scratch using ingredients often available in Hoosier fields and forests.
Like many American families, the ketchup family isn’t native to the New World. Both the word and the condiment likely came from China or Malaysia, where ke-chap referred to a brine of pickled fish or shellfish. East Asian ketchups were salty or soy-based and had a liquid consistency, unlike often-stubborn tomato ketchup, a “non-Newtonian” fluid that needs a thump to get moving.
The first known mention of the word ketchup in English comes from a dictionary of slang from 1690, where it’s defined as a “high East-India sauce.” In fact, British East India traders are credited for bringing the sauce back from Asia. Word-sleuths, however, think that ketchup might have come from an Arabic word, kabees, also referring to a pickling sauce.
One Englishman, Charles Lockyer, gave advice to other traders in the Orient on how to get the best deals on lucrative soy sauce and ketchup — in 1711.
It’s hard to believe anyone would sail all the way to Asia and back in a wooden boat just for ketchup — or that King George and George Washington were throwing ketchup on their food. But eighteenth-century Britain and America were definitely familiar with the ketchup “family.” In fact, catsup, once thought to be an Americanized version of the word, was actually a misspelling by the Irish satirist and Anglican priest Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, who used it in a comic poem in 1730.
Eliza Smith, one of the bestselling English cookbook writers, describes how to make ketchup in her book The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion. Smith died around 1732, but her cookbook came out in many editions and was the first one ever printed in the American colonies. In 1742, a year before Thomas Jefferson’s birth, the cookbook was reprinted in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Yet Smith’s recipe for “English Katchup” didn’t call for a single tomato. Instead, you needed mushrooms, anchovies and horseradish. The vinegary result tasted and looked something like Worcestershire sauce. It took a week to make.
(Eliza Smith, The Compleat Housewife, London, 1727. The book was re-printed in Williamsburg by William Parks, who ran one of the first paper mills and thus helped turn out some of the earliest American newspapers, including Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. This instructional video on 18th-century cooking will tell you how to put together a mushroom ketchup that would have been familiar to Americans almost 300 years ago.)
Ketchup’s historic association with pickling sauces and fish was still strong in the mid-1800s, when grocery stores like James Roberts’ just downstream from Cincinnati were advertising the arrival of seafood and condiments from the East Coast. Much of that food came aboard steamboats floating down from Pittsburgh — future ketchup capital of the world (but not yet…)
For generations, many Europeans and Americans were literally scared of tomatoes and tomato-loving worms, believing both to be the source of a deadly poison. Part of the reason why the tomato was once considered a “poison apple” was that wealthy Europeans ate it off pewter plates high in lead content. Botanists and cultivators slowly dispelled these myths. By the 1870s, doctors and plant-growers had sparked a craze for the tomato as a medical cure-all. Before the 1830s, though, that lingering fear of the tomato was one reason why it was slow to be accepted into the family of ketchups.
Walnut ketchup still occasionally makes it onto the table and usually tastes something like A-1 Steak Sauce. Charlotte Mason, a Revolutionary-era chef in England, promoted fermented varieties of walnut ketchup in The Lady’s Assistant, a cookbook published in London in 1787 and available in the U.S. You’d have to plan your dinners well in advance, though. Like distilled liquor, some fermented ketchups take several months to make. Fortunately, Charlotte Mason definitely believed in bulk cooking — and some varieties would “keep for years.”
Just as beer- and whiskey-lovers have been rediscovering all the varieties of alcohol that Americans enjoyed before Prohibition put the nix on brewers and distillers, foodies are unearthing some of the ketchup varieties that once existed in Old American cooking.
These included concord grape ketchup (including this recipe from western New York for grape catsup applied to sweet potato fries and/or Greek yogurt) and lemon ketchup. An unusual historic recipe from 19th-century New Hampshire tells how to make cucumber ketchup. One chef touts a tangy peach ketchup calling for ingredients as diverse as cinnamon, sugar, chili, molasses and vinegar. Oyster ketchup was often made directly from oysters, but other oyster ketchups were made from tomatoes and meant to be put on oysters. Van Camp Packing Company in Indianapolis and the Loudon Packing Company in Terre Haute were once major producers of oyster ketchup.
Since fermentation was often involved, ketchup sometimes began to be treated like wine. The Indiana Palladium in Lawrenceburg (future home of Seagram’s Distillery) reprinted a clip from an article in the United States Gazette of Philadelphia about the tomato and its use in regulating digestion. This was around the time that the health benefits of the once-misunderstood “poison apple” were finally being promoted. The author praises a “very choice bottle” of fermented tomato ketchup, bottled by his family six years earlier — in 1827.
The tomato’s fortunes were on the rise. But until Henry Heinz came along, eating tomato ketchup could stillput your life in jeopardy. The problem lay in poor sanitation at factories and bottling plants — and the issue of how to keep tomato ketchup red.
Writers around the time of the Civil War described the disgusting horror show that sometimes came pouring out of ketchup bottles: yeasty, moldy, bacteria-laden filth. Food poisoning and even death weren’t an uncommon fate after consumption of “putrid, decomposed” tomato ketchup. Amazingly, manufacturers — including Charles Loudon in Terre Haute — often used coal-tar dye, an ingredient in road construction, to preserve the tomato’s bright red appearance. It was only in 1882 that writers began to point out the dangers of coal tar. Aware of ketchup nightmares, Gardener’s Monthly that year encouraged American families to steer clear of industrial ketchup and keep on making their own. A further danger came from boric acid, once used as a food preservative and now used in athlete’s foot medication and insecticide.
(H.J. Heinz around the time he moved beyond the horseradish business and forever changed the ketchup industry.)
By the 1870s, Henry Heinz of Pittsburgh was sparking a revolution in the ketchup, sauerkraut, and pickle business. Heinz’s family had emigrated from Kallstadt, Bavaria, hometown of Donald Drumpf’s ancestors. Unlike many Gilded Age business moguls, Heinz was a political progressive and took great strides to improve life for workers at his plants — and to keep bacteria out of his customers’ food.
With a good knowledge of advances in chemistry and public health, by 1906 Heinz was turning out a preservative-free ketchup (i.e., no coal tar!) and used transparent jars so his customers could see exactly what they were buying. Heinz was proud of his factories: even in notoriously polluted Pittsburgh, his employees had access to showers, swimming pools, gardens, medical stations, fresh laundry, free manicures and lunchtime open-air concerts. He offered free life and health insurance to workers and free tours to the public because — like his bottles — he felt he had nothing to fear from transparency. The Heinz Company hired thousands of women, and Heinz raised their wages against the advice of his business committee. He also took out ads in women’s magazines to warn the public about the dangers of certain food preservatives.
(Women at the Heinz Factory in Pittsburgh, circa 1901.)
Knowing that quality food and happy workers meant bigger profits, the ketchup mogul was a major force behind getting the Pure Food and Drug Act passed in 1906, a year after Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, an exposé of meatpackers, came out in a Socialist newspaper in Kansas, Appeal to Reason. (That paper’s editor, by the way, was Julius Wayland, a native Hoosier who once nearly got lynched in Versailles, Indiana, for his Socialist views.)
Heinz’s revolution — a “red” one, indeed — soon spread to the Midwest. Today, Red Gold in Elwood, Indiana, is the top ketchup producer in the U.S., beating out even Heinz. And the Hoosier State itself ranks second only to California in tomato processing. To think that it all began with a 17th-century Asian fish sauce…
(Laborers pick tomatoes for the Loudon Packing Company of Terre Haute. Loudon had hometown competition in the ketchup business from Hulman & Company — whose owner, Tony Hulman, later bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. By World War II, however, Loudon’s company had won minor fame itself by becoming the first major producer of V8, once made in Terre Haute.)
(Evansville cartoonist Karl Kae Knecht helped enlist tomatoes during World War II. Indiana tomato production “splatters” Hitler, Mussolini, and Emperor Hirohito, Evansville Courier, August 10, 1942.)
What is Indiana’s connection to one of Europe’s greatest unsolved mysteries: the whereabouts of Russia’s lost crown jewels? While some of the historic diadems are now back on display in Moscow, in the 1920s many were considered missing. Some are still unaccounted for. (One of the most credible stories claims that these famous gems lie buried in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.)
In 1922, former Indiana governor James P. Goodrich was allowed to take an unexpected peek at the elusive Romanov treasures when he went to the Soviet Union on a humanitarian aid mission. And what he saw in Moscow bedazzled him.
Goodrich, a native of Winchester, Indiana, was governor during World War I. A lifelong Republican, he is best known for signing statewide Prohibition into law in 1917. (He was also governor when women won the right to vote and when Indiana’s state park system was founded.) As a banker with a knack for investments, Goodrich was well-known for his success at marketing war bonds in Indiana, where sales skyrocketed. Yet the governor himself barely the survived the war years. In 1917, he contracted typhoid fever while visiting a northern Indiana prison. Then, a year later, Goodrich — like Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 — was struck by a streetcar, an accident that nearly killed him and left him walking with a cane for the rest of his life.
The Hoosier governor ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920, losing to Warren Harding. Yet once Goodrich was out of the governor’s office in 1921, President Harding persuaded the banker to accept a humanitarian post in the new Soviet Union.
Tsarist Russia had collapsed during World War I. During the Russian Revolution, Tsar Nicholas and his family were executed — reportedly while wearing hidden gems sown into their clothing — and the country engaged in a bloody civil war. Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks came out on top in 1922, the year Goodrich arrived in Russia. Yet by then, the combined effects of war, revolution, and famine had killed, and were still killing, millions.
Americans had already gotten involved in bringing humanitarian relief to hungry, war-ravaged Europe. In addition to the work of American Mennonites, Jews, and Quakers, future U.S. president Herbert Hoover was directing the new American Relief Association (ARA).
Hoover, a geologist and Quaker from Iowa who had spent years living overseas, where he managed mining operations in Australia, China and Russia, was also a successful businessman. During World War I, he managed food drives to help war-torn Belgium. As director of various food initiatives, Hoover — known as “The Great Humanitarian” and “Master of Emergencies” — worked with the American Friends Service Committee and other groups to bring aid to millions of desperately hungry Europeans, including Russians, who soon found themselves caught in one of the deadliest famines in human history.
Herbert Hoover was a friend to Russians, but not to communism. He wanted Russians to see Americans’ generosity, and America to see the results of communist cruelty. When James Goodrich and his wife Cora left Winchester, Indiana, in 1921, sailing aboard the SS Kroonland for Europe, this was partly so that the former Hoosier governor could witness “what the real difficulties of this foolish economic system [Communism] are.” Goodrich agreed to come and learn “the truth about Russia,” which turned out to be more horrifying than he bargained for. He would spend two years there, off and on, as an ARA commissioner. Yet ten years before the U.S. finally recognized the Soviet Union in 1933, Goodrich urged opening up diplomatic relations — partly because he saw the USSR as an unavoidable fact and partly because the survival of millions of humans might be found to rely on American aid.
Almost as soon as Goodrich got to Russia, he began to witness signs of a massive, mostly man-made disaster. Like most famines, the one that killed six million Russians in the early 1920s was almost completely avoidable. Nature wasn’t the biggest culprit. The real killers were politics, greed, war, and deliberate human cruelty.
As early as 1919, Hoover’s food administration had offered help to Russia on the condition that Western relief agencies be given control of Russian railroads. This was to make sure that food reached the people who needed it. Lenin turned down that offer. During the Russian Civil War, armies used food as a weapon, stealing it from peasant farmers. Russian peasants didn’t often support the Communists, and when they saw their food being stolen, many farmers cut their production back. Other peasants, especially wealthier ones, were accused of hoarding food. By 1921, Lenin — whom Governor Goodrich met — was ordering that food be deliberately taken away from peasants to crush their resistance to the revolution.
As he toured parts of the rural Volga region, Goodrich saw almost no dogs. Dogs had been turned into sausages. He found small children shivering and crying in sheds, abandoned or orphaned and living off cabbage leaves. Many Russians were on the edge of death. One winter, he saw a man eating green bread. Asked what it was, the man told him this was “camel’s dung mixed with grass.”
Though Goodrich saw mass graves, he was spared some of the worst sights, which involved cannibalism. Yet his testimony about the Russian famine helped double the amount of relief authorized by Congress. He encouraged American cooperation in rebuilding Russia, which, he suggested, would partly require the export of American tractors.
At the height of the famine, it is estimated that the American Relief Administration was feeding about 10 million people a day. This was only possible after Lenin finally agreed to let Western aid groups feed his own people.
So where do the crown jewels come in?
Although the Bolshevik government rejected capitalism, it needed more than just Western food. It needed Western money. As in Ireland during the Famine of the 1840s, Lenin’s government was exporting grain for cash while millions starved at home. Money from abroad was to be used to build up Soviet industry. Yet in addition to money from grain, the Bolsheviks also looked for outright loans from the West.
As collateral, Lenin was willing to use the most valuable items the Communists could get their hands on — the imperial Russian crown jewels.
The American press was full of wild stories about these gems in the 1920s. As the South Bend News-Times told Hoosiers with disgust the Romanov dynasty’s orbs, scepters, crowns, and dazzling pearls were thought to be worth about 60 billion dollars, “equal to all the money that will be earned this year by all Americans combined,” the editors thought. The Hoosier paper considered the allure and value attached to those fabled gemstones “preposterously ridiculous” — especially when so many humans were dead or dying of hunger.
To keep their treasures safe, the Romanov family had broken up the jewel collection, sending some of it to a monastery in Siberia. According to a 2009 story in the Los Angeles Times, another pile of the gems was clandestinely buried in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert when a Russian aristocrat who was hauling them to China got attacked by bandits. He later fled to America, married an American silver heiress, and never made it back to dig up the jewels.
Though Lenin’s government had confiscated some of the stones and was offering them as collateral on foreign loans, the only Western country that took up the offer was the new Republic of Ireland. After photographs were taken in Moscow in 1922, the Russian imperial crown traveled to New York City, where it was given to Irish revolutionaries in exchange for a loan of just $25,000. Almost forgotten, the Tsars’ crown stayed in Dublin until 1950, when the Soviet government under Joseph Stalin finally repaid the loan and got the crown back.
On a trip to Russia in June 1922, Goodrich had an unusual experience. One morning he was approached by a Soviet official and asked if he wanted to see some unnamed government property. Goodrich was annoyed, thinking this was probably going to be a pile of furs in a warehouse. When he and his wife Cora arrived, however, they were introduced to a jeweler, who started showing them a book full of photos of rare gems.
To the Goodriches’ surprise, the jeweler then had three iron chests brought out. Once the latches were broken open in the presence of “Red Guards,” the former Hoosier governor and first lady found themselves staring directly at the dazzling Russian crown jewels.
On June 14, 1922, Goodrich recorded in his diary:
It was a perfectly marvelous collection. The old Czar’s crown, the crowns of the Czarina and the various members of the royal family, with diamonds varying from one to 200 carats, all of the purest water, and wonderful color. Crowns of diamonds, of diamonds and pearls, emeralds, rubies and amethysts; collars, bracelets, necklaces. The scene beggared description. I never saw anything like it; it did not seem possible there could be so many jewels in the world.
He looked at the gems “until my eyes were weary with the blaze of light.”
When this news got back to America, the press jumped on the story about the Hoosier governor’s encounter with the “royal toys.”
The South Bend News-Times stated that “Mrs. Goodrich wore a crown worth $4,000,000 which had belonged to the Empress Elizabeth. . . The governor remarked he didn’t want to see Mrs. Goodrich become accustomed to wearing $4,000,000 hats.”
Details about which jewels they saw are sketchy, but the crowns may have once been owned by Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. Among the greatest gems in the collection is the famous Orloff diamond. An ancient stone first mentioned almost 2,000 years ago in India, that diamond had been stolen from a Hindu temple in the 1700s by a French soldier and later came into the hands of Catherine the Great as a gift from her lover.
Governor Goodrich wasn’t entirely sure why Lenin’s representatives showed him the crown jewels. He guessed it was so he could go home and assure the U.S. government that the Soviets hadn’t broken up the hugely valuable collection. Even communist countries needed capital, yet diamonds and pearls were useless to the Communists unless they could be exchanged for money. Used as a guarantee on loans, the Romanov gems would, it was hoped, help the USSR develop industrially.
The American government wasn’t interested in the jewels, but the press and public definitely were. Stories started to crop up. In January 1923, a special agent from the U.S. Treasury Department told the New York Times that the crown jewels are “hardy perennials and bloom the year round. We count the day lost when we don’t get a report about them.”
In Brooklyn that month, a rumor was going around that James Jones, an African American seaman who had sailed on a vessel out of Vladivostok, Siberia, was actively smuggling jewels for Soviet agents. In 1920, Jones mysteriously died at sea off the coast of Gibraltar. His embalmed body was sealed up in a metal coffin — alongside the crown jewels, so the story went.
Federal officials from the Treasury Department dismissed the tale at first. But by February 1923, reports of suspicious activity around Jones’ grave at a military cemetery in Brooklyn forced the War Department to station an armed guard there. To save expense on the guard, the coffin was exhumed, as heavily-armed soldiers stood by. No crown jewels were found inside, but “reports” continued to come in.
James Goodrich lived in Winchester until his death in 1940. Though he never approved of Communism and insisted that Russia’s new government was no better than “cheap east side politicians and shopkeepers,” it was said that the only time he ever approved of a Democratic politician’s actions was when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognized the USSR in 1933.
In June 1923, when the news came out that Lenin’s government was still exporting grain — even as millions of tons of it came in from American farmers — Herbert Hoover’s ARA shut down its aid operations in Russia. The Soviet government took over the feeding of its own people, but had to work for years to undermine the good impressions that American relief workers had made. Yet when Stalin came to power in the 1930s, “execution by hunger” continued. In 1932-33, a decade after the first famine, another six million people in the USSR were starved to death in the name of revolution.
It’s not cold enough in Indiana this year to get your tongue stuck to an icy flagpole. But every holiday season, we Hoosiers are reminded that the comedy classic A Christmas Story (1983) is set in our fair state.
Though filmed in Cleveland, Ohio — where the original Ralphie Parker residence was sold on eBay in 2004, restored to its 1940 appearance, and turned into a museum — the tale is based on the semi-fictional remembrances of Hoosier writer Jean Shepherd. Born on Chicago’s South Side, Shepherd grew up just over the state line in East Chicago and Hammond, Indiana, where he graduated from high school in 1939. After serving with the Army Signal Corps in World War II, the future author began his radio broadcast career at WJOB in Hammond before moving to Cincinnati and New York. Many of Shepherd’s stories began as on-the-air reminiscences before they appeared in Playboy. Some would have been picked up by listeners in the Midwest.
If Ralphie’s dad, played by the late Darren McGavin, read any newspaper by the light of that short-lived leg lamp, it would probably have been the Hammond Times.Hoosier State Chronicles will soon be uploading a long run of the Lake County Times, renamed the Times in 1933. Meanwhile, here’s a bit of its history. Who knows? It might even turn up some colorful background material on Jean Shepherd’s classic A Christmas Story.
Seventy years before Ralphie Parker came onto the scene, the young lumber port of State Line, Indiana, wasn’t producing enough news to keep a local newspaper afloat. Most of its early settlers came from Germany and spoke and read English poorly. The town’s success — and eventual name change — was overwhelmingly due to George H. Hammond, a Detroit butcher whose 1868 patent for refrigerated rail cars helped him rival Chicago’s great slaughterhouses. Mammoth stockyards along Lake Michigan attracted both immigrants and tourists to the greater Chicago area. (When Rudyard Kipling visited the Windy City in 1899, he wrote a horrified description of the “disassembly line” at Philip Armour’s slaughterhouse.) Abundant local lakes and rivers provided the ice that helped meatpacking thrive.
Yet the Hammond Packing Company’s preference for hiring German butchers and sausage-makers indirectly handicapped the development of an English-language press in northern Lake County. Most German residents of the “Hoosier Coast” got their news from thriving German-language newspapers in Chicago and Milwaukee. Even Hammond’s own Deutsche Volks-Zeitung didn’t start publishing until 1891. It died out sometime before 1911.
Though northwest Indiana soon became an industrial powerhouse, this was one of the last corners of the state to be settled. In 1900, lumbermen, farmers, and engineers had barely cleared the forests and drained the swamps that defined the landscape of the Calumet region (or simply “Da Region,” in local parlance.) Gary, whose steel mills made it Lake County’s most important city, was founded only in 1906.
The Hammond Packing Company burned down in 1901 and was never rebuilt. Steel, railroads, and retail took over. Ironically, the rapid development of Lake County led to “Da Region” becoming a cradle of American conservation, as nature enthusiasts and city dwellers successfully fought to save the famous Indiana Dunes — a favorite Chicago playground — from destruction.
In 1906, Hammond’s floundering English press got a boost when Sidmon McHie (1863-1944), a wealthy Chicago grain and stock broker, bought the struggling Hammond Times. The enterprising McHie turned the paper around, using it to promote Lake County’s young industries and businesses. At that time, Calumet was fertile ground for venture capitalists like McHie. As a 1943 tribute to him put it, the energetic owner used the paper to “get Hammond to believe in itself.”
Not content with marketing the news only to Hammond, McHie changed the paper’s name to the Lake County Times and pushed sales in Whiting, Gary, Indiana Harbor, and East Chicago. The daily’s circulation, which stood at just 137 when McHie bought it in 1906, jumped to 5,000 within a year and almost exceeded 10,000 in 1920. As an investment scheme, McHie circulated many copies for free simply to promote the city. By the time A Christmas Story was set in the early 1940s, the paper was reaching 130,000 readers — probably including “Old Man Parker” himself.
McHie (whose first name is often misspelled Simon and even Sidney) hired Chicago sportswriter Hugh E. Keough to be the Lake County Times’ first editor. Best known for his Chicago Tribune sports column (“In the Wake of the News”), Keough served as an official at Midwestern and Southern horse-racing tracks, whose decline led him back into newspaper work by 1906. Keough and the witty Ring Lardner were two of Chicago’s best writers on baseball. Keough’s tenure on the Lake County Times was short-lived, however. He was replaced by Percy A. Parry (who had emigrated to the U.S. from Wales at age nine.) For decades, Parry and his brothers were part of a “dynasty” of Lake County news editors.
While Gary was becoming known for its mills, Sidmon McHie and his editors on the Lake County Times helped transform Hammond into a shopping mecca for northwest Indiana. It’s no coincidence that the plot of A Christmas Story revolves around one of Hammond’s great department stores — where the line to see a drunken Santa Claus and some evil elves “stretched all the way back to Terre Haute.”
With a stock broker and capitalist at the helm, the Lake County Times became a colorful, flamboyant paper and enjoyed strong sales. While not known for deep investigative journalism at the time, the paper does provide a window into the social issues of the 1910s and ’20s – from the scandalous rise in American divorce rates to labor struggles at Indiana’s burgeoning steel mills. Much of its “reporting,” however, was syndicated — and wasn’t serious news, anyway.
The Lake County Times wasn’t especially friendly to labor movements or to socialism. During the lead-up to America’s entry into World War I in 1917, it also joined in the vilification of Germany. The Hammond paper helped stoke up public fears during the 1919 “Red Scare,” which involved a crackdown by U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer on anarchists, Communists, and immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, whose politics were suspect in the wake of the Russian Revolution and a wave of anarchist bomb plots. Gary, which participated in the great steel strike of 1919 and was home to thousands of Eastern Europeans, was deeply involved in the “Red Scare.”
That last clip reminds us that women were at the forefront of Prohibition. Yet even during the days of “Saharization,” the Lake County Times published colorful stories about the Jazz Age’s rejection of Victorian norms. Divorcées, flappers, fast cars, and heartbreaks worthy of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel were often sprawled across the front page.
Publisher Sidmon McHie made national news in 1923 and again in 1935, when aspects of his own tempestuous marriage came to light. Daughter of a St. Louis multimillionaire and reportedly also a beauty queen at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Isabel Mulhall had briefly been a theater actress, got divorced, and “hastily” married Sidmon McHie in New York in 1906, when he was living at the Waldorf Astoria. By the 1930s, however, the wealthy couple, who lived in New York and Illinois, ended up estranged.
Part of their divorce proceedings centered on a generous winter-time gift that Isabel had made to farmers near Battle Creek, Michigan, in March 1935. But long before her flamboyant Depression-era “giveaway,” she had been generous to dogs.
In 1923, Isabel announced that she was willing her vast fortune to create a hospital for abused animals. While an earlier free animal hospital in New York City actually predated the New York Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children by a good eight years, the American public and press unfairly lampooned Mrs. McHie as a sour old eccentric who hated human beings.
The Ogden Standard-Examiner was one of the few papers to treat her with any kind of fairness. Speaking to a reporter, she told about a cruel child that had mercilessly tortured a puppy, a scene that could have come straight out of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. As she began to think about her own mortality and draw up a will, Isabel McHie considered leaving a large bequest to a “home for incurable children.” But if the newspapers are correct, the hideous “screechings” of an Episcopal boy’s choir in New York put an end to that — or was it the child that broke a puppy’s leg on purpose? (The McHies had no children of their own.)
Though it never came into being, rumors had it that this would have been the largest animal hospital in the world. A provision in the will specified that McHie’s own ashes be placed next to a marble bust of herself, carved by an Italian sculptor, and that the honored bust and ashes would sit in the entrance to the animal hospital.
In return for her generosity, she got hate mail. Letters accused Isabel McHie of being “wicked” and that the money could have done more good for humans. Why give money to “dumb animals”? Some critics speculated that her motives came from a desire to have “revenge on mankind.” McHie’s response? Animals taught humans to be more humane. (It’s ironic, however, that some of her fortune probably derived from the prosperity of Hammond, named for a butcher.)
Maybe the sneering news stories had an effect on her. Maybe it was her pending divorce suit or ill health. Or maybe she was just tired of being rich. In any case, in March 1935, the 60-year-old Isabel McHie decided to dispose of a large amount of her wealth — before anybody else criticized her will.
On March 20, she withdrew $175,000 of her own or her husband’s money and boarded a passenger train from Chicago’s Dearborn Street Station to Montreal. She was also carrying about $500,000 worth of jewels with her in a bag.
Somewhere outside Battle Creek, Michigan, a conductor noticed Mrs. McHie feeding unbelievably large bills through a ventilator — in currency denominations “as high as $10,000.” This, after all, was one of the worst years of the Great Depression, and the wealthy philanthropist was literally throwing a fortune out the window. Reporters wrote that she also tossed $100 bills into the aisle of a Pullman car. Most of the money seems to have been recovered, but farmers along the railroad tracks in southern Michigan eagerly joined the search for anything left of the money-throwing spree.
Arrested as “hysterical,” Isabel McHie was taken to a hotel in Hammond, where police wanted to investigate hospital records that she tried to withhold. She later sued the Grand Trunk Western Railway for physical assault and false imprisonment — for a million dollars. Sidmon McHie was vacationing at the mineral springs in French Lick, Indiana, when his wife started throwing money away. Their divorce was soon finalized. Isabel McHie died in New York City on April 25, 1939. Contrary to the belief that she hated human beings, most of her estate went to Seeing Eye, Inc., an organization that trained guide dogs for the blind.
The Hammond Times’ owner didn’t survive his ex-wife by long. Sidmon McHie owned a vast stock farm and golf course on the Kankakee River near Momence, Illinois. His obituary notes that “McHie, despite his advanced age, insisted on driving his own automobile because he said that to employ a private chauffeur would remove a man from an essential occupation.” (World War II was still on.) On August 25, 1944, the 81-year-old McHie was hit by a train while driving his car. He died five days later. McHie’s nephew, James S. DeLaurier, took control of the Hammond Times.
The Times dropped Hammond from its name in 1967 and began representing all of northwestern Indiana. It moved its offices to Munster in 1989. Today, the Times of Northwest Indiana is the second-largest newspaper in the state, ranking only behind the Indianapolis Star. Local editions cover Munster, Crown Point, and Valparaiso.
Hoosier State Chronicles expects to have almost two decades of the Lake County Times uploaded and searchable on our website by mid-January 2016.