Category Archives: Medical History

A Skeleton’s Odyssey: The Forensic Mystery of Watson Brown

John Brown gravestie
John Brown’s grave, courtesy of Alamy.

When the fiery abolitionist John Brown, “The Meteor” who tried to ignite a slave rebellion in the South, was hanged for treason, authorities turned the body over to his family.  In December 1859, Brown’s remains traveled north by train from the hanging grounds in Charles Town, Virginia, to the family farm in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Around Christmastime, he was laid to rest next to a huge chunk of Appalachian granite.

Twenty-three years later, a Hoosier geologist who studied such rocks for a living helped ensure that one of John Brown’s fellow raiders at Harper’s Ferry — his son Watson, who was gunned down during the raid — would finally be buried next to his father.  In the meantime, Watson’s bones went on a long odyssey out to the Midwest.

Watson Brown was born October 7, 1835, in Franklin Mills, Ohio. His father, the great abolitionist, moved back and forth between northern Ohio and his native New England several times.  After John Brown went out to “Bleeding Kansas” to fight the extension of slavery into the West, Watson left home, too, though he apparently didn’t join in the combat on the Plains.  His father and brothers, however — considered terrorists by some — waged war on pro-slavery factions with guns, fire and on one occasion, with broadswords used to brutally murder their enemies to death.  A letter from Watson to his mother Mary, written in Iowa in 1856, mentions that on his own way west with a team of emigrants — armed with “Sharp’s rifles and cannon” — they met with ex-slave Frederick Douglass and the reformer Gerrit Smith.  Smith, a failed presidential candidate, secretly financed the later raid on Harper’s Ferry.  Watson himself may have helped carry caches of firearms out to the Great Plains, guns paid for by New England anti-slavery committees.


John Brown
John Brown in Springfield, Massachusetts, 1846.

Watson Brown 2
Watson Brown, circa 1859, courtesy of West Virginia State Archives.

John Brown traversed the Midwest many times on trips back East to win the support of reformers like William Lloyd Garrison, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and even Henry David Thoreau.  In 1859, Brown and a small band of followers — sixteen white and five black — tried to pull off their most spectacular assault on slavery yet, an attack on the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry, where the Shenandoah flows into the Potomac.  The target: 100,000 muskets, to be handed over to slaves for use in a massive insurrection.


Harpers Ferry
Harpers Ferry, Virginia, now West Virginia, 1865, courtesy of National Archives, accessed Wikipedia.

Optimistic supporters in the U.S. and Canada originally planned for 4,500 men to participate in the raid.  Instead, just twenty-one attacked Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859.  After cutting telegraph wires and taking hostages on nearby farms, Brown’s band moved into town.  Local militia, farmers and shopkeepers, opening fire, quickly pinned down the abolitionists, driving them into a brick engine house.  Under siege, John Brown sent his son Watson and another man out with a white flag.  The crowd shot them.  Watson, aged twenty-four, with a bullet just below his stomach, struggled back to the engine house, fatally wounded.  He begged his father and comrades to “dash out his brains,” then tried to commit suicide.


The Liberator (Boston, Mass), November 18, 1859
The Liberator, Boston, Massachusetts, November 18, 1859.

John Brown raid
Brown’s son Oliver was also killed in the raid, while Watson lay in agony. “With one son dead by his side, and another dying, he felt the pulse of his dying son with one hand and held his rifle with the other.” (James Redpath, The Public Life of Capt. John Brown, 1860)

The outbreak of the Civil War was still a year and a half away.  In fact, the raid was put down by Colonel Robert E. Lee — of the U.S. Army.  John Brown was hanged for treason in December.  Spectators at his execution included Stonewall Jackson, John Wilkes Booth, and the poet Walt Whitman.

Ten of Brown’s men died in the raid, including two sons.  What became of their mortal remains is a fascinating and rarely told part of the tale.

Eight of the bodies were gathered up by townspeople of Harpers Ferry.  The locals didn’t want the raiders buried in the town’s cemetery.  They gave a man named James Mansfield five dollars to take care of the corpses.

Packing eight men into two large wooden store boxes, Mansfield buried them along the Shenandoah River about a half-mile from town.  The grave, half forgotten, remained there until 1899, when Dr. Timothy Featherstonehaugh, Captain E.P. Hall, and Orin Grant Libby, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, exhumed the corpses for transfer to the Brown family farm in upstate New York.  Professor Libby took femur notes while examining the skeletal remains, comparing them for size against his own leg.  On August 30, 1899, the mingled raiders’ bones were re-interred at the Brown plot — in a single silver-handled casket.


New England Magazine, April 1901(New England Magazine, April 1901.)


This wasn’t the first time, however, that a box of old bones was brought to North Elba, New York, to lie next to John Brown’s. Two of his followers were never initially buried at all.  One of them was his son Watson.

Remarkably common in the nineteenth century, body-stealing was a feature of reality at a time when medical schools had trouble acquiring corpses for anatomy classes.  Rarely able to do so legally, they had to steal them, giving rise to the “resurrectionists” who nabbed the dead out of fresh graves.

Yet other examples of body-theft involved mere curiosity seekers and bogus scientists.  During the heyday of phrenology — the long-discredited pseudoscience of bumps on the skull, which, it was believed, actually determined one’s personality, creative genius, or propensity to crime — “cranioklepty” (the theft of skulls) was far from rare.

The more famous the head, the better.  When the composer Joseph Haydn died in Vienna in 1809, wealthy robbers paid a cemetery attendant to open up the new grave and cut off his head, which “scientists” later examined.  Until 1954, the famous skull remained on display in a glass case in Vienna, when it was reunited with the rest of Haydn’s bones.   After the coffins of Beethoven and Schubert were exhumed for relocation in the 1860s, their skulls were also examined, as was the entire mummified body of American naval hero John Paul Jones, unearthed in subterranean Paris in 1905 — a hundred-and-thirteen years after he died.

Watson Brown and Jeremiah Anderson — two Midwesterners gunned down at Harpers Ferry — were considered “fine physical specimens.”  Southern doctors took them to Winchester Medical College in Virginia, where, like Joseph Haydn, they had (most of) the flesh stripped off them.  John Brown’s 24-year-old son, who had left behind a widow, Isabella, and a young child who died in 1863, was turned into a model skeleton for the instruction of future Southern medical men.


Dr. Jarvis Johnson
Dr. Jarvis Johnson, surgeon of the 27th Indiana Volunteers.

Yet Winchester, Virginia, just thirty miles from Harper’s Ferry and the Potomac River, changed hands several times during the Civil War.

In the spring of 1862, two and a half years after Watson Brown’s death, the 27th Regiment of Indiana Volunteers marched into town with the Union Army.  Among them was regimental surgeon Dr. Jarvis Jackson Johnson.  Born in Bedford, Indiana, in 1828, Johnson practiced medicine in Martinsville, half way between Indianapolis and Bloomington.  He would have been 34 when he walked into Winchester Medical College and found out what doctors had done to the remains of Watson Brown — an action for which, Virginians believed, Union troops burned down the college, the only case of arson during Winchester’s military occupation.

In 1882, the Indianapolis Journal printed the most widely-accepted version of the tale.  It came in the aftermath of a visit by John Brown, Jr., who visited Morgan County, Indiana, with several other investigators to examine a set of human remains there.

Dr. Johnson had stated that while serving as commander of a military hospital in Winchester, he acquired Watson Brown’s body from the museum of the medical college — then shipped it on a train to Franklin, Indiana, the nearest railroad depot to his home in Martinsville.  Like the Virginia doctors, Johnson kept the body in a case at his medical office.  For twenty years, the raider’s bones were a strange part of the life of a Hoosier country town.


Indianapolis Journal, September 11, 1882

Indianapolis Journal, September 11, 1882 (2)
Indianapolis Journal, September 11, 1882.

In 1882, word of the skeleton’s whereabouts came to John Brown, Jr., Watson’s elder brother and the abolitionist’s oldest son, after Jarvis Johnson put a notice in the Chicago Tribune looking for family members.  The doctor claimed, probably disingenuously, that he hadn’t realized any of the Brown brothers were still living, and he hadn’t wanted to upset Watson Brown’s mother.  Though John Brown, Jr., had fought in “Bleeding Kansas,” he in fact wasn’t part of the raid on Harpers Ferry.  During the Civil War, he helped recruit troops for the famous “Jayhawk” border fighter James H. Lane. (Before Lane became an anti-slavery senator from Kansas and a famous target for Confederates, he had been the lieutenant governor of Indiana.)

Brown, Jr., visited Indiana in September 1882, having already moved back east to Ohio, where he grew grapes for the wine business on South Bass Island in Lake Erie and took an interest in geology.


John Brown, Jr.
John Brown, Jr., accessed Kansapedia, Kansas Historical Society.

The other main forensic investigator to come to Martinsville that September was one of Indiana’s most prominent scientists, the impressively-bearded State Geologist John Collett.  Remembered as a beloved “Santa Claus” figure, Collett was a Wabash Valley native who lived in Indianapolis and often weighed in on scientific and agricultural questions — from the study of caves and killer meteorite hoaxes to how to improve celery crops.  Collett traveled to Martinsville with several doctors to look over the badly-treated remains of the bygone Harpers Ferry raider.


John Collett
Hoosier geologist John Collett, who drew the first maps of Wyandotte Cave, helped Watson Brown get back to New York.

The Indianapolis Journal printed this description of the scene at Dr. Johnson’s office:

The body has received careless treatment during the last few years. It has been carted about from place to place, and has been doing duty in all the anatomical exhibitions about town. During the first few years it was in the possession of Dr. Johnson it was in a remarkably fine state of preservation, but ill usage has ruined it. For several years, it has been lying in the Knights of Pythias hall, and, it is whispered, was used in the mystic ceremonies of the order. The best of care had not been bestowed upon it, and it was infested with worms and insects. Knowledge of its ill-usage was sedulously kept from Mr. Brown. When he intimated that he would like to see the body, he was considerately kept in waiting until it could be removed from the lodge-hall to the residence by way of a back street, and there placed in better condition for the examination.

At the time, it wasn’t clear whether the skeleton was that of Watson or 22-year-old Oliver, John Brown’s other son killed in October 1859.  Watson and Oliver looked alike.  Both stood six feet tall.

An office assistant of Dr. Jarvis’ showed John Brown, Jr., a “coffin-shaped box standing against the wall.”  Then he removed a cloth covering, exposing “a bare and hideous skeleton.”

“Gentlemen, if it is either of my brothers, I am now inclined to think that it is Oliver,” Brown exclaimed after picking up and poring over skeletal fragments and examining the shape of a half-missing skull.   Yet the more he looked, the more he came to think he was looking at his other brother, Watson.


Indianapolis Journal, September 11, 1882 (3)


Geologist John Collett wasn’t a qualified expert in forensic facial reconstruction, a process that would actually be pioneered in the next decade. After comparing all the forensic evidence available, however, including written descriptions of Watson Brown’s gun wound, it was John Collett’s opinion that the cadaver standing before him in Martinsville, Indiana, was, in fact, the man in question.

True to the often bogus science of the time, though, some of the “professor’s” statements expose how ludicrous phrenology was.


The Inter Ocean, September 14, 1882 (2)
The Inter Ocean, Chicago, September 14, 1882.

Then came a fascinating insight.  Dr. Jarvis Johnson’s written affidavit, notarized by Morgan County lawyers, also shed light on why doctors in Virginia wanted to preserve Brown’s corpse in the first place.

When he was put in charge of local Union Army medical operations, “A number of the prominent citizens of Winchester called upon me at the hospital, and each and all declared that [these were] the remains of a son of John Brown.”  Amazingly, the doctor who “prepared” the body, whom Johnson never identifies by name, also stopped by — and pleaded with Johnson to give him back this “exceedingly valuable piece of property.”

Like the medieval Europeans who condemned criminals to be drawn-and-quartered, Virginia doctors held up the corpse as a warning to  their state’s enemies.  Sic semper tyrannis?


The Inter Ocean, September 14, 1882
(The Inter Ocean, Chicago, September 14, 1882.)

Who was this doctor, then?

He was surely on the faculty list — and it’s a small one.  Founded by Dr. Hugh Holmes McGuire, Winchester Medical College had only four instructors in 1859, including the founder’s son, Hunter Holmes McGuire (1835-1900).  At age 24, Hunter McGuire, already a professor anatomy at his father’s school, would have been an exact contemporary of the “fine specimen” killed at Harpers Ferry.

Hunter McGuire, however, was probably not the culprit. In late 1859, he was studying medicine in Philadelphia.  The young doctor was even there during the famous walk-out of Southern medical students, which occurred after John Brown’s body was paraded through the streets by Northern admirers.  Insulted, McGuire led an exodus of about three-hundred Southern students from Jefferson Medical College, who dropped out, went down to Richmond, and re-enrolled at the Medical College of Virginia.  Some sources say that he financed the trip of all these students with his own savings.

Dr. Hunter McGuire later enlisted in the Confederate Army and even served as Stonewall Jackson’s personal surgeon, amputating the general’s arm after Chancellorsville.  He went on to become the president of the American Medical Association.  In the 1890s, McGuire would contribute to the debate over eugenics, racial purity, and the castration of rapists, especially African Americans — arguments that eventually led to Virginia’s “Racial Integrity Act” of 1924, a major victory for the controversial eugenics movement and one of the worst misapplications of science in history.  He also strove to ensure that Southern school textbooks “would not poison the minds of Virginia schoolchildren” by teaching a northern revisionist history of the Civil War.

The Medical Pickwick (1918) states that Watson Brown was “dissected by students.”  McGuire, as stated, was in Pennsylvania in the aftermath of Harper’s Ferry.  But did he have anything at all to do with this man’s bizarre fate?


Faculty of Winchester Medical College


It seems that he did.  Mary Greenhow Lee, a famous diarist in Winchester during the Civil War, wrote  that when Union soldiers torched the medical school on May 16, 1862, “They buried in the yard what they supposed were [Oliver Brown’s] bones, but the genuine ones had been removed by Hunter McGuire, thus foiling their malicious designs.”  Were the bones buried those of Jeremiah Anderson, a native of Wisconsin who fought with John Brown?  Lee might have been mistaken about the identity of the bones.  It’s harder to believe she was mistaken about Dr. McGuire.  After all, he was fighting in northern Virginia and may have been the doctor who approached Jarvis Johnson.

Twenty years later, Johnson willingly handed over to the Brown family the cadaver he claimed to have shipped by train from the Shenandoah Valley to the Midwest.  In October 1882, Watson Brown’s strange post-mortem odyssey finally came to an end.  On an autumn day in the Adirondacks, he was laid to rest in a patch of soil near his famous father, who — as the old Union song put it — had long lain “mouldering in the grave.”


John Brown's body 2
Courtesy of Watkins Museum of History, accessed Bleeding Kansas.

Isabella Thompson, aged just 22 when the Harpers Ferry raid left her a widow, married Watson’s cousin, Salmon Brown.  For decades, the couple lived in Kilbourn City, Wisconsin — later renamed Wisconsin Dells.  Isabella may have died near Traverse City in northern Michigan in 1907.  Her second husband died in neighboring Antrim County, Michigan, in 1921.  “Bella” was buried at North Elba, New York, near her first husband, his final whereabouts pinned down at last.

John Collett passed away in March 1899 and was buried in Terre Haute.  Dr. Johnson died that September, just a few weeks after the mass re-interment of Brown’s other missing men, among whom was his son Oliver, who had lain in a merchant’s box on the Shenandoah for forty years.  Johnson rests at East Hill Cemetery in Morgantown, Indiana.

Books vs. Candy

Curious Cabbage vs. Fighting Tailor

Nineteenth-century American newspapers overflowed with medical ads.  Many touted quack panaceas, remedies for everything from dropsy and tuberculosis to STDs and impotence.  At a time when even “scientific” medicine was often little better than the variety promoted by “snake doctors,” folk medicine and spurious innovators actually helped keep newspapers afloat — as underwriters paying for ad space.

Six years before the Civil War broke out, the editors of the Brookville Indiana American put in some clever medical commentary.  Rather than feed your kids candy — a potential medical and dental no-no — why not buy them “toy books,” ancestor of the “pop-up” book?


Indiana American (Brookville), August 31, 1855

(Brookville Indiana American, August 31, 1855.)


A few months later, candy sales must have still been trumping sales of movable toy books at Dr. Keely’s.  The editors reissued their advice:  buy your kids candy for the brain, not sugary venom that “injures the health.”


Indiana American (Brookville), February 8, 1856(Brookville Indiana American, February 8, 1856.)


Was this the dry, brutal utilitarianism of Charles Dickens’ Thomas Gradgrind?  (The satiric Hard Times, which included an overbearing schoolteacher named M’Choakumchild, came out in 1854.)

Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.

What were these “toy books,” competitors of the sugary destroyer?

Modern readers might imagine that the movable revolution in children’s literature is a new phenomenon. Yet the earliest books incorporating retractable parts date back to the 13th century.  Spanish philosopher Ramón Llull, who tried to demonstrate God’s existence through numerology, put spinning paper wheels in his books.  These helped the reader understand the mathematical charts illustrating Llull’s theories about the universe as a thinking machine.

Cosmologists’ use of movable book parts was complemented by Renaissance-era medical men.  One example was Dutch doctor Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica (On the Structure of the Human Body), printed in Switzerland in 1543.  Readers of this anatomical manual could lift flaps covering Vesalius’ illustrations to get a peak at the human innards and even watch a child being born.

Eighteenth-century London publisher Robert Sayer made a different kind of “interactive book.”  Around 1765, Sayer was making books with movable flaps revealing the “inside story” of everything from children’s tales and folk ballads to the story of Adam and Eve and the metamorphoses of Harlequin, a stock character in Italian comic theater.  Sayer’s “Harlequinades” were hugely popular in England and Europe.  Some must have showed up in colonial America.


Harlequinade of Adam and Eve, circa 1770

(Robert Sayer, Harlequinade of Adam & Eve, circa 1770.  A short history of the origins of death.)


By the 19th century, book makers were taking movable illustrations even further.  In England, Stacey and William Grimaldi published a title in 1821 called The Toilet Book or just The Toilet.  The Grimaldis — father and son — promoted the traditional idea that feminine beauty was a mark of virtue.  (“Toilet” referred to beautification, washing, and maintaining one’s health at a time when poet John Keats emphasized that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”)  The Grimaldis’ illustrations of mirrors, perfume bottles, etc., could be lifted up to reveal fortune-teller-like revelations.

In addition to “peep show” and “tunnel” books — paper cut-outs depicting theater scenes — some of the best-known and most successful examples of the “interactive book” before the Civil War were those of Dean & Son, English publishers.  These were probably available at Hoosier bookstores before the Civil War — copies were advertised for sale in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1860.  Paper images were connected to paper tabs that, when levered back and forth, moved the cut-out characters around the page or flipped the entire illustration over to reveal a development in the story.

One of the Deans’ most popular titles was Dissolving Views.  A kind of 3-D forerunner to the stereoscope, which allowed readers to travel to places they would never see in person, some of its illustrations showed exotic landscapes, such as volcanoes erupting — succeeded by fire’s elemental opposite, cascading water.  Others depicted folktales or comic scenes with a didactic message.


Sausage Meat 1Sausage Meat 2(Dissolving Views, publishing house of George Dean, London, 1862.)


With the invention of cameras, improvements in optics, and the advent of more sophisticated magic-lantern projectors (first developed in the 1650s), “dissolving views” became a synonym for early, “phantasmagoric” versions of the cinema.  During the days of Dickens, these motion pictures were big entertainment.  Eventually, they evolved into silent film.


The Times-Picayune, February 21, 1841(The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, Louisiana, February 21, 1841.)


Indianapolis News, November 2, 1870

(Indianapolis News, November 2, 1870.)


Contemporary newspaper advertisements show that several Hoosier booksellers stocked “toy books” in the mid-1800s. Unfortunately, they don’t list the titles.  Yet as Brookville’s Indiana American shows, as early as 1831, just fifteen years after Indiana achieved statehood and with much of it still wilderness, even small country towns had access to these children’s books.

In Lawrenceburg on the Ohio River, toy books were sold alongside such things as thermometers, spy glasses, tooth picks, mustard seed, cough drops, and… tweezers:

Western Statesman, January 7, 1831

(Lawrenceburg Western Statesman, January 7, 1831.)


The Indiana Whig, January 25, 1844(Lawrenceburg Indiana Whig, January 25, 1844.)


Brookville American, December 24, 1858(Brookville American, December 24, 1858.)


Evansville Daily Journal, December 18, 1852

(Evansville Daily Journal, December 18, 1852.)


Richmond Dispatch, December 23, 1859

(Richmond Dispatch, Richmond, Virginia, December 23, 1859.)


Daily Evansville Journal, December 25, 1862(Daily Evansville Journal, December 25, 1862.)


In December 1868, a weary Indianapolis father trudging home in “a half dreamy state” after fifteen hours “at the office” was surprised by a man standing on his roof when he got home.  Santa Claus, whom he insulted as “You confounded Dutch idiot,” was greeting him with a “Hi! Hello! Stop! Hold on!”

Santa showed the man a sneak preview of what he was bringing his children.  This windy story — in reality, an ad for Indianapolis’ Bowen, Stewart & Co. — might rank as one of the longest ads for a bookstore in the annals of American journalism. Fortunately, Santa wasn’t hauling around a bag-load of candy:

Daily State Sentinel, December 23, 1868 (1)Daily State Sentinel, December 23, 1868 (3)(Daily State Sentinel, December 23, 1868.)

The Science of the Headless Horseman

Der Kopfloser Reiter

Yesterday’s post sent a few heads rolling, but we can’t get enough this October.  Here’s a follow-up from medical science.

Contrary to popular belief, Washington Irving didn’t invent the tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman from scratch.  Said to have been a Hessian mercenary decapitated by a cannonball during the American Revolution, the dark rider was left to roam the Catskill Mountains near a Dutch settlement in New York called Sleepy Hollow.

Written while Irving was living in Europe, the story actually drew on German and Irish folklore, where similar specters haunt the realm of the living.  There’s also a long list of early Christian saints (known as cephalophores) who according to hagiographic legends, picked up their own heads after execution and walked away — or at least uttered an important message before going silent at last.  Saint Gemolo, who probably came from Germany or Scandinavia, was even said to have grabbed his head in his hands and ridden away on horseback.

Germans told of Der Kopfloser Reiter, a shadow figure that rides out of the forest, hunts down malefactors, warns the living, and — like his cousin the Irish banshee — announces the approach of death.  Irish folklore includes reports of the dulachán or dullahan, a specter that also rides a dark horse, but he comes with some frightening accouterments:  a whip made from a human spinal cord, a funereal bone cart. . .  Like the screaming banshee, the apparition of a dullahan portends encroaching death.  And like Washington Irving’s horrid creature, the dullahan carries its own severed head, believed to look like moldy cheese.  Don’t look at the specter to find out:  he’ll throw blood in your face.


The Dublin Penny Journal, November 22, 1834
The Dublin Penny Journal, November 22, 1834.

Terre Haute Tribune, April 11, 1948
Terre Haute Tribune, April 11, 1948.

The Gazette (Stevens Point, Wisconsin), March 25, 1908
The Gazette, Stevens Point, Wisconsin, March 25, 1908.

The Gazette and Daily (York, Pennsylvania), December 25, 1939
Amazingly, Dullahan is also an Irish surname. The Gazette and Daily, York, Pennsylvania, December 25, 1939.

With the mass emigration of Irish peasants overseas, especially after the brutal Famine of the 1840s, these stories got carried to the U.S.  Some were twisted into hyper-literary forms.  But apparently the actual banshees didn’t care for transatlantic sea voyages and stayed home in their native terrain.  Headless horsemen, though, weren’t totally fictional.

In 1870, doctors in England offered a rational explanation for what were actually real sightings of decapitated equestrians.  These sightings, of course, occurred in war zones.

Readers of the Terre Haute Weekly Gazette encountered the following clip from The Lancet, a famous London medical journal.  Founded in 1828, just nine years after Irving’s Sleepy Hollow came out, The Lancet was the brainchild of Thomas Wakley, a crusader against “incompetence, privilege, and nepotism” in British society — and flogging.  The doctor was also a radical Member of Parliament.  Wakley’s sons edited The Lancet until 1909.

The medical clip sought to explain a bizarre event during the Franco-Prussian War.  On August 6, 1870, at the Battle of Wörth in the Rhine Valley, a headless French horseman was spotted “going at full speed” across the battlefield.  The Lancet’s explanation came out a month later on September 3.


Terre Haute Daily Gazette, September 29, 1870 (1)
Terre Haute Daily Gazette, September 29, 1870 (2) Terre Haute Daily Gazette, September 29, 1870.

A letter to the editor sent as a follow-up and signed by Logan D.H. Russell appeared in the British magazine in January 1871.  Dr. Russell gave a few examples of “life-like” rigidity in death witnessed by doctors, nurses, and soldiers during the American Civil War.


The London Lancet, January 1871 (2)
The Lancet, January 1871.
The London Lancet, January 1871 (1)
The Lancet, January 1871.

Scientific investigation into these aspects of post-mortem physiology continued during the 20th century.  Though farmers and any homeowner with poultry in the back yard knew that “headless chickens” were no myth — the skeletal anatomy of chickens really do allow them to live briefly after decapitation — newspaper readers in 1912 were surely surprised to hear that a French surgeon in New York City had successfully performed experiments allowing headless cats to survive for another three days.


Marion Weekly Star (Marion, Ohio), December 7, 1912
The Marion Weekly Star, Marion, Ohio, December 7, 1912.

This surgical revolution was the work of Alexis Carrel (1873-1944), one of the more unusual and forgotten pioneers of surgery.  Oddly, before he began experimenting on cats, Carrel’s scientific work took him into the realm of what most scientists consider superstition and folklore:  divine healing.

Raised in a devout Catholic family, Alexis Carrel fell away from religion as a young medical student.  In 1902, however, pressured by a colleague, he traveled to Lourdes in southwestern France to see something unusual.

Lourdes was a mountain town in the Pyrenees made famous in the 1850s by apparitions of the Virgin Mary, who allegedly came and spoke to a French shepherd girl there for weeks on end.  French scientists and secularists, calling it a fraud, tried to have Lourdes shut down under public hygiene laws after thousands of suffering believers came in search of a cure — which, incredibly, they often found.  For decades, reports of miraculous healings attributed to mineral waters from the caves and to divine intervention plagued, even embarrassed, European doctors and intellectuals.

In 1902, Alexis Carrel saw one of these miracles as it was happening:  the sudden and complete healing of a tubercular patient given up for dead.  Decades before the discovery of antibiotics, Marie Bailly, the patient, was soon declared totally free of her disease, which she was expected to die of at any moment.  She became a nun and lived for another thirty years.  Carrel, an agnostic, claimed that he actually watched her body undergo a healing transformation at Lourdes.


Alexis Carrel
Alexis Carrel, 1912.

The young doctor delivered some of the main eyewitness testimony about the miracle — which led to his being banned from working in French hospitals and universities.  With his reputation destroyed, Carrel emigrated to Canada, where he became a cattle rancher and farmer.  Later coming to the U.S., he taught at the University of Chicago and the Rockefeller Institute in New York.  Over the next few decades, Carrel became a pioneer in the field of vascular suturing techniques.  Helped by aviator Charles Lindbergh, he invented the perfusion pump, used to preserve organs during transplantation.

For his work in human physiology — partly involving experiments on headless cats — Carrel won a Nobel Prize in 1912.  Still baffled by the bizarre cure he witnessed at Lourdes, Carrel never retracted his belief that Marie Bailly was healed by a supernatural force, an event so strange that one writer believed it drove him mad.  His book about the Lourdes miracle, written in 1903, was only published in 1949, five years after his death.


Lourdes grotto
Lourdes Grotto, scene of some mysterious medical phenomena.

Science and religion both have their dark sides.  Tragically, Carrel’s went beyond cutting up cats.  By the 1930s, the French-American surgeon had become a major proponent of eugenics, the forced sterilization of “inferior” human beings and the poor.  (Carrel was no pioneer here. Back in 1907, the Indiana Legislature instituted the world’s first eugenics law.  Over 2,300 Hoosiers were sterilized in an effort to eliminate “degeneracy,” under a law only repealed in 1974.)

As a prelude to the Nazis’ perversion of science, Dr. Alexis Carrel went on to publish a bestselling book, Man, the Unknown (1935).  The Nobel Laureate even joined an anti-Semitic French fascist party, the PPF.  During Hitler’s occupation of France, Carrel helped put eugenics laws into place under the Vichy collaborators.  If he hadn’t died in 1944, the doctor would probably have been put on trial as a traitor or war criminal.

All of which is further proof that scientists — like Hessian horsemen and everybody else — can lose their head.


The Fort Wayne News (Fort Wayne, Indiana), December 6, 1912
The Fort Wayne News, Fort Wayne, Indiana, December 6, 1912.

Terre Haute Tribune, January 6, 1951.

The House of Gibbering Ghosts

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901

Here’s a tale about Native American gold, the botched suicide of a pioneer medical man, things that scurry through the attic, and a horseman riding up out of the ground.

We owe this one to W.H. Blodgett, a veteran writer for the Indianapolis News, who published the piece on November 2, 1901. Blodgett typically covered politics and was the News‘ correspondent in California during the sensational trial of John and James McNamara, union men who dynamited the Los Angeles Times in October 1910.  He also took an interest in Hoosier folklore, traveling around the state looking for its spectral, mysterious past.

In October 1901, the Indianapolis News correspondent showed up on the 160-acre farm of “Gus” and Mollie Burgess along what he calls the “National Road” between Yorktown and Daleville, Indiana.  (This must be State Road 32, which runs along the White River west of Muncie.)  Blodgett had been playing cards with another reporter in Indianapolis and talking about an old haunted house that once sat on “old Mississippi Street” (Senate Avenue) when they decided to drive up to Delaware County and try to see some paranormal activity firsthand.

Charles Augustus and Mollie Burgess, both in their twenties, lived in the old farmhouse with their six-year-old son, Payton Burgess.  They told Blodgett they’d been living there for six years.  Two earlier tenants hadn’t stuck around, including one “who moved into the house one day and got out the next.”  The house sat back from the road a little and was “partly hidden by a small grove of locust trees. . . It was a lonesome-looking place on the outside, in spite of the bright lights that shone out from the windows. . . The whole place seemed to be cut off from the outer world by an invisible wall.”  The location was near a spot called “the Kilgore neighborhood, a half a mile, perhaps, from the Pike’s Peak schoolhouse, where many a good citizen of Delaware County received his early training.”

A Native American graveyard was also located “close by.”  “Even to this day, bones, arrows and crude implements of the chase are plowed up,” wrote Blodgett.  Central Indiana farmers back then sometimes kept barrels full of bones that cropped up in their fields, tumbled out of decaying burial mounds, or even showed up in the hollows of ancient trees.


Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901 (2)
“Tenants of the haunted house,” Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901.

As Blodgett told it, two legends converged on the Burgess’ White River Valley farm.   The first involved a “famous Indian chief known as Wa-Sa He-To — The Fox.”  Wa-Sa He-To, according to this story, had traded with white pioneers and “in his wigwam he had $5,000 in gold.”  After The Fox died in a wolf hunt, his gold disappeared.

By the 1890s, Spiritualists from nearby Camp Chesterfield — ground zero for paranormal investigation in the Hoosier State — were said to be conducting seances to locate the lost gold, thought to be cached near a great rock along the White River.  Blodgett never mentioned how “The Fox” died — was he eaten by a wolf? — only that his spirit might have found a new home in the “boggy swamp”  next to the river.  At some point in fact or fable, The Fox turned into a headless horseman, riding out over area farms, out of barn doors, and even straight up from the soil.

The other ghost lurking around the Burgess property — “this house of gibbering ghosts” — was rumored to be the phantom of Dr. George Washington Slack, a former inhabitant.  Slack had come to Delaware County from Pennsylvania in the 1830s as a 12-year-old settler with his parents.  After studying at Rush Medical College in Chicago, Dr. Slack went on to practice medicine in Yorktown and apparently became well known in central Indiana.  His eight children probably lived in the house with him — which might have been the original log cabin his parents built.  Slack died in January 1886, aged sixty.  Burgess misidentifies him as “Cyrus Slack,” then tells the story (perhaps imaginary) of his botched attempt to end his life.

Here’s the tale.


Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901 (4)

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901 (5)

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901 (6)

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901 (14)

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901 (7)

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901 (8)

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901 (9)

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901 (10)


An article from the Indiana Herald in Huntington suggests that Dr. Slack died of apoplexy.   Yet it’s always possible that folklore got the facts correct, since in the case of the suicide of a respectable country doctor, the family might not have shared the full tale with the press and neighbors.  The truth about the doctor’s demise remains a mystery.  But it seems that like Wa-Sa He-To, he, too, was a candidate for the status of “Headless Horseman.”

Indianapolis News correspondent W.H. Blodgett slept easy that night, at least until he was awakened by an “unearthly noise” in the neighboring bed.  His traveling companion and fellow ghost-hunter, “Dick,” had started choking, gurgling, and gasping,  “a muffled call for help.”

“Guess I had the nightmare,” said Dick, finally awakened.  Had the horse come after all? “Nightmare” is partly related to Old Norse words for a “night ride,” a “night horse,” or a “mare dream” — and the demon that rides them.

I thought a ghost without a head on a headless horse was chasing me and made me jump over a high cliff, and just as I struck, a fellow all in white was trying to crowd three fingers down my throat.  Have you heard any ghosts?


Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901 (11)


Nightmare -- Fuseli
The Night Mare, based on a painting by Henry Fuseli, 1781.

“Gus” Burgess later became the postmaster of Yorktown.  His brother Clyde — a spitting image — ran a Shell Station there in the 1930s or ’40s.

Inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame, William H. Blodgett, born in Illinois in 1857, died in 1924.  He is buried at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Hunt for Hoosier ghost tales and more on our search engine.

Mike Inik the Monomaniac

Mike Inik -- Winnipeg Tribune, December 21, 1916In a certain town in Indiana, whose name I don’t wish to recall, there lived a gentleman with a lance in the rack and an old suit of armor . .”

Not exactly the canonical opening of Don Quixote.  Cervantes’ classic Spanish novel told of the comic adventures of an old man of La Mancha whose brain had dried up reading books about knights-errant and who went to war on windmills, thinking they were giants.  What happened to Mike Inik, “just a U.S. lunatic,” is a little less clear.

On December 4, 1916, while wearing a bizarre homemade suit made out of iron armor and kitchen pans, 49-year-old Inik shot up the Lake County Superior Court in Hammond, Indiana.  His grievance?  The disputed decimal value of a disability check he’d hung onto for seven years.

Inik’s origins are obscure.  A Google search for the last name turns up just a couple of examples, most of them in Turkey.  The Lake County Times says he was an immigrant from the Balkans, which used to be part of the Ottoman Empire.  Mike, however, had been the town “character” in Whiting, Indiana, as far back as 1889, when he was injured by a piece of pipe that hit him in the back or head while working at a Rockefeller-owned oil refinery.  Another account said he fell off a scaffold.  At that time, the Whiting Refinery on Lake Michigan, founded the year of Mike’s injury, was the largest in the United States.  Today it’s owned by BP.

Doctors judged that Inik suffered from “monomania.”  No longer used as a psychiatric term, in the 1800s it denoted a form of pathological obsession with one thing — yet an otherwise sound mind.  On the 1880 U.S. Census, monomania was listed as one of just seven recognized categories of mental illness.  Monomaniacs ranged from misers like Ebenezer Scrooge in his counting-house, to Poe’s madman fixated on an old man’s “vulture eye,” to the criminal in a Sherlock Holmes story hell-bent on smashing busts of Napoleon. Maybe the gold-obsessed Spanish conquistadors could be thrown in there, too.

Inik, who dressed like a conquistador, directed his “monomania” at John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.


Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (12)
Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In 1913, Inik even allegedly traveled to Washington, D.C., to take up his case with the President.

Escanaba Morning Press (Escanaba, Michigan), February 13, 1913
Escanaba Morning Press, Escanaba, Michigan, February 13, 1913.

The Lake County Times account gives the impression that this “lunatic” touted his suit of armor around town for a long time — perhaps to protect himself from falling pipes?


Lake County Superior Court
Lake County Superior Court, Hammond, Indiana.

When he came to court on December 4 to hear another trial about the status of his disability settlement, Inik was wearing his protective covering and arsenal.  Oddly, it seems nobody noticed the weapons.  He even spoke with a county prosecutor in his office beforehand while wearing full battle regalia under his clothes.  The gear Inik carried consisted of four .38-caliber revolvers, clubs, and “hatchets galore” — including a saber, hammer, butcher knife, and blackjack, plus 165 rounds of ammunition.  Somehow concealed from view, Inik’s bizarre get-up was put together out of bits of galvanized iron, dishpans and washboilers.

As Judge C.E. Greenwald berated the injured man and told him to go home and take a bath, Inik became irate and suddenly opened fire.  He managed to get off seven rounds, injuring a bailiff and a juror, before a group subdued him.

Lake County Times, December 4, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (8)
Did he pose for the press photographer? Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 4, 1916 (4)

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 4, 1916 (5)
Lake County Times, December 4, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles. 

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (5)
Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (6 crop)
Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Thrown in jail in Crown Point, Inik quickly went on trial again for his mental health.  This time, Judge Walter Hardy consigned him to the “booby hatch,” the psychiatric ward or “colony for the criminally insane” at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.

What became of him after 1916 is a mystery.

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (14)
Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (1)
Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

When Theodore Roosevelt Was Hospitalized at St. Vincent’s

Indianapolis Journal, September 23, 1902
Indianapolis Journal, September 23, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

This week marks the anniversary of two historic events, neither of them well-known.  The scene?  St. Vincent’s Hospital in Indianapolis.

The story actually begins on September 3, 1902, when President Theodore Roosevelt was visiting Pittsfield in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts.  While traveling through town in a horse-drawn carriage, the president and his entourage crossed a set of trolley car tracks.  To their horror, a speeding electric interurban car rushing to beat the president’s arrival downtown didn’t come to a stop and knocked the carriage about forty feet.

Roosevelt was jettisoned onto the pavement, landing on his face. The Governor of Massachusetts, Winthrop Crane, escaped with only a few bruises.  But a Secret Service agent, William Craig, died a horrible death, “ground under the heavy machinery of the car into an unrecognizable mass.”  (Craig, a Scottish immigrant and former British soldier, was the first U.S. Secret Service agent ever killed in the line of duty.)  The trolley car’s motorman, Euclid Madden, spent six months in jail for his recklessness that almost cost the Commander in Chief his life.


Roosevelt Car, Pittsfield, Mass., 1902
The stricken presidential carriage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, September 3, 1902. Courtesy Harvard University Library.

While the press toned down the extent of Roosevelt’s injuries, the president developed a worrisome abscess on his leg, an infection that caused him no small amount of pain.  He even spent a short time in a wheelchair.

The burly and athletic Roosevelt, however, continued with his itinerary, stumping for Republican candidates during a national speaking tour slated to take him as far west as Nebraska.  He did, in fact, make it out to the Midwest, stopping in Detroit, Logansport, Kokomo, Tipton and Noblesville.  Twenty days after his narrow scrape with death in New England, however, the leg injury he sustained required an emergency surgery — in Indianapolis.


Roosevelt in Tipton, 1902
Roosevelt speaks to a crowd in Tipton, Indiana, September 1902.

On September 23, after giving a speech “in intense pain” at the Columbia Club on Monument Circle, Teddy Roosevelt, who was limping noticeably and wincing with pain at almost every step, had to have his infected leg lanced and drained at St. Vincent’s Hospital.

At that time, St. Vincent’s was still located downtown at the corner of South and Delaware Streets, just a short distance from the club. Surgeon Dr. John H. Oliver performed the operation, which kept Roosevelt clear of the threat of blood poisoning.  (Blood poisoning was serious business in those days and usually ended in death.  Tragically, its specter returned to presidential history in 1924, when Calvin Coolidge’s 16-year-old son, Cal, Jr., developed a blister on his toe while playing tennis on the White House lawn.  Young Coolidge died of the resulting infection within a week.)

image
St. Vincent’s second location at the corner of South and Delaware Streets, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, accessed HistoricIndianapolis.

Doctors examined Roosevelt’s leg wound by natural light coming through a south window of the hospital.  “He took only a local anesthetic,” the Journal reported, “which was applied to the leg.  He seemed to feel that an unnecessary amount of fuss was being made over him. . .”  Yet as the surgery proceeded, the president’s “arms were thrown behind his head with his hands clasped.  Occasionally the pain became so severe that his elbows bent close to the sides of his head as if to ease the pain.  His eyes were closed and his teeth pressed close together.”

Accompanying Roosevelt to St. Vincent’s that day was U.S. Secretary of War Elihu Root.  (In spite of his bellicose job title, Root went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912 for promoting goodwill between the U.S. and Latin America.)  Root was one of the few government officials allowed inside the building.  An anxious crowd of several hundred Hoosiers gathered outside “and never removed their gaze from the hospital.”  Even Hoosier senators Charles Fairbanks and Albert Beveridge and Governor Winfield Durbin “were challenged by the guard and not permitted to enter.”  Militiamen and Secret Service agents were stationed outside St. Vincent’s.  All was silent, only the clip-clop of the occasional soldier’s horse passing on the street.


Indianapolis Journal, September 24, 1902
Indianapolis Journal, September 24, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Indianapolis News, September 24, 1902 (2)
Indianapolis News, September 24, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Roosevelt’s Midwest tour was called off after the Indianapolis surgery, and his own doctors ordered him sent back to Washington.  Guarded by the Secret Service (his successor, William McKinley, had been assassinated by an anarchist almost exactly a year earlier), Pullman porters carried Roosevelt on a stretcher about one block to the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks on South Street.  As the stretcher left St. Vincent’s, lit only by new electric street lamps, “there was a death-like stillness as people craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the president. . . He lay flat on his back and the covers were pulled up under his chin. . . Many men in the crowd removed their hats, believing that the president’s condition was very serious.”

Men might have taken their hats off out of respect for the president.  But the women who cared for Roosevelt at St. Vincent’s that day were justly famous not only for their dedication to the sick and needy but for their very hats.


Daughters of Charity 5


During Roosevelt’s hospitalization in Indy, he was cared for by Roman Catholic nuns.  The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, pioneers of American nursing and primarily devoted to the field of medicine, had taken charge of Indianapolis’ second city hospital back in 1881.  While recuperating, Teddy Roosevelt must have noticed the sisters’ distinctive and fascinating headgear — known as the cornette — as he lay in bed after the agonizing surgery.

Sister Mary Joseph attended to him alongside Dr. Oliver in the operating ward.  Assigned to his private room was Sister Regina, whom Roosevelt remembered from his Rough Rider days, when she was stationed at the U.S. Army’s Camp Wickoff at Montauk Point on Long Island, New York, at the end of the Spanish-American War.

We should doff our hats to them, too.

This week’s second unheralded anniversary?  Cornettes, which earned this order of dedicated women the epithet “Butterfly Nuns” or “Flying Nuns,” were abandoned on September 20, 1964. Designed to reflect 17th-century French peasants’ outfits, the nuns’ habits, in spite of the fact that they wore them out onto the carnage of Gettysburg Battlefield in 1863, were considered “impractical for modern use.”  A photo from the Greencastle Daily Banner announces the change in 1964.

The new garb marked a major change  in the visual spectacle of medical care in many major American cities, including Indianapolis. Amazingly, the nuns’ new outfit was planned by world-renowned French designer Christian Dior before he died in 1957.  The rumor in France at the time of Dior’s death — allegedly after he choked on a fish bone — was that he was “called back by God to re-outfit the angels.”

The Daughters of Charity Provincial Archives maintains a small exhibit about Roosevelt’s short time under the care of “God’s geese” in Indiana.


Daughters of Charity 2
Sister Justina Morgan, second from left, revolutionized health care in Evansville in the 1950s. Her predecessors took care of President Roosevelt in Indianapolis in late September 1902. Courtesy Evansville Courier Press.

Daughters of Charity 3
Hospital radium ward, New Orleans, 1963, courtesy of the Daughters of Charity.

Daughters of Charity 1918
(Three wounded Canadian soldiers with a girl and a nurse from the Daughters of Charity, Paris, France, World War I. Founder Saint Vincent de Paul once told the sisters, “Men go to war to kill one another, and you, sisters, you go to repair the harm they have done. . . Men kill the body and very often the soul, and you go to restore life, or at least by your care to assist in preserving it.”)

Daughters of Charity 4
Reading with children, 1950s.

Daughters of Charity 1
The “Butterfly Nuns” drink 7-UP, circa 1960.

Kokomo Morning Times, September 1, 1964
The old “seagull’s wings” were swept away by contemporary design. Kokomo Morning Times, Kokomo, Indiana, September 1, 1964.

The Anarchist Soup Plot

La Grande Observer (La Grande, OR), November 23, 1916You like alphabet soup?  Well, if an anarchist chef prepared it, you’d better take your spoon and dig out these letters first:  A-R-S-E-N-I-C.

One of the weirdest stories ever to spill out of the annals of Midwestern crime is the tale of a bumbling European anarchist named “Jean Crones” who, at a banquet in Chicago in 1916, attempted to assassinate the city’s Roman Catholic archbishop, the Governor of Illinois, and three-hundred priests, bankers, and city officials — not with bullets, but with bouillon.  The “soup poison plot” belongs in any encyclopedia of infamy.  It’s also a fascinating glimpse into one of American labor’s most turbulent decades.  Yet few have ever heard of it.  As part of our ongoing series on hoaxes, hysteria and rumors in the news, Hoosier State Chronicles wants to resurrect this old, mostly forgotten story.

When modern anarchism came to the U.S. in the late 1800s,  it was closely tied to the struggles of German, Italian, and East European immigrants.  While hurling bombs and bullets was an ill-considered way to foster social justice, the conditions these immigrants faced were dire and very real.  Anarchism’s philosophical roots, however, were among Europe’s elite.  (One early proponent of anarchy was the British philosopher William Godwin, husband of feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Frankenstein‘s author, Mary Shelley.)  Iron-fisted reactions to Europe’s 19th-century revolutions spurred philosophers and workers to declare that “Property is Theft” and to strive for the abolition of all governments, including democracies. Because anarchists promoted ideas like “free love” (which critics confused with promiscuity), state and church authorities tried to wipe them out.

While few anarchists ever committed outright acts of murder and mayhem, extremists occasionally wreaked havoc on American cities and police forces.  By the time of World War I, headlines about real and mythical anarchist bomb plots were common news.

Since most anarchists had immigrated from countries with state religions, their animosity toward priestly authority should come as no surprise.  During the Russian Revolution and on into the 1920s and ’30s, radicals (anarchists among them) in Russia, Mexico and Spain launched all-out wars on religion, desecrating churches and even “executing” statues of Jesus, not to mention priests and nuns, who often suffered especially macabre fates.

Yet if Chicago’s anarchists had wanted to assassinate any powerful “prince of the Church” in 1916, the worst choice was probably George Mundelein.


George Mundelein, circa 1916
Archbishop, later Cardinal, George W. Mundelein in 1916.

Mundelein was born in a poor working-class immigrant neighborhood, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in 1872 and grew up in tenement housing.  Son of a German father and Irish mother, his dual ethnic heritage was a major reason why, in 1915, the young Bishop of Brooklyn was chosen to head the Chicago archdiocese, ethnically diverse and also teeming with ethnic conflict even among fellow Catholics.  At age 43, Mundelein was the youngest American archbishop.  Over the years, the leader of Chicago’s Catholics turned out to be a major pro-labor voice, an important ally of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and a staunch enemy of Nazism and anti-Semitism — including that of Father Charles Coughlin, a controversial American radio priest whose show, broadcast out of Detroit, often attacked Jews and bankers.  A friend of the Catholic Labor Movement, Mundelein reiterated to American Catholics that “our place is beside the workingman.”

George Mundelein, then, was a rather strange target for an aspiring assassin’s vial of poison on February 12, 1916.   The scene of the crime:  Chicago’s prestigious University Club.


South Bend News-Times, February 12, 1916
South Bend News-Times, February 12, 1916.

Dining Room, University Club of Chicago, 1909
Dining room of the University Club, 1909.

Coming together to honor both Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and Mundelein’s installment as Chicago archbishop, about three-hundred guests attended — from Illinois Governor Edward F. Dunne and ex-Governor Charles Deneen to Chicago’s ex-Mayor Carter Harrison, Jr.  Most of the other guests were Catholic priests from all over the U.S.

As Chicago’s health commissioner, city police investigators, and a chemist from the University of Chicago later determined, someone that day slipped enough arsenic into a pot of chicken bouillon to kill two-hundred people or more.  Various accounts floated around of how the University Club avoided becoming the scene of what would still be the biggest mass murder in Chicago history — worse even than the crimes of the “arch-fiend” H.H. Holmes back in the 1890s.

One version of the tale was that a “miracle” occurred.  At the last minute, ninety-six guests showed up unexpectedly, prompting kitchen staff to resort to a time-honored remedy: watering down the soup.  Yet apparently the real disaster was averted by slow, talkative eaters.  As Monsignor Evers, pastor of St. Andrew’s Church in New York, told the Chicago Daily Tribune, some guests were “so engrossed in conversation” that they missed out on the soup altogether or had only eaten a spoonful or two by time their neighbors started to have stomach cramps.


Chicago Daily Tribune, February 14, 1916
Chicago Daily Tribune, February 14, 1916

With many diners complaining of sudden stomach pains, a doctor at the banquet suspected that the animal fat used to prepare the soup stock must have gone sour — normal food-poisoning, in other words.  He went to the kitchen and quickly prepared an “emetic of mustard” to induce vomiting. The result is unappetizing to consider, but the elegant dining room must have become a surreal and disgusting scene.  Yet the doctor’s speedy remedy probably saved many lives.  Scores of guests were sickened, some violently, but only one guest, Father John O’Hara of Brooklyn, died.  Archbishop Mundelein himself was unaffected by the lethal soup, but Chicago authorities kept him under a guard of 150 mounted police and detectives for the next few days.


Chicago Daily Tribune, February 14, 1916 (2)
Chicago Daily Tribune, February 14, 1916

Police quickly traced the foiled murder plot to a certain “Jean Crones,” assistant chef at the University Club, said to be about 30 years old.  Crones “often inveighed” against social inequality, said the Club’s officials.  When police raided his apartment, Crones the “souper anarchist” was gone, but investigators discovered a stash of anarchist literature (“a library of hatred,” says one paper), a chemical laboratory and all the evidence of poison they needed to go after him.

As the manhunt for Crones spread out, he or someone masquerading as him began to tease the police with flippant, irreverent letters, taunting the cops for being unable to find him.  These letters and other baffling clues began to pour in from all parts of the country.  When the story made national news the next day, a hotel in Binghamton, New York, reluctantly announced that it was confident Crones had been their assistant chef.  “Crones was remembered by his fellow workers here as a dabbler in chemistry and photography. . . One day the whim seized him to have his own likeness snapped, and he had one of his kitchen comrades aim the camera.”  That photo and an artist’s sketch were plastered over many American newspapers.

What happened next rapidly turned into a comedy of errors — one that went on for years.


Scranton Republican, February 21, 1916
Scranton Republican, February 21, 1916.

During the run-up to World War I, when the loyalty of German-Americans constantly fell under suspicion, unfounded reports came in that Crones was a German immigrant, a saboteur and spy for the Kaiser.  Other reports insisted that he was French or Italian.  A biography of celebrated anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti claims that “Jean Crones” was an Italian named Nestor Dondoglio. Chicago’s Police Department officially called off its search for the mysterious fugitive in 1919.  Yet Dondoglio evaded police until 1932, when he died on a farm in Connecticut where an Italian family had given him shelter.

Whatever the elusive truth behind  Crones identity was, for several years after the failed “soup plot” he became a sort of comedic bogeyman, stalking America from sea to shining sea.  Souper spottings occurred all over:  in rural Mt. Airy and Oxford, North Carolina;  in the mining town of Leadville, Colorado; and in towns so obscure they weren’t even spelled right in newspapers (like Spalding, Nebraska, and Moberly, Missouri.) Crones — or a clever prankster, or a whole team of anarchists — harassed the police from New York City to Portland, Oregon.  A chef from Iowa City was arrested simply because he looked like the photograph snapped at a kitchen in Binghamton, as was another chef from Chicago while passing through Springfield, Ohio.

Illinois State Attorney Maclay Hoyne surmised that the “poison souper” invented something called the “McKinney-Finn powders… given by waiters to non-tipping patrons in local hotels and cafes.”

Most of the so-called “appearances” of Jean Crones, however, are probably imaginary — or even deliberate hoaxes.  In some cases, it even sounds like the police might have used the poison-souper scare as an excuse to terrorize workers.  Others had more comic twists.


South Bend News-Times, November 25, 1916
South Bend News-Times, November 25, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 25, 1916
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 25, 1916

Wilimington Morning Star, February 2, 1916
Wilmington Morning Star, February 2, 1916.

Logansport Pharos-Tribune, February 24, 1916
A watchman in Logansport, Indiana, spotted the “poison souper” at a railroad crossing there less than two weeks after the crime, as did hundreds of other Americans. Logansport Pharos-Tribune, February 24, 1916.

Within a few days of his apparent escape from Chicago, the phantom assassin or his clever doppelgänger was on the West Coast, teasing Chicago police from a distance, mailing them his own fingerprints and threatening to kill “some bishop” out in Oregon:

Fort Wayne Daily News, February 23, 1916 (2)
Fort Wayne Daily News, February 23, 1916.

On St. Patrick’s Day that March, Chicago Catholics were still so jittery that the Irish Fellowship Club had to appoint an official food taster for its annual banquet.  He tasted every dish for over an hour.  And survived.

It’s very possible that prank-minded Americans were just having fun with the police and the press.  Yet by the summer of 1916, the spate of “J.C.” sightings was still pouring in:

Chicago Daily Tribune, July 23, 1916
Chicago Daily Tribune, July 23, 1916.

Chicago Daily Tribune, May 14, 1916
Chicago Daily Tribune, May 14, 1916.

Two of the most humorous and unlikely sightings occurred on the East Coast.  In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that May, locals were convinced that Crones had become a nun:

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern (Oshkosh, WI), May 15, 1916
Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, May 15, 1916.

Pittsburgh Daily Post, May 15, 1916
Pittsburgh Daily Post, May 15, 1916.

And in Luzon, New York, an undercover sleuth wearing false hair and whiskers was arrested by a town cop who was confident he had nabbed the elusive Crones at last.  The man turned out to be a 26-year-old private eye from New York City, busy investigating a theft of $250 from the Hygienic Brush Company.  In spite of this legitimate alibi, county prosecutors charged the man with “masquerading.”

Middletown Times-Press (Middletown, NY), February 28, 1916
Middletown Times-Press, Middletown, NY, February 28, 1916.

The real Jean Crones never surfaced.  Yet the fictional specter he evoked — that of the violent, supposedly illiterate immigrant bent on destroying American institutions and lives — took on a frightening reality of its own at a time when immigrant loyalty was suspect.

It’s often forgotten that the Communist witch hunts inaugurated by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s were preceded by a more substantial “Red Scare” after World War I.  In 1929, Italian anarchists detonated bombs in Washington, D.C. — an attack that nearly killed Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt — and possibly carried out the 1920 Wall Street attack, which killed 30 people.  The reaction threatened to close America’s doors to immigrants.

Like most Catholics, Archbishop Mundelein was a strong supporter of immigration.  He blew off threats of assassination by anarchists and the hostility of anti-Catholics, saying:  “I have come to Chicago to help and bless its people all I can, and I think this is the best way to disarm prejudice.”

A fiery and brilliant editorial in the Kentucky Irish American, a pro-immigrant paper published in Louisville, conjures up the fear that the figure of “Jean Crones” actually created among nativists. For immigration’s enemies, the anarchist threat was reason enough for Congress to all but close down Ellis Island.  (Ironically, the Hans Schmidt mentioned in this passionate editorial was a German-American Catholic priest convicted of murder, then sent to the electric chair at Sing Sing on February 18, 1916.  Schmidt’s execution occurred just a week after the anarchist soup plot in Chicago.)

Kentucky Irish American (Louisville, KY), April 15, 1916 (1)


Kentucky Irish American, April 15, 1916.


Cardinal Mundelein, the target of one of those rare immigrants who turned to violence, spent the next few decades speaking out on behalf of the working poor.  Perhaps the shocking event at the start of his days as leader of Chicago’s Catholics brought home the need for justice in his city and elsewhere.

He died in his sleep in October 1939, an honored man.

Mundelein's Body, 1939 (2)
Mundelein during his funeral mass, Holy Name Cathedral, Chicago, October 4, 1939. An impressive Chicago Tribune photo gallery celebrates his life.

Mundelein 1
Cardinal Mundelein in 1933.

Trail of the Arch-Fiend: H.H. Holmes

HH Holmes photo

In 1873, Mark Twain coined the term “The Gilded Age” to describe  a superficially prosperous America undergirded with massive social problems, corruption, even deep wells of horror.  One of the more literal terror tales launched onto the front lawns of American newspaper readers in the 1890s was the story of mass murderer H.H. Holmes.

Erik Larson reintroduced us to Holmes in his non-fiction thriller The Devil in the White City in 2003.  Larson’s gripping book is a dual history, partly the story of Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, designer of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and partly the story of Holmes’ “murder castle,” a kind of dark mirror of the expo. At this specially-designed hotel, the “doctor” may have killed up to two-hundred victims, mostly women.  Replete with hidden soundproof vaults, a gas chamber, an iron-plated room where Holmes torched people to death, a crematorium, a suffocation room, and other gruesome architectural twists, the World’s Fair Hotel on West 63rd Street in Chicago was a demented perversion of the vaunted celebration of “progress.”

Holmes had been trained at the University of Michigan’s renowned but infamous medical school.  Like Indiana medical colleges, Ann Arbor’s was under fire in the late 1800s for supporting the ring of grave-robbers who fed its dissection rooms with corpses ransacked from midwestern cemeteries.  Allegedly fascinated with death ever since his childhood friends stuck him in a closet with a skeleton in a New England doctor’s office, Holmes continued to dissect the dead in his gory Windy City hotel — though not for the anatomical instruction of future medical professionals.


HH Holmes University of Michigan graduation photo
Born Herman Webster Mudgett in New Hampshire in 1861, H.H. Holmes, graduated from med school in Ann Arbor in 1884. This is his graduation photo. His third wife, Georgiana Yoke, was from Franklin, Indiana.

Chicago’s worst serial killer had several Indiana connections.  One of his better-known victims, Emeline Cigrand, was a beautiful 20-something stenographer from Lafayette whose skeleton Holmes may have sold to Rush Medical College.  Nineteenth-century Americans are sometimes called “buttoned up” and guilty of “leaving things in the closet,” but newspapers published details about the doctor’s victims in stories like this one that would probably not be printable in 2015 due to privacy laws.  And the cross-over with medical history is disturbing, to say the least.

What might have been Holmes’ last murder — the dismemberment and burning of young Howard Pitezel, son of his main accomplice, Benjamin Pitezel — occurred in Irvington, the Indianapolis neighborhood now famous for its “paranormal activity.”  As the Indianapolis Star reported last week in a gossipy news piece, there’s a small chance that actor Leonardo DiCaprio will visit Indiana while filming Martin Scorsese’s new film adaption of The Devil in the White City.  The cottage that Holmes briefly rented in the fall of 1894, and where he killed Howard Pitezel before mutilating and burning his body, then sticking part of up it a chimney, sat at the corner of Julian and Bolton Avenues in Irvington.  The original house on that site supposedly burned down in the 1930’s, but the cottage there today looks similar.


HH Holmes site
The scene of the Pitezel murder in Irvington, where Holmes masqueraded under the name “A.E. Cook.”

Philadelphia police detective Frank Geyer and Detective David Richards of the IPD were hot on Holmes’ trail in Indy even before he murdered Pitezel in Irvington a couple of weeks before Halloween.  Yet it was three Iocal boys who discovered Howard’s charred bones in the chimney, a find recalled a year later in a long article printed in the Indianapolis Journal called “The Pietzel Bones” (August 22, 1895).  After Holmes was finally apprehended, Howard Pitezel’s mother testified before Marion County Coroner Hiram C. Castor.  Shown some of the “trinkets” found in the flue, Mrs. Pitezel “went into hysterics” in the Indianapolis courtroom.

H.H. Holmes had tried to start up another “death trap” in Fort Worth, Texas, but he was arrested in Boston in November, 1894, just a month after leaving Irvington.  Though put on trial in Philadelphia for killing the Pitezels, he confessed to thirty murders in Chicago, Indianapolis, and Toronto.  Like many criminals with huge, almost unbelievable records, Holmes might have been an accomplished liar — he claimed to have been possessed — but his confession was definitely shocking.

While he sat in jail, a fire consumed the macabre World’s Fair Hotel in August 1895, possibly started by a former accomplice.  On May 7, 1896, the “arch-fiend,” aged 34, was hanged at Philadelphia’s Moyamensing Prison, a place where another master of spectral gloom, Edgar Allan Poe, had once been imprisoned for public drunkenness.


Holmes - Indianapolis Journal, May 8, 1896
Holmes’ execution was covered in the Indianapolis Journal, May 8, 1896. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Terre Haute Semi Weekly Express, May 8, 1896
Terre Haute Semi-Weekly Express, May 8, 1896. Hoosier State Chronicles.

A few decades after his crimes made it into the press, Chicago’s own Jack the Ripper was slipping out of popular memory.  Yet in 1919, a discovery in Lake County, Indiana, brought him back into the news.

In court twenty-four years earlier, Holmes had mentioned killing two people near Schneider, a tiny town on the outskirts of the old Kankakee Marsh in southern Lake County, Indiana’s doomed “Everglades.”  The remote spot forty miles south of Gary almost exactly straddled the Indiana-Illinois state line.  Back then, it was close to a place called Lineville.

Lineville is obscure, but the papers located it twelve miles east of Momence, Illinois.  It must have been a tiny station or railroad switch right on the state line.  This was probably the kind of place where trains took on duck meat and frog legs hunted in the swamp to be cooked up for breakfast in the dining cars or sold at the Water Street Market in Chicago.  Lineville, Indiana, isn’t on the map today and was apparently “ghosted” more than a century ago.

The identity of Holmes’ alleged victims is a more interesting mystery than Lineville’s disappearance.  In October 1919, two skeletons turned up on Ira G. Mansfield’s farm.  This clip, published on October 22 in Hammond’s Lake County Times (currently being digitized by Hoosier State Chronicles) must have reminded many readers of the grisly string of murders that rocked the dark underbelly of the heartland back in the 1890s.

HH Holmes - October 22, 1919
Lake County Times, October 22, 1919. Hoosier State Chronicles.

HH Holmes 4

HH Holmes 3

HH Holmes - October 22, 1919 (1)HH Holmes - October 22, 1919 (2)HH Holmes 2

Kisses of the Sun

Lewis Hine - Freckles (1)

What do folklore, lemon juice, Amelia Earhart and Calvin Coolidge all have in common?  They all battled freckles.

As summertime dwindles to a close, you might have developed some of these kisses of the sun yourself, especially if you’re fair-skinned and female.  Though scientists have determined that susceptibility to freckles depends on genes — most famously as a result of Irish DNA — anyone can get these marks, which are concentrations of melanin brought about by exposure to UV rays.

Today, definitions of male and female beauty actively embrace what was once considered a serious physical blemish.  Many even think a superficially bespeckled face is a mark of character deep-down.  One beauty commentator considers freckles helpful in building up women’s self-confidence.  “Outside the realm of ‘normal’ beauty,” she writes, “we freckled ladies have had to go against the grain and build our self-esteem without the help of the media.”

A hundred years ago, things were different.  Anti-freckle cream was a commonly advertised beauty product.  (It’s still sold today.)  Mostly directed toward women, nothing, however, prevented men from trying out this solution for “blemished” skin.  As you’ll see below, one man died trying to get “beautified.”

For generations, folklore and popular medicine provided alternatives to commercial freckle cream.  American newspapers promoted a variety of cures both from folk practice and the chemist’s lab.


Brazil Daily Times, October 25, 1912 (1)(Wilson’s Freckle Cream was manufactured in Charleston, South Carolina, but sold nationally.  Brazil Daily Times, October 25, 1912.)


In the early years of the twentieth century, Hoosiers read about some of these popular remedies.

One of the least-scientifically credible cures was, needless to say, superstition, but it peaked the interest of the American Folklore Society, whose findings were syndicated in a Wayne County, Indiana, newspaper in 1928.  Even if this cure had worked, it was far more time-consuming than daubing cream on your face.  Yet Hoosier youth probably gave it a shot.


Cambridge City Tribune, March 15, 1928(Cambridge City Tribune, March 15, 1928)


Twenty-five years earlier, a more plausible-sounding all-natural freckle cure had come out in the Indianapolis News at summer’s end:

Before going out in the sun it is advisable to rub on a little cucumber balm or any good old cream.  At night the face should be bathed with elderflower water, which cools and benefits the skin.

Never bathe the face while it is hot.  Wait until night, then touch up the freckles with a lotion.

One cure is a lotion made by adding half an ounce of lemon juice to half a pint of rosewater, and adding two drams of powdered alum.  Apply with a camels-hair brush.

Another remedy is to wash the face, neck and arms, and hands, too, if necessary, with elderflower water, and apply an ointment made by simmering gently together one ounce of venise soap and one dram each of deliquated oil of tartar and oil of bitter almonds.  When the mixture acquires consistency, two drops of rhodium may be added.  Wash the emollient off in the morning with elderflower water.  (Indianapolis News, September 3, 1903)

In 1916, the South Bend News-Times divulged another solution:


South Bend News-Times, July 24, 1916 (3)South Bend News-Times, July 24, 1916 (2)

(South Bend News-Times, July 24, 1916)


One common commercial anti-freckle ointment was called Othine, sometimes sold “double-strength” at drug stores.  Yet the beauty columnist Lucille Daudet, syndicated in the columns of the Fort Wayne Sentinel in 1916, was concerned about the potentially damaging effects of this kind of patent medicine.  A forerunner to today’s “pro-freckle” approach to beauty, Daudet spoke up against the very need for such products:

Just why these light brown marks of health should be so scorned is an open question, as they are usually more becoming than not.  But the fact is that most girls look upon freckles as the greatest bar between them and good looks.  In their anxiety to rid themselves of these brown “beauty marks” they go to the most ridiculous and often dangerous extremes — dangerous indeed in many cases, for scores of lovely skins have been ruined by the use of so-called freckle removers. . .

A great many of the patent removers contain either bismuth, which is apt to blacken the skin, or mercury or lead, which are active mineral poisons.  (Fort Wayne Sentinel, August 12, 1916)

Daudet recommended, instead, a concoction of horseradish root mixed with buttermilk and strained through a fine cheesecloth.


Huntington Herald, August 2, 1923(Huntington Herald, Huntington, Indiana, August 2, 1923)


One of the potentially “ridiculous and often dangerous extremes” Daudet decried was mentioned in a 1921 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.  The journal isn’t specific about what went wrong, but the incident concerned an apparently quack “naturopath” in Venice, California.  (For the record, laser treatment and cryosurgery — “a light freeze with liquid nitrogen” –are the more extreme procedures today.)


Journal of the American Medical Association, April 16, 1921

(Journal of the American Medical Association, April 16, 1921)


South Bend News-Times, October 31, 1921 (3)(Toots & Casper.  South Bend News-Times, October 31, 1921.)


Two well-known Americans of the Jazz Age had a reputation for their freckles.  One case was slightly mythic — and a Hoosier woman tried to sleuth her way to the bottom of it.

In 1923, Clara C. Gilbert, a Republican women’s organizer in Kendallville, Indiana, traveled to Washington, D.C., partly to discover if President Calvin Coolidge’s freckles, accentuated in news films, were as “real” in life as they looked on “reels.”  “People have brought reasons and reasons for wanting to see President Coolidge,” quipped the Fort Wayne Daily News, “but no one before had ever seemed interested in the freckle question.”

“Cal” Coolidge had, in fact, been a red-headed, freckle-faced kid back in Vermont, but his hair turned a sandy brown as a teenager and most of the spots on his face went away.  The silver screen’s lighting effects apparently brought them back.


Fort Wayne Daily News, September 15, 1923 (1)

(“Also, I want to see you because I want to see you…”  Fort Wayne Daily News, September 15, 1923.  Click to enlarge.)


Calvin Coolidge 3


A more famous example of sun-kisses was aviator Amelia Earhart, whose battle against freckles might have gone with her to own mysterious death.

In 2012, a broken jar of 1930’s freckle-cream was discovered on Nikumaroro Island in the Pacific Ocean.  Some investigators think this jar is a major clue toward unlocking the mystery of Earhart’s disappearance in July 1937 while flying around the world.  (The trip was funded by Purdue University, where she became a visiting faculty member and women’s career counselor in 1935.  She also spoke at DePauw University later that year.)

The dominant theory that Earhart’s plane ran out of gas and crashed into the Pacific was already called into question in 1940, when the skeletal remains of a castaway turned up on the remote island.  That the famous aviator was also known to have hated her own mild case of freckles provides a tantalizing link to researchers intent on establishing forensic evidence about her demise.  And as Lucille Daudet warned women two decades before, the cream found on Nikumaroro was found to contain mercury.

Though the theory has its critics, it’s fascinating to think that Earhart’s pointillistic sun-kisses might ultimately shine a light on her last voyage — and her still unknown whereabouts.


Amelia Earhart 2

(Amelia Earhart’s flight license, 1923.)


Fort Wayne Sentinel, September 16, 1922

(Joe Zucco, freckle contender of Fort Wayne.  Fort Wayne Sentinel, September 16, 1922.)

The Rotgut Record

January 2, 1920 (2-2)

Digitized newspapers provide a rich boon to researchers about American medical history.  From quack medicine ads to stories about diseases, from under-appreciated tales of wartime doctors to a gory list of “1000 Ways to Die,” old papers are gold mines.

Alcohol, of course, is part of medical history.  Prohibition-era journalists were divided on whether America should turn off the tap.  Indiana was one of several states to preempt the Federal ban on booze. the Volstead Act of January 1920, which officially ushered in Prohibition nationwide.  As early as 1855, the Hoosier State tried out a liquor-ban.  That law was repealed in 1858.  Yet agitators kept on fighting against the bottle and the bier stein.  In 1918, Indiana officially went “dry” again.

Nineteenth-century Americans were far heavier drinkers than today, and alcohol percentages tended to be higher.  On-the-job drinking was allowed, sometimes even encouraged.  Prohibitionists might seem prim today, but attempts to abolish beer and liquor were often tied to some real public health concerns.  “Liberal” and “conservative” politics have changed over the last century.  Many, perhaps most, anti-alcohol crusaders were progressives who also spearheaded the movement for women’s rights and child labor reform — and whose public health campaigns were frequently inspired by religious belief.  Patriot Phalanx, a Prohibition Party newspaper started by Quaker Sylvester Johnson in Indianapolis,  was a prominent mouthpiece.


Beer suicide
Singer and comedian Ernie Hare wasn’t happy about beer’s demise.

Unfortunately, shutting down saloons, often had as much to do with racial, ethnic, and religious tension as it did with health concerns, and the whole law was primarily directed at the poor.  Indiana’s powerful Ku Klux Klan was, at least officially, anti-liquor — partly because of booze’s association with German and Irish Catholics, whose leader at the Vatican the Hoosier KKK was virtually at war with during the 1920s, over issues like public schools.  And the urban poor were very often Catholic.

One of the real perils of Prohibition was this:  heavy drinkers and alcoholics still had a huge thirst to quench.  Chronic tipplers had a few legal sources, like medicinal alcohol — and communion wine.  Yet they often had fatal recourse to intoxicating liquids that nobody, of course, would normally drink.  A fascinating if sober aspect of Prohibition lies in the story of the “beverages” they sometimes resorted to.

“Rotgut,” cheap, low-quality, potentially toxic liquor, was a common news headline even before 1920.

Wood Alcohol

The “detox” problem — how to help out alcoholics — must have crossed the minds of Prohibitionists.  But where alcohol was banned, death began to follow in its wake.  And toxic liquor had become a global problem.

In 1914, Tsarist Russia banned the sale of alcohol except in restaurants, partly as a war measure to keep soldiers from getting drunk.  Throughout the Russian Revolution, until 1924, in fact, the ban survived.  But Russians’ sudden inability to get their famous national drink, vodka, led to many deaths.  The Jasper Weekly Courier reprinted a litany of shocking tales about the lengths to which Russians would go to get a stiff drink during World War I.  Forlorn men turned to guzzling perfume, cologne, khanza (red pepper mixed with spices and wood alcohol), and kvasok (a concoction of cider, yeast, wild hops, and snuff).  Kvasok, incidentally, is the Czech word for “sourdough.”


Jasper Weekly Courier, September 3, 1915
Jasper Weekly Courier, September 3, 1915

American newspapers had been advertising the dangers of wood alcohol for years.  Called methanol by chemists (not to be confused with methamphetamine), wood alcohol traditionally was produced like other spirits, through distillation.  Ancient Egyptians had figured out the process and often used the resulting spirit — called the “simplest alcohol” — in embalming the dead.  In the West, methanol was employed in a variety of industrial and other trades as a cleaner, in photography studios, and in tin and brass works.  Around 1914, barbers were using it in a lotion called bay rum.  Baltimore physician Dr. Leonard K. Hirshberg warned Americans that year about the danger of their barber causing them to lose their eyesight, since imbibing or inhaling wood alcohol could lead to blindness, even death.


Wood alcohol -- Indianapolis Star, October 19, 1914
Indianapolis Star, October 19, 1914

Industrially, methanol is used as a feedstock in making other chemicals.  Changed into formaldehyde, it is converted for products as diverse as paints, plastics, explosives, deicing fluid for airplanes, and copy-machine fluid.  As the automobile age dawned, methanol came to be a component of antifreeze.  Doctors as well as newspaper reporters were keen on reminding drivers and mechanics that too much exposure to the chemical, whether through breathing or touching, could cause blindness or worse.  At the time Dr. Hirshberg was writing, there was probably a lot of wood alcohol around Indianapolis and South Bend, pioneer towns of the auto industry.  Today, methanol is used as fuel in dirt trucks and monster trucks.  It’s also the required fuel of all race cars at the Indianapolis 500, adopted as a safety feature after a deadly crash and explosion at the Hoosier track in 1964.

You can imagine the perils of chugging the stuff.  Yet back in 1903, a couple in Columbus, Indiana, drank a deadly wood alcohol toddy, either by accident or through fatal ignorance of its effects.  A year later, three artillerymen, thinking wood alcohol was a joke, died at Fort Terry in New London, Connecticut.  In Philadelphia, the proprietor of a hat-cleaning shop who used the liquid in his trade had to mix red dye in it to try to deter his employees from stealing and drinking the stuff out back.  The trick didn’t work, and he claimed “they’re used to it” now.  It proved an effective means of suicide, as in the case of an 18-year-old girl in South Bend who fell in love with a high school teacher.


Wood Alcohol -- Indianapolis Star, November 12, 1910
Indianapolis Star, November 12, 1910.

Some people said that refined wood alcohol smelled like old Kentucky rye.  The toxic effects usually took a few hours to kick in, so group deaths often occurred after bottles of it were passed around among chums having a “drink orgy.”

After Congress passed the Volstead Act on January 17, 1920, the news was soon full of stories about desperate attempts to quench the literally killing thirst — and of unscrupulous efforts to profit off drinkers’ desperation.

A Brooklyn undertaker, John Romanelli, and four other men were indicted in 1920 on charges on selling wood alcohol mixed with “water, burned sugar and flavoring extracts.”   They had sold the batch for $23,000 and the resultant “whiskey” caused “scores of deaths” in New England around Christmas-time and New Years’.  In St. Paul, Minnesota, in March 1920, nine imbibers died in a 24-hour period.

Just two weeks before the new law went into effect, a Gary, Indiana, woman, Ella Curza, got a 60-day prison sentence and a $50 fine for possession of eighteen bottles of wood alcohol that she was allegedly peddling as an intoxicant.  Hammond’s Lake County Times was already covering glimmers of the story — including the sale of methanol cocktails to unwitting men and U.S. soldiers stationed in Gary during the 1919 national steel strike.


January 2, 1920
Lake County Times, Hammond, Indiana, January 2, 1920.

January 3, 1920 (6)
Lake County Times, January 3, 1920.

By 1922, with the crackdown on hootch in full swing, the editors of the South Bend News-Times — a liberal-minded paper — issued figures on the estimated toll of wood spirits.  “Wood alcohol is now killing 260 and blinding 44 Americans a year . . . In Pennsylvania the known deaths due to wood alcohol poisoning last year totaled 61 . . . Including unreported cases, wood alcohol’s death toll probably exceeds 1,500 a year.”


Wood Alcohol -- South Bend News-Times, August 29, 1922
South Bend News-Times, August 29, 1922.

In New York, in the first six months of 1922 alone, 130 deaths and 22 cases of blindness were reported, a figure some officials thought “incomplete.”

Future Hollywood comedic actor Charles Butterworth, who was a reporter in his hometown of South Bend in 1922, penned a story about a certain medical claim:  that alcohol-related deaths were actually higher after the Volstead Act came into effect than before.  The St. Joseph County Coroner, Dr. C.L. Crumpacker, and other local medical men thought this statement was preposterous, however:


Wood Alcohol -- South Bend News-Times, July 2, 1922

Wood Alcohol -- South Bend News-Times, July 2, 1922 (2)
South Bend News Times, July 2, 1922.

Prohibition clearly failed and would be lifted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in December 1933.  Yet as one latter-day journalist, Pulitzer Prize-winner Deborah Blum, has discovered, the U.S. government — faced with the continuing thirst that led some Americans to crime and the more ignorant to varnish and perfume — decided to try out a different tactic.

Just before Christmas 1926, federal agents deliberately began poisoning alcohols typically utilized by bootleggers.  In an attempt to deter the public — even scare them into staying dry — the agents essentially turned almost all alcohol into undrinkable “industrial” alcohol.  Bootleggers tried to re-distill what the government had actively poisoned, which led to the deaths of (by some estimates) 10,000 people, deaths indirectly caused by the government’s “poisoning program.”

Blum, who has taught journalism at MIT and the University of Wisconsin and is a columnist for the New York Times, is no conspiracy theorist.  In 2010, Blum authored The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York — a book made into a PBS/American Experience documentary in 2014.


PBS(Courtesy Penguin Books/PBS.)


Lake County Times, January 15, 1920
Lake County Times, January 15, 1920.

If you or someone you know is dealing with alcohol-related issues, please visit http://www.alcohol.org/ for resources on how to get help.