Cooties aren’t what they used to be. When I was a kid growing up in the long-lost 1980’s, cooties were imaginary germs — and not something you usually wanted. If you accidentally came into exposure with these fictitious microbes, quarantine wasn’t necessary, though you might get socially ostracized for a day or two. In fact, that was kind of the point. In the worst-case scenario, however, unless you were a perennial cootie hatching ground, you could just rub the little critters off onto somebody else. One definition even calls cooties an “infection tag game.” The dark side, of course, is the mild sexual harassment hovering over elementary school playgrounds. And yet. . . some cooties you actually want. Without these benign cousins — love germs — life might not even be worth living.
Early Clinton-era cooties, though, weren’t the kind that an earlier generation of Americans knew. A senior colleague of mine at the Indiana State Library has just testified that the psychological variety of this make-believe organism has been around since at least the 1950s. Yet its pedigree dates even farther back than that.
Cooties, in fact, were being mentioned in American newspapers as early as 1918. The ancestral cootie? Like most of us, it seems to have had immigrant roots. As far as journalists knew, this was an annoying variety of lice that proliferated in the trenches of Europe during World War I.
Were cooties immune to warfare? Maybe, maybe not. The writer was probably joking here, and might have been telling a big tall tale, but it sounds like one way to get rid of the bug was to give it a good jolt:
Captain Charles W. Jones, a teacher at Greencastle High School who served on the Western Front, told a Putnam County audience in 1919 about his uncomfortable experiences in France. Alongside the perils of bombs and poison gas. . . the little bug called cooties:
Etymology meets entomology at the Oxford English Dictionary, whose talented word-sleuths think “cootie” might come from the Malay word kutu, denoting a parasitic biting insect. Except for one minor naval battle, World War I wasn’t waged in Southeast Asia, so unless Malaysian troops fighting in Europe coined the word, its passage into English is actually quite mysterious.
Yet soon, cooties were coming to America in letters: literally!
That was good news for the Netherlands, which wanted to get rid of them:
In the event of the next global war — and in an eerie parallel to chemical warfare — the (perhaps mad) English entomologist Harold Maxwell-Lefroy was actually looking at ways to disseminate deadly diseases behind enemy lines by means of propagating mosquitoes, house flies. . . and — get this! — cooties.
In fact, the tiny foe looks disturbing enough:
By the early years of the Jazz Age, these pestiferous creatures had apparently made it “over here” on the backs, in the clothes, and probably in some of the doughboys’ uncomfortable nether regions.
Up in Cadillac, Michigan, folklore, at least, thought the Kaiser’s cooties were refusing to recognize the Armistice and were carrying on the war against American grasshoppers undismayed:
Even venomous snakes, it was believed, got laid low by the dreaded bug:
The New York Tribune thought these lice should have figured into the staggering death toll of the so-called “War to End All Wars.”
Around 1919, somebody invented a children’s board game. I have never played this game, but according to one description, you put two pill-like objects with BB’s inside a box painted like a World War I battlefield. A cage — sometimes with a fox hole underneath it — sits at one end of the box. The challenge is to maneuver the “cooties” over the mine-infested field of death and dispose of them inside the cage.
In 1920, this game was being manufactured by the Irvin-Smith Company of Chicago, who touted it as “good for your nerves.”
The Cootie Game was offered for sale at George H. Wheelock’s department store in South Bend in 1919:
Having cooties on you, however, was no game, and is a genuine part of American medical history.
One solution for the lice was a “liquid fire” called P.D.Q., possibly manufactured at Owl Chemical Company in Terre Haute, Indiana. The initials were said to stand for “Pesky Devils Quietus.” Wherever it was made, the squirtable cootie-killer was on sale in Hoosier drug stores not long after the end of World War I. It sold for the same price as the Cootie Game: 35 cents.
What the exact difference is between cooties and the domestic American chiggers, I’m not sure — and nobody seems to have checked into hospitals recently complaining of cooties. Sometime around 1950, apparently, these bugs evolved into a mildly harmless children’s phobia.
The cootie’s association with war did, however, survive. In 1920, a service organization affiliated with the VFW was founded in New York City — the Military Order of the Cootie. Though no World War I vets are around to tell us about scratching and the other horrors of trench warfare, the order — devoted to community service and, just as importantly, to humor — is still active to this day.
In the sometimes not-so-good old days, Hoosier newspapers were overflowing with ads for what today we’d call snake oil. Before the Civil War, when these papers typically only ran to four pages and often lacked enough subscribers to stay afloat, vast amounts of newsprint went to work advertising spurious quack panaceas. As late as 1900, editors in need of underwriters for the news had no qualms about giving ad space to “doctors” who thought that cocaine could cure a sore throat or that an effervescent ginger “summer drink” could get rid of your cholera.
Nor did the amount of medical ads diminish after the war.
From the turn of the century until World War I, a massive national advertising campaign directed at mothers and kids touted a tasty cure-all with roots in the Wabash Valley: Kramer’s Cascarets, “The Candy Cathartic.”
Born in Keokuk, Iowa in 1861 to parents who hailed from Richmond, Indiana, Harry Lewis Kramer was a clever businessman and one of the most energetic and revolutionary advertisers of his day.
In 1890, the 29-year-old entrepreneur, who lived in Attica in Fountain County, attracted investors and started up a health resort at a spot near the spectacular Fall Creek Gorge in neighboring Warren County.
Built around a mineral spring discovered in 1884 by Civil War veteran Samuel Story (a victim of severe arthritis who noticed his ailment getting better when he sloshed around in the mud), the lavish hotel Kramer constructed first went by the name Indiana Mineral Springs, then as the Hotel Mudlavia, after the soothing mud-baths offered there. A service town that popped up next door to the resort took the name of its postmaster, Kramer, and is still on the map, though the hotel has faded into legend.
(Kramer made sure his face was all over small-town American newspapers. This clip appeared in Fair Playin Sainte Genevieve, Missouri, on September 17, 1904. Printer’s Ink hailed Kramer as “a man of almost superhuman energy — a new Napoleon, perhaps. . . He writes his own advertisements, all of which are characterized by wonderful originality and a desire to get out of the beaten track.”)
Kramer’s sprawling Mudlavia health spa attracted the rich and famous — including boxing champion John L. Sullivan, Indianapolis poet James Whitcomb Riley, and Hoosier songwriter Paul Dresser. Papers lauded it at as “one of the finest sanatariums in the United States.” Mudlavia ranked with the great mineral baths at French Lick, Indiana; Bedford, Pennsylvania; and Hot Springs, Arkansas.
The lure? Not just nature — or the elaborate Chinese garden out back. Pure mineral waters bubbling out of the Warren County hills offered relief from a vast array of bodily ailments. Infusing water with mud, doctors and their assistants at Kramer’s resort offered a therapeutic “Magno-Mud” cure (sometimes misspelled “mango mud” in the papers), giving blissful relief to aching joints and muscles. Kidneys and livers also went away from Mudlavia feeling much happier.
Closely tied to Kramer’s investment in this tranquil health spa in the luscious Hoosier woods was his other main business interest: a sugary substitute for the dreaded dose of castor oil once administered by American mothers everywhere. This was Kramer’s nationally-famous “candy cathartic,” Cascarets.
Dozens of speedy and sure-fire purgatives feature in the annals of 19th-century medicine and journalism. From a spoonful of old-fashioned castor oil itself to a gentler “Castoria” and a wide variety of sarsaparillas and “fig liver syrups,” our ancestors knew plenty of ways to achieve what they rightly saw as the highly-desirable result of these over-the-counter drugs: a vigorous flush of the intestines.
I’m not sure if Kramer ever studied chemistry and medicine or just stuck to the business end of things, but in the 1890s he made a fortune selling laxatives. (The Attica entrepreneur also marketed a chewing gum called No-To-Bac, which claimed to help smokers kick the habit.) Pioneered at a lab in Attica, by 1899 five million boxes of octagonal, chocolaty-tasting Cascarets were pouring out of Kramer’s factories in Chicago and New York.
“Cascaret Kramer” revolutionized American advertising, but he was no medical Napoleon. Plant-based laxatives, used to flush out the bowels, had figured for millennia into folk medical practice. The jolt to the nether regions customers got from these candy cathartics came from the drug’s most potent ingredient, the bark of a species of buckthorn tree — the cascara, native to the Pacific Northwest, northern California, and Idaho. Early Spanish explorers called this diminutive tree the cascara sagrada (“sacred bark”). Mixed with aloe and the roots of rhubarb, Native Americans on the Pacific Coast and in the Northern Rockies used it as a natural purgative.
By the late 1800s, trainloads of buckthorn bark were being shipped out of the Northwest to pharmaceutical companies around the world in quantities that endangered the tree’s survival. Much of the bark went to the factories of the Sterling Remedy Company, Kramer’s wildly successful over-the-counter pharmaceutical enterprise.
Like other Americans, Hoosiers were wild for a good clean-out. Kramer helped create the craze. On April 25, 1907, the Indianapolis News ran a full page-length ad (really a medical manifesto). “The Curse of Constipation” was almost certainly written by Harry Kramer.
Often Caused by Castor Oil and Salts
A Warning That All Should Read and Heed
Constipation is indeed the curse of mankind. From a simple bit of carelessness this dreadful destroyer of life gets a hold on its victim and slowly but surely tortures him to a horrible death.
It is a fact that all people at some time or other become constipated, and if the warning be not instantly heeded, and the system put back into working order without delay, the victim is marked for death — a long, lingering one, often so disguised that no one would dream of its original cause.
It is also true that nearly every disease recorded by medical science has its beginning in constipation. Yes, great learned men have said that if people would learn to keep their bowels in order there would be no disease. Professor B. Howard Rand, the great professor of chemistry in the famous Jefferson Medical College, as a farewell advice to the newly graduating class of young doctors, always said “Trust in God and keep your patients’ bowels open!”
Going into amazing detail in the pages of the News, Kramer went on to describe how Cascarets “begin to cure the moment you begin to chew them.” These buckthorn candies give “tone and strength” to the walls of the intestines and (so the ad went) help purify the blood, give “a ruddy complexion; bright eyes; clear, active brain; everything that makes life worth living.” Kramer promoted his tablets as useful against ills far beyond those affecting the intestines. Children’s diseases, headaches, nervous ailments, female complaints, skin diseases, appendicitis, oral thrush, and worms could all be kept in check or cured.
Some of the drug’s benefits were almost certainly mythic. One of many printed endorsements ran: “After taking Cascarets for a few nights before writing, I was able to pass a tape-worm 24 feet in length. Cascarets have our praise. . . — Mrs. Harry Wood, Kenneth, Indiana.”
Kramer sold his candy cathartic for a dime in handy, pocket-sized metal boxes. “You don’t know until you try how much good is crowded into a little 10-cent box.”
Kramer’s clever marketing extended to kids, who often didn’t realize they were taking “medication” when they downed a sweet Cascaret. “They are harmless and safe for the little folks.” This ad from the South Bend News-Times on November 20, 1918, shows a “Kid’s Indignation Meeting.” A marketing genius, Kramer often paid to have his ads run in the regular news columns of papers.
The name and popularity of the sugar-coated laxative became so widespread that it entered the popular vocabulary. A polo team in Anderson, Indiana, took the name “Anderson Cascarets” around 1904. In New York City, night-workers at banks began to be known as “Cascarets” because they “work while you sleep.”
Kramer sold his product rights for the drug to the Sterling Remedy Company around 1918 so that he could focus on his health resort at Mudlavia. (The company was then based in Wheeling, West Virginia.)
Tragically, on February 29, 1920, a fire in a linen closet reduced the vast wooden hotel to ashes. Many sick patients at the sanitarium, unable to walk due to rheumatism, were barely able to get out alive. Some guests jumped from third-story windows, then suffered in the February cold even as Mudlavia smoldered in front of them. Over fifty-thousand dollars in jewels perished in the flames.
Harry Kramer planned to rebuild the hotel, but never did. The advent of antibiotics and the coming of the Great Depression effectively ended the heyday of the great American health spas. (The owners of the French Lick resort in southern Indiana sold it to the Jesuits for use as a school in the 1930s for $1.00.)
Kramer retired to 1012 Ferry Street in Lafayette and died of a heart attack in 1935, apparently while visiting the license branch of the Tippecanoe County DMV. The inventor of Cascarets is buried at Lafayette’s Greenbush Cemetery.
A retirement home and restaurant were built on the site of Mudlavia. They, too, burned down in 1974. (Some ghost hunters claim the site is haunted.) As late as 2008, the natural spring that once made this place famous was still being tapped by an Indianapolis-based mineral water company. The FDA banned the use of cascara bark in 2008, when researchers discovered the plant has carcinogenic properties and (ironically enough) may contribute to liver ailments.
When you dig through old newspapers for a living, you find out pretty fast that almost every street corner has an entertaining story and sometimes a haunt or two. Like the once-wild Pogue’s Run, a harnessed underwater ghost that trickles through subterranean Indianapolis, most of these stories are “out of sight, out of mind.”
Here’s a glimpse of the spectral history of the capitol city’s Near East Side.
Pogue’s Run, which in 1914 was re-channeled underground just north of New York Street before it flowed through downtown in tunnels, owes its name to a man who also vanished from sight. Generally considered the first permanent white settler in Marion County, George Pogue, a “broad-shouldered,” dark-haired South Carolinian and blacksmith, was also, according to some accounts, the first recorded murder victim and the only man ever killed by American Indians in Indianapolis.
Settling in this isolated part of the new Hoosier state in March 1819, Pogue built a cabin for his family of seven, roughly where Pogue’s Run goes underneath today’s Michigan and Market Streets. The family’s cabin sat near the old swamp that used to occupy most of the northeast outskirts of downtown. Also called Perkins Run after another early settler who left the area “on account of loneliness,” the old stream in 1819 was wild and often flooded, not the sad open ditch and sewage channel it had become just a few decades later.
As an Indianapolis Journal article from January 5, 1890, reported, around the first of April, 1821, a Delaware or Wyandotte Indian known to whites as “Wyandot John” showed up at the Pogue family’s cabin. Rumor had it that the wanderer was an outlaw among the Delawares. He was probably also a horse thief — one of the worst offenses in those days.
Mrs. Pogue objected to Wyandot John being around the cabin, but the blacksmith gave him breakfast. Some of Pogue’s horses had gone missing, and the visitor told him to go over to a Delaware camp on Buck Creek twelve miles away.
Striking out into the woods, George Pogue, like the creek that still bears his name, never came back. His murdered body may have been sent floating downstream. (In 2013, a jaw bone showed up at Garfield Park, prompting investigators to ask if it was George Pogue’s.)
As the young city grew, the often rampaging creek rapidly came to be considered a “source of pestilence.” Before legislators moved the Indiana capitol north from Corydon in 1825, they allotted $50 to rid Pogue’s Run of mosquitoes, which bred the malaria that killed off many infant towns on the Midwestern frontier. Even as late as the Civil War, what became the Near East Side was thought of as remote from downtown and practically wild country.
On May 20, 1863, the creek became the site of the so-called “Battle of Pogue’s Run.” At the Indiana State House, approximately 10,000 Democrats — including Copperheads and suspected members of the pro-Confederate Knights of the Golden Circle — gathered to protest the Lincoln administration. Two months before the Battle of Gettysburg, the war was going badly for the Union, and Lincoln had just passed the Emancipation Proclamation, which angered Southern sympathizers. With tensions running high, a large military force kept an eye on the Democrats downtown. (Under the leadership of Dr. Thomas Bowles, the founder of French Lick, Indiana, the Knights eventually plotted to kidnap Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton and violently overthrow the state government).
That May, as Union soldiers confiscated pistols from Democrats at the Legislature, the crowd boarded trains to get out of the city. Stopped on the tracks, one train car was raided for weapons. On another, passengers (including many women, whom the Democrats believed wouldn’t be searched) threw somewhere between 500 and 2,000 pistols, rifles, and knives out the train window into the creek. Republicans lampooned it as the “Battle of Pogue’s Run.”
Traditions of a Haunted Elm Tree in the Pogue’s Run Bottoms.
Nowhere on Hoosier soil has nature nourished such giant trees as in the Pogue’s Run bottoms. In the days when trees were not appreciated the hand of the destroyer felled nearly all the great elm, walnut and sycamore peculiar to this district, but here and there a few remain, stately testimonials of the old-time forest grandeur. There are elm trees here and there along the run that are wonders in this day. On East Michigan street, beyond the creek, is one monarch whose branches have a diameter of over a hundred feet, and close to this one is the stump of a burnt-out sycamore, still showing signs of life, in which a family could comfortably live. The interior of the hollow tree is eight feet across in the clear.
But one tree belonging to this group is better known than all the rest. It is sometimes called “hangman’s elm,” sometimes “the gallows tree,” and occasionally the boys of the neighborhood speak of it as “the home of the ghost.”
The neighbors don’t believe in spooks, but somehow or other tradition has handed down a ghost story that will not die. The public records and the memory of the “oldest inhabitant” furnish no evidence on this point, but there is a story in the air to this effect: During the war, one day when there was bloody news from the front, and when human life was cheap, the body of an unknown man was found hanging from this particular tree. Soldiers who climbed the tree to cut down the body found a curiously concealed opening in the tree. It was instantly concluded that the hollow interior of the elm should be the place of sepulture. The body was lowered into the hollow tree, but apparently it struck no bottom. Certainly it gave forth no sound in falling.
It may have been that the dust and accumulation of rotted particles of the tree’s heart had made a soft, deep bed within so that no sound of the falling body came forth. Or was it possible that the spreading roots of the elm walled in a deep “cave of the winds” or well? At any rate nothing was heard when the body tumbled to its uncertain grave.
The spot where the supposed burial tree stood long ago became part of the city. The site is beautiful. Lots have been sold and houses built all about it. A stranger bought the lot on which the tree stands. But he will never build there. One of the neighbors says:
‘From the swaying branches of the old elm come mournful sounds of distress, and many a man passing that way has been horrified at the footfalls of invisible pursuers. Dim figures are sometimes seen in the neighborhood, but these always retrace their cloudy way to the tree and are, as it were, swallowed up by it . . .’
By the 1890s, much of the eleven-mile course of Pogue’s Run was an open, festering sewer pit, clogged with industrial, animal and human waste. Newspaper accounts from the time suggest that one of the most polluted sections of the creek was in the Cottage Home neighborhood just west of the federal arsenal (the building later became Arsenal Tech High School.) In 1897, Indianapolis city commissioners were already considering turning the de facto sewer into a controlled sewage conduit, as the creek “pulled pranks” in the form of deadly floods, doubly disastrous considering the amount of bacterial waste in the water. In 1890, the Journal spoke of its appalling and unsanitary “odoriferous waters,” which boys who “Worked Like Beavers” dammed up to make a swimming hole in 1903 — “for bathing purposes.”
The idyllic landscapes painted by pioneer Hoosier artists Jacob Cox and Christian Schrader show the creek before it was fouled up in the late 1800s.
(This drawing by Christian Schrader shows the Pogue’s Run Covered Bridge, which once sat on the National Road near the intersection of College Avenue and East Washington St.)
Several old-fashioned bridges, made of stone and wood, crossed Pogue’s Run in the 1890s. Stories circulated that at least one of these, at the intersection of Highland Avenue and what used to be called Campbell Street, had a ghost.
Could the “specter” have been the fog of the creek — or was it the spooky miasmas of sewage elevating into the air? (That sounds sinister enough to me)!
As far as I can tell, this piece of ghost-lore never showed up again in the city’s newspapers, and might have dropped out of memory altogether when a modern concrete bridge was put here. But maybe Google’s Nine-Eyes sees what we can’t see? Like this blurry spot on the new bridge, captured here in June 2014:
(The Indianapolis News portrayed some of the old stone bridges that once crossed Pogue’s Run in May 1905, on the eve of a dramatic re-engineering project that sent it through tunnels downtown.)
One last, and arguably far more amazing, story :
A few steps south of the “ghost bridge” is a parking lot at 564 N. Highland Avenue. For decades, this was the site of a small shotgun house owned and occupied by Louisa Magruder, daughter of Thomas Magruder, whom many believe to be the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom.
As Joan Hostetler has shown over at HistoricIndianapolis.com, Louisa Magruder lived next to the so-called ghost bridge from the 1870s until her death in 1900 at age 92. The elderly woman must have heard these spooky stories, since she was probably the phantom’s closest neighbor.
Louisa’s land along Pogue’s Run had once been part of a farm and orchard owned by Indiana Governor Noah Noble, whose father kept the Magruders in slavery back in Virginia and Kentucky. The Magruders were freed when the Nobles moved north to Indiana around 1820, though they continued to be employed as servants in the governor’s family. Louisa, who had been a nanny for the Nobles, lived along the creek for almost thirty years after the Civil War.
What might have been the real inspiration for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — her father Thomas’ house at the corner of East Market St. and North College Ave. — sat barely a mile southwest of her house in Cottage Home. The novelist Harriet Stowe’s brother, abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, was a Presbyterian minister in Indianapolis in the 1840s and often visited the Magruder cabin, where he must have known her, and Stowe herself lived in Cincinnati. As pioneer historian J.P. Dunn writes in his 1910 History of Greater Indianapolis: “It is the testimony of the Noble family that ‘Mrs. Stowe was a frequent visitor at Uncle Tom’s cabin, and wrote much of her book there’. . . Uncle Tom had but two children, Moses and his younger sister Louisa, and they were middle-aged people when Mrs. Stowe knew them.”
An entry in Hyman’s Handbook to Indianapolis recently caught my eye. A strange masked man stalks this great guide to the old and now mostly vanished architecture of the city in 1909.
My thoughts raced to Jules Verne’s deep-sea divers, Renaissance plague doctors dressed like bizarre birds, steampunk fashion designers, and of course the epic villain, Darth Vader. Even the name of the company that once manufactured this pioneer fireman’s oxygen mask in the Hoosier State had a science-fiction ring to it: the Vajen-Bader Company.
Smoke, sulfur, and ammonia pose problems similar to those faced by divers and even doctors wading into disease-ridden “miasmas” (the “bad air” mentioned in old medical manuals). So it should come as no surprise that the invention of smoke helmets is part of a much bigger history. The tragedy is that the protective devices used by groundbreaking medical men, underwater explorers, and firefighters evolved into the gas masks used in the chemical warfare that made World War I so uniquely terrifying at the time.
In 1893, Indianapolis hardware salesman and inventor Willis C. Vajen earned his place in the history of masks and life-saving.
Vajen (whose name, I believe, is pronounced “Vie-en”) came from one of the capitol city’s most prominent and wealthy families. His father, John Henry Vajen, emigrated from Bremen, Germany, to Baltimore with his parents in 1836, then moved west with them to Cincinnati, Ohio, and eventually Jackson County, Indiana. (John Vajen, Sr., had been a professor in Germany, a talented organist, and a Lutheran minister, and served as pastor of a large log church near Seymour.) Vajen, Jr., went into the hardware business and made a small fortune in trading and banking. During the Civil War, J.H. Vajen became the thrifty Quartermaster General of Indiana and was known as Governor Oliver P. Morton’s right-hand man. He died in 1917.
Willis Vajen ultimately followed in his father’s footsteps. After attending a seminary in Hamburg, Germany, Earlham College in Richmond, and Wittenburg College in Ohio, he, too, went into the hardware business. His sales knack probably had something to do with his skill in design. (Vajen filed patents for tools and machinery, like this plumb bob and a rein support for horses.) “Vajen & New” was located at 64 E. Washington St., offering Indianapolitans the best selection of lawn mowers, saw vises, rubber hoses, fishing tackle, fly-screen doors, White Mountain Ice Cream freezers, garden rakes, rubber hoses, and roller skates.
No mere humble merchants of garden tools and sporting goods, the Vajens married into great families. Willis Vajen was wed to Anna Claypool, daughter of the wealthy Connersville businessman Edward F. Claypool. (Ironically, the majestic Claypool Hotel, named for the inventor’s father-in-law and once one of the great landmarks of the city, was destroyed by arson in 1967.) Vajen’s sister Fannie Belle married Charles Stewart Voorhees, son of Senator Daniel Voorhees. (Charles Voorhees represented Washington Territory in Congress.) The Vajens often vacationed at their summer cottage on Lake Maxincuckee in northern Indiana, loaning it to the Hoosier novelist Booth Tarkington and his wife Laurel Fletcher in 1902.
Yet Willis Vajen’s claim to fame is the “smoke protector” that he perfected with William Bader in 1893. Apparently one or both of these men had witnessed a tragic hotel fire where rescuers were unable to reach the fourth floor due to smoke, the inspiration for their efforts at invention. A German immigrant, Bader was a piano maker by profession and may have come up with the idea first. Testimony from a lawsuit filed in U.S. Court in 1899 has it that Vajen first saw a photograph of the device in the music store where Bader worked, and the two worked together to improve efficacy of the mask, meanwhile helped along by Dennis Swenie, Chicago’s fire chief. A clip in the Los Angeles Herald suggests that “William Baders” was the real genius, Vajen only “furnishing the capital for the enterprise.” The court’s verdict, however, was that Vajen deserved most of the credit.
The struggle to perfect a mask that can ward off the assault of smoke, water, noxious fumes, and even the plague goes back centuries. News articles heralding the Vajen-Bader Patent Smoke Protector often remarked that it looked like a sea-diver’s helmet. This, too, was a new invention. English brothers Charles and John Deane had been inspired to invent their famous copper diving helmet in the 1820s after witnessing a fire at a smoke-filled horse stable. When the Deanes attached a leather hose to pump fresh oxygen into their firefighting helmet, scuba-diving took a great leap forward. (While wearing such an outfit in 1836, John Deane discovered Henry VIII’s long-lost warship Mary Rose, sunk off the Isle of Wight three-hundred years before.)
Another fascinating European forerunner of the Vajen-Bader mask was the plague doctor’s costume. While these seem like creatures of the fantastic imagination to us today, in the 17th century doctors venturing into epidemic-ridden cities sported masks resembling bird beaks, along with heavy protective suits that they believed gave protection from “miasmatic air.” Filled with scented herbs and spices like ambergris, myrrh, mint, cloves, and rose petals, the doctor’s elongated “beak” was designed as a kind of air filter. Credited to the Parisian doctor Charles de l’Orme, these ornithologically-inspired plague garments were in use as early as 1619 and later became a feature in the Venetian carnival.
When Willis Vajen and William Bader undertook work on their smoke helmet, other innovators had already tried out an array of devices, ranging from primitive sponges and lightweight “respiratory veils” to more sophisticated contraptions, like the one invented in the 1870’s by Irish physicist John Tyndall, who incorporated a cotton filter saturated with lime, charcoal, and glycerin. A different device was the respirator pioneered by Bernhard Loeb, who attached metal air canisters to the mask’s mouth.
Some two years ago Willis C. Vajen, an Indianapolis inventor, brought me a smoke helmet or protector and asked me what I thought of it. He will himself, no doubt, admit that it was a crude and cumbersome affair. The principle material in its construction was sole leather, and its window was of a single thickness or pane of glass. It did not have facilities for enabling the wearer to hear, and the tank for the compressed air was fully six times larger than was necessary.
However, it was clear that the inventor was on the right track. . . As it stands now, the weight of the helmet is practically nothing, resting upon the shoulders. The protector is made of asbestus tanned horsehide and is securely fastened by means of two straps which pass from the back under the arms and snap into rings in front. Its top is padded and is also re-enforced with transverse seams of the hard leather, which stand up to the height of about an inch. This makes it capable of withstanding a very heavy blow and forms an almost perfect protection against falling bricks and small stones.
Directly at the back of the neck is a small air tank, which can be filled by means of an ordinary force pump such as the bicyclists use for inflating their pneumatic tires. It will hold 100 pounds of compressed air and has a tiny gauge attached which registers the pressure of air within. The first five or ten minutes at a fire generally determines the result, and the total capacity of the air tank is sufficient to last a man for 40 minutes.
“Delicate mica diaphragms” for the ears and eyes helped with vision and hearing, as a did a double-paned window. “Both eye and ear pieces are protected by strong wire guards. . . On the front exterior, where it may be easily reached, is a signal whistle, which does not consume any of the pure air from the reservoir. The operation of the signal, which is loud and sharp, makes no drain upon the breathing resources of the fireman.”
An article in Fire & Water Engineering in 1906 adds: “It is neat; it weighs only six pounds; it can be put on as easily as a coat. . . There is no hose attachment which is liable to kink or break and thus impede the movements of the wearer.”
The Vajen-Bader Company’s life-saving invention caught on fast. Praise came not only from American fire chiefs, but from international clients. Operating out of a space on the second floor of the old Indianapolis Public Library a block north of Monument Circle (and later at a factory in Richmond, Indiana), the company filled orders from customers as diverse as meatpackers, mining and gas companies, breweries, and the British and Chilean navies. Overseas agents in Johannesburg, London, and Yokohama marketed the smoke protector around the globe. In 1897, fire fighters from Dublin, Ireland, to Wellington, New Zealand were “using them with entire satisfaction.”
The masks sold for $100, a large investment for some municipal fire departments, but Hyman’s Handbook claimed that “during the first year an estimated $3,000,000 worth of property was saved by the use of this new device.”
A contemporary article from the Los Angeles Heraldtouts the value of the smoke helmet in preventing minor fires from turning into major ones.
Often a fire of insignificant proportions causes such a dense volume of smoke that it is quite impossible for its location to be discovered, and it smoulders thus until it has gained such headway that it is impossible to extinguish it.
When Willis Vajen attended a firefighters’ convention in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1896, his cutting-edge device was the star of the show. The Salt Lake Herald reprinted testimony from the fire department in Kansas City, Missouri, which had already put the mask to a rigorous test. As KC’s Fire Chief George C. Hale (a great innovator himself) wrote, firemen found a house “which had a cellar underneath, with no ventilation whatsoever.”
In the cellar was dug a hole, in which was placed one of the worst smelling conglomerations of combustibles ever heaped together — sulphur, feathers, tar, wooden and cotton rags and burlap sacks. Hardly had the match been touched to the pile, until a dense volume of smoke began to roll up out of the single trap door that led down into the cellar. When the penetrating fumes of sulphur set everyone to coughing, there were many who shook their heads and said no one could possibly live five minutes in the cellar. The smoke pushed its way up the brick wall and was coming out at the crevices.
Second Assistant Chief Henderson was selected to wear the helmet. The cylinder was filled with air until there was a 100-pound pressure. The whistle was tested to see if it would sound. The helmet was dropped over Henderson’s head and strapped around his body.
“If you grow weak or begin to suffocate,” said Chief Hale, “blow your whistle vigorously and we will come after you.”
The rap door was then raised and the fireman disappeared into the sickening, penetrating smoke. The door was shut tightly. Not a breath of pure air could reach the man in the helmet.
Then the crowd began to wait. Watches were looked at and after a couple of minutes had elapsed without hearing any sound from the fireman, several began to grow nervous, thinking that the sulphur fumes might have gotten in quick work and strangled him. The door was partly raised and Chief Hale called to Henderson to blow his whistle. A far-off sound came from the cellar, telling that Henderson was in good shape. . .
The smoke continued to grow denser and blacker, and the odor more vile. Henderson’s whistle sounded frequently and no uneasiness was felt. Eighteen minutes had elapsed from the time when he had gone into the cellar, when he knocked on the door. . .
“How did you stand it, Alec?” queried everybody.
“Stand it! Why, I could have stayed down there all day. It was dark as midnight, but I could breathe as easily as I do now. . .”
When the pressure gauge of the air cylinder was examined it was found that only ten pounds of air had been used, ninety pounds being left.
Firemen wearing the novel smoke helmets came to the rescue after an ammonia explosion at Schmidt’s Brewery, a subsidiary of the Indianapolis Brewing Company, nearly killed a number of workers on the night of September 31, 1896. The Indianapolis News reported:
The fire that started in the second story of the building in the malt mill was subdued by the fire department. It was a hard fire to reach as the fumes of ammonia were strong, and it was almost impossible for a man to get near the building. The firemen say that this is the first difficult fire they have had since the Vajen-Bader smoke protector was adopted by the department, and that these helmets made it possible for the men to enter the building and reach the fire with the chemical engines. They say that although the fumes of ammonia were strong enough to render an unprotected fireman unconscious, the men wearing the helmets suffered no inconvenience from the fumes.
Aged 49, Willis Vajen, who suffered from life-long anemia, died at his home at 23 E. Vermont St. on July 22, 1900 and was buried at Crown Hill. In one of history’s bizarre twists, all the houses on Vajen’s block were demolished around 1921 to make way for the mammoth Indiana World War Memorial, the city’s enormous Egyptian-inspired temple to the veterans of World War I.
These soldiers, of course, were the first to use the terrifying invention whose evolution was partly due to the Vajen-Bader smoke protector. Early in the 20th century, the gas mask wove its way into sickening nightmares, both dreamed and awake, as Europe — and then the whole world — caught on fire.
Exactly 150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln, who spent part of his rail-splitting boyhood in Spencer County in southern Indiana, fell victim to the bullet of the 26-year-old actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater. Soon, the president’s body headed west by train, stopping in Richmond, Indiana, for a public viewing at 2:00 in the morning on April 30, then on to Indianapolis and Michigan City, with short stopovers at small Hoosier train stations along the way.
In a downpour, possibly fifty thousand Hoosiers viewed Lincoln’s open casket in the rotunda of the old State House. (At a time when the population of the capitol city was less than 40,000, the crowd of black-draped mourners must have been a spectacle in itself. Many were African Americans clutching copies of the Emancipation Proclamation.) Just before midnight, a carriage brought the president’s coffin through the rainy streets of Indianapolis, lit by torches and bonfires, to Union Depot, where it departed north by train for the south shore of Lake Michigan, en route to Chicago and eventually to Springfield, Illinois.
An exhibit running through July 7 at the Indiana State Museum, So Costly a Sacrifice:Lincoln and Loss, includes some actual “relics” of that fateful Good Friday in 1865 when Booth shot Indiana’s favorite son. Among the artifacts are a few that seem like medieval religious relics: clothing with spots alleged to be the blood of Honest Abe, and a piece of the burning barn in Port Royal, Virginia, where the assassin met his own fate at the hands of a Union soldier, the eccentric street-preacher Boston Corbett.
One of the most interesting things to me about the Lincoln assassination and the funeral that came after is the apparent curse on the people and even the physical things involved in it. Poe’s Raven could be telling the story, and the bird of death keeps on talking, quawking not “Nevermore” — just “More.”
What happened to Booth and Corbett is pretty bizarre and appalling. Basil Moxley, a doorman at Ford’s Theater who claimed that he served as one of Booth’s pallbearers in Baltimore in 1865, fed a conspiracy theory in 1903 when he asserted that another man is buried in the plot and that Lincoln’s murderer actually escaped to Oklahoma or Texas. A mummy hoax brought the assassin back to life as a sideshow attraction in the 1920s. But perhaps the moody English-American actor would have been thrilled to know that the morbid tragedy he let loose wasn’t over yet.
For instance, Booth’s own killer probably went down surrounded by flames. It is thought that Boston Corbett died in the massive forest fire that consumed Hinckley, Minnesota, in 1894. And oddly enough, the very train car that carried Lincoln’s corpse west to Illinois from Washington also burned in Minnesota. In March 1911, while in storage in the northeastern outskirts of Minneapolis, the historic Lincoln funeral car perished in a “spectacular prairie fire.”
In 1893, a year before the inferno in the North Woods probably claimed Corbett’s life, news readers followed the ghastly story of Ford’s Theater’s own doom. On June 10, the Indianapolis Journal ran this especially sentimental, tear-jerking news piece on the front-page:
Hundreds of men carried down by the floors of a falling building which was notoriously insecure; human lives crushed out by tons of brick and iron and sent unheralded to the throne of their Maker; men by the score maimed and disfigured for life; happy families hurled into the depths of despair. . . Words cannot picture the awfulness of the accident. Its horrors will never be fully told. Its suddenness was almost the chief terror. . . Women who kissed their loved ones as they separated will have but the cold, bruised faces to kiss to-night. . . In the national capitol of the proudest nation on earth there has been a catastrophe unparalleled in the annals of history, and in every mind there is the horrible conviction that its genesis is to be found in the criminal negligence of a government too parsimonious to provide for the safety of its loyal servants by protecting its property for their accommodation.
At 9:30 a.m. on June 9, the front part of Ford’s Theater, a notoriously rickety and rotten old structure then being used as a government office building, collapsed, sending beams, iron, and over a hundred employees plummeting toward the basement. Twenty-eight years after Abraham Lincoln was shot here, twenty-two men were killed and sixty-eight injured in one of the deadliest disasters in Washington, D.C.’s, history. (In a twist of irony, the same day the theater collapse made national headlines, John Wilkes Booth’s brother, the great American actor Edwin Booth, was laid to rest at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many said that Edwin Booth’s life and death were overshadowed by two different tragedies and the curse of Ford’s Theater.)
Collapsing structures were a major news item in the 1890s. Almost every week, American papers reported mass casualties at overcrowded factories and apartment buildings, especially in Chicago and cities back on the East Coast, where poor construction and dry rot led to the deaths of thousands of industrial workers and tenants — often women and children. During the Progressive Era, such tragedies inspired reformers like the photographers Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine (who documented child workers in Indianapolis in 1908) to illustrate the real peril of shoddy, dilapidated buildings in the workplace and at home.
In 1893, Ford’s Theater was probably one of the most dangerous structures in America. Built in 1863 by the 34-year-old entrepreneur John T. Ford, the building occupied the site of a Baptist Church-turned-theater that had burned down a year earlier. John Ford’s business was a victim of Booth, too. After the Lincoln assassination, public opinion and the U.S. government both decided that it was inappropriate to use the site of the nation’s great tragedy for entertainment. Ford wanted to re-open his theater, but received arson threats from at least one Lincoln mourner. The Federal government appropriated the playhouse, compensating its owner with $88,000 in July 1866.
Even before the government actually paid for the building, renovations were underway. In December 1865, the suitably morbid Army Medical Museum moved onto the third floor. “A far cry from the once jovial theater,” the famous local landmark now housed an array of skeletons in glass cases, body parts, surgical tools, and other gory reminders of military medicine. The Library of the Surgeon General’s Office soon occupied the second floor.
The other floors of the former theater housed the War Department’s Office of Records and Pensions. The unstable, visibly bulging building was the workplace of several hundred employees and was further imperiled by probably a few tons of heavy paperwork, the red tape of veterans’ pensions.
After the building succumbed to gravity and rot in 1893, American public opinion was almost as outraged as at the assassination of Lincoln. The Indianapolis Journal wrote:
As long ago as 1885, this building. . . was officially proclaimed by Congress an unsafe depository for even the inanimate skeletons, mummies and books of the army medical museum, for which a safer place of storage was provided by an act of Congress. But notwithstanding the fact that in the public press, and in Congress, also, continued attention was called to the bulging walls of the building, its darkness and its general unsuitability and unsafety, it continued to be used for the daily employment of nearly five-hundred government clerks of the pension record division of the War Office.
According to a riveting coroner’s inquest that whipped up public excitement, workers at what the Indianapolis Journal dubbed “Ford’s death trap” had been intimidated and cowed into silence by their tyrannical boss, former army surgeon Col. Fred Ainsworth. Afraid of being fired, the endangered clerks didn’t protest the condition of the building and later testified that Ainsworth’s assistants had told them to tip-toe on the stairway to keep from falling through. Investigators determined that the “old ruin’s” collapse finally came while a low-bidding contractor, George W. Dant, was making repairs to the building. (A support in the basement gave way.)
Court testimony relayed in the Journal resonated with public opinion. “The government did not want skilled men to execute its contracts, and it would not pay fair prices for good work. . .” the paper claimed. “An architect testified that the cement used in underpinning the piers supporting the old building was ‘little better than mud.’ A builder said the manner of the work was suicidal.” Another report said that for years the decaying structure also suffered from “defective sanitary conditions.”
One of the public figures who weighed in on the federal investigation was Indiana Congressman William S. Holman. A Dearborn County native, Holman sat in Congress from 1859 to 1897 and was once ranked as the longest-serving U.S. Representative. He was also a notoriously frugal hawk on government spending. (Yet far from being a total naysayer, Holman passionately advocated the Homestead Act that tried to break up the domination of Western public lands by big railroads. He also indirectly helped establish the U.S. Forest Service by providing for Federal timber reserves.)
As chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, the curmudgeonly Holman oversaw a lot of government funding. On June 23, 1893, the Jasper Weekly Courier reported that after Ford’s Theater collapsed, even the arch-fiscal conservative was ready to “deal liberally in the matter of providing safe public buildings, and enact such legislation as would look to the preservation of human life.” The Indiana Congressman supported moving the U.S. Government Printing Office — ranked with the old theater as one of the worst potential death traps in Washington, D.C. — to a new location. (The weight of printing equipment housed on upper stories was part of the problem.)
Yet once it was rebuilt after the 1893 collapse, Ford’s Theater returned to government use — oddly enough, as a storage warehouse for the Government Printing Office. The building narrowly survived being condemned for demolition by President Taft in 1912. From 1931 until renovations in the mid-1960s, the historic structure housed a government annex and a first-floor Lincoln museum. Restored to its 1865 appearance and now run by the National Park Service, it opened as a public museum in 1968.
Rummaging through the always-interesting (and sometimes shockingly relevant) news of the 1890s, I recently ran across a Sunday extra in the Indianapolis Journal. On April 28, 1895, an eight-page supplement — the “Bicycle Edition” — was devoted entirely to the cycling craze that engulfed the Hoosier State and the rest of the country.
Later this spring, we’ll be uploading the “Bicycle Edition” to Hoosier State Chronicles. Meanwhile, here’s a sneak peek at the early days of folks on spokes.
Bicycles’ huge role in the women’s rights movement was common news a hundred years ago and, in the 1890s, stirred up a ton of buzz in American newspapers. While our great-grandmothers would not have needed much reminding about how important mobility on wheels had been to achieving equal rights with men, the turn-of-the-century female cycling phenomenon was later mostly forgotten. (A great book published by National Geographic in 2011 has helped bring it back into the light: check out Sue Macy’s Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom.)
Every generation has its great social debates, and Indiana was no stranger to hot discussions about women on wheels. Hostility toward the newfangled bicycle took on many forms: from horse salesmen and carriage drivers who thought it hurt their business, to ministers who complained about cyclists skipping church on Sunday to go out on country rides and break the Sabbath. But at the center of the debate was women’s dress and embattled notions about female “purity.”
The ample dresses worn by nineteenth-century women made riding around on spokes outright dangerous — as even a sympathetic male, Lieutenant Defrees of the Indiana National Guard, admitted to the Indianapolis Journal in 1895. As a safety issue, Defrees supported women’s preference for “bloomers,” or “athletic knickerbockers” as they were also called.
A sort of divided skirt that resembled both baggy pants and a dress, bloomers were first adopted in England in the 1850’s, when women rejected Parisian fashions in favor of styles from the Middle East, especially Turkey, where females actually had many surprising freedoms not enjoyed in Europe and America at the time. (In the U.S., the practical new clothing item was nicknamed bloomers after Amelia Bloomer, a suffragette from Iowa who fought the prejudice against revealing female attire.)
Lieutenant Defrees, too, opposed the endless ridicule directed at this eminently rational item of clothing. (In fact, some women called them “rationals.”) He put it this way:
Dr. Henry J. Garrigues, a specialist on women’s health, was another early male who advocated the benefits of bloomers for female riders. Dr. Garrigues authored a fascinating defense — “Woman and the Bicycle” — originally published in The Forum, one of the great “social issue” magazines of the day. An excerpt from Garrigues’ piece appeared in the Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail on January 25, 1896.
Touting the many health benefits of cycling, Garrigues writes: “Bicycle-riding has changed the habits of hundreds of thousands who formerly took little or no exercise in the open air. It has widened the mental horizon for many by inducing them to undertake long rides far away from their homes.”
About bloomers specifically, Garrigues was pretty frank:
The usual long skirt is objectionable in every respect. It impedes the free movement of the legs, pumps air up against the abdomen, and is in great danger of being caught by projecting parts of their own machines or those of other riders, as well as by other obstructions found on the road. To avoid these inconveniences many women have shortened their skirts, and some have done away with them altogether, wearing so-called ” bloomers,” a wide, bifurcated garment extending from the waist to the knee. This garment, combined with a waist and leggings, forms a neat, practical dress for a woman rider. True, it is at present ridiculed and even condemned by some as immodest. However, before men say anything against the decency of bloomers, they had better reform their own trousers, which are not much more decent than becoming. . .
From a medical standpoint bicycling is valuable both as a prophylactic and as a curative agent. Like other outdoor exercises it takes its votaries away from the vitiated air of closed rooms; but it has several advantages peculiarly its own. It is less expensive and safer than horseback-riding. For the female sex it is also healthier, since horseback-riding, if indulged in too much or at too early an age, is apt to produce a funnel-shaped pelvis, which abnormality may prove a serious obstacle to childbirth.
And for an age that seemed leery of even mentioning women’s bodies in so many ways, it’s interesting that Garrigues went into a long, detailed description of what he believed was another benefit of cycling. The New York doctor claimed that the womb, “being of muscular construction, is, like all other muscles, strengthened by bicycling.” He also touted the benefits for men and women suffering from an array of ills, including asthma, neuralgia, headache, insomnia, and “diseases of the intestinal canal — such as dyspepsia, constipation, and haemorrhoids.”
Though opposition to bloomers (and wheeling in general) often dragged religion into the fray, liberal-minded Christians spoke out against more conservative ones. But whatever animosity was directed toward pants from the pulpit, preachers could hardly match the sheer weirdness of Chicago’s “Jack the Whipper,” whom the Terre Haute paper thought to be a truly distinguished “crank of the first water.”
But less than a year later, in 1895, bloomers were still new enough to Terre Haute to cause many men there to stretch their necks in wonder and possibly even in admiration, as the Saturday Evening Mail noted:
Bloomers have not come into such general use in this city as to be common, and the sight of a pair of them in broad daylight very frequently causes a great deal of what the small boy calls “rubber necking.” The other day a young lady was coming up Seventh street on a wheel, and she made quite an attractive figure in her bloomers. A man walking along the street, going in the opposite direction, evidently had never seen bloomers before, and he stretched his neck in the effort to follow her with his eyes. He was so much interested that he paid no attention to where he was going, and presently he ran into a tree on the sidewalk with such force as to peel all the skin off one side of his face.
On the topic of rubber. . . In the 1890s, Indianapolis was especially well-poised to become a bicycle-manufacturing mecca: the capitol city was once a major rubber-producing town. (The local industry tanked in the 1950s.) At the turn of the century, Indianapolis could boast of at least nine bicycle manufacturers, and the demand for pneumatic tires was a major spur to the creation of the Indianapolis Rubber Company.
In addition to being able to get a quick local replacement for a bad tire, in 1895 riders who worked in downtown offices could also take advantage of a “bicycle livery and boarding stable” located under the Brunswick Hotel on Monument Circle. A nearby bike hospital also offered a cure for “the last stages of consumption.”
Harry T. Hearsey, born in London, England, in 1863, grew up in Boston, then moved to Indianapolis at age 22. An early Hoosier cycling pioneer, he ran his own manufacturing company, which made not only bikes, but carriages, sleighs, portable heaters, and eventually automobiles.
Hearsey also operated a riding school, which catered in large part to women. Walter Marshall “Major” Taylor, the great African-American cyclist and Indianapolis native, worked as an instructor at Harry Hearsey’s Riding School, located at 116/118 N. Pennsylvania St. This ad from the German-language Indiana Tribüne touts Hearsey’s Reitschule (“often Tag und Abend.”)
Though he was a businessman with an obvious profit to turn, Hearsey may have been one of the many Americans who thought that women at the wheel was something to be praised. Even many who believed in “womanly purity” found something positive in cycling, as a writer in Lincoln, Nebraska, admitted: “The modern bicycle is one of the modern safeties of womanly purity,” he or she wrote. “She no longer needs to jostle through a crowd of men on the street corner or in the street car. The primest little maid of this city wears bloomers, rides a bicycle, and works in a printing office.”
Bike sales in Indiana boomed in the 1890s. Thomas Hay, of the firm of Hay & Willits at 113 W. Washington St., told the Indianapolis Journal in 1895 that “At the present time about 20 per cent of the wheels sold are for ladies, while two years ago I doubt if the sales of the ladies’ wheels reached 2 percent of the total.” Hay attributed part of the surge in sales to improvements in the manufacture of women’s bicycles, which had previously been neglected. In 1897, women were so important to the industry that the Central Cycle Manufacturing Company put them on the cover of their gorgeous trade catalog, designed and printed in “Arts and Crafts” style. It is a beautiful illustration of the generational gap between the old woman in skirts and the dashing Belle on Wheels.
Gradually, of course, the sight of women in bloomers wasn’t shocking to most Americans at all. Times changed fast, so fast that the great Hoosier songwriter Cole Porter could easily lampoon an earlier generation in the immortal lyrics of “Anything Goes”:
In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.
But now, God knows,
Anything goes. . .
If driving fast cars you like,
If low bars you like,
If old hymns you like,
If bare limbs you like,
If Mae West you like,
Or me undressed you like,
Why, nobody will oppose.
Yet even before the Roaring Twenties and the day in 1934 when Cole Porter penned those lines, the ladies of the 1890s had already paved the way. Sportswomen in baseball and basketball literally “followed suit.” We salute them all.
In 1858, Terre Haute, Indiana, was beginning to have an odd distinction: bite victims from all over the Midwest were coming here for a cure.
That year, Isaac M. Brown, editor of the Terre Haute Daily Union, suggested to the city council that the town purchase for public use a “madstone,” a curious leech-like hair ball found in the guts of deer — preferably an albino buck.
For centuries, folk doctors on both sides of the Atlantic believed such madstones to be helpful in warding off rabies infections and healing poisonous bites. (Queen Elizabeth I of England apparently kept a madstone hanging around her neck.) To back up his support for this public health measure in Terre Haute, Brown quoted a letter from the Mount Pleasant Journal in Iowa, which tells the wild story of one settler there, Seth Stanton, bitten by a rabid feline at his home near the Missouri state line.
On the morning of the 15th of March last I arose early, walked out to the gate in front of my house where I was attacked by a mad animal — a mad cat. It sprang upon me with all the ferocity of a tiger, biting me on both ankles, taking a piece entirely out of my left ankle, clothing flesh and all. [Perhaps it was a wildcat, not a domestic creature. Stanton is not specific.] I saw at once my hopeless condition, for the glairing eyes of the cat told me at once that it was in a fit of hydrophobia. I at once resolved to start forthwith to Terre-Haute, Ind., expecting there to find a mad stone. Accordingly in a few hours, myself and wife were under way, crowding all sail for that port.
Though rabies can take as much as a year to incubate and show any of its awful signs, Stanton wasted no time in traveling by train or river boat back east to Indiana. But when he discovered there was a madstone seventeen miles from Alton, Illinois, just across the Mississippi from St. Louis, he stopped there. Eight days after he was bitten, he wrote, “My leg turned spotted as a leopard to my body, of a dark green color, with twitching of the nerves.”
[I] drank no water for eight days. The stone was promptly applied to the wounds. It stuck fast as a leech until gorged with poison, when it fell off volunteerly [sic]. It was then cleaned with sweet milk, salt and water, and was applied again, and so on, for seven rounds, drawing hard each time, when it refused to take hold any more. — The bad symptoms then all left me, and the cure was complete, and I returned to my family and friends with a heart all overflowing with thanksgiving and praises to God for His goodness and mercy in thus snatching me from the very jaws of death.
American medical history is full of strange tales and oddball personalities. In some cases, medicine and folklore come together.
Though my family has lived in Terre Haute since the mid-1800s, I certainly had never heard anything about a famous “madstone” there. The “Terre Haute madstone,” however, shows up over several decades in American and even Canadian newspapers. At one time, journalists made Terre Haute out to be a virtual “madstone” mecca.
Madstones definitely weren’t Blarney Stones, and people who came looking for them weren’t tourists. Madstones, it turns out, weren’t even rocks at all. Once used as part of a rare but geographically widespread folk medical practice, they are also termed bezoars in both folklore and medical science. Categorized according to the type of material that causes their formation — usually milk, seeds, or plants mixed with an animal’s own hair from licking itself — bezoars are calcareous masses found in the gastrointestinal tracts of deer, sheep, goats, horses and even walruses. In folk usage, these masses were mistaken for actual stones, sometimes polished to look like beautiful grey hen’s eggs, and often thought to have nearly-miraculous properties.
Frontiersmen believed that when applied to the bite of a rabid animal, and in some cases even that of a poisonous snake, madstones could draw out the rabies virus or poison before the tell-tale symptoms set in. Rabies is almost always fatal and one of the worst ways to die. Victims of the infection will suffer from extreme, deathbed-splintering spasms as the virus wreaks havoc on the nervous system. Hydrophobia, characterized by frothing at the mouth and intense fear of water, follows from the inability to swallow. According to Dr. Charles E. Davis in The International Traveler’s Guide to Avoiding Infections, the World Health Organization knows of only one case of a human with rabies escaping an excruciating death once the virus reached the brain.
While the madstone has been thoroughly debunked, one can hardly fault the practitioners of early madstone “medicine” for giving it a go. In some parts of America, use of these stones lingered on into the 1940s.
One of the better pieces of writing about American madstones appeared in the Summer 1983 issue of Bittersweet, a magazine published by high-school students in Lebanon, Missouri. Called the “Foxfire of the Ozarks,” Bittersweet was a spin-off of the hugely popular books written by students in Georgia in the early 1970s. Based on interviews with Appalachian and Ozark old-timers, Foxfire and Bittersweet were a major spur to the countercultural back-to-the-land movement that came about during the days of the Vietnam War.
In “Madstone: Truth or Myth?” student Dena Myers looked at the old folk belief, once common far outside the Ozarks. She tapped into a vast repertory of tales claiming the stone’s effectiveness.
Drawing on interviews, Myers describes the actual use of the madstone:
People using the madstone for treatment boil the stone in sweet milk, or sometimes alcohol. While still hot, they apply the madstone to the wound. If the victim has rabies, the stone will stick to the wound and draw out the poison. Once the stone adheres to the wound, it cannot be pulled off. After the stone is filled with the poison, it drops off by itself. It is then boiled again in the milk which turns green the second time. The process of boiling and applying is repeated until the stone no longer sticks to the wound.
French scientist Louis Pasteur pioneered a rabies vaccine in the 1880s, but its side-effects were so terrible that many people avoided it. (“Some Ozarkians say they would rather use the madstone than take the shots,” Myers wrote.) References to a “Pasteur treatment” or “cure” at the turn of the century are misleading. Once symptoms appear, “treatment” for rabies can do little but lessen the agony of death. Those who “recovered” from rabies after a madstone treatment never had it to begin with.
Fred Gipson’s novel Old Yeller, set in the Texas Hill Country around the time Pasteur was working on the first rabies vaccine, captures the real tragedy of the disease, which was common before vaccines, muzzling and the “destroying” of animals brought it under control in developed countries. In the U.S. today, rabies rarely occurs in dogs and cats, but still occasionally shows up in bats, who transfer it to livestock, pets, and humans, often un-vaccinated spelunkers.
Belief in a madstone remedy for rabies goes back centuries. (Bezoar, in fact, is based on a Persian word, and use of the stone was recommended in Arabic medical manuals in medieval Spain.) Scottish settlers seem to have been mostly responsible for bringing it to the American South, where they met American Indians who also used the rare stones. (A madstone owned by the Fredd family in Virginia allegedly came from Scotland and was mentioned by Sir Walter Scott in his novel The Talisman.)
The Cajuns in Louisiana practiced madstone healings. (Many Cajun folk beliefs came from African Americans and American Indians also inhabiting the bayous.) A stone yanked from the gut of an 18th-century Russian elk ended up in Vernon County, Missouri, on the Kansas state line, sometime before 1899. A madstone used in St. Francis County, Arkansas, in 1913 was dug out of an ancient Indian burial mound.
One of the first European practitioners of madstone healing in Indiana was John McCoy, an early settler of Clark County.
In 1803, McCoy married Jane Collins (known as “Jincy” McCoy) in Shelby County, Kentucky, just east of Louisville. As a wedding gift, or maybe as part of her dowry, Jincy’s family gave her a madstone in preparation for the couples’ move into the dangerous Indiana wilderness. It was “the best insurance they could offer against hydrophobia.” These are the words of Elizabeth Hayward, who edited John McCoy’s diary in 1948. “In giving their daughter the only remedy then known,” Hayward wrote, “the Collins gave her the best gift in their power as well as a rare one.”
John McCoy is best known for leading the Charlestown militia after the Shawnee attack on settlers at Pigeon Roost in 1812, one of the bloodiest events in Indiana history, which happened near his home. (Ironically, McCoy was the brother of the Rev. Isaac McCoy, a Baptist missionary and land rights advocate for the Potawatomi and Miami. When they were evicted from Indiana in 1838, Rev. McCoy accompanied them to Kansas and Oklahoma.) A deacon in the Baptist Church himself, John McCoy helped found Franklin College at a time when “Baptists were actively opposed” to higher learning, Hayward wrote. What is less well known is his battle against rabies in southern Indiana.
McCoy kept a laconic record of his days. On at least ten occasions recorded in his diary, he was called on to apply his wife Jincy’s madstone to victims of animal bites.
Hayward believes the McCoy madstone might have been the only one in that corner of Indiana at the time. True to a common superstition about proper use of the stone, McCoy “never refused [when asked to use it] and never accepted payment, apparently regarding the possession of the rarity as a trust. The victims were boys and men. Probably the circumscribed lives led by the women of his times, centered on their homes, kept them out of reach of stray animals. And more probably still, the voluminous skirts they wore protected their ankles from being nipped.”
McCoy applied the stone, carried up from Kentucky, long after Clark County, Indiana, had ceased to be a frontier zone. Most of his diary entries related to its use date from the 1840s.
April 9 . Sunday. At sunrise attended prayer meeting. At 11 attended preaching, afternoon detained from church by having to apply the Madstone to a little boy, bitten the day before. At night attended worship, then again attended to the case of the little boy till after 12 o’clock.
Later 19th-century medical investigation into the efficacy of the madstone suggested that while the stone did not actually suck out any of the rabies virus, it acted according to the “placebo effect” (i.e., belief in the cure itself allayed the bite-victim’s mind, which resulted in improvement — provided, of course, that there was not actually any rabies there.)
Yet around the same time John McCoy was practicing his primitive form of medicine near Louisville, Terre Haute was becoming a top destination for those seeking treatment — or at least reassurance.
Mary E. Taylor, almost always referred to in newspapers as “Mrs. Taylor” or “the widow Taylor,” was the owner of the famous “Terre Haute madstone” mentioned in many American newspapers. Her stone’s virus-sucking powers were sought out from possibly the 1840s until as late as 1932.
Local historian Mike McCormick believes that Mrs. Taylor was born Mary E. Murphy, probably in Kentucky. Marriage records show that a Mary E. Murphy wed a Stephen H. Taylor (no relation to the author of this post) in Vigo County in April 1837. An article in the Prairie Farmer of Chicago mentions that she lived at 530 N. Ninth St. (This made her a neighbor of Eugene Debs.)
In 1889, Mrs. Taylor spoke about the provenance of her madstone to a reporter. “My mother’s brother had it in Virginia,” she told the Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, “and as he had no children gave it to my mother. That is as far back in its history as I can go.” An 1858 letter from Mary “I.” Taylor (possibly a misprint) appeared in the Evansville Daily Journal. She claimed the stone had been in use “for the past thirty years” in Vigo and Sullivan counties. The Terre Haute Weekly Express claimed the madstone came to Indiana via Kentucky, after the Murphys lived there for a while in their move west.
Though Mrs. Taylor might have been widowed as early as the 1840s, hoax-busters who would suggest that she used her family’s madstone to support herself should remember the prominent superstition that warned against accepting payment.
A “widow lady” whom McCormick thinks was Mary Taylor “cured three cases” of hydrophobia in early 1848, according to the Wabash Express.
During the decades when John McCoy and Mrs. Taylor were folk medical practitioners in the Hoosier State, Abraham Lincoln, according to an old claim, brought his son Robert to Terre Haute to be cured of an ominous dog-bite.
Poet and Lincoln biographer Edgar Lee Masters reported this claim in his 1931 Lincoln the Man. (Like the president, Masters was obsessed with melancholy and death. He grew up near Lincoln’s New Salem in Illinois and later set his paranormal masterpiece, Spoon River Anthology, in the old Petersburg cemetery where Lincoln’s first lover, Ann Rutledge, a typhus victim, lies.)
“He believed in the madstone,” Masters wrote, in a section on Lincoln’s superstition, “and one of his sisters-in-law related that Lincoln took one of his boys to Terre Haute, Indiana, to have the stone applied to a wound inflicted by a dog on the boy.”
Max Ehrmann, a once-renowned poet and philosopher who lived in Terre Haute, investigated Masters’ claim in 1936. At the famous hotel called the Terre Haute House, Ehrmann had once heard a similar story from three of Lincoln’s political acquaintances. They told Ehrmann that sometime in the 1850s, Lincoln, then still a lawyer in Springfield, brought Robert to Indiana for a madstone cure. Father and son stayed at The Prairie House at 7th and Wabash, an earlier incarnation of the famous hotel. A sister of Mary Todd Lincoln, Frances Todd Wallace, backed up the story.
“I have never been able to discover who owned the mad-stone,” Ehrmann wrote. “It was a woman, so the story runs.” If true, Robert (the only child of Abraham and Mary Lincoln to survive to adulthood) would have been a young child or teenager. He lived to be 82.
Mrs. Taylor’s “Murphy madstone” was probably just one of three such stones in Terre Haute that offered a rabies cure. Another was owned by Rev. Samuel K. Sparks, and Mary E. Piper’s “Piper madstone” was used until at least 1901.
Though her stone became nationally famous, Mrs. Taylor faced a healthy amount of skepticism. On March 6, 1867, the Weekly Express reprinted this clip from the Indianapolis Herald: “We understand that Mrs. Taylor, of Terre Haute, applied her mad stone to Mr. Pope, who died a few days since of hydrophobia. As it was not applied until after the disease manifested itself, it failed. We fancy, however, it would have failed anyhow.” Herald editor George C. Harding had inadvertently taken a swipe at Terre Haute, which was increasingly proud of Taylor’s madstone. The snub caused the editor of the Weekly Express, Charles Cruft, to retort:
We know it is wicked to do so, but we almost wish our friend Harding would receive a good dog bite, in order that his skepticism as to the efficacy of our madstone might be cured. Although he may have more faith in whisky, which is said to be an antidote for some poisons, we’ll bet the first train would convey him in the direction of Mrs. Taylor’s residence.
A mad dog bit four children in Rush County, Indiana, in March 1889. Their parents brought them to Terre Haute to see Mrs. Taylor. The Montreal Herald in Canada picked up the story. “The Terre Haute madstone has just completed the most thorough test ever given it. . . [Mrs. Taylor] remembers that it was handed down to her from her Kentucky ancestors. . . Physicians and scientifically inclined citizens have overrun her home here since the mad dog scare began in this state, and there is hardly a day that a patient is not brought to her.” A few days afterwards, two Warren County farmers came, “each being apprehensive that some of the saliva of a hog got under the skin of their fingers.”
In 1887, the madstone even ranked among Terre Haute’s “sources of pride.” While singing the praises of a local masonic lodge, the Saturday Evening Mail wrote: “[The lodge] deserves to rank with the Polytechnic, Normal, artesian well, Rose Orphan Home, madstone and Trotting Association.” On April 23, the newspaper added: “Someone has written the old, old story about the Georgia stone. The Terre Haute charmer’s turn will come along soon.”
Though papers reported other Hoosier madstones, like the “Bundy madstone” in New Castle (which stuck to a severely infected woman’s arm for 180 hours in 1903), Terre Haute’s fame spread to faraway Louisiana and Minnesota. But Mrs. Taylor’s cure sometimes disappointed. During the “dog days” of summer (an abbreviation of the “mad dog days” when a higher number of rabies cases usually occurred), the Minneapolis Journalran this story in 1906:
Terre Haute, Ind., August 18 — William Painter, a farmer, died of hydrophobia from a cat bite, and in a moment of consciousness before the final convulsion, caused his attendants to tie him in the bed for fear he would do someone harm in his struggles. The death convulsion was so strong that he tore the bed in pieces, but no one was hurt.
He was bitten June 21 by a cat which had been bitten by a dog eight days before. He called the cat to him and as it sprang at his throat he caught it and was bitten in the thumb. He had the Terre Haute madstone applied, and as it did not adhere he felt that he was not infected with the virus.
A boy who lived east of Bloomington suffered a similar fate in 1890. Bitten by a dog while working in Greene County, 19-year-old Malcolm Lambkins went to Terre Haute to have the madstone applied to his leg, but it didn’t adhere. Though the wound healed, a short time later “the boy took sick, and when he attempted to take a drink of water he went into convulsions. He grew steadily worse and wanted to fight those about him, showing almost inhuman power.” Lambkin died on July 6. “An experienced physician states that he never witnessed death come in such terrible agony.”
Skeptics and scientists, of course, eventually established that saliva is what carries the rabies virus, and that if bitten through clothing, one was far less likely to be infected than if bitten directly on the skin. Also, not all animals thought to be rabid actually were. The mental relief of receiving the “cure” from the likes of Mrs. Taylor probably helped the healing of non-rabid wounds and infections by calming the mind, thereby boosting the immune system. (What the green stuff was that came out of the madstones, I have no idea.) Though mention has been made of bite-victims having recourse to madstones as late as the 1940s, they practically drop out of the newspapers around 1910.
One last appearance of the madstone in the annals of Hoosier journalism deserves mention. Scientists were justifiably proud of the anti-rabies vaccine, grown in rabbits, that gradually all but wiped out the virus in North America. But in 1907, even the so-called “Pasteur treatment” hadn’t come to Indiana. Just as today we sometimes talk jokingly about “those barbaric Europeans” who enjoy their free medical care, in April 1907 an anonymous doctor wrote this remarkable passage in the monthly bulletin of the Indiana State Board of Health. His (or perhaps her) racism was hopefully tongue-in-cheek:
The Pasteur treatment is the only one for rabies. “Mad stones” are pure folly. Faith in such things does not belong to this century. If a person is bitten by a dog known to be mad we urge such to immediately go to take the Pasteur treatment at Chicago or Ann Arbor. Indiana has no Pasteur Institute, and this reminds us of the admirably equipped and well conducted institute in Mexico City. In the land of the “Greaser,” unlike enlightened and superior Indiana, any person bitten by a mad dog can have scientific treatment for the asking. It is to be hoped that the State having “the best school system” will some day catch up with “the Greasers” in respect to having a free public Pasteur Institute.
In a previous post about “ghoul busters,” I mentioned the body-snatching problem that was a major issue in turn-of-the-century Indianapolis and throughout the U.S. for most of the 1800s. Driven by the need for “fresh material” on dissecting tables at American medical colleges, the longstanding problem of body thievery was widespread and decades-old.
Originally allowed by law to bring only executed felons and the unclaimed poor into the classroom for anatomical study, doctors facing increasing enrollment at nineteenth-century medical schools were forced to prey on ordinary citizens even after “Anatomy Acts” made legal acquisition easier. Though such data hardly show up on the census records, physicians nabbed tens of thousands of bodies from poorly-guarded graves in city and country alike. Tragically, providing bodies for classrooms was a burden that fell disproportionately on African Americans, who play into American medical history both as the robbers and the robbed, the main instruments and victims of grave robbery and desecration into the 1940s.
Ghouls (grave robbers in 19th-century speak) often ignited civil disturbances, like the “Anatomy Riots” that rocked New York City in 1788. (Twenty people were killed on that occasion.) An English robber kept a laconic but harrowing record of his thefts in 1811-12, published in 1896 as The Diary of a Resurrectionist.Often overlooked as a cause of violence on both sides of the Atlantic, the ghouls supposedly unearthed many of the specters that still haunt America.
Indiana was no stranger to this mostly forgotten practice. In the 1860s, well-substantiated fears of the “Resurrection Man” led to the creation of Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery, now one of the largest in the U.S., designed partly to ward off desecration of the dead by needy medical faculties. Staffed by pistol-toting guards at the turn of the century, Crown Hill ensured that families would no longer have to stand watch over their loved ones’ final resting place until decomposition rendered the remains useless to science.
Further digging into Hoosier newspapers turns up a vast trove of journalism and folklore on this bizarre aspect of medical history. One of the wilder and more entertaining tales from the heyday of the “resurrectionists” comes from Andrew Jackson Grayson, a veteran newspaperman of Madison, Indiana, and is set just before the Mexican War.
In the annals of Hoosier journalism, Grayson had a knack for recognizing a good story. Born at Sandcreek in Decatur County in 1838, at age three he moved sixty miles south with his family to the old Ohio river town of Madison. He later described Madison as a “queer old town. . . the Mecca of Indiana, the gem of the Ohio Valley.” In 1861, the 21-year-old enlisted in the 6th Indiana Infantry and fought in the first land battle of the Civil War at Phillipi, Virginia. (While the war was still on, he published a humorous memoir of the regiment’s role in the Virginia campaign.) Mustered out in 1862 due to varicose veins that developed in his left leg after a forced march to Shiloh, he came back to southern Indiana and at age 22, went to work for the Madison Courier. Grayson worked in the printing trade for the rest of his life.
Like the old river town itself, his grave-robber story comes from before the war and is a sort of “crossroads” of Hoosier history. It also taps into a confusing vein of folklore.
Madison had one of the few medical colleges in antebellum Indiana. Consequently, even small towns nearby often had surprisingly qualified (and interesting) doctors. One of the doctors was Charles Schussler, a German immigrant. Educated at the universities of Tübingen and Vienna, he came to New York in 1828, fought in the Texas Revolution, lived in New Orleans for a while, prospected in California during the Gold Rush, then came back east in the early 1850s to set himself up in medical practice in Madison, where he helped found the Madison Medical Institute. (Though the institute went out of existence long ago, the physician’s house is a bed-and-breakfast today.)
For instruction purposes, Schussler often had to steal bodies. According to one story, on a secret grave-robbing operation he and a band of “ghouls” were forced to contend with a “human icicle” they dug up one frigid winter night, probably in a country graveyard. As the frozen body bounced around the wagon while the team sped away from the cemetery, the stiff smashed into Schussler’s foot. The doctor reportedly cried out in agony, then attacked it in a temporary fit of insanity, screaming “Hurt my foot, will you?!”
One of the protagonists of the anonymous doctor’s tale later recorded by Grayson was thought to be with Schussler that night. Part of a trio of fascinating brothers who practiced medicine in southeastern Indiana in the mid-1800s, Dr. John W. Mullen was born to an Irish family in Pennsylvania. Like Schussler, he went to Texas around 1830, where he served as a page to Sam Houston and almost died of yellow fever. Tiring of Texas, Mullen went back to Philadelphia, trained as a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania, then moved to Madison.
Mullen’s elder brother, Alexander, was also a protagonist in Grayson’s story. Born in Ireland in 1813 but raised near Philadelphia, Alexander Mullen ran away from home to join the American Merchant Marine, first training as a doctor on a ship, then at Louisville Medical College in Kentucky. His Irish pioneer family had moved west to Ripley County, Indiana, in the meantime, hence his own move to the Hoosier State around 1840. Alexander served as Prison Physician at the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City, the regimental surgeon of the 35th Indiana Infantry (the “Irish Regiment”) in the Civil War, and finally moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he died in 1897. In the 1840s, he was practicing medicine in the small town of Napoleon. He also trained country doctors at the nearby Versailles Medical Seminary, which once sat on the courthouse square.
(Irish-born Alexander Mullen, left, gave medical lectures in Versailles. His brother, the pediatrician, soldier, and Irish-American radical B.F. Mullen, right, was also a grave robber.)
The folklore begins to come fast and furious, but around 1846, when Alexander was in his early thirties, his other brother, Bernard Mullen, was either studying medicine or practicing alongside him in Versailles or Napoleon.
If there is anyone who dispels the eerie, Hollywood stock image of a grave robber, it is definitely B.F. Mullen. One of the earliest pediatricians in the Hoosier State, when the Mexican War broke out in 1847, the 22-year-old enlisted in James Henry Lane’s 3rd Indiana Regiment and became the youngest surgeon ever to serve in the U.S. Army, being appointed to that post at the General Hospital in Jalapa, Mexico. (As Grayson’s story will show, Mullen was probably driven into the army to avoid the scandal of being labeled a grave robber back home.) In the 1850s, Mullen, an Irish Catholic, became a vocal opponent of the nativist “Know Nothing” Party, which tried to prevent immigration, especially from Ireland. Acclaimed as an orator, Mullen eventually became active in the Fenian Brotherhood, a fraternal society that was a forerunner to the global Irish Republican Brotherhood whose last leader was Michael Collins.
During the Civil War, B.F. Mullen would serve as Colonel of the 35th Indiana “Irish” Regiment, where his brother Alexander was surgeon. Col. Mullen, former ghoul, led the 35th Indiana into the “Battle Above the Clouds” at Missionary Ridge in Tennessee and helped ward off John Hunt Morgan’s raid on Madison itself. After the war, the colonel practiced medicine in Madison until 1871, then moved to Terre Haute. In January 1879, Mullen was Democratic candidate for Indiana State Librarian, but died of tuberculosis in an Indianapolis hotel a month later.
On to the story.
According to Grayson’s version of the tale in the Indianapolis Journal, Alexander and Bernard Mullen were teaching a medical class at Versailles, probably in 1845. More likely, Bernard was the third student who got entangled with a “posse” at the Cliff Hill Cemetery above Laughery Creek (now Versailles Lake). The other two students were John B. Glass, who may have ended up in Missouri or Colorado, and Jonathan W. Gordon, the eponymous origin of the Versailles landmark called “Gordon’s Leap” since the 1800s. Originally from Pennsylvania, Gordon had come to town in 1844 to practice law. He afterwards fought in the Mexican War, served as a major in the Civil War, entered Hoosier politics, and helped future President Benjamin Harrison get started in the law when Harrison first came to Indianapolis.
But as the story shows, around 1845 the lawyer-doctor was a famous local lawbreaker.
(Major Jonathan W. Gordon, soldier-doctor and occasional “ghoul,” went on to become speaker of the Indiana House, Prosecuting Attorney for Marion County, and the “most prominent criminal lawyer” in the state. He died in 1887 and was buried at Crown Hill. A vintage postcard shows Bluff Springs near the site where Gordon and/or his companion John Glass allegedly jumped to avoid being lynched.)
“‘The sensational instances of grave-robbing that have just come to light in Indianapolis remind me of a similar event in which the late Maj. Jonathan W. Gordon figured when he was a young man,” said Andrew J. Grayson, of Madison. “The incident occurred near Versailles in Ripley County, the place made famous in recent years by the lynching of five men simultaneously. [Five “desperadoes” were killed just outside the Cliff Hill Cemetery in 1897 at a spot called “The Hanging Tree.”] Oddly enough, Major Gordon and his companions came near figuring in a lynching bee themselves. They only escaped an untimely and shameful death at the rope’s end by making one of the most thrilling leaps ever attempted by a human being. The spot at which the perilous jump was made by the young men in question is known to this day as ‘Gordon’s Leap.’
“I obtained the full particulars of the grave-robbery in which young Gordon participated from a veteran physician of Madison,” continued Mr. Grayson. “I was sitting in the old doctor’s office one day chatting pleasantly with him when I asked him suddenly if he had not in his long career had some experiences that were of more than passing interest. ‘I have had quite a few,’ he replied, with a smile.
“Upon being pressed to narrate some of his experiences he consented, and the first story he told was that of ‘Gordon’s Leap.’ ‘Nearly fifty years ago,’ said the veteran physician, ‘the town of Madison could boast a medical institute. I was a student in the school, together with a number of other young sprigs that were desirous of receiving their initial instruction in that primitive academy of science.
“‘About that time Jonathan W. Gordon, who afterwards turned to the law and became one of the most brilliant advocates of the Indiana bar, was a medical student. He and a young man named John Glass attended a course of private medical lectures given by Drs. B.F. and A.J. Mullen at their office in the town of Napoleon, not far from Versailles, in which Gordon resided.
“‘Dr. J.W. Mullen, a brother of the Napoleon physicians of the same name, came one summer from a Philadelphia medical college, in which he was taking a course of instruction, to visit his brothers. He met and formed a close friendship with young Gordon. One day he received from Gordon a note saying that a body that would be an excellent subject for dissection had just been buried in the cemetery near Versailles and proposing that the trio, Gordon, Mullen, and Glass, make arrangements to lift the corpse from its resting place. The recipient of the note entered heartily into the ghoulish scheme and arrangements were made to carry it out.
“‘It seemed, however, that a Dr. [William] Anderson of Versailles was suspected of entertaining body-snatching proclivities and the people residing in the vicinity of the cemetery made preparations to give him a warm reception if he should make an attempt to secure the subject in question.
“‘At the appointed time Gordon, Mullen and Glass set out for the lonely burial ground, and when they reached the place they began without hesitation the work of disinterring the coffin containing the coveted body. They had dug clear down to the box and were raining blows on that with a pick in order to force it open when the enraged citizens in ambush descended upon them with a fierce rush. The young fellows knew well that to be caught meant nothing short of lynching. There was but one way of escape.
“‘A few yards away was a precipice about one hundred and twenty feet in height, the top of which looked down upon Laughery Creek. Fully fifty feet of the cliff was a perpendicular wall. To the young men was presented the alternative of dying surely, but disgracefully, at the hands of the mob or of risking a less shameful death and possibly gaining liberty by leaping over the frowning precipice. With Gordon to think was to act. Hurling himself like a cannonball towards the precipice and shouting to his comrades to follow, the daring youth leaped without hesitation over the face of the cliff. Fired by their leader’s amazing courage, Glass and Mullen jumped after him. Down the trio plunged for, it seemed, an interminable length of time, clutching frantically at branches of trees projecting from ledges, until at last they fell in one quivering, panting heap of humanity into a tangled mass of brush at the bottom, which served to prevent them from being instantly killed.
“The leap would have been pronounced suicidal by anyone not under the stress that weighed on these young men. They, however, escaped serious injuries and what was better still, vengeance of the mob. Young Glass sustained a dislocation of an arm, while Gordon and Mullen were simply shaken up and bruised.
“The trio of daredevils were afterward arrested and brought to trial on a charge of grave-robbing, but fortunately made good their escape through the astuteness of Judge Miles Eggleston, father of the famous author [Edward Eggleston], who discovered a flaw in the indictment against the young men. . .”
The doctor’s version of “Gordon’s Leap” that Grayson heard probably had a couple of serious errors. The Mullen brother who accompanied Gordon and Glass to the graveside was almost definitely Bernard, who would have been about twenty if the jump happened in 1845. (Gordon was about twenty-five.) Several sources suggest that both Bernard Mullen and Jonathan Gordon were forced to run away and join the army during the Mexican War due to the fallout from their “ghoulish scheme.”
As long ago as 1884, the truth or falsehood of the leap was hotly debated. On May 15, a piece appeared in the Versailles Republican. The writer said that he had asked Gordon himself about the location of the famous jump:
We asked him if we had been correctly informed as to the locality. As he had visited the spot the day before, he was certain as to the place from which he leaped. But he says he jumped from a tree that stood upon the verge of the bluff and now that tree is not only gone but ten or more feet of the bank is gone. At all events, it was a fearful leap. One of the men, who was with him, also jumped and received severe injuries…
As to the identity of the coveted corpse that night, the Versailles Republican claimed: “A black man had just been buried there, and it was his body the students were after.”
The story of the leap stayed alive in folklore but varied from telling to telling. The location became a famous Ripley County landmark. In 1941, the WPA’s travel guide to Indiana mentioned it. (WPA writers collected a large amount of Hoosier folklore during the Great Depression, though sadly not much of it made it into the WPA guides.) The author makes no mention of any of the Irish Mullen brothers, claiming instead that Gordon and Glass were studying with the Dublin-trained physician Dr. William Anderson — who was, in fact, practicing in Versailles around that time. In the WPA writer’s abbreviated telling, when the lynch mob showed up, Glass escaped through the foliage, while Gordon jumped over the cliff, broke a leg, and dragged himself to a cabin, where he got hold of a horse and fled the county.
More variations are told. Ripley County in Vintage Postcards states that “Glass ran the wrong direction and fell over the precipice.” Alan F. Smith, author of Tales of Versailles, insists that the “leaper” was John Glass. Smith also adds: “Dr. Gordon lost a patient and could not understand why. He was quite interested in performing an autopsy on the body, but the family of the deceased would have nothing to do with the desecration. . . In the darkness, Glass ran over the cliff. . . but, perhaps because Gordon was the dead patient’s doctor, the general public always held the belief that it was he who had jumped.”
Folkorist Ron Baker caught one more elaboration of the tale, which shows up in his classic anthology Hoosier Folk Legends (1982).As someone told Baker: “There was a Dr. Gordon in Versailles. There had been a strange death. Gordon thought an old man’s wife had poisoned him and wanted an autopsy. The family wouldn’t let him. One night real late, he dug up the body. When he got the casket open, the cops and the family came out. Gordon took off running. There’s a 200-250 foot drop cliff at the edge of the cemetery. At the foot of the cliff is Versailles Lake. Gordon fell off and broke a leg. He swam away, and no one ever saw him after that. Now this is called Gordon’s Leap.” (This is certainly false. Versailles Lake, a reservoir, was constructed by damming Laughery Creek in the 1950s.)
Unfortunately, the story wouldn’t be complete without the harrowingly sad coda Grayson appended to it in 1901.
Lest Gordon be considered a hero rather than a grave robber, it’s important to remember that the bodies stolen from rural and urban cemeteries by “resurrection men” were, more often than not, African American. (So were many of the resurrectionists themselves.) White doctors were rarely prosecuted for theft, however, especially if the body was black, whereas African American “ghouls” in their employ often went to court and were sometimes shot and killed by police on the spot.
At one time (1884) the Versailles Republican mentioned that the town’s citizens were considering putting up a monument to Gordon “the leaper.” (In fact, the Ripley County Historical Society erected a historical marker at the Cliff Hill Cemetery in 2013). It is worth noting that no such marker exists to memorialize the thousands of African American bodies robbed from Indiana cemeteries over at least a century.
But I’ll leave it to the doctor from Madison to tell this tale. The date isn’t mentioned, but he claims the event happened before the Civil War:
There is but one authenticated instance of body-snatching in the Madison cemetery, the body taken being that of an old colored man named Taylor. The reason body-snatching was rare in Madison was that we usually got our subjects from rural graveyards. But to return to the Taylor case: A son of the old man was employed as a messenger in the office of Dr. H., in Madison, and after his father died the lad suspected his employer of having stolen the remains. This suspicion, I remember, was aroused by a remark the youth overheard Dr. H. make. The poor boy suffered intensely from his suspicions of his employer, for in those days a negro’s word was worthless against that of a white.
One day, when the doctor was out of his office, the boy decided to put into effect a plan he had evolved. He knew that the doctor had in his closet a skeleton that he used for purposes of study and demonstration. He also knew that his father, when living, had struck himself on the ankle bone with an ax, chipping off a piece of the bone.
Gaining entrance to the closet, the youth peered long and earnestly at the grewsome object suspended therein. Oddly enough one ankle bone of the skeleton had had a piece chipped from it. To the mind of the imaginative young darky the skeleton of his father, as he verily believed it to be, seemed to curse the ruthless hand that had dragged it from its peaceful place in the City of the Dead.
Years rolled by and the doctor disappeared from our midst, entering the Confederate army and becoming a surgeon in the Civil War. The colored office boy grew to manhood, married and had offspring gathered about him. Death visited his little home one day and took from him one of the little ones. The hideous vision he had had in the doctor’s office before came back to him suddenly and with wonderful distinctness. Here was his opportunity to satisfy himself as to the truth of his surmise formed at that time. Accordingly he requested the sexton of the cemetery to permit the body of the child to be buried in the grave of its grandfather. The official assented and the old grave was re-opened. When the bottom was reached there was found, true to the long-entertained belief, the remnants of a coffin, but no trace of the body it once contained.
From the late 1800’s into the early years of the 20th century, Indiana’s capital city had a body problem. How to protect people who were already dead?
Around 1900, even supernatural visitors to the city’s cemeteries would not have been surprised to find “the quick” prowling among the dead. For decades, grave robbers and vandals regularly stalked Indianapolis’ burial grounds – until the city took bold steps to stop them.
An early description of how big the “body-snatcher” problem was comes from an article in the Indianapolis Journal, published just before Halloween on October 27, 1899. The story concerns a shocking discovery at the Greenlawn Cemetery.
You’d be hard pressed to find any trace of Greenlawn today, but for most of the nineteenth century, this was one of the major city cemeteries. Founded in 1821, while Indianapolis was first being laid out, Greenlawn was the original city burying grounds. Situated along the White River just north of what became Kentucky Ave., the cemetery is thought to have been the oldest in Indianapolis. (Tiny family cemeteries may have existed in the area before then, but no trace of them has been found.) Today, the once hallowed 25-acre spot is occupied by the Diamond Chain Company, just west of Lucas Oil Stadium and just north of where I-70 crosses the river. (The company once manufactured about 60% of the bicycle chains in America.)
Over 1100 Hoosier pioneers were interred at Greenlawn. Vermont-born Indiana governor James Whitcomb (1795-1852) lay there until his daughter ordered his body moved to massive, prestigious Crown Hill Cemetery in 1898. Among those who also found their first, but not final, resting place by the White River were 1200 Union soldiers and over 1600 Confederate POW’s who died of illnesses and battle wounds at the U.S. Army’s Camp Morton or in city hospitals nearby.
Greenlawn, however, shared the fate of all those who came to call it home in the nineteenth century. The cemetery, too, died. Indianapolis’ downtown burying grounds faced all the normal cemetery problems, such as vandalism of tombstones by youth and overcrowding, especially after the numerous Civil War interments. Spring and winter floods on the White River were also a major factor behind its closure to new burials in 1890.
But another cause also drove the city to declare Greenlawn itself “defunct”, and was far more disturbing in nature. As Indianapolis newspapers reminded their readers in 1899, the problem had been around for decades.
While performing some of the earliest removals out to Crown Hill, families and city officials unearthed the grisly fact that “in reality, few if any bodies” buried at Greenlawn prior to the 1890’s were still in their graves.
Robbing a grave for jewels and other valuables is a tale as old as time. Preventative measures against the desecration of graves and theft of items meant to stay with the dead had actually led to the creation of some of the greatest mortuary art, including Egypt’s pyramids. Even daring archaeologists were technically glorified grave robbers. The plot of William Faulkner’s great novel Intruder in the Dust (1948) centers around a spinster and a teenager trying to clandestinely remove a body from a fictional cemetery in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, to prove a man innocent.
Outright theft of bodies themselves, however, was something that really only emerged after the 1500’s, when the more accurate study of human anatomy initiated the emergence of modern medical science. In the early days of modern medicine, however, the primary provider of bodies for anatomical study was the public hangman, not the grave robber. Rembrandt’s famous painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp shows doctors-in-training gathered around the body of a Dutch thief, Aris Kindt, who had been strung up on a rope just a few hours before he went to the dissecting table.
Before many centuries were out, though, doctors began to find that live thieves were also useful. In the 1800’s, medical faculties often had trouble finding enough bodies for their students to dissect in classrooms. Families were reluctant to donate their loved ones to science. Tragically, the bodies that medical instructors typically got hold of came from the most victimized and outcast members of society. When available, corpses for the dissecting room were found at poorhouses, jails, and mental asylums, for the simple reason that those who died there had often been abandoned by their families.
While many vocal opponents tried to stop the dissection of the poor, if none came to claim a body as a “friend,” medical faculties were legally allowed to use such corpses for the education of future doctors. Most states passed so-called “Anatomy Acts,” modeled on Britain’s of 1832.
It should come as no surprise that the largest number of bodies dissected by medical students from the 1800’s into the 1930’s were those of African Americans. A high number of those paid or encouraged to do the grave-robbing were also black. African Americans often served as medical assistants to white students, as many turn-of-the-century photographs of dissections show, but rarely became doctors then.
The clandestine pilfering of Indianapolis’ unguarded cemeteries stemmed from a constant need for fresh “instructional material” at central Indiana medical schools, including Indiana Medical College, the Physiomedrical College of Indiana, and Greencastle’s Asbury College (now DePauw). Indiana University in Bloomington did not offer courses in anatomy or physiology until September 1903.
The Central College of Physicians and Surgeons, at 212 North Senate Avenue, was built in 1902 and immediately showed up in lurid news stories about illegal body snatching. (The college was an early forerunner of IU Medical School.) Readers of stories in the Indianapolis Journal could easily have formed an image of the college’s medical faculty scouring obituary notices and hiring thieves to steal fresh bodies as soon as the last family member left the cemetery after a funeral. One such story was reported on September 22, 1902. Mrs. Rosa Neidlinger, recently buried at Pleasant Hill Cemetery between Traders Point and New Augusta, was recovered at Central College a few days later. Investigators returned her to her husband, a miller, for a second burial.
The preferred word in newspapers for grave robbers was “ghouls” (a word that comes from Middle Eastern folklore.) At least one story shows that ghouls and their employers were sometimes caught red-handed.
On February 26, 1890, the Journal reported that three prominent Louisville physicians had been apprehended and indicted for body-thievery at a New Albany, Indiana cemetery. Four “ghouls”, all African American, employed by the Kentucky doctors were involved. One ghoul, George Brown, was shot through the heart by policemen in the cemetery.
The Journal article from October 1899 describes the bizarre dimensions of the problem at Greenlawn in Indianapolis. Families who ordered exhumations of their relatives at Greenlawn were discovering an astonishingly high rate of empty coffins — or to put it more accurately, coffins with only empty clothes left in them. No bones, no hair. Only shrouds and clothing. Were robbers stripping the bodies at graveside?
A man presumably on trial in Marion County for grave-robbing explained this odd fact to the writer for the Journal, who reported:
At first it was customary to open a grave and take the body out, clothes and all, and either strip it naked on the ground or double it up in a sack and remove the clothes after taking it to a safe place.
This practice was discontinued when one day the city was thrown into an uproar over the finding of a girl’s slipper in the snow beside her newly made grave. She had been buried one afternoon in winter when snow was falling and her relatives came back the following day to look at the grave. Between visits the grave robbers got in their work, and, following the usual custom, did not remove the clothing from the body, but doubled it up and put it in a sack. In doing so one of the dainty slippers fell from one of the feet, and, being white, was not noticed in the snow. During the following morning the snow melted and the relatives, returning to the grave, saw the slipper, and, recognizing it, raised a hue and cry. This made the grave robbers change their methods, and thereafter opening the boxes they stripped all bodies of their clothes and put the garments back in the caskets.
This when related to the authorities explained why in opening the graves within the last few months nothing was to be seen in the caskets but piles of discolored clothes thrown in heaps, with slippers where the head ought to have rested. . .
It has come to be generally understood by the city officials that while Greenlawn has all the outward signs of being a cemetery, there are in reality few, if any, bodies there, and that in view of this fact there should be no opposition to its being transformed into a park.
The Journal writer may not have been exaggerating. Grave robbers and doctors were possibly reluctant to disturb the honored Union dead, who were removed to Crown Hill National Cemetery as early as 1866. Can the same be said of the Confederate dead? Greenlawn’s 1600 Confederate soldiers were the last bodies removed once the city decided to exhume every remaining coffin in Greenlawn for reburial at Crown Hill. This process began in 1912, and was sped up by the fact that the area around Greenlawn had become an unattractive industrial area, which it still is today. The Confederate soldiers were left here until 1931. Buried in a damp area by the river, few of their remains likely would have survived 70 years after the Civil War. Could some of them have been sent to medical schools just after burial?
One of the most fascinating criminal cases in Indianapolis history is the story of Rufus Cantrell. An African American who had moved north from Gallatin, Tennessee with his family and settled in Indianapolis, he was prosecuted for extensive grave-robbing in 1903. When pressed, and perhaps enjoying the media attention, Cantrell came clean, taking investigators around cemeteries all over the city where he and his “gang” had removed corpses. Lawyers tried to prove their client insane, even getting his mother to testify that he had preached and talked to God when he was a teenager.
Cantrell was found guilty and sent to the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City, where he “lay dying of typhoid fever” in June 1904. He survived and later was transferred to the Jeffersonville Reformatory near Louisville. Though few if any white doctors who paid ghouls for their services ever got such sentences, Dr. Joseph C. Alexander, who allegedly worked with Cantrell, went on trial in Marion County in February 1903. When the court failed to convict him, angry farmers in Hamilton County hanged and burned effigies of Dr. Alexander and the judge in the middle of a street in Fishers, shouting “Death to the grave robbers!” When they inspected the graves in a rural cemetery on what became Indianapolis’ North Side, half of the coffins there were found empty.
In 1878, there had occurred the well-publicized heist of Benjamin Harrison’s own father from the family cemetery in North Bend, Ohio. Former Congressman John Scott Harrison, son of Indiana territorial governor and U.S. President William Henry Harrison, was found hanging naked from a rope in an air shaft at Ohio Medical College in Cincinnati, shortly after his son Benjamin came from Indianapolis to oversee his secure burial in a secret grave. Amazingly, John Harrison, Jr., armed with a search warrant, had discovered his father’s body while investigating the disappearance of yet another corpse, that of Augustus Devin, a young tuberculosis victim who had been buried next to the Harrison plot just days earlier. Devin’s body turned up in a vat of brine at the University of Michigan.
All this considered, a major factor driving the surge in burials at Crown Hill at the turn of the century was the increased security taken there to ward off robbers. Modeled on Louisville’s famous (and equally massive) Cave Hill Cemetery, Crown Hill was the resting place of most of Indianapolis’ elite. It eventually became the third largest private burial ground in the country.
As a lengthy article in the the Journal reported on October 5, 1902, surveillance at Crown Hill was extensive. Security involved call boxes for quick communication. It also featured a curious system of “time stamps”. Revolver-toting guards were forced to clock in at different corners of the cemetery every 20 minutes, thus ensuring they didn’t fall asleep or shirk their duties as they monitored every part of the park-like necropolis, which in 1902 housed over 32,000 graves. If they encountered prowlers, the guards were ordered to shoot to kill, and they patrolled the cemetery in all weather. The northwest section, near the future site of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, was considered Crown Hill’s “most dangerous district.”
Body-thieving never totally disappeared. (The actor Charlie Chaplin was stolen from his grave in Switzerland in 1978.) The public also feared other reasons for desecration. When Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was buried with his family at Terre Haute’s Highland Lawn Cemetery in 1926, no individual headstone was placed there. Though Debs’ body had been cremated, the Debs family and his supporters feared that unfriendly vandals or “souvenir”-snatchers, perhaps funded by his political enemies, would try to steal the urn.
Such stories are troubling to read, but a vital part of the city’s history, involving race, science, and medicine. Ultimately, it is a strange fact, surely part of the terror and beauty of the human predicament, that many a grave robber, who almost certainly came from the margins of Indianapolis society, ultimately did help advance medicine and the public welfare.