Indiana’s contribution to the “Golden Age of Freethought” during the late nineteenth century has been covered by previous blogs for the Indiana Historical Bureau; in particular, iconoclastic author Ambrose Bierce, the Vonnegut’s, and Robert Ingersoll and Lew Wallace’s “legendary train ride.” This blog covers another another Hoosier freethinker, W. H. LaMaster. His freethought newspaper, the Iconoclast, became a staple of Indianapolis thought through the 1880s and he continued his column writing until his death in 1908. LaMaster advocated for religious skepticism, scientific advancement, and was a staunch anti-temperance advocate. LaMaster, alongside notable freethinkers like Ambrose Bierce, Clemens Vonnegut, and Robert Ingersoll, helps us understand the rich religious diversity in the Midwest during the late nineteenth century.
William Hammon LaMaster was born on February 14, 1841 in Shelbyville, Indiana, to Benjamin and Elizabeth LaMaster. His early life is mostly unknown to us, but we do know that he lived for a time in Missouri on the family farm, according to the US Census. From there, LaMaster served for the Union army during the Civil War, serving in the 89th Indiana Infantry and the 146th Indiana Infantry. After the war, he returned home to Shelbyville (and later Liberty), passed the bar exam, and began his law practice. As early as 1868, he was beginning to make a splash within Republican Party circles. As the Daily Ohio Statesman reported, LaMaster was a “rising young lawyer of that city [Shelbyville, Indiana], a gentleman and a scholar, and hitherto was the main hub in the Republican Party in that county. He was in the war, and bears honorable scars.” In 1868, he advertised his law practice in the Connersville Examiner, and described his credentials as “Attorney at Law, and Deputy Common Pleas Prosecutor. Will practice in the Courts of Union and Fayette Counties.”
Also in 1868, LaMaster began writing a regular newspaper column writing for the Connersville Examiner called “Liberty Items.” In it he shared his thoughts on local happenings in Liberty Township, Union County, Indiana. In personal affairs, he married Harriet Reed on December 26, 1866, with the usual proceedings of a “Minister of Gospel,” as described on their marriage record. LaMaster’s iconoclastic views had not yet bubbled to the surface, at least with regards to his nuptials.
From there, LaMaster’s story is unclear until the late 1870s, when his religious skepticism was in full force. While LaMaster’s evolution into a freethinker is of great importance, it is outside of the scope of this initial post. By May 1879, his public life as a freethinker was evident in a lecture entitled “The God of the Bible” that he delivered at Terre Haute’s Dowling Hall. The Terre HauteWeekly Gazette described, “From the way he states his subject something of an idea of his manner of treating it may be learned.” Unfortunately, research has yet to uncover the text of this lecture. However, an advertisement published in an 1884 issue of the Index suggests that it might have been akin to known-agnostic Robert Ingersoll’s critical lecture, Some Mistakes of Moses.
Being a skeptic, so far as spiritualism is concerned in any form, whether manifested through ignorant mediums or otherwise, I must say that I saw nothing on my late experience among spirits in Terre Haute to convince me of the truth of modern spiritualism.
When LaMaster was not debunking spiritualism in Terre Haute, he was trying to debunk another popular notion during the period: temperance. The movement, which called for either the curtailing or elimination of alcohol consumption, gained steam during the late nineteenth century. LaMaster viewed the movement as he did most creeds—as an overzealous, dogmatic group who wanted to control people’s lives. He did not parse words when he wrote in the Indianapolis People that the first temperance lecturer was the Devil, who “taught a very remote grandmother of ours the art of using, in a very temperate manner, a certain kind of ‘fruit,’ to her ‘mental’ advantage, before any wicked distiller ever thought of solving the difficult problem, how to convert its juice into intoxicating beverages.” Now, it is important to clarify LaMaster’s personal view; while he supported any individual or personal efforts to be temperate with drink, he was opposed to using laws to move people in that direction, a distinction the Indianapolis News made sure to print.
While temperance was one of LaMaster’s political hobby horses, his dedication to freethought and secularism was his main contribution to the growing diversity of Indiana’s religious thought during the late nineteenth century. In an 1898 article for the Improvement Era, “What Agnosticism Is?,” LaMaster outlined his own view regarding theological matters. He wrote:
Agnosticism as an applied theory or doctrine may therefore be said to be one which neither asserts nor denies the existence of the infinite, the absolute. Or, it may be defined as a “theory of the unknowable which assumes its most definite form in the denial of the possibility of any knowledge of God.” And so the agnostic may be said to be one who does not claim or profess to know of the existence of a supreme being called God.
Regarding agnosticism, LaMaster’s view mirrored the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (who coined the term) as well as the other titan of Midwestern freethought, Robert G. Ingersoll. Conversely, LaMaster’s agnosticism under-girded his poor estimation of Christianity, which he believed rested on a poor foundation of “faith.” He declared:
To state the proposition more tersely we will say that while Christianity is willing to rest on “faith” alone in arriving at any one or more objective religious truths, agnosticism demands something more—it demands evidence of the highest character before accepting as very truth any kind of a religious belief or dogma. Hence we find Christianity standing for a bare and empty faith and agnosticism for the strongest and the most indisputable of testimony. And so it must be admitted that as between the Christian and the agnostic there is an impassable gulf.
For LaMaster, the use of reason, in conjunction with evidence, provided a person with the clearest picture of the world and their place within it.
In the introduction to the 1893 version, LaMaster further explained his worldview and the impetus for publishing Ingersoll’s answers. He wrote:
It is for the good and well-being of the whole people that a natural religion should take the place of a supernatural one. With the imaginary or idealistic, progressive thought can have nothing to do, since it is the real, and not the ideal, that men and women should crave to find. The world is in need of a religion of humanity—one of philosophy and good deeds—and not one of creeds.
The idea of a “religion of humanity” recalls the proto-humanistic philosophy of Auguste Comte, who argued for a natural religion based on altruistic impulses and mutual affection among individuals without the need for supernaturalism. LaMaster also published with these letters an essay that he likely prepared for the International Congress of Freethinkers in Chicago entitled, “The Genesis of Life.” In it, he argued for a naturalistic explanation for life on earth, noting that “whilst there may be no particular source of life in the universe, there is always to be found a general or universal one from which it may emanate and become an active, moving, and expressive energy in organic nature.”
His years publishing the Iconoclast were difficult, especially in a city like Indianapolis, where its community of freethought was “without organization,” according to the Index. “With the Iconoclast,” wrote B. F. Underwood in the same paper, “existence is yet a struggle, as it necessarily is with all young liberal journals.” Despite its success with Ingersoll’s Answers to Indianapolis Clergy, the Iconoclast ceased publication in 1886.
Over the next 20 years, LaMaster continued writing and publishing a variety of essays and pamphlets, both in journals and newspapers. In 1896, he published, “The Growth and Magnitude of the Sidereal Heavens,” in Popular Astronomy, where he speculated on the existence of extraterrestrial life. “Let us then, in our magnanimity,” declared LaMaster, “rise above the compass of our human selfishness and allow our minds to be inspired with the thought that there are other worlds than ours in the starry vaults of heaven, which are the abode of even more sentient beings than ourselves.” These ideas would be echoed nearly a century later by astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan, in his television series, Cosmos.
In another piece, “How Do We Think?,” LaMaster speculates on the interaction of language and human minds, and whether language is necessary for human thought. LaMaster mused:
If it be true, then, that mind is one of the endowments of matter, even in its organized forms, and one of its functions is that of thinking, it cannot be denied that it will think independently of words actually spoken or disguised . . . . Words themselves presuppose some kind of thought; in fact, words are the natural and legitimate offspring of thought.
Again, LaMaster was extremely prescient about this point. The hypothesis that thought comes before language and that our brains are hard-wired for language has been buttressed by cognitive scientists like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. Despite his training as an attorney, it is evident that LaMaster was a man whose interest in ideas, particularly of the sciences, was particularly well-rounded, especially for the nineteenth century.
Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, he continued writing newspaper columns, including authoring pieces for the Indianapolis News . In one article from February 26, 1895, he wrote about the enduring legacy of American revolutionary and freethinker Thomas Paine. In one of his final columns, written for the August 16, 1907 issue of the Indianapolis Star, LaMaster shared his thoughts about the human soul:
The soul per se, unlike other forms of matter, can have neither growth nor decay. It having therefore its own eternal place and fixity in the universe, it can be neither born nor can it die. And whatever then may be its form or shape it possesses potential being, and one, too, of the highest order.
This nascent spiritualism should not be taken to mean that he had changed his mind. Rather, LaMaster believed that the “soul” was likely an emergent property of humanity’s natural place in the universe.
In 1906, he and his family moved to Westphalia, Knox County, Indiana, away from the hustle of Indianapolis, where he continued his intellectual pursuits until the end. LaMaster died on July 28, 1908, at the age of 67. In his obituary from the Indianapolis News, he was described as a “frequent contributor to the Indianapolis News and other Indianapolis newspapers,” and was a “vigorous writer.” In that last remark, they were certainly correct. In his lifetime, LaMaster had written for numerous newspapers, journals, and pamphlets on a wide-range of topics. His newspaper, the Iconoclast, helped to cement a growing freethought community in Indianapolis. His speculations on science are still noteworthy today. In this regard, LaMaster was a classic, nineteenth century “polymath.” In his explorations and religious unorthodoxy, LaMaster contributed much to our understanding of freethought in the Midwest during the late nineteenth century.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, expeditions from multiple nations took on one of the most dangerous, treacherous parts of the globe: the north and south poles. The most well-known example is Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. His expedition to Antarctica in 1915 became world-famous for his actions to save all 22 men of his crew from extreme cold for 105 days. Biographies of this journey became best-sellers, inspiring many on-screen adaptations, most notably 2002’s Shackleton, starring Kenneth Branagh. However, Shackleton wasn’t the only artic explorer to receive accolades for his endurance and bravery. Julius Frederick, Indiana resident and survivor of the Lady Franklin Bay expedition, also endured harsh temperatures, food shortages, and crew disruptions while stranded in the arctic.
According to the Indianapolis News, Frederick was born in Dayton, Ohio on July 21, 1852. He spent most of his early years in St. Mary’s, Ohio before his mother died when he was thirteen. Without much keeping him in Ohio, Frederick moved to Chicago, taking odd jobs as a messenger boy and railroad worker before he enlisted in the US army in 1876. For many years, Frederick was a soldier in military campaigns against Native Americans, fighting the Sioux and Nez Pierce. Specifically, he fought in the battle of Muddy Creek against the Sioux on May 7, 1877.
By 1879, Frederick was interested in a different course and signed up to join the Howgate expedition to the North Pole. However, the unstable condition of the ship stranded Frederick in Montana for another two years. Finally, in 1881, Frederick joined the Lady Franklin Bay expedition led by Adolphus Greely, a then-First Lieutenant of the Army’s 5th Cavalry Regiment. Lady Franklin Bay is by Ellesmere Island, Nanavut, Canada, making it one of the most northern spots on the globe to be explored. The expedition’s task, in Frederick’s words, was to “take scientific observations within the Arctic Circle.” This came in the form of weather recording devices and other techniques used to understand the intense climate of the arctic region. In August of 1881, the 21 person crew set course on the ship Proteus, a “steam whaler” that carried them from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Lady Franklin Bay. As historian Glenn Stein noted, Frederick’s “nickname among his Arctic comrades was “Shorty” because of his five-foot, two-inch stature” and he “did little hunting during the LFBE, but performed the various duties of a cook, steam-launch engineer, and shoemaker.”
Once they arrived at Lady Franklin Bay, Greely and his team began their months-long investigation of the region, complete with recordings of the climate and natives. This was all in accordance with a multinational project called the International Polar Year that, according to historian C. J. Taylor, sought to establish “14 research stations” to “study the geophysics and geodesy of the polar region.” Among these stations, they resided at Fort Conger, an outpost a few miles inland from the bay. During these investigations, Sergeants David Brainard and James Lockwood confirmed the “farthest north” record up to that time. Things were going well until the supply ship Neptune failed to reach Lady Franklin Bay and returned to the United States. With its failure went the expedition’s resupply of food and other necessities. Subsequently, the expedition went from a mission of knowledge to one of survival.
Greely and his men began to face intense supply shortages which ravaged the crew, leading many to die from the lack of food and the harsh temperatures. A first rescue attempt in 1883 had failed, when the ship Proteus had been sunk by ice collisions, permanently shifting the crew southward from Fort Conger. It was in this dire situation that Julius Frederick endured his most painful experience of the expedition. In April of 1884, only a few months before the party was rescued, Frederick and Sergeant George W. Rice trekked to Cape Isabella, Baird Inlet, “to attempt the recovery of the hundred pounds of English beef which had been abandoned in November, 1883.” As a profile in Scribner’s magazine wrote, Frederick and Rice risked “their lives at almost every step of the way . . . only to find, after hours of searching among the floes, that their triumph was a barren one. . . .” The meat “had drifted from the shore” and was not salvageable. Rice’s condition worsened dramatically and he asked Frederick to leave him to die. Frederick refused and stayed with Rice until the very end, wrapping Rice’s “frozen feet with the temiak, or fur-lined jacket taken from his [Frederick’s] own back for this purpose, and then sat and held his unfortunate comrade till the latter’s pain was relieved by death.” Frederick initially yearned to die but, dedicated to his mission, saved Rice’s food ration, laid Rice’s body to rest, gathered up their supplies, and returned to camp so his colleagues wouldn’t suffer during a search attempt. As Scribner’s wrote, “He would use what was his own, but would not rob the living or the dead.”
While many died from malnutrition, immense cold, and sheer exhaustion during the Greely expedition, only one was executed for insubordination. Private Charles B. Henry was caught stealing food in excess of his ration and summarily punished for his crimes. As the Fort Wayne Sunday Gazette noted, Frederick recalled that Private Henry was shot in the back with “two balls taking effect and producing instant death.” The Gazette shared more details from Frederick about the grisly conditions:
He said further there may have been cannibalism, but of this he has no personal knowledge. Henry had been warned several times about stealing food, but he repeated the offense and finally Greely issued the order for his execution.
Frederick’s account was also published in the New York Times. However, the Indianapolis News reported that survivor Maurice Connell claimed Henry had been falsely accused and that Greely had actually stolen food. “To these charges,” the News wrote, “Sergeant Frederichs [sic], of this city, gives an emphatic denial, claiming that he himself saw Henry commit the theft. . . .” Greely also defended his decision to the New York Times, exclaiming that “it was discovered that, with other articles [food], Henry had stolen and secreted the sealskin boots of the hunter of the expedition.” The execution of Private Henry was one of the more inhumane moments of the Greely expedition, an acknowledgement of the harsh environment encompassing the men.
On June 23, 1884, after three long and suffering years, the survivors of the Greely expedition were rescued by a slew of ships led by Commander Winfield Schley. When all was said and done, there were only six survivors: Frederick, Brainard, Biederbick, Connell, Long, and Greely himself. Frederick was promoted to Second Lieutenant for his service during the expedition. The rest had perished during the years-long process to resupply and then rescue the expedition party. Greely, as quoted in the Indianapolis Journal, lamented that “six out of twenty-five were brought home. Nineteen brave men remain in that land of desolation.” When the crew docked at Portsmouth, New Hampshire on August 4, 1884, the New York Times wrote:
Never before in the history of Portsmouth has there been so grand and imposing an event as the celebration of the return of Lieut. Greely and the survivors of the expedition. . . . They were enthusiastically greeted as they landed, and the crowd pressed forward to shake their hands.
The hero’s welcome they received from their fellow citizens underscored the almost unthinkable hardships these men faced while in the arctic.
After a few other postings, Frederick moved to Indianapolis in February 1885, on assignment for the federal Signal and Weather Bureau Services. His move back to the US required some adjustment, especially in regards to the climate. “Sergeant Frederick[s],” the Indianapolis Journal wrote on January 13, 1887, “was about, yesterday, in his shirtsleeves complaining that the weather was much too warm.” The article further quoted him:
“I suppose an Esquimau [sic],” said the Sergeant, “couldn’t be made to understand that heat, no matter how strong it might be, could under any circumstances, occasion suffering. A hereafter of unquenchable fire would have no terrors for him, and when missionaries are sent to the ever-frozen north, they will have to preach a future for the wicked of even more intense cold.”
Despite his acclimation to the cold, Frederick never fully recovered from his expedition. In an interview with the Indianapolis News, when asked of why he chose to live more inland in Indiana, he cited “rheumatism” as a motivator.
In 1902, after many years of lobbying by the state legislature, Julius Frederick received a final promotion, first-class Sergeant of the signal corps of the army, as well as a retirement with pension. Biederbick, Long, and Connell also received the same commendation. The measure was passed by the Congress and signed by President Theodore Roosevelt on June 12, 1902. This final tribute, explained by Indiana Congressman Jesse W. Overstreet in an article in the Indianapolis News, was to “give to these men the only recognition which it remains for a grateful nation to bestow upon those who have imperiled their lives in war or in pursuit of science. This expedition carried the American flag to the northernmost point it has ever been planted by any scientific expedition.” Frederick’s contributions to exploration were finally recognized by the United States and he could finally retire to focus on his health.
Unfortunately, by the fall of 1903, Frederick’s health steadily declined. As the Indianapolis Journal reported, Frederick was “lying in a critical condition at his home on Center Drive, Woodruff place. Acute gastritis, brought on by exposure while with the General A. W. Greely expedition to the North Pole nineteen years ago, is the cause of Sergeant Frederick’s illness.” Frederick died on January 6, 1904 from complications from stomach cancer. He was only 51 years old. Upon his death, the Monthly Weather Review applauded his work in meteorology and noted that he died “enjoying the respect and esteem of all who knew him.” His friend and fellow Greely expedition survivor, Henry Biederbick, traveled all the way from New Jersey to attend his funeral. Frederick was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.
The Greely expedition was most unfortunate. I am not going to criticise [sic]. It was a horrible experience. I think, however that the success of polar expeditions is largely a question of equipping well. My expedition for the most part had only the rigors of the climate to contend against.
Frederick’s humility and perseverance, in the face of unparalleled challenges, speaks to the importance of exploration. As astronomer Carl Sagan once wrote, “We have always been explorers. It is part of our nature. Since we first evolved a million years or so ago in Africa, we have wandered and explored our way across the planet.” Frederick was one of those explorers, a brave soul who dared to face the elements and survived. In his success the world grew more connected, more understood. Upon Frederick’s death, a friend recalled a motto that he had “made a precept throughout his life: ‘Nothing is impossible to him that does.” If that is the case, then Frederick thoroughly achieved the impossible.
One of the nineteenth century’s most idiosyncratic inventions was the rotary jail. Inspired by the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, rotary jails were circular enclosures that allowed guards a 360 degree view of inmates through moving cells via a crank. There was only one access point, making escape more difficult. This type of jail was invented in Indiana by architect William H. Brown and iron industrialist Benjamin F. Haugh. These Indianapolis-based inventors filed their patent patent in 1881.The design became popular, largely because it decreased interaction between guard and prisoner. In fact, the prisoner did not even have to be removed from his cell to dispose of waste. In this blog post, we’ll expand our knowledge of these jails through more newspaper accounts from throughout the United States.
But how do we start? One great tool for looking for subjects and their relevance to newspapers is usnewsmap.com. A joint venture of the Georgia Tech Research Institute and the University of Georgia, US News Map provides visitors with an easy search tool that show where subjects show up on the map. When I typed in “rotary jail,” I got eleven hits; some were as far east as Vermont and as far west as Utah.
In Burlington, Vermont, a rotary jail was built as early as the late 1880s, with city planners waxing enthusiastic about the invention after their visit to the flagship rotary jail in Crawfordsville, Indiana. “They were most favorably impressed with the new rotary jail at Crawfordsville, Ind., and the probability is that they will decide to erect a similar one in this city,” wrote the Burlington Free Press on March 25, 1887. In Picturesque Burlington, a short history written in 1893 by Joseph Auld, describes the rotary jail in detail:
This “cage” is closely surrounded by a barred iron railing with only one opening. When a prisoner is to be placed in his cell the “cage” is revolved till the proper cell fronts the door; then the prisoner is put in, the cage is turned, and he is secure. The number of prisoners is small and the offences venial, largely violations of the prohibitory law.
For example, one particular story from the Burlington Free Press comes to mind. As reported on April 7, 1892, a man named John Arthur Simpson, whose aliases included “George Simpson” and “George A. Stillwell,” was accused of murder in Dover, New Hampshire. Simpson, whose past lives included “Baptist minister, later a burglar, horse thief, incendiary, farmer, bigamist, and finally a murderer,” apparently bared a remarkable resemblance to Julius McArthur, who “killed Deputy Sherriff Charles H. Hatch of New Hampshire May 6, 1891 while resisting arrest for stealing a horse and who escaped from the rotary jail of this city Jul 17, 1891.” According to the newspaper report, Simpson likely escaped from jail using a knife “as a wedge to open the cell door” and the authorities searched for a supposed accomplice who gave him said knife. Even though rotary jails garnered a reputation for being tough to escape, Simpson’s story shows they weren’t completely impenetrable.
Another rotary jailbreak occurred in Salt Lake City, Utah. Charles Riis, convicted of larceny under the name “Charles Merritt,” reportedly “went through the bars of the supposedly impregnable steel rotary at the county jail as though they were made of putty,” wrote the Salt Lake Herald on February 2, 1907. Riis was said to have “crawled” through a cell “eight inches wide by fourteen inches and length” after sawing through a bar over a few days, slowly as to not alert the sheriff. He then used the sawed bar as leverage to scale down the side of the jail wall with a blanket. At the time of this article, his whereabouts were unknown. Riis’s clever maneuvering utilized the weaknesses of both the rotary jail as an invention and the law enforcement agency’s inability to anticipate his covert actions.
However, these stories pale in comparison to what was reported in multiple newspapers in Kansas. Carrie Nation, noted prohibitionist and provocateur, instigated a spat with the Wichita Sheriff’s wife and placed in a rotary jail cell in 1901. From here, we get two different sides of the story. According to the May 3 1901 issue of the Kinsley Graphic, Nation was “placed in the rotary cell at the county jail. She abused the sheriff’s wife, calling her all kind of vile names, the ‘devil’s dam being one.” She also called another woman “two-faced” as she was sitting in the rotary cell. However, the Topeka State Journal quoted Nation directly, painting a contrasting narrative. Nation, quoted in the Journal, wrote:
I was put in this [rotary] cell because I told Mrs. Simmons, the jailor’s wife, that when I was here before she tried to have me adjudged insane. She said I was a woman who used low, obscene language to her husband. I told her she lied and all liars would go to burn in the lake of fire. Her husband told me this morning when he came to remove me that his wife wanted me to be put here. Poor, depraved wretch! What a shame to see a cruel, revengeful woman. John the Baptist lost his head from just such a one. I would rather die in this unwholesome place than be such. I wish she would let Jesus change the bitter to the sweet in her nature. What a miserable woman she is! My poor sisters in this Bastille are trusting in the Lord.
She then railed against the liquor trade in Wichita, advising all citizens to “avoid getting anything from this cursed Sodom,” and comparing her treatment in the rotary jail to the “cruelty and injustice” of the “Spanish inquisition.” Nation’s brush with rotary jails is one of many legendary stories of the gilded age crusader.
Finally, rotary jails not only dealt with prisoners getting out, but also unintentionally trapped in. The November 10, 1886 issue of the Fairfield News and Herald, out of Winnsboro, South Carolina, reported that the rotary jail in Council Bluffs, Iowa “became locked Monday morning by some disarrangement of the machinery, and no prisoners could be taken out nor any admitted.” The paper further noted that a “large force of men were at work all day on the machinery, but the trouble was not removed until Tuesday morning.” This story was also picked by the Laurens Advertiser, the Manning Times, and the Pickens Sentinel.
Between the escapes and the structural failures, you would think that rotary jails would have lost sway with the law enforcement community and the general public. As the previous post mentioned, efforts to stop the use of rotary jails began as early as 1917. By the mid-20th century, many rotary jails were discontinued or the cell blocks were immobilized. Two former rotary jails served as county jails well into the 20th century, with the Council Bluffs jail closing in 1969 and the Crawfordsville jail in 1973.
Although the rotary jail is no longer used, the seminal Indiana invention left a profound mark on the history of crime and punishment in the United States. Its design really broke the mold, or as you could say, broke (out of) the cell.
The known universe is big; insanely big! At a staggering age of 13.8 billion years, our observable universe has a diameter of 92 billionlight-years. Over the last century, astronomers, physicists, and mathematicians have helped us understand a more precise measurement of the size of the universe and how it has changed over time. The prevailing theory is the “Big Bang,” which, “At its simplest, [it] talks about the universe as we know it starting with a small singularity, then inflating over the next 13.8 billion years to the cosmos that we know today.” A key component of Big Bang cosmology, “Expansion Theory,” stipulates that the universe is expanding, rather than a static state, which accounts for the changing distances of stars and galaxies. So, how did we come to this conclusion?
Part of our understanding of the expanding universe has benefited, in no small part, to an Indiana farmer’s son named Vesto Slipher. Slipher developed spectrographic methods that allowed researchers to see a Doppler effect in the distances of what were then called “spiral nebula,” what we today call galaxies. Simply put, by measuring the longer wavelength red shift (objects moving away) and shorter wavelength blue shift (objects moving closer), Slipher demonstrated that the universe was not static. In fact, it was expanding and often pushing objects towards each other. Slipher’s name doesn’t get regularly name-checked as one of the greatest scientists of all-time, but his contributions helped to establish our current view of the cosmos.
Vesto Melvin Slipher was born on November 11, 1875 on the family farm in Mulberry, Indiana. As biographer William Graves Hoyt noted, Slipher’s early life on the farm “helped him develop the strong, vigorous constitution that later stood him in good stead for the more strenuous aspects of observational astronomy.” Slipher received a B.A. (1901), M.A. (1903), and Ph.D (1909) in Astronomy from Indiana University. His Ph.D. dissertation paper, The Spectrum of Mars, which tentatively identified atmospheric characteristics (namely, water vapor) on the red planet.
Slipher’s professional career in science began in August of 1901, when he moved to Flagstaff, Arizona to fill a vacancy at the Lowell Observatory. Founded by the idiosyncratic Dr. Percival Lowell, Lowell Observatory became one of the foremost institutions of astronomy during the early 20th century. As the Coconino Sun put it, the observatory, “is known and recognized all over world for its discoveries and correct calculations.”
Lowell’s chief pursuit with the observatory was to prove that there were inhabitants on Mars, and hired young Slipher to help him. As early as 1908, Slipher found evidence through his spectroscopic techniques that Lowell may be on to something. The Washington Herald reported that V. M. Slipher (newspaper articles almost always identified him in print with just his initials) and his brother, Earl C. Slipher, “discovered evidences of the presence of water in the atmosphere of Mars. . . .” Sometime later, on May 20, 1909, the Hopkinsville Kentuckian noted that Slipher’s observations, “favor the view that the whitecaps about Mars poles are composed of snow rather than of hoarfrost,” and that “prevalent conditions of Mars . . .are those of a mild but desert climate, such as Professor Percival Lowell has asserted exists there.”
Lowell’s interest in Mars, emboldened by Slipher’s results, intensified. In 1912, Slipher helped install a 13,000 feet high telescope in the San Francisco Mountains so as to refine his measurements. Slipher’s efforts culminated in a 1914 announcement of further confirmation to his Water Vapor hypothesis. The Washington, D.C. Evening Star wrote that, “while the amount of water is difficult to determine, the estimates placed it at about one-third that of the atmosphere of the earth.” While Slipher and Lowell never found Martians on the red planet, their findings established atmospheric models that are still corroborated by scientists to this day.
With his research on Mars, Slipher was only getting started. His real passion was observing the position and velocities of “spiral nebula,” and he used his spare time away from his Mars projects to advance his research. His early successes convinced Dr. Lowell to give him time devoted to this research. It came with spectacular results. In 1912, Slipher began recording spectrographic results of the Andromeda Nebula (now known as the Andromeda Galaxy) and found that they were blue-shifting, which indicated that the nebula was “not within our galaxy.” “Hence we may conclude,” Slipher observed in his published findings, “that the Andromeda Nebula is approaching the solar system with a velocity of about 300 kilometers per second.” Within the next couple of years, Slipher also discovered that the Andromeda Nebula was also rotating as it traveled, and published these results in a subsequent article. From there, the results went to the press; the Daily East Oregonian published the findings in its November 15, 1915 edition. The Caldwell Watchmen in Columbia, Louisiana also reported that the Nebula was traveling at an unprecedented speed of “186 miles a second.” Similar articles were published in the Ashland, Oregon Tidings and the Albuquerque Evening Herald.
Slipher eventually observed the speeds of 15 nebulae, shared his findings at the 1914 American Astronomical Society meeting, and “received a standing ovation.” His results were then published by the society in 1915, demonstrating that the average velocity of these nebulae at 400 kilometers a second. A few years later, in 1921, Slipher found a record-breaking nebula called Dreyer’s Nebula (known today as IC 447) that was traveling away from our galaxy at 2,000 kilometers a second! With nebulae moving at varying velocities and in varying directions, Slipher’s research had started a conversation about the need to reevaluate the static theory of the universe. Why were these nebula acting like this?
To test this idea, Hubble began a new series of spectrographic experiments in the 1930s. The MunciePost-Democrat reported on one of these experiments on November 25, 1938:
The answer [to the expansion theory], they said, may be found when the new 200-inch reflector, cast in Corning, N. Y., glassworks, is completed. If the universe is expanding, the giant reflector being built on Mt. Palomar, in California, may indicate the type of expansion. The new mirror will collect four times as much light as the 100-inch Hooker reflector now in use at Mt. Wilson.
These further experiments reaffirmed Hubble’s earlier conclusions and the expansionary model of the universe became the standard-model. The evidence was so overwhelming that Einstein changed his mind and accepted the expansionary theory. Like with his work on Mars, Slipher’s early observations helped to uncover a field-altering discovery, and as biographer William Hoyt concluded, his research “enabled astronomers to gauge the approximate age and dimensions of the known universe.”
Even after his momentous research on spiral nebula, Slipher continued to be involved in key discoveries. For example, Slipher assisted in the discovery of the planet (now dwarf planet) Pluto! A January 2, 1920 article in the Coconino Sun recalled that, “Dr. Slipher said he believes it is true that there is an undiscovered planet. This belief is due to peculiar actions of Uranus, who gets kind of wobbly sometimes in her course around the sun.” To confirm these claims, Slipher brought young scientist Clyde Tombaugh onto the project in 1928. After many attempts of photographing the unknown body, and Slipher even missing it in some telescopic photographs, Tombaugh finally discovered Pluto on February 18, 1930. The New York Times later reported the discovery on April 16, 1930. “Denial to the contrary,” the Times wrote, “Dr. V. M. Slipher, director of the Lowell Observatory [here], believes evidence indicates that the recently discovered “Planet X” is the long-sought trans-Neptunian planet, and is not a comet.” While Tombaugh rightfully gets the credit for the discovery, Slipher’s hard work in assisting the young scientist should count as one of his accomplishments.
Slipher retired from the Lowell Observatory in 1952 and spent the remaining years of his life involved in minor astronomical work and community affairs before he passed away in 1969, at the age of 94. While not a household name, Slipher’s achievements in astronomy are legendary, from his discovery of the atmospheric conditions of Mars and assisting with the discovery of Pluto to his ground-breaking research on spiral nebulae that led to our understanding of the expanding universe. In short, he helped science, and in turn humanity, further uncover the mysteries of the cosmos. Pretty good for a farm boy from Mulberry, Indiana.