Category Archives: Science History

C. Mervin Palmer and the Civilian Public Service Camps in World War II

Hoosier C. Mervin Palmer was one of 12,000 conscientious objectors who served their country in Civilian Public Service Camps during World War II.

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Credits:

Written and produced by Justin Clark.

Images and footage courtesy of Internet Archive, the New York Public Library, the American Friends Service Committee, and John Thiesen.

Music: “Act Three” by Audionautix

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W. H. LaMaster: The Hoosier Iconoclast

The masthead of the Iconoclast, W. H. LaMaster’s freethought newspaper. Indiana State Library.

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.

Listing of W. H. LaMaster and his family, 1850 Census. Ancestry Library.

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.”

Connersville Examiner, February 10, 1869. Newspaper Archive.

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.

Terre Haute Weekly Gazette, May 1, 1879. Hoosier State Chronicles.

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 Haute Weekly 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.

Index, October 2, 1884. Google Books.

Later that year, LaMaster published an investigative piece in the Indianapolis People critical of spiritualism and spirit mediums. LaMaster wrote:

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.

LaMaster’s expose criticized local mediums Anna Stewart, Laura Morgan, and the ever-popular Dr. Allen Pence, concluding rather jokingly that “in the future I shall try very hard to steer clear of the ‘loving and affectionate’ embraces, or even the touch, of such familiar creatures as ghosts.”

Indianapolis People, May 31, 1879. Newspaper Archive.

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.

Indianapolis News, June 16, 1879. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In the summer of 1879, LaMaster gave an anti-temperance lecture at Indianapolis’s Grand Opera House, where he criticized the “intemperance of temperance orators and temperance people.” He gave another anti-temperance lecture in Lebanon, Indiana in November, where a correspondent to the Indianapolis Journal of Freedom and Right criticized LaMaster’s “shot gun principle” of oratory. The critic concluded, “I would advise him to quit lecturing as it is certainly not his fort [sic].” Nevertheless, LaMaster continued to criticize temperance reforms and reformers in the press, specifically his problems with the 1895 Nicholson Law, which “provided that all persons applying for a license had to specifically describe the room in which he, she or they desired to sell liquors along with the exact location of the same.” LaMaster believed the law was not “in the interest of temperance” but was rather “a measure to increase liquor drinking and drunkenness in our state.”

“What Agnosticism Is?,” in the Improvement Era, December, 1898. Google Books.

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.

Biologist Thomas Henry Huxley. Known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” Huxley was a early champion of evolutionary theory and coined the term, “agnosticism.” Getty Images.

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.

Seymour Times, August 20, 1881. Newspaper Archive.

LaMaster promulgated his ideas in a newspaper he planned in the fall of 1881 and began publishing in 1882, called the Iconoclast. First published in Noblesville, LaMaster later moved printing operations to Indianapolis. As the Seymour Times reported, “Mr. LaMaster is a bold and fearless writer, [and] infidelity right in our own midst even in its most unsavory forms to the tastes of Christians may be expected to be advocated by him.” LaMaster published his own essays as well as works from the “world renowned orator and noble defender of free thought and mental liberty, Col. R. G. Ingersoll.” During his time in the capital city, LaMaster undertook his most enduring publishing effort, at least in regards to historical scholarship. He published a series of answers that Ingersoll had given to four Indianapolis clergy on matters concerning the historical accuracy of Jesus’s life, the beginnings of the universe, and pertinent moral questions. LaMaster subsequently printed Ingersoll’s Answers to Indianapolis Clergy as a pamphlet form in 1893. Another notable freethought newspaper, the Truth Seeker, reprinted the essays in 1896.

Ingersoll’s answers to Indianapolis Clergy, as published by W. H. LaMaster, 1893. Indiana State University.

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.

A lithograph of Robert Ingersoll, Iconoclast, March 10, 1883. Indiana State Library.

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.”

Mind & Matter, April 22, 1882. IAPSOP.

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.

“How Do We Think,” Improvement Era, June, 1898. Internet Archive.

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.

Indianapolis News, February 26, 1895. Hoosier State Chronicles.

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.

Indianapolis News, July 31, 1908. Newspapers.com.

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.

W. H. LaMaster’s death certificate, 1908. Ancestry Library.

A Hoosier Shackleton: Julius Frederick and the Greely Expedition

Julius R. Frederick, courtesy of NOAA.

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.

The crew of the Lady Franklin Bay expedition. Frederick is fifth from the left in the back row. Courtesy of NARA/Glenn Stein.

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.

Adolphus Greely, leader of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition. Courtesy of Google Books.

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.”

Map of Fort Conger and Lady Franklin Bay. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

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.

Fort Conger, the headquarters of the Greely Expedition. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Another image of their headquarters, Indianapolis Journal, January 7, 1904, Hoosier State Chronicles.

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.”

Sergeant George W. Rice. Frederick comforted him during his final minutes while there were on a supply run. Courtesy of Internet Archive.
Julius Frederick (right) helping comrade George Rice (left) stay comfortable before he died in April, 1884. Courtesy of Internet Archive.

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.

Private Charles B. Henry. He was executed for stealing food and supplies. Courtesy of NARA/Daily Mail.

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.

The six survivors of the LFB expedition. Frederick is the first on the left, back row. Courtesy of Corbis/Getty Images.

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.

New York Times, August 5, 1884, Historic New York Times.

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.”

Indianapolis Journal, January 13, 1887, Hoosier State Chronicles.

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.

Indianapolis News, June 10, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

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.

Indianapolis Journal, January 7, 1904, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Reflecting on the expedition, Frederick said to the Indianapolis News that:

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.

LFB expedition memorial plaque, Pim Island, 2005. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tonight, there’s going to be a (Rotary) Jail Break!

A birds-eye view of the rotary jail from its original patent. Courtesy of Google Books.
A birds-eye view of the rotary jail from its original patent. Courtesy of Google Books.

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.

A search for "rotary jail" in US News Map. Courtesy of US News Map.
A search for “rotary jail” in US News Map. Courtesy of US News Map.

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.

Main street in Burlignton, Vermont, 1893. On this street resided the city's rotary jail. Courtesy of Google Books.
Main street in Burlington, Vermont, 1893. On this street resided the city’s rotary jail. Courtesy of Google Books.

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.

Despite the reputation that rotary jails were nearly impossible to break through, escapes occurred periodically throughout the country.

Burlington Weekly Free Press, April 7, 1892. From Chronicling America.
Burlington Weekly Free Press, April 7, 1892. From Chronicling America.

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.

Salt Lake Herald, February 2, 1907. From Chronicling America.
Salt Lake Herald, February 2, 1907. From Chronicling America.

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.

Carrie Nation. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Carrie Nation. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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.

Topeka State Journal, April 27, 1901. From Chronicling America.
Topeka State Journal, April 27, 1901. From Chronicling America.

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.

Fairfield News and Herald, November 10, 1886. From Chronicling America.
Fairfield News and Herald, November 10, 1886. From Chronicling America.

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.