WHAT:History Unfolded Research Sprint WHEN: Thursday, February 1, anytime between 9 a.m. and noon WHERE: Indiana State Library
315 West Ohio Street
Indianapolis, IN 46202 (Map) (Parking) QUESTIONS: jweiss@history.IN.gov
Please join us next Thursday, February 1 ( anytime between 9 a.m. and noon) in the Indiana State Library for a History Unfolded “Research Sprint.” Our coordinated research over just a few hours has the potential to impact a nationally significant project.
History Unfolded is a project of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. It asks students, teachers, and citizen historians throughout the United States what was possible for Americans to have known about the Holocaust as it was happening and how Americans responded.
For the “Research Sprint” we’ll be using Newspapers.com to find articles in the Indianapolis News and the Indianapolis Star (which were the most widely read newspapers at the time) reporting on 34 different Holocaust-era events that took place in the United States and Europe. We will then submit our findings to the History Unfolded database, providing resources and raising questions for scholars that will inform the USHMM’s initiatives. Basically, it’s up to us to contribute information on what the average Hoosier would have read about the events leading up to the Holocaust.
This event is open to citizen historians, teachers, and students of all levels. Indiana Historical Bureau staff will be there to help you:
Create a History Unfolded log-in.
Choose and briefly learn about an event that interests you.
Find two relevant articles on the event, one in the Indianapolis Star and one in the Indianapolis News using Newspapers.com.
Submit your topic to History Unfolded
Tweet if you can @HolocaustMuseum and @HS_Chronicles #HistoryUnfolded
Follow Hoosier State Chronicles on Twitter to see examples of the articles we’ve already found. Or check out our more in-depth History Unfolded series on the HSC blog to see how we are using these newspapers to analyze what Hoosiers knew about the Holocaust and how they responded.
You can even make your History Unfolded profile now and get started! Hope to see you on February 1.
Over the last two months, Newspapers.com uploaded another 40,000 pages of the Greenfield Daily Reporter. Since the Indiana State Library is providing this content to Newspapers.com, the content is freely available to Indiana residents through INSPIRE. Click here for access instructions. Currently, there are 1,058,866 Indiana newspaper pages available through the INSPIRE portal.
At the end of June, Newspapers.com should wrap up digitizing the Greenfield Daily Reporter through 1963. The Steuben Republican from 1860-1963 will be the next title added.
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.
In December 1904, two curious articles appeared in Indianapolis’ German-language daily, Indiana Tribüne (one of the many historic Hoosier newspapers digitized by NDNP).
Headlined “Peter Nissen und sein Ballonschiff”, the first small clip announces the disappearance of a remarkable Great Lakes daredevil and accountant, Chicago’s Peter “Bowser” Nissen, who had been in and out of American and international newspapers since 1900.
Nissen’s waterborne adventures by boat, “balloon ship”, and possibly even submarine are a strange tale, a confusing mix of fact and mixed-up news reportage. Eleven years after his tragic death in 1904, and in the wake of another Great Lakes maritime tragedy, the little-known daredevil steps into mystery and even folklore.
Chicago, Nov. 30 – It is feared that Peter Nissen has either drowned or frozen in his rolling balloon, which he dubbed “Foolkiller” – a name that now seems to have been well chosen.
Nissen began his dangerous journey over the lake yesterday afternoon. No news has been had of him in 24 hours.
Nissen is the same daredevil who several years ago shot the rapids of Niagara Falls in a boat.
The assumption that Nissen has drowned grows more likely, since the only air supply at his disposal in the “Foolkiller” had already been depleted before he left the shore. Nissen encountered a gale which pummeled the lake with winds of 48 miles an hour.
In the same news clip, the Tribüne includes a report from South Haven, Michigan, on the lake’s eastern shore, that a search along “various points of the coast from Michigan City to Muskegon has returned no word of Nissen, who dared the open lake in his Foolkiller, a canvas boat with air-cushions. It is believed that Nissen has become a victim of his valor.”
The following day, December 2, the Tribüne brought a further report from Berrien County, Michigan:
[Stevensville, Mich., 1 December. Peter Nissen, who sought to traverse Lake Michigan in his balloon-boat, was found dead on the beach 2 ½ miles west of here today. It is thought that his body was washed up on the local beach during the night. The balloon was found about 20 rods away from him, in a very sorry state. The body was brought here, where it is being kept in the town hall. The hands and face were frozen and the lineaments of his face bore signs of infinite distress. The clothing was rather torn. The body was found by Mrs. Collier, who lives on a farm near the lakeshore.]
Who was this Peter Nissen, then, whose fantastic story the Tribüne barely digs into?
Born to Danish parents in Germany in 1862, Nissen was an immigrant himself. One report said that he lived in poverty in Chicago, where he worked as a bookkeeper. His death certificate issued in Michigan says that he was single and had worked as foreman in a furniture factory.
Nissen apparently first made national news headlines as early as 1900, when, at age 38, he successfully shot the Whirpool Rapids of the Niagara River in New York, just downstream from Niagara Falls. Many previous Niagara daredevils shot or swam the Rapids, often in wooden barrels, and almost always at the cost of their lives. Nissen’s was by far not the first attempt, but his was unique because of the strange boat he used to accomplish it.
Like the bizarre “balloon boat” he piloted to his death on Lake Michigan in 1904, this boat, too, was dubbed Foolkiller, and was actually one of at least three vessels Nissen called by that name. The feat was celebrated in papers as far away as his ancestral Denmark, where Skandinaven picked up the story on July 11, 1900. Probably translated from an American paper, this description of Nissen’s boat must have given Danish readers a picture of American bravado and the power of the American landscape. It also gives us some details about the mysterious vessel itself:
The boat used by Mr. Nissen for his dangerous feat is twenty feet long and four feet deep, built of pine with frame and keel of elm. In addition to the ordinary keel, the boat has an iron keel weighing 1,250 pounds, and the total weight of the boat is over two tons. There is a screw driven by foot power, and the boat has six airtight compartments, two in the bow, two in the stern, and one on each side.
Peter Nissen of Chicago, who prefers to be known as “Bowser”, made a successful journey through the Niagara rapids and whirlpool Monday afternoon in his boat, the Foolkiller. The boat struck the first foam-topped wave and turned over as easily as if it had been a stick and not a 1,250-pound keel. Man and boat disappeared. The watchers thought it was all over, when suddenly farther down stream “Bowser” reappeared, clutching the boat with one hand and waving his jersey cap with the other. The boat had righted itself. This occurred three times in the rapid journey, for it took only two and a half minutes for the whole trip through the rapids. Then “Bowser” and his boat were flung straight into the whirlpool. He was carried straight to the vortex which sucked in the boat, casting it up a minute later, with the drenched but plucky fellow clinging to its seat. Here it remained for forty minutes while the whirlpool played with it, spinning it like a top, then rolling it around the outer rims of the whirlpool. The man was finally rescued by three men who ventured into the water as far as they dared and caught a rope which he threw to them as his boat swung round on the outside of the pool. “Bowser” said the trip was more terrible than he feared, although he came out unharmed.
The first Foolkiller, then, was essentially a 1200-pound, foot-powered, deep-keeled kayak. In another section of the same issue of Marshall County’s Independent, Nissen’s craft is described as weighing
4,500 pounds, with a keel of iron which weighed 1,250 pounds. The keel acted like a pendulum and the boat was never wrong side up for more than five seconds at a time. The boat road the first wave like a duck. The second engulfed it and Nissen disappeared. He afterward stated that the wave nearly tore his head off.
To the eventual entertainment of many news readers, Nissen repeated his daring Niagara feat in 1901, in a restructured version of the boat, this time a longer, narrower craft featuring an eight-horsepower steam engine and a larger rudder.
The April 1902 Wide World Magazine includes several of the few photographs in existence of the second Foolkiller, hailing it as “The smallest decked steamer in the world,” a kind of steam-powered sea kayak. Containing himself in a small crawlspace beneath the cockpit, Nissen successfully shot Whirlpool Rapids for a second time in October 1901. An unknown cinematographer for the Thomas Edison Film Company even captured him in one of the earliest motion pictures. (The thrilling short is available on YouTube.) Unfortunately, on a third venture down the Niagara River late in 1901, Foolkiller II sank and was never seen again, probably ending up in Lake Ontario. Nissen and a colleague barely escaped drowning.
(Incidentally, Chicago’s accountant-daredevil wasn’t the only “fool” at Niagara Falls in October 1901. Just a week after his steam-powered Foolkiller II made it through the rapids intact, a Bay City, Michigan, schoolteacher named Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to go over Niagara Falls itself in a wooden barrel and live to tell the tale. Taylor did this on her 63rd birthday.)
With his second experimental vessel at the bottom of the Niagara River, Peter Nissen returned to the Midwest. By November 1904, he had pioneered his weirdest and wildest vessel, Foolkiller III.
A Popular Science Monthly article in September 1933 (“Freak Vehicles for Air, Land and Water”) regales readers with an account of Nissen’s final, fatal incarnation of the Foolkiller. The author claims that:
In the early years of the present century, Nissen was seeking a way to reach the North Pole. One of his schemes for traversing the rough Arctic ice was to use an automobile equipped with huge, low-pressure tires. Thus, thirty years before this time, Nissen dreamed of the modern balloon tire. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t stop there. The idea of the balloon tire kept growing in his mind. It got bigger and bigger and eventually the automobile disappeared from his plans and only the tire remained!
Nissen’s “fantastic scheme” was not unlike his previous experiment with turning a kayak into a steamboat. This time he would virtually turn a zeppelin into a ship. According to the Popular Science Monthly article, Nissen eventually intended to create a canvas bag 115 feet long and 75 feet in diameter. Filled with hydrogen gas, the balloon would sail north to the Arctic carrying the car underneath. After landing on the ice, Nissen would deflate the balloon and drive the car through a special door in the canvas. By means of a pump, the airtight “football” would reinflate once the car was inside. Nissen planned to string the automobile itself on cotton ropes hanging from a revolving interior wooden axle that stretched from end to end of the “football”. Air-tight glass portals allowed him to see out. Powered by winds, and with the ability to sail over both water and Arctic ice sheets, Nissen would literally roll to the North Pole.
Amazingly, in the summer and fall of 1904, Nissen actually constructed a miniature 32-foot-long version of this contraption and was performing test runs a few miles out on Lake Michigan, just off the Chicago shoreline. Photographs in the Chicago Daily News show the inventor at work next to his “pneumatic ball.” Readers of the Indiana Tribüne, the Indianapolis Journal and other papers might not have known the background to this story when they read about the “Der Foolkiller” on December 1, less than 48 hours after Nissen set out on his fateful voyage.
Reporters at the time claimed that he left from Chicago’s Navy Pier bound for Michigan City, Indiana. Caught in a gale (or did he deliberately go out in the gale to test Foolkiller’s ability to withstand bad weather?), Nissen may even have drifted within sight of Gary and the Indiana Dunes.
After his body was recovered on the beach just south of Benton Harbor, Michigan, doctors believed that Nissen had probably survived the gale itself, but either suffocated inside the balloon or drowned while trying to get out of the surf. A handwritten note found in the balloon suggests he knew he was going to suffocate. He may have died just offshore. (The South-Bend Tribune claims that the only provisions found inside the balloon were biscuits, cheese, tobacco, and water. The Indianapolis Journal claims that Nissen subsisted only on candy.)
Readers in Indiana and elsewhere who heard of the navigator’s terrible fate might have thought it an end to Foolkiller stories. But on November 25, 1915, eleven years later, the South Bend News-Times published this surprise item:
Chicago, Nov. 24 – Efforts were being made today to raise the “fool killer” submarine that has been buried in the mud of the Chicago River for 18 years. The diving boat was found by William M. Deneau, a diver, who was laying a cable in the river bed.
The boat was owned by Peter Nissen, an old time mariner. It was a cigar shaped craft, and could be submerged until an air pipe about 10 feet high was the only part that stuck out of the water. Nissen, who never succeeded in putting the subsea craft into practical operation, lost his life trying to drift across Lake Michigan in a revolving boat, another of his spectacular inventions.
Where this submarine came from is a mystery. As long ago as the 1840’s, a Michigan City, Indiana, shoemaker, Lodner D. Phillips, was actually building and patenting several unsuccessful submarines on the Great Lakes, all of which stayed on the bottom. (A fascinating article from the Ann Arbor Chronicle tells a bit of Phillips’ story.) Was this the wreck of a much older vessel? At a time when the Chicago River was being dramatically re-engineered for human use, it is hard to imagine how a submarine could have gone unnoticed under three feet of mud right in the heart of the downtown business district, next to the Wells Street Bridge, for so many years.
Yet as photographs from the Chicago Daily News attest, something was definitely pulled out of the river in 1915. (Interestingly, these photographs may have been taken by Jun Fujita, the first Japanese American photojournalist, who was employed by the Daily News.)
Chicagoans’ morbid interest in the discovery of the submarine (which the Daily News called “Foolkiller,” “something out of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”) was due in part to its proximity to the site where the SS Eastland capsized six months before, killing 844 passengers boarding a vessel for Michigan City, Indiana – the deadliest disaster in Chicago history. In a twist of fate, William “Frenchy” Deneau was one of the heroic divers who recovered about 250 bodies of Eastland victims from the river that summer. After the submarine turned up in December, there were tales that Deneau, its 23-year-old discoverer, had also found the bones of a man and dog inside — not the first such find on the bottom of the river.
To cap the story off, the Chicago submarine’s ultimate destination is as murky as its origin and sudden reappearance. Deneau reportedly got permission from the U.S. government to salvage the vessel. He put it on exhibition on State Street for several months, charging 10 cents admission, then sent it out on a tour of Midwestern county fairs. The bizarre vessel, it is thought, disappeared at a fair in Iowa in 1916. No trace of it turned up again.