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Indiana Makes International News and History with its Pivotal 1907 Eugenics Law

Between 1890 and 1920, the Progressive Era awoke one movement after another that advocated for better social, cultural, and political reforms that shook the core of American society. Even though part of the progressive movement was to create and enact new laws and policies, its primary purpose was to improve the morality and purification of Americans. One way to achieve that goal was to segregate those who were considered racially inferior to the Anglo-Saxon and Nordic races, meaning anyone who was not a descendant of a Northern European or English race.

Through the concept of eugenics, individuals in the Progressive Era began to segregate not only those who were inferior to the Anglo-Saxon and Nordic races, but also those who possessed undesirable characteristics. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines eugenics as “a science that tries to improve the human race by controlling which people become parents” and as “a science that deals with the improvement (as by control of human mating) of hereditary qualities of a race or breed.” At this time, medical professionals wrote articles stating that certain genes and traits were passed down from father and mother to their children. In particular, doctors, such as Harry C. Sharp, argued that if certain individuals who possessed undesirable characteristics procreated, the future of society looked bleak. As a result, on March 9, 1907, Indiana Governor J. Frank Hanly signed and enacted the eugenic sterilization law. Part of the law reads:

AN ACT entitled an act to prevent procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists; providing that superintendents and boards of managers of institutions where such persons are confined shall have the authority and are empowered to appoint a committee of experts, consisting of two (2) physicians, to examine into the mental condition of such inmates.

As long as two physicians verified an inmate had a mental illness, the law states that the prison or state mental hospital was required by law to sterilize said inmate.

The Plymouth Tribune - March 14, 1907, Page 5
The Plymouth Tribune, March 14 1907. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In 1921, the Indiana Supreme Court deemed the law unconstitutional, thus making it illegal to involuntarily sterilize anyone who was thought to be undesirable or unfit to procreate. However, in 1927, Indiana repealed the 1921 decision and modified the 1907 law to state that as long as the individual had thirty days’ notice and the ability to make an appeal if he or she desired, the State of Indiana could continue to sterilize incarcerated individuals. It was not until 1974 that Indiana outlawed all forms of involuntary sterilization. The exact number of individuals who were involuntarily sterilized is unknown. However, an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 people were sterilized between 1907 and 1974. Since the repealing of the 1907 eugenics law, the State of Indiana has sought to rectify this piece of historic legislation through formal apologies and enacting historical markers.

Even though the concept of eugenics or sterilization was not new in the early twentieth century, Indiana made history when it became the first state both in the United States and in the world to pass a law that involuntarily sterilized incarcerated individuals. This landmark legislation helped pave the way for other states and countries to pass similar laws and policies, including laws that led to the Holocaust and other genocides.

1907 Indiana Eugenics Law 2
Location of the Historical Marker: East lawn of the Indiana State Library, 140 North Senate Avenue, Indianapolis. (Marion County, Indiana)
1907 Indiana Eugenics Law 1
Location of the Historical Marker: East lawn of the Indiana State Library, 140 North Senate Avenue, Indianapolis. (Marion County, Indiana)


General Laws of Indiana, chapter 215, House Document 364. Accessed August 1, 2014.

Heale, M. J. Twentieth-Century America: Politics and Power in the United States 1900-2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Indiana Historic Bureau. “Historical Marker of the 1907 Indiana Eugenics Law.” Accessed August 1, 2014.

Indiana State Library. “Eugenics Materials.” Accessed August 1, 2014.

Indiana University-Purdue University. “Indiana Eugenics History and Legacy, 1907-2007.” Accessed August 1, 2014.

Lears, Jackson. Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920. NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.

The Plymouth Tribune. Volume 6, Number 23, 14 March 1907. Page 5. Accessed August 1, 2014. Indiana Digital Historic Newspaper Program

Sharp, Harry C. “Vasectomy as a Means Preventing Procreation in Defectives.” Buck v Bell Documents. Paper 4. Accessed August 1, 2014.


Today, in 1915, the S.S. Eastland, a Cranky, Hoodoo Tub, Capsized and Dragged 844 of its 2,500 Passengers to their Watery Grave

On the gray, cloudy, and rainy Saturday morning of July 24, 1915, thousands of eager employees of Hawthorne Works and their family members, along with Chicago citizens who did not work for the company, flocked to downtown Chicago. They were to embark on the Hawthorne Club’s Fifth Annual Picnic for a day of parades, games, contests, and relaxation in Michigan City, Indiana. The first of five ships to leave was the S.S. Eastland, located at docks between Clark and LaSalle Streets, and by six forty-five in the morning, approximately 5,000 people were waiting to board the ship. However, by seven-thirty in the morning, this day of fun and laughter had turned into a scene of chaos, death, and despair when the Eastland capsized in the Chicago, River, killing 844 of its 2,500 passengers, which made it one of the worst naval catastrophes in American history.

Western Electric Company was one of the leading telephone and telegraph manufacturers in the world during the early twentieth century. One of its chief manufacturing plants was the Hawthorne Works, located right outside of the Chicago city limits in Cicero, Illinois. Hawthorne Works offered a variety of social activities for its employees, including the Hawthorne Club’s annual picnic excursion. The picnic committee promoted the fifth annual picnic relentlessly until the night before the excursion with parades through the Hawthorne Works and posters. The consequence of the promotions contributed to the rise of attendees from approximately 6,000 in 1914 to over 7,000 in 1915, and resulted in the need to charter five ships through the Indiana Transportation Company: the Eastland, the Roosevelt, the Petoskey, the Racine, and the Rochester.

The disaster quickly became a media sensation when newspapers immediately began to cover the rescue and relief efforts, as well as the court cases that followed.

As soon as the Eastland capsized, rescue efforts poured in from Chicago companies, the Red Cross, state and federal agencies, and Western Electric Company. The mayor of Chicago, William Hall Thompson (1915-1923 and 1927-1931), Western Electric Company, and newspapers established several monetary relief funds. Western Electric worked with local Chicago companies to set up information bureaus and temporary morgues, provided medical treatment, and gave $100,000 to pay for the funeral expenses of Western Electric employees. Overall, through the various relief efforts, over $500,000 was raised for the survivors’ and victims’ family members.

At the same time that businesses and individuals in the Chicagoland area came together to help with the rescue and relief efforts, speculations as to who was to blame and the causes of the disaster circulated around the city. The local Chicago newspapers published statements by prominent government and union leaders, such as Maclay Hoyne, the Illinois State Attorney, and Victor Olander, a union delegate leader who advocated for the American Federation of Labor, the International Seaman’s Union of America, and various other unions, placing blame and naming causes for the disaster. That led to a public outcry for justice, which encouraged the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois, and the federal government to intervene and investigate the cause of the disaster. Seven investigations and court cases, at both the local and federal levels, began on the afternoon of July 24, 1915. Speculations of why the Eastland capsized was not only a debate during the investigation, but also is a debate that continues today. Some of the causes include the Eastland’s history of stabilization (which came from its poor construction), human negligence, laws that emerged after the Titanic sank, in particular the La Follette Seamen’s Act, and the overcrowding of passengers on the vessel.

On November 21, 1917, the United States Navy purchased the Eastland, rebuilt her as a naval training vessel, and renamed her the U.S.S. Wilmette. Even though the disaster is not well-remembered today, hidden beneath the weight of two world wars and other disasters, the sinking of the Eastland was imprinted onto the regional and national psyches during the early twentieth century. In addition, several local historic societies and associations are actively commemorating those who lost their lives on the tragic S.S. Eastland and making this horrific event more well-known.

To learn more about the Eastland catastrophe and to read various newspaper’s accounts of the disaster, please see the following links:


The Jasper Weekly Courier, Volume 57, Number 43, July 30, 1915

The Library of Congress’s digitization project, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, has a plethora of newspapers articles on the Eastland catastrophe. For an alternative perspective of the disaster, The Day Book, a socialist newspaper in Chicago, provides an extensive coverage of the disaster from the working class perspective. Some of the other newspapers who covered the disaster include: the Chicago Eagle (Chicago, IL), the Evening World (New York), the New York Tribune, The Sun (New York, NY), Washington Herald (Washington, D.C.), and the Washington Times (Washington, D.C.).



Adams, Stephen B. and Orville R. Butler. Manufacturing the Future: A History of Western Electric. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Grossman, James R., Ann Durkin Keating, and Janice L. Reiff, eds. Michael P. Conzen, cartographic ed. The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Hilton, George W. Eastland: Legacy of the Titanic. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Wachholz, Ted. Images of America: The Eastland Disaster. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2005.

Western Electric News 4, no. 6 (August 1915).

Marshall County Independent (December 17, 1897)

Marshall County Independent, December 17, 1897

“Tess, Girl Bachelor & Lady Chimpanzee:
She devotes her life to dress, society and educational matters — Has Learned Many of the Usages of polite society.”

(Page seven, third column from left, first article.)


Marshall County Independent, December 17, 1897. Hoosier State Chronicles.


A Massacre of Mafia (The Indiana State Sentinel, March 18, 1891)

Indiana State Sentinel, March 18, 1891. Hoosier State Chronicles.

David C. Hennessy (1858 – October 16, 1890) was a police chief of New Orleans, Louisiana. His assassination in 1890 led to a sensational trial. A group of not guilty verdicts shocked the nation, and an enormous mob formed outside the prison the next day. The prison doors were forced open and 11 of 19 Italian men who had been indicted for Hennessy’s murder were lynched. The leaders of the mob justified the lynching by claiming the jury had been bribed, but only six of those lynched had been put on trial. In addition to the 11 lynch victims, five prisoners were severely wounded in the attack and died soon afterwards. Charles Mantranga, believed to be a ringleader, survived. A grand jury investigated and cleared those involved in the lynching. The word “Mafia” entered U.S. popular usage due to newspaper coverage of the trial and lynchings. The U.S. government paid a $25,000 indemnity to Italy to repair and restore broken relations due to the anti-Italian sentiment raging across America. The lynchings were the subject of the 1999 made-for-TV movie Vendetta, starring Christopher Walken.

The Democratic Emblem (the Rooster) Started in Indiana in 1840 before the Donkey in 1870! (The Indiana State Sentinel, 1845)

Indiana State Sentinel, December 25, 1845. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Although the donkey is used as a symbol of the U.S. Democratic Party, it has never been officially adopted. The rooster, however, was. The story begins in 1840, when the famous “Log Cabin Campaign” occurred.

It must be said that the donkey did come first. In 1828, Democrat Andrew Jackson was ridiculed and called a “jackass” by the supporters of John Quincy Adams during the heated presidential campaign. However, it wasn’t used until 1870 when Thomas Nast used it as a symbol for the Democratic Party. And it has been widely recognized as the party’s unofficial symbol since that time.

Now for the rooster. The origin of the rooster as the emblem of the Democratic Party was in Greenfield, Indiana. Joseph Chapman, a native of Greenfield, a Jacksonian Democrat, and a state legislator, was an acclaimed orator and derided by the opposition Whigs for his “crowing.” During his campaign for a seat in the lower house of the Indiana State Legislature, the Whigs’ critical “Crow, Chapman, Crow!” was seized by the Democrats and used in support of their candidate and Chapman won, despite the Whigs’ nationwide victory that year. Indiana Democrats, followed by the national party, soon chose the rooster as their symbol, and Chapman was hereafter known as “Crowing Joe Chapman.”

Jasper Weekly Courier (Friday May 16, 1913) Jasper Indiana, Dubois County

Jasper Weekly Courier, May 16, 1913. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Samuel M. Ralston, Indiana: Governor, Senator, endorsed by the KKK and the front runner expected to be the next Democratic presidential nominee for the 1924 elections.


Confederate Civil War ‘Dancing Circus Horse’

Samuel Moffett Ralston

(December 1, 1857 – October 14, 1925) was a Democratic politician, the 28th Governor of and a United States Senator from the U.S. state of Indiana. Born into a large impoverished family, he took many jobs as a child including working in a coal mine. He taught school and studied law, becoming a prominent state lawyer.

He became active in his local politics and eventually secured the Democratic nomination for governor. Because he served during the state’s 100th anniversary he is sometimes called the Indiana’s Centennial Governor. He was responsible for implementing many progressive era reforms in the state and putting down a violent riot in Indianapolis. He gained the support of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan for his anti-Catholic political positions, and with their support was elected to the United States Senate in 1922. He had become popular among the national Democratic party as the front-runner for the Presidential nomination in 1924, but he dropped out of the race because of his failing health.

Ralston campaigned for the United States Senate beginning in 1922. Because of his friendly relationship with the Indiana branch of the Ku Klux Klan, he was able to get their endorsement. Ralston delivered a speech at St. Mary’s of the Woods where he condemned religious interference with the state. The Klan’s primary goals at the time were to remove all Catholic influence from the government and public schools, and to shut down Catholic private schools. His speech earned him considerable popularity among the group who said he “was not afraid to tell off the papists to their faces.”

The Klan was one of the most influential groups within the state at the time, and they reprinted his speech and circulated it. Their support of Ralston was one of their most forceful attempts to have a candidate elected in Indiana, as they feared the Republican candidate who had publicly condemned the organization. The Klan fell apart in 1926—the year after Ralston’s death—after a scandal, revealing that the majority of Indiana’s politicians, including Ralston, had ties to the Klan.

Ralston won election to the United States Senator from Indiana defeating Albert Beveridge in November 1922. The New York Times ran a lengthy story on his wife, referring to her as a “Chicken Farmer” because she was reluctant to move to Washington D.C., she did not want to leave her chickens unattended. He took up his Senate seat on March 4, 1923. In the senate he advocated the adoption of the Melon Tax Plan, which was effectively a wealth redistribution plan.

In 1924 he was the front runner and expected to be the Democratic presidential nominee, but for reasons that were unknown at the time, he dropped out of the race just before the national convention. He later revealed that due to his failing health he did not believe he was fit to become President. His steadily worsening health lead to his death on October 14, 1925, he died in his home near Indianapolis. He was buried in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Lebanon.

A Circus Horse in Battle.

Colonel Charles Marshall, who was aid-de-camp to General Robert E. Lee and who went through the battles of the war with his chief told the following amusing story of his experience with a new horse: His old horse had been shot from under him in the fight of the previous day, and he had taken possession of an animal that seemed to suit the work. In the battle a few hours later he was riding across a field in which there were numerous stumps.

Suddenly the performance opened. The guns roared, and the air was filled with smoke and noise. Before Colonel Marshall knew what was happening the horse had his four feet on one of the stumps and was gaily dancing in a circle. In the meantime the firing was increasing, and the situation was anything but comfortable. But the horse kept on as if he were enjoying it.

“It was not until afterward,” said Colonel Marshall, “that I found the horse had belonged to a circus and had been trained to do this act amid the firing of cannon.”

Lt. Col. Charles Marshall

He was a personal aide to General Lee during the Appomattox Campaign, was born in Warrenton, Virginia in 1831. He was the great-grand nephew John M. Marshall, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1801-1835). Charles Marshall himself studied law but resigned from his Baltimore law firm after the war began. He joined Lee’s staff as an aide-de-camp in March 1862 when Lee was advisor to President Davis. Marshall’s legal training proved useful in drafting military legislation for submission to the Confederate Congress.

After Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia, Marshall’s duties included preparing drafts of Lee’s dispatches. It was Marshall who penned Lee’s first response to Grant’s proposed terms for surrender. His letter requested the interview for that purpose.

Initially General Lee asked Colonels Marshall and Taylor to accompany him to the conference with Grant but Taylor declined. Consequently, with Lee for the meeting were Marshall, orderly Pvt. Joshua Johns, and members of Grant’s staff Col. Babcock and his orderly Capt. William Dunn. Upon reaching the outskirts of the village, Marshall and Johns road ahead to find a suitable place for the meeting. The first white citizen they encountered was Wilmer McLean.

At some point after the surrender meeting Lee directed Marshall to write a farewell letter to his army. Interrupted constantly, Marshall finally moved to General Lee’s ambulance to complete the historic task on the morning of April 10th.

Indiana State Sentinel: September 11, 1878 (Indiana’s Third State Capitol Building Design Released to the Hoosier Public)

Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.

On September 11, 1878, the Indiana State Sentinel released the architectural renderings of the proposed third capitol building for the state of Indiana, located in the 1825 appointed capitol city of Indianapolis. A total of $2 million dollars was set aside for the building’s construction which began in October of 1878 and completed in 1888.

Indiana’s capitol building, to this day, is the only state capitol building to house all three branches of government (judicial, legislative & executive) under one roof.

As depicted in the 1879 design, the architects intended the Italian-inspired great dome of the capitol building to be 234 feet tall!  Upon project completion, the dome actually measured 256 feet.  Noted, too, in the blueprints are the various statues positioned on the roof .  Most of these originally intended statues were eliminated from the budget, which is one of many reasons the building completed construction in 1888 consuming only $1.8 million of the $2 million funds set aside.

indiana state house
A contemporary view of the Indiana State House. Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star.