Category Archives: World War I

War and Peach

Peach Stones 1

With Christmas Eve approaching, you might have the tune “Chestnuts Roasting Over an Open Fire” playing somewhere. A hundred years ago, chestnuts were actually on the path to becoming a rarity, as a huge blight that was killing off chestnut trees began dramatically reducing their numbers.  The blight got so bad that chestnut trees nearly became extinct in the U.S.  Yet as World War I was still raging in Europe, American chemists found a clever new use for chestnuts — alongside coconut shells, peach stones, and other hard seeds.  Disturbingly enough, this was for use in the gas mask industry.

During the last year of the “War to End All Wars,” the Gas Defense Division of the Chemical Warfare Service of the U.S. Army began issuing calls for Americans to save fruit seeds.  As refuse from kitchens and dining room tables, these would typically have been classified as agricultural waste.  Conscientious Americans began to put out barrels and other depositories for local collection of leftover seed pits.  These came from peaches, apricots, cherries, prunes, plums, olives, and dates, not to mention brazil nuts, hickory nuts, walnuts, chestnuts, and butternuts.  In the rarer instance that Americans had any spare coconut shells left over, these came in handy, too.


Peach Stones 3


How on earth could seeds and shells contribute to the war against Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany?

World War I was the first conflict to involve the use of toxic chemicals meant to incapacitate and kill soldiers.  Soldiers were warned that death would come at the fourth breath or less. Fritz Haber, a German chemist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his research into the creation of synthetic fertilizers, also helped spearhead German use of ammonia and chlorine as poisonous weapons used in trench warfare. (Haber’s wife, also a chemist, committed suicide out of shame at her husband’s promotion of poison gas.)  Haber additionally pioneered a gas mask that would protect German soldiers from their own weapons. Ironically, Frtiz Haber was Jewish.  He later fled Germany in 1933 during the rise of Adolf Hitler, a few years before the poisons he experimented with were used by the Nazis to exterminate Jews and others during World War II.

Haber, however, wasn’t the only chemist at work on a gas mask. One such device was invented by a mostly-forgotten American chemist from the Hoosier State, James Bert Garner.


James Bert Garner
Hoosier chemist James Bert Garner around 1918.

Garner was born in Lebanon, Indiana, in 1870, and earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Science at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, where he studied under Scottish-American chemist Dr. Alexander Smith.  (Like many doctors and scientists, Dr. Smith had done his own graduate studies in Munich, Germany, in the 1880s.  He taught chemistry and mineralogy at Wabash for four years until moving to the University of Chicago and Columbia University.)  Dr. Garner served as head of Wabash’s chemistry department from 1901 to 1914, the year World War I erupted. The Hoosier chemist then took a job at the Mellon Institute for Industrial Research at the University of Pittsburgh.

After reading an account of a toxic gas attack on French and Canadian soldiers during the Battle of Ypres in 1915, Garner began working on a more effective respiratory mask than was then available.  Primitive versions of gas masks and protective apparatuses designed to ward off disease had been around for centuries, from 17th-century plague doctor’s outfits to a mask pioneered by the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt in 1799, when Humboldt worked as a mining inspector in Prussia.  In the 1870s, Irish physicist John Tyndall also worked on a breathing device to help filter foul air, as did a little-known Indianapolis inventor, Willis C. Vajen, who patented a “Darth Vader”-like mask for firemen in 1893.  (Vajen’s masks were manufactured in an upper floor of the old Indianapolis Public Library.)


Gas mask diagram
This diagram of a World War II-era gas mask shows the importance of the charcoal filter “which absorbs the gas and retains the fumes.”

While working at Pittsburgh’s Mellon Institute, Dr. Garner advanced a method for air filtration that he had first experimented with at Wabash College and the University of Chicago.   Garner’s mask, co-designed by his wife Glenna, involved the use of a charcoal filter that absorbed sulphur dioxide and ammonia from the air stream. Garner’s World War I-era invention wouldn’t be his last attempt to reduce the deadly impact on the lungs of dangerous substances.  In 1936, he patented a process to “denicotinize” tobacco.

Manufacturers of Garner’s masks found that coconut shells actually provided one of the most useful materials for filtering toxic poison. With a density greater than most woods, hard fruit seeds and nuts were also found useful in the creation of charcoal filters.  All over the U.S., local Councils of Defense, citizens’ committees (sometimes highly intrusive) were set up to promote production of war materiel and monitor domestic waste.  These committees encouraged Americans to hang onto seed pits for Army use.


Peach Stones 2
Photo from “peach stone” campaign, 1918. U.S. National Archives.

Popular Science Monthly, December 1918
Popular Science Monthly, December 1918.

Popular Science Monthly, December 1918 2
Popular Science Monthly, December 1918.

“Cleaned, dried, and then subjected to high temperature,” reported Popular Science Monthly, “the stones become carbonized, and the coal, in granulated form, is used as an absorbent in the manufacture of gas-masks.”  Charcoal rendered from fruit seeds, coconut shells, etc., was found to have a “much greater power of absorbing poisonous gases than ordinary charcoal from wood.”

How many seeds were needed?  One source cites a government call for 100 million of them.  In a letter from J.S. Boyd, First Lieutenant in the Chemical Warfare Service of the U.S. Army, which appeared in the Indianapolis News in September 1918, Boyd informed the public that “Two hundred peach stones, or seven pounds of nut shells, will make enough carbon for one mask.  Think of that!  And one mask may save a soldier’s life.”  At this rate, a hundred million peach stones could produce 500,000 gas masks.

Tolstoy’s classic novel needed a new title: War & Peach.


Variety of gas masks
Variety of gas masks used on the Western Front during First World War. Garner’s was just one of them.

The seed-collection campaign quickly took to American newspapers.

In Indianapolis, the Marion County Council of Defense urged local consumers and businesses not to waste products and labor during Christmas shopping.  (The waste of certain human lives for political ends seemed to bother them less, and the Indiana council worked to censor all criticism of the war from pacifists and socialists.)  At the committee’s urging, local restaurants, hotels, and stores, including L.S. Ayres and the William H. Block Co. — the largest department stores in Indianapolis — collected agricultural leftovers in bins out front.  The Block Co. advertised its support for the peach stone campaign during a September call to “Buy Christmas gifts early.” Fortunately, the war was over by Christmas 1918.


Indianapolis News, September 21, 1918
Indianapolis News, September 21, 1918.

Local Councils of Defense chided businesses and Christmas shoppers for wasting labor and even kept up some surveillance on them.  Department stores were forbidden to hire extra help during the 1918 Christmas season, meaning no special workers could carry customers’ purchases back to their homes.  The councils explicitly asked Hoosiers to carry their own packages and urged managers and employees to report any business that was hiring “extra help” for the holiday.


South Bend News-Times, October 19, 1918
South Bend News-Times, October 19, 1918.

South Bend News-Times, September 3, 1918
South Bend News-Times, September 3, 1918.

Emphasis on gathering peach stones in particular picked up momentum in September 1918, since that month marked the beginning of harvest time.  As for wild nuts, children all over the U.S., including the Boy Scouts, scoured American forests for walnuts, hickories, and butternuts. One photo in Popular Science Monthly showed a “gang bombarding a horse-chestnut tree” and stated that they were “enlisted in war work.”  Children brought nuts and seed pits to 160 army collection centers.


Popular Science Monthly, December 1918 3
Popular Science Monthly, December 1918.

A call for peach stones in the film magazine Moving Picture World encouraged movie theater owners to offer special matinées to support seed-gathering.  The magazine suggested keeping admission at the regular price, but with the donation of one peach stone required for entry.  Once inside, moviegoers were likely to see a slideshow from the Army’s Gas Defense Service as a “preview.” One theater owner in Long Island was especially generous to children. Children, however, apparently took unfair advantage of him:


The Moving Picture World, October 12, 1918
The Moving Picture World, October 12, 1918.

The call for seed pits should have come earlier.  Ninety-thousand soldiers died from toxic gas exposure in the First World War, with over a million more suffering debilitating health problems that often lasted for the rest of their lives.  Almost two-thirds of the fatalities were Russian.  And chemical warfare had just begun.

Though propaganda pinned the barbaric use of chemicals squarely on the Kaiser’s armies, the British used toxins during and after the war.  Under Winston Churchill — War Secretary in 1920 — the RAF dropped mustard gas during its attempt to put down Bolshevism in Russia, the same year that Churchill is alleged to have authorized the use of deadly gas in fighting an Iraqi revolt against British rule in the Middle East.  One English entomologist, Harold Maxwell-Lefroy, was allegedly curious about the use of bugs in “the next war” to spread disease behind enemy lines.

During World War II, the U.S. briefly experimented with the creation of biological weapons.  At the Vigo Ordinance Plant, an ammunition facility in Terre Haute, the Army looked into the production of deadly anthrax in 1944 as part of the little-known U.S. biological weapons program.  According to some sources, those chemicals were meant to have been used in proposed British anthrax bombs, which would have killed entire German cities. Fortunately, the end of the war came before any significant amount of the material was ever produced.  The Vigo County plant was later acquired by Pfizer.

As for native Hoosier chemist James Bert Garner, he kept on inventing, attempting to save lives in spite of the brutality of war. Garner lived with his family in Pittsburgh, where he worked as director of research for the Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel Company — the company that built the Gateway Arch in St. Louis starting in 1963.

Garner, however, died in 1960 at age 90.  Sometimes cited as the inventor of the gas mask — though he was really just one of many — he is buried at Pittsburgh’s Homewood Cemetery.

In spite of his efforts, chemical warfare has gone on to kill millions.


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 11, 1919
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 11, 1919.

Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

Mike Inik the Monomaniac

Mike Inik -- Winnipeg Tribune, December 21, 1916In a certain town in Indiana, whose name I don’t wish to recall, there lived a gentleman with a lance in the rack and an old suit of armor . .”

Not exactly the canonical opening of Don Quixote.  Cervantes’ classic Spanish novel told of the comic adventures of an old man of La Mancha whose brain had dried up reading books about knights-errant and who went to war on windmills, thinking they were giants.  What happened to Mike Inik, “just a U.S. lunatic,” is a little less clear.

On December 4, 1916, while wearing a bizarre homemade suit made out of iron armor and kitchen pans, 49-year-old Inik shot up the Lake County Superior Court in Hammond, Indiana.  His grievance?  The disputed decimal value of a disability check he’d hung onto for seven years.

Inik’s origins are obscure.  A Google search for the last name turns up just a couple of examples, most of them in Turkey.  The Lake County Times says he was an immigrant from the Balkans, which used to be part of the Ottoman Empire.  Mike, however, had been the town “character” in Whiting, Indiana, as far back as 1889, when he was injured by a piece of pipe that hit him in the back or head while working at a Rockefeller-owned oil refinery.  Another account said he fell off a scaffold.  At that time, the Whiting Refinery on Lake Michigan, founded the year of Mike’s injury, was the largest in the United States.  Today it’s owned by BP.

Doctors judged that Inik suffered from “monomania.”  No longer used as a psychiatric term, in the 1800s it denoted a form of pathological obsession with one thing — yet an otherwise sound mind.  On the 1880 U.S. Census, monomania was listed as one of just seven recognized categories of mental illness.  Monomaniacs ranged from misers like Ebenezer Scrooge in his counting-house, to Poe’s madman fixated on an old man’s “vulture eye,” to the criminal in a Sherlock Holmes story hell-bent on smashing busts of Napoleon. Maybe the gold-obsessed Spanish conquistadors could be thrown in there, too.

Inik, who dressed like a conquistador, directed his “monomania” at John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.


Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (12)
Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In 1913, Inik even allegedly traveled to Washington, D.C., to take up his case with the President.

Escanaba Morning Press (Escanaba, Michigan), February 13, 1913
Escanaba Morning Press, Escanaba, Michigan, February 13, 1913.

The Lake County Times account gives the impression that this “lunatic” touted his suit of armor around town for a long time — perhaps to protect himself from falling pipes?


Lake County Superior Court
Lake County Superior Court, Hammond, Indiana.

When he came to court on December 4 to hear another trial about the status of his disability settlement, Inik was wearing his protective covering and arsenal.  Oddly, it seems nobody noticed the weapons.  He even spoke with a county prosecutor in his office beforehand while wearing full battle regalia under his clothes.  The gear Inik carried consisted of four .38-caliber revolvers, clubs, and “hatchets galore” — including a saber, hammer, butcher knife, and blackjack, plus 165 rounds of ammunition.  Somehow concealed from view, Inik’s bizarre get-up was put together out of bits of galvanized iron, dishpans and washboilers.

As Judge C.E. Greenwald berated the injured man and told him to go home and take a bath, Inik became irate and suddenly opened fire.  He managed to get off seven rounds, injuring a bailiff and a juror, before a group subdued him.

Lake County Times, December 4, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (8)
Did he pose for the press photographer? Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 4, 1916 (4)

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 4, 1916 (5)
Lake County Times, December 4, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles. 

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (5)
Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (6 crop)
Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Thrown in jail in Crown Point, Inik quickly went on trial again for his mental health.  This time, Judge Walter Hardy consigned him to the “booby hatch,” the psychiatric ward or “colony for the criminally insane” at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.

What became of him after 1916 is a mystery.

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (14)
Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Mike Inik -- Lake County Times, December 5, 1916 (1)
Lake County Times, December 5, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

An Indiana Banned Book List — World War I Comes to the Library

Banned Books Week is here.  We thought we’d take a look at a few volumes of “insidious poison” the Indiana State Council of Defense asked to be withdrawn from Hoosier library shelves in 1918, during the height of America’s involvement in World War I.  Hoosier State Chronicles neither endorses nor criticizes these books, many of which are hard to find and might even have been destroyed.  Some aren’t as interesting as the lives of their fascinating and controversial authors. But we do support your right to read and discuss them — if you ever happen to find a copy.

We focus on three books. A “behind the scenes” look at some of these titles reveal fascinating back stories.


Lake County Times, February 1, 1918
Lake County Times, February 1, 1918. Hoosier State Chronicles.

State and county defense councils emerged after America’s late entry into the war against Germany in 1917.  Indiana’s defense council was organized on May 19.

When it comes to freedom of speech, these groups had a sketchy record.  Though much of what they did was simply ordinary work to contribute to the war effort — arranging food drives, relief for wounded soldiers, the sale of Liberty Loans, and urging Americans to conserve grain — the councils had a dark underbelly.  The conservation of grain, for example, was an underhand way to enforce contentious “dry” laws, since corn and wheat were used in alcohol production — and alcohol was being labeled “German” and “foreign.”  Under the influence of women’s and church groups, Indiana ushered in statewide Prohibition in 1917, three years before the national ban on booze, and at the same time that insidious rumors about spies and terrorists were lurking in the press.  It’s an overlooked fact that the Prohibition movement was often tied at the hip to nativism, and that “unpatriotic” German beer-lovers were accused of wasting grain to undermine the war effort.

In many states, notably Iowa and Nebraska but also in Indiana, defense councils and local “Liberty Leagues” stood behind bans on the German language, an interdict that in some states forbade the speaking of any language other than English.  In 1919, Indiana made it a criminal offense to teach German to children in elementary schools — largely out of concern that militaristic foreign propaganda and love of the “old country” was being spread by German-language textbooks and pamphlets (which were allegedly being burned in Indianapolis.)  In many American schools, German classes weren’t offered again until the 1920s and the subject never recovered its pre-war popularity.  World War I also virtually exterminated the once-flourishing German-language press in the U.S.


Lake County Times, December 19, 1917
Lake County Times, December 19, 1917. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Much American news coverage drew on allegations from the British press, including illustrations and tabloid journalism.  The British had exploited and exaggerated the very real human suffering of the 1914 “Rape of Belgium” for political ends and to encourage the U.S. to enter on the British side.  Soon Hoosiers were reading about the sadistic sexual perversions of German commanders and soldiers, including accusations that the Kaiser’s “book of instructions” to officers authorized the rape and mutilation of children and the elderly.  Many of these events did occur, though reports weren’t rigorously fact-checked.  Yet American feminist writer Susan Brownmiller argues persuasively against the attempt to redeem German honor by downplaying the amount of rape during the war.


Lake County Times, April 8, 1918 (1)
“An official photograph of the club with which the German armies ‘finish off’ wounded soldiers. 32,000 of them were recently captured by the Italians.” Lake County Times, April 8, 1918. Hoosier State Chronicles. Whether such atrocities were true or not, graphic depictions influenced American public opinion. 

Defense councils typically consisted of ten or fifteen men and one woman, though “Woman’s Sections” were established in many states and counties.  Indiana’s State Council of Defense in Indianapolis was headed by Senator Charles W. Fairbanks, who had been Theodore Roosevelt’s vice-president.  Other male members of the committee included Irish-born former Indianapolis mayor Thomas Taggart (known as a Progressive);  H.R. Kurrie, president of the Monon Railroad;  former IU football coach and U.S. Representative Evans Woolen; and the famous Will Hays, granddaddy of film censorship in America.  Among the officers of the Woman’s Section of the State Council was Anne Studebaker Carlisle of South Bend — daughter of Clement Studebaker of carriage- and auto-manufacturing fame — and Mrs. Samuel L. Ralston, wife of the future governor of Indiana, who also happened to be a Klan favorite in the 1920s.


Time Mag(The much-misunderstood Will H. Hays, from Sullivan, Indiana, served on the State Council of Defense during World War I.  Hays was chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1918 to 1921, then served as U.S. Postmaster General, when he became known for his opposition to sending pornography by mail.  In 1934, he instituted the restrictive Hays Code to regulate the U.S. film industry, but the Hoosier native is also credited with helping the movie business get on its feet and provide truly quality films.  Time Magazine, September 13, 1926.)


The Indiana State Council of Defense was definitely interested in what Hoosiers were reading and took a strong interest in “education.”  In hindsight, its patriotism was part of an undisguised government program to promote optimism and a single view of the war.  In this sense, it was propaganda in the true meaning of the word, which comes from the Latin for “to spread” information — not necessarily the unbiased kind.

The Report of the Woman’s Section, published after the war was over in 1919, demonstrates the interest the Indiana council took in promoting pro-war perspectives and how it went about making sure the government’s view came out on top.  The primary target: pacifists and the “apathetic,” a word typically spelled “slacker” in war-hungry American newspapers like the Lake County Times.


Report of the Indiana Women's Council of Defense


Report of the Indiana Women's Council of Defense 2


Report of the Indiana Women's Council of Defense 3


Report of the Indiana Women's Council of Defense 5

(Excerpts from Report of the Woman’s Section of the Indiana State Council of Defense, Indianapolis, 1919.)


The fiercest opposition to American involvement in World War I hadn’t come from German-Americans or “hyphenated” Americans of any stripe, but from isolationists and Socialists.  Among the most outspoken critics was Indiana native son Eugene V. Debs, who went to prison for protesting the draft, and Wisconsin Senator Robert M. LaFollette.  In the debate over intervention vs. isolation, graphic newspaper illustrations served not only to vilify German militarists — who may have richly deserved such treatment — but also the American labor movement, which criticized the war as a distraction from problems at home.  Socialists and pacifists were labeled enemies and “slackers.”

Thus it comes as no surprise that a number of the books and pamphlets on the 1918 Indiana banned books list weren’t written by German militarists, but by American and British labor activists.


Seymour Daily Republica, Seymour, Indiana, January 30, 1918
Seymour Daily Republican, Seymour, Indiana, January 30, 1918.

One of these books was a pamphlet called Morocco and Armageddon, penned by British pacifist and anti-slavery crusader E.D. Morel.

Anti-slavery?  In 1917?  Morel’s work combating illegal slave trading in the Congo Free State — Belgium’s huge African colony — linked him to British consul Roger Casement.  Their investigations into the atrocities of Belgian King Leopold’s Congo, which shocked the world, figures into the background of Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece Heart of Darkness (1899).  Morel’s investigations into greed and murder were supported by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain, among many others.  The equally anti-imperialist Roger Casement was later executed by the British during World War I under allegations of being a German spy after he helped spark the 1916 Easter Rising of Irish Republicans in Dublin.  Casement’s fate was virtually sealed when the British government published excerpts from his diary that suggested he was a homosexual.

Labor leader Morel’s opposition to World War I, which he considered a distraction from the atrocities of colonialism — including Belgium’s, some of the worst — earned him a spot on the Indiana banned books list just about a year after Casement’s execution.  Morel was also severely critical of the harsh Treaty of Versailles, which many argue was an extension of the demonization of Germany and paved the way for the Second World War.


E.D. Morel
British pacifist E.D. Morel, hero of the investigations into King Leopold’s “Heart of Darkness” in the Congo, was one of the targets of the Indiana State Council of Defense.

Another major name on the list is the great anthropologist Franz Boas.  Born in Germany, Boas came to the U.S. and Canada in the 1880s to study the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest and the Arctic North.  His studies of linguistics and culture made him one of the fathers of modern anthropology and folklore studies.  Boas later taught at Columbia University.  Having famously insisted that the origins of racial inequality are social, not biological, he later clashed with Adolf Hitler.  The German-American anthropologist, who died in New York City in 1942, helped many German and Austrian scientists escape from the Nazis.


Franz Boas
Ethnologist Franz Boas, whose anti-war pamphlet was recommended for censorship in Indiana, demonstrates a “Hamatsa’a coming out of a secret room” ritual from Canada’s West Coast, circa 1895. He would have had to jump through other hoops to keep that book on the shelf.

Boas had a different view of World War I though.  His pamphlet “Nationalism and Europe,” printed by the Germanistic Society of Chicago in 1916 — spelled “Germanatic” in the Hammond, Indiana, newspaper — runs to fifteen pages. While he starts with a dispassionate criticism of Slavic nationalism — which threatened to break up the German domination of central Europe and was one of the main causes of the war — Boas rips into American reasons for getting involved, even specifically criticizing American hypocrisy when it came to “making the world safe for democracy.”  After mentioning the sinking of the USS Maine and the famously yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst that had propelled the U.S. into war against Spain back in 1898, Boas comments:

Boas clip
(From “Nationalism in Europe,” Franz Boas, 1916.)

One of the more disturbing figures to show up on the Indiana list was wrongly identified as “Edward Emerson.”  In fact, this is the controversial and little-known Edwin Emerson, Jr. (1869-1959).  No relation to the American philosopher Ralph Waldo, Edwin Emerson led a strange, complex life, much of it overseas.

Before the Civil War, Emerson’s father had written for Harper’s Magazine and worked with Noah Webster of dictionary fame.  During the war, Emerson, Sr., went to Europe as a secret envoy for Abraham Lincoln, where he tried to prevent England and France from recognizing the Confederacy.  Close to leaders like Otto von Bismarck and William Gladstone, “agent” Emerson was living in Dresden, Germany in 1869, when his son was born there.  Edwin, Jr., seems to have grown up entirely in Germany, but later came to the United States.  He graduated from Harvard in 1891, afterwards writing for the Boston Post and New York Evening Post and Sun as a foreign correspondent.

During the Spanish-American War — the war Franz Boas criticized for being an example of “How Americans Reason” — Emerson served in the Rough Riders with Theodore Roosevelt.  Due to his native fluency in German, however, he posed as a German newspaper correspondent in Puerto Rico.  Actually an American spy, Emerson acquired a critical map and helped spearhead the invasion of the Spanish island.  Colonel Emerson also served as Teddy Roosevelt’s regimental clerk in Cuba.  He then spent some time as a liaison in the Venezuelan army.

After the war, he went to Korea as a war correspondent and was imprisoned by the Japanese during the Russo-Japanese War.  Then in 1906, in the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake, Emerson got married in San Francisco — in the house of Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson (an Indianapolis native).  His new bride had actually declined his offer of marriage.  But he didn’t get her telegram. . . so she married him anyway.


Edwin Emerson, Jr.
Edwin Emerson, Jr., circa 1900. He was also hailed as “one of the world’s most noted fencers — in fact, an outstanding swordsman and international fencing authority.”

Emerson was one of just a handful of American journalists to report on the German side of the struggle during World War I, at a time when he wrote for the Chicago Daily News and other major papers.  In “The Destruction of Louvain,” the pro-German reporter downplayed the horrors of the Rape of Belgium.  As early as 1915, the New York Times had run an article on a speech Emerson was said to have given in Berlin.  The German press quoted him as saying that under similar circumstances, American soldiers would have committed the same outrages on civilians as German troops did at Louvain.  Understandably, this view did not win Emerson friends in America.  His pamphlet explaining his purportedly eyewitness perspective on the Belgian atrocities was banned in Indiana.


Destruction of Louvain


Just after the November 1918 armistice, the news correspondent was in Guatemala, where that country’s president accused him of being a German spy.  In the early 1920’s, he also got expelled from Austria and Switzerland as an undesirable alien and subversive.

Unfortunately, Edwin Emerson Jr.’s, politics soon took a turn for the worse.  By the early 1930’s, this friend of Germany had become one of the most outspoken advocates of Nazism.  In 1933 and 1934, on East 92nd Street in New York City, he helped found the Society of American Friends of Germany.  This group quickly merged with the Chicago-born Friends of the New Germany (Bund der Freunden des Neuen Deutschland), an organization of American Nazis also known as FONG.  The Friends later became the German American Bund, founded in Buffalo, which under police guard paraded through the streets of New York in 1937.  A pro-Aryan organization, forty percent of their membership was allegedly Irish.

The Dresden-born newspaperman, who now edited the first pro-Nazi newspaper in America — Amerikas Deutsches Post — met with the German Führer himself in February 1934.  The monthly paper had an English-language supplement, American Observer.  The German American Bund also published a bilingual weekly, Deutscher Weckruf und Beobachter (Wake-Up Call and Observer.)  In 1937, that paper became a youth magazine, but stopped publishing after Pearl Harbor.


Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle (Milwaukee, WI), September 22, 1933
(Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, Milwaukee, Wis., September 22, 1933.) Emerson was placed on a list of suspected Nazi spies submitted to Congress in 1937 by Samuel Dickstein, a Jewish Congressman from New York. In 2000, Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States, uncovered Soviet documents suggesting that Dickstein himself may have been a spy for the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police.

The homegrown National Socialist groups that Emerson supported held multiple rallies at Madison Square Garden, events estimated to have drawn crowds of up to 50,000.  Just like during the First World War, individuals who opposed entry into the Second had complicated reasons that often strayed far from mere pacifism.  The controversial and probably anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh, “fallen hero,” was among them.  Whether he deserved it or not, Lindbergh’s career was destroyed.

An author of books on Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Halley’s Comet and the Gutenberg Bible, Edwin Emerson, Jr., died in 1959 in San Francisco, California.  He was buried at Golden Gate National Cemetery — under a Rough Rider’s tombstone.

The Lusitania Connection

Queenstown mass grave

The Lusitania disaster seems impossibly remote to some, but the great maritime tragedy occurred just a hundred years ago — within the living memory of our oldest citizens.

Photography was unable to capture the sinking itself.  Torpedoed by a German submarine eleven miles off the south coast of Ireland on a beautiful May afternoon in 1915, the ship went to the bottom in just fifteen minutes, with the loss of 1,200 lives.  Many still believe the ship’s unusually fast demise was caused by contraband explosives it carried in its hold, en route from the U.S. to Britain.  If true, the Germans would still be guilty of a war crime, having fired the torpedo that ignited the illegal cargo, though the behavior of the British government, smuggling weapons on a passenger liner, would be hard to excuse.

While the meticulous, body-by-body photographic record of the drowned victims is stashed away in the Cunard Line Archives in Liverpool, hundreds of the dead were never recovered at all.  Others remained unidentified.  A series of stark photos documented their burial in a mass grave in the town of Cobh (formerly called Queenstown) on Ireland’s south coast. Remarkably few American newspapers ever reprinted these somber photographs, which show a pile of old-fashioned “pincher coffins,” the kind that was beginning to go out of style in favor of modern, less “haunted-looking” caskets.

An exception was the Lake County Times in Hammond, Indiana, which published one of the gloomy images on May 25, 1915, almost three weeks after the sinking.

Lake County Times, May 25, 1915
Lake County Times, May 25, 1915.

(Old Church Cemetery, Cobh, County Cork, Ireland, where 169 bodies from the Lusitania were buried.)


South Bend News-Times, May 13, 1915
South Bend News-Times, May 13, 1915. Hoosier State Chronicles.

One of the anonymous victims who might lie in the Irish earth — but who probably went to the bottom of the sea — was a Hoosier man sailing aboard the doomed vessel.

Elbridge Blish Thompson was a promising 32-year-old sales manager from Seymour, Indiana, traveling to Holland with his wife Maude.  Though Maude survived and went on to have a remarkable, unusual life, Thompson drowned and his body was never officially recovered.

Born in southern Indiana in 1882, Thompson came from a family of prominent millers who ran the Blish Milling Company, one of the main businesses in Seymour.  Educated in Illinois and at the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Thompson went on to study at Yale, then metallurgy at the Sheffield Scientific School in New Haven.  Popular at Yale, he defended his home state by saying “A man from Indiana can do no wrong.”  In 1904, he married Maude Robinson of Long Branch, New Jersey.  Thompson’s work as a metallurgist took the couple out to Breckenridge, Colorado, but after a few years, they came back to Seymour, where he took charge of the Blish Milling Company and the Seymour Water Company.  It was the flour milling business that eventually led him to embark on a fateful trip to Holland in May 1915.

Elbridge Blish Thompson

In 1914, a strange instance of what the Indianapolis News called “kismet” (fate) led Thompson to disguise one of his cars in a strange costume — as a German U-boat.  The automobile was a blue National roadster built at the National Motor Vehicle Company in Indianapolis, a company headed by Arthur C. Newby, one of the founders of the Indianapolis 500.  Three days after the Lusitania was torpedoed by a real U-boat, the News carried an almost eerie story about the “mimic submarine” that Thompson once drove through a parade in Seymour:

Mr. Thompson is of an adventurous disposition and prolific with original ideas.  He was impressed with the work of submarines in the European war, and decided to imitate one in decorating this auto for the parade.  His submarine attracted much attention, and he was complimented for his originality.  When he started for Europe with his wife on the Lusitania May 1, his friends warned him he might learn what a real submarine could accomplish, but he ridiculed the idea of danger.  Now that he has felt the effects of a submarine’s torpedo, his friends are saying it was a “case of fate.”


Indianapolis News, May 10, 1915
Indianapolis News, May 10, 1915. Newspapers.com.

The News incorrectly reported that Blish Thompson had been saved. On the morning of May 15, he and Maude rose at 4:30 to watch the sunrise.  That afternoon, they were in the first class dining room when the torpedo struck, signaled by a thud, then followed by a huge explosion that was either a coal bunker or a cache of illegal ammunition going off, the alleged contraband being smuggled to the Western Front which had led the Germans to target the ship to begin with.  On deck, Blish gave his lifebelt to a woman.  Unable to get into lifeboats as the ship lurched almost perpendicular, the Thompsons were swept down the deck and sucked into the water.  Then the couple’s grasp was torn apart by the suction of the plunging vessel.

While a memorial service was held for Thompson in Seymour on June 18, his body never turned up.  The stone monument in Seymour’s Riverview Cemetery was erected over an empty grave.


Thompson grave 1

(Thompson’s memorial at the Riverview Cemetery, Seymour, Indiana.)


Indianapolis Star, May 11, 1915

(Indianapolis Star, May 11, 1915.)


A more interesting fate than “Blish” Thompson’s is that of his wife.  By the end of World War I, Maude Thompson had remarried, becoming one of that fascinating bunch of Americans who joined the European aristocracy.  For years, Seymour — a humble Hoosier farm town — had a direct connection to France’s old nobility.

Widowed by the Lusitania disaster, Maude Thompson went back to Europe to volunteer with the Red Cross in France.  On the boat with her this time, she brought not her husband, but Blish Thompson’s two automobiles — the National roadster he had disguised as a “mimic submarine” for the parade through Seymour and a National touring car.  Maude donated these Indianapolis-built vehicles to the French cause.  The re-outfitted roadster served as a scout car on the Western Front.  The touring car was given to the Red Cross.  During World War I, Maude met and fell in love with an ace French fighter pilot, Count Jean de Gennes (pronounced “Zhen.”)  Although she was twelve years his senior, the two were married in Paris in November 1917.


Jean de Gennes

(Count Jean de Gennes, second husband of Maude Thompson, served in the French air force and transatlantic air mail service.  His son was born in Seymour, Indiana.)


After the Allied victory over the Germans, the new Countess de Gennes moved to her husband’s spectacular Loire Valley estate, the historic Château de Longue Plaine, located 30 miles south of Tours in western France.  It was a fairy-tale twist to a marriage due in part to the deadly sinking of the Lusitania.  Their son, named after his father, was born in 1919 while his mother was on a visit back home to Seymour, where she served on the board of the Blish Milling Company.  The young Indiana-born count would later serve during World War II as a pilot in the French Resistance, also flying in night-time bombing raids over Germany with the R.A.F.’s Bomber Command.

Maude’s husband was often away from home.  During the 1920s, Count de Gennes was one of the great pioneer airmail pilots, navigating the dangerous South American and North African routes between France, Casablanca, and Buenos Aires.  One of his colleagues at the Compagnie Aéropostale was the great French pilot and novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince and several great early non-fiction classics of flight.  Like Saint-Exupéry, who vanished into the Mediterranean during World War II, Count Jean de Gennes — member of the French Legion d’Honneur — died in a plane crash off the coast of Morocco in 1929.

Six years before the count’s death, an unnamed reporter from the Indianapolis News paid a visit to the de Gennes family at their sprawling chateau near the Loire.


Indianapolis News, December 29, 1923 (1)
Indianapolis News, December 29, 1923. Newspapers.com.

As the Hoosier reporter described it, Maude — “a former Indiana woman” — had refurbished much of the old 17th-century castle, which had been revamped in the early 1800s but originally dated back to the Middle Ages.  Maude installed its first electric lights, a central heating system to replace “big hungry-mouthed fireplaces,” and put in a power plant out back.  She also brought over bits of the Hoosier State with her, incorporated into the house or stowed away.

It was a delightful experience to live in this charming old place in the midst of American furniture — for the complete contents of the Seymour home had been transported to France. . . While it may seem like carrying coals to Newcastle, to take our furniture to a country famous a thousand years for its beautiful cabinet work, the old Indiana bureaus and tables and other pieces fitted admirably into the delightful old French setting. . .

Baby Jean lives in a suite of his own that was all paneled and cupboarded with Indiana wood.  Even his furniture was built from Indiana lumber.

Much of this wood from Jackson County is probably still there today.

The reporter also found. . . Indiana newspapers:

Indianapolis News, December 29, 1923 (2)
Indianapolis News, December 29, 1923. Newspapers.com.

Chateau de Longue Plaine

(Château de Longue Plaine, where Maude Thompson lived into the 1940s.)


Jean de Gennes (World War II)(Hoosier-born French pilot Count Jean de Gennes served as a bombardier in the “Groupe Guyenne,” a segment of the R.A.F.’s Bomber Command that flew out of Tunisia and Britain, carrying out the controversial night-time raids over German cities that killed thousands of civilians.  Half of the squadron itself died in action.)


The Miami News, February 6, 1947
The Miami News, February 6, 1947.

Though she could easily have found refuge in the U.S., the Countess de Gennes stayed in France during the Nazi occupation of her adopted country.  In 1946, she moved to New York City with her son, who was working for Air France.  Maude lived out her remaining days in Queens.  She died on May 17, 1951.  According to her last wishes, she was buried in France.

RMS Lusitania


South Bend News-Times, August 8, 1920
South Bend News-Times, August 8, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Anarchist Soup Plot

La Grande Observer (La Grande, OR), November 23, 1916You like alphabet soup?  Well, if an anarchist chef prepared it, you’d better take your spoon and dig out these letters first:  A-R-S-E-N-I-C.

One of the weirdest stories ever to spill out of the annals of Midwestern crime is the tale of a bumbling European anarchist named “Jean Crones” who, at a banquet in Chicago in 1916, attempted to assassinate the city’s Roman Catholic archbishop, the Governor of Illinois, and three-hundred priests, bankers, and city officials — not with bullets, but with bouillon.  The “soup poison plot” belongs in any encyclopedia of infamy.  It’s also a fascinating glimpse into one of American labor’s most turbulent decades.  Yet few have ever heard of it.  As part of our ongoing series on hoaxes, hysteria and rumors in the news, Hoosier State Chronicles wants to resurrect this old, mostly forgotten story.

When modern anarchism came to the U.S. in the late 1800s,  it was closely tied to the struggles of German, Italian, and East European immigrants.  While hurling bombs and bullets was an ill-considered way to foster social justice, the conditions these immigrants faced were dire and very real.  Anarchism’s philosophical roots, however, were among Europe’s elite.  (One early proponent of anarchy was the British philosopher William Godwin, husband of feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Frankenstein‘s author, Mary Shelley.)  Iron-fisted reactions to Europe’s 19th-century revolutions spurred philosophers and workers to declare that “Property is Theft” and to strive for the abolition of all governments, including democracies. Because anarchists promoted ideas like “free love” (which critics confused with promiscuity), state and church authorities tried to wipe them out.

While few anarchists ever committed outright acts of murder and mayhem, extremists occasionally wreaked havoc on American cities and police forces.  By the time of World War I, headlines about real and mythical anarchist bomb plots were common news.

Since most anarchists had immigrated from countries with state religions, their animosity toward priestly authority should come as no surprise.  During the Russian Revolution and on into the 1920s and ’30s, radicals (anarchists among them) in Russia, Mexico and Spain launched all-out wars on religion, desecrating churches and even “executing” statues of Jesus, not to mention priests and nuns, who often suffered especially macabre fates.

Yet if Chicago’s anarchists had wanted to assassinate any powerful “prince of the Church” in 1916, the worst choice was probably George Mundelein.


George Mundelein, circa 1916
Archbishop, later Cardinal, George W. Mundelein in 1916.

Mundelein was born in a poor working-class immigrant neighborhood, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in 1872 and grew up in tenement housing.  Son of a German father and Irish mother, his dual ethnic heritage was a major reason why, in 1915, the young Bishop of Brooklyn was chosen to head the Chicago archdiocese, ethnically diverse and also teeming with ethnic conflict even among fellow Catholics.  At age 43, Mundelein was the youngest American archbishop.  Over the years, the leader of Chicago’s Catholics turned out to be a major pro-labor voice, an important ally of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and a staunch enemy of Nazism and anti-Semitism — including that of Father Charles Coughlin, a controversial American radio priest whose show, broadcast out of Detroit, often attacked Jews and bankers.  A friend of the Catholic Labor Movement, Mundelein reiterated to American Catholics that “our place is beside the workingman.”

George Mundelein, then, was a rather strange target for an aspiring assassin’s vial of poison on February 12, 1916.   The scene of the crime:  Chicago’s prestigious University Club.


South Bend News-Times, February 12, 1916
South Bend News-Times, February 12, 1916.

Dining Room, University Club of Chicago, 1909
Dining room of the University Club, 1909.

Coming together to honor both Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and Mundelein’s installment as Chicago archbishop, about three-hundred guests attended — from Illinois Governor Edward F. Dunne and ex-Governor Charles Deneen to Chicago’s ex-Mayor Carter Harrison, Jr.  Most of the other guests were Catholic priests from all over the U.S.

As Chicago’s health commissioner, city police investigators, and a chemist from the University of Chicago later determined, someone that day slipped enough arsenic into a pot of chicken bouillon to kill two-hundred people or more.  Various accounts floated around of how the University Club avoided becoming the scene of what would still be the biggest mass murder in Chicago history — worse even than the crimes of the “arch-fiend” H.H. Holmes back in the 1890s.

One version of the tale was that a “miracle” occurred.  At the last minute, ninety-six guests showed up unexpectedly, prompting kitchen staff to resort to a time-honored remedy: watering down the soup.  Yet apparently the real disaster was averted by slow, talkative eaters.  As Monsignor Evers, pastor of St. Andrew’s Church in New York, told the Chicago Daily Tribune, some guests were “so engrossed in conversation” that they missed out on the soup altogether or had only eaten a spoonful or two by time their neighbors started to have stomach cramps.


Chicago Daily Tribune, February 14, 1916
Chicago Daily Tribune, February 14, 1916

With many diners complaining of sudden stomach pains, a doctor at the banquet suspected that the animal fat used to prepare the soup stock must have gone sour — normal food-poisoning, in other words.  He went to the kitchen and quickly prepared an “emetic of mustard” to induce vomiting. The result is unappetizing to consider, but the elegant dining room must have become a surreal and disgusting scene.  Yet the doctor’s speedy remedy probably saved many lives.  Scores of guests were sickened, some violently, but only one guest, Father John O’Hara of Brooklyn, died.  Archbishop Mundelein himself was unaffected by the lethal soup, but Chicago authorities kept him under a guard of 150 mounted police and detectives for the next few days.


Chicago Daily Tribune, February 14, 1916 (2)
Chicago Daily Tribune, February 14, 1916

Police quickly traced the foiled murder plot to a certain “Jean Crones,” assistant chef at the University Club, said to be about 30 years old.  Crones “often inveighed” against social inequality, said the Club’s officials.  When police raided his apartment, Crones the “souper anarchist” was gone, but investigators discovered a stash of anarchist literature (“a library of hatred,” says one paper), a chemical laboratory and all the evidence of poison they needed to go after him.

As the manhunt for Crones spread out, he or someone masquerading as him began to tease the police with flippant, irreverent letters, taunting the cops for being unable to find him.  These letters and other baffling clues began to pour in from all parts of the country.  When the story made national news the next day, a hotel in Binghamton, New York, reluctantly announced that it was confident Crones had been their assistant chef.  “Crones was remembered by his fellow workers here as a dabbler in chemistry and photography. . . One day the whim seized him to have his own likeness snapped, and he had one of his kitchen comrades aim the camera.”  That photo and an artist’s sketch were plastered over many American newspapers.

What happened next rapidly turned into a comedy of errors — one that went on for years.


Scranton Republican, February 21, 1916
Scranton Republican, February 21, 1916.

During the run-up to World War I, when the loyalty of German-Americans constantly fell under suspicion, unfounded reports came in that Crones was a German immigrant, a saboteur and spy for the Kaiser.  Other reports insisted that he was French or Italian.  A biography of celebrated anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti claims that “Jean Crones” was an Italian named Nestor Dondoglio. Chicago’s Police Department officially called off its search for the mysterious fugitive in 1919.  Yet Dondoglio evaded police until 1932, when he died on a farm in Connecticut where an Italian family had given him shelter.

Whatever the elusive truth behind  Crones identity was, for several years after the failed “soup plot” he became a sort of comedic bogeyman, stalking America from sea to shining sea.  Souper spottings occurred all over:  in rural Mt. Airy and Oxford, North Carolina;  in the mining town of Leadville, Colorado; and in towns so obscure they weren’t even spelled right in newspapers (like Spalding, Nebraska, and Moberly, Missouri.) Crones — or a clever prankster, or a whole team of anarchists — harassed the police from New York City to Portland, Oregon.  A chef from Iowa City was arrested simply because he looked like the photograph snapped at a kitchen in Binghamton, as was another chef from Chicago while passing through Springfield, Ohio.

Illinois State Attorney Maclay Hoyne surmised that the “poison souper” invented something called the “McKinney-Finn powders… given by waiters to non-tipping patrons in local hotels and cafes.”

Most of the so-called “appearances” of Jean Crones, however, are probably imaginary — or even deliberate hoaxes.  In some cases, it even sounds like the police might have used the poison-souper scare as an excuse to terrorize workers.  Others had more comic twists.


South Bend News-Times, November 25, 1916
South Bend News-Times, November 25, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 25, 1916
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 25, 1916

Wilimington Morning Star, February 2, 1916
Wilmington Morning Star, February 2, 1916.

Logansport Pharos-Tribune, February 24, 1916
A watchman in Logansport, Indiana, spotted the “poison souper” at a railroad crossing there less than two weeks after the crime, as did hundreds of other Americans. Logansport Pharos-Tribune, February 24, 1916.

Within a few days of his apparent escape from Chicago, the phantom assassin or his clever doppelgänger was on the West Coast, teasing Chicago police from a distance, mailing them his own fingerprints and threatening to kill “some bishop” out in Oregon:

Fort Wayne Daily News, February 23, 1916 (2)
Fort Wayne Daily News, February 23, 1916.

On St. Patrick’s Day that March, Chicago Catholics were still so jittery that the Irish Fellowship Club had to appoint an official food taster for its annual banquet.  He tasted every dish for over an hour.  And survived.

It’s very possible that prank-minded Americans were just having fun with the police and the press.  Yet by the summer of 1916, the spate of “J.C.” sightings was still pouring in:

Chicago Daily Tribune, July 23, 1916
Chicago Daily Tribune, July 23, 1916.

Chicago Daily Tribune, May 14, 1916
Chicago Daily Tribune, May 14, 1916.

Two of the most humorous and unlikely sightings occurred on the East Coast.  In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that May, locals were convinced that Crones had become a nun:

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern (Oshkosh, WI), May 15, 1916
Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, May 15, 1916.

Pittsburgh Daily Post, May 15, 1916
Pittsburgh Daily Post, May 15, 1916.

And in Luzon, New York, an undercover sleuth wearing false hair and whiskers was arrested by a town cop who was confident he had nabbed the elusive Crones at last.  The man turned out to be a 26-year-old private eye from New York City, busy investigating a theft of $250 from the Hygienic Brush Company.  In spite of this legitimate alibi, county prosecutors charged the man with “masquerading.”

Middletown Times-Press (Middletown, NY), February 28, 1916
Middletown Times-Press, Middletown, NY, February 28, 1916.

The real Jean Crones never surfaced.  Yet the fictional specter he evoked — that of the violent, supposedly illiterate immigrant bent on destroying American institutions and lives — took on a frightening reality of its own at a time when immigrant loyalty was suspect.

It’s often forgotten that the Communist witch hunts inaugurated by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s were preceded by a more substantial “Red Scare” after World War I.  In 1929, Italian anarchists detonated bombs in Washington, D.C. — an attack that nearly killed Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt — and possibly carried out the 1920 Wall Street attack, which killed 30 people.  The reaction threatened to close America’s doors to immigrants.

Like most Catholics, Archbishop Mundelein was a strong supporter of immigration.  He blew off threats of assassination by anarchists and the hostility of anti-Catholics, saying:  “I have come to Chicago to help and bless its people all I can, and I think this is the best way to disarm prejudice.”

A fiery and brilliant editorial in the Kentucky Irish American, a pro-immigrant paper published in Louisville, conjures up the fear that the figure of “Jean Crones” actually created among nativists. For immigration’s enemies, the anarchist threat was reason enough for Congress to all but close down Ellis Island.  (Ironically, the Hans Schmidt mentioned in this passionate editorial was a German-American Catholic priest convicted of murder, then sent to the electric chair at Sing Sing on February 18, 1916.  Schmidt’s execution occurred just a week after the anarchist soup plot in Chicago.)

Kentucky Irish American (Louisville, KY), April 15, 1916 (1)


Kentucky Irish American, April 15, 1916.


Cardinal Mundelein, the target of one of those rare immigrants who turned to violence, spent the next few decades speaking out on behalf of the working poor.  Perhaps the shocking event at the start of his days as leader of Chicago’s Catholics brought home the need for justice in his city and elsewhere.

He died in his sleep in October 1939, an honored man.

Mundelein's Body, 1939 (2)
Mundelein during his funeral mass, Holy Name Cathedral, Chicago, October 4, 1939. An impressive Chicago Tribune photo gallery celebrates his life.

Mundelein 1
Cardinal Mundelein in 1933.

When Indiana Banned the German Language in 1919

Warren Times Mirror (Warren, PA), February 26, 1919(Warren Times Mirror, Warren, Pennsylvania, February 26, 1919.)


Several posts on Hoosier State Chronicles have focused on Indiana’s German heritage.  We would be remiss, then, not to examine the state legislature’s attempt to eradicate the teaching of German in Indiana schools.

On February 25, 1919, three months after the armistice that ended World War I, the Hoosier State became one of fourteen states to ban the teaching of German to children, a crime punishable by fines and imprisonment.


Anti-German propaganda
Devils and their master, the Kaiser.

From 1914 to 1918, the U.S. and its allies in Britain, France and Italy took dehumanizing propaganda to new heights.  Cartoonists, U.S. Army posters, and newspapers stoked bizarre, irrational distrust that engulfed America.  The results were sometimes petty, like renaming sauerkraut “liberty cabbage” and German measles “liberty measles,” but the U.S. and Britain could also engage in acts of brutality.

One of the stranger incidents resulting from First World War propaganda was the war on dachshunds — considered a German breed.  At the time the German language was being driven out of schools in England and the U.S. dachshunds were sometimes stoned or stomped to death in front of their owners.  (Novelist Graham Greene remembered this in his autobiography.)   When “patriots” harassed a Chicago dog breeder, he shot every dachshund in his kennels. Bulldogs, a symbol of Britain and the mascot of the U.S. Marines, were turned loose to attack and kill the “German” pets.  The Jasper Weekly Courierprinted in a heavily German town in southern Indiana, carried a syndicated story about this:

Jasper Weekly Courier, August 30, 1918(Jasper Weekly Courier, August 30, 1918. The U.S. Marines recruiting poster is here.)


Help Your Uncle Sam Do This(A website on pet health claims that “In the United States the poor Dachshund went from one of the ten most popular breeds in 1913 to being represented by 12 survivors in 1919.”  A “lonely dachshund” showed up in Topeka, Kansas, that year in search of a home.)


With Allied print media insisting that the Kaiser’s soldiers were bayoneting and committing other outrages, it’s easy to see how anxiety got out of hand, even in areas like Pennsylvania and the Midwest, which had large German-American populations.

Indiana’s 1919 anti-German law wasn’t the first of its kind.  Parents and school boards had already been striking German classes from school curricula before the U.S. even entered the war.  And devaluing the German language was a coast-to-coast phenomenon. The City University of New York reduced the value of its own German courses by one academic credit.   Evanston, Illinois, banned the language in its schools in 1918.  California kept up a ban on high-school German into the 1920s and in 1941 banned it in churches.  At a speech on Long Island in 1917, Theodore Roosevelt urged Americans to rid the country of German, otherwise America risked becoming “a polyglot counting house for dollar chasers.”

A sign painter in Indianapolis who opposed Gothic lettering mentioned that Americans were already burning German textbooks.  At Indianapolis’ Shortridge High School, a newspaperwoman connected to the Red Cross was applauded during a speech when she criticized the administration for not canceling German classes there.  The German teachers switched to teaching Latin.  Meanwhile, a new course on “contemporary war history” began and a hundred students enrolled.  At a time when the U.S. was claiming to oppose German militarism, Shortridge considered its military history course to be the first ever offered at an American public high school.


Lake County Times -- September 10, 1918 (2)
Hammond High School was already planning to phase out German by 1919 and was just waiting for the legislature to catch up. Lake County Times, September 10, 1918. Hoosier State Chronicles.

On the eve of the vote in Indianapolis, a visitor from Iowa spoke at the Statehouse.  Iowa’s Governor William L. Harding is considered one of the most dishonest and opportunistic politicians in American history.  Though he had curried favor with Iowa’s foreign-born citizens during his election campaign, when the war broke out he turned against them. Proponents of Indiana’s German-language ban were later accused of the same kind of hypocrisy.


WIlliam L. Harding
Iowa’s William L. Harding in 1915.

Harding’s 1918 “Babel Proclamation” in Iowa did more than simply ban German instruction, though.  The infamous law banned the speaking of all foreign languages in public, including Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch and Czech, which were still common in the Midwest.  Fearing “spies,” Harding made having a foreign-language conversation on the telephone, on street corners, and in churches and schools a criminal offense.  Iowa’s law was no empty threat. Violators were arrested and jailed.

Harding had plenty of admirers.  “Liberty Leagues” and “councils of defense” wanted laws to keep German off the streets and even ban it in private homes.  The author of the “Babel Proclamation” spoke in Indianapolis on February 13, 1919, a few days before Indiana outlawed the teaching of German in Hoosier elementary schools.


The Call-Leader (Elwood, IN), February 13, 1919

(The Call-Leader, Elwood, Indiana, February 13, 1919.)


The main proponent of Indiana’s bill was State Senator Franklin McCray of Indianapolis.  As Lieutenant Governor Edgar Bush reminded the General Assembly, this bill would overturn a long-standing law dating back to the 1860s.  Bush told the Senate:

Journal of the Indiana State Senate 1919
Journal of the Indiana State Senate, 1919. Google Books.

Indiana’s 1869 law likely had to do with teacher shortages and the fact that in German communities, it just made sense.

One of the most glaring oversights of the anti-German law was that many speakers of the language were Mennonites and Amish, Christian pacifists highly unlikely to be working as secret agents.

Though the German army committed real outrages in World War I and the bill’s proponents mentioned fear of “future German propaganda” aimed at American children, focusing on the atrocities of “Huns” was a sly way to pass a law that was deeply entangled with immigration, prohibition and labor unrest.  As 1919 dawned — one of the most turbulent years in American history — “wet” and “dry” advocates, capitalists and socialists, anarchists, pacifists and suffragettes battled for the “soul” of the country.

Many German-Americans were farmers or industrial laborers and had a history of being Socialists, pacifists and isolationists.  When the Socialist Party tried to steer America away from entering World War I, arguing that American entry would play into the hands of wealthy industrialists and bankers, pro-war advocates countered that anyone who opposed the war supported the Kaiser.  In 1924, Progressivist presidential candidate Robert LaFollette carried Wisconsin, a heavily-German state, partly as a result of his anti-war record.

German fondness for beer and liquor also earned the hostility of many Prohibition advocates, who had spent decades slowly “shutting off the tap.”  A nationwide ban on booze was just around the corner, coming in January 1920.  Yet as Chicago’s Lager Beer Riot back in 1855 proved, the history of Prohibition was closely tied to anti-labor attitudes.  Squelching the German language was part of the process of extinguishing German sociability at a time when workers got together in pubs and beer gardens to talk about labor grievances and organize.


Hun Rule Association
A World War I-era cartoon slanders “Huns” — Germans — as booze-lovers who cause crime, poverty and waste.

Kaiser Wilson, 1916
An American woman sends a message to “Kaiser Wilson” in 1916 — four years before women were given the right to vote.

While fear of “Huns” and “traitors” prompted anti-German bills, America’s social problems were reflected in the Indiana bill. That year, Gary would be shut down by a national steel strike, a federal raid on Communists led to the deportation of hundreds of European immigrants (including Hoosiers), and an anarchist bomb plot nearly killed several major U.S. officials.

Although the formal language of the Indiana law would be more formal, a state senator named Duffey, speaking on the Senate floor, lashed out at the “stupid heads” of Germany and their sympathizers in America, who threatened to strangle education and spread disloyalty.  Duffey finished off with a call for deporting traitors.  He didn’t know it yet, but he was sounding the keynote of 1919:

Journal of the Indiana State Senate 1919 (2)As revolutions and radicalism reared their head, the anti-German bill was about more than bigotry against German culture.  Many people who supported the law had German last names, after all, like Speaker of the House Jesse Eschbach.  Lieutenant Governor Bush read a letter at the Statehouse from “150 residents of Seymour of German extraction” who favored the language ban and asked why it was taking so long.  The Germans of Seymour probably didn’t want to be associated with “subversives,” “traitors” and “terrorists.”

The 1919 law completely banned German-language instruction up to the eighth grade.  It was followed by a law prohibiting high-school German courses.  Fortunately, the men who wrote these bills recognized that at the college level, “the contributions of Germany in literature were too great to be ignored.”  (Indiana University President William L. Bryan, who criticized the bills, agreed.)  The penalty for instructing children in German?  A fine of $25 to $100,  a jail sentence of up to six months, or both.

Urged by the Lieutenant Governor to enact “100 percent American” legislation, the Senate put the elementary-school bill up for a vote on February 17, 1919. Only one legislator, Senator Charles A. Hagerty of South Bend, voted against it.  Yet even Hagerty’s opposition seems to have been against the political opportunism of the bill’s promoters rather than a real concern for education. On February 25, the House also passed the bill and Governor James P. Goodrich signed the legislation.

The South Bend News-Times, a liberal paper, thought the bill a classic case of legislative overreach, since most German-Americans were already trying hard to adopt English in their churches and schools.  McCray had insisted that it would not interfere with the use of foreign languages in religious worship.  (Many Lutheran churches still used German, and it was the main language of instruction at a few major Catholic seminaries.)

Ironically, the anti-German bills were overturned in 1923 by another man named McCray — Governor Warren T. McCray, who also butted heads with the Klan.


Indianapolis Star, May 5, 1919(Indianapolis Star, May 5, 1919.)


A few months after Governor Goodrich signed Indiana’s law, an anti-German bill passed through Pennsylvania’s legislature, also by a large margin.  Pennsylvania Governor William C. Sproul, however, vetoed it.  Sproul’s remarks to the press were probably the most intelligent words to come out of the whole debate.

Mount Carmel Item (Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania), May 6, 1919 (1)Mount Carmel Item (Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania), May 6, 1919 (2)Mount Carmel Item (Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania), May 6, 1919 (3)Mount Carmel Item (Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania), May 6, 1919 (4)

(Mount Carmel Item, Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania, May 6, 1919.)


Durham Morning Herald (Durham, NC), April 7, 1922

(Durham Morning Herald, Durham, North Carolina, April 7, 1922.)


Hoosier State Chronicles has digitized over 8,000 issues of the Indiana Tribüne, once a major German-language newspaper. Published by The Gutenberg Company in Indianapolis, the Tribüne was silenced on June 1, 1918.

The Hoosier Actress — and Spy? — Who Became a German Silent Film Sensation

Fern Andra 3

“Eine der beliebtesten und bekanntesten Schauspielerinnen des deutschen Stummfilms… One of the most beloved and best-known actresses of the German silent movie industry.”

That’s the verdict of Die freie Enzyklopädie, Germany’s homegrown Wikipedia.  Yet this actress who skyrocketed to about a decade of European fame wasn’t German.

In the days when German Expressionism was pushing cinema forward — Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was probably the greatest film of the 1920s, alongside the silent horror classics Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — Fern Andra was almost a household name in Germany.   Yet her roots were deep in the American Midwest.   In addition to acting in bloody horror flicks, Fern worked as an American spy, married a German baron and a boxing champion, fell from the sky almost to her death with one of Germany’s great fighter pilots, and even tangled with one of the most evil men in history.


Fritz Lang 1

(Weimar-era German cinema was known for its revolutionary costume artistry, stage design, and the creative genius of its women.  One of the great characters of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was a “gynoid” robot called Maschinenmensch. C-3PO’s cinematic grandmother was played by actress Brigitte Helm, who died in 1996.  Lang’s movie was based on a novel by his wife, Thea von Harbou.)


Fern Andra was born Vernal Edna Andrews in 1894 in Watseka, Illinois, a small Kankakee Valley farm town about fifteen miles west of Kentland, Indiana.  Her parents were William P. Andrews and Sarah Emily Evett, also known as Sadie.  When Fern’s father died in 1898, Sadie remarried Frank St. Clair, a vaudeville actor, circus performer, and tight-rope walker.

Learning stunts from her stepfather, Fern began her stage career at the Stephens Brothers Opera House in Watseka.  Aged ten or eleven, she headed to Chicago with a theatrical troupe, performing at the Globe Theatre.  Between about 1905 and 1913, Fern went to school in Hammond, Indiana, where her mother and stepfather had relocated.  Sadie St. Clair owned or rented a house at 184 State Street and later lived in Gary.  Her daughter was remembered as a “Hammond girl” and would often come back and visit her family in northwest Indiana.

It’s not clear how she evaded her classes in Hammond, but by age fifteen she was part of the Millman Trio.  Headed by the famous high-wire walker Bird Millman, the trio performed for President Taft at the White House in 1909.  (Born Jennadean Engleman, Bird later became a dancer in the great “theatrical juggernaut,” the Ziegfeld Follies.)

By 1914, when World War I broke out, 20-year-old Fern had gone to Europe, where she was a popular stunt performer and minor stage actress.  That year, she found herself trapped in Germany.  But since the U.S. didn’t go to war against the Kaiser’s armies until 1917, she wasn’t considered an enemy alien and was even offered movie contracts. As “Fern Andrée,” she had already appeared in silent short films called Das Ave Maria (1913) and Mondfischerin (“The Fisher of the Moon,” 1914).  During World War I, the midwestern actress starred in over twenty German films.  She had probably become fluent in the language by then, but since these movies were all silent, her nationality wasn’t important. . .  until she was accused of being an American spy.

Fern Andra -- Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah), November 27, 1927
Ogden Standard-Examiner, Ogden, Utah, November 27, 1927.

The details are sketchy, but sources agree that Fern — who now went under the sultrier stage name “Andra” or even “The Andra” — was at least detained by German police.  In the 1950s, she claimed that her personal acquaintance with Kaiser Wilhelm himself saved her.  “I was accused of spying for the Allies,” she remarked:

It was true, but not for the reasons they thought. Actually, I was a courier, memorizing coded messages and repeating them to American contacts in Copenhagen…  I was lucky. I was a movie star at the time, living in Berlin and a friend of the royal family.  To save me, it was arranged for me to marry Baron Frederick von und zu Weichs, a member of the Hohenzollern family.

The rumor in America, however, was that Fern had been condemned to death by a firing squad.  Gossip about her death came out in the Hammond paper just three days before the war ended.


Fern Andra - LC Times, November 8, 1918
Ogden Standard-Examiner, Ogden, Utah, November 27, 1927.

Bavarian Baron Friedrich von und zu Weichs was said to be a nephew of Zita, the last Empress of Austria.  Fern and Friedrich were married September 28, 1918, and the “Hammond girl” immediately became Baroness Weichs.  About a month later, just a few weeks before the war ended, her husband was killed on the Western Front.

Fortunately, she’d come into some money.  By 1919, when the former Hoosier girl made the front page of the Lake County Times, Baroness Fern, who had briefly been detained as a P.O.W., was running her own film company in Berlin.


Fern Andra -- LC Times, May 3, 1919
Fern Andra — LC Times, May 3, 1919Lake County Times, May 3, 1919.

Lake County Times, May 3, 1919. Hoosier State Chronicles. 
Fern Andra -- LC Times, May 3, 1919 (2)
Lake County Times, May 3, 1919. Hoosier State Chronicles. 

Though its military was banned and its economy was in shambles, as the Jazz Age dawned, Germany entered a period of cultural brilliance known as the “Weimar Era.”  Berlin in the 1920s was chaotic but saw the rise of iconic German geniuses like the Bauhaus architects, Expressionist filmmakers and painters, and some of the best-known German philosophers and writers.  Fern Andra was part of this incredible, if often bizarre, cultural cocktail.

In 1920, she played a leading role in a new Stummfilm (silent film) called Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire.  Made by filmmaker Robert Wiene, Genuine was filmed in the same vein, part-horror/part-fantasy, of Murnau’s vampiric Nosferatu.  Fern plays a high priestess, named “Genuine,” who steps out of a painting and comes to life, then turns to bloodsucking.  In one scene, Andra caused a sensation by appearing in an outfit that had merely been painted onto her body.  Though it starred the actress hailed by many as “the most beautiful girl in Europe,” Wiene’s film wasn’t well-liked and critics called it a failure.  Twenty-first-century moviegoers would like it even less, but its stage design and outrageous costumes are still interesting — if only for the background, which evokes the kind of graffiti you could see sprayed on the side of a Burlington Northern freight car.


Fern Andra in Genuine
Fern Andra played a painting come to life in the 1920 film Genuine.

Genuine
Genuine played at the Marmorhaus on the Kurfürstendamm in 1920.

Fern Andra 1
Fern in a characteristic Weimar-era outfit.

When Genuine hit the silver screen, World War I was over.  But in 1921, Fern Andra was involved in a famous accident that cost the life of one of Germany’s greatest fighter pilots.

Lothar von Richthofen was the younger brother of Manfred van Richthofen, best-known to Americans as the “Red Baron,” Germany’s ace warrior of the sky.  Manfred was shot down and killed over France in April 1918, but Lothar was almost as famous.  After the war, he worked as an airmail pilot and taxied passengers between Hamburg and Berlin.

On July 4, 1922, while flying Fern Andra and her director Georg Bluen into Hamburg’s Fuhlsbüttel Airport, Richthofen’s engine gave out and the plane crashed.  The great pilot was killed, but Andra and Bluen, though injured, survived.


Lothar von Richthofen
Lothar von Richthofen died while flying Fern Andra to Hamburg in 1922.

In 1923, the Hoosier beauty married German middleweight boxing champion Kurt Prenzel, who had been interned as a POW at Knockaloe on the Isle of Man.  In 1925, Prenzel saved his wife from being bitten by a supposedly rabid dog and suffered a bite that kept him from boxing for about a year, a fact that reportedly figured into their divorce around the time he emigrated to New York City in 1928.


Fern Andra and Kurt Prenzel
Fern and her second husband, German boxing champion Kurt Prenzel, circa 1925. He had fought African American boxer Jimmy Lyggett, Sr., around 1920.

Ogden Standard-Examienr, Ogden UT, November 27, 1927
Ogden Standard-Examiner, Ogden, Utah, November 27, 1927.

In addition to acting, Fern wrote or directed about twenty German films, but called her German film career quits in 1927.  Her last movie made there was Funkzauber (Radio Magic).   Until about 1930, she remained active in the Hollywood film business, and even married actor Ian Keith in Tijuana, Mexico, in 1934.  Keith would star as Octavian in Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra and as Bill Thorpe, a Louisiana gambler, in the John Wayne film The Big Trail.  Andra and Keith divorced in Chicago a year after their wedding.

Meanwhile, she was paying visits to her mother, Sadie St. Clair.  In the 1930s, Sadie was living at 636 Washington Street in Gary, Indiana, in “a crowded flat over a furniture store.”  The address is right across the street from one of Gary’s most iconic and photographed ruins, the abandoned City United Methodist Church.  Though it has sat empty and gutted since the late 1970s, plans are on the table to transform the old church into a European-style “ruin garden.”  The German Expressionists would have been the first to use this gloomy Rust Belt ruin in their films.  One can easily imagine the specters of F.W. Murnau and Robert Wiene creeping out of the choir stalls, and Fritz Lang would have been fascinated by the fiery steel mills and modernist clamor of Gary before the city slipped into decline.


Lincoln Evening Journal, Lincoln, Nebraska, December 22, 1923
Lincoln Evening Journal, Lincoln, Nebraska, December 22, 1923.

Fern Andra with Mother
Fern with her mother on board a steamship, circa 1930. Sadie St. Clair, daughter of Midwestern pioneers, died in Hessen, Germany, in 1955. Her ashes were scattered in the Iroquois River in northern Illinois.

Springfield Republican, Springfield, MO, February 28, 1924
Springfield Republican, Springfield, MO, February 28, 1924.

Ferna Andra passport photo 1921 (5)
Andra’s emergency passport application, 1921.

Though she was spending most of her time in California by this time, Fern’s involvement with Germany wasn’t over.  In the early 1930’s, she challenged the rise of Nazism.  The militaristic party of thugs opposed almost everything Weimar culture stood for, to the point of burning its books and destroying its art.

There had once been unconfirmed rumors that Fern had had a love affair with Adolf Hitler’s “Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.”  Andra apparently knew the despised propagandist Joseph Goebbels before his rise to power, and she remembered him later as a “mousy tutor.” (Goebbels had studied philosophy at the University of Heidelberg and was the perfect example of a good education gone awry.)  In 1937, Andra and Goebbels clashed over the freedom of foreign artists to be active in Nazi Germany.  She had even testified before the U.S. Congress about the Third Reich’s discrimination against non-Aryan artists.

Engaging in a “verbal fusillade,” according to one account, Goebbels and Andra got into a fight during which the Propaganda Minister threatened to imprison her.  He then systematically went about trashing her reputation, even claiming that she was a Hungarian impostor, not an American.  If sources are correct (and there’s a chance they’re exaggerated) Fern escaped by plane into Romania, then headed back to the United States.  Since she spoke fluent German, she aided the Allies during World War II by broadcasting radio messages into Germany.  Her enemy Goebbels, Hitler’s master of lies, committed suicide in 1945 — after murdering his own children.

Fern Andra continued to visit and live in Germany after the war.  In November 1954, she was photographed talking to Baroness Kunigunde von Richthofen, mother of Manfred and Lothar.  They met up at the American Civilian Club in Wiesbaden.


Fern Andra with Richthofen's mother 2
Fern Andra, right, with “The Red Baron’s” mother, Wiesbaden, Germany, 1954.

Fern and her fourth husband, a playwright and soldier from Connecticut named General Samuel Edge Dockrell, seem to have lived in Wiesbaden and New England until the early 1970s, but often visited the Midwest.  They eventually moved to South Carolina, where Dockrell died two days after they got there.

Baroness Fern Andra, Hammond girl, succumbed to cancer at Azalea Woods Nursing Home in Aiken, South Carolina, at age 80 on February 8, 1974.

Her fame vanished in the 1940s, and few Americans would know her name today.  But Hoosier State Chronicles would like to put her back out there as one of the most interesting women who has ever lived within the borders of our state.

Got Cooties? Try P.D.Q.

Altoona Tribune, February 13, 1950

Cooties aren’t what they used to be.  When I was a kid growing up in the long-lost 1980’s, cooties were imaginary germs — and not something you usually wanted.  If you accidentally came into exposure with these fictitious microbes, quarantine wasn’t necessary, though you might get socially ostracized for a day or two. In fact, that was kind of the point.  In the worst-case scenario, however, unless you were a perennial cootie hatching ground, you could just rub the little critters off onto somebody else.  One definition even calls cooties an “infection tag game.”  The dark side, of course, is the mild sexual harassment hovering over elementary school playgrounds.  And yet. . . some cooties you actually want.  Without these benign cousins — love germs — life might not even be worth living.

Early Clinton-era cooties, though, weren’t the kind that an earlier generation of Americans knew.  A senior colleague of mine at the Indiana State Library has just testified that the psychological variety of this make-believe organism has been around since at least the 1950s.  Yet its pedigree dates even farther back than that.

Cooties, in fact, were being mentioned in American newspapers as early as 1918.  The ancestral cootie?  Like most of us, it seems to have had immigrant roots.  As far as journalists knew, this was an annoying variety of lice that proliferated in the trenches of Europe during World War I.

South Bend News-Times, July 13, 1918. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Were cooties immune to warfare?  Maybe, maybe not. The writer was probably joking here, and might have been telling a big tall tale, but it sounds like one way to get rid of the bug was to give it a good jolt:

South Bend News-Times, July 13, 1918. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Captain Charles W. Jones, a teacher at Greencastle High School who served on the Western Front, told a Putnam County audience in 1919 about his uncomfortable experiences in France.   Alongside the perils of bombs and poison gas. . .  the little bug called cooties:

Greencastle Herald, February 5, 1919. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Etymology meets entomology at the Oxford English Dictionary, whose talented word-sleuths think “cootie” might come from the Malay word kutu, denoting a parasitic biting insect.  Except for one minor naval battle, World War I wasn’t waged in Southeast Asia, so unless Malaysian troops fighting in Europe coined the word, its passage into English is actually quite mysterious.

Yet soon, cooties were coming to America in letters:  literally!

Greencastle Herald, February 21, 1919. Hoosier State Chronicles.

That was good news for the Netherlands, which wanted to get rid of them:

Jasper Weekly Courier, December 20, 1918
Jasper Weekly Courier, December 20, 1918. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In the event of the next global war — and in an eerie parallel to chemical warfare — the (perhaps mad) English entomologist Harold Maxwell-Lefroy was actually looking at ways to disseminate deadly diseases behind enemy lines by means of propagating mosquitoes, house flies. . . and — get this! — cooties.

South Bend News-Times, May 19, 1920
South Bend News-Times, May 19, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In fact, the tiny foe looks disturbing enough:

South Bend News-Times, April 7, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

By the early years of the Jazz Age, these pestiferous creatures had apparently made it “over here” on the backs, in the clothes, and probably in some of the doughboys’ uncomfortable nether regions.

Up in Cadillac, Michigan, folklore, at least, thought the Kaiser’s cooties were refusing to recognize the Armistice and were carrying on the war against American grasshoppers undismayed:

South Bend News-Times, July 2, 1919
South Bend News-Times, July 2, 1919. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Even venomous snakes, it was believed, got laid low by the dreaded bug:

The Call-Leader (Elwood, Indiana), November 25, 1918.

The New York Tribune thought these lice should have figured into the staggering death toll of the so-called “War to End All Wars.”

South Bend News-Times, July 6, 1919
South Bend News-Times, July 6, 1919. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Around 1919, somebody invented a children’s board game.  I have never played this game, but according to one description, you put two pill-like objects with BB’s inside a box painted like a World War I battlefield.  A cage — sometimes with a fox hole underneath it — sits at one end of the box.  The challenge is to maneuver the “cooties” over the mine-infested field of death and dispose of them inside the cage.

In 1920, this game was being manufactured by the Irvin-Smith Company of Chicago, who touted it as “good for your nerves.”

Cooties Game (3), 1920 -- Anglo Boer War Museum
(Cootie Game, circa 1920. Courtesy Canadian Anglo-Boer War Museum.)

Cooties Game, 1920 -- Anglo Boer War Museum


The Cootie Game was offered for sale at George H. Wheelock’s department store in South Bend in 1919:

South Bend News-Times, September 27, 1919
South Bend News-Times, September 27, 1919. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Having cooties on you, however, was no game, and is a genuine part of American medical history.

One solution for the lice was a “liquid fire” called P.D.Q., possibly manufactured at Owl Chemical Company in Terre Haute, Indiana.  The initials were said to stand for “Pesky Devils Quietus.”  Wherever it was made, the squirtable cootie-killer was on sale in Hoosier drug stores not long after the end of World War I.  It sold for the same price as the Cootie Game:  35 cents.

South Bend News-Times, August 1, 1922
South Bend News-Times, August 1, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Greencastle Herald, March 30, 1920
Greencastle Herald, March 30, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

What the exact difference is between cooties and the domestic American chiggers, I’m not sure — and nobody seems to have checked into hospitals recently complaining of cooties.  Sometime around 1950, apparently, these bugs evolved into a mildly harmless children’s phobia.

The cootie’s association with war did, however, survive.  In 1920, a service organization affiliated with the VFW was founded in New York City — the Military Order of the Cootie.  Though no World War I vets are around to tell us about scratching and the other horrors of trench warfare, the order — devoted to community service and, just as importantly, to humor — is still active to this day.

We salute the Cooties!

Terre Haute Tribune, June 5, 1958
Terre Haute Tribune, June 5, 1958.

America’s First WWI Shot

Alexander Arch SB News Times September 9 1919 (2)

A century ago, American journalism was buzzing with news of the First World War, which the United States had still not entered.  Though jingoistic newspapermen and politicians of different stripes eventually swayed public opinion toward support for the “war against Kaiser Bill,” in 1915 sending American soldiers to Europe was still controversial.

Across the country, but especially in states with a large number of German-American voters, there was opposition to entering the war.  Isolationists and Socialists were of a similar mind, though often for different reasons.  Wisconsin’s Progressive U.S. Senator Robert LaFollette spoke out passionately against U.S. involvement, earning the ire of ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, who delivered a speech in Racine, Wisconsin, in 1917 where he called the senator a “shadow Hun” — the pejorative nickname for German soldiers.  Roosevelt toured the Upper Midwest to lash out at U.S. Representative Ernest Lundeen of Minnesota and North Dakota’s Senator Asle Gronna, both of whom later cast their votes against making a declaration of war.  (Lundeen was later accused of being a Nazi sympathizer and investigated by the FBI.)

Indiana’s own native son, Socialist presidential candidate and labor leader Eugene V. Debs, also spoke out against what he saw as America’s own involvement in militarism.  In 1918, on charges of sedition, President Wilson imprisoned Debs for his vocal opposition to the military draft during a speech in Canton, Ohio.

(If you’re a Newspapers.com subscriber, one of the more fascinating and hilarious journals from the World War I era is The Fool-Killera satirical “newspaper” published in the Brushy Mountains of Wilkes County, North Carolina, by James Larkin Pearson.  Pearson later became the Tar Heel State’s Poet Laureate.)


Fool Killer June 1 1916
Lampooning the war-hawks “Toothadore Specksvelt” and Woodrow “Woodpile” in the June 1916 issue of his eccentric Fool Killer, James Larkin Pearson perfected the art of satire in this early forerunner of The Onion.

Hoosier history is full of strange ironies.  One of them is this:  early on the morning of October 23, 1917, in the Luneville sector of eastern France, the reportedly first American soldier to fire an artillery shot against the “Huns” was a 24-year-old sergeant from South Bend, Alexander Arch,  a Hungarian.

Honored in newspapers in 1917 and again in 1919, after he returned from Europe and appeared in a parade with General Pershing, Arch was an emigrant from Sopron, on Hungary’s western border with Austria.  When he was born in 1894, his birth village was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which as an American soldier he was now at war with.

Arch’s parents emigrated to the U.S. in 1899, their children following in 1903, when Alexander was eight.  (They may have Anglicized their names.  His father appears on the 1910 U.S. census as “Steve Arch,” probably István in Hungarian.  Arch might have been spelled “Arcs” or “Arcz”.)  Steve Arch worked as a clerk at George Toth’s bookstore in South Bend.  Alexander’s mother, Theresa, died in 1910.


Alexander Arch SB News Times September 29 1919 (2)
Arch with his Hungarian relatives at 239 N. Sadie Street. South Bend News-Times, September 29, 1919.

Alexander Arch SB News Times September 29 1919 (1)
The photo appeared on the front page of the paper during the infamous Omaha Race Riot in Nebraska.

In 1910, when he was 16 years old, Alexander Arch was employed at the Oliver Chilled Plough Works, one of South Bend’s major industries.  After Our Lady of Hungary Catholic Church was founded in 1916, the family were parishioners there.  Before heading to Europe, Arch was briefly stationed on the Mexican border during General John Pershing’s expedition against Pancho Villa.

A 1919 News-Times article on South Bend’s efforts to get the cannon that fired the first American artillery shell in World War I included this clip from Stars and Stripes, the official publication of the U.S. Expeditionary Force:

The first American artillery shot of the war was fired at five minutes after 6 o’clock the morning of Oct. 23, 1917, from a position about 400 meters east of Bathlemont, in the Luneville sector.

A French 75, dragged by the hands of American artillerymen over 800 meters of rough roads on a pitch black night, roared America’s artillery prelude at daybreak.  A heavy fog flashed into flame, a shrapnel shell coursed over the woods and valleys of Meurthe-et-Moselle, crossed a boundary line and fell somewhere in Lorraine.

Battery C of the sixth field artillery is so positive that this shell was America’s first shot that it has just prepared a sworn statement signed by an officer and four enlisted men who were in on the event, telling all the circumstances leading up to it.  The statement reveals, incidentally, that the original shell casing is now in Chicago, and that 18 other casings of that first morning’s firing were distributed among Pres’t Wilson, Gen. Pershing, Gen. Sibert, then commanding the first division, and others.

The gun is now at the United States Military Academy at West Point with other newly transported war trophies.   Before it left France, though, it had fired 20,000 rounds in action, and none of the gun crew serving it had been wounded.

The firing of the first shot was ceremonial, according to the signed statement, each man in the gun crew performing some task.  One soldier set the sights, another the elevation of the range, another the angle of site and another cut the fuse.  Twenty men were gathered about the gun when the command “Fire!” was given.  Because of the fog it was impossible to observe the effect of the first shot, but at 7 a.m., when the fog lifted, the firing was directed from an observation post to Haut Rioville farm in No-Man’s Land.

Sgt. Arch was chief of the gun crew, and at least one other man, Corporal Lewis Varady, a fellow Hungarian, also came from South Bend.

America’s direct involvement in World War I lasted barely a year and Arch was back in the U.S. in mid-1919.  In September, “Thunderous cheers followed by loud applause greeted Sgt. Alexander Arch, South Bend’s history maker, upon his visit to the House of Representatives. . .”  Arch and Varady received a three-minute standing ovation before heading on to Camp Zachary Taylor near Louisville, Kentucky, but not before receiving a triumphal welcome home in Indiana.

After the acclaimed veteran was mustered out of the army at Camp Taylor, he worked as a machinist and auto worker, probably at the Studebaker plant.  Arch married Julia Rebics in 1924 and the couple had four children.  He died in 1979.


Alexander Arch September 17 1919


During a victory parade in 1919, the Hoosier soldier was literally “profiled” in The Washington Times.  The newspaper thought he had a heroic face and a good jaw line, and used his experience as an exhortation to rise and shine, since “there are a good many victories won before breakfast”:

Alexander Arch Washington Times September 17 1919 (3)


Alexander Arch SB News Times September 28 1919
South Bend News-Times, September 28, 1919.

The News-Times had some of the best illustrators in Hoosier journalism.  Here are some other historic ads, cartoons, and flashy martial cries — most of it blatantly Germanophobic — published in the South Bend paper around the fateful year 1918.

SB News Times September 26 1918 (3)


SB News Times September 26 1918 (6)


SB News Times May 9 1918


SB News Times September 26 1918 (5)


SB News Times September 28 1918 (1)


SB News Times Sept 9 1917


Contact:  staylor336 [at] gmail.com

That Foulsome Air May Do No Harm

vajen mask

An entry in Hyman’s Handbook to Indianapolis recently caught my eye.  A strange masked man stalks this great guide to the old and now mostly vanished architecture of the city in 1909.

My thoughts raced to Jules Verne’s deep-sea divers, Renaissance plague doctors dressed like bizarre birds, steampunk fashion designers, and of course the epic villain, Darth Vader. Even the name of the company that once manufactured this pioneer fireman’s oxygen mask in the Hoosier State had a science-fiction ring to it: the Vajen-Bader Company.

Smoke, sulfur, and ammonia pose problems similar to those faced by divers and even doctors wading into disease-ridden “miasmas” (the “bad air” mentioned in old medical manuals).  So it should come as no surprise that the invention of smoke helmets is part of a much bigger history.  The tragedy is that the protective devices used by groundbreaking medical men, underwater explorers, and firefighters evolved into the gas masks used in the chemical warfare that made World War I so uniquely terrifying at the time.

In 1893, Indianapolis hardware salesman and inventor Willis C. Vajen earned his place in the history of masks and life-saving.


Salt Lake Herald August 10 1896 (2)
Salt Lake Herald, Salt Lake City, Utah, August 10, 1896.

Vajen (whose name, I believe, is pronounced “Vie-en”) came from one of the capitol city’s most prominent and wealthy families.  His father, John Henry Vajen, emigrated from Bremen, Germany, to Baltimore with his parents in 1836, then moved west with them to Cincinnati, Ohio, and eventually Jackson County, Indiana.  (John Vajen, Sr., had been a professor in Germany, a talented organist, and a Lutheran minister, and served as pastor of a large log church near Seymour.)  Vajen, Jr., went into the hardware business and made a small fortune in trading and banking.  During the Civil War, J.H. Vajen became the thrifty Quartermaster General of Indiana and was known as Governor Oliver P. Morton’s right-hand man.  He died in 1917.

Willis Vajen ultimately followed in his father’s footsteps.  After attending a seminary in Hamburg, Germany, Earlham College in Richmond, and Wittenburg College in Ohio, he, too, went into the hardware business.  His sales knack probably had something to do with his skill in design.  (Vajen filed patents for tools and machinery, like this plumb bob and a rein support for horses.)  “Vajen & New” was located at 64 E. Washington St., offering Indianapolitans the best selection of lawn mowers, saw vises, rubber hoses, fishing tackle, fly-screen doors, White Mountain Ice Cream freezers, garden rakes, rubber hoses, and roller skates.


indianapolis news april 13 1886
Indianapolis News, April 13, 1886.
Indianapolis Journal October 9 1884
Indianapolis Journal, October 9, 1884.

No mere humble merchants of garden tools and sporting goods, the Vajens married into great families.  Willis Vajen was wed to Anna Claypool, daughter of the wealthy Connersville businessman Edward F. Claypool.  (Ironically, the majestic Claypool Hotel, named for the inventor’s father-in-law and once one of the great landmarks of the city, was destroyed by arson in 1967.)  Vajen’s sister Fannie Belle married Charles Stewart Voorhees, son of Senator Daniel Voorhees.  (Charles Voorhees represented Washington Territory in Congress.)  The Vajens often vacationed at their summer cottage on Lake Maxincuckee in northern Indiana, loaning it to the Hoosier novelist Booth Tarkington and his wife Laurel Fletcher in 1902.

Yet Willis Vajen’s claim to fame is the “smoke protector” that he perfected with William Bader in 1893.  Apparently one or both of these men had witnessed a tragic hotel fire where rescuers were unable to reach the fourth floor due to smoke, the inspiration for their efforts at invention.  A German immigrant, Bader was a piano maker by profession and may have come up with the idea first.  Testimony from a lawsuit filed in U.S. Court in 1899 has it that Vajen first saw a photograph of the device in the music store where Bader worked, and the  two worked together to improve efficacy of the mask, meanwhile helped along by Dennis Swenie, Chicago’s fire chief.  A clip in the Los Angeles Herald suggests that “William Baders” was the real genius, Vajen only “furnishing the capital for the enterprise.”  The court’s verdict, however, was that Vajen deserved most of the credit.


hyman's handbook 2
Hyman’s Handbook to Indianapolis, 1909.

The struggle to perfect a mask that can ward off the assault of smoke, water, noxious fumes, and even the plague goes back centuries.  News articles heralding the Vajen-Bader Patent Smoke Protector often remarked that it looked like a sea-diver’s helmet.  This, too, was a new invention.  English brothers Charles and John Deane had been inspired to invent their famous copper diving helmet in the 1820s after witnessing a fire at a smoke-filled horse stable.  When the Deanes attached a leather hose to pump fresh oxygen into their firefighting helmet, scuba-diving took a great leap forward.  (While wearing such an outfit in 1836, John Deane discovered Henry VIII’s long-lost warship Mary Rose, sunk off the Isle of Wight three-hundred years before.)


Deane Helmet
English underwater explorers John and Charles Deane invented the diver’s helmet in 1823 while figuring out a better way to fight fires. In 1893, French marine scientist Louis Boutan wore a similar diver’s suit and became the world’s first underwater photographer.

Another fascinating European forerunner of the Vajen-Bader mask was the plague doctor’s costume.  While these seem like creatures of the fantastic imagination to us today, in the 17th century doctors venturing into epidemic-ridden cities sported masks resembling bird beaks, along with heavy protective suits that they believed gave protection from “miasmatic air.”  Filled with scented herbs and spices like ambergris, myrrh, mint, cloves, and rose petals, the doctor’s elongated “beak” was designed as a kind of air filter.   Credited to the Parisian doctor Charles de l’Orme, these ornithologically-inspired plague garments were in use as early as 1619 and later became a feature in the Venetian carnival.


plague doctors mask 2
The crystal eyeballs and Moroccan leather in this 17th-century doctor’s get-up were oddly echoed by Hoosier innovator Willis C. Vajen, who outfitted his smoke helmets with delicate mica ear pieces to allow firefighters to hear and used sturdy leather that protected the neck and head against falling incendiary debris.

plague doctors mask
Doktor Schnabel von Rom, a.k.a. “Doctor Beak of Rome,” wears Kleidung wider den Tod — “clothing against death” — in this 1656 broadside. The engraving is written in “macaronic language,” a mix of German and Latin. Bilingualism was also common in Hoosier newspapers.

When Willis Vajen and William Bader undertook work on their smoke helmet, other innovators had already tried out an array of devices, ranging from primitive sponges and lightweight “respiratory veils” to more sophisticated contraptions, like the one invented in the 1870’s by Irish physicist John Tyndall, who incorporated a cotton filter saturated with lime, charcoal,  and glycerin.  A different device was the respirator pioneered by Bernhard Loeb, who attached metal air canisters to the mask’s mouth.

Chicago’s Fire Chief Dennis J. Swenie endorsed Vajen and Bader’s invention early on — although as he wrote in a letter reprinted in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette in May 1897, a few technical snags stood in the way:

Some two years ago Willis C. Vajen, an Indianapolis inventor, brought me a smoke helmet or protector and asked me what I thought of it.  He will himself, no doubt, admit that it was a crude and cumbersome affair.  The principle material in its construction was sole leather, and its window was of a single thickness or pane of glass.  It did not have facilities for enabling the wearer to hear, and the tank for the compressed air was fully six times larger than was necessary.

However, it was clear that the inventor was on the right track. . .  As it stands now, the weight of the helmet is practically nothing, resting upon the shoulders.  The protector is made of asbestus tanned horsehide and is securely fastened by means of two straps which pass from the back under the arms and snap into rings in front.  Its top is padded and is also re-enforced with transverse seams of the hard leather, which stand up to the height of about an inch.  This makes it capable of withstanding a very heavy blow and forms an almost perfect protection against falling bricks and small stones.

Directly at the back of the neck is a small air tank, which can be filled by means of an ordinary force pump such as the bicyclists use for inflating their pneumatic tires.  It will hold 100 pounds of compressed air and has a tiny gauge attached which registers the pressure of air within.  The first five or ten minutes at a fire generally determines the result, and the total capacity of the air tank is sufficient to last a man for 40 minutes.

“Delicate mica diaphragms” for the ears and eyes helped with vision and hearing, as a did a double-paned window.  “Both eye and ear pieces are protected by strong wire guards. . .  On the front exterior, where it may be easily reached, is a signal whistle, which does not consume any of the pure air from the reservoir.  The operation of the signal, which is loud and sharp, makes no drain upon the breathing resources of the fireman.”

An article in Fire & Water Engineering in 1906 adds:  “It is neat; it weighs only six pounds; it can be put on as easily as a coat. . . There is no hose attachment which is liable to kink or break and thus impede the movements of the wearer.”


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The Vajen-Bader Company’s life-saving invention caught on fast.  Praise came not only from American fire chiefs, but from international clients.  Operating out of a space on the second floor of the old Indianapolis Public Library a block north of Monument Circle (and later at a factory in Richmond, Indiana), the company filled orders from customers as diverse as meatpackers, mining and gas companies, breweries, and the British and Chilean navies.  Overseas agents in Johannesburg, London, and Yokohama marketed the smoke protector around the globe.  In 1897, fire fighters from Dublin, Ireland, to Wellington, New Zealand were “using them with entire satisfaction.”

The masks sold for $100, a large investment for some municipal fire departments, but Hyman’s Handbook claimed that “during the first year an estimated $3,000,000 worth of property was saved by the use of this new device.”


old indianapolis public library 1896
A small team of workers made Vajen-Bader smoke protectors on the second floor of the old Indianapolis Public Library at the corner of Ohio and Meridian streets. Demolished in the 1960s during a period of urban renewal, the library also once housed the Board of Public School Commissioners, at a site now occupied by the downtown Sheraton Hotel.

A contemporary article from the Los Angeles Herald touts the value of the smoke helmet in preventing minor fires from turning into major ones.

Often a fire of insignificant proportions causes such a dense volume of smoke that it is quite impossible for its location to be discovered, and it smoulders thus until it has gained such headway that it is impossible to extinguish it.

When Willis Vajen attended a firefighters’ convention in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1896, his cutting-edge device was the star of the show.  The Salt Lake Herald reprinted testimony from the fire department in Kansas City, Missouri, which had already put the mask to a rigorous test.  As KC’s Fire Chief George C. Hale (a great innovator himself) wrote, firemen found a house “which had a cellar underneath, with no ventilation whatsoever.”

In the cellar was dug a hole, in which was placed one of the worst smelling conglomerations of combustibles ever heaped together — sulphur, feathers, tar, wooden and cotton rags and burlap sacks.  Hardly had the match been touched to the pile, until a dense volume of smoke began to roll up out of the single trap door that led down into the cellar.  When the penetrating fumes of sulphur set everyone to coughing, there were many who shook their heads and said no one could possibly live five minutes in the cellar.  The smoke pushed its way up the brick wall and was coming out at the crevices.

Second Assistant Chief Henderson was selected to wear the helmet.  The cylinder was filled with air until there was a 100-pound pressure.  The whistle was tested to see if it would sound.  The helmet was dropped over Henderson’s head and strapped around his body.

“If you grow weak or begin to suffocate,” said Chief Hale, “blow your whistle vigorously and we will come after you.”

The rap door was then raised and the fireman disappeared into the sickening, penetrating smoke.  The door was shut tightly.  Not a breath of pure air could reach the man in the helmet.

Then the crowd began to wait.  Watches were looked at and after a couple of minutes had elapsed without hearing any sound from the fireman, several began to grow nervous, thinking that the sulphur fumes might have gotten in quick work and strangled him.  The door was partly raised and Chief Hale called to Henderson to blow his whistle.  A far-off sound came from the cellar, telling that Henderson was in good shape. . .

The smoke continued to grow denser and blacker, and the odor more vile.  Henderson’s whistle sounded frequently and no uneasiness was felt.  Eighteen minutes had elapsed from the time when he had gone into the cellar, when he knocked on the door. . .

“How did you stand it, Alec?” queried everybody.

“Stand it!  Why, I could have stayed down there all day.  It was dark as midnight, but I could breathe as easily as I do now. . .”

When the pressure gauge of the air cylinder was examined it was found that only ten pounds of air had been used, ninety pounds being left.


Squad 52 Cincinnati
Two of this team of firefighters of Squad 52 in Cincinnati, Ohio, wear Vajen-Bader smoke protectors, circa 1920.

Salt Lake Herald August 10 1896
Salt Lake Herald, August 10, 1896.

Indianapolis News October 1 1896

Firemen wearing the novel smoke helmets came to the rescue after an ammonia explosion at Schmidt’s Brewery, a subsidiary of the Indianapolis Brewing Company, nearly killed a number of workers on the night of September 31, 1896.  The Indianapolis News reported:

The fire that started in the second story of the building in the malt mill was subdued by the fire department.  It was a hard fire to reach as the fumes of ammonia were strong, and it was almost impossible for a man to get near the building.  The firemen say that this is the first difficult fire they have had since the Vajen-Bader smoke protector was adopted by the department, and that these helmets made it possible for the men to enter the building and reach the fire with the chemical engines.  They say that although the fumes of ammonia were strong enough to render an unprotected fireman unconscious, the men wearing the helmets suffered no inconvenience from the fumes.


willis c vajen obit 1900


Aged 49, Willis Vajen, who suffered from life-long anemia, died at his home at 23 E. Vermont St. on July 22, 1900 and was buried at Crown Hill.  In one of history’s bizarre twists, all the houses on Vajen’s block were demolished around 1921 to make way for the mammoth Indiana World War Memorial, the city’s enormous Egyptian-inspired temple to the veterans of World War I.

These soldiers, of course, were the first to use the terrifying invention whose evolution was partly due to the Vajen-Bader smoke protector.  Early in the 20th century, the gas mask wove its way into sickening nightmares, both dreamed and awake, as Europe — and then the whole world — caught on fire.


Altoona Tribune March 26 1918
Altoona Tribune, Altoona, Pennsylvania, March 26, 1918.

german soldiers in gas masks
German soldiers and a mule wear gas masks on the Western Front during World War I. Spike-helmeted firemen in Berlin’s Fire Department had already supplanted the mule and the horse with the bicycle as early as 1899, as shown in this issue of the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Victor_Bulla_-_Young_Pioneers_Defence - Leningrad 1937
Young Pioneers Defense, Leningrad, Russia, 1937, by photographer and early filmmaker Viktor Bulla.

tobruk onions
American soldiers peel onions while wearing gas masks in Tobruk, Libya, during World War II.

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