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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 Specter Bulldog. . . and the Real John G. Heinl

Players Cigarettes Bulldog 2

This week, Hoosier State Chronicles is uploading a large run of Terre Haute newspapers from 1880 to 1903, digitized by the Vigo County Public Library.  While peering through a few issues, I ran across ads from a man who shows up in a bizarre Hoosier folktale.

Having grown up in the Wabash Valley, I’d heard the strange story of John Heinl and his constant canine companion — the emerald-eyed phantom bulldog, “Stiffy Green.”  Even as an occasional believer in the paranormal, I knew the legend wasn’t true.  Yet, like most Terre Hauteans, I also knew literally nothing about the famous dog’s owner. As usual, fact sometimes outdoes fiction.  Here’s a bit about the real John Heinl, master of the green-eyed ghost hound, and an interesting Hoosier family.

John was his Americanized name.  According to his 1894 application for a U.S. passport, the man whose life story got lost in the “Stiffy Green” legend was born Johann Gradl Heinl on September 7, 1844, in the Bohemian town of Eger, today called Cheb, about a hundred miles west of Prague.  Until age twelve, Heinl was a subject of the Austrian Empire.

In 1856, with his parents and three brothers, Heinl boarded the Augusta Emma, bound out of the German port of Bremen for New York City.  The vessel’s passenger list shows that his parents traveled first class, while their four sons sailed in steerage below.   (It’s interesting that at age fourteen, John’s brother Lorenz, later a pioneer Hoosier florist, was already listed as a butcher.)

Johann Heinl - December 1854 Passenger List, Augusta Emma, Steerage

The family first settled in Toledo, Ohio.  On the chilly shores of Lake Erie, John apprenticed in the horticultural trade.  In 1863, aged nineteen, he and Lawrence moved west to the Wabash Valley, where by the end of the Civil War, they were running a greenhouse at 15th & Washington Avenue in Terre Haute.


John Heinl 1865
The specter’s master in 1865. Wabash Valley Visions & Voices.

Terre Haute was full of Europeans in the 1860’s.  Sometime before 1870, young John Heinl got to know another immigrant family, the Debses.  Jean-Daniel Debs and his wife Marguerite Marie Bettrich had come to Indiana from Alsace, France.  A literary man, Jean-Daniel named his first son after the French writers Eugène Sue and Victor Hugo.  Eugene V. Debs went on to become one of America’s greatest labor leaders and was the Socialist Party’s candidate for President five times.  In 1870, John Heinl, known to most locals today only as “Stiffy Green’s master,” married Debs’ sister, Marie — who also went by “Mary.”


Mary Debs
Marie Debs Heinl. Wabash Valley Visions & Voices.
Marie Heinl Debs
Marie wearing Alsatian costume in Colmar, France, her parents’ hometown. Wabash Valley Visions & Voices.

John and Mary Heinl lived at two addresses on North Eighth Street in downtown Terre Haute, just off the campus of Indiana State Normal School, later Indiana State University.  Mary’s brother, Eugene, lived around the corner.  And on the porch of the Heinl residence, there stood the shadow of a future legend:  a sculptured bulldog.

Meanwhile, Heinl’s greenhouses were booming. Heinl, his brother Lawrence, and John’s son Fred eventually opened several floral establishments around town, including one called “Floral Hall,” where they raised and sold chrysanthemums, palms, laurels, ferns, Parisian lilacs, African violets, and grapevines.  John also owned a flower plantation and hot houses near Tallahassee, Florida, where he cultivated plants and seeds for export to the Midwest.  Situated at the “Crossroads of America,” Heinl shipped flowers from his Terre Haute greenhouses by rail all over the U.S.


Heinl Florist - Terre Haute Daily News November 30 1889
Terre Haute Daily News, November 30, 1889. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail - November 10 1894
Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail , November 10, 1894.

Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail - May 3 1879
(Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, May 3, 1879.)

Heinl & Weber Florists
This greenhouse at 1630 Plum Street was owned by Heinl’s son Fred in 1911. Wabash Valley Visions & Voices.

A leading citizen and a Progressive, if not  a Socialist, John Heinl was president of the Rose Dispensary, a clinic and pharmacy offering free medical care to the needy.  He also served as Vice President of the Rose Orphans Home and was active on the boards of several banks as well as the Terre Haute Water Works.  Known for his impeccable honesty, in 1906 Heinl served on an investigative committee that dug into Vigo County’s pervasive political graft.

By the 1890s, he was also operating a travel agency, booking passage for steamships and tours back to his native Europe.  In 1895, John, Mary and their son Robert went on a ten-month European tour.


John G. Heinl - Indianapolis News February 2 1906
Indianapolis News, February 2, 1906.

John G. Heinl -- Terre Haute Daily News 11-30-1889
Terre Haute Daily News, November 30, 1889. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail - March 23 1895
Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, March 23, 1895. Hoosier State Chronicles.

There’s always a newspaper man in these stories.  Sure enough, John and Mary’s son, the distinguished journalist Robert Debs Heinl, Sr., born in Terre Haute in 1880, had his first job reporting for the Terre Haute Star.  Robert later worked for the Indianapolis Sentinel before moving to New York City.  A friend of Fiorello LaGuardia and President William H. Taft, Robert Debs Heinl became a nationally-known newspaper and magazine correspondent, traveled around Latin America, and wrote for National Geographic beginning in 1918.  He later became an editor at the Washington Post.

John Heinl’s grandson, Robert Debs Heinl, Jr., also became a well-respected author.  An officer in the Marine Corps, he was present at Pearl Harbor and fought at Iwo Jima, then in Korea.  A military correspondent for the Detroit News, Col. Heinl also authored an influential history of Haiti, where in the early 1960s he served as a U.S. military liaison and helped trained Haitian dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s troops.  His son, Michael Heinl, great-grandson of “Stiffy Green’s master,” was allegedly almost abducted and tortured in 1962 at the dictator’s palace in Port-au-Prince, when he was twelve years old.  The dictator’s son, “Baby Doc,” one of Michael Heinl’s friends, apparently saved him from his father’s henchmen after he criticized the regime.

Now for the ghostly legend.

Florist John Heinl died at home on New Year’s Eve 1920.  Mourners laid him to rest in a marble mausoleum not far from the Debs family plot at Terre Haute’s Highland Lawn Cemetery, the second largest in Indiana.  Mary Debs Heinl followed him there in 1936, then their son Fred in 1955.

Somehow, the stone bulldog that had stood watch outside their house near the campus of Indiana State got put into the mausoleum with them as decoration.  The dog had faux-emerald eyes that shone in the night.

By 1968, students in the English Department at ISU, where Ron Baker had begun a Folklore program, were already collecting wild tales about “Stiffy Green” (also known as “Stuffy Green”), the “stuffed” hound visible through the window of the Heinl crypt.  A popular thrill for teenagers and even for couples on dates was to jump over the iron gates at Highland Lawn, peer through the mausoleum’s window with flashlights, and mess with Stiffy.


Stiffy Green
Wabash Valley Visions & Voices.

The local tale differed with the teller, but it went something like this:  John Heinl was an eccentric, lonely Terre Haute businessman who lived by himself and had only his faithful bulldog (“or wolf”) for a companion.  The two were inseparable and always went out walking together, Heinl typically smoking a big cigar.  As he got older, the strange man put it in his will that when he died, he wanted his pet bulldog stuffed and placed in his tomb.  Like in the ancient practice of horse burial, the two would keep each other company into the afterlife.  Finally, Heinl died and the dog was put to sleep.  The taxidermist’s work done, “Stiffy Green-Eyes” sat guarding his master’s tomb at Highland Lawn, snarling at grave-robbers and vandals.  (Heinl, the tale went, was buried with all his jewels.)

A popular alternative version has it that his master’s death left Stiffy so upset, he wandered away from home and waited at the mausoleum door for Heinl to come out.  Whenever the family brought the bereaved dog back to Eighth Street he ran off to the cemetery on U.S. 40 again, until finally his shattered heart died of grief.  Ghost-hunters reported seeing master and hound wandering the cemetery grounds at night.  Sometimes, the pooch howled awfully at strangers.

In 1985, when the real nocturnal prowlers started to shoot bullets instead of innocuous flashlights into Stiffy’s verdant eyes, the cemetery caretakers had to remove the statue.  It eventually ended up at the Vigo County Historical Society and was used in a children’s exhibit.  But Stiffy’s new caretakers never really squashed the famous legend.

Check out more spectral stories:

“Bulldog Stopped a Runaway Horse,” Indianapolis Journal, January 17, 1904.

“Saves Self By Feeding Bull Dog Cuff Button,” South Bend News-Times, December 5, 1913.

“Filling a Bulldog’s Teeth,” Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, February 6, 1897.


Indianapolis Journal April 12 1892
Indianapolis Journal, April 23, 1892.

Bulldog With Hat - Leslie Jones
Leslie Jones, “Bulldog With Hat.” Boston Public Library.

Are you a guardian of truth?  Know more about the Heinl legend?  Bark at me:  staylor336 [at] gmail.com