Yesterday’s post set us to hunting: as blizzards and ice give way to spring lightning and wind, how many other weird weather phenomena lie hidden in the news? Obviously, we’ve never believed that history is boring, so we wondered: how often did our ancestors get killed by lightning or blown away by a stiff breeze?
Here’s a few fascinating stories from the annals of meteorology in the Midwest and beyond.
The image above, thought to be the oldest photograph of lightning, was captured in St. Louis, Missouri, by T. M. Easterly in June 1847, eight years after Jacques-Louis Daguerre announced his invention of the daguerreotype in Paris. At a time when cameras often required exposure times of thirty seconds or more, it’s amazing this was taken at 9:00 P.M.
At the height of the new art form’s popularity, daguerreotypes entered the realm of lightning lore. As part of a growing fascination with photography (Greek for “writing with light”), those tales (including a few of the “tall” variety, surely) were soon making the rounds of American newspapers. Yet there was actually a good scientific explanation behind so-called “lightning daguerreotypes” — and they weren’t the kind Easterly was making in St. Louis.
(The Berkshire County Eagle, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, May 28, 1858.)
What most witnesses of lightning strikes didn’t know in the 1850’s is that these patterns on the skin weren’t “daguerreotypes,” but Lichtenberg figures. Also called keraunographs and lightning flowers, they can look exactly like tree branches, plants and sometimes round coins. (Where the cow shape or the number 44 came from is a bigger mystery.) Named for the 18th-century German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, a student of electrical discharges, the figures often occur after any high-voltage jolt through insulated material like the human body. Not unlike photographs, they can be produced and preserved in glass, resin and wood as 3-D “electrical trees.” They also remain behind as scars.
(Lichtenberg figure on a man who survived a lightning strike.)
Stories about “lightning daguerreotypes” and freak weather accidents spilled into ghost lore, which flourished during the heyday of American spiritualism in the mid- to late-1800s. A branch of Christianity that involved communicating with the dead through mediums, spiritualism was surprisingly mainstream. Some of its older American forerunners were the Shakers, part of a unique utopian movement with roots mostly in New England. (There was also a short-lived Shaker community on the Wabash River north of Vincennes around the time of the War of 1812. Much of its membership was African American.)
The Shakers incorporated all kinds of unusual spiritual phenomena into their unique faith and believed that their founder, an English textile worker and single mother named Ann Lee, was the second coming of Christ. They certainly believed in spirits and spirit possession, so the following story (either from New Hampshire or Connecticut) probably wasn’t too out of the ordinary.
Even as metal daguerreotypes and tintypes gave way to the age of Kodak and the paper photograph, stories about human, animal and other images etched by lightning onto some kind of light-sensitive backdrop didn’t immediately go away. Like Shaker Sam’s lightning-blasted spirit, this story — originating in the Charlottesville (Virginia) Chronicle— also appeared in 1880. It borders on the supernatural.
(The Pantagraph, Bloomington, Illinois, April 13, 1880.)
As we showed in yesterday’s post, wind can be as fearsome and downright bizarre as any lightning bolt. “Freaks of the storm” — from flying cows to airborne newborns — would fill a small book, some of it tragic, but a lot of it funny. Here’s a few more tales of the wind.
When a tornado blasted Drake, Oklahoma, in 1917, it wiped out a whole family — almost…
Mattoon, Illinois, was also hit hard that week, probably as part of the same “patriotic” storm-front — which, as it barreled east from the Plains, wasn’t done pulling tricks.
(Indianapolis Star, May 28, 1917.)
Tornadoes had a knack for randomly sparing some delicate, highly-breakable objects — from babies and chicken eggs to caged birds and loose photographs — while demolishing large buildings and whole towns. This twister struck Louisville, Kentucky in 1890:
Tornadoes could be symbolically choosy — and a little morbid — about what they carried away or spared. Take the cyclone that plowed through part of Omaha in March 1902… and the one that cut up a small Iowa town in 1895.
(Sandusky Star-Journal, March 11, 1902.)
(The Register, Rock Valley, Iowa, May 10, 1895.)
A big windstorm tore through downtown Indianapolis one Sunday evening in June 1929. A girl just born to Mary Hubbell at 30 North Lansing Street that afternoon nearly got killed three hours later when a telephone pole crashed into the small house. It came careening through the roof “just above the bed in which the mother and child lay.” Both escaped with small bruises. The Indianapolis News reported that “In all the excitement, members of the Hubbell family have been unable to decide on a name for the new arrival. ‘We are so glad that my wife and baby are not badly hurt, we haven’t had time to think of a name,’ the father explained.'”
Only one in four Women’s History Months occurs in a Leap Year — or if you want to use the fancy name given by professional time-keepers and astronomers, you can call it an “intercalary” or “bissextile” year.
Hollywood has churned out a few bad movies about what was probably an old Celtic custom at first, whereby women could take the initiative in proposing to a man. But American newspapers were having fun with this folk tradition well over a century ago. And some women did take the opportunity.
Leap years have been around since Roman times, when Julius Caesar simplified the messy Roman calendar. Since the earth doesn’t take a precise number of 24-hour days to go around the sun, fractions of days accrue. Before Caesar’s time, Roman astronomers just added an entire 22-day-long month to their 355-day calendar every two years. Caesar’s astronomers opted for 365 1/4 days, with the quarter-day adding up to a full day every four years. Yet even that extra quarter day isn’t exactly six hours long, a problem that led Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 to fine-tune Caesar’s calendar. More confusing still: in the Gregorian system, not even everyfourth year is a leap year. In folk tradition, that accounts for the occasional year when women who want to pop the question have to be especially diligent — or else wait another eight. At least if they care about tradition.
The origin of the “ladies’ privilege” goes back a long time, though no one knows how long for sure. A popular but doubtful origin myth hinges around a medieval Irish saint, St. Brigid of Kildare — who might never even have existed.
If she was a real woman, Brigid would have been born in the middle of the 5th century, allegedly to an enslaved Christian mother and a pagan Irish chieftain, who sold her mother to a Druid — a Celtic priest and shaman. The life of St. Brigid might be one big folk legend, however, since she shares a name and many attributes with an old Irish fertility goddess. Irish folklorist Lady Augusta Gregory wrote in 1904 that the goddess Brigid was “a woman of poetry, and poets worshiped her, for her sway was very great and very noble. And she was a woman of healing along with that, and a woman of smith’s work, and it was she first made the whistle for calling one to another through the night.” The same could be said for Saint Brigid.
Whether St. Brigid was real or not, many stories about her are clearly imaginary. But folklore and poetry have a truth all their own. Several tales tell of how the saint protected women and gave marriage advice to men — often while guarding her own virginity and independence amid the violence of the remote, rugged Emerald Isle. When Brigid dedicated herself to the service of God and others as a nun, her greedy brothers, one story goes, hated her for denying them the “bride price” they would have been entitled to. As a crowd taunted Brigid for not marrying, one Irishman shouted: “The beautiful eye which is in your head will be betrothed to a man — though you like it or not.” Brigid’s reply was shocking: she jabbed a finger into her eye and blinded herself, then cried out, with blood spurting everywhere: “Here is that beautiful eye for you. I deem it unlikely that anyone will ask you for a blind girl.” Miraculously, Brigid’s vision healed. As for the man who taunted the saint, both his eyeballs burst in his head.
In legend, at least, Brigid was probably the most powerful woman in Ireland. Even in the afterlife, she supposedly still watches over midwives, illegitimate children, abused women, sailors, poets, chicken farmers, scholars and the poor. But what about Brigid and Leap Year?
Out of concern for women — and probably for children born out of wedlock — the angry saint fumed about men dragging their feet when it came to proposing marriage and committing to a partner. (Nineteenth-century feminists would later oppose the liberalization of American divorce laws for reasons not unlike what spurred St. Brigid to action over a thousand years earlier: slipping out of marriage was a way for lecherous and abusive men to escape their duties.) Brigid, according to legend, asked St. Patrick to make an exception to custom and allow women to “pop the question” every leap year. The new custom still seems sexist to some, perhaps, but the Irish tale is almost definitely fable as far as Brigid goes: if she ever lived, she would have been about ten years old when St. Patrick died.
Variants on the tale show up in Scottish folklore and English common law. According to an English book from 1606, Courtship, Love and Matrimonie, any Englishman who refused “the offers of a laydie” on leap year could be fined and even denied “the benefits of the clergy.” Two-hundred years later, the Indiana American quoted that passage:
“Common” law or not, the custom was rare in America even as newspapers began to pick up on it in the mid-1800s. Rising Irish immigration might have been a factor in the sudden interest in the custom, but newspapers themselves could have been the ones spreading the “folk” idea. (After all, Sadie Hawkins Day, a “pseudo-folk tradition” where girls ask boys out to a dance, originated with Al Capp’s popular hillbilly comic strip Li’l Abner in the 1930s. Sadie Hawkins Day, however, comes every year, usually November 15, the date she first appeared in a cartoon in 1937.)
(A Sadie Hawkins dance in Virginia, 1950s.)
By the 1840s, the American press was mentioning leap year marriage proposals — and anything else like them that seemed out-of-the-ordinary. A clip from the Evansville Daily Journal, published just before the Mexican War, reported a similar tradition in Panama, a story that might have been brought back by American sailors.
(Evansville Daily Journal, April 24, 1845.)
In the leap year 1848 — a year of tumultuous revolutions in politics and love — the Brookville Indiana American reprinted this clip from a Hoosier wag in Richmond, Indiana, who obviously enjoyed the idea of women proposing to men. They had fifteen days left, since the tradition didn’t require women to propose on February 29. Any time before midnight on New Years’ Eve was good enough.
Also in 1848, the Indianapolis Locomotive, an “entertainment” paper written in the vein of Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers (a bestseller at the time) and filled with more wit and poetry than news, published a strange story about sexual role-reversal. A lot of tales like this were taken out of Eastern newspapers that came off steamboats or trains. “A Story of Leap Year,” by Joe Miller, Jr., probably first appeared in the St. Louis Reveille. The story, which satirizes conventional courtship and sentimental wooing, is funny, if also a bit sexist. The bold Susan comes over to ask the bashful Sam for his hand in holy matrimony:
Every year, a few women really did ask men to tie the knot, though most couples were already “courting” to begin with. Yet every four years, illustrators, cartoonists, and postcard makers played around with a major source of male fear and trembling, anxiety and dread: a proposal coming from an unwanted woman “out of the blue.”
In popular culture and superstition, any man who turned down a woman — even a total stranger — ran the risk of being cursed or at least having to stumble through an awkward, hopefully gentleman-like, rejection. (No “spite and contumely,” as the 17th-century English book put it.) A lot of drawings and postcards played on economic, class, age, and physical differences, though not all did:
Many women today consider the Leap Year tradition degrading and insulting, and they may be right. But as the women’s rights movement gathered steam in the 1800s, not every woman thought the overall gist of the tradition was bad. One was the famous suffragette and news correspondent Inez Milholland.
Born in 1886, Milholland came from a wealthy family in Brooklyn and graduated from prestigious Vassar College, a women’s college in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1909. She became a radical and socialist at Vassar, educating fellow students about socialist principles — which brought her into conflict with the school’s leadership. Milholland also served as captain of the hockey team at Vassar. She was denied admission to Yale, Harvard and Cambridge law schools because of her gender, but earned a law degree at NYU in 1912.
As a trained lawyer and activist, Milholland was especially interested in prison reform, ending child labor and prostitution, and achieving equality for women and African Americans. In her late twenties, she helped investigate conditions at New York’s Sing Sing prison, handled divorce and criminal cases, and supported female factory workers on strike in New York and Philadelphia. While reporting from the frontlines in Italy during World War I, the Socialist news correspondent wrote anti-war articles and was expelled by the Italian government, at war with Germany and Austria.
As a supporter of “free speech in love,” honesty, dignity, and open communication between the sexes, Inez Milholland made a famous marriage proposal — though it didn’t happen during a leap year. She stressed that a woman should be free to ask a man to marry her on any day of any year, not just every fourth year. Milholland lived up to her principles.
In 1913, while on a cruise in Europe, the woman’s rights activist proposed to Eugen Jan Boissevain, a Dutch coffee importer who came from one of the wealthiest families in Amsterdam. (Boissevain’s uncle, however, was, like Milholland, a Socialist who gave up his fortune and moved to Alberta to be a farmer and labor organizer.) The two had known each other for just a month but got married within days. He moved to New York with her.
Sadly, their marriage was short. At age 30, Inez Milholland died of anemia in Los Angeles in 1916 while campaigning for the National Woman’s Party. Seven years later, Eugen Boissevain married the great American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. He died in Boston in 1949.
The Day Book of Chicago told some of the unusual story, published the year of her death — a leap year:
Today, rural towns often have doctors with American Indian surnames. But in the 1800s, an “Indian doctor” meant something totally different.
For decades after the Civil War, so-called “Indian medicine shows” rolled through cities and country towns across the U.S. These shows were something like the medical version of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Leading them, there was usually a wild-looking doctor — typically a white man claiming to be Native American or at least to have studied herbal healing with “Indian medicine men.” What the shows really dispensed was exotic flare: banjo-playing minstrels, brass bands, even freak shows.
The traveling outfits also raked in thousands of dollars by touting medicinal cure-alls for common ailments, as Indian doctors announced their ability to cure practically all known ills — from dysentery, headaches and “private diseases” (venereal in nature) to dreaded cases of tuberculosis, cholera, and cancer. Elixirs were only part of the lure. These doctors often doubled as dentists and yanked rotten teeth by the thousands. In the days before anesthetics, brass bands covered up patients’ screams inside the wagon. Music and entertainment also helped drown out the protests of local doctors and dentists, whose business these shows cut in on.
While the heyday of the medicine shows came after the Civil War, the “Indian doctor” phenomenon goes back farther than that, piggy-backing off the dearth of professional doctors in pioneer settlements and the primitive state of “scientific” medicine itself. Southerners who moved to the midwestern frontier had often lived for a while in Appalachia, where white settlers took an interest in traditional medicine practiced by the Cherokee and Choctaw. German and Scots-Irish settlers also had a medical heritage of their own going back to medieval Europe.
(This early Indian Guide to Health  contains some of the often bizarre knowledge gleaned from medicine on the Appalachian frontier. The author was an early Hoosier doctor, Squire H. Selman — alias “Pocahontus Nonoquet” — who studied with the Kentucky doctor-adventurer Richard Carter. Son of an English physician and a métis woman, Carter enjoyed one of the most thriving medical practices on the Ohio Valley frontier. Selman went on to practice medicine in Columbus, Indiana.)
It’s a curious fact that one of the first doctors in Indianapolis was a 24-year-old “Indian doctor” from North Carolina. The man also had an unforgettable name: Dr. William Kelley Frohawk Fryer. (In 1851, the Indiana State Sentinel thought his initials stood for “Dr. William Kellogg Francis Fryer,” but we sincerely hope that it really was “Frohawk.” That name appears on the cover of his own book.)
Dr. Fryer claimed to have studied medicine with Native Americans and was remembered by Indianapolis historians as an Indian doctor “of ancient memory.” Some of his repertory of cures, however, apparently came from “pow-wow,” an old form of Pennsylvania German faith healing. That practice was known as Braucherei or Spielwerk(spell-work) in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, and pow-wow practitioners (Brauchers or Hexenmeisters) drew on spells and folk remedies that probably go back to the world of Roman Catholic folk healing, forced underground in Germany after the Reformation. (The word pow-wow was either of Algonquin origin or a mispronunciation of the English “power” but had nothing to do with Native American medicine.) The first book on pow-wow, published by German immigrant Johann Georg Hohman in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1820, anthologized many of these magical healings, talismans, and charms, based partly on occult “white magic” meant to ward off “black magic” or witchcraft. Pow-wow used esoteric words, sometimes from the Bible, as a form of healing and was explicitly Christian in nature, even reminding some of Jesus’ miracles accomplished via saliva. Brauchers allegedly cured livestock by putting magical words into their feeding troughs.
Pow-wow, which claimed to cure “both men and animals,” became an unorthodox form of spiritual medicine among Lutherans, Amish, Mennonites and Dunkers at a time when university-trained doctors were hard to come by even on the East Coast. Sometimes called “Christian voodoo,” pow-wow might even figure into the origin of the hex signs you can still see on barns. (It led to a “Hex Murder Trial” in 1929.) As a form of medical treatment, pow-wow’s heyday is long-gone, but it is still practiced on the sly in rural eastern Pennsylvania and was probably once part of folk medicine in the rural Midwest, wherever Pennsylvania Germans settled.
(Some scholars believe the hex tradition came out of pow-wow.)
In 1839, the year Dr. William Kelley Frohawk Fryer published his ownIndian Guide to Health in Indianapolis, the Hoosier capitol city was just a few steps out of the wilderness. Fryer believed in “vegetable medicine.” He would probably have been able to find most of the roots and herbs he needed for medications in the swamps, bottomlands, and woodlands that still covered Marion County. There’s even some evidence that he provided medical treatment in exchange for plants. A clip from the Indiana State Sentinel in June 1886 states that he ran a place called “The Sanative House,” probably near his home on “South Illinois Street, near the Catholic school on Georgia.” But Dr. Fryer was long gone by 1886. In the late 1840s, the young doctor moved down to Mobile, Alabama, then to New Orleans, where he advertised his manual on health (printed in Indianapolis) for sale nationwide. Early front-page ads in the New Orleans Daily Crescent alsocarry glowing testimonials (maybe fictional) from his former patients back in central Indiana.
As the number of college-trained doctors and dentists back East grew after the Civil War, “Indian doctors” were squeezed out to the West and Midwest — where many claimed to have learned their trade in the first place, straight from Native American healers and shamans. (It’s hard to say how many of these claims are true, but a few of them probably are.) Yet “folk doctors” weren’t necessarily bad and provided the rudiments of medical care to some patients who couldn’t afford a university-trained physician, who simply had no access to one, or who (like African Americans) were even cruelly experimented on by the medical establishment.
J.P. Dunn, an early Indianapolis historian, wrote that Indiana was a “free-for-all medical state” until 1885. During the 1800s, American doctors and state and local officials gradually began driving “quack” doctors out of business (or at least out of town) by requiring all practitioners to hold medical licenses. The establishment didn’t always succeed at this. As early as 1831, legislators in remote Arkansas Territory tried to outlaw quackery. Their law, known popularly as the “Medical Aristocracy Bill,” was vetoed by the territory’s one-armed governor John Pope, a former Kentucky senator. Pope objected to it on the grounds that it violated “the spirit of liberty” and said: “Let every man be free to employ whom he pleases where he alone is concerned.” The governor also took a swipe at college-trained “professionals,” pointing out that
many who have gone through a regular course in the medical schools are grossly ignorant of the theory or practice of medicine. They are mere smatterers in the science. With a piece of parchment in their pocket, and a little superficial learning, they are arrogant, rash and more dangerous quacks than those who adopt the profession from a sort of instinct, or a little practical observation.
Pope may have been right. Whether educated or not, pioneer doctors sometimes killed whole families by accident. (My great-grandmother’s grandfather, one of the first settlers of Rosedale, Indiana, was orphaned in 1846 by a doctor who prescribed a deadly concoction of some sort to his parents and one of his brothers. As late as 1992, then, there was a Hoosier woman still living who had actually been raised by a man victimized as a young boy by pioneer medicine.)
In 1885, Indiana finally passed a law requiring doctors either to show that they had studied at “some reputable medical college” or had practiced medicine in the Hoosier State continuously for ten years preceding the date of the act. In April 1885, the Indiana Medical Journal endorsed this new law, saying: “It will probably make a few of the hundreds of quacks who now infest Indiana seek more congenial climes, and if enforced will prevent quacks from other states from settling within our borders.”
Yet the number of known Indian doctors operating in the state that year was low:
As J.P. Dunn pointed out, the tough question became: what was a “reputable medical college?” County clerks, not medical organizations, issued doctor’s licenses. Dunn wrote that since a county clerk only got paid if he issued a license, “he was usually liberal in his views” about the meaning of the word “reputable.” A state examination board for licensing doctors wasn’t set up in Indiana until 1897.
By then, one of the most outrageously colorful Indian doctors had already had his day in the Hoosier State and gone to his own grave.
For a few summers in the early 1880s, Dr. J.I. Lighthall, “King of Diamonds,” crisscrossed the Midwest sporting a flashy, diamond-studded suit, selling his herbal remedies and often giving them away to the poor, while also earning notoriety as a “tooth-yanker.” Lighthall caught the interest of the press and annoyed local doctors in Terre Haute, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Richmond, Seymour and Columbus.
At the beginning of his Indian Household Medicine Guide, Lighthall claimed he was born in 1856 in Tiskilwa, a small Illinois River town north of Peoria. He announced that he was of one-eighth Wyandot heritage on his father’s side and had left home at age eleven to go out West to study botany with the Indians. If that’s true, in the 1870s the teenage Lighthall lived with tribes in Minnesota, Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma, picking up ethnobotanical knowledge on the Plains. He also grew out his hair, cultivating a look that some women, at least, found sultry and exotic.
By around 1880, Lighthall had set up shop in Peoria, Illinois. His mother apparently cooked barrels-full of his herb-, root-, and bark-based medicaments, then bottled them and shipped them by railroad or wagon. When it came to naming his drugs, he skipped the big Latin and Greek words of modern pharmacology and came up with colorful names like “King of Pain” and “Spanish Oil.” Some were probably cut with whiskey, cocaine, opium, and morphine. Lighthall also offered an array of 19th-century popular medicine’s omnipresent “blood purifiers” and “liver regulators,” miracle liquids commonly advertised in mainstream newspapers — partly to keep journalism itself afloat when subscriptions lagged.
As his business picked up, the doctor put together a brass band and went into makeshift dentistry on the street.
Educated skeptics abounded, but some of his herbal medications might actually have proven beneficial as “home remedies” for less serious ailments. The official medical view is that some patients were probably cured by the “placebo effect.” Curiously, one of the real health benefits of Lighthall’s medicine shows was that he got sick people to laugh.
Although the “doc” gave off an aura of the Wild West, most of his short career as an “Indian doctor” was spent in Indiana and Illinois. Lighthall typically rolled into a town and stayed for a few weeks or months, long enough to garner local notoriety. However angry the doctors and medical establishment got, “common folk” kept flocking to his medicine wagon. Dr. Lighthall’s entertainment troupe, newspapers reported, resembled a circus and was made up of about 60 “Spaniards,” “Mexicans” and “half-breeds” — and some Hoosiers from Fort Wayne.
Cleverly, Lighthall sympathized with the poor, sometimes handing out free medicine bottles wrapped in $10 and $20 bills to customers who couldn’t afford them. While the doctor won fame for such “charity,” thousands of others forked out their nickels and dimes for entertainment — money Lighthall would throw into the air to attract an even bigger crowd. Others came to have their teeth rapidly yanked, often for “free.” Yet in spite of all the freebies, within a year or two, Lighthall was rumored to be worth about $150,000 (maybe ten times that much in today’s money.) He wore clothes and a hat studded with valuable diamonds and cut an impressive appearance in public. Women were attracted to him. He put his gems on display at a Louisville jewel shop. A Kentucky hat store sold a line of Lighthall-inspired Texas hats.
Lawmen and doctors tried to do him in, but usually failed. A court in Decatur, Illinois, summoned him to appear in October 1883 for illegally practicing medicine there. Ironically, he had just come back to Decatur from Terre Haute, where “the Philistines” and Indiana’s “sun of civilization” drove him back over the state line.
The following summer, July 1884, Dr. Lighthall’s show rolled into Fort Wayne and camped out for a few months “near the baseball park. . . The joint resembles a circus.”
His tooth-yanking sometimes got him into legal trouble, as when he got sued for allegedly breaking a man’s jaw in Indianapolis during a complicated dental extraction. Lighthall’s apparent love for the ladies also turned public opinion against him. While camped out along East Washington Street in Indianapolis in 1885, he got booked by the cops for being “rowdy” at a “house of ill fame.” Locals accused him of trying to get two young girls near Fountain Square to run away with his troupe and “go on the stage.”
However dangerous and perhaps lecherous he might have been, Lighthall provided heavy doses of entertainment. On a trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee, in early 1885, the doctor got into a bloody tooth-yanking feud with a Frenchwoman engaged “in a similar line of business.” She was dressed as an “Indian princess.” The bizarre fight that followed deserves to be restored to the annals of history.
Lighthall may have engaged in just such a “contest” in Indianapolis:
After he left Louisville and the Jeffersonville area one summer, moving north to Seymour and Columbus, the Jeffersonsville News reported that local dentists were busy repairing the damage Doc Lighthall had done to Hoosier jaws.
For better or worse, the Indian doctor’s (and yanker’s) own days were numbered. By January 1886, he had headed south for the winter, encamping in San Antonio, where he was reported to be successfully filching Texas greenhorns of their greenbacks. Tragically, a smallpox epidemic broke out in un-vaccinated San Antonio that month. The 30-year-old’s medical knowledge couldn’t save him. He “died in his tent” on January 25, 1886. Several men from Fort Wayne who were performing with his troupe may also have succumbed to small pox.
News of his demise quickly flashed over Midwestern newspapers, in towns where he had become well-known in days just gone by:
Though rumor had it that Lighthall owned an expensive mansion and a medicine factory back in Peoria, he was buried at San Antonio’s City Cemetery #3, not far from The Alamo. Fittingly, there are bellflowers carved onto his gravestone:
He’s been forgotten today, but Dr. J.I. Lighthall’s fame briefly lived on, with at least one Hoosier writing to ask if he was alive or dead in 1888:
“Indian doctors” weren’t yet on their way out the door when Lighthall died in Texas in 1886. In 1900, in spite of efforts to regulate the practice of medicine, the patent medicine business was still reckoned to be worth about $80 million a year. Several major traveling shows thrived into the 1950s. By then, industrial pharmaceuticals and the discovery of antibiotics had launched medicine into a new era, but the entertainment aspect of the business kept it alive until radio and television killed it off.
Whatever the medicine shows did for the human body, they were definitely good for the soul, as the early 20th-century troupes helped fuel the rise of jazz, blues and country. In 1983, folklorist Steve Zeitlin and filmmaker Paul Wagner were still able to find some old medicine show performers in a rural North Carolina town — the subject of their documentary Free Show Tonight.
What’s the connection between Quakers, whalers, cancer and onions? Here’s some unexpected medical history from the Hoosier State.
While flipping through a few of the oldest Indiana newspapers, we ran across several “vintage cures” — including a couple of surprising ones for cancer, a disease that was as feared in 1816 as it is now, though the pioneers suffered from exponentially lower rates of it.
Oddly enough, the first remedy here, which claims to be able to treat cancer with onions, might not be bogus.
Modern medical research agrees with “folk” doctors on one thing, at least: regardless of the real havoc wreaked on your breath, garlic and onions are potent cancer-fighting foods. These veggies rank up there with broccoli, wild berries, ginger, olive oil, and a daily glass of wine as one of nature’s best weapons against tumors.
Onions have figured into medical practice for far longer than chemotherapy and radiation. Alternative practitioners and cancer patients often claim that vegetable-based remedies are at least as effective as chemo and radiation therapy — and they avoid the psychological side effects. Red onions, containing high amounts of a “flavonoid” called quercetin, are a strong antioxidant, antihistamine, and natural antibiotic. Quercetin helps protect cells and DNA against damage and reduces cholesterol and inflammation. Not only do onions lend a hand in preventing cancer to begin with, they seem to help rid the body of it.
Believe it or not, an onion remedy for cancer appears (as a reprint) in Indiana’s oldest newspaper, the Vincennes Western Sun. This 1811 remedy — published when Vincennes was still the capital of Indiana Territory and just a few months before the Battle of Tippecanoe — isn’t too far off from the “onion juice therapy” still touted in alternative medicine.
It’s doubly interesting that the list of “signers” who vouched for the cure is headed by a woman, Jane Starbuck.
Genealogical records indicate that the Jane Starbuck who had apparently gotten involved in “folk medicine” and tried to help cancer patients was probably a Quaker named Jane Taylor Starbuck (1755-1834). Her “receipt” (i.e., recipe) for an onion-based cure made its way into the Vincennes Western Sun by way of a copy of the Raleigh Star that was brought from North Carolina to the Wabash Valley and read by editor Elihu Stout. (The Western Sun contains almost no local news, which would have traveled by word of mouth in a small place like Vincennes. Stout, however, was always eager to pass on news from back East and down South.)
Jane Taylor Starbuck lived in Guilford County, North Carolina, birthplace of several thousand Quakers who began moving north to Indiana just before the War of 1812. Most came for new land, but many came to get away from slavery, which most — not all — Quakers opposed. Jane Taylor Starbuck seems to have stayed in the South, but her son Edward Starbuck, who also endorsed the cancer cure, joined the Quaker exodus to the Midwest. Edward, born in 1777, settled just east of Fountain City in Wayne County. His brother William Starbuck, another Quaker pioneer, is thought to have bought twenty-one slaves in North Carolina before he came north — a clever move against slavery, perhaps, since he set them all free when they got to Indiana. (Even free African Americans moving north often traveled with and settled near Quakers for protection.)
If the name “Starbuck” means more to you than coffee, you’ve probably read Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The Starbuck family, into which Jane Taylor married in 1776, were prominent whalers on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. While the Starbuck who served as chief mate of Captain Ahab’s doomed Pequod — sunk by the white whale in the South Seas — was a fictional cousin of these Hoosier pioneers, Melville’s story was based on the very real fate of the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship that was crushed and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820. The Essex’s crew, floating around the Pacific Ocean on rowboats, were reduced to cannibalism and drew lots to see who would die next. One of the unlucky victims was a teenage sailor from Nantucket, Owen Coffin.
Now if the name “Coffin” means more to you than a casket, maybe you’ve visited the home of the “President” of the Underground Railroad, Levi Coffin, in Fountain City, Indiana. Coffin’s house is just a few miles from Edward Starbuck’s farm. One of the bravest men in Hoosier history, Levi Coffin was another ardent Quaker from Guilford County, North Carolina. He moved to Indiana in 1826 and began funneling escaped slaves toward Canada almost as soon as he arrived.
Like the Starbucks, Levi Coffin was originally from New Garden, North Carolina, but had Nantucket family roots. He almost definitely knew Jane Taylor Starbuck and her son Edward. (Both families belonged to the New Garden Quaker Meeting.) Coffin himself was a cousin of Jane Starbuck’s husband, William, who was a Nantucket native, reared among the whalers and seafarers of colonial Massachusetts. From his Indiana farmhouse, Levi Coffin showed as much fearlessness as his New England cousins and grandparents did sailing the remote seas.
(Levi Coffin, 1798-1877, who with his wife Catherine fought the cancer of slavery and survived to see its death, lived just north of Richmond. Their Indiana home has been called the “Grand Central Station” of the Underground Railroad. They helped thousands evade slave catchers.)
In his memoirs, Coffin mentions an Edward Starbuck. He and the man who offered a cancer remedy in 1811 appear to be one and the same. (Coffin wrote that an Edward Starbuck also helped him found an anti-liquor society in Fountain City — then called Newport — in 1830, when the fugitive slave conductor was also beginning a “War on King Alcohol.”) Edward Starbuck himself lived on a farm between Whitewater and Fountain City, a few miles from Ohio. At some point, Starbuck apparently left the Quakers to become a Methodist minister.
Here’s the onion cure — which called for more than onions, by the way. It also required puccoon root (blood root), used in both European and American Indian pharmacology for generations as an antibiotic. (American Indians also used it as a dye.) The Western Sun of Vincennes printed this alleged cure on June 9, 1811.
A decade later, “cures for cancer” were still coming out in American newspapers. The 19th century turned out to be a golden age of questionable — if not downright dangerous — panaceas, some of them offered by doctors, some by quacks. Even some university-trained practitioners swore they could make a patient cancer-free.
It’s hard to blame anybody for trying, but this cure, reprinted in the Richmond Weekly Intelligencer in 1822 and which seems to recommend some kind of cauterization, would be impossible to vouch for.
Around two o’clock on the morning of Saturday, September 5, 1891, Crawfordsville ice delivery men Marshall McIntyre and Bill Gray prepared their wagon for morning rounds when suddenly a feeling of “awe and dread” overcame them. Peering heavenward, the men saw a “horrible apparition.” The Crawfordsville Journal described what they witnessed:
[It was] about eighteen feet long and eight feet wide and moved rapidly through the air by means of several pairs of side fins. . . . It was pure white and had no definite shape or form, resembling somewhat a great white shroud fitted with propelling fins. There was no tail or head visible but there was one great flaming eye, and a sort of a wheezing plaintive sound was emitted from a mouth which was invisible. It flapped like a flag in the winds as it came on and frequently gave a great squirm as though suffering unutterable agony.
McIntyre and Gray observed the phenomenon hover three or four hundred feet in the air for nearly an hour before they retreated to the safety of the barn. They then quickly finished harnessing their horses and left the vicinity.
McIntyre and Gray weren’t the only witnesses that night. Perhaps the most reputable witness was G.W. Switzer, pastor of the First Methodist Church. Shortly after midnight, Rev. Switzer stepped out of his door to retrieve some water from the well when he espied the apparition. He woke his wife and they gawked as the thing “swam through the air in a writhing, twisting manner similar to the glide of some serpents.” As the Switzers watched, the mystery apparition seemed at one point as though it might descend on the lawn of Lane Place — home of late U.S. Senator Henry S. Lane’s widow — before it re-ascended and continued its circuitous route above the city.
When Crawfordsville residents heard of the sighting, ridicule came quickly to the eyewitnesses. On the heels of Professor Burton, “Keeley’s Institute for inebriates” in Plainfield reportedly wrote to Rev. Switzer and invited him to visit — obviously to seek a cure.
However, reports of the sightings also generated a number of believers. The Indianapolis Journal picked up the story, as did other newspapers across the country, including the Brooklyn Eagle. Mail regarding the sighting deluged the Crawfordsville postmaster. Some correspondents thought the sighting indicated that Judgment Day was near. A St. Louis woman, fearful of the spook’s western migration, wrote and asked if the apparition could be seen in the daytime, what color was it, and if the apparition had previously been in Ohio?
So what exactly did people see in the Crawfordsville sky that early September morning in 1891? Was it an apparition? UFO? A “rod,” like a 2008 episode of the History Channel’s Monster Quest implied? Or was it, as many internet sites suggest, an atmospheric beast!?!?
Fortunately, two eyewitnesses tracked the creature. John Hornbeck and Abe Hernley “followed the wraith about town and finally discovered it to be a flock of many hundred killdeer.” The many birds’ wings, white under-feathers, and plaintive cries contributed to the belief of many eyewitnesses that the creature(s) originated from the otherworld. Low visibility due to damp air likely compounded the misidentification. The Crawfordsville Journal hypothesized that the town’s newly installed electric lights caused the birds to become disoriented, hovering and wreathing their way above the city.
(Killdeer Plover, watercolor by John James Audubon.)
If that explanation does not satisfy, there is an alternative one. During the prior week, newspapers circulated another story from Crawfordsville. This one was about a “balloon parachute craze” taking hold among the town’s boys. While that could explain the billowing, sheet-like apparition, it fails to account for the “wheezing plaintive sound” emitting from the aerial monster. Well, the same report about the parachute craze also mentioned that the boys also liked to send cats up in their balloons. Could this have been what McIntyre, Gray, and the Switzers saw and heard instead?
As anti-climactic as these conclusions will be to modern readers — they’re also, no doubt, disappointing to cryptozoologists and ufologists — it is the complete story of the Crawfordsville monster as the Crawfordsville Journal reported it in early September 1891.
Incidentally, Crawfordsville published three newspapers in addition to the Journal. These were the Review, the Argus, and the Star. None of those papers so much as hinted that anything happened that September morning. This leads one to conclude that while a few citizens likely did see something unusual in the nocturnal sky, the Crawfordsville Journal overstated the incident to make an extra buck. And the nineteenth century was no more “gullible” than our own age. In other places around the world — like Fernvale, Australia, in 1927, and of course Roswell, New Mexico, since 1947 — reports of weird avian or other airborne visitors would pour in during the 20th century.
The Journal’s century old marketing ploy continues to generate lively discussion in the dark recesses of cyberspace and on late night radio talk-shows, where the Crawfordsville monster occasionally still goes out flying through the sky.
Yesterday’s post sent a few heads rolling, but we can’t get enough this October. Here’s a follow-up from medical science.
Contrary to popular belief, Washington Irving didn’t invent the tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman from scratch. Said to have been a Hessian mercenary decapitated by a cannonball during the American Revolution, the dark rider was left to roam the Catskill Mountains near a Dutch settlement in New York called Sleepy Hollow.
Written while Irving was living in Europe, the story actually drew on German and Irish folklore, where similar specters haunt the realm of the living. There’s also a long list of early Christian saints (known as cephalophores) who according to hagiographic legends, picked up their own heads after execution and walked away — or at least uttered an important message before going silent at last. Saint Gemolo, who probably came from Germany or Scandinavia, was even said to have grabbed his head in his hands and ridden away on horseback.
Germans told of Der Kopfloser Reiter, a shadow figure that rides out of the forest, hunts down malefactors, warns the living, and — like his cousin the Irish banshee — announces the approach of death. Irish folklore includes reports of the dulachán or dullahan, a specter that also rides a dark horse, but he comes with some frightening accouterments: a whip made from a human spinal cord, a funereal bone cart. . . Like the screaming banshee, the apparition of a dullahan portends encroaching death. And like Washington Irving’s horrid creature, the dullahan carries its own severed head, believed to look like moldy cheese. Don’t look at the specter to find out: he’ll throw blood in your face.
With the mass emigration of Irish peasants overseas, especially after the brutal Famine of the 1840s, these stories got carried to the U.S. Some were twisted into hyper-literary forms. But apparently the actual banshees didn’t care for transatlantic sea voyages and stayed home in their native terrain. Headless horsemen, though, weren’t totally fictional.
In 1870, doctors in England offered a rational explanation for what were actually real sightings of decapitated equestrians. These sightings, of course, occurred in war zones.
Readers of the Terre Haute Weekly Gazette encountered the following clip from The Lancet, a famous London medical journal. Founded in 1828, just nine years after Irving’s Sleepy Hollow came out, The Lancet was the brainchild of Thomas Wakley, a crusader against “incompetence, privilege, and nepotism” in British society — and flogging. The doctor was also a radical Member of Parliament. Wakley’s sons edited The Lancet until 1909.
The medical clip sought to explain a bizarre event during the Franco-Prussian War. On August 6, 1870, at the Battle of Wörth in the Rhine Valley, a headless French horseman was spotted “going at full speed” across the battlefield. The Lancet’s explanation came out a month later on September 3.
A letter to the editor sent as a follow-up and signed by Logan D.H. Russell appeared in the British magazine in January 1871. Dr. Russell gave a few examples of “life-like” rigidity in death witnessed by doctors, nurses, and soldiers during the American Civil War.
Scientific investigation into these aspects of post-mortem physiology continued during the 20th century. Though farmers and any homeowner with poultry in the back yard knew that “headless chickens” were no myth — the skeletal anatomy of chickens really do allow them to live briefly after decapitation — newspaper readers in 1912 were surely surprised to hear that a French surgeon in New York City had successfully performed experiments allowing headless cats to survive for another three days.
This surgical revolution was the work of Alexis Carrel (1873-1944), one of the more unusual and forgotten pioneers of surgery. Oddly, before he began experimenting on cats, Carrel’s scientific work took him into the realm of what most scientists consider superstition and folklore: divine healing.
Raised in a devout Catholic family, Alexis Carrel fell away from religion as a young medical student. In 1902, however, pressured by a colleague, he traveled to Lourdes in southwestern France to see something unusual.
Lourdes was a mountain town in the Pyrenees made famous in the 1850s by apparitions of the Virgin Mary, who allegedly came and spoke to a French shepherd girl there for weeks on end. French scientists and secularists, calling it a fraud, tried to have Lourdes shut down under public hygiene laws after thousands of suffering believers came in search of a cure — which, incredibly, they often found. For decades, reports of miraculous healings attributed to mineral waters from the caves and to divine intervention plagued, even embarrassed, European doctors and intellectuals.
In 1902, Alexis Carrel saw one of these miracles as it was happening: the sudden and complete healing of a tubercular patient given up for dead. Decades before the discovery of antibiotics, Marie Bailly, the patient, was soon declared totally free of her disease, which she was expected to die of at any moment. She became a nun and lived for another thirty years. Carrel, an agnostic, claimed that he actually watched her body undergo a healing transformation at Lourdes.
The young doctor delivered some of the main eyewitness testimony about the miracle — which led to his being banned from working in French hospitals and universities. With his reputation destroyed, Carrel emigrated to Canada, where he became a cattle rancher and farmer. Later coming to the U.S., he taught at the University of Chicago and the Rockefeller Institute in New York. Over the next few decades, Carrel became a pioneer in the field of vascular suturing techniques. Helped by aviator Charles Lindbergh, he invented the perfusion pump, used to preserve organs during transplantation.
For his work in human physiology — partly involving experiments on headless cats — Carrel won a Nobel Prize in 1912. Still baffled by the bizarre cure he witnessed at Lourdes, Carrel never retracted his belief that Marie Bailly was healed by a supernatural force, an event so strange that one writer believed it drove him mad. His book about the Lourdes miracle, written in 1903, was only published in 1949, five years after his death.
Science and religion both have their dark sides. Tragically, Carrel’s went beyond cutting up cats. By the 1930s, the French-American surgeon had become a major proponent of eugenics, the forced sterilization of “inferior” human beings and the poor. (Carrel was no pioneer here. Back in 1907, the Indiana Legislature instituted the world’s first eugenics law. Over 2,300 Hoosiers were sterilized in an effort to eliminate “degeneracy,” under a law only repealed in 1974.)
As a prelude to the Nazis’ perversion of science, Dr. Alexis Carrel went on to publish a bestselling book, Man, the Unknown (1935). The Nobel Laureate even joined an anti-Semitic French fascist party, the PPF. During Hitler’s occupation of France, Carrel helped put eugenics laws into place under the Vichy collaborators. If he hadn’t died in 1944, the doctor would probably have been put on trial as a traitor or war criminal.
All of which is further proof that scientists — like Hessian horsemen and everybody else — can lose their head.
In October 1901, the Indianapolis News correspondent showed up on the 160-acre farm of “Gus” and Mollie Burgess along what he calls the “National Road” between Yorktown and Daleville, Indiana. (This must be State Road 32, which runs along the White River west of Muncie.) Blodgett had been playing cards with another reporter in Indianapolis and talking about an old haunted house that once sat on “old Mississippi Street” (Senate Avenue) when they decided to drive up to Delaware County and try to see some paranormal activity firsthand.
Charles Augustus and Mollie Burgess, both in their twenties, lived in the old farmhouse with their six-year-old son, Payton Burgess. They told Blodgett they’d been living there for six years. Two earlier tenants hadn’t stuck around, including one “who moved into the house one day and got out the next.” The house sat back from the road a little and was “partly hidden by a small grove of locust trees. . . It was a lonesome-looking place on the outside, in spite of the bright lights that shone out from the windows. . . The whole place seemed to be cut off from the outer world by an invisible wall.” The location was near a spot called “the Kilgore neighborhood, a half a mile, perhaps, from the Pike’s Peak schoolhouse, where many a good citizen of Delaware County received his early training.”
A Native American graveyard was also located “close by.” “Even to this day, bones, arrows and crude implements of the chase are plowed up,” wrote Blodgett. Central Indiana farmers back then sometimes kept barrels full of bones that cropped up in their fields, tumbled out of decaying burial mounds, or even showed up in the hollows of ancient trees.
As Blodgett told it, two legends converged on the Burgess’ White River Valley farm. The first involved a “famous Indian chief known as Wa-Sa He-To — The Fox.” Wa-Sa He-To, according to this story, had traded with white pioneers and “in his wigwam he had $5,000 in gold.” After The Fox died in a wolf hunt, his gold disappeared.
By the 1890s, Spiritualists from nearby Camp Chesterfield — ground zero for paranormal investigation in the Hoosier State — were said to be conducting seances to locate the lost gold, thought to be cached near a great rock along the White River. Blodgett never mentioned how “The Fox” died — was he eaten by a wolf? — only that his spirit might have found a new home in the “boggy swamp” next to the river. At some point in fact or fable, The Fox turned into a headless horseman, riding out over area farms, out of barn doors, and even straight up from the soil.
The other ghost lurking around the Burgess property — “this house of gibbering ghosts” — was rumored to be the phantom of Dr. George Washington Slack, a former inhabitant. Slack had come to Delaware County from Pennsylvania in the 1830s as a 12-year-old settler with his parents. After studying at Rush Medical College in Chicago, Dr. Slack went on to practice medicine in Yorktown and apparently became well known in central Indiana. His eight children probably lived in the house with him — which might have been the original log cabin his parents built. Slack died in January 1886, aged sixty. Burgess misidentifies him as “Cyrus Slack,” then tells the story (perhaps imaginary) of his botched attempt to end his life.
Here’s the tale.
An article from the Indiana Herald in Huntington suggests that Dr. Slack died of apoplexy. Yet it’s always possible that folklore got the facts correct, since in the case of the suicide of a respectable country doctor, the family might not have shared the full tale with the press and neighbors. The truth about the doctor’s demise remains a mystery. But it seems that like Wa-Sa He-To, he, too, was a candidate for the status of “Headless Horseman.”
Indianapolis News correspondent W.H. Blodgett slept easy that night, at least until he was awakened by an “unearthly noise” in the neighboring bed. His traveling companion and fellow ghost-hunter, “Dick,” had started choking, gurgling, and gasping, “a muffled call for help.”
“Guess I had the nightmare,” said Dick, finally awakened. Had the horse come after all? “Nightmare” is partly related to Old Norse words for a “night ride,” a “night horse,” or a “mare dream” — and the demon that rides them.
I thought a ghost without a head on a headless horse was chasing me and made me jump over a high cliff, and just as I struck, a fellow all in white was trying to crowd three fingers down my throat. Have you heard any ghosts?
“Gus” Burgess later became the postmaster of Yorktown. His brother Clyde — a spitting image — ran a Shell Station there in the 1930s or ’40s.
“The aroma of woodchuck scalps, crow heads and wolf scalps will not be diffused throughout the sacred precincts of the Putnam County temple of justice, and of the office of the auditor, in particular. That will pertain to the year 1941, at least.”
In a meeting that week, Putnam County commissioners finally eliminated payment in cash for the hides of animals deemed “pests of economic life.” On the eve of World War II, this legal relic of pioneer days was still lingering around in the statute books.
In recent years, the expenditure on such bounties has not amounted to much, but the bounty offer was still in effect and occasionally some claimant for such payments would go to the auditor’s office to file claims for payments, and would bring along tangible proof. Out of which arose the odor.
The statutes of Indiana in 1875 [it was actually much earlier than this] provided that county commissioners “may” offer a bounty of $20 for wolf scalps, with a $3 bounty of wolves under 6 months of age; also, $5 for each fox scalp; or $1.50 when under 6 months. A year or two ago, Putnam County commissioners were called upon to pay a bounty for a wolf scalp.
In a later law, a bounty was provided for wood chuck (or ground hog) scalps, and owl or hawk heads, but with screech owls and sparrow hawks excepted. That was in the year 1883.
In 1911, crow heads and eggs were added to the list of outlaws, and a bounty was provided of 10 cents for each crow head and 5 cents for each crow egg, the eggs to be in lots of 10 or more.
(American hunters with wolf hides, Northern Rockies, circa 1920.)
In 2011, no less a paper than The New York Times reported on Terre Haute’s recurring crow problem — a major ornithological nightmare that migrated down to Bloomington early in 2015. For months, urban crows left the Monroe County courthouse, downtown parking meters, and city sidewalks soaked in bird droppings. Surely this was avian revenge for the county commissioner’s bounties placed against their ancestors?
The interesting story of animal bounties goes back deep into Indiana history — as do the wolf terror tales that go along with it.
When Indiana became a state just two-hundred years ago, the area bounded by the Ohio River, Lake Michigan, and the Illinois prairies was one of the wildest spots on earth, full of buffalo, black bears, and cougars. (Abraham Lincoln wrote a ballad about a bear hunt.) Old-growth timber could still be found in most Hoosier counties at the time of the Civil War. Though fur-bearing animals had been the main lure for French explorers, one of the French nuns who founded St. Mary-of-the-Woods in the 1840s wrote that “wood is commoner than dust.” In northwest Indiana, parts of the Kankakee Swamp — formerly one of the biggest wetlands in North America — weren’t drained until the 1920s. Modern agriculture in some northern Indiana townships is less than a hundred years old.
At the start of the Jazz Age, the Kankakee’s ancient but dying wilderness was still a hideout for wolves. In 1918, the Lake County Times reminded readers about their fanged and rarely-seen neighbors on the far outskirts of Chicagoland. Gray wolves, Canada lynxes and possibly even massive timber wolves also occasionally migrated down from the wilder parts of northern Michigan. While these creatures tried to avoid human beings, swamp fires sometimes drove them out onto the farms encroaching on the ragged edge of the marshland.
The bounty on hides that Putnam County eliminated in 1940 originated in pioneer days, when Hoosiers could actually pay their taxes with animal hides. Meant to encourage the war on the wilderness, bounties figured into state budgets as early as 1817. State funds forked out in exchange for this “public service” sometimes amounted to more than the dollar amount spent on road improvements, presidential elections, the state prison — and even our own State Library:
The Indiana State Sentinel carried one colorful story in 1881 — entitled “Early Times” — about how wolf scalps were used literally as dollar bills. Signed “M.F.H.,” the author recalled a conversation with a man in Columbus, Indiana, a Kentuckian who — if the date of his birth is correct — would have been 102 years old at the time this story was printed. The frontiersman, who came north in 1826, once served as Bartholomew County treasurer:
By the early 1900s, the misunderstood canine specter peering out of Indiana’s diminishing forests and swamps was a rare sight — as were the mangled carcasses of farm animals that wolves were known to attack. Yet the morbid imagination spawned by European folklore was brought into play to defend farmer’s property, as the war on wolves continued unabated in the American West.
Hoosiers heard wolf tales stretching back hundreds of years — from the Grimm Brothers’ gory version of the old Black Forest tale Rotkäppchen (“Little Red Riding Hood,” later bowdlerized and Disneyfied for delicate audiences) to the quintessentially Russian tale of a pack of wolves that killed and ate a wedding party traveling by sleigh at night. That story was told in the pages of Willa Cather’s great novel My Ántonia (1918), set in Nebraska. In the early 1980s, Paul Schach of the University of Nebraska collected wolf stories brought to the Great Plains by German immigrants whose families had lived in Russia for a few generations before coming to America. Russian-German tales almost definitely inspired Cather’s miniature horror story in My Ántonia. Yet American newspapers were already carrying chilling wolf tales long before Cather’s novel.
(Edmund Spenser, “Nocturnal Battle with Wolves” in Russia, 1855. Most fatal wolf attacks still take place in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The words volk [male wolf] and volchitsa [female] cause a shiver in Russian spines yet.)
(“The Wolf of Ansbach” was a nightmarish creature said to have terrorized part of Germany in 1685, when it carried off and ate several children. Villagers believed it was either a werewolf or the reincarnation of their local burgomaster, “whose death had gone unlamented.” The animal was eventually driven into a well, killed, and dressed in human clothing — including a wig and mask — then hung on a gibbet. France’s Beast of Gévaudan, killed in 1767, was even scarier.)
In the winter of 1880, Willa Cather’s old Russian “wedding” story found an echo in Terre Haute’s Daily News, which printed a pioneer’s reminiscence entitled “A Night with Wolves.” The tale, told in first person, sounds like non-fiction but the dialogue is dramatized. Set around 1845, the hair-raising event took place one frozen, snowy night in the Upper Midwestern wilds a few miles outside the young town of Lansing, Michigan, where the author claimed that a hungry pack of wolves attacked a stagecoach he was traveling in by moonlight. As the terrified horses race away in a panic, dragging the coach and passengers behind them, the driver — his father — climbs out on the reins to cut part of his team loose, letting them drop as sacrificial victims to the bloodthirsty wilderness. With their flanks and throats ripped open by the wolves’ teeth, the horses collapse and are devoured, until one horse makes it into Lansing and spreads the news.
Long, scary and possibly fictional stories like these became rare over the years. Bears are usually the protagonist now, as in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. But even today, headlines still announce occasional sightings of and attacks by potentially dangerous animals in the rural Midwest. Early 20th-century readers encountered plenty of these headlines.
In October 1922, seven wild wolves were reported attacking livestock on a farm near Warsaw, Indiana. Farmers there were scared enough to keep their children away from school for a few days.
(U.S. Army officers hunting a wolf on the ice of the Upper Mississippi River, 1843. The story was that the clever wolf would race toward an air hole in the ice, spin around quickly, and leave the hounds to fall in. American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine.)
Tall tales often bleed over into news reportage. But fact and fiction can be hard to separate. In 1920, the South Bend paper carried the story of one Kansas farmer’s desperate battle with three wolves trying to break into his farmhouse.
Horace E. Jackson, “a wealthy Chicago board of trade broker,” was allegedly stalked by “skulking wolves” in Minnesota’s North Woods in 1916, though exposure to the cold was an even bigger danger.
Fear-mongering news stories about wolves were partly discredited by a writer — possibly a naturalist — in the Greencastle Herald in 1913. Wolves, he reminded readers, usually fear men more than men fear them.
The Indiana DNR still gets plenty of crazy phone calls about unusual animal sightings. One recent report that turned out to be true was the migratory mountain lion that was stalking parts of Greene County near Bloomfield in 2010 and has also been reported near Brazil, Greencastle, and Bloomington. The lion was photographed by one of the DNR’s motion-sensitive cameras and was originally thought to have been a tiger escaped from the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in nearby Center Point, Indiana.
What the DNR shouldn’t take seriously is any reports about the Wolf family, who once lived on Notre Dame Avenue in South Bend. This 1920 headline sounds like another one of those grisly folktales.
What do folklore, lemon juice, Amelia Earhart and Calvin Coolidge all have in common? They all battled freckles.
As summertime dwindles to a close, you might have developed some of these kisses of the sun yourself, especially if you’re fair-skinned and female. Though scientists have determined that susceptibility to freckles depends on genes — most famously as a result of Irish DNA — anyone can get these marks, which are concentrations of melanin brought about by exposure to UV rays.
Today, definitions of male and female beauty actively embrace what was once considered a serious physical blemish. Many even think a superficially bespeckled face is a mark of character deep-down. One beauty commentator considers freckles helpful in building up women’s self-confidence. “Outside the realm of ‘normal’ beauty,” she writes, “we freckled ladies have had to go against the grain and build our self-esteem without the help of the media.”
A hundred years ago, things were different. Anti-freckle cream was a commonly advertised beauty product. (It’s still sold today.) Mostly directed toward women, nothing, however, prevented men from trying out this solution for “blemished” skin. As you’ll see below, one man died trying to get “beautified.”
For generations, folklore and popular medicine provided alternatives to commercial freckle cream. American newspapers promoted a variety of cures both from folk practice and the chemist’s lab.
(Wilson’s Freckle Cream was manufactured in Charleston, South Carolina, but sold nationally. Brazil Daily Times, October 25, 1912.)
In the early years of the twentieth century, Hoosiers read about some of these popular remedies.
One of the least-scientifically credible cures was, needless to say, superstition, but it peaked the interest of the American Folklore Society, whose findings were syndicated in a Wayne County, Indiana, newspaper in 1928. Even if this cure had worked, it was far more time-consuming than daubing cream on your face. Yet Hoosier youth probably gave it a shot.
(Cambridge City Tribune, March 15, 1928)
Twenty-five years earlier, a more plausible-sounding all-natural freckle cure had come out in the Indianapolis News at summer’s end:
Before going out in the sun it is advisable to rub on a little cucumber balm or any good old cream. At night the face should be bathed with elderflower water, which cools and benefits the skin.
Never bathe the face while it is hot. Wait until night, then touch up the freckles with a lotion.
One cure is a lotion made by adding half an ounce of lemon juice to half a pint of rosewater, and adding two drams of powdered alum. Apply with a camels-hair brush.
Another remedy is to wash the face, neck and arms, and hands, too, if necessary, with elderflower water, and apply an ointment made by simmering gently together one ounce of venise soap and one dram each of deliquated oil of tartar and oil of bitter almonds. When the mixture acquires consistency, two drops of rhodium may be added. Wash the emollient off in the morning with elderflower water. (Indianapolis News, September 3, 1903)
One common commercial anti-freckle ointment was called Othine, sometimes sold “double-strength” at drug stores. Yet the beauty columnist Lucille Daudet, syndicated in the columns of the Fort Wayne Sentinel in 1916, was concerned about the potentially damaging effects of this kind of patent medicine. A forerunner to today’s “pro-freckle” approach to beauty, Daudet spoke up against the very need for such products:
Just why these light brown marks of health should be so scorned is an open question, as they are usually more becoming than not. But the fact is that most girls look upon freckles as the greatest bar between them and good looks. In their anxiety to rid themselves of these brown “beauty marks” they go to the most ridiculous and often dangerous extremes — dangerous indeed in many cases, for scores of lovely skins have been ruined by the use of so-called freckle removers. . .
A great many of the patent removers contain either bismuth, which is apt to blacken the skin, or mercury or lead, which are active mineral poisons. (Fort Wayne Sentinel, August 12, 1916)
Daudet recommended, instead, a concoction of horseradish root mixed with buttermilk and strained through a fine cheesecloth.
(Huntington Herald, Huntington, Indiana, August 2, 1923)
One of the potentially “ridiculous and often dangerous extremes” Daudet decried was mentioned in a 1921 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. The journal isn’t specific about what went wrong, but the incident concerned an apparently quack “naturopath” in Venice, California. (For the record, laser treatment and cryosurgery — “a light freeze with liquid nitrogen” –are the more extreme procedures today.)
(Journal of the American Medical Association, April 16, 1921)
Two well-known Americans of the Jazz Age had a reputation for their freckles. One case was slightly mythic — and a Hoosier woman tried to sleuth her way to the bottom of it.
In 1923, Clara C. Gilbert, a Republican women’s organizer in Kendallville, Indiana, traveled to Washington, D.C., partly to discover if President Calvin Coolidge’s freckles, accentuated in news films, were as “real” in life as they looked on “reels.” “People have brought reasons and reasons for wanting to see President Coolidge,” quipped the Fort Wayne Daily News, “but no one before had ever seemed interested in the freckle question.”
“Cal” Coolidge had, in fact, been a red-headed, freckle-faced kid back in Vermont, but his hair turned a sandy brown as a teenager and most of the spots on his face went away. The silver screen’s lighting effects apparently brought them back.
(“Also, I want to see you because I want to see you…” Fort Wayne Daily News, September 15, 1923. Click to enlarge.)
A more famous example of sun-kisses was aviator Amelia Earhart, whose battle against freckles might have gone with her to own mysterious death.
The dominant theory that Earhart’s plane ran out of gas and crashed into the Pacific was already called into question in 1940, when the skeletal remains of a castaway turned up on the remote island. That the famous aviator was also known to have hated her own mild case of freckles provides a tantalizing link to researchers intent on establishing forensic evidence about her demise. And as Lucille Daudet warned women two decades before, the cream found on Nikumaroro was found to contain mercury.
Though the theory has its critics, it’s fascinating to think that Earhart’s pointillistic sun-kisses might ultimately shine a light on her last voyage — and her still unknown whereabouts.
(Amelia Earhart’s flight license, 1923.)
(Joe Zucco, freckle contender of Fort Wayne. Fort Wayne Sentinel, September 16, 1922.)
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.
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:
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:
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!
That was good news for the Netherlands, which wanted to get rid of them:
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.
In fact, the tiny foe looks disturbing enough:
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:
Even venomous snakes, it was believed, got laid low by the dreaded bug:
The New York Tribune thought these lice should have figured into the staggering death toll of the so-called “War to End All Wars.”
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.”
The Cootie Game was offered for sale at George H. Wheelock’s department store in South Bend in 1919:
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.
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.