This month, the Indiana Historical Bureau is focusing on the history and culture of Allen County, Indiana. Here at Chronicles, we thought it would be an apt time to share some of Allen County’s newspaper history.
Fort Wayne, Allen County’s central city and the second-largest city in Indiana, produced most of the county’s newspapers. Thomas Tigar and Samuel V. B. Noel founded the Fort Wayne Sentinel, publishing its first issue on July 6, 1833. The Sentinel’s two publishers came from completely opposite political backgrounds. Tigar’s views aligned with the Democratic Party while Noel identified as a Whig. So, in an effort to avoid political conflicts, the paper initially started as an independent publication. Over the decades, the Sentinel changed hands and political affiliations routinely. For example, when Noel sold his stake to Tigar, it became a Democratic paper; when Gordon W. Wood owned it in the late 1830s, it switched to a Whig perspective. After decades of mergers, name changes (it was called the Times-Sentinel for a while), and multiple owners, the Sentinel merged with the daily News in 1918 and became the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, the name it is still published under today.
As for the News, William P. Page and Charles E. Taylor founded the Republican-leaning daily in 1874. Page made a 28-year career at the News, overseeing the development of weekly and daily editions. In 1902, he sold the paper to a partnership of entrepreneurs incorporated under the aegis of the News Publishing Company. This ownership maintained the paper until 1918, when it merged with the aforementioned Sentinel. Other notable Fort Wayne papers include the dailies Gazette (1863–1899), Journal (1881–1899), and Times (1855–1865).
Alongside all of its newspapers, Fort Wayne produced two of the twentieth century’s most prominent publishers. William Rockhill Nelson, born in Fort Wayne on March 7, 1841. Nelson studied at Notre Dame (he did not graduate) and earned admittance to the bar in 1862, before he decided to enter the newspaper business. He and his business partner Samuel E. Morss purchased the Fort Wayne Weekly Sentinel in 1879 and published it for around nine months. From there, Nelson followed the old maxim “go west young man,” and he and Morss moved to Kansas City, Missouri. Nelson and Morss founded the Kansas City Evening Star in 1880. By 1885, the newly-renamed Kansas City Star became one of the Missouri’s most widely-read papers in the state. By the time of his death in 1915, Nelson’s estate totaled $6 million and his family ensured that his wealth supported the creation of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts, which opened to the public in 1933.
As for Morss, he sold his stake of the Star to Nelson within a year and a half. After traveling in Europe, he returned to the US and spent a few years as an editor at the Chicago Times. He came back to Indianapolis in 1888, to purchase and run the Indiana State Sentinel. He maintained his position with the Sentinel, with the exception of serving as Consul-General of the United States to France under President Grover Cleveland, until his death in 1903. Unexpectedly, he died after a fall from the third-story window of his Sentinel office, likely the result of a heart attack.
George Jean Nathan, another native of Fort Wayne, played a key role in the literary life of Americans during the 1920s and 30s. Born in 1882, Nathan spent his early years in Fort Wayne before he moved east, to study at Cornell University (he graduated in 1904). Nathan’s most enduring legacy stemmed from his relationship with noted journalist and provocateur H. L. Mencken. Nathan served as the co-editor with Mencken of the Smart Set from 1914-1923. They then founded the American Mercury, a magazine of literature, political commentary, and satire, in 1924. Nathan contributed drama criticism, particularly his views on playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill, Henrik Ibsen, and George Bernard Shaw, for the Mercury as well as his own publication, Theatre Book of the Year. He died in 1958.
From 1917 into the 1920s, Hoosier movie-goers had a chance to see one of the most controversial — and arguably infamous — silent films ever produced, The Black Stork, later renamed Are You Fit To Marry? Identified by one film historian as among the earliest horror movies, TheBlack Stork was based on a real and gut-wrenching medical drama from 1915.
Billed as a “eugenics love story,” the movie’s script was authored by Chicago journalist, muckraker and theater critic Jack Lait. Lait worked for news mogul William Randolph Hearst, the very man who inspired the lead figure in Orson Welles’ great 1941 movie Citizen Kane. Hearst, king of American “yellow journalism,” relished controversies, which sold newspapers and theater tickets. His film company, International Film Service, produced The Black Stork.
Many Americans today have never heard the word “eugenics,” a once-popular scientific theory spawned by Victorian understandings of evolution and heredity in the wake of Charles Darwin. The word comes from the Greek for “well-born” or “good stock” and refers to the social interpretation of scientific discoveries purporting to show how harmful genetic traits are passed on from parents to children — and how healthy children could be bred. Eugenics wasn’t strictly the same as science itself, but a social philosophy based on the discoveries of Darwin, the monk-botanist Gregor Mendel, and Darwin’s nephew, geneticist Francis Galton. Yet many scientists and doctors got involved with this social philosophy.
Once fairly mainstream, support for eugenic theories plummeted after the defeat of Hitler, its most notorious advocate. Aspects of eugenics — like the forced sterilization of repeat criminals, rapists, epileptics, the poor, and some African Americans — continued in twenty-seven American states into the 1950s and even later in a few. The last forced sterilization in the U.S. was performed in Oregon in 1981.
Indiana played an enormous role in the history of eugenics when the Hoosier State became the first to enact a compulsory sterilization law in 1907 — a law that lumped the mentally handicapped in with sex offenders, made it virtually illegal for whole classes deemed “unfit” to reproduce, segregated many of the disabled into mental hospitals, and enshrined white supremacy. Though the Indiana law was struck down in 1921, those ideas were hugely popular with many academics and activists all across the political spectrum.
Especially notable, the Indiana Eugenics Law wasn’t pushed by those designated as white racist “hillbillies.” “Poor white” Indianapolis slum-dwellers, in fact, were very much targeted by the eugenicists of the early 20th century. Promoters of these spurious theories included mainstream biologists, doctors, many reform-minded Progressives, women’s rights advocates, college presidents, even a few Christian ministers and Socialists. The list of widely-admired people who spoke out in favor of simplistic eugenic proposals included Helen Keller, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Sir Winston Churchill, Planned Parenthood’s founder Margaret Sanger, author Jack London, IU and Stanford University president David Starr Jordan, Alexander Graham Bell, and the civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois. One of the few well-known anti-eugenics crusaders was Senator William Jennings Bryan, a Christian Fundamentalist who lost caste with Progressives in the 1920s for opposing the teaching of evolution.
Eugenics, however, was neither “liberal” nor “conservative.” Americans of all political stripes supported its basic premise — the preservation of social order and the engineering of more a “humane” society. Strong support for eugenics came from Americans concerned about the proliferation of poverty and urban crime and who sought a reason to keep certain nationalities from entering the U.S. Eugenics did not begin to go out of favor until 1935, when scientists from the Carnegie Institute in Washington demonstrated the flimsiness of other scientists’ work at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. Yet even as eugenicists placed human reproduction on the level of horse- and livestock-breeding, the genetic abolition of any individual deemed “feeble-minded” — and the destruction of hereditary and sexually-transmitted diseases — was packaged as a positive goal, a social benefit to all, even to those who underwent involuntary sterilization and were occasionally killed.
Euthanasia was one component of eugenics. Alongside the “positive eugenics” campaign for “Better Babies and Fitter Families,” “negative eugenics” partly revolved around the controversial view that infants born with severe disabilities should be left to die or killed outright. In 1915, a case in Chicago plunged Americans into a heated debate about medical ethics.
That November, Dr. Harry J. Haiselden, chief surgeon at the German-American Hospital in Chicago, was faced with a tough dilemma. A woman named Anna Bollinger had just given birth to a child, John, who suffered from severe birth defects. John had no neck or right ear and suffered from a serious skin ailment, all judged to be the result of syphilis likely passed on by his father. Dr. Haiselden knew that he could save the child’s life through a surgical procedure. But since he was familiar with the conditions into which Illinois’ “feeble-minded” were thrown after birth, he convinced the child’s parents to let John die at the hospital. When the news came out that the doctor wasn’t going to perform the necessary surgery, an unknown person tried to kidnap the child and take it to another hospital. The kidnapping attempt failed and John Bollinger died.
While the Catholic Church, one of the few vocal critics of eugenics, was the only major group to initially protest the surgeon’s decision, Haiselden was soon called before a medical ethics board in Chicago. He nearly lost his medical license, but managed to keep it. Public opinion was sharply divided. Chicago social worker and suffragette Jane Addams came out against Haiselden. Short of the death penalty for murder, Addams said, no doctor had the right to be an unwilling person’s executioner. “It is not for me to decide whether a child should be put to death. If it is a defective, it should be treated as such, and be taught all it can learn,” she added.
Many of Haiselden’s critics, such as Addams, pointed out that if eugenicists had had their way, they would have killed some of the great “defectives” in history, like Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevksy, French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, children’s writer Edward Lear, and even the eugenicist Harry Laughlin himself — all of them epileptics. (Biologist Laughlin, Superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor and one of the science’s greatest advocates, had suffered from epilepsy since childhood.)
Support for Dr. Haiselden, however, came from many famous social activists. Among them was Helen Keller — advocate for the disabled, a Socialist, and a eugenics supporter (at least in 1915.) Keller, who was blind and deaf since the age of one but thrived against all odds, published her views on the Haiselden case in The New Republic. She thought that children proven to be “idiots” by a “jury of expert physicians” could and perhaps should be put to death. Chicago lawyer and civil liberties crusader Clarence Darrow — who famously went up against eugenics critic William Jennings Bryan at the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial — made no bones about his support for the surgeon: “Chloroform unfit children,” Darrow said. “Show them the same mercy that is shown beasts that are no longer fit to live.” Indiana Socialist Eugene V. Debs also supported Haiselden’s decision.
(Clarence Darrow and Helen Keller supported Haiselden.)
Harry Haiselden held onto his job, but bolstered his position and kept the firestorm of public discussion brewing by starring as himself in a silent film based on the Bollinger case. The Black Stork came to hundreds of American theaters, including many Hoosier ones. Because public health workers and eugenicists often gave admonitory lectures before and after the movie, separate showings were offered for men and women. Young children weren’t allowed to attend, but a South Carolina minister encouraged parents to bring their teenage children — so they could see what might come from sexual promiscuity, criminality, drinking and “race mixing.” Some theater bills added the catchy subtitle: “The Scourge of Humanity.”
The movie’s plot was partly fictional and not entirely based on the 1915 Bollinger euthanasia case. TheFort Wayne Journal-Gazette gave its readers the basic story line, which came with an interesting twist near the end:
The “taint of the Black Stork” was obviously bad genes and heritable diseases. Haiselden’s silent film has been called one of the earliest horror movies, though its promoters billed it as educational and even romantic in nature. It fueled the eugenics movement’s campaign about defectives but also tackled an ethical dilemma that’s still alive today: is it ever humane to kill a person without their permission, on the grounds that the victim is doomed to live a miserable life and be only a “burden on society”?
Since American eugenics was supported by known racists and would later be directly cited by the Nazis as inspiration for their “racial science,” it’s uncomfortable to look deeper into it and realize how much turf it shares with Progressivists’ real concern for the treatment of the poor — and of mothers, some of whom would have been forced to raise severely disabled children. Some Americans thought the best way to eradicate poverty and disease was to eradicate the poor themselves by restricting their right to pass on the human “germ plasm” to the next generation. Eugenics and even euthanasia became, for some, a way to avoid social reforms. “Nurture vs. nature” lost out to inescapable hereditary destiny.
The Black Stork’s title was eventually changed to Are You Fit To Marry? It ran in theaters and roadshows well into the Roaring Twenties. It’s hard to believe that eugenicists begged Americans to ask themselves honestly if they were “fit to marry.” One wonders how many Americans voluntarily abstained from having children after deeming themselves “unfit”?
Ads show that the film was screened at at least three theaters in Indianapolis (including English’s Theatre on Monument Circle) as well as at movie halls in Fort Wayne, East Chicago, Whiting, Hammond, Evansville, Richmond and probably many other Hoosier towns.
The “eugenics photo-drama” reminded Americans of the dangers that “bad” heredity posed not only to their own families, but to the nation. When The Black Stork was shown in Elyria, Ohio, just a few months into America’s involvement in World War I, it clearly drew from the well of fear-mongering that linked crime and disease to alcohol, immigration, prostitution and rumors about German traitors and saboteurs — all clear threats to Anglo-Saxon ideals. Eugenics and euthanasia, by “saving our nation from misery and decay,” clearly got hitched to the wagon of nationalist politics. Viewing The Black Stork, like supporting the war effort, became “a solemn duty.”
German scientists were promoting “racial hygiene” long before the Nazis came to power in the 1930s. Fascism’s scientists and propagandists would also draw heavily on the work of British and American eugenicists — and point to laws like Indiana’s when opponents criticized them. Racial Hygiene, in fact, was the title of an influential textbook by Hoosier doctor Thurman B. Rice, a professor at IU Bloomington, a colleague of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, and one of the founders of IU Medical School in Indianapolis. In April 1929, Rice wrote an editorial in the Indiana State Board of Health’s monthly bulletin, entitled “If I Were Mussolini,” where he supported compulsory sterilization of “defectives.”
The Black Stork wasn’t the last film about euthanasia and eugenics. In 1941, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, commissioned one of the classics of Nazi cinema, Ich klage an (I Accuse). The plot revolves around a husband who learns that his wife has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He gives her a drug that causes her death, then undergoes a trial for murder. The film’s producers argued that death was not only a right but a social duty. A tearjerker, Ich klage an was intended to soften up the German public for the Nazis’ T4 euthanasia campaign, which led to the deaths of as many as 200,000 adults and children deemed a burden to the nation. (There’s some further irony that Ich klage an’s cinematic parent, The Black Stork, was based on events at Chicago’s German-American Hospital.)
Eugenics captivated Americans and Europeans for a few more decades after the Bollinger case. British writer G.K. Chesterton, a Catholic convert and a fierce opponent of eugenics, probably deserves the last word here. Chesterton called eugenics “terrorism by tenth-rate professors.”
In his 1922 book Eugenics and Other Evils: An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized State, Chesterton quipped that society has never really had all that much to fear from the “feeble-minded.” Rather, it’s the “strong-minded” who hurt society the most. Tearing into eugenics advocates in Britain, Germany and America, Chesterton spotlighted their frequent class prejudices, then skewered them brilliantly:
Why do not the promoters of the Feeble-Minded Bill call at the many grand houses in town and country where such nightmares notoriously are? Why do they not knock at the door and take the bad squire away? Why do they not ring the bell and remove the dipsomaniac prize-fighter? I do not know; and there is only one reason I can think of, which must remain a matter of speculation. When I was at school, the kind of boy who liked teasing half-wits was not the sort that stood up to bullies.
Dr. Harry J. Haiselden was involved in the deaths of at least three more disabled infants. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage while on vacation in Havana, Cuba, in 1919.
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 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.)