Historians, genealogists and other curious researchers can now dig into some historic newspapers from Bloomington, Indianapolis, Bedford, Hammond, New Richmond, Sullivan, Smithville, and tiny Orland up in Steuben County. While our available run of Hammond’s Lake County Times currently includes just three years (1920-22), we’ll add issues of that great paper back to its start in 1906 in coming months.
Our newest batch also includes a controversial choice for Hoosier State Chronicles, but one which is of enormous historical value: the Ku Klux Klan’s Fiery Cross. From the early to mid-1920s, the Klan edited and printed its influential Indiana State edition from the Century Building in downtown Indianapolis at a time when the Invisible Empire was largely headquartered in Indy. Although HSC and the Indiana State Library in no way endorse the views of the KKK, we trust you’ll find The Fiery Cross a fascinating read. The paper is an integral part of the history of radical right-wing politics, nativism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, white supremacy, the battle over religion in public schools, and American attitudes toward immigration. Cast a glance at American politics today and what seems like old 1920s news is still hugely relevant.
We expect that some members of the public might be offended by our making The Fiery Cross available on the web, but we stand by its value as a historic document. If you’re looking for a strong anti-Klan perspective, many Hoosier editors took a stand against the group in the 1920s. We recommend several papers available in Hoosier State Chronicles: the African American Indianapolis Recorder, George R. Dale’s ferocious (and humorous) Muncie Post-Democrat, and the great Indianapolis News. The microfilm collections of the Indiana State Library also contain two other notable Indianapolis newspapers that opposed the KKK. These are the Pulitzer Prize-winning Indianapolis Times and the Indiana Catholic & Record, forerunner of the Catholic archdiocese’s current newsletter, The Criterion.
Although the Indiana Klan’s heyday ended in the late 1920s, we would also like to point out that Hoosier State Chronicles makes available the Jewish Post & Opinionfrom the date of its inception in Indianapolis in 1933 all the way up to 2005 — a paper that has fought for many decades to raise awareness of racism in the U.S. and abroad.
Here’s a full list of what’s new on HSC this month:
It’s not cold enough in Indiana this year to get your tongue stuck to an icy flagpole. But every holiday season, we Hoosiers are reminded that the comedy classic A Christmas Story (1983) is set in our fair state.
Though filmed in Cleveland, Ohio — where the original Ralphie Parker residence was sold on eBay in 2004, restored to its 1940 appearance, and turned into a museum — the tale is based on the semi-fictional remembrances of Hoosier writer Jean Shepherd. Born on Chicago’s South Side, Shepherd grew up just over the state line in East Chicago and Hammond, Indiana, where he graduated from high school in 1939. After serving with the Army Signal Corps in World War II, the future author began his radio broadcast career at WJOB in Hammond before moving to Cincinnati and New York. Many of Shepherd’s stories began as on-the-air reminiscences before they appeared in Playboy. Some would have been picked up by listeners in the Midwest.
If Ralphie’s dad, played by the late Darren McGavin, read any newspaper by the light of that short-lived leg lamp, it would probably have been the Hammond Times.Hoosier State Chronicles will soon be uploading a long run of the Lake County Times, renamed the Times in 1933. Meanwhile, here’s a bit of its history. Who knows? It might even turn up some colorful background material on Jean Shepherd’s classic A Christmas Story.
Seventy years before Ralphie Parker came onto the scene, the young lumber port of State Line, Indiana, wasn’t producing enough news to keep a local newspaper afloat. Most of its early settlers came from Germany and spoke and read English poorly. The town’s success — and eventual name change — was overwhelmingly due to George H. Hammond, a Detroit butcher whose 1868 patent for refrigerated rail cars helped him rival Chicago’s great slaughterhouses. Mammoth stockyards along Lake Michigan attracted both immigrants and tourists to the greater Chicago area. (When Rudyard Kipling visited the Windy City in 1899, he wrote a horrified description of the “disassembly line” at Philip Armour’s slaughterhouse.) Abundant local lakes and rivers provided the ice that helped meatpacking thrive.
Yet the Hammond Packing Company’s preference for hiring German butchers and sausage-makers indirectly handicapped the development of an English-language press in northern Lake County. Most German residents of the “Hoosier Coast” got their news from thriving German-language newspapers in Chicago and Milwaukee. Even Hammond’s own Deutsche Volks-Zeitung didn’t start publishing until 1891. It died out sometime before 1911.
Though northwest Indiana soon became an industrial powerhouse, this was one of the last corners of the state to be settled. In 1900, lumbermen, farmers, and engineers had barely cleared the forests and drained the swamps that defined the landscape of the Calumet region (or simply “Da Region,” in local parlance.) Gary, whose steel mills made it Lake County’s most important city, was founded only in 1906.
The Hammond Packing Company burned down in 1901 and was never rebuilt. Steel, railroads, and retail took over. Ironically, the rapid development of Lake County led to “Da Region” becoming a cradle of American conservation, as nature enthusiasts and city dwellers successfully fought to save the famous Indiana Dunes — a favorite Chicago playground — from destruction.
In 1906, Hammond’s floundering English press got a boost when Sidmon McHie (1863-1944), a wealthy Chicago grain and stock broker, bought the struggling Hammond Times. The enterprising McHie turned the paper around, using it to promote Lake County’s young industries and businesses. At that time, Calumet was fertile ground for venture capitalists like McHie. As a 1943 tribute to him put it, the energetic owner used the paper to “get Hammond to believe in itself.”
Not content with marketing the news only to Hammond, McHie changed the paper’s name to the Lake County Times and pushed sales in Whiting, Gary, Indiana Harbor, and East Chicago. The daily’s circulation, which stood at just 137 when McHie bought it in 1906, jumped to 5,000 within a year and almost exceeded 10,000 in 1920. As an investment scheme, McHie circulated many copies for free simply to promote the city. By the time A Christmas Story was set in the early 1940s, the paper was reaching 130,000 readers — probably including “Old Man Parker” himself.
McHie (whose first name is often misspelled Simon and even Sidney) hired Chicago sportswriter Hugh E. Keough to be the Lake County Times’ first editor. Best known for his Chicago Tribune sports column (“In the Wake of the News”), Keough served as an official at Midwestern and Southern horse-racing tracks, whose decline led him back into newspaper work by 1906. Keough and the witty Ring Lardner were two of Chicago’s best writers on baseball. Keough’s tenure on the Lake County Times was short-lived, however. He was replaced by Percy A. Parry (who had emigrated to the U.S. from Wales at age nine.) For decades, Parry and his brothers were part of a “dynasty” of Lake County news editors.
While Gary was becoming known for its mills, Sidmon McHie and his editors on the Lake County Times helped transform Hammond into a shopping mecca for northwest Indiana. It’s no coincidence that the plot of A Christmas Story revolves around one of Hammond’s great department stores — where the line to see a drunken Santa Claus and some evil elves “stretched all the way back to Terre Haute.”
With a stock broker and capitalist at the helm, the Lake County Times became a colorful, flamboyant paper and enjoyed strong sales. While not known for deep investigative journalism at the time, the paper does provide a window into the social issues of the 1910s and ’20s – from the scandalous rise in American divorce rates to labor struggles at Indiana’s burgeoning steel mills. Much of its “reporting,” however, was syndicated — and wasn’t serious news, anyway.
The Lake County Times wasn’t especially friendly to labor movements or to socialism. During the lead-up to America’s entry into World War I in 1917, it also joined in the vilification of Germany. The Hammond paper helped stoke up public fears during the 1919 “Red Scare,” which involved a crackdown by U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer on anarchists, Communists, and immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, whose politics were suspect in the wake of the Russian Revolution and a wave of anarchist bomb plots. Gary, which participated in the great steel strike of 1919 and was home to thousands of Eastern Europeans, was deeply involved in the “Red Scare.”
That last clip reminds us that women were at the forefront of Prohibition. Yet even during the days of “Saharization,” the Lake County Times published colorful stories about the Jazz Age’s rejection of Victorian norms. Divorcées, flappers, fast cars, and heartbreaks worthy of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel were often sprawled across the front page.
Publisher Sidmon McHie made national news in 1923 and again in 1935, when aspects of his own tempestuous marriage came to light. Daughter of a St. Louis multimillionaire and reportedly also a beauty queen at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Isabel Mulhall had briefly been a theater actress, got divorced, and “hastily” married Sidmon McHie in New York in 1906, when he was living at the Waldorf Astoria. By the 1930s, however, the wealthy couple, who lived in New York and Illinois, ended up estranged.
Part of their divorce proceedings centered on a generous winter-time gift that Isabel had made to farmers near Battle Creek, Michigan, in March 1935. But long before her flamboyant Depression-era “giveaway,” she had been generous to dogs.
In 1923, Isabel announced that she was willing her vast fortune to create a hospital for abused animals. While an earlier free animal hospital in New York City actually predated the New York Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children by a good eight years, the American public and press unfairly lampooned Mrs. McHie as a sour old eccentric who hated human beings.
The Ogden Standard-Examiner was one of the few papers to treat her with any kind of fairness. Speaking to a reporter, she told about a cruel child that had mercilessly tortured a puppy, a scene that could have come straight out of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. As she began to think about her own mortality and draw up a will, Isabel McHie considered leaving a large bequest to a “home for incurable children.” But if the newspapers are correct, the hideous “screechings” of an Episcopal boy’s choir in New York put an end to that — or was it the child that broke a puppy’s leg on purpose? (The McHies had no children of their own.)
Though it never came into being, rumors had it that this would have been the largest animal hospital in the world. A provision in the will specified that McHie’s own ashes be placed next to a marble bust of herself, carved by an Italian sculptor, and that the honored bust and ashes would sit in the entrance to the animal hospital.
In return for her generosity, she got hate mail. Letters accused Isabel McHie of being “wicked” and that the money could have done more good for humans. Why give money to “dumb animals”? Some critics speculated that her motives came from a desire to have “revenge on mankind.” McHie’s response? Animals taught humans to be more humane. (It’s ironic, however, that some of her fortune probably derived from the prosperity of Hammond, named for a butcher.)
Maybe the sneering news stories had an effect on her. Maybe it was her pending divorce suit or ill health. Or maybe she was just tired of being rich. In any case, in March 1935, the 60-year-old Isabel McHie decided to dispose of a large amount of her wealth — before anybody else criticized her will.
On March 20, she withdrew $175,000 of her own or her husband’s money and boarded a passenger train from Chicago’s Dearborn Street Station to Montreal. She was also carrying about $500,000 worth of jewels with her in a bag.
Somewhere outside Battle Creek, Michigan, a conductor noticed Mrs. McHie feeding unbelievably large bills through a ventilator — in currency denominations “as high as $10,000.” This, after all, was one of the worst years of the Great Depression, and the wealthy philanthropist was literally throwing a fortune out the window. Reporters wrote that she also tossed $100 bills into the aisle of a Pullman car. Most of the money seems to have been recovered, but farmers along the railroad tracks in southern Michigan eagerly joined the search for anything left of the money-throwing spree.
Arrested as “hysterical,” Isabel McHie was taken to a hotel in Hammond, where police wanted to investigate hospital records that she tried to withhold. She later sued the Grand Trunk Western Railway for physical assault and false imprisonment — for a million dollars. Sidmon McHie was vacationing at the mineral springs in French Lick, Indiana, when his wife started throwing money away. Their divorce was soon finalized. Isabel McHie died in New York City on April 25, 1939. Contrary to the belief that she hated human beings, most of her estate went to Seeing Eye, Inc., an organization that trained guide dogs for the blind.
The Hammond Times’ owner didn’t survive his ex-wife by long. Sidmon McHie owned a vast stock farm and golf course on the Kankakee River near Momence, Illinois. His obituary notes that “McHie, despite his advanced age, insisted on driving his own automobile because he said that to employ a private chauffeur would remove a man from an essential occupation.” (World War II was still on.) On August 25, 1944, the 81-year-old McHie was hit by a train while driving his car. He died five days later. McHie’s nephew, James S. DeLaurier, took control of the Hammond Times.
The Times dropped Hammond from its name in 1967 and began representing all of northwestern Indiana. It moved its offices to Munster in 1989. Today, the Times of Northwest Indiana is the second-largest newspaper in the state, ranking only behind the Indianapolis Star. Local editions cover Munster, Crown Point, and Valparaiso.
Hoosier State Chronicles expects to have almost two decades of the Lake County Times uploaded and searchable on our website by mid-January 2016.
The best-known maritime disaster of 1912 was obviously the loss of the Titanic. Yet that winter had been fierce in the Midwest. From January to March, ice floes and so-called “icebergs” on Lake Michigan caused more than the usual disruption to shipping, and large parts of the lake froze over.
On March 11, with the great passenger liner’s doom still a month out, Chicagoans got something of a comic omen of that disaster. Afterwards, in late April, fishermen on the lakeshore near Gary, Indiana, made a surprise discovery — a find both morbid and funny.
The short-lived cargo freighter Flora M. Hill had been outfitted in 1910 at Kenosha, Wisconsin, just north of Chicago. Until its demise in March 1912, the ship hauled goods and passengers between Milwaukee, Green Bay and the Windy City. A steel steamer weighing over four-hundred tons, the vessel belonged to the Hill Steamboat Line of Kenosha and was captained by Wallace W. Hill, son of Ludlow Hill, a commercial fisherman who worked out of Drummond Island, Michigan.
This vessel hadn’t always been a freighter, though. Originally, the Flora M. Hill was a U.S. government-owned lighthouse tender named the Dahlia. Built in 1874 by the firm of Neafie & Levy in the Philadelphia shipyards, then put into commission at Detroit, during the 1880s and ’90s the Dahlia was used by the U.S. Lifesaving Service to carry out annual lighthouse inspections up and down Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. The crew set out iron buoys near the treacherous shoals around the Straits of Mackinac and the rocky reefs off the northern U.P. They also submitted ice reports.
(The lighthouse tender Dahlia, later re-outfitted as the Flora M. Hill, in Chicago harbor, during the winter of 1891.)
The “ancient” Dahlia wasn’t considered a reliable vessel, though. Mariners even complained that she had “to run for shelter every time a slight breeze springs up, and is totally unfitted for service in early spring or late in the fall.” In summer 1903, the Lifesaving Service replaced her with then newer Sumac. Then in 1909, the Hill Steamboat Company of Kenosha purchased her outright from the government, turned her into a cargo vessel, and gave her a new name.
Almost as soon as she went back into service, as a ferry between Chicago and points north, the Flora M. Hill figured into an unexplained “wireless hoax.”
In August 1910, Chicagoans were thrown into panic by the report of a passenger ship on fire several miles out. The wireless operator aboard the Christopher Columbus picked up a distress signal sent in Morse Code. With summer vacationers traveling over the lake to Saugatuck, Michigan, and Indiana Dunes, folks ashore feared a passenger liner was going down. Reports then came in that the former lighthouse ship, the Flora M. Hill, was the burning vessel. Fire tugs went out to find it. As the Flora M. Hill cruised into Chicago, however, she reported no mishaps. The hoax was blamed on a radio prankster in the city.
(The Inter Ocean, Chicago, August 12, 1910.)
In January 1912, the freighter had a early foretaste of its icy fate. She left Waukegan on January 13, then went missing. Volunteer search crews lined the lakeshore from Grant Park to Evanston to watch out for them, as well as to keep an eye on the tugs Indiana, Alabama, Iowa, Georgia, and Kansas, all of them stranded in the thick ice but within view. Yet the twenty-five crew members from Kenosha, feared lost, soon showed up at Chicago harbor.
Two months later, however, the Flora M. Hill came to its end. Sailing from Kenosha with a load of brass bedsteads, automotive supplies, leather goods, and a bunch of ladies’ silk underwear — all produced at Wisconsin factories — the ship got stranded in heavy ice floes just two miles from the Carter H. Harrison crib in Chicago.
Captain Wallace Hill hadn’t judged the floe dangerous. Yet when jammed a hole through the iron, and with his propeller jammed, he had to send out distress signals. By noon on March 11, the captain and crew of thirty-one, including a 72-year-old pilot and a female cook, had to abandon ship.
Fortunately, unlike the crew and passengers of the H.M.S. Titanic, they managed to get to safety — by walking, crawling, and jumping over “ice islands.”
(The Inter Ocean, March 12, 1912.)
Like Ernest Shackleton’s crew after The Endurance was crushed in Antarctic pack ice, the crew of the Flora M. Hill struck out for terra firma. The water underneath them, in fact, was just thirty-seven feet deep. The cook, Mrs. Sanville, hadn’t even wanted to leave the ship behind — she loved her stove — and she as the men manned the pumps, she continued cooking food and brewing fresh coffee for them. Yet as the group headed for shore, they helped protect Sanville and the elderly pilot, Theodore Thompson, from exposure to the wind. They had been caught in a blinding snowstorm.
Not far out, the crew were met by the tug Indiana, which had sped out as fast as possible to their rescue after getting the distress call.
(The tugboat Indiana carried the crew to Chicago’s Dearborn Street landing.)
(The Inter Ocean, March 12, 1912.)
What was left of the vessel, sunk in shallow water, was dynamited by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1913 as a navigational hazard. In 1976, a diver rediscovered the wreck’s remains, still used as a “beginner’s dive site” for recreational underwater explorers. Some divers have even brought up automobile headlamps, vestiges of the early days of Wisconsin’s long-disappeared auto industry.
Not all the wreckage of the Flora M. Hill, however, went to the bottom of Lake Michigan.
On April 21, 1912, a week after the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic, fishermen at Miller Beach, Indiana — now part of Gary — reported some unusual finds there. Investigators confirmed the identity of this cargo when a couple of life jackets bearing the name Flora M. Hill turned up amid the wreckage. This story came out in Hammond’s Lake County Times on April 22 — directly beneath a report on the recovery of Titanic victims.
Comically, the morbid coffins — probably empty ones in transport — weren’t the only objects found to have washed up on the Indiana shore.
“In a certain town in Indiana, whose name I don’t wish to recall, there lived a gentleman with a lance in the rack and an old suit of armor . .”
Not exactly the canonical opening of Don Quixote. Cervantes’ classic Spanish novel told of the comic adventures of an old man of La Mancha whose brain had dried up reading books about knights-errant and who went to war on windmills, thinking they were giants. What happened to Mike Inik, “just a U.S. lunatic,” is a little less clear.
On December 4, 1916, while wearing a bizarre homemade suit made out of iron armor and kitchen pans, 49-year-old Inik shot up the Lake County Superior Court in Hammond, Indiana. His grievance? The disputed decimal value of a disability check he’d hung onto for seven years.
Inik’s origins are obscure. A Google search for the last name turns up just a couple of examples, most of them in Turkey. The Lake County Times says he was an immigrant from the Balkans, which used to be part of the Ottoman Empire. Mike, however, had been the town “character” in Whiting, Indiana, as far back as 1889, when he was injured by a piece of pipe that hit him in the back or head while working at a Rockefeller-owned oil refinery. Another account said he fell off a scaffold. At that time, the Whiting Refinery on Lake Michigan, founded the year of Mike’s injury, was the largest in the United States. Today it’s owned by BP.
Doctors judged that Inik suffered from “monomania.” No longer used as a psychiatric term, in the 1800s it denoted a form of pathological obsession with one thing — yet an otherwise sound mind. On the 1880 U.S. Census, monomania was listed as one of just seven recognized categories of mental illness. Monomaniacs ranged from misers like Ebenezer Scrooge in his counting-house, to Poe’s madman fixated on an old man’s “vulture eye,” to the criminal in a Sherlock Holmes story hell-bent on smashing busts of Napoleon. Maybe the gold-obsessed Spanish conquistadors could be thrown in there, too.
Inik, who dressed like a conquistador, directed his “monomania” at John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.
In 1913, Inik even allegedly traveled to Washington, D.C., to take up his case with the President.
The Lake County Times account gives the impression that this “lunatic” touted his suit of armor around town for a long time — perhaps to protect himself from falling pipes?
When he came to court on December 4 to hear another trial about the status of his disability settlement, Inik was wearing his protective covering and arsenal. Oddly, it seems nobody noticed the weapons. He even spoke with a county prosecutor in his office beforehand while wearing full battle regalia under his clothes. The gear Inik carried consisted of four .38-caliber revolvers, clubs, and “hatchets galore” — including a saber, hammer, butcher knife, and blackjack, plus 165 rounds of ammunition. Somehow concealed from view, Inik’s bizarre get-up was put together out of bits of galvanized iron, dishpans and washboilers.
As Judge C.E. Greenwald berated the injured man and told him to go home and take a bath, Inik became irate and suddenly opened fire. He managed to get off seven rounds, injuring a bailiff and a juror, before a group subdued him.
Thrown in jail in Crown Point, Inik quickly went on trial again for his mental health. This time, Judge Walter Hardy consigned him to the “booby hatch,” the psychiatric ward or “colony for the criminally insane” at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.
“Eine der beliebtesten und bekanntesten Schauspielerinnen des deutschen Stummfilms… One of the most beloved and best-known actresses of the German silent movie industry.”
That’s the verdict of Die freie Enzyklopädie, Germany’s homegrown Wikipedia. Yet this actress who skyrocketed to about a decade of European fame wasn’t German.
In the days when German Expressionism was pushing cinema forward — Fritz Lang’s Metropoliswas probably the greatest film of the 1920s, alongside the silent horror classics Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — Fern Andra was almost a household name in Germany. Yet her roots were deep in the American Midwest. In addition to acting in bloody horror flicks, Fern worked as an American spy, married a German baron and a boxing champion, fell from the sky almost to her death with one of Germany’s great fighter pilots, and even tangled with one of the most evil men in history.
(Weimar-era German cinema was known for its revolutionary costume artistry, stage design, and the creative genius of its women. One of the great characters of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was a “gynoid” robot called Maschinenmensch. C-3PO’s cinematic grandmother was played by actress Brigitte Helm, who died in 1996. Lang’s movie was based on a novel by his wife, Thea von Harbou.)
Fern Andra was born Vernal Edna Andrews in 1894 in Watseka, Illinois, a small Kankakee Valley farm town about fifteen miles west of Kentland, Indiana. Her parents were William P. Andrews and Sarah Emily Evett, also known as Sadie. When Fern’s father died in 1898, Sadie remarried Frank St. Clair, a vaudeville actor, circus performer, and tight-rope walker.
Learning stunts from her stepfather, Fern began her stage career at the Stephens Brothers Opera House in Watseka. Aged ten or eleven, she headed to Chicago with a theatrical troupe, performing at the Globe Theatre. Between about 1905 and 1913, Fern went to school in Hammond, Indiana, where her mother and stepfather had relocated. Sadie St. Clair owned or rented a house at 184 State Street and later lived in Gary. Her daughter was remembered as a “Hammond girl” and would often come back and visit her family in northwest Indiana.
It’s not clear how she evaded her classes in Hammond, but by age fifteen she was part of the Millman Trio. Headed by the famous high-wire walker Bird Millman, the trio performed for President Taft at the White House in 1909. (Born Jennadean Engleman, Bird later became a dancer in the great “theatrical juggernaut,” the Ziegfeld Follies.)
By 1914, when World War I broke out, 20-year-old Fern had gone to Europe, where she was a popular stunt performer and minor stage actress. That year, she found herself trapped in Germany. But since the U.S. didn’t go to war against the Kaiser’s armies until 1917, she wasn’t considered an enemy alien and was even offered movie contracts. As “Fern Andrée,” she had already appeared in silent short films called Das Ave Maria (1913) and Mondfischerin (“The Fisher of the Moon,” 1914). During World War I, the midwestern actress starred in over twenty German films. She had probably become fluent in the language by then, but since these movies were all silent, her nationality wasn’t important. . . until she was accused of being an American spy.
The details are sketchy, but sources agree that Fern — who now went under the sultrier stage name “Andra” or even “The Andra” — was at least detained by German police. In the 1950s, she claimed that her personal acquaintance with Kaiser Wilhelm himself saved her. “I was accused of spying for the Allies,” she remarked:
It was true, but not for the reasons they thought. Actually, I was a courier, memorizing coded messages and repeating them to American contacts in Copenhagen… I was lucky. I was a movie star at the time, living in Berlin and a friend of the royal family. To save me, it was arranged for me to marry Baron Frederick von und zu Weichs, a member of the Hohenzollern family.
The rumor in America, however, was that Fern had been condemned to death by a firing squad. Gossip about her death came out in the Hammond paper just three days before the war ended.
Bavarian Baron Friedrich von und zu Weichs was said to be a nephew of Zita, the last Empress of Austria. Fern and Friedrich were married September 28, 1918, and the “Hammond girl” immediately became Baroness Weichs. About a month later, just a few weeks before the war ended, her husband was killed on the Western Front.
Fortunately, she’d come into some money. By 1919, when the former Hoosier girl made the front page of the Lake County Times, Baroness Fern, who had briefly been detained as a P.O.W., was running her own film company in Berlin.
Though its military was banned and its economy was in shambles, as the Jazz Age dawned, Germany entered a period of cultural brilliance known as the “Weimar Era.” Berlin in the 1920s was chaotic but saw the rise of iconic German geniuses like the Bauhaus architects, Expressionist filmmakers and painters, and some of the best-known German philosophers and writers. Fern Andra was part of this incredible, if often bizarre, cultural cocktail.
In 1920, she played a leading role in a new Stummfilm (silent film) called Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire. Made by filmmaker Robert Wiene, Genuine was filmed in the same vein, part-horror/part-fantasy, of Murnau’s vampiric Nosferatu. Fern plays a high priestess, named “Genuine,” who steps out of a painting and comes to life, then turns to bloodsucking. In one scene, Andra caused a sensation by appearing in an outfit that had merely been painted onto her body. Though it starred the actress hailed by many as “the most beautiful girl in Europe,” Wiene’s film wasn’t well-liked and critics called it a failure. Twenty-first-century moviegoers would like it even less, but its stage design and outrageous costumes are still interesting — if only for the background, which evokes the kind of graffiti you could see sprayed on the side of a Burlington Northern freight car.
When Genuine hit the silver screen, World War I was over. But in 1921, Fern Andra was involved in a famous accident that cost the life of one of Germany’s greatest fighter pilots.
Lothar von Richthofen was the younger brother of Manfred van Richthofen, best-known to Americans as the “Red Baron,” Germany’s ace warrior of the sky. Manfred was shot down and killed over France in April 1918, but Lothar was almost as famous. After the war, he worked as an airmail pilot and taxied passengers between Hamburg and Berlin.
On July 4, 1922, while flying Fern Andra and her director Georg Bluen into Hamburg’s Fuhlsbüttel Airport, Richthofen’s engine gave out and the plane crashed. The great pilot was killed, but Andra and Bluen, though injured, survived.
In 1923, the Hoosier beauty married German middleweight boxing champion Kurt Prenzel, who had been interned as a POW at Knockaloe on the Isle of Man. In 1925, Prenzel saved his wife from being bitten by a supposedly rabid dog and suffered a bite that kept him from boxing for about a year, a fact that reportedly figured into their divorce around the time he emigrated to New York City in 1928.
In addition to acting, Fern wrote or directed about twenty German films, but called her German film career quits in 1927. Her last movie made there was Funkzauber (Radio Magic). Until about 1930, she remained active in the Hollywood film business, and even married actor Ian Keith in Tijuana, Mexico, in 1934. Keith would star as Octavian in Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra and as Bill Thorpe, a Louisiana gambler, in the John Wayne film The Big Trail. Andra and Keith divorced in Chicago a year after their wedding.
Meanwhile, she was paying visits to her mother, Sadie St. Clair. In the 1930s, Sadie was living at 636 Washington Street in Gary, Indiana, in “a crowded flat over a furniture store.” The address is right across the street from one of Gary’s most iconic and photographed ruins, the abandoned City United Methodist Church. Though it has sat empty and gutted since the late 1970s, plans are on the table to transform the old church into a European-style “ruin garden.” The German Expressionists would have been the first to use this gloomy Rust Belt ruin in their films. One can easily imagine the specters of F.W. Murnau and Robert Wiene creeping out of the choir stalls, and Fritz Lang would have been fascinated by the fiery steel mills and modernist clamor of Gary before the city slipped into decline.
Though she was spending most of her time in California by this time, Fern’s involvement with Germany wasn’t over. In the early 1930’s, she challenged the rise of Nazism. The militaristic party of thugs opposed almost everything Weimar culture stood for, to the point of burning its books and destroying its art.
There had once been unconfirmed rumors that Fern had had a love affair with Adolf Hitler’s “Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.” Andra apparently knew the despised propagandist Joseph Goebbels before his rise to power, and she remembered him later as a “mousy tutor.” (Goebbels had studied philosophy at the University of Heidelberg and was the perfect example of a good education gone awry.) In 1937, Andra and Goebbels clashed over the freedom of foreign artists to be active in Nazi Germany. She had even testified before the U.S. Congress about the Third Reich’s discrimination against non-Aryan artists.
Engaging in a “verbal fusillade,” according to one account, Goebbels and Andra got into a fight during which the Propaganda Minister threatened to imprison her. He then systematically went about trashing her reputation, even claiming that she was a Hungarian impostor, not an American. If sources are correct (and there’s a chance they’re exaggerated) Fern escaped by plane into Romania, then headed back to the United States. Since she spoke fluent German, she aided the Allies during World War II by broadcasting radio messages into Germany. Her enemy Goebbels, Hitler’s master of lies, committed suicide in 1945 — after murdering his own children.
Fern Andra continued to visit and live in Germany after the war. In November 1954, she was photographed talking to Baroness Kunigunde von Richthofen, mother of Manfred and Lothar. They met up at the American Civilian Club in Wiesbaden.
Fern and her fourth husband, a playwright and soldier from Connecticut named General Samuel Edge Dockrell, seem to have lived in Wiesbaden and New England until the early 1970s, but often visited the Midwest. They eventually moved to South Carolina, where Dockrell died two days after they got there.
Baroness Fern Andra, Hammond girl, succumbed to cancer at Azalea Woods Nursing Home in Aiken, South Carolina, at age 80 on February 8, 1974.
Her fame vanished in the 1940s, and few Americans would know her name today. But Hoosier State Chronicles would like to put her back out there as one of the most interesting women who has ever lived within the borders of our state.
Hoosier State Chronicles is about to fix one big gap in our online newspaper archives — the absence of northwestern Indiana, that colorful region of steel mills and dunes beaches and the pulse of Chicago throbbing out there in the distance. In the next few months, we’ll bring you a long run of Hammond’s Lake County Times from 1906 into the early days of Prohibition.
Hammond’s proximity to the Windy City means that its reporters covered plenty of stories from America’s Jazz Age — the heady days of flappers, gangsters, speakeasies, marriage mills, divorce courts, and the rise and fall of Indiana’s powerful Ku Klux Klan. You’ll see how the Roaring Twenties played out in towns like Hammond, Gary, Crown Point, East Chicago, Hobart and Munster. But until we’re done digitizing, we’ll just tantalize you with a story here and there.
Here’s a funny clip about the history of impatience… on both ends of the line. Published in the Lake County Times on February 10, 1923, this story is from Whiting, a Lake Michigan town right on the Illinois state line.
Irish eyes might be smiling. But you’ve been forewarned: never swear at an Irish “hello girl.”