Summer is upon us, and one of the staples of American summers is fast food. It’s always a blast to roll down the windows, crank up the tunes, and head on over to your favorite drive-thru. Now, we all know about the classics: McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC. But there’s one fast-food giant, wildly popular from 1950s through the 70s, which almost beat them all. That was Indianapolis-based Burger Chef.
Hoosier State Chronicles is happy to announce our YouTube channel! This channel will be devoted to Indiana’s history and its relevance to everyday Hoosiers.
First up is our video essay on the Reno Gang. Often credited with the “first train robbery in America,” the Renos were a gang of outlaws that roamed the Indiana and Missouri countryside in the 1860s, stealing loot from banks and county treasuries.
While their crimes became legendary, the community’s response proved equally legendary. Local sheriffs, Allan Pinkerton’s men, Canadian detectives, and the Jackson County Vigilance Committee all strove to exact justice on the Renos and their accomplices.
In this first video, we will uncover the trail of destruction left behind, not only by the Reno Gang, but by those who punished them.
For all of human history, natural disasters have plagued the citizens of villages, towns, and nations. One such incident, the volcanic eruptions on Martinique and St. Vincent in 1902, displayed the immense destruction left in the wake of such a tragedy. As one of the few journalists allowed back to the islands after the eruptions, James P. Hornaday, Washington correspondent for the Indianapolis News, witnessed the devastation first-hand and wrote detailed articles about his experiences. In doing so, Hornaday chronicled one of the world’s most violent natural disasters and provided future scholars with a thorough rough draft of what came after.
The islands of Martinique and St. Vincent served as colonial outposts in the Caribbean; the former belonged to the French and the latter belonged to the English. In particular, the Indianapolis News described Martinique as “one of the West Indies, belonging to the chain of the Lesser Antilles. . . . thirty-three miles south of Dominica and twenty-two north of St. Lucia.” St. Vincent, the largest of a chain of islands collectively known as the Grenadines, sits within miles of Martinique. Both islands contained valuable natural resources, agriculture, and industry, especially sugar. Being the creations of tectonic shifts and volcanic activity, Martinique and St. Vincent always faced the potential threat of violent eruptions. However, nearly no one in 1902 expected what carnage awaited them.
On May 8, 1902, after a few days of growing volcanic pressure, Mount Pelée spewed forth ash, rocks, and steam that completely covered the city of St. Pierre, Martinique’s population center. The News reported that St. Pierre was “totally destroyed by earthquakes and volcanic disturbances” and that “almost all the inhabitants—more than 25,000—are said to have been killed.” This left the thousands who survived “without food or shelter.” Across the way, St. Vincent’s Soufrière volcano also gained momentum, with “a big cloud of steam” lingering over the island and startling its inhabitants. The trouble for both of these islands was only beginning.
Within days, the news of Martinique’s destruction reached the ears of two prominent Indiana legislators, U.S. Senators Albert J. Beveridge and Charles W. Fairbanks. They started crafting legislation that would send relief supplies to the island, originally calling for an appropriation of $100,000. Upping the ante, President Theodore Roosevelt asked for $500,000 from Congress. They eventually settled on a compromise of $200,000 (over $5.6 million in 2016 dollars) after further negotiations in the appropriations committee led by Indiana Congressman James A. Hemenway. The president also offered his condolences to the French president, Emile Loubet. “I pray your excellency,” President Roosevelt wrote, “to accept the profound sympathy of the American people in the appalling calamity which has come upon the people of Martinique.” Additionally, his message to Congress stressed the importance of a swift relief effort. “I have directed the departments of the Treasury, of the War and of the Navy to take such measures for the relief of those stricken people as lies within the executive discretion,” he declared.
By May 12, the death toll on Martinique grew to 30,000 and the island was engulfed in “almost total darkness.” Among the living, some 50,000 people were without homes, ample food, and supplies. Nearby islands began taking in refugees, but that also came with difficulties. As one Guadeloupe civil servant said, “I do not believe Gaudeloupe [sic] can adequately relieve the stupendous distress.” The next day, the News reported that 1,600 people perished in the eruptions on St. Vincent. James Taylor, an officer on the Quebec shipping liner Roraima, shared his encounter with Mount Pelée:
Suddenly I heard a tremendous explosion. Ashes began to fall thicker upon the deck, and I could see a black cloud sweeping down upon us. I dived below, and, dragging with me Samuel Thomas, a gangway man and fellow-countryman, sprang into a room, shutting the door to keep out the heat that was already unbearable.
He also shared, in painful detail, the aftermath of the destruction:
All about were lying the dead and the dying. Little children were moaning for water. I did what I could for them. I obtained water, but when it was held to their swollen lips they were unable to swallow, because of the ashes which clogged their throats.
The Reverend William A. Maher, an Indianapolis native who frequently visited Martinique, also expressed his thoughts on the tragedy that fell upon the island. “The horror of this destruction in Martinique is appalling to me,” Maher noted, “It may be that it comes to me more strongly for the reason that some of the persons I have known may have been among the victims.”
Over the next month, Hornaday wrote about his experiences aboard the Dixie and on the islands of Martinique and St. Vincent. The News ran these stories as front page features for over a week. The first article appeared on June 5, 1902, under the title, “With the Relief Boat Dixie: First Story of Uncle Sam’s Work.” Hornaday described his time on the relief vessel, learning from the eminent scientists and military personnel as well as his first glimpses of the Mount Pelée and the island. “In a little while the clouds that surrounded and obscured the volcano on the island shifted, and the crater came into full view,” wrote the newsman, “The island, containing only five square miles, looked like a great heap of volcanic debris piled up—as it really is.”
As he went ashore, Hornaday saw some of the refugees for the first time:
Thousands of refugees, with faces almost expressionless, crowded the sea line in the town of Fort-de-France. Many of them implored the strangers to take them away. To stay, they said, meant certain death.
Two small steamboats, plying the Caribbean waters, were being loaded with such refugees as could raise money enough to get away. Families carried on their heads all their earthly possessions and dumped them into these boats
As for those who stayed on Martinique, he noted their reluctance to use electricity, which resulted in the city of Fort-de-France switching from “electric lights to candles.” “The sensibilities of the natives,” wrote Hornaday, “seemed to be so paralyzed that grief could not manifest itself.”
In his next article, Hornaday pieced together a rough outline of the events that resulted in the destruction of St. Pierre. Les Colonies, Martinique’s premier newspaper, served as a guide for some of his conclusions. One of the first indications of volcanic activity was reported on April 25, a full 12 days before the eruption. A “picnic guide” named Julian Romain saw what he described as “a boiling mass of what be called ‘bituminous stuff’” around the volcano. “In the cauldron of the crater I saw a boiling, black mixture of bituminous stuff, it rose up, popped, and allowed jets of steam to escape,” Romain said of his encounter with Mount Pelée. Showers of ashes emerged from the sky by May 1, which “did not reach St. Pierre, but guides returning to the summit reported that the ground was well covered high up on the side of the mountain.” May 5 brought on more steam, ash, and eventually boiling water that “formed a good river, and rushed down the mountain side.” The watery onslaught “engulfed several large sugar-cane mills and killed many persons—how many will never be known, for no record had been made up before the great disaster came.”
Two days later, a government commission published a report arguing that “Mont Pelée [sic] offers no more danger to the people of St. Pierre than Vesuvius offer to those of Naples.” The editor and publisher of Les Colonies sided with the government in an attempt to calm the island. “Since the day Jules Romain looked over into the boiling cauldron no one knows what has happened on Pelée,” the editor opined, “We only know we have been getting ashes. What has to-morrow in store for us?” As Hornaday solemnly noted, “the next morning the man who penned those lines was smothered by the escaping gas and buried beneath the ruins of his little printing office.”
Hornaday surveyed the ruins of St. Pierre on May 22, with his reporting appearing in the News on June 7. “In a land area ten miles wide and twelve miles long every living thing was destroyed. . . . the dead were buried by the same force that destroyed the life,” he reported. As he walked around, he would eventually see Pelée and the outline of the former city. Here are some of his details:
Pelée, rising to the northeast of the city, was cloaked in gray ashes from base to summit. Here and there up the side of the mountain could be seen jets of steam issuing forth. The whole scene was one of desolation. Not a sprig of green came within the range of sight. As we drew a little nearer the beach off St. Pierre the details of the ruins stood out before us.
As for those “details,” Hornaday wrote of city buildings ravaged like “children’s blocks tumbled over” and ashes that “buried the dead to a considerable depth.” The island’s governor was reported lost in the wreckage and no attempt was made to recover his body “which, from the general appearance of the place, was buried in ten feet of debris from the building and the ashes from the volcano.” Hornaday stared death in the eyes and he and his crew left the island “happy…to put the picture behind us.”
From there, the coverage shifted from the destruction to the relief efforts. Hornaday’s article from June 9 outlined the efforts of relief workers and the response from the natives. “A whole dozen steamers had emptied their cargoes on the island within ten days after the disaster” when the Dixie and its crew arrived to deliver its supplies. During Pelée’s active eruption on May 8, a vast majority of citizens scrambled towards the north end of the island towards the city of St. Pierre. As Hornaday discovered, “practically every life in the north half of the island had been sacrificed.” Despite the seemingly good intentions of those offering help, the thousands who survived apparently saw the relief efforts in a different light. “The population, almost entirely colored, showed no appreciation of the donation of food and clothing by the United States,” Hornaday opined. By contrast, “the government and city officials, of course, did appreciate the act.”
Now, it is safe to assume that a statement such as this could be seen as prejudiced, as he singled out the natives of color from the government. In that light, Hornaday’s view on the situation is rather myopic. The people who survived had just gone through the worst disaster of their lives, one the government promised just days before would not happen. Perhaps the natives did not feel like trusting the outsiders and the governments who support them as a result. The island also suffered through an additional eruption on May 20 that reached parts of Fort-de-France, although no one died. Additionally, Hornaday reported that many of the natives felt “numb” from the entire experience, so it’s reasonable to suggest that while Martinique’s government appreciated the good intentions of relief effort, the natives had good reasons to be weary of the whole thing.
The attitude of St. Vincent could not have been more different. As Hornaday pointed out in his article from June 10, “the cruiser [Dixie] was received by the governor and the officers of the British cruisers as a friend in need, and arrangements were made at once to receive the stores.” While many died on Martinique, St. Vincent had far more injured survivors and thousands “made penniless and homeless.” While St. Vincent’s government appeared just as grateful as Martinique’s, the natives also appreciated the American relief efforts. “Everywhere one heard expressions of good will toward America for having so promptly come to the relief of the stricken people,” Hornaday highlighted. Again, this is one reporter’s view of the situation, but it is worth noting that the British island (St. Vincent) received the Americans more favorably than the French Island (Martinique). As political scientist Sidney Milkis noted, the Roosevelt administration’s relations with France did not strengthen until the second term.
After four intense days of investigation, James P. Hornaday left the island of St. Vincent on May 25, 1902 aboard the Madiana, while the Dixie stayed behind and unloaded the relief supplies. The Madiana also carried “as many wealthy refugees as she can carry,” which were described by Hornaday as “well-to-do whites.” He further noted that “the opinion was expressed by the refugees brought away that within a year many of the islands would be entirely left to the negroes.” As with his many pontifications, Hornaday comes off as wildly obtuse, if not prejudiced. Regardless, this passage is telling for one clear reason. Martinique and St. Vincent were colonial outposts, which gave their respective French and British transplants easy access off the island while the natives were left to fend for themselves. It is a case study, among many others, that documents the problematic practices of colonialism and imperialism at the turn of the century. While many non-natives perished, like the US consulate and his family, they had the easiest access to food, shelter, medical treatment, and transportation. The natives were not so lucky.
In his final article, dated June 14, 1902, Hornaday makes some tentative conclusions about the entire ordeal. He praised the “promptness with which the United States came to the relief of the needy in Martinique and St. Vincent” and that the “act touched the people of the colonies and they will not soon forget it.” That is, except those who were uneasy about American aid; this is Hornaday slightly reversing his previous conclusions, unless he is talking solely about the islands’ governments. He also praised the work of the scientific community whose initial investigations concluded “that there was ample warning from both Pelée and Soufrière” and “it is nearly always possible to foretell an eruption in time to save life.” Finally, he honored those who died in the destruction, especially American service members:
If the names of the officers and the sailors of the ships who went down could be ascertained and their families sought out wherever they may be there would be undoubtedly be an opportunity to spend wisely the relief fund which the United States holds a reserve. And since the names of most of the ships are known, it ought not to be a task beyond performance.
Once all of his articles were released, the Indianapolis Newspublished Hornaday’s work in a pamphlet, known as the Martinique Letters, on June 19, 1902. It sold for 10 cents a copy and hailed as “a connected and comprehensive account for the great volcanic disasters.”
Sadly, Martinique suffered another volcanic upset on August 30, 1902, killing several hundred people near the towns of Carbet and Morne Rouge. One of the fatalities was Father Père Marie, who aided the scientific teams and journalists during the initial destruction on Martinique. Hornaday wrote an obituary for Mare that appeared in the News. “If the cable report be true,” he wrote, “his parishioners have perished.” Hornaday praised the priest for his kind assistance on the island during his investigations the previous May.
Martinique and St. Vincent eventually recovered from the tragedies of 1902 and the latter became an independent nation in 1979. Martinique is still a part of France but is no longer a colony; it became an “overseas department” in 1946 that grants its citizens full rights under the French government. Fort-de-France, the major city that survived the eruptions, became the capital. Their towns, villages, and economies all bounced back and both have become viable producers of sugar as well as prime tourist destinations. They have faced volcanic activity since their 1902 disasters but have always found a way to endure.
As for James Hornaday, he worked as the White House Correspondent for the Indianapolis News for another 33 years and became the Dean of White House Correspondents. He died on December 24, 1935 at his desk in Washington, writing up new stories about President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. The president released an official statement the next day:
I share with his legion of friends the grief which the passing of James P. Hornaday has brought to all of us at this Christmas time. Dean of White House Correspondents, he had through long years faithfully chronicled national events, not less admired for his talents as a newspaperman than he was beloved because of the beauty and strength of his personal character. There was, there is, among Washington newspapermen no gentler, truer soul than Jim Hornaday. We shall long remember him, and miss him, and mourn him, and be thankful that we were permitted to know him and love him.
The obituary in the Indianapolis Star also lauded the legendary newsman. Reporter Gavin Payne wrote, “I have never known a man who, in my opinion, outranked him in the sterling qualities of manhood. . . . few men have attained a higher reputation in Washington correspondence.” The article also noted his love for Indiana, saying, “He a was a true Hoosier, and though living in Washington for much more than a quarter of a century, never lost his attachment for the folks back home.”
James P. Hornaday’s articles about Martinique and St. Vincent stand among some of the Indianapolis News’ finest reporting from the period. It was also rather unique; a veteran Hoosier reporter traveled across a continent to vividly chronicle the destruction of some of the Caribbean’s most treasured islands. He helped readers then and now understand the immense geographic, political, economic, and personal struggles these islands faced in the wake of such a disaster. While some of his conclusions about the natives are out of touch with our modern sensibilities, which should be acknowledged, he nonetheless created a portrait of the event that resonates even today. He shows us what journalists will often go through to get their story, even when the world is on fire.
Despite its status as a free state in the federal union, Indiana maintained a complicated relationship with the institution of slavery. The Northwest Territory, incorporated in 1787, banned slavery under Article VI of the Articles of Compact. Nevertheless, enslaved people were allowed in the region well after lawmakers organized the Indiana Territory in 1800. As historians John D. Barnhart and Dorothy L. Riker noted, there were an estimated 15 people enslaved in and around Vincennes in 1800. This number only represented a fraction of the 135 slaves enumerated in the 1800 census. When Indiana joined the Union as a free state in 1816, pockets of slave-holding citizens remained well into the 1830s.
Making matters more complicated, Indiana ratified a new constitution in 1851 that included Article XIII, which prohibited new settlement of African Americans into the state. Article XIII also encouraged colonization of African Americans already living in the state. The Indiana General Assembly even passed legislation creating a fund for the implementation of colonization in 1852. It stayed on the books until 1865. This, along with a litany of “black codes,” limited the civil rights of free African Americans and harsher penalties for African Americans seeking freedom. As historian Emma Lou Thornbrough observed, Indiana’s policies exhibited an “intense racial prejudice” and a fear of free, African American labor. One window into understanding complex history of fugitive slaves is by analyzing newspapers. Ads for runaways, fugitive slave narratives, and court case proceedings permeate Indiana’s historic newspapers. This blog will unearth some of the stories in Indiana newspapers that document the long and uneasy history of African American freedom seekers in the Hoosier state.
Runaway advertisements predominantly chronicled fugitive slavery in Indiana newspapers during the antebellum period. These ads would provide the slave’s name, age, a physical description, their last known whereabouts, and a reward from their owner. One of the earliest ads comes from the September 18, 1804 issue of the Indiana Gazette, while Indiana was still a territory. It described two slaves, Sam and Rebeccah, who had run away from their owner in New Bourbon, Louisiana. Sam was in his late twenties and apparently had burns on his feet. Rebeccah was a decade younger than Sam and “was born black, but has since turned white, except a few black spots.” This might have been a case of vitiligo, a skin pigment disorder. In any event, their owner offered a fifty dollar reward for “any person who will apprehend and bring back said negroes, or lodge them in any jail so that the owner may get them.”
On December 9, 1807, the Western Sun ran a similar ad with a small, etched illustration of a runaway slave. Slaveholder John Taylor offered thirty dollars for the capture and return of three slaves (two men and one woman) who had taken two horses and some extra clothes. “Whoever secures the above negroes,” Taylor said, “shall have the above reward, and all reasonable charges if taken within the state; or ninety dollars, if out of the state . . . .”
These ads escalated after Indiana’s statehood in 1816, leading to expansions of the role of local officials. As Emma Lou Thornbrough noted, African Americans “were sometimes arrested and jailed on the suspicion that they were fugitives enough though no one had advertised them.” For example, the Western Sun & General Advertiser published a runaway ad on June 27, 1818 asking for the return of Archibald Murphey, a fugitive from Tennessee who had been captured in Posey County. Sheriff James Robb, and not Murphey’s supposed owner, took it upon himself to run an ad for the runaway’s return. “The owner is requested to come forward [,] pay charges, and take him away,” the ad demanded.
Owners understood the precarious nature of retrieving their slaves, so some resorted to long ad campaigns in multiple newspapers. A slave named Brister fled Barren County, Kentucky in 1822, likely carrying free papers and traveling north to Ohio. His owner offered a $100 reward for his return for at least three months in the Western Sun & General Advertiser. He had also advertised in the Cincinnati Inquisitor, Vincennes Inquirer, Brookville Enquirer, Vandalia Intelligencer, and Edwardsville Spectator.
Other ads provided physical descriptions that indicated the toll of slavery on a human being. Two runaways, named Ben and Reuben, suffered from multiple ailments. Ben had his ears clipped “for robbing a boat on the Ohio river” while Reuben lived with a missing finger and a strained hip. Lewis, a fugitive from Limestone County, Alabama, had a “cut across one of his hands” that caused “one finger to be a little stiff.” They could also be rather graphic. The Leavenworth Arena posted an ad in its July 9, 1840 issue requesting the return of a slave named Smallwood, who scarred his ankles from a mishap with a riding horse; reportedly a “trace chain” wrapped around his legs, “tearing off the flesh.” The pain these men, among many others, endured from the years of their bondage was sadly treated as mere details in these advertisements.
While ads represented a substantial portion of newspaper coverage, articles and court proceedings also provided detail about the calamitous lives of fugitive slaves. First, court cases provide essential insight into the legal procedures regarding fugitive slaves before the Civil War. The Western Sun & General Advertiserpublished the court proceedings of one such case in its November 21, 1818 issue. John L. Chastian, a Kentucky slaveholder, claimed a woman named Susan as his slave and issued a warrant for her return. Corydon judge Benjamin Parke ruled in favor of Chastian on the grounds that Susan had not sufficiently demonstrated her claim to freedom and the motion for a continuance on this question was overruled. Even if Susan had been a free person, the legal system provided substantial benefits to the slaveholders, and since she could not demonstrate her freedom, she was therefore obligated to the claimant.
As for abolitionists, they faced court challenges as well. In 1843, Quaker Jonathan Swain stood before a grand jury in Union Circuit Court, “to testify in regard to harboring fugitive slaves, and assisting in their flight to Canada.” When asked to testify, Swain refused on grounds of conscience. The judge in the case granted him two days to reconsider his choice. When Swain returned, “he duly presented himself before the Judge, Bible under his arm, and declared his readiness to abide the decision and sentence of the Court.” The judge cited Swain in contempt and jailed him, “there to remain until he would affirm, or should be otherwise discharged.” This episode was one of many that demonstrated the intense religious and moral convictions of Quakers and their resistance to slavery.
By contrast, many of those who sought slaves faced little challenge. The Evansville Tri-Weekly Journal reported that Thomas Hardy and John Smith, on trial in the Circuit Court of Gibson County for kidnapping, were acquitted of all charges. The judge’s ruling hinged only on a fugitive slave notice. This notice provided “sufficient authority for any person to arrest such fugitive and take him to his master.” As with the case involving Susan, the alleged slaves procured in this case received less legal protection than the two vigilantes that captured them. These trends continued well into the 1850s through the end of the Civil War.
Second, numerous articles and narratives concerning fugitive slaves and free persons claimed as fugitives were published during the antebellum period. The passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, of which Indiana kept its obligation to enforce, exacerbated coverage. Some articles were merely short notices, explaining that a certain number of alleged fugitive slaves were passing through a town or getting to a particular destination. The Evansville Daily Journalran a brief description in 1859 about two men “who had the appearance of escaped slaves, came upon the Evansville road, last night, and passed on to Indianapolis.” It was also reported that they “had a white adviser with them on the cars,” supposedly a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. In another piece, the Journal wrote uncharitably about a “stampede of slaves” that:
. . . left their master’s roofs, escaped to the Licking river where they lashed together several canoes, and in disguise they rowed down the Licking river to the Ohio and crossed, where they disembarked and made a circuitous route to the northern part of Cincinnati.
After their travel to Cincinnati, the twenty-three fugitives began their route to Canada via the Underground Railroad.
Conductors of the Underground Railroad also faced arrest for the aid of fugitive slaves. Another article from the Evansville Journal chronicled the arrest of a man known simply as “Brown” who aided four female slaves to an Underground Railroad stop at Petersburgh, Indiana. A US Marshal and a local Sheriff “charge[d] on the ‘worthy conductor,’ and he surrendered.” The officers returned Brown to the Henderson jail for processing. It was later discovered that he received $200 from a free African American for his last job. The Journal described Brown as a “notorious abolitionist, and if guilty of the thieving philanthropy with which he is charged, deserved punishment.” Indiana’s free state status did not lessen the prejudice against African Americans and abolitionists; it only obscured it.
One of the more elaborate, yet challenging methods fugitive slaves used to seek freedom involved shipping boxes. The Evansville Daily Journalreported of a fugitive slave captured aboard the steamer Portsmouth, a shipping vessel traveling from Nashville to Cincinnati. He was in the box, “doubled up like a jack-knife,” for five days before authorities discovered him and took the appropriate actions. The ship docked at Covington, Kentucky and they “placed the negro in jail to await the requisition of his owner.” It was learned later that the fugitive slave had an agreement with a widow to move to Ohio on condition that he work for her for a year. “He had fulfilled his part of the contract,” the Journal wrote, “and she was performing her stipulations, and would have enabled him to escape had it not been for the unlucky accident.” This story was also covered in the Terre Haute Daily Union and similar stories ran in later issues of the Journal, the Nashville Daily Patriot, and the Richmond Palladium.
Sadly, the ultimate risk for a fugitive slave was death, and Indiana newspapers chronicled these events as well. The Crawfordsville Weekly Journal published an article on August 16, 1855 detailing the death of a fugitive slave by drowning. It appeared to the authorities that the fugitive, resting near Sugar Creek in Crawfordsville, was discovered by a group of men and questioned about his status. Under pressure, the fugitive leaped into the water and tried to flee, which spurred one man to shoot off his gun in an attempt to stop him. As the Journal wrote, “this alarmed the negro, and he plunged beneath the waters, and continued to rise and then dive, until exhausted, and he sank to rise no more until life was extinct.” His body was discovered a few days later. While some deemed his death a mere drowning, others thought it more “suspicious.” The Journal continued:
Putting the most favorable construction on the circumstances, there was a reckless trifling with human life which nothing can justify. He was doubtless a fugitive, but they knew it not, and had no right to arrest him or threaten his life. They knew of no crime of which he had been guilty, and only suspected him of an earnest longing after that freedom for which the human heart ever pants; and because he acted upon this feeling, so natural and so strong, they threaten to tie and imprison, and when struggling with overwhelming waters, he is threatened with being shot if he does not return ; and then when strength and life were fast failing, stretched not forth a helping hand to save him from immediate death.
If the facts as stated be true, (of which we have no doubt,) there is high criminality, of which the laws of our country should take cognizance; and when the news of the negroe’s [sic] death shall have reached his owner, he will doubtless prosecute those men; it may be for murder in the second degree, or at least for the value of the slave.
The Journal eloquently elucidated why the application of fugitive slave laws, especially by vigilante citizens, harmed the civil rights and lives of both free people and those still in servitude (of which there were a mere few).
Free African Americans additionally faced threats to their lives and livelihood from the enforcement of fugitive slave laws. A well-known instance in Indiana regarded the arrest and release of John Freeman. Arrested and jailed on June 21, 1853, Freeman faced a charge from Pleasant Ellington of Missouri that he was one of his slaves. Freeman hired a legal team and after a lengthy trial that testified to his status as a free-born African American, he was released on August 27, 1853. It turned out that Ellington misidentified Freeman as a slave named Sam, who fled from servitude in Greenup County, Kentucky and likely escaped to Canada. Due to the diminution of his character, Freeman sued Ellington in civil court for 10,000; it was later ruled in favor of Freeman and he received $2,000 and additional unnamed damages. What Freeman experienced is but a snapshot into how fugitive slave laws harmed the rights of free people as well as slaves.
After the Civil War began, fugitive slaves continued to elicit concern, and coverage, in Indiana newspapers. In the spring of 1861, the Sentinel reprinted a piece from the Jeffersonville Democrat about the rise of fugitive slaves traveling through the Ohio River region: “the number of fugitive slaves caught on the Indiana side of the river, and returned to Kentucky within the past three months, is greater than that of any like period during the past ten years.” Kentucky’s government still offered a reward of $150 for each returned slave. That summer, the Indiana State Guardpublished President Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts on the issue. Lincoln, in a manner characteristic of his own political calculus, declared that Union soldiers were not “obliged to leave their legitimate military business to pursue and return fugitive slaves” but also cautioned that “the army is under no obligation to protect them, and will not encourage nor interfere with them in their flight.” The new President offered a nuanced position that possibly placated the Border States while satisfying the abolitionist wing of his own party. Realistically, it was a long way away from the Emancipation Proclamation.
The end of the Civil War brought the end of slavery as a federally-protected policy, and thus eliminated the need for fugitive slave laws. Their end brought a larger fulfillment of the Declaration of Independence’s commitment to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” Yet, the history of fugitive slaves often fell into tales of folklore and hyperbole. Looking at a primary source like newspapers helps to dispel many of the myths and provides nuance to the controversial subject of human enslavement in the United States. These stories represent a small fraction of the larger narrative about American slavery. To learn more, visit the Library of Congress’ page about fugitive slave ads in historical newspapers: https://www.loc.gov/rr/news/topics/fugitiveAds.html. You can also search Hoosier State Chronicles for more fugitive slave ads and articles.
Many African Americans fled the city in fear for their lives. Vanderburgh County historian Dr. Darrel Bigham wrote, “”The violence had a profound influence on black Evansville. Aside from property damage and threats to personal safety of hundreds of blacks, it blunted the development of the business and professional community.”
As a response to the violence, Governor Winfield T. Durbin ordered the Indiana National Guard to Evansville to restore order. Troops patrolled the city for nearly a week before withdrawing from the city on the morning of July 10. Brown died in jail on July 31 as a consequence of a gunshot wound in his lung sustained during his altercation with patrolman Massey.
Below are newspaper clippings from throughout the country chronicling the riot and its aftermath. Clicking on any of the headline clippings will take you to digitized copies of the full articles.
First, here is some historical context. After the bombshell revelation of the Zimmerman Telegram on March 1, 1917, in which “German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann promise[d] the return of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to Mexico as reward for siding with Germany if the U.S. enters the war,” Americans increasingly became pro-war. Then, the breaking point occurred. Exactly a month later, a German U-boat torpedoed an American cargo ship, the S.S. Aztec, in British waters. The next day, April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson addressed a Joint Session of Congress, and called for action to make the world “safe for democracy” (we’ll come back to this phrase later). Wilson’s address likely inspired one of the earliest Abe Martin cartoons about America’s impending involvement in World War I. In the April 2, 1917 issue of the Indianapolis News, Hubbard’s Abe Martin quipped: “What’s become o’ the ole-fashioned patriotic citizen who used t’ say, ‘Well, I didn’t vote for him, but he’s my President jist th’ same’? Actions speak louder’n flags.” Hubbard, through Martin, is expressing an earnest, trusting patriotism that became a common theme for his cartoons during the war.
Congress declared war on Germany four days after Wilson’s address. For the next two and half years, Hubbard’s Abe Martin routinely commented on the war and its influence on the home front. As an example, Hubbard promoted an essential war-time product in his columns, the Liberty Bond. Liberty Bonds were the brainchild of William G. McAdoo, President Wilson’s Secretary of the Treasury, and facilitated a revenue stream for the federal government to finance the war. Within his cartoons, Hubbard encouraged purchasing Liberty Bonds and connected them to patriotism. In a cartoon from May 30, 1917, Hubbard opined that “Talkin’ big an’ flyin’ a flag from your radiator cap won’t keep an army goin’. Buy a Liberty loan bond!” The very next day, the News ran an advertisement for Liberty Bonds, available for purchase from the Fletcher American National Bank, with Hubbard’s passionate call the day before. A year later, another mention of Liberty Bonds emerges in Hubbard’s column. “One o’ th’ best returns from a Liberty bond is an eased conscience,” declared the humorist through his down home alter-ego, Abe Martin.
Hubbard also criticized what he saw as empty forms of patriotism through his Abe Martin cartoons. “Patriotism,” wrote the cartoonist, “that don’t git below th’ neckband, don’t help much t’ win th’ war.” Patriotism in wartime, in Hubbard’s eyes, also manifested itself through sacrifice. “It begins t’ look like we’d all have t’ wait till [former Secretary of State William Jennings] Bryan is President before git our hair cut,” Hubbard penned. Bryan left his post at the State department in 1915 over objections with Wilson’s pro-British support in the Lusitania’s sinking. Conversely, Wilson’s response also led to growing antagonism toward Germany. Hubbard is implicitly saying that until a peace-candidate like Bryan won the presidency and the war came to a close, consumer luxuries like haircuts must be jettisoned. In another cartoon from May 2, 1917, Hubbard wrote that, “It begins t’ look like even th’ feller that kin whittle out a wooden chain will be made t’ feel th’ war.”
Hubbard’s cartoons received national recognition from former Indiana governor, vice president, and jokester in his own right, Thomas Marshall. The News reported on December 19, 1917 that Marshall wrote to Hubbard and noted his precarious position as Vice President:
Dear Kin Hubbard—Not the least among your many admirable qualities is your memory of the needs of a Vice president [sic] to be cheered upon his lonely way. He is supposed not to talk, but the right chuckle is guaranteed to him. As a chucker in the laughter rib you never miss.
I thank God for you and for your friendship.
Despite Marshall’s kind words, Hubbard nonetheless continued his appraisals of American involvement in the war with Abe Martin as his proxy. In an April 12 1918 cartoon, Hubbard wrote that “if the United States would jest wake up an’ take t’ th’ war like it t’ belted overcoats an’ high shoes we’d git on faster.” Another column from May 28, 1918 encouraged leaders to “wait till we win th’ war an’ we’ll all have a banquet.” That doesn’t mean he was unwilling to rhetorically rough up the enemy. A May 2, 1918 piece noted how “th’ only time th’ kaiser’s [sic] six sons ever git in th’ front line is when somebuddy comes along with a camera.”
In the fall of 1918, Hubbard’s Abe Martin Publishing Company released a compendium of Abe Martin cartoons and musings under the title, On the War and Other Musings. Multiple ads for the book ran in the News, particularly during the holiday season. “Hundreds of Abe Martin’s inimitable paragraph’s touching on everything under the sun from sassafras to world peace,” read an ad from December 2, 1918. It was also fairly easy to purchase to book. For the low price of $1.06 ($15.71 in today’s dollars), readers could have their copy shipped to them as long as they were within 200 miles of Indianapolis. It’d be “return to sender” if the postage was farther.
Kin Hubbard’s “Abe Martin” earned him the respect of his readers, political leaders, and the broader general public. His cartoons during World War I showed a commitment to his community, his country, and his craft. Hubbard, through Abe Martin, gave readers a Midwestern, “crackerbarrel” embodiment of the home front: rustic, altruistic, and patriotic. While certainly idealized, Hubbard’s art represented a commonplace, earnest notion of America during the war.