For most Americans, the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley is no longer a household name. He’s mostly remembered for “Little Orphant Annie,” an 1885 poem about an Indiana girl who warns children against misbehaving, scaring them with the refrain: “The gobble-uns’ll get youEf you don’t watch out!”
Riley died a hundred years ago this July. When President Woodrow Wilson got the news at the White House, he is said to have broken down in tears, then sent an express telegram to the poet’s family in Indianapolis. As Riley’s body lay in state at the Indiana Capitol in July 1916, thirty-five thousand people filed past. American children, who adored the old man, were devastated. The press overflowed with eulogies. Novelist Booth Tarkington, another once-famous Hoosier name in American letters, eulogized Riley in the Indiana Daily Times, calling him “the first and foremost distinctively American poet, and at the time of his death . . . the greatest American.” The New York Sun mourned: “The Hoosier Poet blew heart bubbles . . . In his verses Indiana spoke to the world.” And the Philadelphia Inquirer noted: “There is no doubt that he was the most popular poet of this generation in America… If there is a child today that is not regaled with ‘Orphant Annie’ that child is to be pitied.”
Though Riley was mostly known for his folksy childhood lyrics, he was also a civic-minded poet, fierce in his defense of the downtrodden.
In 1898, during one of those periodic battles over immigration that heat up American politics, the “Poet of Childhood” grappled with anti-Irish prejudice — though it wasn’t personally directed against him. Riley, whose own grandparents came from Ireland to Pennsylvania before moving to the Midwest, defended the valor and patriotism of the “Sons of Erin” who fought in the Civil War and Mexican War. In so doing, he took aim at the religious and ethnic hostility of nativist groups like the American Protective Association, a cousin of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Irish, especially Irish Catholics, were frequently misunderstood and feared as disruptors of society. Long before the Civil War, American nativists like the Know-Nothings had been actively exploiting fears about the Irish and “Rome,” alien forces ready to undermine American democracy and Anglo-Saxon values. Though some of those fears may sound downright bizarre today, Irish immigrants were often mired in poverty, violence and alcoholism, facts that scared their neighbors. While the brutal living conditions of many Irish were no myth, catastrophic events like the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s were partly to blame. With their situation made worse by the greed of landowners and brutal utilitarian social theories, many of Ireland’s sons and daughters were reduced to sub-human conditions. Millions went overseas or found themselves driven into the arms of death.
The Irish had been targeted by some of the worst 19th-century science and philosophy. Racialized by other whites during the early days of Darwinism, the “native” Irish in particular were type-cast as little better than apes, doomed by biology itself to crime, degradation and — some theorists hoped — gradual extinction. One famous drawing compares the “Anglo-Saxon” features of English nurse Florence Nightingale to the ape-like face of “Bridget McBruiser” across the Irish Channel.
That drawing, however, was an American drawing, published in Samuel R. Wells’ New Physiognomy(New York, 1866). Wells was one of the foremost American phrenologists of his time, studying “character” as he imagined it to be written on the human face and skull. It took decades for the science of head bumps and nose shapes to be debunked as nonsense, but the fallout proved catastrophic for many immigrants.
Bad science and hyper-patriotic conspiracy theories were the target of one of James Whitcomb Riley’s lesser-known poems, “Brother Jonathan Lectures His Adopted.” That poem appeared in Songs of Two Peoples, an 1898 collection set partly in New England, partly in Ireland.
Originally written in broad New England dialect, “Brother Jonathan” recounts the anti-Catholic ravings of a recent Northern Irish immigrant voting for “the fust time” at a small-town polling booth in America. Jonathan showed himself an eager campaigner against foreign influence, “tearin’ up an’ deown’ on platforms,” lashing out at Rome’s priests who “eat heretics at feasts” — dark tales from European history carried by folklore and immigrant ships into American election booths well into the 1960s and even beyond. Catholics, Jonathan warns, were gearing up to crush the American public school system and democracy. He gets a stinging rebuke from the embodiment of Uncle Sam, “His Adopted.”
Though Riley’s poem is set just after the Civil War, it spoke to the issues of 1898, when America’s generously open door did bring many problems. Yet the looming figure of “Brother Jonathan” was still fresh decades later when George R. Dale, the brave editor of the Muncie Post-Democrat, reprinted it as part of his long battle against the powerful Hoosier Klan.
In 1924, Dale found Riley’s poem as apt as ever. Dale was at the start of a practically one-man battle against the KKK in his town, using humor to transform the Muncie Post-Democrat into a rollicking 1920s version of The Onion. Though Dale faced routine death threats and assaults from Klansmen, the Muncie editor bravely tore into chauvinism at a time when the Klan was as much against new waves of Eastern and Southern European immigration as it was opposed to African Americans coming up from the South. Dale slightly abbreviated Riley’s poem — missing the fact that Brother Jonathan was an immigrant himself and had brought Old World animosities across the Atlantic, a prelude to the Irish “Troubles.”
Though many Irish immigrants were racists themselves, stirring up some of the worst race riots of the 1800s, George Dale found an ally in both history and the Catholic Church. Virtually every issue of Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson’s Klan paper The Fiery Cross contained attacks on the church, sharpest during the Indiana gubernatorial election of 1924, the year Dale reprinted “Brother Jonathan” in Muncie. It’s not surprising that, since they were long targeted by nativists, Catholics became a major force in undermining the Klan and helped hobble half-baked social and medical theories like eugenics. (The barely-concealed “science” of white supremacy, eugenics had deep roots in Indiana.)
While Riley was of Irish descent, he wasn’t Catholic himself — in fact he wasn’t much of a church-goer at all. Yet Riley knew plenty of immigrants: they were his neighbors in Lockerbie, an Indianapolis neighborhood first called “Germantown” and settled partly by refugees from Europe’s 1848 revolutions.
But even Riley’s support had a dark irony in it. A frequent visitor at his house in Lockerbie was Indiana Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs. The son of French immigrants, Debs was a champion of the working class but often hostile to the new wave of immigration, which he thought undermined American labor and played into the hands of big business. Debs may have been right about the effect of cheap labor on the American workers’ movement, but history repeated itself in a sad way when even the great Socialist leader made disparaging remarks in 1891 about Chinese and “Dagos” (Italians). They “fatten on garbage,” Debs said, live “more like a savage or a wild beast,” and “are able to underbid an American workingman.” It took years for Debs to temper those views, as even the Socialist Party succumbed to nativism and fear of the “degraded foreigner.”
Only one in four Women’s History Months occurs in a Leap Year — or if you want to use the fancy name given by professional time-keepers and astronomers, you can call it an “intercalary” or “bissextile” year.
Hollywood has churned out a few bad movies about what was probably an old Celtic custom at first, whereby women could take the initiative in proposing to a man. But American newspapers were having fun with this folk tradition well over a century ago. And some women did take the opportunity.
Leap years have been around since Roman times, when Julius Caesar simplified the messy Roman calendar. Since the earth doesn’t take a precise number of 24-hour days to go around the sun, fractions of days accrue. Before Caesar’s time, Roman astronomers just added an entire 22-day-long month to their 355-day calendar every two years. Caesar’s astronomers opted for 365 1/4 days, with the quarter-day adding up to a full day every four years. Yet even that extra quarter day isn’t exactly six hours long, a problem that led Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 to fine-tune Caesar’s calendar. More confusing still: in the Gregorian system, not even everyfourth year is a leap year. In folk tradition, that accounts for the occasional year when women who want to pop the question have to be especially diligent — or else wait another eight. At least if they care about tradition.
The origin of the “ladies’ privilege” goes back a long time, though no one knows how long for sure. A popular but doubtful origin myth hinges around a medieval Irish saint, St. Brigid of Kildare — who might never even have existed.
If she was a real woman, Brigid would have been born in the middle of the 5th century, allegedly to an enslaved Christian mother and a pagan Irish chieftain, who sold her mother to a Druid — a Celtic priest and shaman. The life of St. Brigid might be one big folk legend, however, since she shares a name and many attributes with an old Irish fertility goddess. Irish folklorist Lady Augusta Gregory wrote in 1904 that the goddess Brigid was “a woman of poetry, and poets worshiped her, for her sway was very great and very noble. And she was a woman of healing along with that, and a woman of smith’s work, and it was she first made the whistle for calling one to another through the night.” The same could be said for Saint Brigid.
Whether St. Brigid was real or not, many stories about her are clearly imaginary. But folklore and poetry have a truth all their own. Several tales tell of how the saint protected women and gave marriage advice to men — often while guarding her own virginity and independence amid the violence of the remote, rugged Emerald Isle. When Brigid dedicated herself to the service of God and others as a nun, her greedy brothers, one story goes, hated her for denying them the “bride price” they would have been entitled to. As a crowd taunted Brigid for not marrying, one Irishman shouted: “The beautiful eye which is in your head will be betrothed to a man — though you like it or not.” Brigid’s reply was shocking: she jabbed a finger into her eye and blinded herself, then cried out, with blood spurting everywhere: “Here is that beautiful eye for you. I deem it unlikely that anyone will ask you for a blind girl.” Miraculously, Brigid’s vision healed. As for the man who taunted the saint, both his eyeballs burst in his head.
In legend, at least, Brigid was probably the most powerful woman in Ireland. Even in the afterlife, she supposedly still watches over midwives, illegitimate children, abused women, sailors, poets, chicken farmers, scholars and the poor. But what about Brigid and Leap Year?
Out of concern for women — and probably for children born out of wedlock — the angry saint fumed about men dragging their feet when it came to proposing marriage and committing to a partner. (Nineteenth-century feminists would later oppose the liberalization of American divorce laws for reasons not unlike what spurred St. Brigid to action over a thousand years earlier: slipping out of marriage was a way for lecherous and abusive men to escape their duties.) Brigid, according to legend, asked St. Patrick to make an exception to custom and allow women to “pop the question” every leap year. The new custom still seems sexist to some, perhaps, but the Irish tale is almost definitely fable as far as Brigid goes: if she ever lived, she would have been about ten years old when St. Patrick died.
Variants on the tale show up in Scottish folklore and English common law. According to an English book from 1606, Courtship, Love and Matrimonie, any Englishman who refused “the offers of a laydie” on leap year could be fined and even denied “the benefits of the clergy.” Two-hundred years later, the Indiana American quoted that passage:
“Common” law or not, the custom was rare in America even as newspapers began to pick up on it in the mid-1800s. Rising Irish immigration might have been a factor in the sudden interest in the custom, but newspapers themselves could have been the ones spreading the “folk” idea. (After all, Sadie Hawkins Day, a “pseudo-folk tradition” where girls ask boys out to a dance, originated with Al Capp’s popular hillbilly comic strip Li’l Abner in the 1930s. Sadie Hawkins Day, however, comes every year, usually November 15, the date she first appeared in a cartoon in 1937.)
(A Sadie Hawkins dance in Virginia, 1950s.)
By the 1840s, the American press was mentioning leap year marriage proposals — and anything else like them that seemed out-of-the-ordinary. A clip from the Evansville Daily Journal, published just before the Mexican War, reported a similar tradition in Panama, a story that might have been brought back by American sailors.
(Evansville Daily Journal, April 24, 1845.)
In the leap year 1848 — a year of tumultuous revolutions in politics and love — the Brookville Indiana American reprinted this clip from a Hoosier wag in Richmond, Indiana, who obviously enjoyed the idea of women proposing to men. They had fifteen days left, since the tradition didn’t require women to propose on February 29. Any time before midnight on New Years’ Eve was good enough.
Also in 1848, the Indianapolis Locomotive, an “entertainment” paper written in the vein of Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers (a bestseller at the time) and filled with more wit and poetry than news, published a strange story about sexual role-reversal. A lot of tales like this were taken out of Eastern newspapers that came off steamboats or trains. “A Story of Leap Year,” by Joe Miller, Jr., probably first appeared in the St. Louis Reveille. The story, which satirizes conventional courtship and sentimental wooing, is funny, if also a bit sexist. The bold Susan comes over to ask the bashful Sam for his hand in holy matrimony:
Every year, a few women really did ask men to tie the knot, though most couples were already “courting” to begin with. Yet every four years, illustrators, cartoonists, and postcard makers played around with a major source of male fear and trembling, anxiety and dread: a proposal coming from an unwanted woman “out of the blue.”
In popular culture and superstition, any man who turned down a woman — even a total stranger — ran the risk of being cursed or at least having to stumble through an awkward, hopefully gentleman-like, rejection. (No “spite and contumely,” as the 17th-century English book put it.) A lot of drawings and postcards played on economic, class, age, and physical differences, though not all did:
Many women today consider the Leap Year tradition degrading and insulting, and they may be right. But as the women’s rights movement gathered steam in the 1800s, not every woman thought the overall gist of the tradition was bad. One was the famous suffragette and news correspondent Inez Milholland.
Born in 1886, Milholland came from a wealthy family in Brooklyn and graduated from prestigious Vassar College, a women’s college in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1909. She became a radical and socialist at Vassar, educating fellow students about socialist principles — which brought her into conflict with the school’s leadership. Milholland also served as captain of the hockey team at Vassar. She was denied admission to Yale, Harvard and Cambridge law schools because of her gender, but earned a law degree at NYU in 1912.
As a trained lawyer and activist, Milholland was especially interested in prison reform, ending child labor and prostitution, and achieving equality for women and African Americans. In her late twenties, she helped investigate conditions at New York’s Sing Sing prison, handled divorce and criminal cases, and supported female factory workers on strike in New York and Philadelphia. While reporting from the frontlines in Italy during World War I, the Socialist news correspondent wrote anti-war articles and was expelled by the Italian government, at war with Germany and Austria.
As a supporter of “free speech in love,” honesty, dignity, and open communication between the sexes, Inez Milholland made a famous marriage proposal — though it didn’t happen during a leap year. She stressed that a woman should be free to ask a man to marry her on any day of any year, not just every fourth year. Milholland lived up to her principles.
In 1913, while on a cruise in Europe, the woman’s rights activist proposed to Eugen Jan Boissevain, a Dutch coffee importer who came from one of the wealthiest families in Amsterdam. (Boissevain’s uncle, however, was, like Milholland, a Socialist who gave up his fortune and moved to Alberta to be a farmer and labor organizer.) The two had known each other for just a month but got married within days. He moved to New York with her.
Sadly, their marriage was short. At age 30, Inez Milholland died of anemia in Los Angeles in 1916 while campaigning for the National Woman’s Party. Seven years later, Eugen Boissevain married the great American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. He died in Boston in 1949.
The Day Book of Chicago told some of the unusual story, published the year of her death — a leap year:
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.”
In a previous post about “ghoul busters,” I mentioned the body-snatching problem that was a major issue in turn-of-the-century Indianapolis and throughout the U.S. for most of the 1800s. Driven by the need for “fresh material” on dissecting tables at American medical colleges, the longstanding problem of body thievery was widespread and decades-old.
Originally allowed by law to bring only executed felons and the unclaimed poor into the classroom for anatomical study, doctors facing increasing enrollment at nineteenth-century medical schools were forced to prey on ordinary citizens even after “Anatomy Acts” made legal acquisition easier. Though such data hardly show up on the census records, physicians nabbed tens of thousands of bodies from poorly-guarded graves in city and country alike. Tragically, providing bodies for classrooms was a burden that fell disproportionately on African Americans, who play into American medical history both as the robbers and the robbed, the main instruments and victims of grave robbery and desecration into the 1940s.
Ghouls (grave robbers in 19th-century speak) often ignited civil disturbances, like the “Anatomy Riots” that rocked New York City in 1788. (Twenty people were killed on that occasion.) An English robber kept a laconic but harrowing record of his thefts in 1811-12, published in 1896 as The Diary of a Resurrectionist.Often overlooked as a cause of violence on both sides of the Atlantic, the ghouls supposedly unearthed many of the specters that still haunt America.
Indiana was no stranger to this mostly forgotten practice. In the 1860s, well-substantiated fears of the “Resurrection Man” led to the creation of Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery, now one of the largest in the U.S., designed partly to ward off desecration of the dead by needy medical faculties. Staffed by pistol-toting guards at the turn of the century, Crown Hill ensured that families would no longer have to stand watch over their loved ones’ final resting place until decomposition rendered the remains useless to science.
Further digging into Hoosier newspapers turns up a vast trove of journalism and folklore on this bizarre aspect of medical history. One of the wilder and more entertaining tales from the heyday of the “resurrectionists” comes from Andrew Jackson Grayson, a veteran newspaperman of Madison, Indiana, and is set just before the Mexican War.
In the annals of Hoosier journalism, Grayson had a knack for recognizing a good story. Born at Sandcreek in Decatur County in 1838, at age three he moved sixty miles south with his family to the old Ohio river town of Madison. He later described Madison as a “queer old town. . . the Mecca of Indiana, the gem of the Ohio Valley.” In 1861, the 21-year-old enlisted in the 6th Indiana Infantry and fought in the first land battle of the Civil War at Phillipi, Virginia. (While the war was still on, he published a humorous memoir of the regiment’s role in the Virginia campaign.) Mustered out in 1862 due to varicose veins that developed in his left leg after a forced march to Shiloh, he came back to southern Indiana and at age 22, went to work for the Madison Courier. Grayson worked in the printing trade for the rest of his life.
Like the old river town itself, his grave-robber story comes from before the war and is a sort of “crossroads” of Hoosier history. It also taps into a confusing vein of folklore.
Madison had one of the few medical colleges in antebellum Indiana. Consequently, even small towns nearby often had surprisingly qualified (and interesting) doctors. One of the doctors was Charles Schussler, a German immigrant. Educated at the universities of Tübingen and Vienna, he came to New York in 1828, fought in the Texas Revolution, lived in New Orleans for a while, prospected in California during the Gold Rush, then came back east in the early 1850s to set himself up in medical practice in Madison, where he helped found the Madison Medical Institute. (Though the institute went out of existence long ago, the physician’s house is a bed-and-breakfast today.)
For instruction purposes, Schussler often had to steal bodies. According to one story, on a secret grave-robbing operation he and a band of “ghouls” were forced to contend with a “human icicle” they dug up one frigid winter night, probably in a country graveyard. As the frozen body bounced around the wagon while the team sped away from the cemetery, the stiff smashed into Schussler’s foot. The doctor reportedly cried out in agony, then attacked it in a temporary fit of insanity, screaming “Hurt my foot, will you?!”
One of the protagonists of the anonymous doctor’s tale later recorded by Grayson was thought to be with Schussler that night. Part of a trio of fascinating brothers who practiced medicine in southeastern Indiana in the mid-1800s, Dr. John W. Mullen was born to an Irish family in Pennsylvania. Like Schussler, he went to Texas around 1830, where he served as a page to Sam Houston and almost died of yellow fever. Tiring of Texas, Mullen went back to Philadelphia, trained as a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania, then moved to Madison.
Mullen’s elder brother, Alexander, was also a protagonist in Grayson’s story. Born in Ireland in 1813 but raised near Philadelphia, Alexander Mullen ran away from home to join the American Merchant Marine, first training as a doctor on a ship, then at Louisville Medical College in Kentucky. His Irish pioneer family had moved west to Ripley County, Indiana, in the meantime, hence his own move to the Hoosier State around 1840. Alexander served as Prison Physician at the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City, the regimental surgeon of the 35th Indiana Infantry (the “Irish Regiment”) in the Civil War, and finally moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he died in 1897. In the 1840s, he was practicing medicine in the small town of Napoleon. He also trained country doctors at the nearby Versailles Medical Seminary, which once sat on the courthouse square.
(Irish-born Alexander Mullen, left, gave medical lectures in Versailles. His brother, the pediatrician, soldier, and Irish-American radical B.F. Mullen, right, was also a grave robber.)
The folklore begins to come fast and furious, but around 1846, when Alexander was in his early thirties, his other brother, Bernard Mullen, was either studying medicine or practicing alongside him in Versailles or Napoleon.
If there is anyone who dispels the eerie, Hollywood stock image of a grave robber, it is definitely B.F. Mullen. One of the earliest pediatricians in the Hoosier State, when the Mexican War broke out in 1847, the 22-year-old enlisted in James Henry Lane’s 3rd Indiana Regiment and became the youngest surgeon ever to serve in the U.S. Army, being appointed to that post at the General Hospital in Jalapa, Mexico. (As Grayson’s story will show, Mullen was probably driven into the army to avoid the scandal of being labeled a grave robber back home.) In the 1850s, Mullen, an Irish Catholic, became a vocal opponent of the nativist “Know Nothing” Party, which tried to prevent immigration, especially from Ireland. Acclaimed as an orator, Mullen eventually became active in the Fenian Brotherhood, a fraternal society that was a forerunner to the global Irish Republican Brotherhood whose last leader was Michael Collins.
During the Civil War, B.F. Mullen would serve as Colonel of the 35th Indiana “Irish” Regiment, where his brother Alexander was surgeon. Col. Mullen, former ghoul, led the 35th Indiana into the “Battle Above the Clouds” at Missionary Ridge in Tennessee and helped ward off John Hunt Morgan’s raid on Madison itself. After the war, the colonel practiced medicine in Madison until 1871, then moved to Terre Haute. In January 1879, Mullen was Democratic candidate for Indiana State Librarian, but died of tuberculosis in an Indianapolis hotel a month later.
On to the story.
According to Grayson’s version of the tale in the Indianapolis Journal, Alexander and Bernard Mullen were teaching a medical class at Versailles, probably in 1845. More likely, Bernard was the third student who got entangled with a “posse” at the Cliff Hill Cemetery above Laughery Creek (now Versailles Lake). The other two students were John B. Glass, who may have ended up in Missouri or Colorado, and Jonathan W. Gordon, the eponymous origin of the Versailles landmark called “Gordon’s Leap” since the 1800s. Originally from Pennsylvania, Gordon had come to town in 1844 to practice law. He afterwards fought in the Mexican War, served as a major in the Civil War, entered Hoosier politics, and helped future President Benjamin Harrison get started in the law when Harrison first came to Indianapolis.
But as the story shows, around 1845 the lawyer-doctor was a famous local lawbreaker.
(Major Jonathan W. Gordon, soldier-doctor and occasional “ghoul,” went on to become speaker of the Indiana House, Prosecuting Attorney for Marion County, and the “most prominent criminal lawyer” in the state. He died in 1887 and was buried at Crown Hill. A vintage postcard shows Bluff Springs near the site where Gordon and/or his companion John Glass allegedly jumped to avoid being lynched.)
“‘The sensational instances of grave-robbing that have just come to light in Indianapolis remind me of a similar event in which the late Maj. Jonathan W. Gordon figured when he was a young man,” said Andrew J. Grayson, of Madison. “The incident occurred near Versailles in Ripley County, the place made famous in recent years by the lynching of five men simultaneously. [Five “desperadoes” were killed just outside the Cliff Hill Cemetery in 1897 at a spot called “The Hanging Tree.”] Oddly enough, Major Gordon and his companions came near figuring in a lynching bee themselves. They only escaped an untimely and shameful death at the rope’s end by making one of the most thrilling leaps ever attempted by a human being. The spot at which the perilous jump was made by the young men in question is known to this day as ‘Gordon’s Leap.’
“I obtained the full particulars of the grave-robbery in which young Gordon participated from a veteran physician of Madison,” continued Mr. Grayson. “I was sitting in the old doctor’s office one day chatting pleasantly with him when I asked him suddenly if he had not in his long career had some experiences that were of more than passing interest. ‘I have had quite a few,’ he replied, with a smile.
“Upon being pressed to narrate some of his experiences he consented, and the first story he told was that of ‘Gordon’s Leap.’ ‘Nearly fifty years ago,’ said the veteran physician, ‘the town of Madison could boast a medical institute. I was a student in the school, together with a number of other young sprigs that were desirous of receiving their initial instruction in that primitive academy of science.
“‘About that time Jonathan W. Gordon, who afterwards turned to the law and became one of the most brilliant advocates of the Indiana bar, was a medical student. He and a young man named John Glass attended a course of private medical lectures given by Drs. B.F. and A.J. Mullen at their office in the town of Napoleon, not far from Versailles, in which Gordon resided.
“‘Dr. J.W. Mullen, a brother of the Napoleon physicians of the same name, came one summer from a Philadelphia medical college, in which he was taking a course of instruction, to visit his brothers. He met and formed a close friendship with young Gordon. One day he received from Gordon a note saying that a body that would be an excellent subject for dissection had just been buried in the cemetery near Versailles and proposing that the trio, Gordon, Mullen, and Glass, make arrangements to lift the corpse from its resting place. The recipient of the note entered heartily into the ghoulish scheme and arrangements were made to carry it out.
“‘It seemed, however, that a Dr. [William] Anderson of Versailles was suspected of entertaining body-snatching proclivities and the people residing in the vicinity of the cemetery made preparations to give him a warm reception if he should make an attempt to secure the subject in question.
“‘At the appointed time Gordon, Mullen and Glass set out for the lonely burial ground, and when they reached the place they began without hesitation the work of disinterring the coffin containing the coveted body. They had dug clear down to the box and were raining blows on that with a pick in order to force it open when the enraged citizens in ambush descended upon them with a fierce rush. The young fellows knew well that to be caught meant nothing short of lynching. There was but one way of escape.
“‘A few yards away was a precipice about one hundred and twenty feet in height, the top of which looked down upon Laughery Creek. Fully fifty feet of the cliff was a perpendicular wall. To the young men was presented the alternative of dying surely, but disgracefully, at the hands of the mob or of risking a less shameful death and possibly gaining liberty by leaping over the frowning precipice. With Gordon to think was to act. Hurling himself like a cannonball towards the precipice and shouting to his comrades to follow, the daring youth leaped without hesitation over the face of the cliff. Fired by their leader’s amazing courage, Glass and Mullen jumped after him. Down the trio plunged for, it seemed, an interminable length of time, clutching frantically at branches of trees projecting from ledges, until at last they fell in one quivering, panting heap of humanity into a tangled mass of brush at the bottom, which served to prevent them from being instantly killed.
“The leap would have been pronounced suicidal by anyone not under the stress that weighed on these young men. They, however, escaped serious injuries and what was better still, vengeance of the mob. Young Glass sustained a dislocation of an arm, while Gordon and Mullen were simply shaken up and bruised.
“The trio of daredevils were afterward arrested and brought to trial on a charge of grave-robbing, but fortunately made good their escape through the astuteness of Judge Miles Eggleston, father of the famous author [Edward Eggleston], who discovered a flaw in the indictment against the young men. . .”
The doctor’s version of “Gordon’s Leap” that Grayson heard probably had a couple of serious errors. The Mullen brother who accompanied Gordon and Glass to the graveside was almost definitely Bernard, who would have been about twenty if the jump happened in 1845. (Gordon was about twenty-five.) Several sources suggest that both Bernard Mullen and Jonathan Gordon were forced to run away and join the army during the Mexican War due to the fallout from their “ghoulish scheme.”
As long ago as 1884, the truth or falsehood of the leap was hotly debated. On May 15, a piece appeared in the Versailles Republican. The writer said that he had asked Gordon himself about the location of the famous jump:
We asked him if we had been correctly informed as to the locality. As he had visited the spot the day before, he was certain as to the place from which he leaped. But he says he jumped from a tree that stood upon the verge of the bluff and now that tree is not only gone but ten or more feet of the bank is gone. At all events, it was a fearful leap. One of the men, who was with him, also jumped and received severe injuries…
As to the identity of the coveted corpse that night, the Versailles Republican claimed: “A black man had just been buried there, and it was his body the students were after.”
The story of the leap stayed alive in folklore but varied from telling to telling. The location became a famous Ripley County landmark. In 1941, the WPA’s travel guide to Indiana mentioned it. (WPA writers collected a large amount of Hoosier folklore during the Great Depression, though sadly not much of it made it into the WPA guides.) The author makes no mention of any of the Irish Mullen brothers, claiming instead that Gordon and Glass were studying with the Dublin-trained physician Dr. William Anderson — who was, in fact, practicing in Versailles around that time. In the WPA writer’s abbreviated telling, when the lynch mob showed up, Glass escaped through the foliage, while Gordon jumped over the cliff, broke a leg, and dragged himself to a cabin, where he got hold of a horse and fled the county.
More variations are told. Ripley County in Vintage Postcards states that “Glass ran the wrong direction and fell over the precipice.” Alan F. Smith, author of Tales of Versailles, insists that the “leaper” was John Glass. Smith also adds: “Dr. Gordon lost a patient and could not understand why. He was quite interested in performing an autopsy on the body, but the family of the deceased would have nothing to do with the desecration. . . In the darkness, Glass ran over the cliff. . . but, perhaps because Gordon was the dead patient’s doctor, the general public always held the belief that it was he who had jumped.”
Folkorist Ron Baker caught one more elaboration of the tale, which shows up in his classic anthology Hoosier Folk Legends (1982).As someone told Baker: “There was a Dr. Gordon in Versailles. There had been a strange death. Gordon thought an old man’s wife had poisoned him and wanted an autopsy. The family wouldn’t let him. One night real late, he dug up the body. When he got the casket open, the cops and the family came out. Gordon took off running. There’s a 200-250 foot drop cliff at the edge of the cemetery. At the foot of the cliff is Versailles Lake. Gordon fell off and broke a leg. He swam away, and no one ever saw him after that. Now this is called Gordon’s Leap.” (This is certainly false. Versailles Lake, a reservoir, was constructed by damming Laughery Creek in the 1950s.)
Unfortunately, the story wouldn’t be complete without the harrowingly sad coda Grayson appended to it in 1901.
Lest Gordon be considered a hero rather than a grave robber, it’s important to remember that the bodies stolen from rural and urban cemeteries by “resurrection men” were, more often than not, African American. (So were many of the resurrectionists themselves.) White doctors were rarely prosecuted for theft, however, especially if the body was black, whereas African American “ghouls” in their employ often went to court and were sometimes shot and killed by police on the spot.
At one time (1884) the Versailles Republican mentioned that the town’s citizens were considering putting up a monument to Gordon “the leaper.” (In fact, the Ripley County Historical Society erected a historical marker at the Cliff Hill Cemetery in 2013). It is worth noting that no such marker exists to memorialize the thousands of African American bodies robbed from Indiana cemeteries over at least a century.
But I’ll leave it to the doctor from Madison to tell this tale. The date isn’t mentioned, but he claims the event happened before the Civil War:
There is but one authenticated instance of body-snatching in the Madison cemetery, the body taken being that of an old colored man named Taylor. The reason body-snatching was rare in Madison was that we usually got our subjects from rural graveyards. But to return to the Taylor case: A son of the old man was employed as a messenger in the office of Dr. H., in Madison, and after his father died the lad suspected his employer of having stolen the remains. This suspicion, I remember, was aroused by a remark the youth overheard Dr. H. make. The poor boy suffered intensely from his suspicions of his employer, for in those days a negro’s word was worthless against that of a white.
One day, when the doctor was out of his office, the boy decided to put into effect a plan he had evolved. He knew that the doctor had in his closet a skeleton that he used for purposes of study and demonstration. He also knew that his father, when living, had struck himself on the ankle bone with an ax, chipping off a piece of the bone.
Gaining entrance to the closet, the youth peered long and earnestly at the grewsome object suspended therein. Oddly enough one ankle bone of the skeleton had had a piece chipped from it. To the mind of the imaginative young darky the skeleton of his father, as he verily believed it to be, seemed to curse the ruthless hand that had dragged it from its peaceful place in the City of the Dead.
Years rolled by and the doctor disappeared from our midst, entering the Confederate army and becoming a surgeon in the Civil War. The colored office boy grew to manhood, married and had offspring gathered about him. Death visited his little home one day and took from him one of the little ones. The hideous vision he had had in the doctor’s office before came back to him suddenly and with wonderful distinctness. Here was his opportunity to satisfy himself as to the truth of his surmise formed at that time. Accordingly he requested the sexton of the cemetery to permit the body of the child to be buried in the grave of its grandfather. The official assented and the old grave was re-opened. When the bottom was reached there was found, true to the long-entertained belief, the remnants of a coffin, but no trace of the body it once contained.
One of the earliest newspaper references to Hoosiers celebrating Ireland and its patron saint appeared on April 1, 1837, in the Vincennes Western Sun. On March 17, a “large company” got together at “Mr. Jewel’s Ball Room” in Vincennes. A writer (probably not the paper’s publisher Elihu Stout, who was notoriously pro-slavery and anti-immigrant), wrote that “The utmost harmony and good feeling prevailed; Irishmen, descendants of Irishmen, persons from different nations and all parties, united to do honor to the Illustrious Bishop and Saint of the Emerald Isle.”
A list of toasts drunk in Ireland’s honor took up about half of the front page of the Western Sun that April 1. One toast reads touchingly: to “Ireland, the Land of Love and Beauty.”
In the spirit of republicanism, Patrick Doran, who had immigrated from Ireland to Boston in 1799 at age fifteen and moved to Vincennes in 1836, just a year before he served as toastmaster at Jewel’s Ball Room, offered a tribute to “The human family. No distinction on account of clime or soil.”
Though anti-Catholic feeling in America was strong, hostility was less in Vincennes, an old French town and the cradle of Catholicism in Indiana. The Vincennes group toasted Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell, father of Catholic Emancipation, which restored civil rights to Catholics in Britain and Ireland. “May his efforts to throw off the galling yoke of Britain be so crowned with success, that the sight of an English hireling may be as rare as that of the Snake or Toad in our favored land.”
For all their occasional hypocrisy regarding slavery in the U.S. itself, early Indiana papers almost always took the side of oppressed nations, especially if they were fighting against Great Britain. Ireland’s long struggle for independence, accomplished only in 1921, was one of the major subjects in American newspapers in the 1800s. Hoosier papers, such as the Indiana State Sentinel and the Evansville Daily Journal, enthusiastically supported the idealistic and underequipped Irish revolutionaries who launched rebellion after rebellion against Britain, including a major one in 1848.
When the Famine struck Ireland in the mid-1840s, and starvation and emigration halved its population, the U.S. began to teem with emigrants and exiled revolutionaries fleeing death and persecution in the Emerald Isle. Hoosier papers were naturally drawn into the hot political debates surrounding Ireland’s fate and the great Irish exodus to America.
Indiana was a top destination for the Irish in the 1830s and ’40s. One of the major engineering projects of the day, the construction of the Wabash & Erie Canal, which promised to link Evansville to Lake Erie, required an enormous amount of labor. Thousands of Irish workers dug miles of canal ditches through pestilential marshes and helped drain off ancient wetlands, drastically altering the Hoosier landscape. The Indiana Journal and other papers drew Irish workers here with advertisements of wages and cheap land.
Often paid in whiskey, Irish laborers frequently succumbed to alcoholism, yellow fever, and malaria along the disease-ridden canal. Scottish foremen called “jiggers” often dispensed whiskey in ladles from buckets — perhaps not an altogether bad health move, since whiskey, unlike water, was distilled and not so laden with bacteria. Its long-term effects, however, were of course deadly.
Irish laborers brought some Old World rivalries to America, leading to the little-known “Indiana Irish Wars” of the mid-1830s. Gangs that probably had their roots in longstanding disputes back in Ireland divided off into “Corkonians” and “Fardowns.” Fights erupted that threatened to destroy the canal. The Hoosier “Irish wars” took place mostly around Logansport and Lagro in northern Indiana.
Irish workers eventually saw the result of their backbreaking work abandoned after just a couple of decades, as railroads eclipsed the canal and turned it into a worthless ditch not long after the end of the Civil War.
In an 1890 lecture, Indiana State Geologist John Collett shared a fascinating anecdote from natural history that he had learned from the surveyor Perrin Kent. Kent helped lay out part of the Wabash & Erie Canal near Williamsport in Warren County in the 1830s. As he told Collett, during the heyday of canal construction he ran across some “Irishmen working in the swamp” along the Wabash River. The Irish had discovered the fossilized bones of a mastodon. The surveyor watched as they “extracted the marrow, which had changed to adipocere” — “grave wax” formed from fatty tissues — and used it as grease for their boots. Perhaps the Irish had been doing this for generations with bones found in the rural peat bogs of Ireland. (Before 1883, there used to be a cranberry marsh in Medina Township, Warren County, where settlers harvested cranberries before the swamp was drained. From 1957 to 1972, the Milburn Peat Company of Chicago harvested peat from what was left of the old cranberry bog.)
At a time when a major American political party, the “Know-Nothings,” thrived on anti-immigrant attitudes, some Hoosiers were openly against the Irish influx. Yet nativism was never as bad here as in the East Coast cities, where ethnic riots often broke out. (One of the worst was the bloody 1849 Astor Place Riot in New York City, sparked by a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.) Though the Know-Nothings were the most outspoken opponents of non-Anglo-Saxon immigration, the Whig Party, which disappeared from American politics during the 1860s, was often notoriously “nativist.”
Antebellum midwestern papers, frequently run by European political refugees, were huge supporters of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, which tried to topple the old monarchies. “Young Ireland” was a major revolutionary movement led in part by a man who later played a critical role in the American Civil War.
Thomas Francis Meagher, best known in the U.S. as the commander of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade (decimated at Antietam and Gettysburg), was one of the world’s most famous revolutionaries in 1848. Born in Waterford, Ireland, in 1823, Meagher came from the oppressed Catholic majority. Educated by Jesuits in England, where he learned to speak with an upperclass English accent that his supporters sometimes hated him for, Meagher almost entered the Austrian army but got involved in Irish politics during the dark days of the Famine. As one of the leaders of the failed 1848 rebellion, he was nearly sentenced to death by a judge, but received a mercy verdict and was deported for life to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), at that time a British penal colony at the far end of the world.
Papers in Indiana and Ohio avidly followed Meagher’s fate and were thrilled to report in early 1852 that he had escaped from Tasmania on an American whaling vessel and made a surprise appearance in New York City that May. On June 3, the Indiana Legislature gathered in a committee of “friends of Ireland” headed by James Henry Lane of Lawrenceburg. (Lane soon became the fiery U.S. Senator from Kansas and one of the major fighters in the guerrilla warfare that laid “Bleeding Kansas” waste from 1854 to 1861.) “Jim” Lane’s committee invited Meagher to Indiana and resolved to show solidarity with “the glorious cause for which he was branded and exiled as a felon.” A public letter from Hoosier legislators addressed to the Irish rebel in New York proclaimed “We love Ireland” and congratulates him on his “almost miraculous escape from the myrmidons of British oppression.”
Meagher came west in 1852, but didn’t make it to Indianapolis. He may have stopped in Evansville, since he was in Louisville on December 20 and left for St. Louis on the steamboat Pike the next day. Meagher made another trip to the Midwest in 1858. At 8 o’clock at night on February 19, he gave a speech at the Universalist Church in Terre Haute. His subject: “St. Patrick’s Day and National Anniversaries.” Admission to hear the famous Irish patriot was 25 cents. (The Universalist Church once sat at the corner of 4th & Ohio Streets near the old Vigo County Courthouse. ) Sadly, no transcript or any further mention of Meagher’s talk was published in Terre Haute papers.
Meagher became an American citizen and went on to become the editor of two anti-British newspapers in New York City: the weekly Irish News and (with fellow rebel John Mitchel, who supported the Confederacy) the Citizen. He went to Costa Rica just before the Civil War to explore the possibility of Irish immigration there. Though he had previously supported the South, in 1861 Meagher helped recruit the 69th New York Regiment, the core of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade, a fighting body made up mostly but not entirely of Irish volunteers. Under Brigadier General Meagher’s command, the Irish Brigade bore the brunt of fighting along Bloody Lane at Antietam and was almost entirely wiped out at Gettysburg. Today, a huge monument to Meagher and the Irish volunteers — most of whom were from New York but with many Hoosiers among them — stands next to the lookout tower on the Antietam Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland.
Meagher survived the war, went west as Territorial Governor of Montana, and drowned in the Missouri River near Fort Benton in 1867 when he fell off a steamboat.
One of the notable “Hoosier Irish” who served with distinction in the Civil War was Father William Corby (1833-1897), a Holy Cross priest from Notre Dame and an army chaplain attached to the Irish Brigade. Before the mostly Catholic Irish brigade went into battle on the second day of Gettysburg, Corby famously gave the unit absolution from their sins. Pictured here in 1862 with two other priests who served in the Union Army, Corby went on to become the president of the University of Notre Dame and wrote a bestselling memoir of his experiences in the war.
For all their occasional hostility to the Irish (who were frequently considered an “inferior race” in the nineteenth century), American papers often celebrated Irish wit and humor. In 1883, the Jasper Weekly Courier printed a tale about an elderly Irish woman who showed up at a railroad station just a few seconds too late. Trying to sprint down the platform to catch her train, “she of course came to a halt, when she began to abuse the unaccommodating engine, adding with a ‘nate’ brogue: ‘Faugh! The great black ugly lump! When she gets as old as me, she won’t run so quick!”
One more interesting story that made it into the papers is worth sharing. On St. Patrick’s “Eve”, 1892, sky watchers saw a strange event in several parts of the Midwest.
On March 18, the Indianapolis Journal reported the remarkable atmospheric occurrence. A white cross was hovering around the moon.
For two or three days, in parts of Illinois, the superstitious people have been brought almost to the verge of insanity by curious phenomenal displays that have found their way into the heavens without any apparent business there and without having, so it seems, been heralded by either the Weather Bureau or scientific gentlemen in general. The phenomena has assumed various forms and to the different classes of people who have been sightseers has spoken a various language.
During the past twenty-four hours the papers have contained dispatches from Bloomington and Springfield, Illinois, Fort Dodge, Iowa, and other cities, describing in hectic terms phantasmagoric spectacles seldom before seen except in “hyper-borean” regions. If these dispatches are to be believed, in some cases the empyreal display has been cut bias, in others diagonal, and at all times conveying a mundane idea that the sprites of the heavens, robed in regal costumes of variegated colors, were enjoying a ball masque on the “milky way.”
It remained for Luna, however, to confer her choicest favor upon Indianapolis and vicinity upon St. Patrick’s night. At 11:30 o’clock last night, when the moon was at her best, she appeared in the center of a perfectly formed and perfectly visible cross of milky whiteness. This wonderful display was visible for about thirty minutes, when it gradually merged into a sort of a hazy pale. Such a phenomenal display is attributed entirely to atmospheric conditions. Why the moon should appear in the center of a cross on St. Patrick’s day, however, is something that the atmosphere does not explain.
If the cross had been green, the “Sons of Erin” would have had extra cause to “jollify”:
Volunteers at a booth on Wabash Avenue in Terre Haute, Indiana, around 1922 support freeing Terre Haute native Eugene V. Debs from jail. Five-time Socialist candidate for the U.S. presidency, Debs was imprisoned by the Wilson administration during World War I for opposing the military draft. The sign reads “Ireland is Free — Why Not Debs? Help Bring Debs Home for Christmas.” (Martin Collection, Indiana Historical Society.)