One of the nineteenth century’s most idiosyncratic inventions was the rotary jail. Inspired by the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, rotary jails were circular enclosures that allowed guards a 360 degree view of inmates through moving cells via a crank. There was only one access point, making escape more difficult. This type of jail was invented in Indiana by architect William H. Brown and iron industrialist Benjamin F. Haugh. These Indianapolis-based inventors filed their patent patent in 1881.The design became popular, largely because it decreased interaction between guard and prisoner. In fact, the prisoner did not even have to be removed from his cell to dispose of waste. In this blog post, we’ll expand our knowledge of these jails through more newspaper accounts from throughout the United States.
But how do we start? One great tool for looking for subjects and their relevance to newspapers is usnewsmap.com. A joint venture of the Georgia Tech Research Institute and the University of Georgia, US News Map provides visitors with an easy search tool that show where subjects show up on the map. When I typed in “rotary jail,” I got eleven hits; some were as far east as Vermont and as far west as Utah.
In Burlington, Vermont, a rotary jail was built as early as the late 1880s, with city planners waxing enthusiastic about the invention after their visit to the flagship rotary jail in Crawfordsville, Indiana. “They were most favorably impressed with the new rotary jail at Crawfordsville, Ind., and the probability is that they will decide to erect a similar one in this city,” wrote the Burlington Free Press on March 25, 1887. In Picturesque Burlington, a short history written in 1893 by Joseph Auld, describes the rotary jail in detail:
This “cage” is closely surrounded by a barred iron railing with only one opening. When a prisoner is to be placed in his cell the “cage” is revolved till the proper cell fronts the door; then the prisoner is put in, the cage is turned, and he is secure. The number of prisoners is small and the offences venial, largely violations of the prohibitory law.
For example, one particular story from the Burlington Free Press comes to mind. As reported on April 7, 1892, a man named John Arthur Simpson, whose aliases included “George Simpson” and “George A. Stillwell,” was accused of murder in Dover, New Hampshire. Simpson, whose past lives included “Baptist minister, later a burglar, horse thief, incendiary, farmer, bigamist, and finally a murderer,” apparently bared a remarkable resemblance to Julius McArthur, who “killed Deputy Sherriff Charles H. Hatch of New Hampshire May 6, 1891 while resisting arrest for stealing a horse and who escaped from the rotary jail of this city Jul 17, 1891.” According to the newspaper report, Simpson likely escaped from jail using a knife “as a wedge to open the cell door” and the authorities searched for a supposed accomplice who gave him said knife. Even though rotary jails garnered a reputation for being tough to escape, Simpson’s story shows they weren’t completely impenetrable.
Another rotary jailbreak occurred in Salt Lake City, Utah. Charles Riis, convicted of larceny under the name “Charles Merritt,” reportedly “went through the bars of the supposedly impregnable steel rotary at the county jail as though they were made of putty,” wrote the Salt Lake Herald on February 2, 1907. Riis was said to have “crawled” through a cell “eight inches wide by fourteen inches and length” after sawing through a bar over a few days, slowly as to not alert the sheriff. He then used the sawed bar as leverage to scale down the side of the jail wall with a blanket. At the time of this article, his whereabouts were unknown. Riis’s clever maneuvering utilized the weaknesses of both the rotary jail as an invention and the law enforcement agency’s inability to anticipate his covert actions.
However, these stories pale in comparison to what was reported in multiple newspapers in Kansas. Carrie Nation, noted prohibitionist and provocateur, instigated a spat with the Wichita Sheriff’s wife and placed in a rotary jail cell in 1901. From here, we get two different sides of the story. According to the May 3 1901 issue of the Kinsley Graphic, Nation was “placed in the rotary cell at the county jail. She abused the sheriff’s wife, calling her all kind of vile names, the ‘devil’s dam being one.” She also called another woman “two-faced” as she was sitting in the rotary cell. However, the Topeka State Journal quoted Nation directly, painting a contrasting narrative. Nation, quoted in the Journal, wrote:
I was put in this [rotary] cell because I told Mrs. Simmons, the jailor’s wife, that when I was here before she tried to have me adjudged insane. She said I was a woman who used low, obscene language to her husband. I told her she lied and all liars would go to burn in the lake of fire. Her husband told me this morning when he came to remove me that his wife wanted me to be put here. Poor, depraved wretch! What a shame to see a cruel, revengeful woman. John the Baptist lost his head from just such a one. I would rather die in this unwholesome place than be such. I wish she would let Jesus change the bitter to the sweet in her nature. What a miserable woman she is! My poor sisters in this Bastille are trusting in the Lord.
She then railed against the liquor trade in Wichita, advising all citizens to “avoid getting anything from this cursed Sodom,” and comparing her treatment in the rotary jail to the “cruelty and injustice” of the “Spanish inquisition.” Nation’s brush with rotary jails is one of many legendary stories of the gilded age crusader.
Finally, rotary jails not only dealt with prisoners getting out, but also unintentionally trapped in. The November 10, 1886 issue of the Fairfield News and Herald, out of Winnsboro, South Carolina, reported that the rotary jail in Council Bluffs, Iowa “became locked Monday morning by some disarrangement of the machinery, and no prisoners could be taken out nor any admitted.” The paper further noted that a “large force of men were at work all day on the machinery, but the trouble was not removed until Tuesday morning.” This story was also picked by the Laurens Advertiser, the Manning Times, and the Pickens Sentinel.
Between the escapes and the structural failures, you would think that rotary jails would have lost sway with the law enforcement community and the general public. As the previous post mentioned, efforts to stop the use of rotary jails began as early as 1917. By the mid-20th century, many rotary jails were discontinued or the cell blocks were immobilized. Two former rotary jails served as county jails well into the 20th century, with the Council Bluffs jail closing in 1969 and the Crawfordsville jail in 1973.
Although the rotary jail is no longer used, the seminal Indiana invention left a profound mark on the history of crime and punishment in the United States. Its design really broke the mold, or as you could say, broke (out of) the cell.
Crawfordsville, Indiana, has several claims to fame, most of them literary. Once hailed as “The Athens of the Midwest,” the town was home to Ben-Hur’s author, the novelist and Civil War hero Lew Wallace. For a few months in 1907 and 1908, it was also, briefly, home to the unconventional American poet Ezra Pound.
Born in Idaho, Pound was a flamboyant genius who later dabbled in Fascist politics in Mussolini’s Italy. At the end of World War II, he was imprisoned by the U.S. Army, prosecuted for treason, and spent most of the 1950s confined at a mental hospital in Washington, D.C., where the Federal government kept him up under watch. Yet Pound might have considered Crawfordsville as the site of his first “incarceration.”
While still in his twenties, Ezra Pound taught Romance languages at Wabash College but found the school too conservative for his liking. After the professor invited a stranded prostitute or traveling entertainer to sleep in his room one winter night — later insisting that he slept on the floor while she took over the bed — the 22-year-old Pound got the axe from the college president, just into his second semester as a language professor at Wabash in February 1908. He immediately moved to Europe, going into poetry and the Modernist art world, describing Crawfordsville as “The sixth circle of hell.”
Ironically, both Lew Wallace and Ezra Pound had some unusual connections to incarceration — as did Crawfordsville itself. In 1865, Wallace had headed the commission that investigated Henry Wirz, the infamous Swiss-born Confederate commandant of Andersonville prison camp in Georgia, where Union soldiers were starved during the Civil War and some were allegedly killed by Wirz’s bloodhounds. (Wirz was executed following Wallace’s investigation.) As for Pound’s own experience with jails, after the Allies and the Italian resistance toppled Benito Mussolini in 1944, the former Wabash College professor-turned-Fascist, who had done radio broadcasts in support of Il Duce, was shut up in one of the U.S. Army’s outdoor steel cages in Pisa, Italy.
Like the army’s open-air “security cages” in Pisa, “benighted” Crawfordsville once experimented with ventilation. The Indiana town actually helped pioneer a new type of jail in the 1880s, when “The Athens of the Midwest” became home to one of today’s few surviving “rotary jails.” This was an architectural twist on the traditional one-room slammer that turned frontier clinkers into revolving, newfangled structures that looked something like a fresh-baked pie — at least on paper. (Ezra Pound might have compared them to an Italian pizza pie.)
In 1881, two men from Indianapolis — architect William H. Brown and Benjamin F. Haugh, owner of the Haugh Iron Works on Indy’s West Side — filed a patent for an ingenious invention. They later filed several variations on this patent, but the 1881 original begins:
The object of our invention is to produce a jail or prison in which prisoners can be controlled without the necessity of personal contact between them and the jailer or guard, and incidentally to provide it with sundry conveniences and advantages not usually found in prisons; and it consists, first, of a circular cell structure of considerable size (inside the usual prison-building) divided into several cells capable of being rotated, and surrounded by a grating in close proximity thereto, which has only such number of openings (usually one) as is necessary for the convenient handling of the prisoners; second, in the combination, with said cell structure, of a system of shafts and gears, or their equivalents, for the purpose of rotating the same; third, in constructing within said circular cell structure a central space for the purposes of ventilation and the disposition of offal, &c.; fourth, in constructing niches in the side of the cells next said central opening to serve as water-closets, and arranging underneath said niches a continuous trough to contain water, to receive and convey away into a sewer with which it is connected all the offal deposited therein by the prisoners in all the cells. . . .
In other words, one of the primary goals of the revolving jail was to facilitate the disposal of human waste without having to ever release the prisoner from his cell or even to come into any contact with him at all. The other goal was to render escapes and prison riots virtually impossible.
Operating a hand crank, a guard could literally spin an entire block of wedge-shaped cells. Prisoners would be moved around without ever exiting through the block’s one access point. In addition to improving ventilation and drainage — the system involved an advanced “soil-pipe” or sewer — Brown and Haugh’s patent explained that one of the real safety feature of the rotary jail was for the sheriff or guard himself:
The prisoners are handled without any possible chance for personal contact with any except the one desired, as the cell structure is rotated until the door-opening of the cell desired is brought opposite the general door opening in the outside grating, and while one cell occupies this position the rest must of necessity be securely closed. This arrangement makes the whole prison as convenient to the keeper as though it consisted of but a single cell, and as safe as if it contained but a single prisoner.
Plans for a “rat trap” or “steel trap” prison were being considered by the New York Penological Society in 1897. A syndicated news story incorrectly states that “It is an English idea.” It was a Hoosier one.
Constructed in 1882, the Montgomery County Jail was one of at least eight rotary jails built in the U.S., though by some accounts there were around eighteen total, spread between Kentucky and Utah. Salt Lake City was the only large city that seems to have had one, and the plan was considered best for small-town jails. Only four of them survive today, with none still operating as a jail. The Pottawattamie County Jail in Council Bluffs, Iowa, was the last rotary jail to still be in use. It was discontinued in 1969.
Although the website for Crawfordsville’s Rotary Jail Museum claims that the real motivation behind Brown and Haugh’s patent was “to help maintain strict Victorian social order,” revolving cell blocks were almost definitely an improvement on the pits that 19th-century prisoners were frequently chucked into.
Yet as these new jails were built, their advantages were soon shown to be mostly theoretical. By the 1930s, in fact, the Montgomery County Jail came under criticism for poor ventilation, bad natural lighting, unsanitary conditions, and an “old, insecure, unsafe” structure — all problems that its designers had meant to resolve. Over the years, too, the limbs of inmates in American rotary jails occasionally got caught in the rotating bars, crushing or maiming them.
A critic in Wichita, Kansas, in 1917 called the rotating cages a “medieval relic of barbarism.”
Crawfordsville jailers tried to make improvements, but the town’s old rotary jail was finally abandoned in 1967. Montgomery County officially took it out of use in 1973. Like a couple of its historic kindred in Missouri and Iowa, it survives as a museum known as the Rotary Jail Museum.
Ironically, the iron that went into Indiana’s lone rotary jail came from Haughville on Indianapolis’ West Side.
Haugh, Ketchum & Co. Iron Works had moved from downtown west of the White River in 1880, just a year before owner Benjamin F. Haugh filed his patent with William Brown for a revolving cell block. Haughville or “Haughsville” in the 1880’s soon became known for its busy foundries, which included the rival National Malleable Castings Company, and it was considered a prosperous town when Indianapolis annexed it in 1897. Local industries attracted thousands of German, Irish, and Slovene immigrants to the area.
By the early 1900s, Haughville had become the center of Indianapolis’ Eastern European population, including Slovenes, Croats, Macedonians, and Hungarians. A wave of Southerners, both black and white, moved in after World War I. Haughville’s industries, however, slowly declined. When its two major employers, Link-Belt and National Casting, shut down in 1959 and 1962, the neighborhood slipped into serious decline and has never recovered. The closing of Washington High School and the old Central State Hospital (a huge mental institution which probably incorporated a lot of locally-produced iron) also hurt the area.
Efforts have been made to revitalize Haughville, but this part of Indianapolis that once created iron for jails remains a feared part of the city, suffering from serious gang violence, drug addiction, and one of the highest rates of poverty and crime in the Midwest.
“The most damnable spot in America.” “A disgrace to civilization.” “Filth and abomination.” “Indiana’s Black of Hole of Calcutta.”
The Hoosier State sometimes get bad national press, but in 1923 the criticism was homegrown. True to Hoosier stereotypes, the alleged horrors took place on a farm, the state penal farm, and involved the abuse of prisoners.
On the eve of World War I, a new, “open-air” penitentiary opened about an hour west of Indianapolis. Overcrowding at the major state prisons in Michigan City and Jeffersonville, as well as at county jails all over Indiana, led the legislature to pursue a “progressive” alternative to mere incarceration. Many prisoners, after all, were behind bars for minor crimes like theft and assault and battery. That changed in 1917, when Indiana Governor James Goodrich initiated statewide Prohibition, two years in advance of the Federal liquor ban that came with the Volstead Act in 1919.
Since some Indiana counties and towns had already passed local dry laws, by 1915 sheriffs were cracking down on operators of illegal saloons, moonshine distillers, and town drunks. While most violators were never tossed in the clinker for more than a few weeks or months, as the war on alcohol got more serious, Hoosier jails began to fill up fast. The temptation to make a profit off jails was a further problem, a situation that still exists today.
Prohibition laws provide a fascinating glimpse into the dark side of reform movements. As one Hoosier editor, Muncie’s George R. Dale, discovered while investigating allegations of prisoner abuse at the State Farm in Putnamville, punitive social reform — including the ban on alcohol sales — had scarcely hidden undertones of racism and class operating behind it. Working-class Americans, African Americans, and Catholics bore the brunt of laws framed mostly by women’s rights advocates and middle-class white Protestants. Liquor laws, oddly enough, turned out to be a major milepost on the intellectual superhighway that led to the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 — coincidentally, the year of the penal farm’s founding. The original Klan had died off in the 1870s. Revived just before Word War I, it found its highest membership not among stereotypical rural Southerners and defeated Confederates, but among white middle-class Midwesterners. The ideology of “the second Klan,” moreover, wasn’t totally foreign to the reform movements of the 1910s.
In 1922, Dale, a civil liberties maverick, joined the campaign to investigate the penal farm — then went there twice as a prisoner, sentenced to hard labor for criticizing a Delaware County judge with Klan connections.
Though the farm would soon fall under suspicion, the plans behind its creation were full of good intentions. Jailers and prison reformers had always been vexed by the failure of jail sentences to cure some criminals of their attraction to lawbreaking. The theory was that inmates were bonding behind bars while living in “idleness.” As a Hoosier paper, The Hagerstown Record, put it in 1916,
Jails are simply breeding places for vice. Lawbreakers thrown together in sheer idleness day after day have opportunity and incentive for devising more lawlessness. The hardened men create an atmosphere of viciousness that influences the less hardened, while the shiftless vagrant finds very little punishment in free board and no work.
Penal labor, though not wrong in itself, had an enormously dark history — from Charles Dickens’ hellish “workhouses” in David Copperfield to British convict colonies in Australia and of course the Siberian gulags of Tsarist and Soviet Russia.
A 1913 law passed by the Indiana legislature made possible the establishment of a pioneering state penal farm. That law appropriated $60,000 for the purchase of at least 500 acres of land. To help prevent party control and graft, the bipartisan committee, like the prisoners themselves, would receive no salary for their work.
The committee eventually bought 1,600 acres around Putnamville, five miles south of Greencastle, in a hilly, rocky part of Putnam County. Much of this acreage was considered “too broken for agriculture.” Yet this didn’t put a halt to plans, since the penal farm would include several industries besides farming. Underlain by Mitchell limestone, prisoners were put to work breaking rock in quarries, used for road building and the production of crushed limestone fertilizer used on fields. Prisoners also sawed lumber from a neighboring forest reserve. Additionally, the farm kept a dairy herd, apple and peach trees, and fields that grew corn, hay, soybeans, sorghum, pumpkins, and tobacco (a crop now practically extinct in Indiana). In 1916, the prison kept 190 “fat and sleek” hogs. Most of this produce went to fed patients and staff at state hospitals.
A brick plant came in 1918, with prisoners turning out 30,000 bricks a day. The bricks were used in the construction of a new medical college and a military warehouse in Indianapolis and of the Indiana Village for Epileptics, later renamed the New Castle State Hospital. (This happened at a time when epileptics were considered a menace to society and segregated. Indiana’s 1907 eugenics laws forbade epileptics to get married, putting them virtually in the same class with criminals subjected to forced sterilization.)
The money-making possibilities of the state farm were already stirring up buzz among citizens of Putnamville, an old pioneer town on the National Road that nearly became a ghost town when the Putnam County seat was moved to Greencastle. The Indianapolis News reported that rumor of the farm’s coming “spread over the hills and valleys like wildfire” and that residents believed it would “make the old village glow with new life.” “Friends of prisoners” and “sightseers” will “come and go and Putnamville will thrive on the nickels and dimes they spend.”
Locals didn’t seem worried about having prisoners as neighbors, though the penal farm was barely guarded at all. Punishment for escaping was apparently considered enough of a threat to deter the attempt. Fugitives from the law would find their sentences, sometimes a mere 90 days, extended to two years in a state prison if caught.
Newspapers give insight into the type of criminal sent to the State Farm. After Indiana’s prohibition law was ratified in 1917, more than half of the prisoners here came on liquor-related offenses — whether running a “blind tiger,” a rural whiskey still, or being drunk in public. Although bootleg whiskey could be very deadly, other prisoners were jailed for the slimmest of crimes. One was an 18-year-old from Indianapolis who stole a penknife.
The Indiana State Penal Farm’s bleak reputation wasn’t long coming. Less than a year after its founding, John Albright, a bootlegger from Terre Haute, actually requested deportation to his native Germany during the height of World War I rather than serve 90 days at the farm.
Newspapers also documented escapes from the farm, a few of them dramatic. In 1916, two prisoners who drove farm horses ran away with their steeds. They tied them to trees in the woods around Greencastle, where the animals were later found starved to death, “tethered a few paces from an abundance of grass and water.” A year earlier, two Indianapolis youths escaped, went on a burglary and horse-stealing spree near Terre Haute, and were then hunted down by a posse of Vigo County farmers. When four men escaped in 1917, including an African American from Lake County, a “sensational gun fight” ensued. The African American, a man named Hall, was shot dead.
In May 1915, just a month after opening, there were 217 prisoners living at the farm, including 30 African Americans. The total number that skyrocketed to almost 1,200 within a year. In its first decade, the farm “entertained” about 25,000 prisoners.
In 1920, a controversy broke out over allegations of cruelty at Putnamville. Charles McNulty, an Indianapolis saloon keeper let out on parole, filed a complaint with the State Board of Health. McNulty’s claims about unsanitary conditions and violence were backed up a year later when Oscar Knight, a prisoner, filed a further complaint with a judge. Knight claimed that jailers served inmates food that “is not fit for hogs.”
McNulty alleged that prisoners were routinely underfed and worked ten hours a day at hard labor. Meat was only served once a week, “one slice of fat bacon,” less than what prisoners at other jails got while merely sitting in a cell.
Musty meal was used for making corn bread three times a week until Putnam County health officers forbade the use of it. . . On Sunday, five crackers is the substitute for the dry bread of weekdays. Some of the paid guards are insulting and cruel and inhuman, especially to cripples and weaklings, using a loaded cane to beat them.
There were further allegations that Governor Goodrich’s family and “hirelings” of his administration profited from unpaid labor, since inmates at Putnamville were “farmed out” to the Globe Mining Company, partly run by the governor’s son. Charles E. Talkington, superintendent of the penal farm, blew these charges off by claiming that McNulty was a member of the International Workers of the World (IWW) or “Wobblies” Talkington had previously been head of the Farm Colony for the Feeble-Minded in Butlerville and Bartholomew County’s school superintendent. The “Feeble-Minded Farm” — also called the Muscatatuck Colony — was, like the epileptic “village” in New Castle, part of Indiana’s dark eugenics campaign, which blamed crime on mental retardation and figured into a backlash against immigrants and the poor.
Yet early charges made about the farm were tame compared to those reported in one of the most fiery and flamboyant Hoosier newspapers Dale’s Muncie Post-Democrat.
Dale had just begun a landmark battle against the Ku Klux Klan. Though the Klan almost took over Indiana government in the 1920s, it was rooted in years of corrupt politics and arguably even social reform movements like Prohibition and eugenics. During his long battle to expose the Muncie Klan, Dale would be attacked by gunmen who tried to shoot him and his son. Yet the white-haired editor took on the Klan with humor, writing outrageous lampoons about “Koo-Koos” and “Kluxerdom” in his weekly paper, which was almost wholly dedicated to ridiculing the Invisible Empire. Dale published lists of known or suspected Klan members. He also grappled with the KKK’s powerful women’s auxiliary at a time when thousands of Hoosier Klanswomen spread hatred through families in ways that their male counterparts actually had less success at in their public roles. Dale vocally supported blacks, Jews, Catholics, and immigrants, and anybody else targeted by the Klan.
In August 1922, Dale also came to the defense of prisoners at the State Farm. The battle would go on for years. Before it was over, he got a chance to see the terrors of the “Black Hole of Indiana” up close. For criticizing a Muncie judge with links to the Klan — Clarence Dearth, a man he called “the most contemptible chunk of human carrion that ever disgraced the circuit bench in the state of Indiana” — Dale was sentenced for contempt of court and libel, fighting a four-year-long legal battle to stay out of the farm himself. Dale’s campaign is an overlooked part of the history of freedom of speech in Indiana.
His first jab came on August 4, 1922. That story was based on the accusations of “a man from Muncie” who had just visited Putnamville. (Dale doesn’t give his name.)
When Dale criticized a libel ruling Dearth, the judge handed him a 90-day sentence at Putnamville. After eleven days in a Muncie jail, the editor entered the State Farm’s gates as “Convict 14,378.” Partly through the efforts of his wife Lena, the Indiana Supreme Court ordered Dale’s release after just three days. He now had a chance to write “from actual experience”, not the reports of others. Dale immediately set to work “serving notice on the Ku Klux Klan and its miserable tools in office.”
While wealthy bootleggers and Prohibition violators with connections in government often got off scot-free, Dale wrote that when he went to Putnamville, he stood in line with working-class men.
Stepping into the prison barber’s, “in exactly ten seconds my head looked like a billiard ball.” The 56-year-old and father of seven claimed he was then forced to strip down and shower in public, received filthy clothes that “smelled like sin,” got sprayed down by a fruit-tree sprayer, and was vaccinated by a veterinarian. Of the eight meals he ate in the mess hall in the course of three days, he never got any meat. He slept in a miserable, freezing dormitory with 204 other inmates, most of them sick and packed in “like sardines in a can.”
Dale insisted that many of these inmates were jailed on trivial liquor charges. He described one man whose family was left subsisting on charity while he rotted at the farm for almost two years, “having no money to pay his fine,” though prisoners were supposed to receive $1.00 a day for their labor. Always keen to publish news about the discrepancies in punishment meted out to African Americans versus whites, Dale mentioned black teens at the penal farm sentenced for bicycle theft and other minor offenses.
The editor put out an appeal to Governor Warren Terry McCray to investigate the “Putnamville Disgrace.” While he commended the governor for investigating similar jail horrors in Marion County and at the new Indiana Reformatory in Pendleton, Dale insisted on “The Difference Between Men and Bulls.” Cattle on McCray’s bull farm near Kentland lived better lives than prisoners at Putnamville, he announced. Taking heed of these accusations, Dr. James Wilson, mayor of Wabash, Indiana, refused to send any further offenders to Putnam County “until that place of horror is changed from a torture pen into a place of punishment where convicts are treated like human beings instead of dumb brutes.”
In 1926, two years after Ed Jackson, a Klansman, became Governor of Indiana, Judge Dearth and editor Dale were still fighting. Dearth sent the newspaperman back to the penal farm once more when Dale continued to ridicule him. Dale was also found guilty on a “trumped up” charge of liquor possession and of libeling George Roeger, a Muncie distributor of D.C. Stephenson‘s newspaper, The Fiery Cross (printed in Indianapolis). Dale had accused him of being a “Ku Klux draft dodger.”) A jury allegedly packed with Klansmen also declared him guilty of carrying a concealed weapon. Dale appealed the case to the Indiana Supreme Court but lost. Judge Julius C. Travis wrote the opinion that “the truth is no defense” and that Dale had held the law up to ridicule. Newspapers in Chicago and elsewhere started a defense fund to support freedom of speech.
In July 1926, Dale spent a further nine days at Putnamville, digging a tile ditch. He was released, strangely enough, by order of Governor Jackson himself. He got another sentence in August 1927, but spent just half an hour there. It was enough time, however, for him to be fingerprinted and booked as a convict. He also described a conversation with a young African American, James Martin, sentenced to six months for stealing $5.00. Martin had a wife and three children.
Judge Clarence Dearth of Muncie was later impeached. George Dale went on to become Muncie’s mayor from 1930 to 1935. As editor and mayor, he kept an eye on corrupt judges and police.
The Indianapolis Times began a series of articles about abuse allegations that continued to come out of the Indiana State Penal Farm. Yet the farm survived, receiving many inmates throughout the Depression. Most came on charges of larceny, liquor offenses and issuing fraudulent checks. Some, though, were guilty of more serious crimes, like drunk driving and child molestation. Still others came for downright strange reasons, like a Kendallville man arrested for selling “fake radium belts” for which he claimed curative powers. Then there were the sentences that now seem downright cruel.
Heavy drinkers were packed off to Putnamville into the 1950s. Through the 1960s, inmates milked cows, tended an orchard, and grew vegetables, also raising 18 acres of tobacco. About 40 convicts a year escaped in the 1970s and ’80s. Staff and guards were unarmed.
In 1977, the farm was reclassified as a medium-security prison and began receiving convicted felons, which partly contributed to the decline of farming there in the 1980s. The State of Indiana later tried to revive dairy farming at Putnamville in the 1990s. In 1995, the prison was operating the largest dairy farm in the county. Yet of the farm’s 1,600 inmates that year, less than 100 were working in agriculture.
Conditions in the mid-’90s had definitely improved since the days of Prohibition. The Kokomo Tribune reported in 1994 that 900 gallons of food scraps a day were being taken from the dining hall, mixed with cow manure, and used in a composting initiative. That project cut the prison’s garbage bill in half.
Now called the Putnamville Correctional Facility, the institution survives. Almost 2,500 prisoners are there today, more than at any time in its history.
American politics often repeats itself every generation or two. In light of some of the top stories in the media in 2015 — including Pope Francis’ U.S. visit and the first major candidacy of a Socialist for the White House since 1920, that of Vermont’s Bernie Sanders — one fascinating, overlooked tale from the Indiana press is worth retrieving from the archives.
The story starts in Terre Haute, hometown of Eugene V. Debs, the great American labor leader who, as a Socialist, ran for president not once, but five times. A passionate leader of railroad strikes — Terre Haute a century ago was one of the major railroad hubs of the nation — Debs was also a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World and a vocal opponent of American entry into World War I. When he clashed with President Wilson over the military draft in 1918, he was sent to prison under an espionage act. Debs spent over two years of a ten-year sentence at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta, where he ran for the presidency in 1920 — the only candidate ever to run a campaign from a jail cell.
In the summer of 1913, however, Eugene Debs came to the defense of a scorned young woman tossed into Terre Haute’s own city jail. Slandered in the press, she’d been called a “woman in scarlet,” a “modern Magdalene” and a street-walker. Local papers and the American Socialist press jumped on the story of how Debs showed compassion for her, but today the tale is almost unknown.
The alleged prostitute was Helen Hollingsworth Cox (sometimes spelled Hollinsworth in the papers.) Born in Indiana around 1888, she would have been about 25 when her case electrified the city, including its gossips. Helen was the daughter of the Reverend J.H. Hollingsworth, a Methodist minister in Greencastle, Newport, Terre Haute and probably several other Wabash Valley towns.
As Mont Casey, a writer for the Clinton Clintonian, explained, the Reverend Hollingsworth had angered some of his flock by preaching the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth rather than giving “more attention to society and the golf links.” Though Debs was a famous “non-professor” when it came to religion, he and Hollingsworth saw eye-to-eye on issues like poverty, it seems. (In fact, the agnostic Debs, son of French immigrants, had been given the middle name Victor to honor Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, the great novel of the poor.) Yet Mont Casey wrote that the Socialist and the Methodist were close friends.
Some papers had apparently gotten their version of Helen’s “fall from grace” wrong, prompting Casey to explain her “true history.” Set among the debauched wine rooms and saloons of Terre Haute, Casey’s version ventures into the city’s once-flourishing red light district near the Wabash River and the world of the “soiled doves,” a popular euphemism for prostitutes. The scene could have come straight from the urban novels of Terre Haute’s other famous son in those days, Theodore Dreiser, whose Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt were banned for their sexual frankness and honesty.
Helen’s minister father may have been denied a pulpit because of his interpretations of the gospel. He also may have been living in poverty and unable to help his daughter. This isn’t clear.
Whatever the truth is, the story went international, perhaps through the efforts of Milwaukee’s Socialist press. (The Socialist mayor of Milwaukee, Emil Seidel, had been Debs’ vice-presidential running mate in 1912.) The tale eventually made it overseas, as far away as New Zealand, in fact, where The Maoriland Worker, published out of Wellington or Christchurch, mentions that Debs was a designated “emergency probation officer” in Terre Haute.
The fires were being stoked. Terre Haute’s well-heeled “Pharisees” — the same type, many pointed out, who had killed “the rebel Jesus,” as Jackson Browne and the Chieftains put it in an Irish Christmas song — apparently weren’t happy about Debs coming to Helen Cox’s defense. When he took the “modern Magdalene” directly into his home (the phrase refers to Jesus’ female disciple, who was also falsely labeled a prostitute in popular memory), Debs declared that his “friends must receive her.”
Son of a formerly Catholic French mother but a freethinker himself, this was a remarkable moment for Debs — who famously said that he would rather entrust himself to a saloon keeper than the average preacher but who was anything but hostile to religion at its best.
A clip from the Washington Post added this excerpt from the labor leader’s remarks to the press:
That summer, Debs’ healthy “challenge to the Christianity of Terre Haute” was taken up in the pages of a unique monthly called The Flaming Sword. Published at a religious commune near Fort Myers, Florida, the periodical was the mouthpiece of the Koreshan Unity, an experimental utopian community based partly on Socialist and Christian principles. The celibate group living on the outskirts of the Everglades had been founded by Dr. Cyrus Teed (1839-1908), a former Civil War doctor turned alchemist and messiah who came down to Florida from Chicago in the 1890s. Teed also propounded a curious “Hollow Earth” theory.
Dr. Teed was dead by the time Debs threw down his challenge to the churches, but the Koreshans printed a spirited, sympathetic editorial about it — written by fellow utopian John S. Sargent, a former Civil War soldier and Wabash Valley native.
Helen Hollingsworth apparently got back on her feet thanks to Debs’ help. But she did lose her daughter, Dorothy, born in 1908, who was raised by the wealthy Cox family and Helen’s “reprobate betrayer.” That was Newton Cox, “petted profligate of an aristocratic family,” who died in 1934. During the Great Depression, Dorothy Cox married a banker named Morris Bobrow. She died in New York City in 2000.
Helen’s father, Reverend J.H. Hollingsworth, passed away in 1943. The Methodist pastor had followed his daughter up to Michigan, where in the early 1930’s, she was living in Lansing and Grand Rapids, having married a news broadcaster named King Bard. The 1940 Census shows that the Bards had a 17-year-old “step-daughter” named Joan. The 1930 Census states that Joan was adopted, and that — confusingly — the married couple’s name was Guerrier, at first. It’s not clear why they changed their last name to Bard during the Depression. King’s birth name had been John Clarence Guerrier, the same name on his World War II draft registration card, which lists him as “alias King Bard.”
Eugene V. Debs died in 1926. Helen Bard retired with her husband to Bradenton, Florida, where she appears to have passed away in May 1974, aged 86.
In 1914, a fascinating and controversial woman in Muncie, Indiana, threatened to “tear the town wide open.” At least that was her credible claim, made during a speech in Columbus on July 8, 1914.
Toting a mace around Muncie’s streets, a pistol at night, and wearing a police uniform designed and made by herself, Alfaretta Hart — Badge Number 9 — was on a personal crusade to redeem “fallen women” and clean up the “commercialized vice district.” She was also married to one of the city’s great industrialists. The swirl of controversy around her, which involved everyone from teetotaling ministers to the Socialist press, is an incredible glimpse into the shifting landscape of American politics and feminism.
For a millionaire, it’s ironic that Alfaretta Hart was born Alfaretta Martha Poorman in 1860 in St. Clairsville, Ohio, an Appalachian mining town just over the river from Wheeling, West Virginia. Poorman married Pittsburgh businessman Thomas F. Hart (1851-1934), who later ran several big factories in Muncie during its lost heyday as a manufacturing town. Hart’s industries included the Inter-State Automobile Company — where glass-maker Frank Ball, of Ball State fame, was a major investor — and several Hoosier paper mills and glass factories that turned out windows and jars. Alfaretta Hart served on the board of these industries and ranked among the wealthiest Hoosier women.
Yet there is little information about her in the newspapers until 1914, when the 53-year-old became Muncie’s first — and at that time only — policewoman.
The history of policewomen is fascinating in itself. Closely tied to Progressive politics and the women’s rights movement, the inclusion of females on American police forces was specifically meant to help combat big social problems like juvenile crime, prostitution, rape and sex trafficking. Unfortunately, some of the more sensational early 20th-century news stories about women in law enforcement focus on what seem like silly distractions today — like the years when they enforced the size of bathing suits on beaches. During World War I, women officers were even drawn into the popular hysteria about German spies and saboteurs stalking the United States. The South Bend News-Times ran an especially bizarre piece in 1918 about how New York City’s policewomen were helping uncover other “women” who just happened to be the Kaiser’s cross-dressers. A hundred years later, it’s tough to say if this story is truth or urban legend.
Side-shows like these took away from the truly valuable work of female police officers. Minnie Evans, who served on South Bend’s police force in 1917, consistently urged that “Only a Woman Judge Can Handle Women’s Cases,” especially in “cases involving a woman’s honor” (i.e., sexual in nature.) Many of those “honor” cases began at dance halls, which older American females considered hot-beds of vice. Cigarettes, booze and dancing were the feared “gateway drugs” to extra-marital affairs and out-of-wedlock pregnancies which often ended in botched abortions. If you scour newspapers from the early 1900s, it doesn’t take long to find some truth behind these accusations. But lecherous men, of course, were a huge part of the problem.
Mary Clark, a writer for the South Bend News-Times, interviewed a Miss Anderson, “present custodian of our accused women in the [St. Joseph] county jail.” When Clark asked if South Bend needed a policewoman — like Chicago, which already had several on its force and asked for fifteen more that year — Anderson replied with a vigorous yes. So did the city’s male police chief, Millard Kerr. Female police, Anderson believed, were most valuable in protecting lone women from the sexual advances of men in train stations and other public places. The interview still makes for fascinating reading today.
It’s unclear if any specific event spurred Alfaretta Hart to seek the post, but in January 1914 she was appointed Muncie’s first policewoman by Mayor Rollin Bunch. Citing “health reasons,” Hart would end up leaving the job in December. But almost immediately, the reformer began making enemies as she threatened to throw the doors of hypocrisy and corruption wide open.
One of the ironic things about Hart — who always went under the name “Mrs. Thomas F. Hart” — is how little she fits the stereotypical image of what a “matronly” policewoman might be like. “Liberal” and “conservative” aren’t useful words here, since today they evoke a different set of political views than what might have gone together in 1914. Whereas Hart considered herself a crusader trying to help the wayward, her enemies portrayed her as a nosy prude and even, surprisingly, as a friend of the liquor interests.
At a time when many reformers, especially women, were in favor of Prohibition and supported “dry” laws, Alfaretta Hart was “wet.” This may have had something to do with the fact that she was a Roman Catholic.
The always-complicated relationship between Catholics and alcohol surfaces again here. It was Protestants who almost always spearheaded local and state Prohibition laws — partly because they had seen good men and families destroyed by drink, but partly also because some of the biggest imbibers were working-class Catholic immigrants, who evoked both old European animosities and the specter of Socialism and labor unions. Tragically for the Protestant churches, Prohibitionists later filed en masse into the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. During its heyday in the 1920s, the Klan was at least as much anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic as anti-African American.
By the ’20s, the Indiana Klan reached the height of its power and had a large following in Muncie. Muncie’s Klan is especially fascinating, since a large number of Klansmen there were actually Klanswomen. One of the leaders of the WKKK — “the Women of the Ku Klux Klan” — was Daisy Barr, a Muncie Quaker who became a well-known “Klan Klucker.”
In addition to the KKK’s opposition to liquor and perceived Catholic interference in American schools, ideas about guarding female purity spurred many Hoosier women to join the infamous organization, which dominated state politics at the beginning of the Jazz Age.
Oddly, it was the Quaker Klucker Daisy Barr who first pressed Muncie’s Mayor Bunch to appoint a policewoman. Most women agreed that the city’s brothels, illicit drug dealers, “blind tigers,” etc., needed to be driven out or regulated, and that prostitutes and “fallen women” should be reformed. Yet the anti-Catholic Quaker Prohibitionist and local women’s groups were shocked that the mayor chose the “wet” Catholic Alfaretta Hart for the job.
On March 4, 1914, Hart went to war against Muncie’s hypocritical “drys.” To a packed hall at the Wysor Grand Opera House, the new policewoman skewered the opposition, accusing Prohibitionist men of frequenting the red light district, cheating on their wives, and seducing young girls on the street. She had little more sympathy for what she saw as moralizing, puffed-up women.
In fact, the Klan’s hyper-patriotic ideals were dashed by the huge amount of corruption in its ranks. Most famously, D.C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the Hoosier Klan, would go on trial in 1925 for the rape and murder of Madge Oberholtzer, an Indianapolis schoolteacher. The sex and booze scandals that rocked the organization a decade after Alfaretta Hart went to work were, ironically, exactly the kind of things she warned Muncie about back in 1914. When she threatened to “tear the town apart,” it was over the hypocrisy of a society that ignored the abuse of women. She received many threatening letters in return.
Hart took to the newspapers, referencing her religion as she defended “Magdalenes” and arguing that “wayward” girls and drunkards were often just “un-moral rather than immoral.” To give them a helping hand, she called for wholesale reform of Indiana’s criminal justice system.
“Badge Number 9” had been a voice crying in the wilderness since at least 1911. That year, part of another colorful speech where she lashed out at the drys appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer:
Taking on social conformity, Hart proclaimed: “A person who would participate in a dry parade for policy or business reasons would follow a brass band to Hades.”
Yet the valiant, perhaps even quixotic Hart was no “modern woman” per se. Some of her views would probably clash with 21st-century feminism. She announced, for instance, that “I am no suffragette. Muncie already has enough troubles with the women trying to vote.” (Voting rights for American women didn’t come until 1920, the year nationwide Prohibition also began.) And at the dawn of the Flappers, she had this to say about young people and sex:
I would rather take my chances with the self-educated young man who knows how to work with his hands than I would with the vast majority of high school and college graduates.
The young people of the present day know too much already about sex matters. We need more “old-fashioned” mothers who are fully awake.
Girls? Why, we have no girls today, for as soon as they are out of swaddling clothes they are ushered into society with all the airs of grown-up women.
When not defending herself against the barbs of Muncie’s “dry” press and the broadsides of hostile Protestant churches — both of which later morphed into the powerful Indiana Klan — Hart was dodging shots from the Socialist press, which normally might have stood behind her.
One fervent attack came from Girard, Kansas, where a major Socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason, took a jab at Hart’s millionaire status and the “rip-snortin’, high-flying tutelary team” she formed with her industrialist husband. Thomas Hart had had bad times with his workers during labor strikes. The editorial is a fascinating commentary on how low wages figure into the birth of crime:
Appeal to Reason, Girard, Kansas, February 21, 1914. The radical Kansas newspaper’s ancestral roots were actually in Greensburg, Indiana, where Hoosier editor Julius Wayland began The Coming Nation, a major Socialist paper, in 1893. Wayland, who was once driven out of Versailles, Indiana, by a lynch mob for his Socialist views, also commissioned Upton Sinclair’s great labor novel The Jungle — first serialized in Appeal to Reason in 1905.
Though Policewoman Hart gave up her position at the end of 1914, citing “health reasons,” many considered that she had been “singularly successful” in reforming the “fallen,” though attacks continued. The Indianapolis News praised Hart for maintaining a downtown office and devoting her salary as policewoman “to the aid of fallen girls and women. In addition she has spent much from her private income.”
The Harts went on a tour of the world in 1915. Their only son Lawrence, a graduate of Notre Dame, Columbia and Yale, later went into the furniture-making business in Dallas, Texas, where he died in 1929. His parents also moved South.
Widowed in 1934 and already past the age of seventy, Alfaretta Hart became a Texas newspaperwoman, writing for the Dallas Journal under the name “Martha,” her middle name. She died at the Melrose Hotel in Dallas on January 16, 1951, aged ninety. Her funeral was held at St. Lawrence Catholic Church back in Muncie. Burial was at Beech Grove Cemetery, just south of Ball State University.