With the 2016 presidential primaries upon us, there’s more buzz than usual this year about a word with deep roots in Hoosier history — socialism. And, as always, religion remains a factor at the polling booths. This is also the first time in about a century that a major presidential candidate has openly disavowed “organized” religion. The last candidate to do so was Eugene V. Debs, a Socialist, skeptic, and native Hoosier who ran for president five times just before and after World War I. (Debs ran his last campaign from a federal prison in Atlanta in 1920, where he’d been sent for opposing the military draft.)
The topics of socialism and religion were hot as ever back in Debs’ day. In some ways, that debate looks eerily familiar, with skeptics accusing churches of abetting social inequality, and believers often firing back with equally broad strokes about the dangers of revolution. While plenty of American labor activists were religious — including major voices like Mother Jones and Terence Powderly — Debs and many more were agnostic. Indiana Socialist, the newspaper of the Marion County Socialist Party in Indianapolis, tended toward religious skepticism, often printing ads for books that questioned Christian beliefs and especially church authorities. Since most American workers were Christian, however, Socialist leaders were wary of alienating them, and Debs found much in the ethics of the New Testament to applaud.
(The “Socialist literature wagon” once sat at the corner of Market and Pennsylvania streets in downtown Indianapolis. Indiana Socialist, April 26, 1913. The Socialist Party of Indianapolis’s 1913 campaign platform called for such things as public playgrounds, urban beautification, and equal pay for equal work. The newspaper estimated that Marion County, Indiana, alone had about 8,000 Socialist voters in 1913, plus others whom it alleged were kept from voting by their employers.)
The poem’s author was Henry M. Tichenor (1858-1924). Along with fellow Midwesterners Clarence Darrow and Robert Ingersoll, Tichenor was one of the most outspoken American freethinkers of his time. An influential Socialist writer and editor in Missouri, Tichenor loathed organized Christianity. Contrary to popular belief, many Americans were disgruntled with churches a century ago, and Tichenor’s popular, down-to-earth style made him popular even in the Midwest, whose radical history runs almost as deep as its reputation for staunch conservatism.
(Harry M. Tichenor in 1914.)
Unlike the Marxist intellectuals who twisted Socialism to serve the greed of dictators and party elites, Tichenor was no high-falutin’ “comrade” inventing totalitarian “Newspeak” — the language of George Orwell’s memorable dystopian lampoon, 1984. Yet his long, comic tirades against “holy humbug” (books with titles like The Life and Exploits of Jehovah) are basically the scribblings of a humorist, not a serious historian. They probably never bothered anyone except fundamentalists who insisted on a literal reading of every story in the Bible.
In 1913, Tichenor was a regular poetry contributor to the St. Louis-based National Rip-Saw, “America’s Greatest Socialist Monthly.” He was also cranking out fiery anti-capitalist pamphlets with titles like “The Rip-Saw Mother Goose,” “Rip-Saw Socialism Songs,” and “Woman Under Capitalism.” That year he started printing a socialist journal of his own, The Melting Pot, a political and comic firecracker.
Historians, genealogists and other curious researchers can now dig into some historic newspapers from Bloomington, Indianapolis, Bedford, Hammond, New Richmond, Sullivan, Smithville, and tiny Orland up in Steuben County. While our available run of Hammond’s Lake County Times currently includes just three years (1920-22), we’ll add issues of that great paper back to its start in 1906 in coming months.
Our newest batch also includes a controversial choice for Hoosier State Chronicles, but one which is of enormous historical value: the Ku Klux Klan’s Fiery Cross. From the early to mid-1920s, the Klan edited and printed its influential Indiana State edition from the Century Building in downtown Indianapolis at a time when the Invisible Empire was largely headquartered in Indy. Although HSC and the Indiana State Library in no way endorse the views of the KKK, we trust you’ll find The Fiery Cross a fascinating read. The paper is an integral part of the history of radical right-wing politics, nativism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, white supremacy, the battle over religion in public schools, and American attitudes toward immigration. Cast a glance at American politics today and what seems like old 1920s news is still hugely relevant.
We expect that some members of the public might be offended by our making The Fiery Cross available on the web, but we stand by its value as a historic document. If you’re looking for a strong anti-Klan perspective, many Hoosier editors took a stand against the group in the 1920s. We recommend several papers available in Hoosier State Chronicles: the African American Indianapolis Recorder, George R. Dale’s ferocious (and humorous) Muncie Post-Democrat, and the great Indianapolis News. The microfilm collections of the Indiana State Library also contain two other notable Indianapolis newspapers that opposed the KKK. These are the Pulitzer Prize-winning Indianapolis Times and the Indiana Catholic & Record, forerunner of the Catholic archdiocese’s current newsletter, The Criterion.
Although the Indiana Klan’s heyday ended in the late 1920s, we would also like to point out that Hoosier State Chronicles makes available the Jewish Post & Opinionfrom the date of its inception in Indianapolis in 1933 all the way up to 2005 — a paper that has fought for many decades to raise awareness of racism in the U.S. and abroad.
Here’s a full list of what’s new on HSC this month:
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.
When you dig through old newspapers for a living, you find out pretty fast that almost every street corner has an entertaining story and sometimes a haunt or two. Like the once-wild Pogue’s Run, a harnessed underwater ghost that trickles through subterranean Indianapolis, most of these stories are “out of sight, out of mind.”
Here’s a glimpse of the spectral history of the capitol city’s Near East Side.
Pogue’s Run, which in 1914 was re-channeled underground just north of New York Street before it flowed through downtown in tunnels, owes its name to a man who also vanished from sight. Generally considered the first permanent white settler in Marion County, George Pogue, a “broad-shouldered,” dark-haired South Carolinian and blacksmith, was also, according to some accounts, the first recorded murder victim and the only man ever killed by American Indians in Indianapolis.
Settling in this isolated part of the new Hoosier state in March 1819, Pogue built a cabin for his family of seven, roughly where Pogue’s Run goes underneath today’s Michigan and Market Streets. The family’s cabin sat near the old swamp that used to occupy most of the northeast outskirts of downtown. Also called Perkins Run after another early settler who left the area “on account of loneliness,” the old stream in 1819 was wild and often flooded, not the sad open ditch and sewage channel it had become just a few decades later.
As an Indianapolis Journal article from January 5, 1890, reported, around the first of April, 1821, a Delaware or Wyandotte Indian known to whites as “Wyandot John” showed up at the Pogue family’s cabin. Rumor had it that the wanderer was an outlaw among the Delawares. He was probably also a horse thief — one of the worst offenses in those days.
Mrs. Pogue objected to Wyandot John being around the cabin, but the blacksmith gave him breakfast. Some of Pogue’s horses had gone missing, and the visitor told him to go over to a Delaware camp on Buck Creek twelve miles away.
Striking out into the woods, George Pogue, like the creek that still bears his name, never came back. His murdered body may have been sent floating downstream. (In 2013, a jaw bone showed up at Garfield Park, prompting investigators to ask if it was George Pogue’s.)
As the young city grew, the often rampaging creek rapidly came to be considered a “source of pestilence.” Before legislators moved the Indiana capitol north from Corydon in 1825, they allotted $50 to rid Pogue’s Run of mosquitoes, which bred the malaria that killed off many infant towns on the Midwestern frontier. Even as late as the Civil War, what became the Near East Side was thought of as remote from downtown and practically wild country.
On May 20, 1863, the creek became the site of the so-called “Battle of Pogue’s Run.” At the Indiana State House, approximately 10,000 Democrats — including Copperheads and suspected members of the pro-Confederate Knights of the Golden Circle — gathered to protest the Lincoln administration. Two months before the Battle of Gettysburg, the war was going badly for the Union, and Lincoln had just passed the Emancipation Proclamation, which angered Southern sympathizers. With tensions running high, a large military force kept an eye on the Democrats downtown. (Under the leadership of Dr. Thomas Bowles, the founder of French Lick, Indiana, the Knights eventually plotted to kidnap Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton and violently overthrow the state government).
That May, as Union soldiers confiscated pistols from Democrats at the Legislature, the crowd boarded trains to get out of the city. Stopped on the tracks, one train car was raided for weapons. On another, passengers (including many women, whom the Democrats believed wouldn’t be searched) threw somewhere between 500 and 2,000 pistols, rifles, and knives out the train window into the creek. Republicans lampooned it as the “Battle of Pogue’s Run.”
Traditions of a Haunted Elm Tree in the Pogue’s Run Bottoms.
Nowhere on Hoosier soil has nature nourished such giant trees as in the Pogue’s Run bottoms. In the days when trees were not appreciated the hand of the destroyer felled nearly all the great elm, walnut and sycamore peculiar to this district, but here and there a few remain, stately testimonials of the old-time forest grandeur. There are elm trees here and there along the run that are wonders in this day. On East Michigan street, beyond the creek, is one monarch whose branches have a diameter of over a hundred feet, and close to this one is the stump of a burnt-out sycamore, still showing signs of life, in which a family could comfortably live. The interior of the hollow tree is eight feet across in the clear.
But one tree belonging to this group is better known than all the rest. It is sometimes called “hangman’s elm,” sometimes “the gallows tree,” and occasionally the boys of the neighborhood speak of it as “the home of the ghost.”
The neighbors don’t believe in spooks, but somehow or other tradition has handed down a ghost story that will not die. The public records and the memory of the “oldest inhabitant” furnish no evidence on this point, but there is a story in the air to this effect: During the war, one day when there was bloody news from the front, and when human life was cheap, the body of an unknown man was found hanging from this particular tree. Soldiers who climbed the tree to cut down the body found a curiously concealed opening in the tree. It was instantly concluded that the hollow interior of the elm should be the place of sepulture. The body was lowered into the hollow tree, but apparently it struck no bottom. Certainly it gave forth no sound in falling.
It may have been that the dust and accumulation of rotted particles of the tree’s heart had made a soft, deep bed within so that no sound of the falling body came forth. Or was it possible that the spreading roots of the elm walled in a deep “cave of the winds” or well? At any rate nothing was heard when the body tumbled to its uncertain grave.
The spot where the supposed burial tree stood long ago became part of the city. The site is beautiful. Lots have been sold and houses built all about it. A stranger bought the lot on which the tree stands. But he will never build there. One of the neighbors says:
‘From the swaying branches of the old elm come mournful sounds of distress, and many a man passing that way has been horrified at the footfalls of invisible pursuers. Dim figures are sometimes seen in the neighborhood, but these always retrace their cloudy way to the tree and are, as it were, swallowed up by it . . .’
By the 1890s, much of the eleven-mile course of Pogue’s Run was an open, festering sewer pit, clogged with industrial, animal and human waste. Newspaper accounts from the time suggest that one of the most polluted sections of the creek was in the Cottage Home neighborhood just west of the federal arsenal (the building later became Arsenal Tech High School.) In 1897, Indianapolis city commissioners were already considering turning the de facto sewer into a controlled sewage conduit, as the creek “pulled pranks” in the form of deadly floods, doubly disastrous considering the amount of bacterial waste in the water. In 1890, the Journal spoke of its appalling and unsanitary “odoriferous waters,” which boys who “Worked Like Beavers” dammed up to make a swimming hole in 1903 — “for bathing purposes.”
The idyllic landscapes painted by pioneer Hoosier artists Jacob Cox and Christian Schrader show the creek before it was fouled up in the late 1800s.
(This drawing by Christian Schrader shows the Pogue’s Run Covered Bridge, which once sat on the National Road near the intersection of College Avenue and East Washington St.)
Several old-fashioned bridges, made of stone and wood, crossed Pogue’s Run in the 1890s. Stories circulated that at least one of these, at the intersection of Highland Avenue and what used to be called Campbell Street, had a ghost.
Could the “specter” have been the fog of the creek — or was it the spooky miasmas of sewage elevating into the air? (That sounds sinister enough to me)!
As far as I can tell, this piece of ghost-lore never showed up again in the city’s newspapers, and might have dropped out of memory altogether when a modern concrete bridge was put here. But maybe Google’s Nine-Eyes sees what we can’t see? Like this blurry spot on the new bridge, captured here in June 2014:
(The Indianapolis News portrayed some of the old stone bridges that once crossed Pogue’s Run in May 1905, on the eve of a dramatic re-engineering project that sent it through tunnels downtown.)
One last, and arguably far more amazing, story :
A few steps south of the “ghost bridge” is a parking lot at 564 N. Highland Avenue. For decades, this was the site of a small shotgun house owned and occupied by Louisa Magruder, daughter of Thomas Magruder, whom many believe to be the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom.
As Joan Hostetler has shown over at HistoricIndianapolis.com, Louisa Magruder lived next to the so-called ghost bridge from the 1870s until her death in 1900 at age 92. The elderly woman must have heard these spooky stories, since she was probably the phantom’s closest neighbor.
Louisa’s land along Pogue’s Run had once been part of a farm and orchard owned by Indiana Governor Noah Noble, whose father kept the Magruders in slavery back in Virginia and Kentucky. The Magruders were freed when the Nobles moved north to Indiana around 1820, though they continued to be employed as servants in the governor’s family. Louisa, who had been a nanny for the Nobles, lived along the creek for almost thirty years after the Civil War.
What might have been the real inspiration for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — her father Thomas’ house at the corner of East Market St. and North College Ave. — sat barely a mile southwest of her house in Cottage Home. The novelist Harriet Stowe’s brother, abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, was a Presbyterian minister in Indianapolis in the 1840s and often visited the Magruder cabin, where he must have known her, and Stowe herself lived in Cincinnati. As pioneer historian J.P. Dunn writes in his 1910 History of Greater Indianapolis: “It is the testimony of the Noble family that ‘Mrs. Stowe was a frequent visitor at Uncle Tom’s cabin, and wrote much of her book there’. . . Uncle Tom had but two children, Moses and his younger sister Louisa, and they were middle-aged people when Mrs. Stowe knew them.”
An entry in Hyman’s Handbook to Indianapolis recently caught my eye. A strange masked man stalks this great guide to the old and now mostly vanished architecture of the city in 1909.
My thoughts raced to Jules Verne’s deep-sea divers, Renaissance plague doctors dressed like bizarre birds, steampunk fashion designers, and of course the epic villain, Darth Vader. Even the name of the company that once manufactured this pioneer fireman’s oxygen mask in the Hoosier State had a science-fiction ring to it: the Vajen-Bader Company.
Smoke, sulfur, and ammonia pose problems similar to those faced by divers and even doctors wading into disease-ridden “miasmas” (the “bad air” mentioned in old medical manuals). So it should come as no surprise that the invention of smoke helmets is part of a much bigger history. The tragedy is that the protective devices used by groundbreaking medical men, underwater explorers, and firefighters evolved into the gas masks used in the chemical warfare that made World War I so uniquely terrifying at the time.
In 1893, Indianapolis hardware salesman and inventor Willis C. Vajen earned his place in the history of masks and life-saving.
Vajen (whose name, I believe, is pronounced “Vie-en”) came from one of the capitol city’s most prominent and wealthy families. His father, John Henry Vajen, emigrated from Bremen, Germany, to Baltimore with his parents in 1836, then moved west with them to Cincinnati, Ohio, and eventually Jackson County, Indiana. (John Vajen, Sr., had been a professor in Germany, a talented organist, and a Lutheran minister, and served as pastor of a large log church near Seymour.) Vajen, Jr., went into the hardware business and made a small fortune in trading and banking. During the Civil War, J.H. Vajen became the thrifty Quartermaster General of Indiana and was known as Governor Oliver P. Morton’s right-hand man. He died in 1917.
Willis Vajen ultimately followed in his father’s footsteps. After attending a seminary in Hamburg, Germany, Earlham College in Richmond, and Wittenburg College in Ohio, he, too, went into the hardware business. His sales knack probably had something to do with his skill in design. (Vajen filed patents for tools and machinery, like this plumb bob and a rein support for horses.) “Vajen & New” was located at 64 E. Washington St., offering Indianapolitans the best selection of lawn mowers, saw vises, rubber hoses, fishing tackle, fly-screen doors, White Mountain Ice Cream freezers, garden rakes, rubber hoses, and roller skates.
No mere humble merchants of garden tools and sporting goods, the Vajens married into great families. Willis Vajen was wed to Anna Claypool, daughter of the wealthy Connersville businessman Edward F. Claypool. (Ironically, the majestic Claypool Hotel, named for the inventor’s father-in-law and once one of the great landmarks of the city, was destroyed by arson in 1967.) Vajen’s sister Fannie Belle married Charles Stewart Voorhees, son of Senator Daniel Voorhees. (Charles Voorhees represented Washington Territory in Congress.) The Vajens often vacationed at their summer cottage on Lake Maxincuckee in northern Indiana, loaning it to the Hoosier novelist Booth Tarkington and his wife Laurel Fletcher in 1902.
Yet Willis Vajen’s claim to fame is the “smoke protector” that he perfected with William Bader in 1893. Apparently one or both of these men had witnessed a tragic hotel fire where rescuers were unable to reach the fourth floor due to smoke, the inspiration for their efforts at invention. A German immigrant, Bader was a piano maker by profession and may have come up with the idea first. Testimony from a lawsuit filed in U.S. Court in 1899 has it that Vajen first saw a photograph of the device in the music store where Bader worked, and the two worked together to improve efficacy of the mask, meanwhile helped along by Dennis Swenie, Chicago’s fire chief. A clip in the Los Angeles Herald suggests that “William Baders” was the real genius, Vajen only “furnishing the capital for the enterprise.” The court’s verdict, however, was that Vajen deserved most of the credit.
The struggle to perfect a mask that can ward off the assault of smoke, water, noxious fumes, and even the plague goes back centuries. News articles heralding the Vajen-Bader Patent Smoke Protector often remarked that it looked like a sea-diver’s helmet. This, too, was a new invention. English brothers Charles and John Deane had been inspired to invent their famous copper diving helmet in the 1820s after witnessing a fire at a smoke-filled horse stable. When the Deanes attached a leather hose to pump fresh oxygen into their firefighting helmet, scuba-diving took a great leap forward. (While wearing such an outfit in 1836, John Deane discovered Henry VIII’s long-lost warship Mary Rose, sunk off the Isle of Wight three-hundred years before.)
Another fascinating European forerunner of the Vajen-Bader mask was the plague doctor’s costume. While these seem like creatures of the fantastic imagination to us today, in the 17th century doctors venturing into epidemic-ridden cities sported masks resembling bird beaks, along with heavy protective suits that they believed gave protection from “miasmatic air.” Filled with scented herbs and spices like ambergris, myrrh, mint, cloves, and rose petals, the doctor’s elongated “beak” was designed as a kind of air filter. Credited to the Parisian doctor Charles de l’Orme, these ornithologically-inspired plague garments were in use as early as 1619 and later became a feature in the Venetian carnival.
When Willis Vajen and William Bader undertook work on their smoke helmet, other innovators had already tried out an array of devices, ranging from primitive sponges and lightweight “respiratory veils” to more sophisticated contraptions, like the one invented in the 1870’s by Irish physicist John Tyndall, who incorporated a cotton filter saturated with lime, charcoal, and glycerin. A different device was the respirator pioneered by Bernhard Loeb, who attached metal air canisters to the mask’s mouth.
Some two years ago Willis C. Vajen, an Indianapolis inventor, brought me a smoke helmet or protector and asked me what I thought of it. He will himself, no doubt, admit that it was a crude and cumbersome affair. The principle material in its construction was sole leather, and its window was of a single thickness or pane of glass. It did not have facilities for enabling the wearer to hear, and the tank for the compressed air was fully six times larger than was necessary.
However, it was clear that the inventor was on the right track. . . As it stands now, the weight of the helmet is practically nothing, resting upon the shoulders. The protector is made of asbestus tanned horsehide and is securely fastened by means of two straps which pass from the back under the arms and snap into rings in front. Its top is padded and is also re-enforced with transverse seams of the hard leather, which stand up to the height of about an inch. This makes it capable of withstanding a very heavy blow and forms an almost perfect protection against falling bricks and small stones.
Directly at the back of the neck is a small air tank, which can be filled by means of an ordinary force pump such as the bicyclists use for inflating their pneumatic tires. It will hold 100 pounds of compressed air and has a tiny gauge attached which registers the pressure of air within. The first five or ten minutes at a fire generally determines the result, and the total capacity of the air tank is sufficient to last a man for 40 minutes.
“Delicate mica diaphragms” for the ears and eyes helped with vision and hearing, as a did a double-paned window. “Both eye and ear pieces are protected by strong wire guards. . . On the front exterior, where it may be easily reached, is a signal whistle, which does not consume any of the pure air from the reservoir. The operation of the signal, which is loud and sharp, makes no drain upon the breathing resources of the fireman.”
An article in Fire & Water Engineering in 1906 adds: “It is neat; it weighs only six pounds; it can be put on as easily as a coat. . . There is no hose attachment which is liable to kink or break and thus impede the movements of the wearer.”
The Vajen-Bader Company’s life-saving invention caught on fast. Praise came not only from American fire chiefs, but from international clients. Operating out of a space on the second floor of the old Indianapolis Public Library a block north of Monument Circle (and later at a factory in Richmond, Indiana), the company filled orders from customers as diverse as meatpackers, mining and gas companies, breweries, and the British and Chilean navies. Overseas agents in Johannesburg, London, and Yokohama marketed the smoke protector around the globe. In 1897, fire fighters from Dublin, Ireland, to Wellington, New Zealand were “using them with entire satisfaction.”
The masks sold for $100, a large investment for some municipal fire departments, but Hyman’s Handbook claimed that “during the first year an estimated $3,000,000 worth of property was saved by the use of this new device.”
A contemporary article from the Los Angeles Heraldtouts the value of the smoke helmet in preventing minor fires from turning into major ones.
Often a fire of insignificant proportions causes such a dense volume of smoke that it is quite impossible for its location to be discovered, and it smoulders thus until it has gained such headway that it is impossible to extinguish it.
When Willis Vajen attended a firefighters’ convention in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1896, his cutting-edge device was the star of the show. The Salt Lake Herald reprinted testimony from the fire department in Kansas City, Missouri, which had already put the mask to a rigorous test. As KC’s Fire Chief George C. Hale (a great innovator himself) wrote, firemen found a house “which had a cellar underneath, with no ventilation whatsoever.”
In the cellar was dug a hole, in which was placed one of the worst smelling conglomerations of combustibles ever heaped together — sulphur, feathers, tar, wooden and cotton rags and burlap sacks. Hardly had the match been touched to the pile, until a dense volume of smoke began to roll up out of the single trap door that led down into the cellar. When the penetrating fumes of sulphur set everyone to coughing, there were many who shook their heads and said no one could possibly live five minutes in the cellar. The smoke pushed its way up the brick wall and was coming out at the crevices.
Second Assistant Chief Henderson was selected to wear the helmet. The cylinder was filled with air until there was a 100-pound pressure. The whistle was tested to see if it would sound. The helmet was dropped over Henderson’s head and strapped around his body.
“If you grow weak or begin to suffocate,” said Chief Hale, “blow your whistle vigorously and we will come after you.”
The rap door was then raised and the fireman disappeared into the sickening, penetrating smoke. The door was shut tightly. Not a breath of pure air could reach the man in the helmet.
Then the crowd began to wait. Watches were looked at and after a couple of minutes had elapsed without hearing any sound from the fireman, several began to grow nervous, thinking that the sulphur fumes might have gotten in quick work and strangled him. The door was partly raised and Chief Hale called to Henderson to blow his whistle. A far-off sound came from the cellar, telling that Henderson was in good shape. . .
The smoke continued to grow denser and blacker, and the odor more vile. Henderson’s whistle sounded frequently and no uneasiness was felt. Eighteen minutes had elapsed from the time when he had gone into the cellar, when he knocked on the door. . .
“How did you stand it, Alec?” queried everybody.
“Stand it! Why, I could have stayed down there all day. It was dark as midnight, but I could breathe as easily as I do now. . .”
When the pressure gauge of the air cylinder was examined it was found that only ten pounds of air had been used, ninety pounds being left.
Firemen wearing the novel smoke helmets came to the rescue after an ammonia explosion at Schmidt’s Brewery, a subsidiary of the Indianapolis Brewing Company, nearly killed a number of workers on the night of September 31, 1896. The Indianapolis News reported:
The fire that started in the second story of the building in the malt mill was subdued by the fire department. It was a hard fire to reach as the fumes of ammonia were strong, and it was almost impossible for a man to get near the building. The firemen say that this is the first difficult fire they have had since the Vajen-Bader smoke protector was adopted by the department, and that these helmets made it possible for the men to enter the building and reach the fire with the chemical engines. They say that although the fumes of ammonia were strong enough to render an unprotected fireman unconscious, the men wearing the helmets suffered no inconvenience from the fumes.
Aged 49, Willis Vajen, who suffered from life-long anemia, died at his home at 23 E. Vermont St. on July 22, 1900 and was buried at Crown Hill. In one of history’s bizarre twists, all the houses on Vajen’s block were demolished around 1921 to make way for the mammoth Indiana World War Memorial, the city’s enormous Egyptian-inspired temple to the veterans of World War I.
These soldiers, of course, were the first to use the terrifying invention whose evolution was partly due to the Vajen-Bader smoke protector. Early in the 20th century, the gas mask wove its way into sickening nightmares, both dreamed and awake, as Europe — and then the whole world — caught on fire.
Hoosier State Chronicles is getting ready to upload a large run of issues of the Indianapolis Journal from the mid-1890s. Dominating the front page of Sunday editions in those days are massive, elephantine ads for one of the most colorful clothing stores ever to exist anywhere in the U.S. This was downtown Indy’s great shopping emporium, The When.
In the days before parking garages and flight to the suburbs plunged downtowns into decline, urban cores all over America were a fascinating architectural wonderland. Panoramic images of Indianapolis 120 years ago often leave me wondering if I live in the same town, so devastating has been the toll of the wrecking ball, the termite, and (yes) bad urban planning. Before the auto, pedestrians walked or were funneled down to the business district on trolleys or carriages from neighborhoods not very far out. And amid the amazing visual spectacle that met shoppers’ eyes at the turn of the century, there stands the ingenuity, humor, and incredible marketing smarts of John Tomlinson Brush.
Born in upstate New York in 1845 and orphaned at age four, Brush was raised by his grandfather, went to business college, then served in the 1st New York Artillery during the Civil War. Moving from Troy to Indianapolis in 1875 at age thirty, he purchased a brand new, Napoleon the Third-style building at 36 N. Pennsylvania St. and planned to open a branch store of a New York City clothing wholesaler there.
Brush kept changing the opening date. Probably as a tease to drum up interest, in February 1875 he hung a huge sign outside the store with the simple word (more an exclamation than a question) “WHEN?” Advertisements in the local newspapers also carried just that one-word tease. The name stuck, and the lavishly decorated clothing outlet became an instant consumer hit, soon ranked as the biggest of its kind in Indiana.
John T. Brush (some thought his name was John “Tooth” Brush) was gifted with an ample sense of humor and, I hear, was also a clever cartoonist, though I haven’t seen any of his illustrations. His knack for marketing was far-reaching. Not only did he see The When “elegantly appointed” with iron balustrades, gas lighting, and a courtyard, he also outfitted it with an array of unusual attractions meant to lure shoppers. The When had a baseball team, called The When Store team, and a resident brass band, The When Band. Brush’s musicians played in a second-floor band shell and gave Saturday evening concerts outside on the street and even up on the roof. As we’ll see below, other colorful attractions also greeted shoppers.
Brush got rich quick in Indianapolis, but unlike many capitalists with Eastern roots, he stuck around for good. And in the 1880s, The When’s owner became a prominent pioneer of baseball both in the Hoosier State and around the country.
Originally conceived to drum up business for the store, the Indianapolis Hoosiers were a short-lived local baseball team bankrolled by the clothing merchant. In 1882, he financed the creation of a ball park, Seventh Street Park, also called Tinker Park, at a site now occupied by Methodist Hospital. The Hoosiers played in the National League from about 1885 to 1889, when they folded. Brush later bought the St. Louis Maroons, the Cincinnati Reds, and eventually the great New York Giants, which he owned from 1902 until his death in 1912.
Baseball historian Bill Lamb writes:
Local legend has it that Brush first became enthusiastic about the game after reading a Spalding Guide confiscated from an idle store clerk. Or that Brush’s interest stemmed from acceptance of stock in an Indianapolis ball club as payment for a debt. The facts are more prosaic. Brush was first exposed to baseball while working at company stores in upstate New York, a hotbed of the early game. Later he seized upon baseball as a vehicle for advertising The When Store. In 1882 Brush organized a municipal baseball league, building a diamond with a grandstand in northwestern Indianapolis for league games and engaging Jack Kerins as player-manager of the When Store team.
As a kind of New Year’s gift to his loyal shoppers in 1895, Brush helped bring a clever attraction to downtown Indy: a pair of leopard cubs. The adorable creatures, named Carl and Amanda, were loaned from the great Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, which wintered in its home base of Peru, Indiana. The cubs spent about a week as a window attraction at Brush’s store while the circus performed at English’s Opera House nearby.
On January 9, the baby leopards got a letter from a bear — and from their mother down the street. (Mrs. Puss Leopard was quite the gossiper.) The feline correspondence was featured on the front page, in The When’s usual space:
John Brush lived to see the New York Giants play in three World Series and was married to stage actress Elsie Lombard. Suffering from a nerve ailment after 1902, he died in his private railroad car near Louisiana, Missouri, in 1912. He came home to a lavish funeral in Indianapolis, attended by many of the greats of the baseball world.
The When Building, which also housed Indianapolis Business College, was sold off to C.S. Ober in the 1940s and came to be known as the Ober Building. Like much of the city’s former architectural splendor, it was demolished by a wrecking ball and is now the site of a parking garage.
Though the When is “Gone With the When,” it’s worthy of our deepest praise. Here are some of my favorite advertisements from Way Back When.