Yesterday’s post set us to hunting: as blizzards and ice give way to spring lightning and wind, how many other weird weather phenomena lie hidden in the news? Obviously, we’ve never believed that history is boring, so we wondered: how often did our ancestors get killed by lightning or blown away by a stiff breeze?
Here’s a few fascinating stories from the annals of meteorology in the Midwest and beyond.
The image above, thought to be the oldest photograph of lightning, was captured in St. Louis, Missouri, by T. M. Easterly in June 1847, eight years after Jacques-Louis Daguerre announced his invention of the daguerreotype in Paris. At a time when cameras often required exposure times of thirty seconds or more, it’s amazing this was taken at 9:00 P.M.
At the height of the new art form’s popularity, daguerreotypes entered the realm of lightning lore. As part of a growing fascination with photography (Greek for “writing with light”), those tales (including a few of the “tall” variety, surely) were soon making the rounds of American newspapers. Yet there was actually a good scientific explanation behind so-called “lightning daguerreotypes” — and they weren’t the kind Easterly was making in St. Louis.
(The Berkshire County Eagle, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, May 28, 1858.)
What most witnesses of lightning strikes didn’t know in the 1850’s is that these patterns on the skin weren’t “daguerreotypes,” but Lichtenberg figures. Also called keraunographs and lightning flowers, they can look exactly like tree branches, plants and sometimes round coins. (Where the cow shape or the number 44 came from is a bigger mystery.) Named for the 18th-century German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, a student of electrical discharges, the figures often occur after any high-voltage jolt through insulated material like the human body. Not unlike photographs, they can be produced and preserved in glass, resin and wood as 3-D “electrical trees.” They also remain behind as scars.
(Lichtenberg figure on a man who survived a lightning strike.)
Stories about “lightning daguerreotypes” and freak weather accidents spilled into ghost lore, which flourished during the heyday of American spiritualism in the mid- to late-1800s. A branch of Christianity that involved communicating with the dead through mediums, spiritualism was surprisingly mainstream. Some of its older American forerunners were the Shakers, part of a unique utopian movement with roots mostly in New England. (There was also a short-lived Shaker community on the Wabash River north of Vincennes around the time of the War of 1812. Much of its membership was African American.)
The Shakers incorporated all kinds of unusual spiritual phenomena into their unique faith and believed that their founder, an English textile worker and single mother named Ann Lee, was the second coming of Christ. They certainly believed in spirits and spirit possession, so the following story (either from New Hampshire or Connecticut) probably wasn’t too out of the ordinary.
Even as metal daguerreotypes and tintypes gave way to the age of Kodak and the paper photograph, stories about human, animal and other images etched by lightning onto some kind of light-sensitive backdrop didn’t immediately go away. Like Shaker Sam’s lightning-blasted spirit, this story — originating in the Charlottesville (Virginia) Chronicle— also appeared in 1880. It borders on the supernatural.
(The Pantagraph, Bloomington, Illinois, April 13, 1880.)
As we showed in yesterday’s post, wind can be as fearsome and downright bizarre as any lightning bolt. “Freaks of the storm” — from flying cows to airborne newborns — would fill a small book, some of it tragic, but a lot of it funny. Here’s a few more tales of the wind.
When a tornado blasted Drake, Oklahoma, in 1917, it wiped out a whole family — almost…
Mattoon, Illinois, was also hit hard that week, probably as part of the same “patriotic” storm-front — which, as it barreled east from the Plains, wasn’t done pulling tricks.
(Indianapolis Star, May 28, 1917.)
Tornadoes had a knack for randomly sparing some delicate, highly-breakable objects — from babies and chicken eggs to caged birds and loose photographs — while demolishing large buildings and whole towns. This twister struck Louisville, Kentucky in 1890:
Tornadoes could be symbolically choosy — and a little morbid — about what they carried away or spared. Take the cyclone that plowed through part of Omaha in March 1902… and the one that cut up a small Iowa town in 1895.
(Sandusky Star-Journal, March 11, 1902.)
(The Register, Rock Valley, Iowa, May 10, 1895.)
A big windstorm tore through downtown Indianapolis one Sunday evening in June 1929. A girl just born to Mary Hubbell at 30 North Lansing Street that afternoon nearly got killed three hours later when a telephone pole crashed into the small house. It came careening through the roof “just above the bed in which the mother and child lay.” Both escaped with small bruises. The Indianapolis News reported that “In all the excitement, members of the Hubbell family have been unable to decide on a name for the new arrival. ‘We are so glad that my wife and baby are not badly hurt, we haven’t had time to think of a name,’ the father explained.'”
For most Americans, the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley is no longer a household name. He’s mostly remembered for “Little Orphant Annie,” an 1885 poem about an Indiana girl who warns children against misbehaving, scaring them with the refrain: “The gobble-uns’ll get youEf you don’t watch out!”
Riley died a hundred years ago this July. When President Woodrow Wilson got the news at the White House, he is said to have broken down in tears, then sent an express telegram to the poet’s family in Indianapolis. As Riley’s body lay in state at the Indiana Capitol in July 1916, thirty-five thousand people filed past. American children, who adored the old man, were devastated. The press overflowed with eulogies. Novelist Booth Tarkington, another once-famous Hoosier name in American letters, eulogized Riley in the Indiana Daily Times, calling him “the first and foremost distinctively American poet, and at the time of his death . . . the greatest American.” The New York Sun mourned: “The Hoosier Poet blew heart bubbles . . . In his verses Indiana spoke to the world.” And the Philadelphia Inquirer noted: “There is no doubt that he was the most popular poet of this generation in America… If there is a child today that is not regaled with ‘Orphant Annie’ that child is to be pitied.”
Though Riley was mostly known for his folksy childhood lyrics, he was also a civic-minded poet, fierce in his defense of the downtrodden.
In 1898, during one of those periodic battles over immigration that heat up American politics, the “Poet of Childhood” grappled with anti-Irish prejudice — though it wasn’t personally directed against him. Riley, whose own grandparents came from Ireland to Pennsylvania before moving to the Midwest, defended the valor and patriotism of the “Sons of Erin” who fought in the Civil War and Mexican War. In so doing, he took aim at the religious and ethnic hostility of nativist groups like the American Protective Association, a cousin of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Irish, especially Irish Catholics, were frequently misunderstood and feared as disruptors of society. Long before the Civil War, American nativists like the Know-Nothings had been actively exploiting fears about the Irish and “Rome,” alien forces ready to undermine American democracy and Anglo-Saxon values. Though some of those fears may sound downright bizarre today, Irish immigrants were often mired in poverty, violence and alcoholism, facts that scared their neighbors. While the brutal living conditions of many Irish were no myth, catastrophic events like the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s were partly to blame. With their situation made worse by the greed of landowners and brutal utilitarian social theories, many of Ireland’s sons and daughters were reduced to sub-human conditions. Millions went overseas or found themselves driven into the arms of death.
The Irish had been targeted by some of the worst 19th-century science and philosophy. Racialized by other whites during the early days of Darwinism, the “native” Irish in particular were type-cast as little better than apes, doomed by biology itself to crime, degradation and — some theorists hoped — gradual extinction. One famous drawing compares the “Anglo-Saxon” features of English nurse Florence Nightingale to the ape-like face of “Bridget McBruiser” across the Irish Channel.
That drawing, however, was an American drawing, published in Samuel R. Wells’ New Physiognomy(New York, 1866). Wells was one of the foremost American phrenologists of his time, studying “character” as he imagined it to be written on the human face and skull. It took decades for the science of head bumps and nose shapes to be debunked as nonsense, but the fallout proved catastrophic for many immigrants.
Bad science and hyper-patriotic conspiracy theories were the target of one of James Whitcomb Riley’s lesser-known poems, “Brother Jonathan Lectures His Adopted.” That poem appeared in Songs of Two Peoples, an 1898 collection set partly in New England, partly in Ireland.
Originally written in broad New England dialect, “Brother Jonathan” recounts the anti-Catholic ravings of a recent Northern Irish immigrant voting for “the fust time” at a small-town polling booth in America. Jonathan showed himself an eager campaigner against foreign influence, “tearin’ up an’ deown’ on platforms,” lashing out at Rome’s priests who “eat heretics at feasts” — dark tales from European history carried by folklore and immigrant ships into American election booths well into the 1960s and even beyond. Catholics, Jonathan warns, were gearing up to crush the American public school system and democracy. He gets a stinging rebuke from the embodiment of Uncle Sam, “His Adopted.”
Though Riley’s poem is set just after the Civil War, it spoke to the issues of 1898, when America’s generously open door did bring many problems. Yet the looming figure of “Brother Jonathan” was still fresh decades later when George R. Dale, the brave editor of the Muncie Post-Democrat, reprinted it as part of his long battle against the powerful Hoosier Klan.
In 1924, Dale found Riley’s poem as apt as ever. Dale was at the start of a practically one-man battle against the KKK in his town, using humor to transform the Muncie Post-Democrat into a rollicking 1920s version of The Onion. Though Dale faced routine death threats and assaults from Klansmen, the Muncie editor bravely tore into chauvinism at a time when the Klan was as much against new waves of Eastern and Southern European immigration as it was opposed to African Americans coming up from the South. Dale slightly abbreviated Riley’s poem — missing the fact that Brother Jonathan was an immigrant himself and had brought Old World animosities across the Atlantic, a prelude to the Irish “Troubles.”
Though many Irish immigrants were racists themselves, stirring up some of the worst race riots of the 1800s, George Dale found an ally in both history and the Catholic Church. Virtually every issue of Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson’s Klan paper The Fiery Cross contained attacks on the church, sharpest during the Indiana gubernatorial election of 1924, the year Dale reprinted “Brother Jonathan” in Muncie. It’s not surprising that, since they were long targeted by nativists, Catholics became a major force in undermining the Klan and helped hobble half-baked social and medical theories like eugenics. (The barely-concealed “science” of white supremacy, eugenics had deep roots in Indiana.)
While Riley was of Irish descent, he wasn’t Catholic himself — in fact he wasn’t much of a church-goer at all. Yet Riley knew plenty of immigrants: they were his neighbors in Lockerbie, an Indianapolis neighborhood first called “Germantown” and settled partly by refugees from Europe’s 1848 revolutions.
But even Riley’s support had a dark irony in it. A frequent visitor at his house in Lockerbie was Indiana Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs. The son of French immigrants, Debs was a champion of the working class but often hostile to the new wave of immigration, which he thought undermined American labor and played into the hands of big business. Debs may have been right about the effect of cheap labor on the American workers’ movement, but history repeated itself in a sad way when even the great Socialist leader made disparaging remarks in 1891 about Chinese and “Dagos” (Italians). They “fatten on garbage,” Debs said, live “more like a savage or a wild beast,” and “are able to underbid an American workingman.” It took years for Debs to temper those views, as even the Socialist Party succumbed to nativism and fear of the “degraded foreigner.”
While browsing through an old issue of the Madison Daily Courier (February 20, 1850), we stumbled across this eye-catching inventory from James Roberts’ store in the antebellum river town of Madison, Indiana. Two unusual items stood out: mushroom catsup and walnut catsup. What on earth was the history of these things?
In the days before H.J. Heinz, a former horseradish salesman, muscled in and mastered the art of making a pure, healthy tomato ketchup, Americans enjoyed an amazing variety of ketchups or “catsups.” Many antebellum Hoosiers could have bought these at the store. Others would have been able to make them from scratch using ingredients often available in Hoosier fields and forests.
Like many American families, the ketchup family isn’t native to the New World. Both the word and the condiment likely came from China or Malaysia, where ke-chap referred to a brine of pickled fish or shellfish. East Asian ketchups were salty or soy-based and had a liquid consistency, unlike often-stubborn tomato ketchup, a “non-Newtonian” fluid that needs a thump to get moving.
The first known mention of the word ketchup in English comes from a dictionary of slang from 1690, where it’s defined as a “high East-India sauce.” In fact, British East India traders are credited for bringing the sauce back from Asia. Word-sleuths, however, think that ketchup might have come from an Arabic word, kabees, also referring to a pickling sauce.
One Englishman, Charles Lockyer, gave advice to other traders in the Orient on how to get the best deals on lucrative soy sauce and ketchup — in 1711.
It’s hard to believe anyone would sail all the way to Asia and back in a wooden boat just for ketchup — or that King George and George Washington were throwing ketchup on their food. But eighteenth-century Britain and America were definitely familiar with the ketchup “family.” In fact, catsup, once thought to be an Americanized version of the word, was actually a misspelling by the Irish satirist and Anglican priest Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, who used it in a comic poem in 1730.
Eliza Smith, one of the bestselling English cookbook writers, describes how to make ketchup in her book The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion. Smith died around 1732, but her cookbook came out in many editions and was the first one ever printed in the American colonies. In 1742, a year before Thomas Jefferson’s birth, the cookbook was reprinted in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Yet Smith’s recipe for “English Katchup” didn’t call for a single tomato. Instead, you needed mushrooms, anchovies and horseradish. The vinegary result tasted and looked something like Worcestershire sauce. It took a week to make.
(Eliza Smith, The Compleat Housewife, London, 1727. The book was re-printed in Williamsburg by William Parks, who ran one of the first paper mills and thus helped turn out some of the earliest American newspapers, including Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. This instructional video on 18th-century cooking will tell you how to put together a mushroom ketchup that would have been familiar to Americans almost 300 years ago.)
Ketchup’s historic association with pickling sauces and fish was still strong in the mid-1800s, when grocery stores like James Roberts’ just downstream from Cincinnati were advertising the arrival of seafood and condiments from the East Coast. Much of that food came aboard steamboats floating down from Pittsburgh — future ketchup capital of the world (but not yet…)
For generations, many Europeans and Americans were literally scared of tomatoes and tomato-loving worms, believing both to be the source of a deadly poison. Part of the reason why the tomato was once considered a “poison apple” was that wealthy Europeans ate it off pewter plates high in lead content. Botanists and cultivators slowly dispelled these myths. By the 1870s, doctors and plant-growers had sparked a craze for the tomato as a medical cure-all. Before the 1830s, though, that lingering fear of the tomato was one reason why it was slow to be accepted into the family of ketchups.
Walnut ketchup still occasionally makes it onto the table and usually tastes something like A-1 Steak Sauce. Charlotte Mason, a Revolutionary-era chef in England, promoted fermented varieties of walnut ketchup in The Lady’s Assistant, a cookbook published in London in 1787 and available in the U.S. You’d have to plan your dinners well in advance, though. Like distilled liquor, some fermented ketchups take several months to make. Fortunately, Charlotte Mason definitely believed in bulk cooking — and some varieties would “keep for years.”
Just as beer- and whiskey-lovers have been rediscovering all the varieties of alcohol that Americans enjoyed before Prohibition put the nix on brewers and distillers, foodies are unearthing some of the ketchup varieties that once existed in Old American cooking.
These included concord grape ketchup (including this recipe from western New York for grape catsup applied to sweet potato fries and/or Greek yogurt) and lemon ketchup. An unusual historic recipe from 19th-century New Hampshire tells how to make cucumber ketchup. One chef touts a tangy peach ketchup calling for ingredients as diverse as cinnamon, sugar, chili, molasses and vinegar. Oyster ketchup was often made directly from oysters, but other oyster ketchups were made from tomatoes and meant to be put on oysters. Van Camp Packing Company in Indianapolis and the Loudon Packing Company in Terre Haute were once major producers of oyster ketchup.
Since fermentation was often involved, ketchup sometimes began to be treated like wine. The Indiana Palladium in Lawrenceburg (future home of Seagram’s Distillery) reprinted a clip from an article in the United States Gazette of Philadelphia about the tomato and its use in regulating digestion. This was around the time that the health benefits of the once-misunderstood “poison apple” were finally being promoted. The author praises a “very choice bottle” of fermented tomato ketchup, bottled by his family six years earlier — in 1827.
The tomato’s fortunes were on the rise. But until Henry Heinz came along, eating tomato ketchup could stillput your life in jeopardy. The problem lay in poor sanitation at factories and bottling plants — and the issue of how to keep tomato ketchup red.
Writers around the time of the Civil War described the disgusting horror show that sometimes came pouring out of ketchup bottles: yeasty, moldy, bacteria-laden filth. Food poisoning and even death weren’t an uncommon fate after consumption of “putrid, decomposed” tomato ketchup. Amazingly, manufacturers — including Charles Loudon in Terre Haute — often used coal-tar dye, an ingredient in road construction, to preserve the tomato’s bright red appearance. It was only in 1882 that writers began to point out the dangers of coal tar. Aware of ketchup nightmares, Gardener’s Monthly that year encouraged American families to steer clear of industrial ketchup and keep on making their own. A further danger came from boric acid, once used as a food preservative and now used in athlete’s foot medication and insecticide.
(H.J. Heinz around the time he moved beyond the horseradish business and forever changed the ketchup industry.)
By the 1870s, Henry Heinz of Pittsburgh was sparking a revolution in the ketchup, sauerkraut, and pickle business. Heinz’s family had emigrated from Kallstadt, Bavaria, hometown of Donald Drumpf’s ancestors. Unlike many Gilded Age business moguls, Heinz was a political progressive and took great strides to improve life for workers at his plants — and to keep bacteria out of his customers’ food.
With a good knowledge of advances in chemistry and public health, by 1906 Heinz was turning out a preservative-free ketchup (i.e., no coal tar!) and used transparent jars so his customers could see exactly what they were buying. Heinz was proud of his factories: even in notoriously polluted Pittsburgh, his employees had access to showers, swimming pools, gardens, medical stations, fresh laundry, free manicures and lunchtime open-air concerts. He offered free life and health insurance to workers and free tours to the public because — like his bottles — he felt he had nothing to fear from transparency. The Heinz Company hired thousands of women, and Heinz raised their wages against the advice of his business committee. He also took out ads in women’s magazines to warn the public about the dangers of certain food preservatives.
(Women at the Heinz Factory in Pittsburgh, circa 1901.)
Knowing that quality food and happy workers meant bigger profits, the ketchup mogul was a major force behind getting the Pure Food and Drug Act passed in 1906, a year after Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, an exposé of meatpackers, came out in a Socialist newspaper in Kansas, Appeal to Reason. (That paper’s editor, by the way, was Julius Wayland, a native Hoosier who once nearly got lynched in Versailles, Indiana, for his Socialist views.)
Heinz’s revolution — a “red” one, indeed — soon spread to the Midwest. Today, Red Gold in Elwood, Indiana, is the top ketchup producer in the U.S., beating out even Heinz. And the Hoosier State itself ranks second only to California in tomato processing. To think that it all began with a 17th-century Asian fish sauce…
(Laborers pick tomatoes for the Loudon Packing Company of Terre Haute. Loudon had hometown competition in the ketchup business from Hulman & Company — whose owner, Tony Hulman, later bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. By World War II, however, Loudon’s company had won minor fame itself by becoming the first major producer of V8, once made in Terre Haute.)
(Evansville cartoonist Karl Kae Knecht helped enlist tomatoes during World War II. Indiana tomato production “splatters” Hitler, Mussolini, and Emperor Hirohito, Evansville Courier, August 10, 1942.)
When the “Grand Arsonist of the Republic,” General William Tecumseh Sherman, addressed a room full of cadets at Michigan Military Academy in 1879, he coined a famous anti-war quote. There are different versions of Sherman’s speech, where he chides young soldiers eager to find “glory” in carnage. One goes like this:
I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here. Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars [the Mexican and the Civil] and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!
Like Hoosier writers Ambrose Bierce, who survived Shiloh, and Kurt Vonnegut, who witnessed the Dresden firebombing as a POW and helped pile civilian corpses onto crematory pyres in its aftermath, Sherman despised romantic images of war — written, he knew, by fools. With his Catholic religious faith destroyed by what he’d seen in the Civil War, the general would have relished such anti-war movie classics as Cold Mountain, Apocalypse Now, The English Patient and even (yes!) Jaws. (Spielberg’s first major hit came out in June 1975, just two months after the Fall of Saigon brought the Vietnam War to a close, and carried a subtle anti-war message.)
History repeats itself in strange ways. Take the famous, eerie monologue of Quint, the professional shark-hunter played by Robert Shaw in Jaws and partly modeled on the obsessed Captain Ahab. Quint’s chilling monologue, sometimes called “The Indianapolis Speech,” tells of how he sailed aboard the doomed USS Indianapolis in the last days of World War II. On July 30, 1945, just after the vessel delivered the components of Little Boy — the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima — a Japanese torpedo sent the Indianapolis to the blue depths. Out of 880 sailors who went into the water, over 500 died of hypothermia, starvation, dehydration and the scariest death of all: shark attacks. World War II came to an end just two weeks later.
Horrible as the loss of the Indianapolis was, it wasn’t the worst tragedy in American maritime history. That event happened after a war was over, at 2:00 a.m. on April 27, 1865, when the wooden steamboat Sultana — loaded with exhausted, traumatized ex-POWs, many of them headed home to Indiana — exploded on the Mississippi River seven miles north of Memphis. Most investigators and historians blame overheated boilers for the blast, but one intriguing theory has it that the real culprit was a Confederate terrorist. Other strange parallels evoke the loss of both the ill-fated Titanic and the Indianapolis.
The Sultana, built at John Litherbury’s boatyard in Cincinnati and launched on January 3, 1863, plied the Ohio and Mississippi during the worst days of the Civil War. At a time when steamboats carried cargo and passengers faster and more comfortably than slow-moving trains, the Daily Evansville Journal kept track of riverboat passages. Though midwestern river towns feel abandoned today, in the 1860s they were teeming with life and activity.
The Sultana mostly transported passengers and agricultural wares. Yet travel on the Mississippi River past Memphis had been cut off by the Civil War. Only when U.S. Navy gunboats helped capture that city in June 1862 did river travel start up again, finally brought back to life by the fall of Vicksburg on the Fourth of July, 1863, after an epic siege. That August, the Sultanacarried furloughed soldiers north from Vicksburg. But the wartime dangers of river travel weren’t over yet. Nocturnal Confederate guerrillas shot at the steamboat near Waterproof, Louisiana, in December 1863. Another boat traveling alongside it was hit with artillery shells and musket fire, provoking a Federal gunboat to fire indiscriminately into the dark woods.
On April 15, 1865, just days after the Civil War ended, the Sultana was docked in Cairo, Illinois. Telegraph wires that morning were shooting out news from Washington, D.C. — Abraham Lincoln had died from a gunman’s wound at 7:22 a.m. The Sultana’s captain, J. Cass Mason of St. Louis, knew that since wires had been cut all over the South, Southerners wouldn’t get the news of the assassination quickly, so he grabbed an armload of newspapers and headed for Vicksburg, arriving downstream a few days later.
Vicksburg’s corrupt Union quartermaster, Lt. Col. Reuben Hatch, wanted to make Captain Mason a deal. With the war over, the Federal government was offering steamboat captains $5 for each enlisted man and $10 per officer they agreed to take back north. With the South in ruins, even former Confederate soldiers from Kentucky and Tennessee found it easier to get home by going up the Mississippi to the Cumberland River, which flows into the Ohio across from southern Illinois. Hatch and Mason agreed on a deal, whereby over 2,000 soldiers — mostly former Union POWs staying at a Vicksburg parole camp — would be carried back to their homes in the Midwest. About two-thirds of them were from Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois, though others had served in Union regiments from Kentucky. Captain Mason would have netted about $10,000, a small fortune. Mason agreed to give Quartermaster Hatch a kickback.
The freed POWs waiting to go home had already experienced some of the worst conditions war can offer. Most had been incarcerated at the notoriously cruel and unsanitary Confederate camps at Andersonville, Georgia, and Cahaba, Alabama, where Union POWs regularly suffered and died from diarrhea, exposure, scurvy, frostbite, dysentery, hookworm, and had to contend with abuse by prison guards and even dog attacks. By the time they made it west to Vicksburg and onto the Sultana, many ex-POWs were still recovering from hunger, disease, PTSD, and physical exhaustion — and surely excruciating homesickness, as well. Yet the worst was still to come.
The Sultana had paddled down to New Orleans before returning to Vicksburg on April 24. When it backed out of port, it carried about 2,100 ex-soldiers and civilians, alongside a few women and children traveling on the river. Some of the women were serving with the United States Christian Commission, a medical relief organization that also provided religious literature to Union troops and helped army chaplains.
Passengers were crammed into virtually every open space on the boat, whose legal carrying capacity was just 376. Decks sagging under the weight even of emaciated men had to be supported with emergency beams. Yet if Captain Mason could get his boat upriver safely, he was bound to strike it rich.
As the over-burdened boat chugged desperately north, it had to fight a huge spring flood on the Mississippi, which had burst the levees and spilled out for as much as five or six miles in some spots. The river, always treacherous to steamboats, had reached the canopy of trees along the banks and ran icy cold with snowmelt. The weight of the passengers caused the Sultana to roll from side to side, which probably caused hot spots in its boilers, as the water that produced steam to power the paddles and keep the boilers from exploding under heat and pressure sloshed back and forth and spilled out. Sudden pressure surges were probably the culprit of the explosion that came at 2:00 a.m. on April 27.
The steamboat had just passed Memphis that night, where it unloaded a cargo of sugar. Seven miles farther upriver, still fighting the massive current, the enormous blast occurred, followed by a fire that hit the coal and wood furnace boxes and rapidly turned the wooden Sultana into a blazing inferno. Some thought lightning had struck the boat.
Passengers who weren’t thrown into the river were faced with a horrible choice: burn to death, or fight for their lives in the frigid, raging Mississippi.
Weakened by incarceration, trauma and disease, many soldiers stood no chance. They drowned or burned, or gave out to hypothermia while clinging to debris and fighting a brief struggle in the water. The Tennessee and Arkansas riverbanks were hard to find, shrouded in darkness and high floodwaters. Survivors told of the stench of burning flesh coming off the boat. Decomposing corpses would be found along more than a hundred miles of the river for months — including Captain Mason’s, who never made his fortune. Bodies had to be picked out of trees as far south as Vicksburg. Many victims were never found.
When survivors and the dead began to float past Memphis, citizens and riverboat crews hurriedly paddled out in skiffs and recovered as many as they could. (It is fascinating to reflect that labor activist Mother Jones, who lived in Memphis during the war, was probably a witness.) The city hospitals filled up with men and the few women and children who were on board, victims of severe burns from steam and fire, exposure and hypothermia. A large number of Hoosiers were among the wounded and dead.
Around 1,800 people died, a bigger toll than the Titanic. Yet newspaper accounts of the horrors on the river gave surprisingly few details. Like another devastating blast — the Allegheny Arsenal explosion in Pittsburgh, which blew up 78 ammunition workers, mostly young women, on the day of the Battle of Antietam in 1862 –and like the USS Indianapolis sinking in 1945, which was overshadowed by the atomic bomb, the news got drowned out by bigger events: the end of the Civil War, coverage of Lincoln’s funeral train, and the death of John Wilkes Booth, who was shot to death in a burning barn in Virginia the night before the Sultana exploded.
The St. Louis Republican — a river-town paper, like the Evansville Daily Journal — provided some of the scanty coverage that made it into the press. The stories are hair-raising and gloomy.
William D. Snow, U.S. Senator-elect from Arkansas, had been awakened by the boiler explosion. Opening his door, he was confronted by “a large volume of steam” careening through the cabin and many scalded passengers. Snow said that as he prepared to jump ship and swim almost a mile to the Arkansas shore, the river presented itself as “a sea of heads, so close together that it was impossible to leap without killing one or more.” Amazingly, in those days before government safety regulations, Snow saw “several husbands fasten life-preservers to their wives and children, and throw them overboard into the struggling mass below.” The Senator washed up, alive, among “overflowed cottonwood lands” at about 4:00 in the morning. He was rescued by a passing steamer.
One of the Hoosier survivors, Uriah J. Maverty, came from Lebanon, Indiana, west of Indianapolis. Maverty, who survived incarceration at Andersonville and Cahaba, was an invalid in a wheelchair when he wrote a graphic account of the disaster before his death in 1910. He remembered that “several times was I pulled under water by others drowning,” but a love of his mother in Indiana helped him hang on. “If you ever longed to see your mother, even in the prison-pen or on the battlefield, you know the feelings which came over me were too deep to be described.”
Maverty watched an Irish soldier, whose face had been crushed by “flying missiles,” cry out in loud prayer, but he died just after they were dragged to shore. Grown men were seen weeping profusely as they floated among dead comrades and severed body parts. Veterans of Gettysburg and Chickamauga thought the sight was worse than things they had seen on the battlefield.
Though no one was ever prosecuted for the disaster and investigations pinned the explosion on carelessness, one theory sprouted up right away: a coal torpedo or bomb planted by a disgruntled Confederate had destroyed the boat. The website Civil War St. Louis even presents a lengthy, detailed (though skeptical) case for-and-against the sabotage of the Sultana.
Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay, a native of Belfast, Ireland — where the Titanic was built and launched in 1912 — had immigrated to St. Louis in 1844, aged 22, and also lived around Vicksburg. Ironically, Courtenay sold fire and marine insurance in St. Louis and even served as sheriff of St. Louis County in 1860. The Irish immigrant’s loyalties were to the Confederacy, and early in the war he joined up with the Confederate Secret Service as a clandestine agent.
In 1863, Courtenay invented the coal torpedo, a hollow iron casting loaded with explosives and disguised inside a clump of hardened coal dust. Hidden in Union coal piles by Confederate saboteurs, coal torpedoes were meant to be shoveled unsuspectingly into the boilers of vessels, where they would heat up, cause the boiler to burst and lead to a larger, catastrophic secondary explosion. Confederate President Jefferson Davis approved a plan to target Union gunboats with Courtenay’s secret bombs. Several U.S. Navy vessels were actually blown up by coal torpedoes, including one in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1864.
After the war, Courtenay traveled overseas and tried to sell his deadly invention to foreign governments, with no success. To protest the British occupation of Ireland, the Fenian Brotherhood, radical Irish nationalists based in the U.S. and Australia, reportedly considered putting coal torpedoes into furnaces in New York City hotels and aboard English transatlantic steamships. Fenian coal bombs were blamed for the explosion of a British Navy vessel in Patagonia in 1880, which inspired a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, inventor of Sherlock Holmes.
As bodies started to float in, a mate aboard the Sultana told a writer for the Memphis Argus that he suspected a bomb. And during a yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans in 1867, Robert Louden, a Confederate agent and “terrorist” who sank several Union vessels on the waterfront in St. Louis, claimed on his deathbed to have planted a bomb on the Sultana — probably while its crew were unloading sugar at Memphis. Louden may have been bluffing, and the evidence is not totally convincing, especially since some of the passengers aboard the steamboat were ex-Confederates headed home to Kentucky and Tennessee.
The ruins of the Sultana floated downstream a few miles, burned to the waterline, and sank in a mud bank. In 1982, archaeologists discovered what may be the steamboat’s remains — but they aren’t in the river. The ever-meandering Mississippi has moved two miles east since 1865, placing the site of the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history square in the middle of an Arkansas soybean field.
Survivors’ reunions were held well into the 20th century. The last two survivors — one from the North, one from the South — were still alive in the 1930s. Though the memory of many was consigned forever to the restless river, the lights finally went out on January 9, 1936, with the death of 94-year-old Albert Norris. A private in the 76th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Norris, aged 23, had been lying directly above the boilers and fell down onto the hot furnace as men came raining down around him from the hurricane deck. Though he was one of the closest to the blast, he lived the longest to tell the tale.
From 1917 into the 1920s, Hoosier movie-goers had a chance to see one of the most controversial — and arguably infamous — silent films ever produced, The Black Stork, later renamed Are You Fit To Marry? Identified by one film historian as among the earliest horror movies, TheBlack Stork was based on a real and gut-wrenching medical drama from 1915.
Billed as a “eugenics love story,” the movie’s script was authored by Chicago journalist, muckraker and theater critic Jack Lait. Lait worked for news mogul William Randolph Hearst, the very man who inspired the lead figure in Orson Welles’ great 1941 movie Citizen Kane. Hearst, king of American “yellow journalism,” relished controversies, which sold newspapers and theater tickets. His film company, International Film Service, produced The Black Stork.
Many Americans today have never heard the word “eugenics,” a once-popular scientific theory spawned by Victorian understandings of evolution and heredity in the wake of Charles Darwin. The word comes from the Greek for “well-born” or “good stock” and refers to the social interpretation of scientific discoveries purporting to show how harmful genetic traits are passed on from parents to children — and how healthy children could be bred. Eugenics wasn’t strictly the same as science itself, but a social philosophy based on the discoveries of Darwin, the monk-botanist Gregor Mendel, and Darwin’s nephew, geneticist Francis Galton. Yet many scientists and doctors got involved with this social philosophy.
Once fairly mainstream, support for eugenic theories plummeted after the defeat of Hitler, its most notorious advocate. Aspects of eugenics — like the forced sterilization of repeat criminals, rapists, epileptics, the poor, and some African Americans — continued in twenty-seven American states into the 1950s and even later in a few. The last forced sterilization in the U.S. was performed in Oregon in 1981.
Indiana played an enormous role in the history of eugenics when the Hoosier State became the first to enact a compulsory sterilization law in 1907 — a law that lumped the mentally handicapped in with sex offenders, made it virtually illegal for whole classes deemed “unfit” to reproduce, segregated many of the disabled into mental hospitals, and enshrined white supremacy. Though the Indiana law was struck down in 1921, those ideas were hugely popular with many academics and activists all across the political spectrum.
Especially notable, the Indiana Eugenics Law wasn’t pushed by those designated as white racist “hillbillies.” “Poor white” Indianapolis slum-dwellers, in fact, were very much targeted by the eugenicists of the early 20th century. Promoters of these spurious theories included mainstream biologists, doctors, many reform-minded Progressives, women’s rights advocates, college presidents, even a few Christian ministers and Socialists. The list of widely-admired people who spoke out in favor of simplistic eugenic proposals included Helen Keller, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Sir Winston Churchill, Planned Parenthood’s founder Margaret Sanger, author Jack London, IU and Stanford University president David Starr Jordan, Alexander Graham Bell, and the civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois. One of the few well-known anti-eugenics crusaders was Senator William Jennings Bryan, a Christian Fundamentalist who lost caste with Progressives in the 1920s for opposing the teaching of evolution.
Eugenics, however, was neither “liberal” nor “conservative.” Americans of all political stripes supported its basic premise — the preservation of social order and the engineering of more a “humane” society. Strong support for eugenics came from Americans concerned about the proliferation of poverty and urban crime and who sought a reason to keep certain nationalities from entering the U.S. Eugenics did not begin to go out of favor until 1935, when scientists from the Carnegie Institute in Washington demonstrated the flimsiness of other scientists’ work at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. Yet even as eugenicists placed human reproduction on the level of horse- and livestock-breeding, the genetic abolition of any individual deemed “feeble-minded” — and the destruction of hereditary and sexually-transmitted diseases — was packaged as a positive goal, a social benefit to all, even to those who underwent involuntary sterilization and were occasionally killed.
Euthanasia was one component of eugenics. Alongside the “positive eugenics” campaign for “Better Babies and Fitter Families,” “negative eugenics” partly revolved around the controversial view that infants born with severe disabilities should be left to die or killed outright. In 1915, a case in Chicago plunged Americans into a heated debate about medical ethics.
That November, Dr. Harry J. Haiselden, chief surgeon at the German-American Hospital in Chicago, was faced with a tough dilemma. A woman named Anna Bollinger had just given birth to a child, John, who suffered from severe birth defects. John had no neck or right ear and suffered from a serious skin ailment, all judged to be the result of syphilis likely passed on by his father. Dr. Haiselden knew that he could save the child’s life through a surgical procedure. But since he was familiar with the conditions into which Illinois’ “feeble-minded” were thrown after birth, he convinced the child’s parents to let John die at the hospital. When the news came out that the doctor wasn’t going to perform the necessary surgery, an unknown person tried to kidnap the child and take it to another hospital. The kidnapping attempt failed and John Bollinger died.
While the Catholic Church, one of the few vocal critics of eugenics, was the only major group to initially protest the surgeon’s decision, Haiselden was soon called before a medical ethics board in Chicago. He nearly lost his medical license, but managed to keep it. Public opinion was sharply divided. Chicago social worker and suffragette Jane Addams came out against Haiselden. Short of the death penalty for murder, Addams said, no doctor had the right to be an unwilling person’s executioner. “It is not for me to decide whether a child should be put to death. If it is a defective, it should be treated as such, and be taught all it can learn,” she added.
Many of Haiselden’s critics, such as Addams, pointed out that if eugenicists had had their way, they would have killed some of the great “defectives” in history, like Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevksy, French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, children’s writer Edward Lear, and even the eugenicist Harry Laughlin himself — all of them epileptics. (Biologist Laughlin, Superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor and one of the science’s greatest advocates, had suffered from epilepsy since childhood.)
Support for Dr. Haiselden, however, came from many famous social activists. Among them was Helen Keller — advocate for the disabled, a Socialist, and a eugenics supporter (at least in 1915.) Keller, who was blind and deaf since the age of one but thrived against all odds, published her views on the Haiselden case in The New Republic. She thought that children proven to be “idiots” by a “jury of expert physicians” could and perhaps should be put to death. Chicago lawyer and civil liberties crusader Clarence Darrow — who famously went up against eugenics critic William Jennings Bryan at the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial — made no bones about his support for the surgeon: “Chloroform unfit children,” Darrow said. “Show them the same mercy that is shown beasts that are no longer fit to live.” Indiana Socialist Eugene V. Debs also supported Haiselden’s decision.
(Clarence Darrow and Helen Keller supported Haiselden.)
Harry Haiselden held onto his job, but bolstered his position and kept the firestorm of public discussion brewing by starring as himself in a silent film based on the Bollinger case. The Black Stork came to hundreds of American theaters, including many Hoosier ones. Because public health workers and eugenicists often gave admonitory lectures before and after the movie, separate showings were offered for men and women. Young children weren’t allowed to attend, but a South Carolina minister encouraged parents to bring their teenage children — so they could see what might come from sexual promiscuity, criminality, drinking and “race mixing.” Some theater bills added the catchy subtitle: “The Scourge of Humanity.”
The movie’s plot was partly fictional and not entirely based on the 1915 Bollinger euthanasia case. TheFort Wayne Journal-Gazette gave its readers the basic story line, which came with an interesting twist near the end:
The “taint of the Black Stork” was obviously bad genes and heritable diseases. Haiselden’s silent film has been called one of the earliest horror movies, though its promoters billed it as educational and even romantic in nature. It fueled the eugenics movement’s campaign about defectives but also tackled an ethical dilemma that’s still alive today: is it ever humane to kill a person without their permission, on the grounds that the victim is doomed to live a miserable life and be only a “burden on society”?
Since American eugenics was supported by known racists and would later be directly cited by the Nazis as inspiration for their “racial science,” it’s uncomfortable to look deeper into it and realize how much turf it shares with Progressivists’ real concern for the treatment of the poor — and of mothers, some of whom would have been forced to raise severely disabled children. Some Americans thought the best way to eradicate poverty and disease was to eradicate the poor themselves by restricting their right to pass on the human “germ plasm” to the next generation. Eugenics and even euthanasia became, for some, a way to avoid social reforms. “Nurture vs. nature” lost out to inescapable hereditary destiny.
The Black Stork’s title was eventually changed to Are You Fit To Marry? It ran in theaters and roadshows well into the Roaring Twenties. It’s hard to believe that eugenicists begged Americans to ask themselves honestly if they were “fit to marry.” One wonders how many Americans voluntarily abstained from having children after deeming themselves “unfit”?
Ads show that the film was screened at at least three theaters in Indianapolis (including English’s Theatre on Monument Circle) as well as at movie halls in Fort Wayne, East Chicago, Whiting, Hammond, Evansville, Richmond and probably many other Hoosier towns.
The “eugenics photo-drama” reminded Americans of the dangers that “bad” heredity posed not only to their own families, but to the nation. When The Black Stork was shown in Elyria, Ohio, just a few months into America’s involvement in World War I, it clearly drew from the well of fear-mongering that linked crime and disease to alcohol, immigration, prostitution and rumors about German traitors and saboteurs — all clear threats to Anglo-Saxon ideals. Eugenics and euthanasia, by “saving our nation from misery and decay,” clearly got hitched to the wagon of nationalist politics. Viewing The Black Stork, like supporting the war effort, became “a solemn duty.”
German scientists were promoting “racial hygiene” long before the Nazis came to power in the 1930s. Fascism’s scientists and propagandists would also draw heavily on the work of British and American eugenicists — and point to laws like Indiana’s when opponents criticized them. Racial Hygiene, in fact, was the title of an influential textbook by Hoosier doctor Thurman B. Rice, a professor at IU Bloomington, a colleague of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, and one of the founders of IU Medical School in Indianapolis. In April 1929, Rice wrote an editorial in the Indiana State Board of Health’s monthly bulletin, entitled “If I Were Mussolini,” where he supported compulsory sterilization of “defectives.”
The Black Stork wasn’t the last film about euthanasia and eugenics. In 1941, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, commissioned one of the classics of Nazi cinema, Ich klage an (I Accuse). The plot revolves around a husband who learns that his wife has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He gives her a drug that causes her death, then undergoes a trial for murder. The film’s producers argued that death was not only a right but a social duty. A tearjerker, Ich klage an was intended to soften up the German public for the Nazis’ T4 euthanasia campaign, which led to the deaths of as many as 200,000 adults and children deemed a burden to the nation. (There’s some further irony that Ich klage an’s cinematic parent, The Black Stork, was based on events at Chicago’s German-American Hospital.)
Eugenics captivated Americans and Europeans for a few more decades after the Bollinger case. British writer G.K. Chesterton, a Catholic convert and a fierce opponent of eugenics, probably deserves the last word here. Chesterton called eugenics “terrorism by tenth-rate professors.”
In his 1922 book Eugenics and Other Evils: An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized State, Chesterton quipped that society has never really had all that much to fear from the “feeble-minded.” Rather, it’s the “strong-minded” who hurt society the most. Tearing into eugenics advocates in Britain, Germany and America, Chesterton spotlighted their frequent class prejudices, then skewered them brilliantly:
Why do not the promoters of the Feeble-Minded Bill call at the many grand houses in town and country where such nightmares notoriously are? Why do they not knock at the door and take the bad squire away? Why do they not ring the bell and remove the dipsomaniac prize-fighter? I do not know; and there is only one reason I can think of, which must remain a matter of speculation. When I was at school, the kind of boy who liked teasing half-wits was not the sort that stood up to bullies.
Dr. Harry J. Haiselden was involved in the deaths of at least three more disabled infants. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage while on vacation in Havana, Cuba, in 1919.
Today, rural towns often have doctors with American Indian surnames. But in the 1800s, an “Indian doctor” meant something totally different.
For decades after the Civil War, so-called “Indian medicine shows” rolled through cities and country towns across the U.S. These shows were something like the medical version of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Leading them, there was usually a wild-looking doctor — typically a white man claiming to be Native American or at least to have studied herbal healing with “Indian medicine men.” What the shows really dispensed was exotic flare: banjo-playing minstrels, brass bands, even freak shows.
The traveling outfits also raked in thousands of dollars by touting medicinal cure-alls for common ailments, as Indian doctors announced their ability to cure practically all known ills — from dysentery, headaches and “private diseases” (venereal in nature) to dreaded cases of tuberculosis, cholera, and cancer. Elixirs were only part of the lure. These doctors often doubled as dentists and yanked rotten teeth by the thousands. In the days before anesthetics, brass bands covered up patients’ screams inside the wagon. Music and entertainment also helped drown out the protests of local doctors and dentists, whose business these shows cut in on.
While the heyday of the medicine shows came after the Civil War, the “Indian doctor” phenomenon goes back farther than that, piggy-backing off the dearth of professional doctors in pioneer settlements and the primitive state of “scientific” medicine itself. Southerners who moved to the midwestern frontier had often lived for a while in Appalachia, where white settlers took an interest in traditional medicine practiced by the Cherokee and Choctaw. German and Scots-Irish settlers also had a medical heritage of their own going back to medieval Europe.
(This early Indian Guide to Health  contains some of the often bizarre knowledge gleaned from medicine on the Appalachian frontier. The author was an early Hoosier doctor, Squire H. Selman — alias “Pocahontus Nonoquet” — who studied with the Kentucky doctor-adventurer Richard Carter. Son of an English physician and a métis woman, Carter enjoyed one of the most thriving medical practices on the Ohio Valley frontier. Selman went on to practice medicine in Columbus, Indiana.)
It’s a curious fact that one of the first doctors in Indianapolis was a 24-year-old “Indian doctor” from North Carolina. The man also had an unforgettable name: Dr. William Kelley Frohawk Fryer. (In 1851, the Indiana State Sentinel thought his initials stood for “Dr. William Kellogg Francis Fryer,” but we sincerely hope that it really was “Frohawk.” That name appears on the cover of his own book.)
Dr. Fryer claimed to have studied medicine with Native Americans and was remembered by Indianapolis historians as an Indian doctor “of ancient memory.” Some of his repertory of cures, however, apparently came from “pow-wow,” an old form of Pennsylvania German faith healing. That practice was known as Braucherei or Spielwerk(spell-work) in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, and pow-wow practitioners (Brauchers or Hexenmeisters) drew on spells and folk remedies that probably go back to the world of Roman Catholic folk healing, forced underground in Germany after the Reformation. (The word pow-wow was either of Algonquin origin or a mispronunciation of the English “power” but had nothing to do with Native American medicine.) The first book on pow-wow, published by German immigrant Johann Georg Hohman in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1820, anthologized many of these magical healings, talismans, and charms, based partly on occult “white magic” meant to ward off “black magic” or witchcraft. Pow-wow used esoteric words, sometimes from the Bible, as a form of healing and was explicitly Christian in nature, even reminding some of Jesus’ miracles accomplished via saliva. Brauchers allegedly cured livestock by putting magical words into their feeding troughs.
Pow-wow, which claimed to cure “both men and animals,” became an unorthodox form of spiritual medicine among Lutherans, Amish, Mennonites and Dunkers at a time when university-trained doctors were hard to come by even on the East Coast. Sometimes called “Christian voodoo,” pow-wow might even figure into the origin of the hex signs you can still see on barns. (It led to a “Hex Murder Trial” in 1929.) As a form of medical treatment, pow-wow’s heyday is long-gone, but it is still practiced on the sly in rural eastern Pennsylvania and was probably once part of folk medicine in the rural Midwest, wherever Pennsylvania Germans settled.
(Some scholars believe the hex tradition came out of pow-wow.)
In 1839, the year Dr. William Kelley Frohawk Fryer published his ownIndian Guide to Health in Indianapolis, the Hoosier capitol city was just a few steps out of the wilderness. Fryer believed in “vegetable medicine.” He would probably have been able to find most of the roots and herbs he needed for medications in the swamps, bottomlands, and woodlands that still covered Marion County. There’s even some evidence that he provided medical treatment in exchange for plants. A clip from the Indiana State Sentinel in June 1886 states that he ran a place called “The Sanative House,” probably near his home on “South Illinois Street, near the Catholic school on Georgia.” But Dr. Fryer was long gone by 1886. In the late 1840s, the young doctor moved down to Mobile, Alabama, then to New Orleans, where he advertised his manual on health (printed in Indianapolis) for sale nationwide. Early front-page ads in the New Orleans Daily Crescent alsocarry glowing testimonials (maybe fictional) from his former patients back in central Indiana.
As the number of college-trained doctors and dentists back East grew after the Civil War, “Indian doctors” were squeezed out to the West and Midwest — where many claimed to have learned their trade in the first place, straight from Native American healers and shamans. (It’s hard to say how many of these claims are true, but a few of them probably are.) Yet “folk doctors” weren’t necessarily bad and provided the rudiments of medical care to some patients who couldn’t afford a university-trained physician, who simply had no access to one, or who (like African Americans) were even cruelly experimented on by the medical establishment.
J.P. Dunn, an early Indianapolis historian, wrote that Indiana was a “free-for-all medical state” until 1885. During the 1800s, American doctors and state and local officials gradually began driving “quack” doctors out of business (or at least out of town) by requiring all practitioners to hold medical licenses. The establishment didn’t always succeed at this. As early as 1831, legislators in remote Arkansas Territory tried to outlaw quackery. Their law, known popularly as the “Medical Aristocracy Bill,” was vetoed by the territory’s one-armed governor John Pope, a former Kentucky senator. Pope objected to it on the grounds that it violated “the spirit of liberty” and said: “Let every man be free to employ whom he pleases where he alone is concerned.” The governor also took a swipe at college-trained “professionals,” pointing out that
many who have gone through a regular course in the medical schools are grossly ignorant of the theory or practice of medicine. They are mere smatterers in the science. With a piece of parchment in their pocket, and a little superficial learning, they are arrogant, rash and more dangerous quacks than those who adopt the profession from a sort of instinct, or a little practical observation.
Pope may have been right. Whether educated or not, pioneer doctors sometimes killed whole families by accident. (My great-grandmother’s grandfather, one of the first settlers of Rosedale, Indiana, was orphaned in 1846 by a doctor who prescribed a deadly concoction of some sort to his parents and one of his brothers. As late as 1992, then, there was a Hoosier woman still living who had actually been raised by a man victimized as a young boy by pioneer medicine.)
In 1885, Indiana finally passed a law requiring doctors either to show that they had studied at “some reputable medical college” or had practiced medicine in the Hoosier State continuously for ten years preceding the date of the act. In April 1885, the Indiana Medical Journal endorsed this new law, saying: “It will probably make a few of the hundreds of quacks who now infest Indiana seek more congenial climes, and if enforced will prevent quacks from other states from settling within our borders.”
Yet the number of known Indian doctors operating in the state that year was low:
As J.P. Dunn pointed out, the tough question became: what was a “reputable medical college?” County clerks, not medical organizations, issued doctor’s licenses. Dunn wrote that since a county clerk only got paid if he issued a license, “he was usually liberal in his views” about the meaning of the word “reputable.” A state examination board for licensing doctors wasn’t set up in Indiana until 1897.
By then, one of the most outrageously colorful Indian doctors had already had his day in the Hoosier State and gone to his own grave.
For a few summers in the early 1880s, Dr. J.I. Lighthall, “King of Diamonds,” crisscrossed the Midwest sporting a flashy, diamond-studded suit, selling his herbal remedies and often giving them away to the poor, while also earning notoriety as a “tooth-yanker.” Lighthall caught the interest of the press and annoyed local doctors in Terre Haute, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Richmond, Seymour and Columbus.
At the beginning of his Indian Household Medicine Guide, Lighthall claimed he was born in 1856 in Tiskilwa, a small Illinois River town north of Peoria. He announced that he was of one-eighth Wyandot heritage on his father’s side and had left home at age eleven to go out West to study botany with the Indians. If that’s true, in the 1870s the teenage Lighthall lived with tribes in Minnesota, Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma, picking up ethnobotanical knowledge on the Plains. He also grew out his hair, cultivating a look that some women, at least, found sultry and exotic.
By around 1880, Lighthall had set up shop in Peoria, Illinois. His mother apparently cooked barrels-full of his herb-, root-, and bark-based medicaments, then bottled them and shipped them by railroad or wagon. When it came to naming his drugs, he skipped the big Latin and Greek words of modern pharmacology and came up with colorful names like “King of Pain” and “Spanish Oil.” Some were probably cut with whiskey, cocaine, opium, and morphine. Lighthall also offered an array of 19th-century popular medicine’s omnipresent “blood purifiers” and “liver regulators,” miracle liquids commonly advertised in mainstream newspapers — partly to keep journalism itself afloat when subscriptions lagged.
As his business picked up, the doctor put together a brass band and went into makeshift dentistry on the street.
Educated skeptics abounded, but some of his herbal medications might actually have proven beneficial as “home remedies” for less serious ailments. The official medical view is that some patients were probably cured by the “placebo effect.” Curiously, one of the real health benefits of Lighthall’s medicine shows was that he got sick people to laugh.
Although the “doc” gave off an aura of the Wild West, most of his short career as an “Indian doctor” was spent in Indiana and Illinois. Lighthall typically rolled into a town and stayed for a few weeks or months, long enough to garner local notoriety. However angry the doctors and medical establishment got, “common folk” kept flocking to his medicine wagon. Dr. Lighthall’s entertainment troupe, newspapers reported, resembled a circus and was made up of about 60 “Spaniards,” “Mexicans” and “half-breeds” — and some Hoosiers from Fort Wayne.
Cleverly, Lighthall sympathized with the poor, sometimes handing out free medicine bottles wrapped in $10 and $20 bills to customers who couldn’t afford them. While the doctor won fame for such “charity,” thousands of others forked out their nickels and dimes for entertainment — money Lighthall would throw into the air to attract an even bigger crowd. Others came to have their teeth rapidly yanked, often for “free.” Yet in spite of all the freebies, within a year or two, Lighthall was rumored to be worth about $150,000 (maybe ten times that much in today’s money.) He wore clothes and a hat studded with valuable diamonds and cut an impressive appearance in public. Women were attracted to him. He put his gems on display at a Louisville jewel shop. A Kentucky hat store sold a line of Lighthall-inspired Texas hats.
Lawmen and doctors tried to do him in, but usually failed. A court in Decatur, Illinois, summoned him to appear in October 1883 for illegally practicing medicine there. Ironically, he had just come back to Decatur from Terre Haute, where “the Philistines” and Indiana’s “sun of civilization” drove him back over the state line.
The following summer, July 1884, Dr. Lighthall’s show rolled into Fort Wayne and camped out for a few months “near the baseball park. . . The joint resembles a circus.”
His tooth-yanking sometimes got him into legal trouble, as when he got sued for allegedly breaking a man’s jaw in Indianapolis during a complicated dental extraction. Lighthall’s apparent love for the ladies also turned public opinion against him. While camped out along East Washington Street in Indianapolis in 1885, he got booked by the cops for being “rowdy” at a “house of ill fame.” Locals accused him of trying to get two young girls near Fountain Square to run away with his troupe and “go on the stage.”
However dangerous and perhaps lecherous he might have been, Lighthall provided heavy doses of entertainment. On a trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee, in early 1885, the doctor got into a bloody tooth-yanking feud with a Frenchwoman engaged “in a similar line of business.” She was dressed as an “Indian princess.” The bizarre fight that followed deserves to be restored to the annals of history.
Lighthall may have engaged in just such a “contest” in Indianapolis:
After he left Louisville and the Jeffersonville area one summer, moving north to Seymour and Columbus, the Jeffersonsville News reported that local dentists were busy repairing the damage Doc Lighthall had done to Hoosier jaws.
For better or worse, the Indian doctor’s (and yanker’s) own days were numbered. By January 1886, he had headed south for the winter, encamping in San Antonio, where he was reported to be successfully filching Texas greenhorns of their greenbacks. Tragically, a smallpox epidemic broke out in un-vaccinated San Antonio that month. The 30-year-old’s medical knowledge couldn’t save him. He “died in his tent” on January 25, 1886. Several men from Fort Wayne who were performing with his troupe may also have succumbed to small pox.
News of his demise quickly flashed over Midwestern newspapers, in towns where he had become well-known in days just gone by:
Though rumor had it that Lighthall owned an expensive mansion and a medicine factory back in Peoria, he was buried at San Antonio’s City Cemetery #3, not far from The Alamo. Fittingly, there are bellflowers carved onto his gravestone:
He’s been forgotten today, but Dr. J.I. Lighthall’s fame briefly lived on, with at least one Hoosier writing to ask if he was alive or dead in 1888:
“Indian doctors” weren’t yet on their way out the door when Lighthall died in Texas in 1886. In 1900, in spite of efforts to regulate the practice of medicine, the patent medicine business was still reckoned to be worth about $80 million a year. Several major traveling shows thrived into the 1950s. By then, industrial pharmaceuticals and the discovery of antibiotics had launched medicine into a new era, but the entertainment aspect of the business kept it alive until radio and television killed it off.
Whatever the medicine shows did for the human body, they were definitely good for the soul, as the early 20th-century troupes helped fuel the rise of jazz, blues and country. In 1983, folklorist Steve Zeitlin and filmmaker Paul Wagner were still able to find some old medicine show performers in a rural North Carolina town — the subject of their documentary Free Show Tonight.
What’s the connection between Quakers, whalers, cancer and onions? Here’s some unexpected medical history from the Hoosier State.
While flipping through a few of the oldest Indiana newspapers, we ran across several “vintage cures” — including a couple of surprising ones for cancer, a disease that was as feared in 1816 as it is now, though the pioneers suffered from exponentially lower rates of it.
Oddly enough, the first remedy here, which claims to be able to treat cancer with onions, might not be bogus.
Modern medical research agrees with “folk” doctors on one thing, at least: regardless of the real havoc wreaked on your breath, garlic and onions are potent cancer-fighting foods. These veggies rank up there with broccoli, wild berries, ginger, olive oil, and a daily glass of wine as one of nature’s best weapons against tumors.
Onions have figured into medical practice for far longer than chemotherapy and radiation. Alternative practitioners and cancer patients often claim that vegetable-based remedies are at least as effective as chemo and radiation therapy — and they avoid the psychological side effects. Red onions, containing high amounts of a “flavonoid” called quercetin, are a strong antioxidant, antihistamine, and natural antibiotic. Quercetin helps protect cells and DNA against damage and reduces cholesterol and inflammation. Not only do onions lend a hand in preventing cancer to begin with, they seem to help rid the body of it.
Believe it or not, an onion remedy for cancer appears (as a reprint) in Indiana’s oldest newspaper, the Vincennes Western Sun. This 1811 remedy — published when Vincennes was still the capital of Indiana Territory and just a few months before the Battle of Tippecanoe — isn’t too far off from the “onion juice therapy” still touted in alternative medicine.
It’s doubly interesting that the list of “signers” who vouched for the cure is headed by a woman, Jane Starbuck.
Genealogical records indicate that the Jane Starbuck who had apparently gotten involved in “folk medicine” and tried to help cancer patients was probably a Quaker named Jane Taylor Starbuck (1755-1834). Her “receipt” (i.e., recipe) for an onion-based cure made its way into the Vincennes Western Sun by way of a copy of the Raleigh Star that was brought from North Carolina to the Wabash Valley and read by editor Elihu Stout. (The Western Sun contains almost no local news, which would have traveled by word of mouth in a small place like Vincennes. Stout, however, was always eager to pass on news from back East and down South.)
Jane Taylor Starbuck lived in Guilford County, North Carolina, birthplace of several thousand Quakers who began moving north to Indiana just before the War of 1812. Most came for new land, but many came to get away from slavery, which most — not all — Quakers opposed. Jane Taylor Starbuck seems to have stayed in the South, but her son Edward Starbuck, who also endorsed the cancer cure, joined the Quaker exodus to the Midwest. Edward, born in 1777, settled just east of Fountain City in Wayne County. His brother William Starbuck, another Quaker pioneer, is thought to have bought twenty-one slaves in North Carolina before he came north — a clever move against slavery, perhaps, since he set them all free when they got to Indiana. (Even free African Americans moving north often traveled with and settled near Quakers for protection.)
If the name “Starbuck” means more to you than coffee, you’ve probably read Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The Starbuck family, into which Jane Taylor married in 1776, were prominent whalers on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. While the Starbuck who served as chief mate of Captain Ahab’s doomed Pequod — sunk by the white whale in the South Seas — was a fictional cousin of these Hoosier pioneers, Melville’s story was based on the very real fate of the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship that was crushed and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820. The Essex’s crew, floating around the Pacific Ocean on rowboats, were reduced to cannibalism and drew lots to see who would die next. One of the unlucky victims was a teenage sailor from Nantucket, Owen Coffin.
Now if the name “Coffin” means more to you than a casket, maybe you’ve visited the home of the “President” of the Underground Railroad, Levi Coffin, in Fountain City, Indiana. Coffin’s house is just a few miles from Edward Starbuck’s farm. One of the bravest men in Hoosier history, Levi Coffin was another ardent Quaker from Guilford County, North Carolina. He moved to Indiana in 1826 and began funneling escaped slaves toward Canada almost as soon as he arrived.
Like the Starbucks, Levi Coffin was originally from New Garden, North Carolina, but had Nantucket family roots. He almost definitely knew Jane Taylor Starbuck and her son Edward. (Both families belonged to the New Garden Quaker Meeting.) Coffin himself was a cousin of Jane Starbuck’s husband, William, who was a Nantucket native, reared among the whalers and seafarers of colonial Massachusetts. From his Indiana farmhouse, Levi Coffin showed as much fearlessness as his New England cousins and grandparents did sailing the remote seas.
(Levi Coffin, 1798-1877, who with his wife Catherine fought the cancer of slavery and survived to see its death, lived just north of Richmond. Their Indiana home has been called the “Grand Central Station” of the Underground Railroad. They helped thousands evade slave catchers.)
In his memoirs, Coffin mentions an Edward Starbuck. He and the man who offered a cancer remedy in 1811 appear to be one and the same. (Coffin wrote that an Edward Starbuck also helped him found an anti-liquor society in Fountain City — then called Newport — in 1830, when the fugitive slave conductor was also beginning a “War on King Alcohol.”) Edward Starbuck himself lived on a farm between Whitewater and Fountain City, a few miles from Ohio. At some point, Starbuck apparently left the Quakers to become a Methodist minister.
Here’s the onion cure — which called for more than onions, by the way. It also required puccoon root (blood root), used in both European and American Indian pharmacology for generations as an antibiotic. (American Indians also used it as a dye.) The Western Sun of Vincennes printed this alleged cure on June 9, 1811.
A decade later, “cures for cancer” were still coming out in American newspapers. The 19th century turned out to be a golden age of questionable — if not downright dangerous — panaceas, some of them offered by doctors, some by quacks. Even some university-trained practitioners swore they could make a patient cancer-free.
It’s hard to blame anybody for trying, but this cure, reprinted in the Richmond Weekly Intelligencer in 1822 and which seems to recommend some kind of cauterization, would be impossible to vouch for.
“Movember” or “No-Shave November” is a new tradition dating only back to 2003, when a group of Australians started growing “Mos” (Australian slang for “‘stache”) to raise awareness of men’s health issues, especially prostate cancer and depression. As many cancer patients lose their hair, some men this season are paying homage to the golden days when spectacular whiskers grew wild and free.
There’s more than a little five-o’clock foreshadowing, then, in that mustachioed dandy from 1900 pictured above. “Nervita pills” were one of many old-time panaceas that purported to relieve some of the more difficult masculine ailments, though this one, of course, wouldn’t cure one of the worst, cancer. Contrary to the cartoon version of history, the American public really did talk about sex-related issues back then — not necessarily on the front page, but certainly in the ads section, which was often full of treatments from doctors and drug store owners.
Since Hoosier State Chronicles often highlights episodes of American medical history, here’s our tribute to “No-Shave November.” We waded through a plethora of debonair mustachios and culled some worthy ones. Many yet remain for your discovery.
Amazingly, as an Indianapolis barber feared in November 1902, these bold bristles would soon enough go out of style. The Hoosier State’s own Benjamin Harrison was among the last generation of unshorn presidents. Since William Howard Taft in 1913, no president has sported facial hair, with the possible exception of Richard Nixon, whose disastrous five-o’clock shadow contributed to his loss to JFK in 1960. Even the boldest and most unconventional candidates in the coming election year don’t appear prepared to change this.
The following image from the cover of The Jewish Post (a national paper first printed in Indianapolis in 1933) isn’t Santa Claus, but a rabbi. The paper’s Rosh Hashanah or Jewish New Years’ edition came out in September 1939, just a few weeks into World War II.
(“A mix-up in bicycle polo,” Fort Wayne Daily News, August 29, 1896.)
Some native Hoosiers were known to sport impressive facial — or overgrowth, depending on your point of view. Lew Wallace, the Crawfordsville native who became colonel of the 11th Indiana Infantry (a Zouave regiment), Civil War general, territorial governor of New Mexico, author of the novel Ben Hur, and U.S. Minister to Turkey. Wallace’s Ben Hur came out on “this day in history,” November 12, 1880.
(Major General Lew Wallace.)
(A younger Benjamin Harrison, Indiana’s only president.)
Lawrenceburg’s James Henry “Jim” Lane became one of the most famous Jayhawk border fighters in Kansas during the run-up to the Civil War. A fiery abolitionist, Lane served as Lieutenant Governor of Indiana before he became a U.S. Senator from Kansas and a Civil War general. Wracked by depression, the famous wild and unkempt Hoosier Plainsman committed suicide in 1866 by shooting himself in the head while jumping out of a carriage.
(Jim Lane, Hoosier native and Kansas “Jayhawk.”)
In 1852, Lane was part of the welcoming committee at the State House when one of the most famously hairy men of his time, Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth, paid a visit to Indianapolis. Kossuth — after whom a town in Washington County, Indiana, and a county in Iowa was named — had just escaped from Hungary via Turkey, been carried into exile on the USS Mississippi, and was touring the U.S., where crowds hailed him as a hero of democracy. Kossuth also inspired some Indianapolis men to become “hairy-faced bipeds.”
(Lajos Kossuth, photographed in Washington, D.C., before he traveled west to Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and St. Louis in early 1852.)
(Madison Daily Banner, Madison, Indiana, March 3, 1852.)
One famous mustachioed American who often showed up in Indiana was the great boxing champion John L. Sullivan. Sullivan was from Boston but often came to the small-town Midwest for championship matches and general showmanship. He and his whiskers showed up in Logansport, Fort Wayne, and other towns in 1896.
Yet even the athletic Sullivan could have paid more attention to his own health. A heavy drinker for most of his life, the boxer later gave up the bottle and turned Prohibitionist Yet his overindulgence in food and booze led Sullivan to an early death at the age of just 59. It was said he died with “barely ten dollars in his pocket.”
(John L. Sullivan, 1858-1918.)
(The Fort Wayne News, August 22, 1896.)
Here’s another wild but lesser known visitor to the state. The famous shagginess of Polish pianist and composer Ignaz Jan Paderewski, “Wizard of the Keys,” was something that newspapers often noticed and editorialized.
In April 1902, Paderewski performed at Tomlinson Hall (above the “city catacombs”) in Indianapolis. This performer led a life as wild and varied as the direction of his hair. In addition to his global career as a concert artist, Paderewski later become a wine-grower in California and a politician who helped re-establish Polish independence after World War I. After Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1940, he became the head of the Polish parliament exiled in London. Paderewski died in New York in 1941.
One last forgotten visitor worthy of note for his ‘stache was the spectacular Captain Jack Bonavita (real name John F. Gentner). The Indiana Tribüne announced Bonavita’s visit to “the Zoo” in 1901. This wasn’t the Indianapolis Zoo, but the old Zoo Theater, a vaudeville venue that once sat next to the Cyclorama across from the State House.
A famous animal trainer in New York and Hollywood, Captain Bonavita also worked with the silent film industry. Not long after this photo was taken, he was bitten by one of his trained lions in Indianapolis and spent some time at the City Hospital. He recovered from that bite in 1901. Tragically, in 1917, Bonavita was killed by a polar bear he was training.
When the fiery abolitionist John Brown, “The Meteor” who tried to ignite a slave rebellion in the South, was hanged for treason, authorities turned the body over to his family. In December 1859, Brown’s remains traveled north by train from the hanging grounds in Charles Town, Virginia, to the family farm in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Around Christmastime, he was laid to rest next to a huge chunk of Appalachian granite.
Twenty-three years later, a Hoosier geologist who studied such rocks for a living helped ensure that one of John Brown’s fellow raiders at Harper’s Ferry — his son Watson, who was gunned down during the raid — would finally be buried next to his father. In the meantime, Watson’s bones went on a long odyssey out to the Midwest.
Watson Brown was born October 7, 1835, in Franklin Mills, Ohio. His father, the great abolitionist, moved back and forth between northern Ohio and his native New England several times. After John Brown went out to “Bleeding Kansas” to fight the extension of slavery into the West, Watson left home, too, though he apparently didn’t join in the combat on the Plains. His father and brothers, however — considered terrorists by some — waged war on pro-slavery factions with guns, fire and on one occasion, with broadswords used to brutally murder their enemies to death. A letter from Watson to his mother Mary, written in Iowa in 1856, mentions that on his own way west with a team of emigrants — armed with “Sharp’s rifles and cannon” — they met with ex-slave Frederick Douglass and the reformer Gerrit Smith. Smith, a failed presidential candidate, secretly financed the later raid on Harper’s Ferry. Watson himself may have helped carry caches of firearms out to the Great Plains, guns paid for by New England anti-slavery committees.
John Brown traversed the Midwest many times on trips back East to win the support of reformers like William Lloyd Garrison, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and even Henry David Thoreau. In 1859, Brown and a small band of followers — sixteen white and five black — tried to pull off their most spectacular assault on slavery yet, an attack on the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry, where the Shenandoah flows into the Potomac. The target: 100,000 muskets, to be handed over to slaves for use in a massive insurrection.
Optimistic supporters in the U.S. and Canada originally planned for 4,500 men to participate in the raid. Instead, just twenty-one attacked Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859. After cutting telegraph wires and taking hostages on nearby farms, Brown’s band moved into town. Local militia, farmers and shopkeepers, opening fire, quickly pinned down the abolitionists, driving them into a brick engine house. Under siege, John Brown sent his son Watson and another man out with a white flag. The crowd shot them. Watson, aged twenty-four, with a bullet just below his stomach, struggled back to the engine house, fatally wounded. He begged his father and comrades to “dash out his brains,” then tried to commit suicide.
The outbreak of the Civil War was still a year and a half away. In fact, the raid was put down by Colonel Robert E. Lee — of the U.S. Army. John Brown was hanged for treason in December. Spectators at his execution included Stonewall Jackson, John Wilkes Booth, and the poet Walt Whitman.
Ten of Brown’s men died in the raid, including two sons. What became of their mortal remains is a fascinating and rarely told part of the tale.
Eight of the bodies were gathered up by townspeople of Harpers Ferry. The locals didn’t want the raiders buried in the town’s cemetery. They gave a man named James Mansfield five dollars to take care of the corpses.
Packing eight men into two large wooden store boxes, Mansfield buried them along the Shenandoah River about a half-mile from town. The grave, half forgotten, remained there until 1899, when Dr. Timothy Featherstonehaugh, Captain E.P. Hall, and Orin Grant Libby, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, exhumed the corpses for transfer to the Brown family farm in upstate New York. Professor Libby took femur notes while examining the skeletal remains, comparing them for size against his own leg. On August 30, 1899, the mingled raiders’ bones were re-interred at the Brown plot — in a single silver-handled casket.
This wasn’t the first time, however, that a box of old bones was brought to North Elba, New York, to lie next to John Brown’s. Two of his followers were never initially buried at all. One of them was his son Watson.
Remarkably common in the nineteenth century, body-stealing was a feature of reality at a time when medical schools had trouble acquiring corpses for anatomy classes. Rarely able to do so legally, they had to steal them, giving rise to the “resurrectionists” who nabbed the dead out of fresh graves.
Yet other examples of body-theft involved mere curiosity seekers and bogus scientists. During the heyday of phrenology — the long-discredited pseudoscience of bumps on the skull, which, it was believed, actually determined one’s personality, creative genius, or propensity to crime — “cranioklepty” (the theft of skulls) was far from rare.
The more famous the head, the better. When the composer Joseph Haydn died in Vienna in 1809, wealthy robbers paid a cemetery attendant to open up the new grave and cut off his head, which “scientists” later examined. Until 1954, the famous skull remained on display in a glass case in Vienna, when it was reunited with the rest of Haydn’s bones. After the coffins of Beethoven and Schubert were exhumed for relocation in the 1860s, their skulls were also examined, as was the entire mummified body of American naval hero John Paul Jones, unearthed in subterranean Paris in 1905 — a hundred-and-thirteen years after he died.
Watson Brown and Jeremiah Anderson — two Midwesterners gunned down at Harpers Ferry — were considered “fine physical specimens.” Southern doctors took them to Winchester Medical College in Virginia, where, like Joseph Haydn, they had (most of) the flesh stripped off them. John Brown’s 24-year-old son, who had left behind a widow, Isabella, and a young child who died in 1863, was turned into a model skeleton for the instruction of future Southern medical men.
Yet Winchester, Virginia, just thirty miles from Harper’s Ferry and the Potomac River, changed hands several times during the Civil War.
In the spring of 1862, two and a half years after Watson Brown’s death, the 27th Regiment of Indiana Volunteers marched into town with the Union Army. Among them was regimental surgeon Dr. Jarvis Jackson Johnson. Born in Bedford, Indiana, in 1828, Johnson practiced medicine in Martinsville, half way between Indianapolis and Bloomington. He would have been 34 when he walked into Winchester Medical College and found out what doctors had done to the remains of Watson Brown — an action for which, Virginians believed, Union troops burned down the college, the only case of arson during Winchester’s military occupation.
In 1882, the Indianapolis Journal printed the most widely-accepted version of the tale. It came in the aftermath of a visit by John Brown, Jr., who visited Morgan County, Indiana, with several other investigators to examine a set of human remains there.
Dr. Johnson had stated that while serving as commander of a military hospital in Winchester, he acquired Watson Brown’s body from the museum of the medical college — then shipped it on a train to Franklin, Indiana, the nearest railroad depot to his home in Martinsville. Like the Virginia doctors, Johnson kept the body in a case at his medical office. For twenty years, the raider’s bones were a strange part of the life of a Hoosier country town.
In 1882, word of the skeleton’s whereabouts came to John Brown, Jr., Watson’s elder brother and the abolitionist’s oldest son, after Jarvis Johnson put a notice in the Chicago Tribune looking for family members. The doctor claimed, probably disingenuously, that he hadn’t realized any of the Brown brothers were still living, and he hadn’t wanted to upset Watson Brown’s mother. Though John Brown, Jr., had fought in “Bleeding Kansas,” he in fact wasn’t part of the raid on Harpers Ferry. During the Civil War, he helped recruit troops for the famous “Jayhawk” border fighter James H. Lane. (Before Lane became an anti-slavery senator from Kansas and a famous target for Confederates, he had been the lieutenant governor of Indiana.)
Brown, Jr., visited Indiana in September 1882, having already moved back east to Ohio, where he grew grapes for the wine business on South Bass Island in Lake Erie and took an interest in geology.
The other main forensic investigator to come to Martinsville that September was one of Indiana’s most prominent scientists, the impressively-bearded State Geologist John Collett. Remembered as a beloved “Santa Claus” figure, Collett was a Wabash Valley native who lived in Indianapolis and often weighed in on scientific and agricultural questions — from the study of caves and killer meteorite hoaxes to how to improve celery crops. Collett traveled to Martinsville with several doctors to look over the badly-treated remains of the bygone Harpers Ferry raider.
The Indianapolis Journal printed this description of the scene at Dr. Johnson’s office:
The body has received careless treatment during the last few years. It has been carted about from place to place, and has been doing duty in all the anatomical exhibitions about town. During the first few years it was in the possession of Dr. Johnson it was in a remarkably fine state of preservation, but ill usage has ruined it. For several years, it has been lying in the Knights of Pythias hall, and, it is whispered, was used in the mystic ceremonies of the order. The best of care had not been bestowed upon it, and it was infested with worms and insects. Knowledge of its ill-usage was sedulously kept from Mr. Brown. When he intimated that he would like to see the body, he was considerately kept in waiting until it could be removed from the lodge-hall to the residence by way of a back street, and there placed in better condition for the examination.
At the time, it wasn’t clear whether the skeleton was that of Watson or 22-year-old Oliver, John Brown’s other son killed in October 1859. Watson and Oliver looked alike. Both stood six feet tall.
An office assistant of Dr. Jarvis’ showed John Brown, Jr., a “coffin-shaped box standing against the wall.” Then he removed a cloth covering, exposing “a bare and hideous skeleton.”
“Gentlemen, if it is either of my brothers, I am now inclined to think that it is Oliver,” Brown exclaimed after picking up and poring over skeletal fragments and examining the shape of a half-missing skull. Yet the more he looked, the more he came to think he was looking at his other brother, Watson.
Geologist John Collett wasn’t a qualified expert in forensic facial reconstruction, a process that would actually be pioneered in the next decade. After comparing all the forensic evidence available, however, including written descriptions of Watson Brown’s gun wound, it was John Collett’s opinion that the cadaver standing before him in Martinsville, Indiana, was, in fact, the man in question.
True to the often bogus science of the time, though, some of the “professor’s” statements expose how ludicrous phrenology was.
Then came a fascinating insight. Dr. Jarvis Johnson’s written affidavit, notarized by Morgan County lawyers, also shed light on why doctors in Virginia wanted to preserve Brown’s corpse in the first place.
When he was put in charge of local Union Army medical operations, “A number of the prominent citizens of Winchester called upon me at the hospital, and each and all declared that [these were] the remains of a son of John Brown.” Amazingly, the doctor who “prepared” the body, whom Johnson never identifies by name, also stopped by — and pleaded with Johnson to give him back this “exceedingly valuable piece of property.”
Like the medieval Europeans who condemned criminals to be drawn-and-quartered, Virginia doctors held up the corpse as a warning to their state’s enemies. Sic semper tyrannis?
Who was this doctor, then?
He was surely on the faculty list — and it’s a small one. Founded by Dr. Hugh Holmes McGuire, Winchester Medical College had only four instructors in 1859, including the founder’s son, Hunter Holmes McGuire (1835-1900). At age 24, Hunter McGuire, already a professor anatomy at his father’s school, would have been an exact contemporary of the “fine specimen” killed at Harpers Ferry.
Hunter McGuire, however, was probably not the culprit. In late 1859, he was studying medicine in Philadelphia. The young doctor was even there during the famous walk-out of Southern medical students, which occurred after John Brown’s body was paraded through the streets by Northern admirers. Insulted, McGuire led an exodus of about three-hundred Southern students from Jefferson Medical College, who dropped out, went down to Richmond, and re-enrolled at the Medical College of Virginia. Some sources say that he financed the trip of all these students with his own savings.
Dr. Hunter McGuire later enlisted in the Confederate Army and even served as Stonewall Jackson’s personal surgeon, amputating the general’s arm after Chancellorsville. He went on to become the president of the American Medical Association. In the 1890s, McGuire would contribute to the debate over eugenics, racial purity, and the castration of rapists, especially African Americans — arguments that eventually led to Virginia’s “Racial Integrity Act” of 1924, a major victory for the controversial eugenics movement and one of the worst misapplications of science in history. He also strove to ensure that Southern school textbooks “would not poison the minds of Virginia schoolchildren” by teaching a northern revisionist history of the Civil War.
The Medical Pickwick (1918) states that Watson Brown was “dissected by students.” McGuire, as stated, was in Pennsylvania in the aftermath of Harper’s Ferry. But did he have anything at all to do with this man’s bizarre fate?
It seems that he did. Mary Greenhow Lee, a famous diarist in Winchester during the Civil War, wrote that when Union soldiers torched the medical school on May 16, 1862, “They buried in the yard what they supposed were [Oliver Brown’s] bones, but the genuine ones had been removed by Hunter McGuire, thus foiling their malicious designs.” Were the bones buried those of Jeremiah Anderson, a native of Wisconsin who fought with John Brown? Lee might have been mistaken about the identity of the bones. It’s harder to believe she was mistaken about Dr. McGuire. After all, he was fighting in northern Virginia and may have been the doctor who approached Jarvis Johnson.
Twenty years later, Johnson willingly handed over to the Brown family the cadaver he claimed to have shipped by train from the Shenandoah Valley to the Midwest. In October 1882, Watson Brown’s strange post-mortem odyssey finally came to an end. On an autumn day in the Adirondacks, he was laid to rest in a patch of soil near his famous father, who — as the old Union song put it — had long lain “mouldering in the grave.”
Isabella Thompson, aged just 22 when the Harpers Ferry raid left her a widow, married Watson’s cousin, Salmon Brown. For decades, the couple lived in Kilbourn City, Wisconsin — later renamed Wisconsin Dells. Isabella may have died near Traverse City in northern Michigan in 1907. Her second husband died in neighboring Antrim County, Michigan, in 1921. “Bella” was buried at North Elba, New York, near her first husband, his final whereabouts pinned down at last.
John Collett passed away in March 1899 and was buried in Terre Haute. Dr. Johnson died that September, just a few weeks after the mass re-interment of Brown’s other missing men, among whom was his son Oliver, who had lain in a merchant’s box on the Shenandoah for forty years. Johnson rests at East Hill Cemetery in Morgantown, Indiana.
Nineteenth-century American newspapers overflowed with medical ads. Many touted quack panaceas, remedies for everything from dropsy and tuberculosis to STDs and impotence. At a time when even “scientific” medicine was often little better than the variety promoted by “snake doctors,” folk medicine and spurious innovators actually helped keep newspapers afloat — as underwriters paying for ad space.
Six years before the Civil War broke out, the editors of the Brookville Indiana American put in some clever medical commentary. Rather than feed your kids candy — a potential medical and dental no-no — why not buy them “toy books,” ancestor of the “pop-up” book?
A few months later, candy sales must have still been trumping sales of movable toy books at Dr. Keely’s. The editors reissued their advice: buy your kids candy for the brain, not sugary venom that “injures the health.”
Was this the dry, brutal utilitarianism of Charles Dickens’ Thomas Gradgrind? (The satiric Hard Times, which included an overbearing schoolteacher named M’Choakumchild, came out in 1854.)
Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.
What were these “toy books,” competitors of the sugary destroyer?
Modern readers might imagine that the movable revolution in children’s literature is a new phenomenon. Yet the earliest books incorporating retractable parts date back to the 13th century. Spanish philosopher Ramón Llull, who tried to demonstrate God’s existence through numerology, put spinning paper wheels in his books. These helped the reader understand the mathematical charts illustrating Llull’s theories about the universe as a thinking machine.
Cosmologists’ use of movable book parts was complemented by Renaissance-era medical men. One example was Dutch doctor Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica (On the Structure of the Human Body), printed in Switzerland in 1543. Readers of this anatomical manual could lift flaps covering Vesalius’ illustrations to get a peak at the human innards and even watch a child being born.
Eighteenth-century London publisher Robert Sayer made a different kind of “interactive book.” Around 1765, Sayer was making books with movable flaps revealing the “inside story” of everything from children’s tales and folk ballads to the story of Adam and Eve and the metamorphoses of Harlequin, a stock character in Italian comic theater. Sayer’s “Harlequinades” were hugely popular in England and Europe. Some must have showed up in colonial America.
(Robert Sayer, Harlequinade of Adam & Eve, circa 1770. A short history of the origins of death.)
By the 19th century, book makers were taking movable illustrations even further. In England, Stacey and William Grimaldi published a title in 1821 called The Toilet Book or just The Toilet. The Grimaldis — father and son — promoted the traditional idea that feminine beauty was a mark of virtue. (“Toilet” referred to beautification, washing, and maintaining one’s health at a time when poet John Keats emphasized that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”) The Grimaldis’ illustrations of mirrors, perfume bottles, etc., could be lifted up to reveal fortune-teller-like revelations.
In addition to “peep show” and “tunnel” books — paper cut-outs depicting theater scenes — some of the best-known and most successful examples of the “interactive book” before the Civil War were those of Dean & Son, English publishers. These were probably available at Hoosier bookstores before the Civil War — copies were advertised for sale in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1860. Paper images were connected to paper tabs that, when levered back and forth, moved the cut-out characters around the page or flipped the entire illustration over to reveal a development in the story.
One of the Deans’ most popular titles was Dissolving Views. A kind of 3-D forerunner to the stereoscope, which allowed readers to travel to places they would never see in person, some of its illustrations showed exotic landscapes, such as volcanoes erupting — succeeded by fire’s elemental opposite, cascading water. Others depicted folktales or comic scenes with a didactic message.
(Dissolving Views, publishing house of George Dean, London, 1862.)
With the invention of cameras, improvements in optics, and the advent of more sophisticated magic-lantern projectors (first developed in the 1650s), “dissolving views” became a synonym for early, “phantasmagoric” versions of the cinema. During the days of Dickens, these motion pictures were big entertainment. Eventually, they evolved into silent film.
(The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, Louisiana, February 21, 1841.)
Contemporary newspaper advertisements show that several Hoosier booksellers stocked “toy books” in the mid-1800s. Unfortunately, they don’t list the titles. Yet as Brookville’s Indiana American shows, as early as 1831, just fifteen years after Indiana achieved statehood and with much of it still wilderness, even small country towns had access to these children’s books.
In Lawrenceburg on the Ohio River, toy books were sold alongside such things as thermometers, spy glasses, tooth picks, mustard seed, cough drops, and… tweezers:
In December 1868, a weary Indianapolis father trudging home in “a half dreamy state” after fifteen hours “at the office” was surprised by a man standing on his roof when he got home. Santa Claus, whom he insulted as “You confounded Dutch idiot,” was greeting him with a “Hi! Hello! Stop! Hold on!”
Santa showed the man a sneak preview of what he was bringing his children. This windy story — in reality, an ad for Indianapolis’ Bowen, Stewart & Co. — might rank as one of the longest ads for a bookstore in the annals of American journalism. Fortunately, Santa wasn’t hauling around a bag-load of candy: