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:
Yesterday’s post sent a few heads rolling, but we can’t get enough this October. Here’s a follow-up from medical science.
Contrary to popular belief, Washington Irving didn’t invent the tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman from scratch. Said to have been a Hessian mercenary decapitated by a cannonball during the American Revolution, the dark rider was left to roam the Catskill Mountains near a Dutch settlement in New York called Sleepy Hollow.
Written while Irving was living in Europe, the story actually drew on German and Irish folklore, where similar specters haunt the realm of the living. There’s also a long list of early Christian saints (known as cephalophores) who according to hagiographic legends, picked up their own heads after execution and walked away — or at least uttered an important message before going silent at last. Saint Gemolo, who probably came from Germany or Scandinavia, was even said to have grabbed his head in his hands and ridden away on horseback.
Germans told of Der Kopfloser Reiter, a shadow figure that rides out of the forest, hunts down malefactors, warns the living, and — like his cousin the Irish banshee — announces the approach of death. Irish folklore includes reports of the dulachán or dullahan, a specter that also rides a dark horse, but he comes with some frightening accouterments: a whip made from a human spinal cord, a funereal bone cart. . . Like the screaming banshee, the apparition of a dullahan portends encroaching death. And like Washington Irving’s horrid creature, the dullahan carries its own severed head, believed to look like moldy cheese. Don’t look at the specter to find out: he’ll throw blood in your face.
With the mass emigration of Irish peasants overseas, especially after the brutal Famine of the 1840s, these stories got carried to the U.S. Some were twisted into hyper-literary forms. But apparently the actual banshees didn’t care for transatlantic sea voyages and stayed home in their native terrain. Headless horsemen, though, weren’t totally fictional.
In 1870, doctors in England offered a rational explanation for what were actually real sightings of decapitated equestrians. These sightings, of course, occurred in war zones.
Readers of the Terre Haute Weekly Gazette encountered the following clip from The Lancet, a famous London medical journal. Founded in 1828, just nine years after Irving’s Sleepy Hollow came out, The Lancet was the brainchild of Thomas Wakley, a crusader against “incompetence, privilege, and nepotism” in British society — and flogging. The doctor was also a radical Member of Parliament. Wakley’s sons edited The Lancet until 1909.
The medical clip sought to explain a bizarre event during the Franco-Prussian War. On August 6, 1870, at the Battle of Wörth in the Rhine Valley, a headless French horseman was spotted “going at full speed” across the battlefield. The Lancet’s explanation came out a month later on September 3.
A letter to the editor sent as a follow-up and signed by Logan D.H. Russell appeared in the British magazine in January 1871. Dr. Russell gave a few examples of “life-like” rigidity in death witnessed by doctors, nurses, and soldiers during the American Civil War.
Scientific investigation into these aspects of post-mortem physiology continued during the 20th century. Though farmers and any homeowner with poultry in the back yard knew that “headless chickens” were no myth — the skeletal anatomy of chickens really do allow them to live briefly after decapitation — newspaper readers in 1912 were surely surprised to hear that a French surgeon in New York City had successfully performed experiments allowing headless cats to survive for another three days.
This surgical revolution was the work of Alexis Carrel (1873-1944), one of the more unusual and forgotten pioneers of surgery. Oddly, before he began experimenting on cats, Carrel’s scientific work took him into the realm of what most scientists consider superstition and folklore: divine healing.
Raised in a devout Catholic family, Alexis Carrel fell away from religion as a young medical student. In 1902, however, pressured by a colleague, he traveled to Lourdes in southwestern France to see something unusual.
Lourdes was a mountain town in the Pyrenees made famous in the 1850s by apparitions of the Virgin Mary, who allegedly came and spoke to a French shepherd girl there for weeks on end. French scientists and secularists, calling it a fraud, tried to have Lourdes shut down under public hygiene laws after thousands of suffering believers came in search of a cure — which, incredibly, they often found. For decades, reports of miraculous healings attributed to mineral waters from the caves and to divine intervention plagued, even embarrassed, European doctors and intellectuals.
In 1902, Alexis Carrel saw one of these miracles as it was happening: the sudden and complete healing of a tubercular patient given up for dead. Decades before the discovery of antibiotics, Marie Bailly, the patient, was soon declared totally free of her disease, which she was expected to die of at any moment. She became a nun and lived for another thirty years. Carrel, an agnostic, claimed that he actually watched her body undergo a healing transformation at Lourdes.
The young doctor delivered some of the main eyewitness testimony about the miracle — which led to his being banned from working in French hospitals and universities. With his reputation destroyed, Carrel emigrated to Canada, where he became a cattle rancher and farmer. Later coming to the U.S., he taught at the University of Chicago and the Rockefeller Institute in New York. Over the next few decades, Carrel became a pioneer in the field of vascular suturing techniques. Helped by aviator Charles Lindbergh, he invented the perfusion pump, used to preserve organs during transplantation.
For his work in human physiology — partly involving experiments on headless cats — Carrel won a Nobel Prize in 1912. Still baffled by the bizarre cure he witnessed at Lourdes, Carrel never retracted his belief that Marie Bailly was healed by a supernatural force, an event so strange that one writer believed it drove him mad. His book about the Lourdes miracle, written in 1903, was only published in 1949, five years after his death.
Science and religion both have their dark sides. Tragically, Carrel’s went beyond cutting up cats. By the 1930s, the French-American surgeon had become a major proponent of eugenics, the forced sterilization of “inferior” human beings and the poor. (Carrel was no pioneer here. Back in 1907, the Indiana Legislature instituted the world’s first eugenics law. Over 2,300 Hoosiers were sterilized in an effort to eliminate “degeneracy,” under a law only repealed in 1974.)
As a prelude to the Nazis’ perversion of science, Dr. Alexis Carrel went on to publish a bestselling book, Man, the Unknown (1935). The Nobel Laureate even joined an anti-Semitic French fascist party, the PPF. During Hitler’s occupation of France, Carrel helped put eugenics laws into place under the Vichy collaborators. If he hadn’t died in 1944, the doctor would probably have been put on trial as a traitor or war criminal.
All of which is further proof that scientists — like Hessian horsemen and everybody else — can lose their head.
In October 1901, the Indianapolis News correspondent showed up on the 160-acre farm of “Gus” and Mollie Burgess along what he calls the “National Road” between Yorktown and Daleville, Indiana. (This must be State Road 32, which runs along the White River west of Muncie.) Blodgett had been playing cards with another reporter in Indianapolis and talking about an old haunted house that once sat on “old Mississippi Street” (Senate Avenue) when they decided to drive up to Delaware County and try to see some paranormal activity firsthand.
Charles Augustus and Mollie Burgess, both in their twenties, lived in the old farmhouse with their six-year-old son, Payton Burgess. They told Blodgett they’d been living there for six years. Two earlier tenants hadn’t stuck around, including one “who moved into the house one day and got out the next.” The house sat back from the road a little and was “partly hidden by a small grove of locust trees. . . It was a lonesome-looking place on the outside, in spite of the bright lights that shone out from the windows. . . The whole place seemed to be cut off from the outer world by an invisible wall.” The location was near a spot called “the Kilgore neighborhood, a half a mile, perhaps, from the Pike’s Peak schoolhouse, where many a good citizen of Delaware County received his early training.”
A Native American graveyard was also located “close by.” “Even to this day, bones, arrows and crude implements of the chase are plowed up,” wrote Blodgett. Central Indiana farmers back then sometimes kept barrels full of bones that cropped up in their fields, tumbled out of decaying burial mounds, or even showed up in the hollows of ancient trees.
As Blodgett told it, two legends converged on the Burgess’ White River Valley farm. The first involved a “famous Indian chief known as Wa-Sa He-To — The Fox.” Wa-Sa He-To, according to this story, had traded with white pioneers and “in his wigwam he had $5,000 in gold.” After The Fox died in a wolf hunt, his gold disappeared.
By the 1890s, Spiritualists from nearby Camp Chesterfield — ground zero for paranormal investigation in the Hoosier State — were said to be conducting seances to locate the lost gold, thought to be cached near a great rock along the White River. Blodgett never mentioned how “The Fox” died — was he eaten by a wolf? — only that his spirit might have found a new home in the “boggy swamp” next to the river. At some point in fact or fable, The Fox turned into a headless horseman, riding out over area farms, out of barn doors, and even straight up from the soil.
The other ghost lurking around the Burgess property — “this house of gibbering ghosts” — was rumored to be the phantom of Dr. George Washington Slack, a former inhabitant. Slack had come to Delaware County from Pennsylvania in the 1830s as a 12-year-old settler with his parents. After studying at Rush Medical College in Chicago, Dr. Slack went on to practice medicine in Yorktown and apparently became well known in central Indiana. His eight children probably lived in the house with him — which might have been the original log cabin his parents built. Slack died in January 1886, aged sixty. Burgess misidentifies him as “Cyrus Slack,” then tells the story (perhaps imaginary) of his botched attempt to end his life.
Here’s the tale.
An article from the Indiana Herald in Huntington suggests that Dr. Slack died of apoplexy. Yet it’s always possible that folklore got the facts correct, since in the case of the suicide of a respectable country doctor, the family might not have shared the full tale with the press and neighbors. The truth about the doctor’s demise remains a mystery. But it seems that like Wa-Sa He-To, he, too, was a candidate for the status of “Headless Horseman.”
Indianapolis News correspondent W.H. Blodgett slept easy that night, at least until he was awakened by an “unearthly noise” in the neighboring bed. His traveling companion and fellow ghost-hunter, “Dick,” had started choking, gurgling, and gasping, “a muffled call for help.”
“Guess I had the nightmare,” said Dick, finally awakened. Had the horse come after all? “Nightmare” is partly related to Old Norse words for a “night ride,” a “night horse,” or a “mare dream” — and the demon that rides them.
I thought a ghost without a head on a headless horse was chasing me and made me jump over a high cliff, and just as I struck, a fellow all in white was trying to crowd three fingers down my throat. Have you heard any ghosts?
“Gus” Burgess later became the postmaster of Yorktown. His brother Clyde — a spitting image — ran a Shell Station there in the 1930s or ’40s.
“In a certain town in Indiana, whose name I don’t wish to recall, there lived a gentleman with a lance in the rack and an old suit of armor . .”
Not exactly the canonical opening of Don Quixote. Cervantes’ classic Spanish novel told of the comic adventures of an old man of La Mancha whose brain had dried up reading books about knights-errant and who went to war on windmills, thinking they were giants. What happened to Mike Inik, “just a U.S. lunatic,” is a little less clear.
On December 4, 1916, while wearing a bizarre homemade suit made out of iron armor and kitchen pans, 49-year-old Inik shot up the Lake County Superior Court in Hammond, Indiana. His grievance? The disputed decimal value of a disability check he’d hung onto for seven years.
Inik’s origins are obscure. A Google search for the last name turns up just a couple of examples, most of them in Turkey. The Lake County Times says he was an immigrant from the Balkans, which used to be part of the Ottoman Empire. Mike, however, had been the town “character” in Whiting, Indiana, as far back as 1889, when he was injured by a piece of pipe that hit him in the back or head while working at a Rockefeller-owned oil refinery. Another account said he fell off a scaffold. At that time, the Whiting Refinery on Lake Michigan, founded the year of Mike’s injury, was the largest in the United States. Today it’s owned by BP.
Doctors judged that Inik suffered from “monomania.” No longer used as a psychiatric term, in the 1800s it denoted a form of pathological obsession with one thing — yet an otherwise sound mind. On the 1880 U.S. Census, monomania was listed as one of just seven recognized categories of mental illness. Monomaniacs ranged from misers like Ebenezer Scrooge in his counting-house, to Poe’s madman fixated on an old man’s “vulture eye,” to the criminal in a Sherlock Holmes story hell-bent on smashing busts of Napoleon. Maybe the gold-obsessed Spanish conquistadors could be thrown in there, too.
Inik, who dressed like a conquistador, directed his “monomania” at John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.
In 1913, Inik even allegedly traveled to Washington, D.C., to take up his case with the President.
The Lake County Times account gives the impression that this “lunatic” touted his suit of armor around town for a long time — perhaps to protect himself from falling pipes?
When he came to court on December 4 to hear another trial about the status of his disability settlement, Inik was wearing his protective covering and arsenal. Oddly, it seems nobody noticed the weapons. He even spoke with a county prosecutor in his office beforehand while wearing full battle regalia under his clothes. The gear Inik carried consisted of four .38-caliber revolvers, clubs, and “hatchets galore” — including a saber, hammer, butcher knife, and blackjack, plus 165 rounds of ammunition. Somehow concealed from view, Inik’s bizarre get-up was put together out of bits of galvanized iron, dishpans and washboilers.
As Judge C.E. Greenwald berated the injured man and told him to go home and take a bath, Inik became irate and suddenly opened fire. He managed to get off seven rounds, injuring a bailiff and a juror, before a group subdued him.
Thrown in jail in Crown Point, Inik quickly went on trial again for his mental health. This time, Judge Walter Hardy consigned him to the “booby hatch,” the psychiatric ward or “colony for the criminally insane” at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.
This week marks the anniversary of two historic events, neither of them well-known. The scene? St. Vincent’s Hospital in Indianapolis.
The story actually begins on September 3, 1902, when President Theodore Roosevelt was visiting Pittsfield in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. While traveling through town in a horse-drawn carriage, the president and his entourage crossed a set of trolley car tracks. To their horror, a speeding electric interurban car rushing to beat the president’s arrival downtown didn’t come to a stop and knocked the carriage about forty feet.
Roosevelt was jettisoned onto the pavement, landing on his face. The Governor of Massachusetts, Winthrop Crane, escaped with only a few bruises. But a Secret Service agent, William Craig, died a horrible death, “ground under the heavy machinery of the car into an unrecognizable mass.” (Craig, a Scottish immigrant and former British soldier, was the first U.S. Secret Service agent ever killed in the line of duty.) The trolley car’s motorman, Euclid Madden, spent six months in jail for his recklessness that almost cost the Commander in Chief his life.
While the press toned down the extent of Roosevelt’s injuries, the president developed a worrisome abscess on his leg, an infection that caused him no small amount of pain. He even spent a short time in a wheelchair.
The burly and athletic Roosevelt, however, continued with his itinerary, stumping for Republican candidates during a national speaking tour slated to take him as far west as Nebraska. He did, in fact, make it out to the Midwest, stopping in Detroit, Logansport, Kokomo, Tipton and Noblesville. Twenty days after his narrow scrape with death in New England, however, the leg injury he sustained required an emergency surgery — in Indianapolis.
On September 23, after giving a speech “in intense pain” at the Columbia Club on Monument Circle, Teddy Roosevelt, who was limping noticeably and wincing with pain at almost every step, had to have his infected leg lanced and drained at St. Vincent’s Hospital.
At that time, St. Vincent’s was still located downtown at the corner of South and Delaware Streets, just a short distance from the club. Surgeon Dr. John H. Oliver performed the operation, which kept Roosevelt clear of the threat of blood poisoning. (Blood poisoning was serious business in those days and usually ended in death. Tragically, its specter returned to presidential history in 1924, when Calvin Coolidge’s 16-year-old son, Cal, Jr., developed a blister on his toe while playing tennis on the White House lawn. Young Coolidge died of the resulting infection within a week.)
Doctors examined Roosevelt’s leg wound by natural light coming through a south window of the hospital. “He took only a local anesthetic,” the Journal reported, “which was applied to the leg. He seemed to feel that an unnecessary amount of fuss was being made over him. . .” Yet as the surgery proceeded, the president’s “arms were thrown behind his head with his hands clasped. Occasionally the pain became so severe that his elbows bent close to the sides of his head as if to ease the pain. His eyes were closed and his teeth pressed close together.”
Accompanying Roosevelt to St. Vincent’s that day was U.S. Secretary of War Elihu Root. (In spite of his bellicose job title, Root went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912 for promoting goodwill between the U.S. and Latin America.) Root was one of the few government officials allowed inside the building. An anxious crowd of several hundred Hoosiers gathered outside “and never removed their gaze from the hospital.” Even Hoosier senators Charles Fairbanks and Albert Beveridge and Governor Winfield Durbin “were challenged by the guard and not permitted to enter.” Militiamen and Secret Service agents were stationed outside St. Vincent’s. All was silent, only the clip-clop of the occasional soldier’s horse passing on the street.
Roosevelt’s Midwest tour was called off after the Indianapolis surgery, and his own doctors ordered him sent back to Washington. Guarded by the Secret Service (his successor, William McKinley, had been assassinated by an anarchist almost exactly a year earlier), Pullman porters carried Roosevelt on a stretcher about one block to the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks on South Street. As the stretcher left St. Vincent’s, lit only by new electric street lamps, “there was a death-like stillness as people craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the president. . . He lay flat on his back and the covers were pulled up under his chin. . . Many men in the crowd removed their hats, believing that the president’s condition was very serious.”
Men might have taken their hats off out of respect for the president. But the women who cared for Roosevelt at St. Vincent’s that day were justly famous not only for their dedication to the sick and needy but for their very hats.
During Roosevelt’s hospitalization in Indy, he was cared for by Roman Catholic nuns. The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, pioneers of American nursing and primarily devoted to the field of medicine, had taken charge of Indianapolis’ second city hospital back in 1881. While recuperating, Teddy Roosevelt must have noticed the sisters’ distinctive and fascinating headgear — known as the cornette — as he lay in bed after the agonizing surgery.
Sister Mary Joseph attended to him alongside Dr. Oliver in the operating ward. Assigned to his private room was Sister Regina, whom Roosevelt remembered from his Rough Rider days, when she was stationed at the U.S. Army’s Camp Wickoff at Montauk Point on Long Island, New York, at the end of the Spanish-American War.
We should doff our hats to them, too.
This week’s second unheralded anniversary? Cornettes, which earned this order of dedicated women the epithet “Butterfly Nuns” or “Flying Nuns,” were abandoned on September 20, 1964. Designed to reflect 17th-century French peasants’ outfits, the nuns’ habits, in spite of the fact that they wore them out onto the carnage of Gettysburg Battlefield in 1863, were considered “impractical for modern use.” A photo from the Greencastle Daily Banner announces the change in 1964.
The new garb marked a major change in the visual spectacle of medical care in many major American cities, including Indianapolis. Amazingly, the nuns’ new outfit was planned by world-renowned French designer Christian Dior before he died in 1957. The rumor in France at the time of Dior’s death — allegedly after he choked on a fish bone — was that he was “called back by God to re-outfit the angels.”
You like alphabet soup? Well, if an anarchist chef prepared it, you’d better take your spoon and dig out these letters first: A-R-S-E-N-I-C.
One of the weirdest stories ever to spill out of the annals of Midwestern crime is the tale of a bumbling European anarchist named “Jean Crones” who, at a banquet in Chicago in 1916, attempted to assassinate the city’s Roman Catholic archbishop, the Governor of Illinois, and three-hundred priests, bankers, and city officials — not with bullets, but with bouillon. The “soup poison plot” belongs in any encyclopedia of infamy. It’s also a fascinating glimpse into one of American labor’s most turbulent decades. Yet few have ever heard of it. As part of our ongoing series on hoaxes, hysteria and rumors in the news, Hoosier State Chronicles wants to resurrect this old, mostly forgotten story.
When modern anarchism came to the U.S. in the late 1800s, it was closely tied to the struggles of German, Italian, and East European immigrants. While hurling bombs and bullets was an ill-considered way to foster social justice, the conditions these immigrants faced were dire and very real. Anarchism’s philosophical roots, however, were among Europe’s elite. (One early proponent of anarchy was the British philosopher William Godwin, husband of feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Frankenstein‘s author, Mary Shelley.) Iron-fisted reactions to Europe’s 19th-century revolutions spurred philosophers and workers to declare that “Property is Theft” and to strive for the abolition of all governments, including democracies. Because anarchists promoted ideas like “free love” (which critics confused with promiscuity), state and church authorities tried to wipe them out.
While few anarchists ever committed outright acts of murder and mayhem, extremists occasionally wreaked havoc on American cities and police forces. By the time of World War I, headlines about real and mythical anarchist bomb plots were common news.
Since most anarchists had immigrated from countries with state religions, their animosity toward priestly authority should come as no surprise. During the Russian Revolution and on into the 1920s and ’30s, radicals (anarchists among them) in Russia, Mexico and Spain launched all-out wars on religion, desecrating churches and even “executing” statues of Jesus, not to mention priests and nuns, who often suffered especially macabre fates.
Yet if Chicago’s anarchists had wanted to assassinate any powerful “prince of the Church” in 1916, the worst choice was probably George Mundelein.
Mundelein was born in a poor working-class immigrant neighborhood, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in 1872 and grew up in tenement housing. Son of a German father and Irish mother, his dual ethnic heritage was a major reason why, in 1915, the young Bishop of Brooklyn was chosen to head the Chicago archdiocese, ethnically diverse and also teeming with ethnic conflict even among fellow Catholics. At age 43, Mundelein was the youngest American archbishop. Over the years, the leader of Chicago’s Catholics turned out to be a major pro-labor voice, an important ally of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and a staunch enemy of Nazism and anti-Semitism — including that of Father Charles Coughlin, a controversial American radio priest whose show, broadcast out of Detroit, often attacked Jews and bankers. A friend of the Catholic Labor Movement, Mundelein reiterated to American Catholics that “our place is beside the workingman.”
George Mundelein, then, was a rather strange target for an aspiring assassin’s vial of poison on February 12, 1916. The scene of the crime: Chicago’s prestigious University Club.
Coming together to honor both Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and Mundelein’s installment as Chicago archbishop, about three-hundred guests attended — from Illinois Governor Edward F. Dunne and ex-Governor Charles Deneen to Chicago’s ex-Mayor Carter Harrison, Jr. Most of the other guests were Catholic priests from all over the U.S.
As Chicago’s health commissioner, city police investigators, and a chemist from the University of Chicago later determined, someone that day slipped enough arsenic into a pot of chicken bouillon to kill two-hundred people or more. Various accounts floated around of how the University Club avoided becoming the scene of what would still be the biggest mass murder in Chicago history — worse even than the crimes of the “arch-fiend” H.H. Holmes back in the 1890s.
One version of the tale was that a “miracle” occurred. At the last minute, ninety-six guests showed up unexpectedly, prompting kitchen staff to resort to a time-honored remedy: watering down the soup. Yet apparently the real disaster was averted by slow, talkative eaters. As Monsignor Evers, pastor of St. Andrew’s Church in New York, told the Chicago Daily Tribune, some guests were “so engrossed in conversation” that they missed out on the soup altogether or had only eaten a spoonful or two by time their neighbors started to have stomach cramps.
With many diners complaining of sudden stomach pains, a doctor at the banquet suspected that the animal fat used to prepare the soup stock must have gone sour — normal food-poisoning, in other words. He went to the kitchen and quickly prepared an “emetic of mustard” to induce vomiting. The result is unappetizing to consider, but the elegant dining room must have become a surreal and disgusting scene. Yet the doctor’s speedy remedy probably saved many lives. Scores of guests were sickened, some violently, but only one guest, Father John O’Hara of Brooklyn, died. Archbishop Mundelein himself was unaffected by the lethal soup, but Chicago authorities kept him under a guard of 150 mounted police and detectives for the next few days.
Police quickly traced the foiled murder plot to a certain “Jean Crones,” assistant chef at the University Club, said to be about 30 years old. Crones “often inveighed” against social inequality, said the Club’s officials. When police raided his apartment, Crones the “souper anarchist” was gone, but investigators discovered a stash of anarchist literature (“a library of hatred,” says one paper), a chemical laboratory and all the evidence of poison they needed to go after him.
As the manhunt for Crones spread out, he or someone masquerading as him began to tease the police with flippant, irreverent letters, taunting the cops for being unable to find him. These letters and other baffling clues began to pour in from all parts of the country. When the story made national news the next day, a hotel in Binghamton, New York, reluctantly announced that it was confident Crones had been their assistant chef. “Crones was remembered by his fellow workers here as a dabbler in chemistry and photography. . . One day the whim seized him to have his own likeness snapped, and he had one of his kitchen comrades aim the camera.” That photo and an artist’s sketch were plastered over many American newspapers.
What happened next rapidly turned into a comedy of errors — one that went on for years.
During the run-up to World War I, when the loyalty of German-Americans constantly fell under suspicion, unfounded reports came in that Crones was a German immigrant, a saboteur and spy for the Kaiser. Other reports insisted that he was French or Italian. A biography of celebrated anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti claims that “Jean Crones” was an Italian named Nestor Dondoglio. Chicago’s Police Department officially called off its search for the mysterious fugitive in 1919. Yet Dondoglio evaded police until 1932, when he died on a farm in Connecticut where an Italian family had given him shelter.
Whatever the elusive truth behind Crones identity was, for several years after the failed “soup plot” he became a sort of comedic bogeyman, stalking America from sea to shining sea. Souper spottings occurred all over: in rural Mt. Airy and Oxford, North Carolina; in the mining town of Leadville, Colorado; and in towns so obscure they weren’t even spelled right in newspapers (like Spalding, Nebraska, and Moberly, Missouri.) Crones — or a clever prankster, or a whole team of anarchists — harassed the police from New York City to Portland, Oregon. A chef from Iowa City was arrested simply because he looked like the photograph snapped at a kitchen in Binghamton, as was another chef from Chicago while passing through Springfield, Ohio.
Illinois State Attorney Maclay Hoyne surmised that the “poison souper” invented something called the “McKinney-Finn powders… given by waiters to non-tipping patrons in local hotels and cafes.”
Most of the so-called “appearances” of Jean Crones, however, are probably imaginary — or even deliberate hoaxes. In some cases, it even sounds like the police might have used the poison-souper scare as an excuse to terrorize workers. Others had more comic twists.
Within a few days of his apparent escape from Chicago, the phantom assassin or his clever doppelgänger was on the West Coast, teasing Chicago police from a distance, mailing them his own fingerprints and threatening to kill “some bishop” out in Oregon:
On St. Patrick’s Day that March, Chicago Catholics were still so jittery that the Irish Fellowship Club had to appoint an official food taster for its annual banquet. He tasted every dish for over an hour. And survived.
It’s very possible that prank-minded Americans were just having fun with the police and the press. Yet by the summer of 1916, the spate of “J.C.” sightings was still pouring in:
Two of the most humorous and unlikely sightings occurred on the East Coast. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that May, locals were convinced that Crones had become a nun:
And in Luzon, New York, an undercover sleuth wearing false hair and whiskers was arrested by a town cop who was confident he had nabbed the elusive Crones at last. The man turned out to be a 26-year-old private eye from New York City, busy investigating a theft of $250 from the Hygienic Brush Company. In spite of this legitimate alibi, county prosecutors charged the man with “masquerading.”
The real Jean Crones never surfaced. Yet the fictional specter he evoked — that of the violent, supposedly illiterate immigrant bent on destroying American institutions and lives — took on a frightening reality of its own at a time when immigrant loyalty was suspect.
It’s often forgotten that the Communist witch hunts inaugurated by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s were preceded by a more substantial “Red Scare” after World War I. In 1929, Italian anarchists detonated bombs in Washington, D.C. — an attack that nearly killed Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt — and possibly carried out the 1920 Wall Street attack, which killed 30 people. The reaction threatened to close America’s doors to immigrants.
Like most Catholics, Archbishop Mundelein was a strong supporter of immigration. He blew off threats of assassination by anarchists and the hostility of anti-Catholics, saying: “I have come to Chicago to help and bless its people all I can, and I think this is the best way to disarm prejudice.”
A fiery and brilliant editorial in the Kentucky Irish American, a pro-immigrant paper published in Louisville, conjures up the fear that the figure of “Jean Crones” actually created among nativists. For immigration’s enemies, the anarchist threat was reason enough for Congress to all but close down Ellis Island. (Ironically, the Hans Schmidt mentioned in this passionate editorial was a German-American Catholic priest convicted of murder, then sent to the electric chair at Sing Sing on February 18, 1916. Schmidt’s execution occurred just a week after the anarchist soup plot in Chicago.)
Kentucky Irish American, April 15, 1916.
Cardinal Mundelein, the target of one of those rare immigrants who turned to violence, spent the next few decades speaking out on behalf of the working poor. Perhaps the shocking event at the start of his days as leader of Chicago’s Catholics brought home the need for justice in his city and elsewhere.
He died in his sleep in October 1939, an honored man.
What do folklore, lemon juice, Amelia Earhart and Calvin Coolidge all have in common? They all battled freckles.
As summertime dwindles to a close, you might have developed some of these kisses of the sun yourself, especially if you’re fair-skinned and female. Though scientists have determined that susceptibility to freckles depends on genes — most famously as a result of Irish DNA — anyone can get these marks, which are concentrations of melanin brought about by exposure to UV rays.
Today, definitions of male and female beauty actively embrace what was once considered a serious physical blemish. Many even think a superficially bespeckled face is a mark of character deep-down. One beauty commentator considers freckles helpful in building up women’s self-confidence. “Outside the realm of ‘normal’ beauty,” she writes, “we freckled ladies have had to go against the grain and build our self-esteem without the help of the media.”
A hundred years ago, things were different. Anti-freckle cream was a commonly advertised beauty product. (It’s still sold today.) Mostly directed toward women, nothing, however, prevented men from trying out this solution for “blemished” skin. As you’ll see below, one man died trying to get “beautified.”
For generations, folklore and popular medicine provided alternatives to commercial freckle cream. American newspapers promoted a variety of cures both from folk practice and the chemist’s lab.
(Wilson’s Freckle Cream was manufactured in Charleston, South Carolina, but sold nationally. Brazil Daily Times, October 25, 1912.)
In the early years of the twentieth century, Hoosiers read about some of these popular remedies.
One of the least-scientifically credible cures was, needless to say, superstition, but it peaked the interest of the American Folklore Society, whose findings were syndicated in a Wayne County, Indiana, newspaper in 1928. Even if this cure had worked, it was far more time-consuming than daubing cream on your face. Yet Hoosier youth probably gave it a shot.
(Cambridge City Tribune, March 15, 1928)
Twenty-five years earlier, a more plausible-sounding all-natural freckle cure had come out in the Indianapolis News at summer’s end:
Before going out in the sun it is advisable to rub on a little cucumber balm or any good old cream. At night the face should be bathed with elderflower water, which cools and benefits the skin.
Never bathe the face while it is hot. Wait until night, then touch up the freckles with a lotion.
One cure is a lotion made by adding half an ounce of lemon juice to half a pint of rosewater, and adding two drams of powdered alum. Apply with a camels-hair brush.
Another remedy is to wash the face, neck and arms, and hands, too, if necessary, with elderflower water, and apply an ointment made by simmering gently together one ounce of venise soap and one dram each of deliquated oil of tartar and oil of bitter almonds. When the mixture acquires consistency, two drops of rhodium may be added. Wash the emollient off in the morning with elderflower water. (Indianapolis News, September 3, 1903)
One common commercial anti-freckle ointment was called Othine, sometimes sold “double-strength” at drug stores. Yet the beauty columnist Lucille Daudet, syndicated in the columns of the Fort Wayne Sentinel in 1916, was concerned about the potentially damaging effects of this kind of patent medicine. A forerunner to today’s “pro-freckle” approach to beauty, Daudet spoke up against the very need for such products:
Just why these light brown marks of health should be so scorned is an open question, as they are usually more becoming than not. But the fact is that most girls look upon freckles as the greatest bar between them and good looks. In their anxiety to rid themselves of these brown “beauty marks” they go to the most ridiculous and often dangerous extremes — dangerous indeed in many cases, for scores of lovely skins have been ruined by the use of so-called freckle removers. . .
A great many of the patent removers contain either bismuth, which is apt to blacken the skin, or mercury or lead, which are active mineral poisons. (Fort Wayne Sentinel, August 12, 1916)
Daudet recommended, instead, a concoction of horseradish root mixed with buttermilk and strained through a fine cheesecloth.
(Huntington Herald, Huntington, Indiana, August 2, 1923)
One of the potentially “ridiculous and often dangerous extremes” Daudet decried was mentioned in a 1921 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. The journal isn’t specific about what went wrong, but the incident concerned an apparently quack “naturopath” in Venice, California. (For the record, laser treatment and cryosurgery — “a light freeze with liquid nitrogen” –are the more extreme procedures today.)
(Journal of the American Medical Association, April 16, 1921)
Two well-known Americans of the Jazz Age had a reputation for their freckles. One case was slightly mythic — and a Hoosier woman tried to sleuth her way to the bottom of it.
In 1923, Clara C. Gilbert, a Republican women’s organizer in Kendallville, Indiana, traveled to Washington, D.C., partly to discover if President Calvin Coolidge’s freckles, accentuated in news films, were as “real” in life as they looked on “reels.” “People have brought reasons and reasons for wanting to see President Coolidge,” quipped the Fort Wayne Daily News, “but no one before had ever seemed interested in the freckle question.”
“Cal” Coolidge had, in fact, been a red-headed, freckle-faced kid back in Vermont, but his hair turned a sandy brown as a teenager and most of the spots on his face went away. The silver screen’s lighting effects apparently brought them back.
(“Also, I want to see you because I want to see you…” Fort Wayne Daily News, September 15, 1923. Click to enlarge.)
A more famous example of sun-kisses was aviator Amelia Earhart, whose battle against freckles might have gone with her to own mysterious death.
The dominant theory that Earhart’s plane ran out of gas and crashed into the Pacific was already called into question in 1940, when the skeletal remains of a castaway turned up on the remote island. That the famous aviator was also known to have hated her own mild case of freckles provides a tantalizing link to researchers intent on establishing forensic evidence about her demise. And as Lucille Daudet warned women two decades before, the cream found on Nikumaroro was found to contain mercury.
Though the theory has its critics, it’s fascinating to think that Earhart’s pointillistic sun-kisses might ultimately shine a light on her last voyage — and her still unknown whereabouts.
(Amelia Earhart’s flight license, 1923.)
(Joe Zucco, freckle contender of Fort Wayne. Fort Wayne Sentinel, September 16, 1922.)
Digitized newspapers provide a rich boon to researchers about American medical history. From quack medicine ads to stories about diseases, from under-appreciated tales of wartime doctors to a gory list of “1000 Ways to Die,” old papers are gold mines.
Alcohol, of course, is part of medical history. Prohibition-era journalists were divided on whether America should turn off the tap. Indiana was one of several states to preempt the Federal ban on booze. the Volstead Act of January 1920, which officially ushered in Prohibition nationwide. As early as 1855, the Hoosier State tried out a liquor-ban. That law was repealed in 1858. Yet agitators kept on fighting against the bottle and the bier stein. In 1918, Indiana officially went “dry” again.
Nineteenth-century Americans were far heavier drinkers than today, and alcohol percentages tended to be higher. On-the-job drinking was allowed, sometimes even encouraged. Prohibitionists might seem prim today, but attempts to abolish beer and liquor were often tied to some real public health concerns. “Liberal” and “conservative” politics have changed over the last century. Many, perhaps most, anti-alcohol crusaders were progressives who also spearheaded the movement for women’s rights and child labor reform — and whose public health campaigns were frequently inspired by religious belief. Patriot Phalanx, a Prohibition Party newspaper started by Quaker Sylvester Johnson in Indianapolis, was a prominent mouthpiece.
Unfortunately, shutting down saloons, often had as much to do with racial, ethnic, and religious tension as it did with health concerns, and the whole law was primarily directed at the poor. Indiana’s powerful Ku Klux Klan was, at least officially, anti-liquor — partly because of booze’s association with German and Irish Catholics, whose leader at the Vatican the Hoosier KKK was virtually at war with during the 1920s, over issues like public schools. And the urban poor were very often Catholic.
One of the real perils of Prohibition was this: heavy drinkers and alcoholics still had a huge thirst to quench. Chronic tipplers had a few legal sources, like medicinal alcohol — and communion wine. Yet they often had fatal recourse to intoxicating liquids that nobody, of course, would normally drink. A fascinating if sober aspect of Prohibition lies in the story of the “beverages” they sometimes resorted to.
“Rotgut,” cheap, low-quality, potentially toxic liquor, was a common news headline even before 1920.
The “detox” problem — how to help out alcoholics — must have crossed the minds of Prohibitionists. But where alcohol was banned, death began to follow in its wake. And toxic liquor had become a global problem.
In 1914, Tsarist Russia banned the sale of alcohol except in restaurants, partly as a war measure to keep soldiers from getting drunk. Throughout the Russian Revolution, until 1924, in fact, the ban survived. But Russians’ sudden inability to get their famous national drink, vodka, led to many deaths. The Jasper Weekly Courier reprinted a litany of shocking tales about the lengths to which Russians would go to get a stiff drink during World War I. Forlorn men turned to guzzling perfume, cologne, khanza (red pepper mixed with spices and wood alcohol), and kvasok (a concoction of cider, yeast, wild hops, and snuff). Kvasok, incidentally, is the Czech word for “sourdough.”
American newspapers had been advertising the dangers of wood alcohol for years. Called methanol by chemists (not to be confused with methamphetamine), wood alcohol traditionally was produced like other spirits, through distillation. Ancient Egyptians had figured out the process and often used the resulting spirit — called the “simplest alcohol” — in embalming the dead. In the West, methanol was employed in a variety of industrial and other trades as a cleaner, in photography studios, and in tin and brass works. Around 1914, barbers were using it in a lotion called bay rum. Baltimore physician Dr. Leonard K. Hirshberg warned Americans that year about the danger of their barber causing them to lose their eyesight, since imbibing or inhaling wood alcohol could lead to blindness, even death.
Industrially, methanol is used as a feedstock in making other chemicals. Changed into formaldehyde, it is converted for products as diverse as paints, plastics, explosives, deicing fluid for airplanes, and copy-machine fluid. As the automobile age dawned, methanol came to be a component of antifreeze. Doctors as well as newspaper reporters were keen on reminding drivers and mechanics that too much exposure to the chemical, whether through breathing or touching, could cause blindness or worse. At the time Dr. Hirshberg was writing, there was probably a lot of wood alcohol around Indianapolis and South Bend, pioneer towns of the auto industry. Today, methanol is used as fuel in dirt trucks and monster trucks. It’s also the required fuel of all race cars at the Indianapolis 500, adopted as a safety feature after a deadly crash and explosion at the Hoosier track in 1964.
You can imagine the perils of chugging the stuff. Yet back in 1903, a couple in Columbus, Indiana, drank a deadly wood alcohol toddy, either by accident or through fatal ignorance of its effects. A year later, three artillerymen, thinking wood alcohol was a joke, died at Fort Terry in New London, Connecticut. In Philadelphia, the proprietor of a hat-cleaning shop who used the liquid in his trade had to mix red dye in it to try to deter his employees from stealing and drinking the stuff out back. The trick didn’t work, and he claimed “they’re used to it” now. It proved an effective means of suicide, as in the case of an 18-year-old girl in South Bend who fell in love with a high school teacher.
Some people said that refined wood alcohol smelled like old Kentucky rye. The toxic effects usually took a few hours to kick in, so group deaths often occurred after bottles of it were passed around among chums having a “drink orgy.”
After Congress passed the Volstead Act on January 17, 1920, the news was soon full of stories about desperate attempts to quench the literally killing thirst — and of unscrupulous efforts to profit off drinkers’ desperation.
A Brooklyn undertaker, John Romanelli, and four other men were indicted in 1920 on charges on selling wood alcohol mixed with “water, burned sugar and flavoring extracts.” They had sold the batch for $23,000 and the resultant “whiskey” caused “scores of deaths” in New England around Christmas-time and New Years’. In St. Paul, Minnesota, in March 1920, nine imbibers died in a 24-hour period.
Just two weeks before the new law went into effect, a Gary, Indiana, woman, Ella Curza, got a 60-day prison sentence and a $50 fine for possession of eighteen bottles of wood alcohol that she was allegedly peddling as an intoxicant. Hammond’s Lake County Times was already covering glimmers of the story — including the sale of methanol cocktails to unwitting men and U.S. soldiers stationed in Gary during the 1919 national steel strike.
By 1922, with the crackdown on hootch in full swing, the editors of the South Bend News-Times — a liberal-minded paper — issued figures on the estimated toll of wood spirits. “Wood alcohol is now killing 260 and blinding 44 Americans a year . . . In Pennsylvania the known deaths due to wood alcohol poisoning last year totaled 61 . . . Including unreported cases, wood alcohol’s death toll probably exceeds 1,500 a year.”
Future Hollywood comedic actor Charles Butterworth, who was a reporter in his hometown of South Bend in 1922, penned a story about a certain medical claim: that alcohol-related deaths were actually higher after the Volstead Act came into effect than before. The St. Joseph County Coroner, Dr. C.L. Crumpacker, and other local medical men thought this statement was preposterous, however:
Prohibition clearly failed and would be lifted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in December 1933. Yet as one latter-day journalist, Pulitzer Prize-winner Deborah Blum, has discovered, the U.S. government — faced with the continuing thirst that led some Americans to crime and the more ignorant to varnish and perfume — decided to try out a different tactic.
Just before Christmas 1926, federal agents deliberately began poisoning alcohols typically utilized by bootleggers. In an attempt to deter the public — even scare them into staying dry — the agents essentially turned almost all alcohol into undrinkable “industrial” alcohol. Bootleggers tried to re-distill what the government had actively poisoned, which led to the deaths of (by some estimates) 10,000 people, deaths indirectly caused by the government’s “poisoning program.”
Blum, who has taught journalism at MIT and the University of Wisconsin and is a columnist for the New York Times, is no conspiracy theorist. In 2010, Blum authored The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York — a book made into a PBS/American Experience documentary in 2014.
(Courtesy Penguin Books/PBS.)
If you or someone you know is dealing with alcohol-related issues, please visit http://www.alcohol.org/ for resources on how to get help.
Cooties aren’t what they used to be. When I was a kid growing up in the long-lost 1980’s, cooties were imaginary germs — and not something you usually wanted. If you accidentally came into exposure with these fictitious microbes, quarantine wasn’t necessary, though you might get socially ostracized for a day or two. In fact, that was kind of the point. In the worst-case scenario, however, unless you were a perennial cootie hatching ground, you could just rub the little critters off onto somebody else. One definition even calls cooties an “infection tag game.” The dark side, of course, is the mild sexual harassment hovering over elementary school playgrounds. And yet. . . some cooties you actually want. Without these benign cousins — love germs — life might not even be worth living.
Early Clinton-era cooties, though, weren’t the kind that an earlier generation of Americans knew. A senior colleague of mine at the Indiana State Library has just testified that the psychological variety of this make-believe organism has been around since at least the 1950s. Yet its pedigree dates even farther back than that.
Cooties, in fact, were being mentioned in American newspapers as early as 1918. The ancestral cootie? Like most of us, it seems to have had immigrant roots. As far as journalists knew, this was an annoying variety of lice that proliferated in the trenches of Europe during World War I.
Were cooties immune to warfare? Maybe, maybe not. The writer was probably joking here, and might have been telling a big tall tale, but it sounds like one way to get rid of the bug was to give it a good jolt:
Captain Charles W. Jones, a teacher at Greencastle High School who served on the Western Front, told a Putnam County audience in 1919 about his uncomfortable experiences in France. Alongside the perils of bombs and poison gas. . . the little bug called cooties:
Etymology meets entomology at the Oxford English Dictionary, whose talented word-sleuths think “cootie” might come from the Malay word kutu, denoting a parasitic biting insect. Except for one minor naval battle, World War I wasn’t waged in Southeast Asia, so unless Malaysian troops fighting in Europe coined the word, its passage into English is actually quite mysterious.
Yet soon, cooties were coming to America in letters: literally!
That was good news for the Netherlands, which wanted to get rid of them:
In the event of the next global war — and in an eerie parallel to chemical warfare — the (perhaps mad) English entomologist Harold Maxwell-Lefroy was actually looking at ways to disseminate deadly diseases behind enemy lines by means of propagating mosquitoes, house flies. . . and — get this! — cooties.
In fact, the tiny foe looks disturbing enough:
By the early years of the Jazz Age, these pestiferous creatures had apparently made it “over here” on the backs, in the clothes, and probably in some of the doughboys’ uncomfortable nether regions.
Up in Cadillac, Michigan, folklore, at least, thought the Kaiser’s cooties were refusing to recognize the Armistice and were carrying on the war against American grasshoppers undismayed:
Even venomous snakes, it was believed, got laid low by the dreaded bug:
The New York Tribune thought these lice should have figured into the staggering death toll of the so-called “War to End All Wars.”
Around 1919, somebody invented a children’s board game. I have never played this game, but according to one description, you put two pill-like objects with BB’s inside a box painted like a World War I battlefield. A cage — sometimes with a fox hole underneath it — sits at one end of the box. The challenge is to maneuver the “cooties” over the mine-infested field of death and dispose of them inside the cage.
In 1920, this game was being manufactured by the Irvin-Smith Company of Chicago, who touted it as “good for your nerves.”
The Cootie Game was offered for sale at George H. Wheelock’s department store in South Bend in 1919:
Having cooties on you, however, was no game, and is a genuine part of American medical history.
One solution for the lice was a “liquid fire” called P.D.Q., possibly manufactured at Owl Chemical Company in Terre Haute, Indiana. The initials were said to stand for “Pesky Devils Quietus.” Wherever it was made, the squirtable cootie-killer was on sale in Hoosier drug stores not long after the end of World War I. It sold for the same price as the Cootie Game: 35 cents.
What the exact difference is between cooties and the domestic American chiggers, I’m not sure — and nobody seems to have checked into hospitals recently complaining of cooties. Sometime around 1950, apparently, these bugs evolved into a mildly harmless children’s phobia.
The cootie’s association with war did, however, survive. In 1920, a service organization affiliated with the VFW was founded in New York City — the Military Order of the Cootie. Though no World War I vets are around to tell us about scratching and the other horrors of trench warfare, the order — devoted to community service and, just as importantly, to humor — is still active to this day.
In the sometimes not-so-good old days, Hoosier newspapers were overflowing with ads for what today we’d call snake oil. Before the Civil War, when these papers typically only ran to four pages and often lacked enough subscribers to stay afloat, vast amounts of newsprint went to work advertising spurious quack panaceas. As late as 1900, editors in need of underwriters for the news had no qualms about giving ad space to “doctors” who thought that cocaine could cure a sore throat or that an effervescent ginger “summer drink” could get rid of your cholera.
Nor did the amount of medical ads diminish after the war.
From the turn of the century until World War I, a massive national advertising campaign directed at mothers and kids touted a tasty cure-all with roots in the Wabash Valley: Kramer’s Cascarets, “The Candy Cathartic.”
Born in Keokuk, Iowa in 1861 to parents who hailed from Richmond, Indiana, Harry Lewis Kramer was a clever businessman and one of the most energetic and revolutionary advertisers of his day.
In 1890, the 29-year-old entrepreneur, who lived in Attica in Fountain County, attracted investors and started up a health resort at a spot near the spectacular Fall Creek Gorge in neighboring Warren County.
Built around a mineral spring discovered in 1884 by Civil War veteran Samuel Story (a victim of severe arthritis who noticed his ailment getting better when he sloshed around in the mud), the lavish hotel Kramer constructed first went by the name Indiana Mineral Springs, then as the Hotel Mudlavia, after the soothing mud-baths offered there. A service town that popped up next door to the resort took the name of its postmaster, Kramer, and is still on the map, though the hotel has faded into legend.
(Kramer made sure his face was all over small-town American newspapers. This clip appeared in Fair Playin Sainte Genevieve, Missouri, on September 17, 1904. Printer’s Ink hailed Kramer as “a man of almost superhuman energy — a new Napoleon, perhaps. . . He writes his own advertisements, all of which are characterized by wonderful originality and a desire to get out of the beaten track.”)
Kramer’s sprawling Mudlavia health spa attracted the rich and famous — including boxing champion John L. Sullivan, Indianapolis poet James Whitcomb Riley, and Hoosier songwriter Paul Dresser. Papers lauded it at as “one of the finest sanatariums in the United States.” Mudlavia ranked with the great mineral baths at French Lick, Indiana; Bedford, Pennsylvania; and Hot Springs, Arkansas.
The lure? Not just nature — or the elaborate Chinese garden out back. Pure mineral waters bubbling out of the Warren County hills offered relief from a vast array of bodily ailments. Infusing water with mud, doctors and their assistants at Kramer’s resort offered a therapeutic “Magno-Mud” cure (sometimes misspelled “mango mud” in the papers), giving blissful relief to aching joints and muscles. Kidneys and livers also went away from Mudlavia feeling much happier.
Closely tied to Kramer’s investment in this tranquil health spa in the luscious Hoosier woods was his other main business interest: a sugary substitute for the dreaded dose of castor oil once administered by American mothers everywhere. This was Kramer’s nationally-famous “candy cathartic,” Cascarets.
Dozens of speedy and sure-fire purgatives feature in the annals of 19th-century medicine and journalism. From a spoonful of old-fashioned castor oil itself to a gentler “Castoria” and a wide variety of sarsaparillas and “fig liver syrups,” our ancestors knew plenty of ways to achieve what they rightly saw as the highly-desirable result of these over-the-counter drugs: a vigorous flush of the intestines.
I’m not sure if Kramer ever studied chemistry and medicine or just stuck to the business end of things, but in the 1890s he made a fortune selling laxatives. (The Attica entrepreneur also marketed a chewing gum called No-To-Bac, which claimed to help smokers kick the habit.) Pioneered at a lab in Attica, by 1899 five million boxes of octagonal, chocolaty-tasting Cascarets were pouring out of Kramer’s factories in Chicago and New York.
“Cascaret Kramer” revolutionized American advertising, but he was no medical Napoleon. Plant-based laxatives, used to flush out the bowels, had figured for millennia into folk medical practice. The jolt to the nether regions customers got from these candy cathartics came from the drug’s most potent ingredient, the bark of a species of buckthorn tree — the cascara, native to the Pacific Northwest, northern California, and Idaho. Early Spanish explorers called this diminutive tree the cascara sagrada (“sacred bark”). Mixed with aloe and the roots of rhubarb, Native Americans on the Pacific Coast and in the Northern Rockies used it as a natural purgative.
By the late 1800s, trainloads of buckthorn bark were being shipped out of the Northwest to pharmaceutical companies around the world in quantities that endangered the tree’s survival. Much of the bark went to the factories of the Sterling Remedy Company, Kramer’s wildly successful over-the-counter pharmaceutical enterprise.
Like other Americans, Hoosiers were wild for a good clean-out. Kramer helped create the craze. On April 25, 1907, the Indianapolis News ran a full page-length ad (really a medical manifesto). “The Curse of Constipation” was almost certainly written by Harry Kramer.
Often Caused by Castor Oil and Salts
A Warning That All Should Read and Heed
Constipation is indeed the curse of mankind. From a simple bit of carelessness this dreadful destroyer of life gets a hold on its victim and slowly but surely tortures him to a horrible death.
It is a fact that all people at some time or other become constipated, and if the warning be not instantly heeded, and the system put back into working order without delay, the victim is marked for death — a long, lingering one, often so disguised that no one would dream of its original cause.
It is also true that nearly every disease recorded by medical science has its beginning in constipation. Yes, great learned men have said that if people would learn to keep their bowels in order there would be no disease. Professor B. Howard Rand, the great professor of chemistry in the famous Jefferson Medical College, as a farewell advice to the newly graduating class of young doctors, always said “Trust in God and keep your patients’ bowels open!”
Going into amazing detail in the pages of the News, Kramer went on to describe how Cascarets “begin to cure the moment you begin to chew them.” These buckthorn candies give “tone and strength” to the walls of the intestines and (so the ad went) help purify the blood, give “a ruddy complexion; bright eyes; clear, active brain; everything that makes life worth living.” Kramer promoted his tablets as useful against ills far beyond those affecting the intestines. Children’s diseases, headaches, nervous ailments, female complaints, skin diseases, appendicitis, oral thrush, and worms could all be kept in check or cured.
Some of the drug’s benefits were almost certainly mythic. One of many printed endorsements ran: “After taking Cascarets for a few nights before writing, I was able to pass a tape-worm 24 feet in length. Cascarets have our praise. . . — Mrs. Harry Wood, Kenneth, Indiana.”
Kramer sold his candy cathartic for a dime in handy, pocket-sized metal boxes. “You don’t know until you try how much good is crowded into a little 10-cent box.”
Kramer’s clever marketing extended to kids, who often didn’t realize they were taking “medication” when they downed a sweet Cascaret. “They are harmless and safe for the little folks.” This ad from the South Bend News-Times on November 20, 1918, shows a “Kid’s Indignation Meeting.” A marketing genius, Kramer often paid to have his ads run in the regular news columns of papers.
The name and popularity of the sugar-coated laxative became so widespread that it entered the popular vocabulary. A polo team in Anderson, Indiana, took the name “Anderson Cascarets” around 1904. In New York City, night-workers at banks began to be known as “Cascarets” because they “work while you sleep.”
Kramer sold his product rights for the drug to the Sterling Remedy Company around 1918 so that he could focus on his health resort at Mudlavia. (The company was then based in Wheeling, West Virginia.)
Tragically, on February 29, 1920, a fire in a linen closet reduced the vast wooden hotel to ashes. Many sick patients at the sanitarium, unable to walk due to rheumatism, were barely able to get out alive. Some guests jumped from third-story windows, then suffered in the February cold even as Mudlavia smoldered in front of them. Over fifty-thousand dollars in jewels perished in the flames.
Harry Kramer planned to rebuild the hotel, but never did. The advent of antibiotics and the coming of the Great Depression effectively ended the heyday of the great American health spas. (The owners of the French Lick resort in southern Indiana sold it to the Jesuits for use as a school in the 1930s for $1.00.)
Kramer retired to 1012 Ferry Street in Lafayette and died of a heart attack in 1935, apparently while visiting the license branch of the Tippecanoe County DMV. The inventor of Cascarets is buried at Lafayette’s Greenbush Cemetery.
A retirement home and restaurant were built on the site of Mudlavia. They, too, burned down in 1974. (Some ghost hunters claim the site is haunted.) As late as 2008, the natural spring that once made this place famous was still being tapped by an Indianapolis-based mineral water company. The FDA banned the use of cascara bark in 2008, when researchers discovered the plant has carcinogenic properties and (ironically enough) may contribute to liver ailments.