“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.
Some people are shocked to find out that Indiana has a coastline, let alone six lighthouses. You might be even more surprised to discover that for over forty years, the keeper of the Old Michigan City Lighthouse was a woman — and that in 1904, she was “the oldest lighthouse keeper in America.”
Harriet Colfax was born in 1824 in Ogdensburg, New York, a town on the St. Lawrence River looking over into Ontario. As a young woman, she taught voice and piano in her hometown. In the early 1850’s, Harriet moved west to Michigan City, Indiana, with her younger brother, Richard Wilson Colfax, who became editor of the Michigan City Transcript, a Whig journal. (Richard died just after his twentieth-sixth birthday in February 1856 and is buried in the town’s Greenwood Cemetery.) Some sources say Harriet worked at her brother’s newspaper as a typesetter, then taught school. She never married, and after her brother’s death had few means of support. So by 1861, when she was thirty-seven, she decided to do something totally different.
And the job would bring a house with it.
Until the 1890s, being a lighthouse keeper was still a political position, relying on appointments and sometimes even corruption. On the Great Lakes and Atlantic Coast, these jobs were scarce and hard to come by. Fortunately, Harriet had a relative who could pull some major political strings.
Her cousin Schuyler Colfax, born and raised in New York City, had also moved out to the promising new Hoosier State, where by age 19 he was editing the South Bend Free Press. (In 1845, as the paper’s new owner, he changed its name to the St. Joseph Valley Register.) In the 1840s, Schuyler Colfax wrote about Indiana politics for the influential editor Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune and as State Senator wrote for the Indiana State Journal. In 1855, he got elected to Congress, where he spoke out against the extension of slavery into the West. Nicknamed “The Smiler” — partly for his affability, partly for his intrigue — he was also one of the few people you ever see grinning in 19th-century photographs!
(Harriet’s cousin, South Bend newspaperman Schuyler Colfax, represented Indiana in the House of Representatives during the Civil War, served as Speaker of the House, then went on to become Ulysses S. Grant’s first Vice-President. The Hoosier V.P. also helped found the Daughters of Rebekah, the women’s auxiliary of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. Photo by Matthew Brady, National Archives.)
In March 1861, two years before he became Speaker of the House, Harriet’s cousin got her an appointment as the keeper of the Old Michigan City Lighthouse.
Contemporary accounts constantly referred to Harriet as small in stature and rather frail, so her cousin in Washington, D.C., might have had to exert some pressure — or selectively leave out that information — to get the family favor done. Yet getting a post as lighthouse keeper wasn’t necessarily hard. If we can believe one of his letters, in 1822 the English actor Junius Brutus Booth, father of John Wilkes Booth, was offered the position of lighthouse keeper at Cape Hatteras on North Carolina’s remote Outer Banks — a job he almost accepted.
In the opening year of the Civil War, with her new appointment in hand, Harriet moved into the three-year-old lighthouse built among cottonwoods and willows by the Lifesaving Service just back from the harbor. (The plan was almost identical to two other light stations — Grand Traverse Light on Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, and the station at Port Washington, Wisconsin, north of Milwaukee.) A new Fresnel lens up top was visible for fifteen miles out on Lake Michigan. Harriet Colfax had become the newest guardian of sailors along the occasionally storm-wracked Hoosier Coast. She kept the difficult job for forty-three years.
Colfax’s most challenging task was getting out to the East and West Pier lights. Until it collapsed in a windstorm in 1886, Colfax reached the West Pier beacon by rowboat. Built in 1871 and situated at the end of a 1,500-foot long breakwater, the East Pier Light was replaced in 1904 and is still standing. This light had to be lit every evening, fair weather or foul. When “The Witch of November” blew in and Lake Michigan’s waves froze solid on top of the causeway, Harriet had her work cut out for her, and she had many harrowing brushes with a frigid death. As the 49-year-old wrote in her logbook on May 28, 1873: “A terrible hurricane to-night at about the time of lighting up. Narrowly escaped being swept into the lake.”
One of her main challenges in the days before kerosene was used to light lamps (a hazard in itself) was keeping oil from freezing while she carried it out to the beacons. The West Pier could only be reached by rowboat. In wintertime, whether she was walking or rowing, Colfax had to heat the lard oil at home, then act fast. As she told the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1904 (the year of her retirement at age eighty):
The lard oil would get hard before I could get the lamp lighted, but once lit it never went out, you may be sure. My lights never went out till I quenched them myself. . . I love the lamps, the old lighthouse, and the work. They are the habit, the home, everything dear I have known for so long. I could not bear to see anyone else light my lamp. I would rather die here than live elsewhere.
(Her cousin, Vice-President “Smiler” Colfax, lacked Harriet’s stamina. He died in 1885, of a heart attack brought on by exposure to extreme cold after walking three-quarters of a mile in January weather in Minnesota.)
Harriet Colfax’s job, of course, wasn’t all hardship. Life on the lake had plenty of attractions. In her journals, she described spectacular rainbows and eclipses of the moon over the water. Winter’s icy grip brought impressive displays of the Northern Lights. And she sometimes got leaves of absence. In 1876, she visited the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
Nor did she live by herself. In the 1860’s, a friend of Harriet’s named Ann C. Hartwell moved into the station. Born in Ontario in 1828, Ann had known Harriet back in upstate New York as a child and, like her, moved out to Michigan City in the 1850’s. A story, possibly folklore, about a dead lover being the reason why neither of the two women ever married made it into the Indianapolis Journal on December 21, 1884:
Though they lived together as friends, Colfax and Hartwell worked side-by-side to keep the lanterns lit. The bravery of the famous Ida Lewis, who kept Lime Rock Light in Newport, Rhode Island, stirred up a lot of public fascination — some of it annoying — about females in the Lifesaving Service and helped propel the two Michigan City women to local fame. (They weren’t the only women involved with keeping the Hoosier coast safe, by the way. Harriet C. Towner was Colfax’s successor from 1844 to 1853, and Mary Ryan was stationed at Calumet City, Indiana, from 1873 to 1880.)
When Colfax finally retired from her job in October 1904, she and Ann had to move out of the lighthouse, which was owned by the Lifesaving Service. Separated from her old home, Ann’s mental and physical health immediately broke down. On November 4, a report made it into the Jasper Weekly Courier in southern Indiana that she had gone insane from grief — and of course, love:
Ann died just a few months later, on January 22, 1905, aged 77. John Hazen White, the Episcopal Bishop of Indiana, presided at her funeral at Michigan City’s Trinity Cathedral. Harriet, also struck with grief at the loss of her home and long-time companion, passed away on April 16. The two are buried next to each other at the Greenwood Cemetery.
Their names shine bright on the long list of women lighthouse keepers of the Great Lakes. But lest you think that Harriet’s story is impressive, here’s one even better: Kathleen Moore, keeper of the Black Rock Harbor Light on Long Island Sound in Connecticut, was credited with saving twenty-one lives. She retired in 1878. Claims about her age differ, but Moore was born sometime between 1795 and 1812, took up lighthouse keeping before she was a teenager, and died in 1899. You do the math!
Exactly 150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln, who spent part of his rail-splitting boyhood in Spencer County in southern Indiana, fell victim to the bullet of the 26-year-old actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater. Soon, the president’s body headed west by train, stopping in Richmond, Indiana, for a public viewing at 2:00 in the morning on April 30, then on to Indianapolis and Michigan City, with short stopovers at small Hoosier train stations along the way.
In a downpour, possibly fifty thousand Hoosiers viewed Lincoln’s open casket in the rotunda of the old State House. (At a time when the population of the capitol city was less than 40,000, the crowd of black-draped mourners must have been a spectacle in itself. Many were African Americans clutching copies of the Emancipation Proclamation.) Just before midnight, a carriage brought the president’s coffin through the rainy streets of Indianapolis, lit by torches and bonfires, to Union Depot, where it departed north by train for the south shore of Lake Michigan, en route to Chicago and eventually to Springfield, Illinois.
An exhibit running through July 7 at the Indiana State Museum, So Costly a Sacrifice:Lincoln and Loss, includes some actual “relics” of that fateful Good Friday in 1865 when Booth shot Indiana’s favorite son. Among the artifacts are a few that seem like medieval religious relics: clothing with spots alleged to be the blood of Honest Abe, and a piece of the burning barn in Port Royal, Virginia, where the assassin met his own fate at the hands of a Union soldier, the eccentric street-preacher Boston Corbett.
One of the most interesting things to me about the Lincoln assassination and the funeral that came after is the apparent curse on the people and even the physical things involved in it. Poe’s Raven could be telling the story, and the bird of death keeps on talking, quawking not “Nevermore” — just “More.”
What happened to Booth and Corbett is pretty bizarre and appalling. Basil Moxley, a doorman at Ford’s Theater who claimed that he served as one of Booth’s pallbearers in Baltimore in 1865, fed a conspiracy theory in 1903 when he asserted that another man is buried in the plot and that Lincoln’s murderer actually escaped to Oklahoma or Texas. A mummy hoax brought the assassin back to life as a sideshow attraction in the 1920s. But perhaps the moody English-American actor would have been thrilled to know that the morbid tragedy he let loose wasn’t over yet.
For instance, Booth’s own killer probably went down surrounded by flames. It is thought that Boston Corbett died in the massive forest fire that consumed Hinckley, Minnesota, in 1894. And oddly enough, the very train car that carried Lincoln’s corpse west to Illinois from Washington also burned in Minnesota. In March 1911, while in storage in the northeastern outskirts of Minneapolis, the historic Lincoln funeral car perished in a “spectacular prairie fire.”
In 1893, a year before the inferno in the North Woods probably claimed Corbett’s life, news readers followed the ghastly story of Ford’s Theater’s own doom. On June 10, the Indianapolis Journal ran this especially sentimental, tear-jerking news piece on the front-page:
Hundreds of men carried down by the floors of a falling building which was notoriously insecure; human lives crushed out by tons of brick and iron and sent unheralded to the throne of their Maker; men by the score maimed and disfigured for life; happy families hurled into the depths of despair. . . Words cannot picture the awfulness of the accident. Its horrors will never be fully told. Its suddenness was almost the chief terror. . . Women who kissed their loved ones as they separated will have but the cold, bruised faces to kiss to-night. . . In the national capitol of the proudest nation on earth there has been a catastrophe unparalleled in the annals of history, and in every mind there is the horrible conviction that its genesis is to be found in the criminal negligence of a government too parsimonious to provide for the safety of its loyal servants by protecting its property for their accommodation.
At 9:30 a.m. on June 9, the front part of Ford’s Theater, a notoriously rickety and rotten old structure then being used as a government office building, collapsed, sending beams, iron, and over a hundred employees plummeting toward the basement. Twenty-eight years after Abraham Lincoln was shot here, twenty-two men were killed and sixty-eight injured in one of the deadliest disasters in Washington, D.C.’s, history. (In a twist of irony, the same day the theater collapse made national headlines, John Wilkes Booth’s brother, the great American actor Edwin Booth, was laid to rest at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many said that Edwin Booth’s life and death were overshadowed by two different tragedies and the curse of Ford’s Theater.)
Collapsing structures were a major news item in the 1890s. Almost every week, American papers reported mass casualties at overcrowded factories and apartment buildings, especially in Chicago and cities back on the East Coast, where poor construction and dry rot led to the deaths of thousands of industrial workers and tenants — often women and children. During the Progressive Era, such tragedies inspired reformers like the photographers Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine (who documented child workers in Indianapolis in 1908) to illustrate the real peril of shoddy, dilapidated buildings in the workplace and at home.
In 1893, Ford’s Theater was probably one of the most dangerous structures in America. Built in 1863 by the 34-year-old entrepreneur John T. Ford, the building occupied the site of a Baptist Church-turned-theater that had burned down a year earlier. John Ford’s business was a victim of Booth, too. After the Lincoln assassination, public opinion and the U.S. government both decided that it was inappropriate to use the site of the nation’s great tragedy for entertainment. Ford wanted to re-open his theater, but received arson threats from at least one Lincoln mourner. The Federal government appropriated the playhouse, compensating its owner with $88,000 in July 1866.
Even before the government actually paid for the building, renovations were underway. In December 1865, the suitably morbid Army Medical Museum moved onto the third floor. “A far cry from the once jovial theater,” the famous local landmark now housed an array of skeletons in glass cases, body parts, surgical tools, and other gory reminders of military medicine. The Library of the Surgeon General’s Office soon occupied the second floor.
The other floors of the former theater housed the War Department’s Office of Records and Pensions. The unstable, visibly bulging building was the workplace of several hundred employees and was further imperiled by probably a few tons of heavy paperwork, the red tape of veterans’ pensions.
After the building succumbed to gravity and rot in 1893, American public opinion was almost as outraged as at the assassination of Lincoln. The Indianapolis Journal wrote:
As long ago as 1885, this building. . . was officially proclaimed by Congress an unsafe depository for even the inanimate skeletons, mummies and books of the army medical museum, for which a safer place of storage was provided by an act of Congress. But notwithstanding the fact that in the public press, and in Congress, also, continued attention was called to the bulging walls of the building, its darkness and its general unsuitability and unsafety, it continued to be used for the daily employment of nearly five-hundred government clerks of the pension record division of the War Office.
According to a riveting coroner’s inquest that whipped up public excitement, workers at what the Indianapolis Journal dubbed “Ford’s death trap” had been intimidated and cowed into silence by their tyrannical boss, former army surgeon Col. Fred Ainsworth. Afraid of being fired, the endangered clerks didn’t protest the condition of the building and later testified that Ainsworth’s assistants had told them to tip-toe on the stairway to keep from falling through. Investigators determined that the “old ruin’s” collapse finally came while a low-bidding contractor, George W. Dant, was making repairs to the building. (A support in the basement gave way.)
Court testimony relayed in the Journal resonated with public opinion. “The government did not want skilled men to execute its contracts, and it would not pay fair prices for good work. . .” the paper claimed. “An architect testified that the cement used in underpinning the piers supporting the old building was ‘little better than mud.’ A builder said the manner of the work was suicidal.” Another report said that for years the decaying structure also suffered from “defective sanitary conditions.”
One of the public figures who weighed in on the federal investigation was Indiana Congressman William S. Holman. A Dearborn County native, Holman sat in Congress from 1859 to 1897 and was once ranked as the longest-serving U.S. Representative. He was also a notoriously frugal hawk on government spending. (Yet far from being a total naysayer, Holman passionately advocated the Homestead Act that tried to break up the domination of Western public lands by big railroads. He also indirectly helped establish the U.S. Forest Service by providing for Federal timber reserves.)
As chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, the curmudgeonly Holman oversaw a lot of government funding. On June 23, 1893, the Jasper Weekly Courier reported that after Ford’s Theater collapsed, even the arch-fiscal conservative was ready to “deal liberally in the matter of providing safe public buildings, and enact such legislation as would look to the preservation of human life.” The Indiana Congressman supported moving the U.S. Government Printing Office — ranked with the old theater as one of the worst potential death traps in Washington, D.C. — to a new location. (The weight of printing equipment housed on upper stories was part of the problem.)
Yet once it was rebuilt after the 1893 collapse, Ford’s Theater returned to government use — oddly enough, as a storage warehouse for the Government Printing Office. The building narrowly survived being condemned for demolition by President Taft in 1912. From 1931 until renovations in the mid-1960s, the historic structure housed a government annex and a first-floor Lincoln museum. Restored to its 1865 appearance and now run by the National Park Service, it opened as a public museum in 1968.