Indiana’s own Richard Wigginton Thompson, former Secretary of the Navy, was an emblematic product of American corruption during the Gilded Age. In many ways, he was the living embodiment of failing upward; despite being clearly incapable of serving as Naval Secretary, he continued to rise through the ranks of the political establishment. In effect, his story is but one, small part of a larger story about how government is not always staffed by the “best and brightest,” but rather its exact opposite.
(Plymouth Congregational Church, Omaha, Nebraska, March 24, 1913.)
It’s a paradox — and probably a testimony to the human spirit — that some of history’s worst natural disasters have given rise to humor and even fascinating meteorological folklore. Take Voltaire’s great Candide, a scathing satire on philosophical and religious optimism. Candide, which later inspired one of Leonard Bernstein’s musicals, was penned in response to the worst European earthquake of the 18th century, the 1755 All Saints’ Day quake in Lisbon, Portugal, when over 10,000 people in Europe’s most devout city were crushed in church, burned or drowned by a massive tidal wave on one of the holiest days in the Christian year. More than just a major seismological event, the Lisbon quake turned out to be a milestone in the history of philosophy.
Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913, was another such day, though not nearly as significant. That evening, as Christians were still celebrating the Resurrection, an F4 tornado struck Omaha, Nebraska, killing over a hundred people. As the storm clouds moved east, hitting other towns, a huge twister struck Terre Haute, Indiana, just before midnight. The 1913 Easter Sunday tornado killed seventeen people on the south side of town, including a 75 year old man, an eight year old boy, a mother and her baby, and an infant just one day old.
The skies were especially cruel that March. Most of Indiana and the Midwest were already suffering from extreme floods. The raging, icy Wabash had inundated part of Terre Haute before the twister struck. Upstream in Peru, Indiana, the roaring river wreaked havoc on the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, which had its winter quarters along the Wabash. Exotic animals like elephants and tigers, drowned in the freezing water, washed up downstream. It was a terrible month for Hoosiers and everybody else in the region.
(Omaha Daily Bee, March 25, 1913.)
(The March 1913 twister destroyed part of Terre Haute’s Root Glass Factory, manufacturer of Coca-Cola bottles. Fires caused by lightning, oil lamps and downed electric wires hindered the work of rescuers and firemen.)
(The storm crossed into Parke and Clay counties and obliterated the tiny mining town of Perth north of Brazil. Yet with its coal exhausted, Perth had mostly scattered to the winds by the time William Travis wrote his county history in 1909. Indianapolis News, March 25, 1913.)
Despite the real tragedy of these events, Midwestern tornado lore is full of comic scenes and bizarre escapes — stories of people spared by the “queer antics” and “strange vagaries” of providence, luck and the wind. As we officially head into storm season, here’s a few tales from the breezy side of life.
Writer William Least Heat-Moon wrote the most famous essay on freaks of the storm. “Under Old Nell’s Skirt” came out as a chapter in his PrairyErth(1991), a long meditation on the history of one county in Kansas’ Flint Hills. He talked to old-timers there. They told him all about the topic:
They tell of ponds being vacuumed dry, eyes of geese sucked out, chickens clean-plucked from beak to bum, water pulled straight up out of toilet bowls, a woman’s clothes torn off her, a wife killed after being jerked through a car window, a child carried two miles and being set down with only scratches, a Cottonwood Falls mother (fearful of wind) cured of chronic headaches when a twister passed harmlessly within a few feet of her house, and, just south of Chase, a woman blown out of her living room window and dropped unhurt sixty feet away and falling unbroken beside her a phonograph record of “Stormy Weather.”
Columnist Dorothy J. Clark revisited some of these “strange happenings” on the forty-fifth anniversary of the tornado that struck the Wabash Valley. Her fascinating column (most of it plagiarized verbatim from an older book) came out in the Terre Haute Tribune on March 23, 1958.
(Terre Haute Tribune, March 23, 1958.)
The Indianapolis News carried a few more of these odd news items — including the report of an old theory that the bluffs of the Wabash River (to which the town owed its French name, “high land”) deflected twisters by means of “mineral deposits attracting the electricity.” (A similar belief or prophecy about Omaha’s immunity to twisters was also thrown on the rubbish heap of bogus theories that night.)
There’s one other bit of strange coincidence from the time of the twister. A moralizing pastor, Dr. J. Aspinwall McCuaig, had just visited Terre Haute. The reverend may have still been in town on the day of the Easter Sunday disaster. A Canadian originally from Scotland, McCuaig was one of the heads of the National Christian League for the Promotion of Purity, an organization established in New York City in 1886. He came to Indiana to deliver a series of lectures and check in on the effects of the state’s infamous forced sterilization law, which as a eugenicist, McCuaig supported. (Like Indianapolis’ Oscar McCulloch, head of the liberal Plymouth Congregational Church downtown, McCuaig was one of the surprisingly large number of “progressive” Christian ministers to speak out in favor of eugenics, which sought to reduce crime and social evils by preventing many of the poor and “feeble-minded” from reproducing.)
McCuaig, who lectured on prostitution, alcohol, and nude pictures in bars, hated Terre Haute — a rough railroad town back in the golden days of organized labor, a place famous for its saloons, brothels and easily-bribed Democratic government. On the day of the Easter twister, McCuaig apparently was still in town, lambasting the city, calling it worse than Chicago. It wouldn’t be surprising if he moralized — rather obnoxiously — on the hand of God reaching out of the skies.
While browsing through an old issue of the Madison Daily Courier (February 20, 1850), we stumbled across this eye-catching inventory from James Roberts’ store in the antebellum river town of Madison, Indiana. Two unusual items stood out: mushroom catsup and walnut catsup. What on earth was the history of these things?
In the days before H.J. Heinz, a former horseradish salesman, muscled in and mastered the art of making a pure, healthy tomato ketchup, Americans enjoyed an amazing variety of ketchups or “catsups.” Many antebellum Hoosiers could have bought these at the store. Others would have been able to make them from scratch using ingredients often available in Hoosier fields and forests.
Like many American families, the ketchup family isn’t native to the New World. Both the word and the condiment likely came from China or Malaysia, where ke-chap referred to a brine of pickled fish or shellfish. East Asian ketchups were salty or soy-based and had a liquid consistency, unlike often-stubborn tomato ketchup, a “non-Newtonian” fluid that needs a thump to get moving.
The first known mention of the word ketchup in English comes from a dictionary of slang from 1690, where it’s defined as a “high East-India sauce.” In fact, British East India traders are credited for bringing the sauce back from Asia. Word-sleuths, however, think that ketchup might have come from an Arabic word, kabees, also referring to a pickling sauce.
One Englishman, Charles Lockyer, gave advice to other traders in the Orient on how to get the best deals on lucrative soy sauce and ketchup — in 1711.
It’s hard to believe anyone would sail all the way to Asia and back in a wooden boat just for ketchup — or that King George and George Washington were throwing ketchup on their food. But eighteenth-century Britain and America were definitely familiar with the ketchup “family.” In fact, catsup, once thought to be an Americanized version of the word, was actually a misspelling by the Irish satirist and Anglican priest Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, who used it in a comic poem in 1730.
Eliza Smith, one of the bestselling English cookbook writers, describes how to make ketchup in her book The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion. Smith died around 1732, but her cookbook came out in many editions and was the first one ever printed in the American colonies. In 1742, a year before Thomas Jefferson’s birth, the cookbook was reprinted in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Yet Smith’s recipe for “English Katchup” didn’t call for a single tomato. Instead, you needed mushrooms, anchovies and horseradish. The vinegary result tasted and looked something like Worcestershire sauce. It took a week to make.
(Eliza Smith, The Compleat Housewife, London, 1727. The book was re-printed in Williamsburg by William Parks, who ran one of the first paper mills and thus helped turn out some of the earliest American newspapers, including Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. This instructional video on 18th-century cooking will tell you how to put together a mushroom ketchup that would have been familiar to Americans almost 300 years ago.)
Ketchup’s historic association with pickling sauces and fish was still strong in the mid-1800s, when grocery stores like James Roberts’ just downstream from Cincinnati were advertising the arrival of seafood and condiments from the East Coast. Much of that food came aboard steamboats floating down from Pittsburgh — future ketchup capital of the world (but not yet…)
For generations, many Europeans and Americans were literally scared of tomatoes and tomato-loving worms, believing both to be the source of a deadly poison. Part of the reason why the tomato was once considered a “poison apple” was that wealthy Europeans ate it off pewter plates high in lead content. Botanists and cultivators slowly dispelled these myths. By the 1870s, doctors and plant-growers had sparked a craze for the tomato as a medical cure-all. Before the 1830s, though, that lingering fear of the tomato was one reason why it was slow to be accepted into the family of ketchups.
Walnut ketchup still occasionally makes it onto the table and usually tastes something like A-1 Steak Sauce. Charlotte Mason, a Revolutionary-era chef in England, promoted fermented varieties of walnut ketchup in The Lady’s Assistant, a cookbook published in London in 1787 and available in the U.S. You’d have to plan your dinners well in advance, though. Like distilled liquor, some fermented ketchups take several months to make. Fortunately, Charlotte Mason definitely believed in bulk cooking — and some varieties would “keep for years.”
Just as beer- and whiskey-lovers have been rediscovering all the varieties of alcohol that Americans enjoyed before Prohibition put the nix on brewers and distillers, foodies are unearthing some of the ketchup varieties that once existed in Old American cooking.
These included concord grape ketchup (including this recipe from western New York for grape catsup applied to sweet potato fries and/or Greek yogurt) and lemon ketchup. An unusual historic recipe from 19th-century New Hampshire tells how to make cucumber ketchup. One chef touts a tangy peach ketchup calling for ingredients as diverse as cinnamon, sugar, chili, molasses and vinegar. Oyster ketchup was often made directly from oysters, but other oyster ketchups were made from tomatoes and meant to be put on oysters. Van Camp Packing Company in Indianapolis and the Loudon Packing Company in Terre Haute were once major producers of oyster ketchup.
Since fermentation was often involved, ketchup sometimes began to be treated like wine. The Indiana Palladium in Lawrenceburg (future home of Seagram’s Distillery) reprinted a clip from an article in the United States Gazette of Philadelphia about the tomato and its use in regulating digestion. This was around the time that the health benefits of the once-misunderstood “poison apple” were finally being promoted. The author praises a “very choice bottle” of fermented tomato ketchup, bottled by his family six years earlier — in 1827.
The tomato’s fortunes were on the rise. But until Henry Heinz came along, eating tomato ketchup could stillput your life in jeopardy. The problem lay in poor sanitation at factories and bottling plants — and the issue of how to keep tomato ketchup red.
Writers around the time of the Civil War described the disgusting horror show that sometimes came pouring out of ketchup bottles: yeasty, moldy, bacteria-laden filth. Food poisoning and even death weren’t an uncommon fate after consumption of “putrid, decomposed” tomato ketchup. Amazingly, manufacturers — including Charles Loudon in Terre Haute — often used coal-tar dye, an ingredient in road construction, to preserve the tomato’s bright red appearance. It was only in 1882 that writers began to point out the dangers of coal tar. Aware of ketchup nightmares, Gardener’s Monthly that year encouraged American families to steer clear of industrial ketchup and keep on making their own. A further danger came from boric acid, once used as a food preservative and now used in athlete’s foot medication and insecticide.
(H.J. Heinz around the time he moved beyond the horseradish business and forever changed the ketchup industry.)
By the 1870s, Henry Heinz of Pittsburgh was sparking a revolution in the ketchup, sauerkraut, and pickle business. Heinz’s family had emigrated from Kallstadt, Bavaria, hometown of Donald Drumpf’s ancestors. Unlike many Gilded Age business moguls, Heinz was a political progressive and took great strides to improve life for workers at his plants — and to keep bacteria out of his customers’ food.
With a good knowledge of advances in chemistry and public health, by 1906 Heinz was turning out a preservative-free ketchup (i.e., no coal tar!) and used transparent jars so his customers could see exactly what they were buying. Heinz was proud of his factories: even in notoriously polluted Pittsburgh, his employees had access to showers, swimming pools, gardens, medical stations, fresh laundry, free manicures and lunchtime open-air concerts. He offered free life and health insurance to workers and free tours to the public because — like his bottles — he felt he had nothing to fear from transparency. The Heinz Company hired thousands of women, and Heinz raised their wages against the advice of his business committee. He also took out ads in women’s magazines to warn the public about the dangers of certain food preservatives.
(Women at the Heinz Factory in Pittsburgh, circa 1901.)
Knowing that quality food and happy workers meant bigger profits, the ketchup mogul was a major force behind getting the Pure Food and Drug Act passed in 1906, a year after Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, an exposé of meatpackers, came out in a Socialist newspaper in Kansas, Appeal to Reason. (That paper’s editor, by the way, was Julius Wayland, a native Hoosier who once nearly got lynched in Versailles, Indiana, for his Socialist views.)
Heinz’s revolution — a “red” one, indeed — soon spread to the Midwest. Today, Red Gold in Elwood, Indiana, is the top ketchup producer in the U.S., beating out even Heinz. And the Hoosier State itself ranks second only to California in tomato processing. To think that it all began with a 17th-century Asian fish sauce…
(Laborers pick tomatoes for the Loudon Packing Company of Terre Haute. Loudon had hometown competition in the ketchup business from Hulman & Company — whose owner, Tony Hulman, later bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. By World War II, however, Loudon’s company had won minor fame itself by becoming the first major producer of V8, once made in Terre Haute.)
(Evansville cartoonist Karl Kae Knecht helped enlist tomatoes during World War II. Indiana tomato production “splatters” Hitler, Mussolini, and Emperor Hirohito, Evansville Courier, August 10, 1942.)
Today, rural towns often have doctors with American Indian surnames. But in the 1800s, an “Indian doctor” meant something totally different.
For decades after the Civil War, so-called “Indian medicine shows” rolled through cities and country towns across the U.S. These shows were something like the medical version of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Leading them, there was usually a wild-looking doctor — typically a white man claiming to be Native American or at least to have studied herbal healing with “Indian medicine men.” What the shows really dispensed was exotic flare: banjo-playing minstrels, brass bands, even freak shows.
The traveling outfits also raked in thousands of dollars by touting medicinal cure-alls for common ailments, as Indian doctors announced their ability to cure practically all known ills — from dysentery, headaches and “private diseases” (venereal in nature) to dreaded cases of tuberculosis, cholera, and cancer. Elixirs were only part of the lure. These doctors often doubled as dentists and yanked rotten teeth by the thousands. In the days before anesthetics, brass bands covered up patients’ screams inside the wagon. Music and entertainment also helped drown out the protests of local doctors and dentists, whose business these shows cut in on.
While the heyday of the medicine shows came after the Civil War, the “Indian doctor” phenomenon goes back farther than that, piggy-backing off the dearth of professional doctors in pioneer settlements and the primitive state of “scientific” medicine itself. Southerners who moved to the midwestern frontier had often lived for a while in Appalachia, where white settlers took an interest in traditional medicine practiced by the Cherokee and Choctaw. German and Scots-Irish settlers also had a medical heritage of their own going back to medieval Europe.
(This early Indian Guide to Health  contains some of the often bizarre knowledge gleaned from medicine on the Appalachian frontier. The author was an early Hoosier doctor, Squire H. Selman — alias “Pocahontus Nonoquet” — who studied with the Kentucky doctor-adventurer Richard Carter. Son of an English physician and a métis woman, Carter enjoyed one of the most thriving medical practices on the Ohio Valley frontier. Selman went on to practice medicine in Columbus, Indiana.)
It’s a curious fact that one of the first doctors in Indianapolis was a 24-year-old “Indian doctor” from North Carolina. The man also had an unforgettable name: Dr. William Kelley Frohawk Fryer. (In 1851, the Indiana State Sentinel thought his initials stood for “Dr. William Kellogg Francis Fryer,” but we sincerely hope that it really was “Frohawk.” That name appears on the cover of his own book.)
Dr. Fryer claimed to have studied medicine with Native Americans and was remembered by Indianapolis historians as an Indian doctor “of ancient memory.” Some of his repertory of cures, however, apparently came from “pow-wow,” an old form of Pennsylvania German faith healing. That practice was known as Braucherei or Spielwerk(spell-work) in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, and pow-wow practitioners (Brauchers or Hexenmeisters) drew on spells and folk remedies that probably go back to the world of Roman Catholic folk healing, forced underground in Germany after the Reformation. (The word pow-wow was either of Algonquin origin or a mispronunciation of the English “power” but had nothing to do with Native American medicine.) The first book on pow-wow, published by German immigrant Johann Georg Hohman in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1820, anthologized many of these magical healings, talismans, and charms, based partly on occult “white magic” meant to ward off “black magic” or witchcraft. Pow-wow used esoteric words, sometimes from the Bible, as a form of healing and was explicitly Christian in nature, even reminding some of Jesus’ miracles accomplished via saliva. Brauchers allegedly cured livestock by putting magical words into their feeding troughs.
Pow-wow, which claimed to cure “both men and animals,” became an unorthodox form of spiritual medicine among Lutherans, Amish, Mennonites and Dunkers at a time when university-trained doctors were hard to come by even on the East Coast. Sometimes called “Christian voodoo,” pow-wow might even figure into the origin of the hex signs you can still see on barns. (It led to a “Hex Murder Trial” in 1929.) As a form of medical treatment, pow-wow’s heyday is long-gone, but it is still practiced on the sly in rural eastern Pennsylvania and was probably once part of folk medicine in the rural Midwest, wherever Pennsylvania Germans settled.
(Some scholars believe the hex tradition came out of pow-wow.)
In 1839, the year Dr. William Kelley Frohawk Fryer published his ownIndian Guide to Health in Indianapolis, the Hoosier capitol city was just a few steps out of the wilderness. Fryer believed in “vegetable medicine.” He would probably have been able to find most of the roots and herbs he needed for medications in the swamps, bottomlands, and woodlands that still covered Marion County. There’s even some evidence that he provided medical treatment in exchange for plants. A clip from the Indiana State Sentinel in June 1886 states that he ran a place called “The Sanative House,” probably near his home on “South Illinois Street, near the Catholic school on Georgia.” But Dr. Fryer was long gone by 1886. In the late 1840s, the young doctor moved down to Mobile, Alabama, then to New Orleans, where he advertised his manual on health (printed in Indianapolis) for sale nationwide. Early front-page ads in the New Orleans Daily Crescent alsocarry glowing testimonials (maybe fictional) from his former patients back in central Indiana.
As the number of college-trained doctors and dentists back East grew after the Civil War, “Indian doctors” were squeezed out to the West and Midwest — where many claimed to have learned their trade in the first place, straight from Native American healers and shamans. (It’s hard to say how many of these claims are true, but a few of them probably are.) Yet “folk doctors” weren’t necessarily bad and provided the rudiments of medical care to some patients who couldn’t afford a university-trained physician, who simply had no access to one, or who (like African Americans) were even cruelly experimented on by the medical establishment.
J.P. Dunn, an early Indianapolis historian, wrote that Indiana was a “free-for-all medical state” until 1885. During the 1800s, American doctors and state and local officials gradually began driving “quack” doctors out of business (or at least out of town) by requiring all practitioners to hold medical licenses. The establishment didn’t always succeed at this. As early as 1831, legislators in remote Arkansas Territory tried to outlaw quackery. Their law, known popularly as the “Medical Aristocracy Bill,” was vetoed by the territory’s one-armed governor John Pope, a former Kentucky senator. Pope objected to it on the grounds that it violated “the spirit of liberty” and said: “Let every man be free to employ whom he pleases where he alone is concerned.” The governor also took a swipe at college-trained “professionals,” pointing out that
many who have gone through a regular course in the medical schools are grossly ignorant of the theory or practice of medicine. They are mere smatterers in the science. With a piece of parchment in their pocket, and a little superficial learning, they are arrogant, rash and more dangerous quacks than those who adopt the profession from a sort of instinct, or a little practical observation.
Pope may have been right. Whether educated or not, pioneer doctors sometimes killed whole families by accident. (My great-grandmother’s grandfather, one of the first settlers of Rosedale, Indiana, was orphaned in 1846 by a doctor who prescribed a deadly concoction of some sort to his parents and one of his brothers. As late as 1992, then, there was a Hoosier woman still living who had actually been raised by a man victimized as a young boy by pioneer medicine.)
In 1885, Indiana finally passed a law requiring doctors either to show that they had studied at “some reputable medical college” or had practiced medicine in the Hoosier State continuously for ten years preceding the date of the act. In April 1885, the Indiana Medical Journal endorsed this new law, saying: “It will probably make a few of the hundreds of quacks who now infest Indiana seek more congenial climes, and if enforced will prevent quacks from other states from settling within our borders.”
Yet the number of known Indian doctors operating in the state that year was low:
As J.P. Dunn pointed out, the tough question became: what was a “reputable medical college?” County clerks, not medical organizations, issued doctor’s licenses. Dunn wrote that since a county clerk only got paid if he issued a license, “he was usually liberal in his views” about the meaning of the word “reputable.” A state examination board for licensing doctors wasn’t set up in Indiana until 1897.
By then, one of the most outrageously colorful Indian doctors had already had his day in the Hoosier State and gone to his own grave.
For a few summers in the early 1880s, Dr. J.I. Lighthall, “King of Diamonds,” crisscrossed the Midwest sporting a flashy, diamond-studded suit, selling his herbal remedies and often giving them away to the poor, while also earning notoriety as a “tooth-yanker.” Lighthall caught the interest of the press and annoyed local doctors in Terre Haute, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Richmond, Seymour and Columbus.
At the beginning of his Indian Household Medicine Guide, Lighthall claimed he was born in 1856 in Tiskilwa, a small Illinois River town north of Peoria. He announced that he was of one-eighth Wyandot heritage on his father’s side and had left home at age eleven to go out West to study botany with the Indians. If that’s true, in the 1870s the teenage Lighthall lived with tribes in Minnesota, Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma, picking up ethnobotanical knowledge on the Plains. He also grew out his hair, cultivating a look that some women, at least, found sultry and exotic.
By around 1880, Lighthall had set up shop in Peoria, Illinois. His mother apparently cooked barrels-full of his herb-, root-, and bark-based medicaments, then bottled them and shipped them by railroad or wagon. When it came to naming his drugs, he skipped the big Latin and Greek words of modern pharmacology and came up with colorful names like “King of Pain” and “Spanish Oil.” Some were probably cut with whiskey, cocaine, opium, and morphine. Lighthall also offered an array of 19th-century popular medicine’s omnipresent “blood purifiers” and “liver regulators,” miracle liquids commonly advertised in mainstream newspapers — partly to keep journalism itself afloat when subscriptions lagged.
As his business picked up, the doctor put together a brass band and went into makeshift dentistry on the street.
Educated skeptics abounded, but some of his herbal medications might actually have proven beneficial as “home remedies” for less serious ailments. The official medical view is that some patients were probably cured by the “placebo effect.” Curiously, one of the real health benefits of Lighthall’s medicine shows was that he got sick people to laugh.
Although the “doc” gave off an aura of the Wild West, most of his short career as an “Indian doctor” was spent in Indiana and Illinois. Lighthall typically rolled into a town and stayed for a few weeks or months, long enough to garner local notoriety. However angry the doctors and medical establishment got, “common folk” kept flocking to his medicine wagon. Dr. Lighthall’s entertainment troupe, newspapers reported, resembled a circus and was made up of about 60 “Spaniards,” “Mexicans” and “half-breeds” — and some Hoosiers from Fort Wayne.
Cleverly, Lighthall sympathized with the poor, sometimes handing out free medicine bottles wrapped in $10 and $20 bills to customers who couldn’t afford them. While the doctor won fame for such “charity,” thousands of others forked out their nickels and dimes for entertainment — money Lighthall would throw into the air to attract an even bigger crowd. Others came to have their teeth rapidly yanked, often for “free.” Yet in spite of all the freebies, within a year or two, Lighthall was rumored to be worth about $150,000 (maybe ten times that much in today’s money.) He wore clothes and a hat studded with valuable diamonds and cut an impressive appearance in public. Women were attracted to him. He put his gems on display at a Louisville jewel shop. A Kentucky hat store sold a line of Lighthall-inspired Texas hats.
Lawmen and doctors tried to do him in, but usually failed. A court in Decatur, Illinois, summoned him to appear in October 1883 for illegally practicing medicine there. Ironically, he had just come back to Decatur from Terre Haute, where “the Philistines” and Indiana’s “sun of civilization” drove him back over the state line.
The following summer, July 1884, Dr. Lighthall’s show rolled into Fort Wayne and camped out for a few months “near the baseball park. . . The joint resembles a circus.”
His tooth-yanking sometimes got him into legal trouble, as when he got sued for allegedly breaking a man’s jaw in Indianapolis during a complicated dental extraction. Lighthall’s apparent love for the ladies also turned public opinion against him. While camped out along East Washington Street in Indianapolis in 1885, he got booked by the cops for being “rowdy” at a “house of ill fame.” Locals accused him of trying to get two young girls near Fountain Square to run away with his troupe and “go on the stage.”
However dangerous and perhaps lecherous he might have been, Lighthall provided heavy doses of entertainment. On a trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee, in early 1885, the doctor got into a bloody tooth-yanking feud with a Frenchwoman engaged “in a similar line of business.” She was dressed as an “Indian princess.” The bizarre fight that followed deserves to be restored to the annals of history.
Lighthall may have engaged in just such a “contest” in Indianapolis:
After he left Louisville and the Jeffersonville area one summer, moving north to Seymour and Columbus, the Jeffersonsville News reported that local dentists were busy repairing the damage Doc Lighthall had done to Hoosier jaws.
For better or worse, the Indian doctor’s (and yanker’s) own days were numbered. By January 1886, he had headed south for the winter, encamping in San Antonio, where he was reported to be successfully filching Texas greenhorns of their greenbacks. Tragically, a smallpox epidemic broke out in un-vaccinated San Antonio that month. The 30-year-old’s medical knowledge couldn’t save him. He “died in his tent” on January 25, 1886. Several men from Fort Wayne who were performing with his troupe may also have succumbed to small pox.
News of his demise quickly flashed over Midwestern newspapers, in towns where he had become well-known in days just gone by:
Though rumor had it that Lighthall owned an expensive mansion and a medicine factory back in Peoria, he was buried at San Antonio’s City Cemetery #3, not far from The Alamo. Fittingly, there are bellflowers carved onto his gravestone:
He’s been forgotten today, but Dr. J.I. Lighthall’s fame briefly lived on, with at least one Hoosier writing to ask if he was alive or dead in 1888:
“Indian doctors” weren’t yet on their way out the door when Lighthall died in Texas in 1886. In 1900, in spite of efforts to regulate the practice of medicine, the patent medicine business was still reckoned to be worth about $80 million a year. Several major traveling shows thrived into the 1950s. By then, industrial pharmaceuticals and the discovery of antibiotics had launched medicine into a new era, but the entertainment aspect of the business kept it alive until radio and television killed it off.
Whatever the medicine shows did for the human body, they were definitely good for the soul, as the early 20th-century troupes helped fuel the rise of jazz, blues and country. In 1983, folklorist Steve Zeitlin and filmmaker Paul Wagner were still able to find some old medicine show performers in a rural North Carolina town — the subject of their documentary Free Show Tonight.
American politics often repeats itself every generation or two. In light of some of the top stories in the media in 2015 — including Pope Francis’ U.S. visit and the first major candidacy of a Socialist for the White House since 1920, that of Vermont’s Bernie Sanders — one fascinating, overlooked tale from the Indiana press is worth retrieving from the archives.
The story starts in Terre Haute, hometown of Eugene V. Debs, the great American labor leader who, as a Socialist, ran for president not once, but five times. A passionate leader of railroad strikes — Terre Haute a century ago was one of the major railroad hubs of the nation — Debs was also a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World and a vocal opponent of American entry into World War I. When he clashed with President Wilson over the military draft in 1918, he was sent to prison under an espionage act. Debs spent over two years of a ten-year sentence at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta, where he ran for the presidency in 1920 — the only candidate ever to run a campaign from a jail cell.
In the summer of 1913, however, Eugene Debs came to the defense of a scorned young woman tossed into Terre Haute’s own city jail. Slandered in the press, she’d been called a “woman in scarlet,” a “modern Magdalene” and a street-walker. Local papers and the American Socialist press jumped on the story of how Debs showed compassion for her, but today the tale is almost unknown.
The alleged prostitute was Helen Hollingsworth Cox (sometimes spelled Hollinsworth in the papers.) Born in Indiana around 1888, she would have been about 25 when her case electrified the city, including its gossips. Helen was the daughter of the Reverend J.H. Hollingsworth, a Methodist minister in Greencastle, Newport, Terre Haute and probably several other Wabash Valley towns.
As Mont Casey, a writer for the Clinton Clintonian, explained, the Reverend Hollingsworth had angered some of his flock by preaching the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth rather than giving “more attention to society and the golf links.” Though Debs was a famous “non-professor” when it came to religion, he and Hollingsworth saw eye-to-eye on issues like poverty, it seems. (In fact, the agnostic Debs, son of French immigrants, had been given the middle name Victor to honor Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, the great novel of the poor.) Yet Mont Casey wrote that the Socialist and the Methodist were close friends.
Some papers had apparently gotten their version of Helen’s “fall from grace” wrong, prompting Casey to explain her “true history.” Set among the debauched wine rooms and saloons of Terre Haute, Casey’s version ventures into the city’s once-flourishing red light district near the Wabash River and the world of the “soiled doves,” a popular euphemism for prostitutes. The scene could have come straight from the urban novels of Terre Haute’s other famous son in those days, Theodore Dreiser, whose Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt were banned for their sexual frankness and honesty.
Helen’s minister father may have been denied a pulpit because of his interpretations of the gospel. He also may have been living in poverty and unable to help his daughter. This isn’t clear.
Whatever the truth is, the story went international, perhaps through the efforts of Milwaukee’s Socialist press. (The Socialist mayor of Milwaukee, Emil Seidel, had been Debs’ vice-presidential running mate in 1912.) The tale eventually made it overseas, as far away as New Zealand, in fact, where The Maoriland Worker, published out of Wellington or Christchurch, mentions that Debs was a designated “emergency probation officer” in Terre Haute.
The fires were being stoked. Terre Haute’s well-heeled “Pharisees” — the same type, many pointed out, who had killed “the rebel Jesus,” as Jackson Browne and the Chieftains put it in an Irish Christmas song — apparently weren’t happy about Debs coming to Helen Cox’s defense. When he took the “modern Magdalene” directly into his home (the phrase refers to Jesus’ female disciple, who was also falsely labeled a prostitute in popular memory), Debs declared that his “friends must receive her.”
Son of a formerly Catholic French mother but a freethinker himself, this was a remarkable moment for Debs — who famously said that he would rather entrust himself to a saloon keeper than the average preacher but who was anything but hostile to religion at its best.
A clip from the Washington Post added this excerpt from the labor leader’s remarks to the press:
That summer, Debs’ healthy “challenge to the Christianity of Terre Haute” was taken up in the pages of a unique monthly called The Flaming Sword. Published at a religious commune near Fort Myers, Florida, the periodical was the mouthpiece of the Koreshan Unity, an experimental utopian community based partly on Socialist and Christian principles. The celibate group living on the outskirts of the Everglades had been founded by Dr. Cyrus Teed (1839-1908), a former Civil War doctor turned alchemist and messiah who came down to Florida from Chicago in the 1890s. Teed also propounded a curious “Hollow Earth” theory.
Dr. Teed was dead by the time Debs threw down his challenge to the churches, but the Koreshans printed a spirited, sympathetic editorial about it — written by fellow utopian John S. Sargent, a former Civil War soldier and Wabash Valley native.
Helen Hollingsworth apparently got back on her feet thanks to Debs’ help. But she did lose her daughter, Dorothy, born in 1908, who was raised by the wealthy Cox family and Helen’s “reprobate betrayer.” That was Newton Cox, “petted profligate of an aristocratic family,” who died in 1934. During the Great Depression, Dorothy Cox married a banker named Morris Bobrow. She died in New York City in 2000.
Helen’s father, Reverend J.H. Hollingsworth, passed away in 1943. The Methodist pastor had followed his daughter up to Michigan, where in the early 1930’s, she was living in Lansing and Grand Rapids, having married a news broadcaster named King Bard. The 1940 Census shows that the Bards had a 17-year-old “step-daughter” named Joan. The 1930 Census states that Joan was adopted, and that — confusingly — the married couple’s name was Guerrier, at first. It’s not clear why they changed their last name to Bard during the Depression. King’s birth name had been John Clarence Guerrier, the same name on his World War II draft registration card, which lists him as “alias King Bard.”
Eugene V. Debs died in 1926. Helen Bard retired with her husband to Bradenton, Florida, where she appears to have passed away in May 1974, aged 86.
Newspaper history is full of myths, “viral” stories, and tall tales. Folklore and journalism are often close cousins, especially the colorful “yellow journalism” that sold outright lies to rake in subscriptions. In the annals of Hoosier and American journalism, one persistent, tantalizing tale continues to baffle the sleuths at the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
Who wrote the famous slogan “Go west, young man, and grow up with the country”? It’s one of the great catch phrases of Manifest Destiny, an exhortation that echoes deep in the soul of Americans long after the closing of the frontier. But when you try to pin down where it came from, it’s suddenly like holding a fistful of water (slight variation on a Clint Eastwood theme) or uncovering the genesis of an ancient religious text — especially since nobody has ever found the exact phrase in the writings of either of the men who might have authored it.
“Go west, young man” has usually been credited to influential New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley. A New Englander, Greeley was one of the most vocal opponents of slavery. Antebellum Americans’ take on “liberal” and “conservative” politics would probably confuse today’s voters: a radical, Greeley famously opposed divorce, sparring with Hoosier social reformer Robert Dale Owen over the loose divorce laws that made Indiana the Reno of the nineteenth century. A religious man, he also promoted banning liquor — not a cause “liberal” politicians would probably take up today. Greeley helped promote the writings of Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau and even took on Karl Marx as a European correspondent in the 1850s. (Imagine Abraham Lincoln the lawyer reading the author of The Communist Manifesto in the Tribune!) In 1872, the famously eccentric New York editor ran for President against Ulysses S. Grant, lost, and died before the electoral vote officially came in. Greeley won just three electoral votes but was a widely admired man.
Though Greeley was always interested in Western emigration, he only went out west once, in 1859 during the Colorado Gold Rush. Originally a utopian experimental community, Greeley, Colorado, fifty miles north of Denver, was named after him in 1869. The newspaperman often published advice urging Americans to shout “Westward, ho!” if they couldn’t make it on the East Coast. Yet his own trip through Kansas and over the Rockies to California showed him not just the glories of the West (like Yosemite) but some of the darker side of settlement.
“Fly, scatter through the country — go to the Great West,” he wrote in 1837. Years later, in 1872, he was still editorializing: “I hold that tens of thousands, who are now barely holding on at the East, might thus place themselves on the high road to competence and ultimate independence at the West.”
“At the West” included the Midwest. Before the Civil War, Indiana was a popular destination for Easterners “barely holding on.”
A major cradle of Midwestern settlement was Maine, birthplace of John Soule, Greeley’s competitor for authorship of the mystery slogan. As the logger, writer, and popular historian Stuart Holbrook wrote in his 1950 book Yankee Exodus, Maine’s stony soil and the decline of its shipping trade pushed thousands of Mainers to get out just after it achieved statehood in 1820. The exodus was so bad that many newspaper editors in Maine wrote about the fear that the new state would actually be depopulated by “Illinois Fever” and the rush to lumbering towns along the Great Lakes — and then Oregon.
One Mainer who headed to the Midwest in the 1840s was John Babson Lane Soule, later editor of The Wabash Express. Born in 1815 in Freeport, Maine — best known today as the home of L.L. Bean — Soule came from a prominent local family. His brother Gideon Lane Soule went on to serve as president of Phillips Exeter Academy, the prestigious prep school in New Hampshire. Though the Soules were Congregationalists, a likely relative of theirs, Gertrude M. Soule, born in nearby Topsham, Maine, in 1894, was one of the last two Shakers in New Hampshire. (She died in 1988.)
J.B.L. Soule — whom an 1890 column in the Chicago Mail claimed was the man who actually coined the phrase “Go west, young man” in 1851 — was educated at Bowdoin College, just down the road from Freeport. Soule became an accomplished master of Latin and Greek and for decades after his move west published poems in New England literary magazines like The Bowdoin Poets and Northern Monthly. A poem of his called “The Wabash” came out in Bowdoin’s poetry journal in August 1840, so it’s safe to assume that Soule had moved to Terre Haute by then. By 1864, he was still writing poems with titles like “The Prairie Grave.”
While Soule’s conventional, classical poetry might be hard to appreciate today, he was hailed as “a writer of no ordinary ability” by the Terre Haute Journal in 1853. Additionally, Soule and his brother Moses helped pioneer education in Terre Haute, helping to establish the Vigo County Seminary and the Indiana Normal School (precursor of Indiana State University) in the 1840s. J.B.L. Soule taught at the Terre Haute Female College, a boarding school for girls. The Soule brothers were also affiliated with the Baldwin Presbyterian Church, Terre Haute’s second house of worship.
John Soule later served as a Presbyterian minister in Plymouth, Indiana; preached at Elkhorn, Wisconsin, during the Civil War; taught ancient languages at Blackburn University in Carlinville, Illinois; then finished his career as a Presbyterian pastor in Highland Park, Chicago. He died in 1891.
He seems like a great candidate to be the author of “Go west, young man,” since he did exactly that. But it’s hard to prove that Soule, not Horace Greeley, coined the famous appeal.
Four decades later, in October 1891, an anonymous writer in the Chicago Mail reported a tale from an equally anonymous “old-timer,” told in an anonymous Chicago bar. The “Dick Thompson” of this story is Richard Wigginton Thompson. Originally from Culpeper, Virginia, Thompson moved out to Bedford, Indiana, to practice law, and settled in Terre Haute in 1843. During the Civil War, Dick Thompson commanded Camp Dick Thompson, a training base in Vigo County. Oddly for a man from almost-landlocked Indiana, he served as Secretary of the Navy under President Rutherford B. Hayes from 1877 to 1880. He died in Terre Haute in 1900.
“Do you know,” said an old–timer at the Chicago club, “that that epigrammatic bit of advice to young men, ‘Go west,’ so generally attributed to Horace Greeley, was not original with him? No? Well, it wasn’t. It all came about this way: John L.B. Soule was the editor of the Terre Haute Express back in the 50’s, and one day in ’51, if I remember right, he and Dick Thompson were conversing in the former’s sanctum. Thompson had just finished advising Soule to go west and grow up with the country and was praising his talents as a writer.
“‘Why, John,’ he said, ‘you could write an article that would be attributed to Horace Greeley if you tried.’
“‘No, I couldn’t,’ responded Mr. Soule, modestly, ‘I’ll bet I couldn’t.’
“‘I’ll bet a barrel of flour you can if you’ll promise to try your best, the flour to go to some deserving poor person.’
“‘All right. I’ll try,’ responded Soule.
“He did try, writing a column editorial on the subject of discussion—the opportunities offered to young men by the west. He started in by saying that Horace Greeley could never have given a young man better advice than that contained in the words, ‘Go West, young man.’
“Of course, the advice wasn’t quoted from Greeley, merely compared to what he might have said. But in a few weeks the exchanges began coming into the Express office with the epigram reprinted and accredited to Greeley almost universally. So wide a circulation did it obtain that at last the New York Tribune came out editorially, reprinted the Express article, and said in a foot note:
“‘The expression of this sentiment has been attributed to the editor of the Tribune erroneously. But so heartily does he concur in the advice it gives that he endorses most heartily the epigrammatic advice of the Terre Haute Express and joins in saying, ‘Go west, young man, go west.'”
Though the story shook the foundations of the slogan’s attribution to Greeley, even on the surface the Chicago Mail piece is doubtful. What would Dick Thompson — no literary man — have to get J.B.L. Soule (a graduate of Phillips Exeter and Bowdoin College and one of the best writers in Terre Haute) to get over his modesty? The story also makes Thompson out to be a patriarch giving advice to the young. In fact, he was only six years older than Soule. It’s hard to imagine Thompson acting the father figure and “advising Soule to go west and grow up with the country” while they sat in a “sanctum” in Terre Haute — which was the West in 1851. Soule, from Maine, had already come farther than Thompson, from Virginia. And he kept on going.
The bigger problem is that there’s only a few surviving copies of the Terre Haute Express from 1851, and nobody has ever actually found the exact phrase “Go west, young man, and grow up with the country” in its pages or in any of Horace Greeley’s extensive writings. It would be understandable if the “old-timer” of the Chicago Mail or Richard W. Thompson got the date wrong after forty years, but researchers who have scoured all extant copies of the Terre Haute papers and Horace Greeley’s works have never found a single trace of the famous slogan in its exact wording.
The exact phrase probably never got written down at all, but entered popular memory as short-hand for Greeley’s exhortations to migrate. Iowa Congressman Josiah B. Grinnell, a Vermont expatriate, used to be identified as the “young man” whom Greeley urged to get out of New York City and go west in 1853. But Grinnell himself debunked claims that he got that advice from Greeley in a letter. Even the oral advice Greeley gave Grinnell wasn’t the precise phrase we remember him for. Instead, he said “Go West; this is not the place for a young man.”
Wherever the phrase originated, as late as 1871, a year before his death, Greeley was still urging New Englanders and down-and-out men tired of Washington, D.C. to hit the western trails. However, the editor himself mostly stuck close to the Big Apple, venturing only as far as his Chappaqua Farm in Westchester County, New York during the summertime. While only at the big city’s edge, Greeley continued to play the role of western pioneer.
This week, Hoosier State Chronicles is uploading a large run of Terre Haute newspapers from 1880 to 1903, digitized by the Vigo County Public Library. While peering through a few issues, I ran across ads from a man who shows up in a bizarre Hoosier folktale.
Having grown up in the Wabash Valley, I’d heard the strange story of John Heinl and his constant canine companion — the emerald-eyed phantom bulldog, “Stiffy Green.” Even as an occasional believer in the paranormal, I knew the legend wasn’t true. Yet, like most Terre Hauteans, I also knew literally nothing about the famous dog’s owner. As usual, fact sometimes outdoes fiction. Here’s a bit about the real John Heinl, master of the green-eyed ghost hound, and an interesting Hoosier family.
John was his Americanized name. According to his 1894 application for a U.S. passport, the man whose life story got lost in the “Stiffy Green” legend was born Johann Gradl Heinl on September 7, 1844, in the Bohemian town of Eger, today called Cheb, about a hundred miles west of Prague. Until age twelve, Heinl was a subject of the Austrian Empire.
In 1856, with his parents and three brothers, Heinl boarded the Augusta Emma, bound out of the German port of Bremen for New York City. The vessel’s passenger list shows that his parents traveled first class, while their four sons sailed in steerage below. (It’s interesting that at age fourteen, John’s brother Lorenz, later a pioneer Hoosier florist, was already listed as a butcher.)
The family first settled in Toledo, Ohio. On the chilly shores of Lake Erie, John apprenticed in the horticultural trade. In 1863, aged nineteen, he and Lawrence moved west to the Wabash Valley, where by the end of the Civil War, they were running a greenhouse at 15th & Washington Avenue in Terre Haute.
Terre Haute was full of Europeans in the 1860’s. Sometime before 1870, young John Heinl got to know another immigrant family, the Debses. Jean-Daniel Debs and his wife Marguerite Marie Bettrich had come to Indiana from Alsace, France. A literary man, Jean-Daniel named his first son after the French writers Eugène Sue and Victor Hugo. Eugene V. Debs went on to become one of America’s greatest labor leaders and was the Socialist Party’s candidate for President five times. In 1870, John Heinl, known to most locals today only as “Stiffy Green’s master,” married Debs’ sister, Marie — who also went by “Mary.”
John and Mary Heinl lived at two addresses on North Eighth Street in downtown Terre Haute, just off the campus of Indiana State Normal School, later Indiana State University. Mary’s brother, Eugene, lived around the corner. And on the porch of the Heinl residence, there stood the shadow of a future legend: a sculptured bulldog.
Meanwhile, Heinl’s greenhouses were booming. Heinl, his brother Lawrence, and John’s son Fred eventually opened several floral establishments around town, including one called “Floral Hall,” where they raised and sold chrysanthemums, palms, laurels, ferns, Parisian lilacs, African violets, and grapevines. John also owned a flower plantation and hot houses near Tallahassee, Florida, where he cultivated plants and seeds for export to the Midwest. Situated at the “Crossroads of America,” Heinl shipped flowers from his Terre Haute greenhouses by rail all over the U.S.
A leading citizen and a Progressive, if not a Socialist, John Heinl was president of the Rose Dispensary, a clinic and pharmacy offering free medical care to the needy. He also served as Vice President of the Rose Orphans Home and was active on the boards of several banks as well as the Terre Haute Water Works. Known for his impeccable honesty, in 1906 Heinl served on an investigative committee that dug into Vigo County’s pervasive political graft.
By the 1890s, he was also operating a travel agency, booking passage for steamships and tours back to his native Europe. In 1895, John, Mary and their son Robert went on a ten-month European tour.
There’s always a newspaper man in these stories. Sure enough, John and Mary’s son, the distinguished journalist Robert Debs Heinl, Sr., born in Terre Haute in 1880, had his first job reporting for the Terre Haute Star. Robert later worked for the Indianapolis Sentinel before moving to New York City. A friend of Fiorello LaGuardia and President William H. Taft, Robert Debs Heinl became a nationally-known newspaper and magazine correspondent, traveled around Latin America, and wrote for National Geographic beginning in 1918. He later became an editor at the Washington Post.
John Heinl’s grandson, Robert Debs Heinl, Jr., also became a well-respected author. An officer in the Marine Corps, he was present at Pearl Harbor and fought at Iwo Jima, then in Korea. A military correspondent for the Detroit News, Col. Heinl also authored an influential history of Haiti, where in the early 1960s he served as a U.S. military liaison and helped trained Haitian dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s troops. His son, Michael Heinl, great-grandson of “Stiffy Green’s master,” was allegedly almost abducted and tortured in 1962 at the dictator’s palace in Port-au-Prince, when he was twelve years old. The dictator’s son, “Baby Doc,” one of Michael Heinl’s friends, apparently saved him from his father’s henchmen after he criticized the regime.
Now for the ghostly legend.
Florist John Heinl died at home on New Year’s Eve 1920. Mourners laid him to rest in a marble mausoleum not far from the Debs family plot at Terre Haute’s Highland Lawn Cemetery, the second largest in Indiana. Mary Debs Heinl followed him there in 1936, then their son Fred in 1955.
Somehow, the stone bulldog that had stood watch outside their house near the campus of Indiana State got put into the mausoleum with them as decoration. The dog had faux-emerald eyes that shone in the night.
By 1968, students in the English Department at ISU, where Ron Baker had begun a Folklore program, were already collecting wild tales about “Stiffy Green” (also known as “Stuffy Green”), the “stuffed” hound visible through the window of the Heinl crypt. A popular thrill for teenagers and even for couples on dates was to jump over the iron gates at Highland Lawn, peer through the mausoleum’s window with flashlights, and mess with Stiffy.
The local tale differed with the teller, but it went something like this: John Heinl was an eccentric, lonely Terre Haute businessman who lived by himself and had only his faithful bulldog (“or wolf”) for a companion. The two were inseparable and always went out walking together, Heinl typically smoking a big cigar. As he got older, the strange man put it in his will that when he died, he wanted his pet bulldog stuffed and placed in his tomb. Like in the ancient practice of horse burial, the two would keep each other company into the afterlife. Finally, Heinl died and the dog was put to sleep. The taxidermist’s work done, “Stiffy Green-Eyes” sat guarding his master’s tomb at Highland Lawn, snarling at grave-robbers and vandals. (Heinl, the tale went, was buried with all his jewels.)
A popular alternative version has it that his master’s death left Stiffy so upset, he wandered away from home and waited at the mausoleum door for Heinl to come out. Whenever the family brought the bereaved dog back to Eighth Street he ran off to the cemetery on U.S. 40 again, until finally his shattered heart died of grief. Ghost-hunters reported seeing master and hound wandering the cemetery grounds at night. Sometimes, the pooch howled awfully at strangers.
In 1985, when the real nocturnal prowlers started to shoot bullets instead of innocuous flashlights into Stiffy’s verdant eyes, the cemetery caretakers had to remove the statue. It eventually ended up at the Vigo County Historical Society and was used in a children’s exhibit. But Stiffy’s new caretakers never really squashed the famous legend.
Nature lover, friend of dogs and underdogs, journalistic joker, and shooter-up of men he considered his enemies, George C. Harding once edited newspapers from Cincinnati to Houston but was always most connected with the Indianapolis Journal and the Indianapolis Herald, which he edited in the 1870’s. Part Mark Twain, part Ambrose Bierce, part proverbial “man gone postal,” Harding was called “the most picturesque man in Indianapolis journalism” by city historian J.P. Dunn.
Since he wielded a pistol several times in the capitol city and may have suffered from a mental illness, it’s hard to know exactly how to see him today. But since he’s also been mostly forgotten, here’s a bit of his story.
Born in Clinton, Tennessee, in 1830 to a family of thirteen kids, the future editor of the Indianapolis Journal lived in Knoxville until age seven. In 1837, the family moved to Edgar County, Illinois, where his father, Jacob J. Harding, eventually edited the Prairie Beacon in Paris, twenty miles west of Terre Haute, Indiana. At fourteen, Harding ran away to St. Louis, but came back “penniless and disheartened” and probably worked in a brick factory.
A long obituary published in the Indiana State Sentinel in 1881 says that “When about fifteen or sixteen years of age [Harding] went to Terre Haute and learned the printing art in the office of the Terre Haute Express.” When the Mexican War broke out, he enlisted as a private but got sick (either in St. Louis or New Orleans) and never made it to Mexico. Around 1848, he was co-editing his father’s paper just over the Illinois state line.
George Orwell famously said in 1946 that “Bad writers – especially scientific, political, and sociological writers – are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones.” When the Indiana State Sentinel published a piece that praised Harding for shooting the alleged seducer of his teenage daughter Flora in 1874, the paper curried public sympathy by praising everything about the man. “His letters at this time, written in strong, sensible, and positive Anglo Saxon,” it said, reminiscing on Harding’s early days in the news business, “without redundancy, attracted considerable attention among readers of the Beacon.”
In the 1850s, he grew restless and floated down the Mississippi to New Orleans, where he may have gotten work as a newspaper correspondent for the Cincinnati Commercial. Before the Civil War, Harding also edited the Courier in Charleston, Illinois, founded the Coles County Ledger in Mattoon, and did editorial work for papers in Louisville, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Houston.
During the Civil War, the itinerant news man served as Lieutenant in the 1st Indiana Heavy Artillery, the so-called “Jackass Regiment.” (The name came from the Hoosier regiment’s use of mules to haul cannon and supplies.) He saw action at the Battle of Baton Rouge and Port Hudson, Louisiana, before being captured by Confederate cavalry, allegedly while stumbling drunk over a fence. While held as a POW at New Iberia, Louisiana, Harding and two other Indiana captives drank from gourd cups and used ox-shoulders as silverware. Because he had given his word of honor not to attempt an escape, he was freed during a prisoner exchange at Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1863.
(Harding served with “The Jackass Regiment” in Louisiana.)
Harding’s knife-sharp prose is best when he’s telling the hard truth, though he could occasionally flip on the sentimentality switch if he had to, to sell papers.
One of the best things to come from his pen is this priceless description of U.S. Grant reviewing new recruits in Mattoon, Illinois, in 1861. Watching Grant inspect the dirty “ragamuffins,” who “looked as if they had been run down with hounds in the wilds of Effingham County,” Harding found it hard to escape “the infernal odor of cabbage [wafting] right into my face” as the slovenly, smelly commander (not yet a famous general) smoked a cigar. Originally published in the Indianapolis Mirror, the passage was syndicated in the Memphis Public Ledger in 1869, a paper Harding had connections with. The passage reads like something his fellow Hoosier, the cynical skeptic of war Ambrose Bierce, might have written. (Bierce grew up in Warsaw and Elkhart.)
Resigning his lieutenancy in 1864, Harding took an editorial position for six months on the New Orleans Times and the True Delta. Some of what he wrote down South was reprinted after his death, including a humorous piece called “Duck Shooting in Louisiana.” At war’s end, he came north to Cincinnati to work on the staff of the Commercial, then moved to Indianapolis. Several dailies and weeklies that he wrote for or edited after the war include the Mirror, the Journal, the Saturday Herald, and the Sentinel.
Historian J.P. Dunn said that “Harding’s great forte was as a paragrapher. . . The public really enjoyed seeing a victim squirm when he gigged him.” He often attacked public figures whom he considered a fraud. The Rev. Myron Reed, who delivered his eulogy at Central Avenue Methodist Church in 1881, said: “Every abuser of money or official power, every masked man, every man who writes anonymous letters, will sleep more peacefully tonight because George Harding is dead.”
Yet the popular editor published several fraudulent stories on purpose as practical jokes, as George S. Cottman remembered in a 1922 op-ed piece on famous Hoosier hoaxes.
“Many remember the Charley Ross abduction, which took place on July 1, 1874,” Cottman wrote, referring to a famous Philadelphia kidnapping that was never solved. (Dunn called the ensuing hoax Harding pulled off “a very plausibly written story.”)
Nearly two years later, or, to be exact, on April 1, 1876, there appeared in the Indianapolis Saturday Herald, edited by George C. Harding, a three-column article with this heading sensationally arranged in display type:
Charley Ross, the long lost boy, recovered at last. He is found with Italian organ grinders on Potomac alley [in Indianapolis], dressed as a girl and called Telsla. How Detective Hollywood worked up the case. The father and the child at the Grand Hotel.
. . . As a consequence, within half an hour after the Herald appeared on the street, people began to throng the lobby of the Grand Hotel. The hotel clerks, overwhelmed with questions, were at first bewildered, then “tumbling” to the situation, hung a few placards about, displaying the simple legend, “April fool!”
(The Grand Hotel at the corner of Maryland and Illinois Streets, seen in 1889, witnessed one of the city’s great April Fool’s jokes. Today, this is the site of Circle Centre Mall. )
Harding himself was hoaxed by a fake space rock in 1879, as told in Wednesday’s post.
Whether the meteorite really killed a farmer named Grover or not, Harding himself tried to kill several men in the 1870s.
In 1879, he got into a hot mudslinging dispute with Calvin A. Light, a radical leader of the Knights of Labor and editor of a rival newspaper called The Democrat. (Light had played a big role in the Railroad Strike of 1877.) As Dunn put it, “Harding took an intense dislike to Light, and on one occasion ordered him out of the Herald office — with variations. . . On May 4, he went to Light’s house and tried to shoot him, but after one ineffective shot, was dragged away by neighbors. The next day he went to The Democrat office and shot at Light three times, but only succeeded in wounding a printer named Lizius. He was duly arrested and tried, and got off on a plea of insanity.“
In 1917, a writer named David Gibson remembered another shooting, or mixed up two shootings entirely, claiming that Harding also once shot at Sol Hathaway, editor of the “spicy”Independent. In the midst of a raving editorial feud, “Harding printed an item in the paper alluding to Hathaway as ‘the long-nosed dead beat editor that loafed about hotel lobbies and slipped into the dining room when the manager was not looking.'” As Gibson narrated it in a trade magazine, The Inland Printer:
Hathaway responded with a series of buck type interrogations, for in those days you could evade libel in Indiana by putting a charge in the form of a question. . .
The following Friday, Hathway was seated in his office at an old cherry desk with a flap that let down in front, with his back to the door, which certainly was a breach of the most ordinary editorial precaution.
Suddenly the door opened. Harding appeared in a “beastly state of intoxication” and began showering the place with bullets as big as birds’ eggs from an army horse-pistol. Hathaway jumped under the imposing table at the first shot. Two printers, setting type at the front of the room, leaped out the open windows at their sides, lit on an awning over an undertaking establishment and rolled off onto the roof of a hearse that was standing at the curb. The horses of the hearse proceeded to run away and started a stampede of other horses.
Gibson made the claim (I haven’t been able to verify this) that one of Harding’s bullets grazed a printing machine with type ready to go to press. Later on, Hathaway “set up in large Gothic type an account of the affray, tore out a lot of type paralleling the furrow and set in two brass rules and a line of type: ‘The track of the would-be assassin’s bullet!'” Harding kicked the Independent’s editor down the stairs, but Hathaway survived. He committed suicide in 1911, aged eighty-two.
Five years before his assault on labor leader Calvin Light, a tragic suicide had driven George Harding to his most celebrated shooting. Perhaps he was, in fact, mentally insane, but the family tragedy that drove him to seek revenge was very real, and his gun was aimed at another man named Sol.
In 1874, Solomon Moritz was a 36-year-old merchant tailor in Indianapolis. Born in Germany, he emigrated to Cincinnati at about age fifteen, then moved to Indiana in 1868. The Sentinel wrote that “Mr. Moritz is well known in the city, and is one of the most prominent of the Jewish citizens of Indianapolis.”
A version of the events published in the Daily Record of the Times in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, says of Harding and Moritz:
These gentlemen have been warm friends and very intimate in their social relations. Moritz, who is a Hebrew, aged about forty years and married, took advantage of this intimacy and succeeded in seducing Harding’s daughter, who is about eighteen years of age. This was accomplished last March, and improper relations have been maintained by the parties since that time. . . Mrs. Harding, [the girl’s stepmother] has stated that Moritz had also made improper proposals to her.
Flora Harding, the editor’s eighteen-year-old daughter, was a talented writer and translator who taught German in the Seventh Ward district school. “During the absence of her father to the Hot Springs [Arkansas?], she filled the editorial chair and most ably,” said the Sentinel.
Flora probably also suffered from lifelong depression and feared the ruin of her reputation. If Moritz had in fact taken advantage of her, she would likely have become an outcast in those days of a strict female “honor” code.
On August 20, Harding’s daughter poisoned herself by taking “twenty-four grains of opium.” Death was a few hours coming, and her father discovered her in her bedroom before she died. She confessed to him that she had been having sex with Solomon Moritz. Then, as he wrote in a tribute in his newspaper, “two great tears came from the filmy eyes and rolled over the face, across which was stealing the shadow of the Death Angel.”
She often jested on the subject of suicide, and, on one occasion, being reproved and told that God frowned on self-murder, she said, “Papa, I am not afraid of God.”
While walking to get a doctor, at about 1:30 in the afternoon Harding met Moritz “at the junction of New Jersey and Vermont Streets with Massachusetts Avenue.”
“Mr. Moritz’s first exclamation was ‘George, what are you doing here?’ Mr. Harding made no answer, but pulling out a pistol, began firing at Mr. Moritz.”
Harding chased Moritz up Vermont Street, toward an alley behind Roberts Park Methodist Church, sinking two bullets into him, and tried to get in two more, “the blood meanwhile flowing from [Moritz’s] mouth and nose.” Luckily for his target, Harding’s fourth shot jammed his revolver and the alleged seducer escaped by hailing a wagon. (Moritz supposedly lost an arm, but lived to see Harding go on trial. When questioned by police, he denied that he had seduced Flora, instead blaming “a Jew liquor dealer on South Meridian.”)
Though the bereaved gunman was taken to jail that night, public opinion was overwhelmingly in his favor. When Harding went to trial, one of his lawyers, Major Jonathan W. Gordon (profiled on this blog during his grave-robbing days), defended Harding on the basis of common law.
The whole community have fully approved and justified the act for which my friend Harding stands indicted. . . It is the common law of the West, and, indeed of the whole country, that he who seduces an innocent female
MAY BE SLAIN
by her father, brother, or husband with impunity, and in the case at bar the grand jury have, in effect, already said so by returning a bill of indictment for a simple assault and battery.
Harding was acquitted, and as the judge announced the verdict, “the pent up feeling of the large crowd broke forth in applause, which was both loud and protracted.” Perhaps this free pass from the state criminal court made the editor consider other public shootings in the future.
In 1880, Harding moved to Minnesota, where he had bought the Lanesboro Journal. But “his active brain required more scope,” says the Fillmore County history. Tragically, in May 1881 George C. Harding had an odd death back in Indianapolis.
Dead! How suddenly he went out! Two weeks ago last Wednesday, he was walking along a street in Indianapolis, and stepped aside to allow some ladies to pass. He stepped on a cellar grating, just as a man was raising it. His right foot went into the opening, and the flesh of his leg was cut to the bone. He died at six o’clock last Sunday morning, of congestion of the brain and blood poisoning, resulting from the accident.
In the death of George C. Harding, Indiana journalism has lost one of its oldest, most familiar and rarely original characters. . . We know of no one who can take up the pen which Harding has dropped, never to pick up again. . .
Dying at the age of 51, his life was cut off in the very midst of his powers. . . there is not another George C. Harding any more than there is another Charles Dickens.
In a previous post, I featured an example of “text speak” published in the Vincennes Western Sun way back in 1849. Here’s a few more linguistic oddities from early Hoosier newspapers.
If you drink German beer from a bottle, you might have seen a label on the side saying something like “Brewed according to the German purity law of 1516,” a reference to the famous “Reinheitsgebot” that regulated the brewing of beer (i.e., only water, barley and hops could go into it.) But since 2016 marks the 500th anniversary of the German beer law, in the meantime let’s talk about a different kind of “purity.”
Denglish is a term used today in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria to refer to the mixing of “Deutsch” with “English.” Globalization has made English the dominant language on earth, and it’s not at all uncommon in Germany to hear things like ich habe den File downgeloadet (I downloaded the file) or catch someone ordering ein Double Whopper mit Bacon und Cheddar Cheese. Why? German certainly has perfectly good words for bacon and cheese. Maybe since McDonald’s isn’t German and is even an exotic novelty for some Europeans, asking for einDoppelwhopper mit Speck und Cheddar-Käse just sounds too traditional or even too strange. Better to just leave it in English. (And, by the way, we don’t always translate, either: look at sauerkraut, apple strudel, bratwurst. . .)
Though English and German are related, outside the realm of food, not many words have ever come from modern German into modern English. Linguistic purists in Europe, on the other hand, go through “periodic bouts of angst“ (a German word!) about the influx coming from the other direction. (I wonder if this kind of angst exists in Sweden, where Paul Dresser’s On the Banks of the Wabash Far Away became a very popular song when it was translated into Swedish as early as 1919. You can listen to Barndomshemmet — a.k.a., “Childhood Home” — over on YouTube.)
The influx is nothing new. In Indianapolis, Indiana, just after the Civil War, the town had a large German population and several important German-language newspapers — the Täglicher Telegraph (the weekly edition was called the Indiana Volksblatt und wöchentlicher Telegraph) and the Indiana Tribüne.
The Tribüne survived until World War I, when anti-German feeling helped silence it in June 1918. An advertisement in the Indianapolis Star on May 31, 1918, called on American boys to ““Kill Germans – kill them early, late and all the time but kill them sure.” Even Hoosiers with German names joined in the irrational hatred of everything German, like William Leib of Elkhart. Others supported the war against the Kaiser, like Richard Lieber — an immigrant from Düsseldorf, the founder of Indiana’s state park system, and a reporter for the Tribüne.
At one time, the Hoosier State also had a small number of other newspapers published in languages besides English. (The Macedonian Tribune began in Indianapolis in 1927 and is still published today in Fort Wayne. South Bend once had papers in Hungarian and Polish.) Today, La Voz de Indiana, a Spanish-language paper, is printed in the capitol city.
While I haven’t run across any examples of Indiana writers mixing English and German grammar, here are some great examples of Denglish from the early Hoosier newspapers. I culled these from random issues of the Indiana Tribüne and the Täglicher Telegraph between the years 1866 and 1910. Any issue from those days will turn up plenty of Denglish.
The old German Fraktur script can be a challenge to read if you’re not familiar with it, but if you can read any German at all, see if you can figure these out!
If you had Durst in Terre Haute in 1866,you might go to ein Saloon.
Habst du Hunger? (Und by the way, was sind Wahoo Bitters?)
This ad has more English than German in it. Buy ’em by the bushel crate:
While on Georgia St., you might be interested in grabbing some
Like seafood? Your slimy lunch was just delivered fresh all the way from Baltimore, even in the 1860s:
For dessert, treat yourself to something sweet. “All kinds” of this treat are available:
Rauchst du? It’s a bad habit, but if you’ve got to do it, make it a Hoosier Poet, and make sure it’s a real Havana:
Hausjacken on sale right now, $4.75:
Do you give your kids any of these before bed? Probably shouldn’t.
Und was trinken Sie? Before Prohibition, hundreds of breweries, many run by Germans and Czechs, dotted the American landscape. (A lot of these were rural areas, but city folk, of course, drank beer, too. The 1855 Lager Beer Riots in Chicago erupted partly because Mayor Levi Boone, descendant of Daniel Boone, didn’t like Germans boozing on Sundays. But he also he hated their radical politics and wanted to keep them from getting together at their watering-holes, where they talked about socialism and Chicago politics.)
At one time, the Terre Haute Brewing Company, founded in 1837 by German immigrant Matthias Mogger, was one of the largest beer-producers in the United States. The company’s nationally-famous beer “Champagne Velvet,” begun by Bavarian immigrant Anton Meyer, was recently resurrected by Upland Brewing in Bloomington. Germans enjoyed this and many other local beers on tap over a century ago in the Hoosier State:
Wait, too much drinking for you. Better make a special trip upstairs to see this technological wonder of the nineteenth century:
If you’re ready for another binge, hey, be family-friendly now and take them out on one of these:
Yes. That says “Big Picnic of the German Military Union.” Sound scary? Many German immigrants fought in the Civil War while serving in Hoosier regiments. This 1903 ad announces low rates for a train trip down South to erect the Indiana Monument at the Shiloh Schlachtfeld:
On your stopover in Paducah, grab a bottle of the finest Kentucky whiskey.
Plan on having the family portrait taken? Take the kids to Cadwallader and Fearnaught, Meisterphotographen, at their studio on Ost Washington Strasse in downtown Indy.And “bring the babies”:
Maybe you need a job. If you get an office job, you’ll also need some stationery.
(Office tape! In 1866!)
If you bite down too hard on one of those Star Pencils, or if einPaper Clip gets stuck in your teeth, here’s a German-speaking Zahnärzte at your service:
There was even a female dentist in Indianapolis back in those days, Mary Lloyd, across from Fletcher’s Bank and the New York Store:
Dentists also dealt with problems caused by this stuff:
Got oil in your headlights? This brand is geruchlos (odorless):
ACHTUNG!! Watch out for das Manhole!
Keep your precious treasures safe. Bank with Mr. Fletcher:
Or keep your fortune safe at home with this hefty beast:
You can also protect your money by doing some bargain-shopping. Germans are famous for thrift, aren’t they?
Or skip shopping altogether and just take your kids to see Santa Klaus and let him provide the gift. Hier ist dein Ticket:
If Santa is in the neighborhood, that means it’s getting cold outside. Get a “honey comb quilt” or some serious old-school heating:
If you do get sick this winter, try one of these handy home remedies:
OK, that’s enough Denglish for me. I’m off on the Eisenbahn. And I’ll be traveling in style.
Run across any other great examples of Denglish? Have any personal stories to share? Bitte schicken Sie mir eine E-mail: Stephen Taylor at staylor336 [at] gmail.com
In 1858, Terre Haute, Indiana, was beginning to have an odd distinction: bite victims from all over the Midwest were coming here for a cure.
That year, Isaac M. Brown, editor of the Terre Haute Daily Union, suggested to the city council that the town purchase for public use a “madstone,” a curious leech-like hair ball found in the guts of deer — preferably an albino buck.
For centuries, folk doctors on both sides of the Atlantic believed such madstones to be helpful in warding off rabies infections and healing poisonous bites. (Queen Elizabeth I of England apparently kept a madstone hanging around her neck.) To back up his support for this public health measure in Terre Haute, Brown quoted a letter from the Mount Pleasant Journal in Iowa, which tells the wild story of one settler there, Seth Stanton, bitten by a rabid feline at his home near the Missouri state line.
On the morning of the 15th of March last I arose early, walked out to the gate in front of my house where I was attacked by a mad animal — a mad cat. It sprang upon me with all the ferocity of a tiger, biting me on both ankles, taking a piece entirely out of my left ankle, clothing flesh and all. [Perhaps it was a wildcat, not a domestic creature. Stanton is not specific.] I saw at once my hopeless condition, for the glairing eyes of the cat told me at once that it was in a fit of hydrophobia. I at once resolved to start forthwith to Terre-Haute, Ind., expecting there to find a mad stone. Accordingly in a few hours, myself and wife were under way, crowding all sail for that port.
Though rabies can take as much as a year to incubate and show any of its awful signs, Stanton wasted no time in traveling by train or river boat back east to Indiana. But when he discovered there was a madstone seventeen miles from Alton, Illinois, just across the Mississippi from St. Louis, he stopped there. Eight days after he was bitten, he wrote, “My leg turned spotted as a leopard to my body, of a dark green color, with twitching of the nerves.”
[I] drank no water for eight days. The stone was promptly applied to the wounds. It stuck fast as a leech until gorged with poison, when it fell off volunteerly [sic]. It was then cleaned with sweet milk, salt and water, and was applied again, and so on, for seven rounds, drawing hard each time, when it refused to take hold any more. — The bad symptoms then all left me, and the cure was complete, and I returned to my family and friends with a heart all overflowing with thanksgiving and praises to God for His goodness and mercy in thus snatching me from the very jaws of death.
American medical history is full of strange tales and oddball personalities. In some cases, medicine and folklore come together.
Though my family has lived in Terre Haute since the mid-1800s, I certainly had never heard anything about a famous “madstone” there. The “Terre Haute madstone,” however, shows up over several decades in American and even Canadian newspapers. At one time, journalists made Terre Haute out to be a virtual “madstone” mecca.
Madstones definitely weren’t Blarney Stones, and people who came looking for them weren’t tourists. Madstones, it turns out, weren’t even rocks at all. Once used as part of a rare but geographically widespread folk medical practice, they are also termed bezoars in both folklore and medical science. Categorized according to the type of material that causes their formation — usually milk, seeds, or plants mixed with an animal’s own hair from licking itself — bezoars are calcareous masses found in the gastrointestinal tracts of deer, sheep, goats, horses and even walruses. In folk usage, these masses were mistaken for actual stones, sometimes polished to look like beautiful grey hen’s eggs, and often thought to have nearly-miraculous properties.
Frontiersmen believed that when applied to the bite of a rabid animal, and in some cases even that of a poisonous snake, madstones could draw out the rabies virus or poison before the tell-tale symptoms set in. Rabies is almost always fatal and one of the worst ways to die. Victims of the infection will suffer from extreme, deathbed-splintering spasms as the virus wreaks havoc on the nervous system. Hydrophobia, characterized by frothing at the mouth and intense fear of water, follows from the inability to swallow. According to Dr. Charles E. Davis in The International Traveler’s Guide to Avoiding Infections, the World Health Organization knows of only one case of a human with rabies escaping an excruciating death once the virus reached the brain.
While the madstone has been thoroughly debunked, one can hardly fault the practitioners of early madstone “medicine” for giving it a go. In some parts of America, use of these stones lingered on into the 1940s.
One of the better pieces of writing about American madstones appeared in the Summer 1983 issue of Bittersweet, a magazine published by high-school students in Lebanon, Missouri. Called the “Foxfire of the Ozarks,” Bittersweet was a spin-off of the hugely popular books written by students in Georgia in the early 1970s. Based on interviews with Appalachian and Ozark old-timers, Foxfire and Bittersweet were a major spur to the countercultural back-to-the-land movement that came about during the days of the Vietnam War.
In “Madstone: Truth or Myth?” student Dena Myers looked at the old folk belief, once common far outside the Ozarks. She tapped into a vast repertory of tales claiming the stone’s effectiveness.
Drawing on interviews, Myers describes the actual use of the madstone:
People using the madstone for treatment boil the stone in sweet milk, or sometimes alcohol. While still hot, they apply the madstone to the wound. If the victim has rabies, the stone will stick to the wound and draw out the poison. Once the stone adheres to the wound, it cannot be pulled off. After the stone is filled with the poison, it drops off by itself. It is then boiled again in the milk which turns green the second time. The process of boiling and applying is repeated until the stone no longer sticks to the wound.
French scientist Louis Pasteur pioneered a rabies vaccine in the 1880s, but its side-effects were so terrible that many people avoided it. (“Some Ozarkians say they would rather use the madstone than take the shots,” Myers wrote.) References to a “Pasteur treatment” or “cure” at the turn of the century are misleading. Once symptoms appear, “treatment” for rabies can do little but lessen the agony of death. Those who “recovered” from rabies after a madstone treatment never had it to begin with.
Fred Gipson’s novel Old Yeller, set in the Texas Hill Country around the time Pasteur was working on the first rabies vaccine, captures the real tragedy of the disease, which was common before vaccines, muzzling and the “destroying” of animals brought it under control in developed countries. In the U.S. today, rabies rarely occurs in dogs and cats, but still occasionally shows up in bats, who transfer it to livestock, pets, and humans, often un-vaccinated spelunkers.
Belief in a madstone remedy for rabies goes back centuries. (Bezoar, in fact, is based on a Persian word, and use of the stone was recommended in Arabic medical manuals in medieval Spain.) Scottish settlers seem to have been mostly responsible for bringing it to the American South, where they met American Indians who also used the rare stones. (A madstone owned by the Fredd family in Virginia allegedly came from Scotland and was mentioned by Sir Walter Scott in his novel The Talisman.)
The Cajuns in Louisiana practiced madstone healings. (Many Cajun folk beliefs came from African Americans and American Indians also inhabiting the bayous.) A stone yanked from the gut of an 18th-century Russian elk ended up in Vernon County, Missouri, on the Kansas state line, sometime before 1899. A madstone used in St. Francis County, Arkansas, in 1913 was dug out of an ancient Indian burial mound.
One of the first European practitioners of madstone healing in Indiana was John McCoy, an early settler of Clark County.
In 1803, McCoy married Jane Collins (known as “Jincy” McCoy) in Shelby County, Kentucky, just east of Louisville. As a wedding gift, or maybe as part of her dowry, Jincy’s family gave her a madstone in preparation for the couples’ move into the dangerous Indiana wilderness. It was “the best insurance they could offer against hydrophobia.” These are the words of Elizabeth Hayward, who edited John McCoy’s diary in 1948. “In giving their daughter the only remedy then known,” Hayward wrote, “the Collins gave her the best gift in their power as well as a rare one.”
John McCoy is best known for leading the Charlestown militia after the Shawnee attack on settlers at Pigeon Roost in 1812, one of the bloodiest events in Indiana history, which happened near his home. (Ironically, McCoy was the brother of the Rev. Isaac McCoy, a Baptist missionary and land rights advocate for the Potawatomi and Miami. When they were evicted from Indiana in 1838, Rev. McCoy accompanied them to Kansas and Oklahoma.) A deacon in the Baptist Church himself, John McCoy helped found Franklin College at a time when “Baptists were actively opposed” to higher learning, Hayward wrote. What is less well known is his battle against rabies in southern Indiana.
McCoy kept a laconic record of his days. On at least ten occasions recorded in his diary, he was called on to apply his wife Jincy’s madstone to victims of animal bites.
Hayward believes the McCoy madstone might have been the only one in that corner of Indiana at the time. True to a common superstition about proper use of the stone, McCoy “never refused [when asked to use it] and never accepted payment, apparently regarding the possession of the rarity as a trust. The victims were boys and men. Probably the circumscribed lives led by the women of his times, centered on their homes, kept them out of reach of stray animals. And more probably still, the voluminous skirts they wore protected their ankles from being nipped.”
McCoy applied the stone, carried up from Kentucky, long after Clark County, Indiana, had ceased to be a frontier zone. Most of his diary entries related to its use date from the 1840s.
April 9 . Sunday. At sunrise attended prayer meeting. At 11 attended preaching, afternoon detained from church by having to apply the Madstone to a little boy, bitten the day before. At night attended worship, then again attended to the case of the little boy till after 12 o’clock.
Later 19th-century medical investigation into the efficacy of the madstone suggested that while the stone did not actually suck out any of the rabies virus, it acted according to the “placebo effect” (i.e., belief in the cure itself allayed the bite-victim’s mind, which resulted in improvement — provided, of course, that there was not actually any rabies there.)
Yet around the same time John McCoy was practicing his primitive form of medicine near Louisville, Terre Haute was becoming a top destination for those seeking treatment — or at least reassurance.
Mary E. Taylor, almost always referred to in newspapers as “Mrs. Taylor” or “the widow Taylor,” was the owner of the famous “Terre Haute madstone” mentioned in many American newspapers. Her stone’s virus-sucking powers were sought out from possibly the 1840s until as late as 1932.
Local historian Mike McCormick believes that Mrs. Taylor was born Mary E. Murphy, probably in Kentucky. Marriage records show that a Mary E. Murphy wed a Stephen H. Taylor (no relation to the author of this post) in Vigo County in April 1837. An article in the Prairie Farmer of Chicago mentions that she lived at 530 N. Ninth St. (This made her a neighbor of Eugene Debs.)
In 1889, Mrs. Taylor spoke about the provenance of her madstone to a reporter. “My mother’s brother had it in Virginia,” she told the Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, “and as he had no children gave it to my mother. That is as far back in its history as I can go.” An 1858 letter from Mary “I.” Taylor (possibly a misprint) appeared in the Evansville Daily Journal. She claimed the stone had been in use “for the past thirty years” in Vigo and Sullivan counties. The Terre Haute Weekly Express claimed the madstone came to Indiana via Kentucky, after the Murphys lived there for a while in their move west.
Though Mrs. Taylor might have been widowed as early as the 1840s, hoax-busters who would suggest that she used her family’s madstone to support herself should remember the prominent superstition that warned against accepting payment.
A “widow lady” whom McCormick thinks was Mary Taylor “cured three cases” of hydrophobia in early 1848, according to the Wabash Express.
During the decades when John McCoy and Mrs. Taylor were folk medical practitioners in the Hoosier State, Abraham Lincoln, according to an old claim, brought his son Robert to Terre Haute to be cured of an ominous dog-bite.
Poet and Lincoln biographer Edgar Lee Masters reported this claim in his 1931 Lincoln the Man. (Like the president, Masters was obsessed with melancholy and death. He grew up near Lincoln’s New Salem in Illinois and later set his paranormal masterpiece, Spoon River Anthology, in the old Petersburg cemetery where Lincoln’s first lover, Ann Rutledge, a typhus victim, lies.)
“He believed in the madstone,” Masters wrote, in a section on Lincoln’s superstition, “and one of his sisters-in-law related that Lincoln took one of his boys to Terre Haute, Indiana, to have the stone applied to a wound inflicted by a dog on the boy.”
Max Ehrmann, a once-renowned poet and philosopher who lived in Terre Haute, investigated Masters’ claim in 1936. At the famous hotel called the Terre Haute House, Ehrmann had once heard a similar story from three of Lincoln’s political acquaintances. They told Ehrmann that sometime in the 1850s, Lincoln, then still a lawyer in Springfield, brought Robert to Indiana for a madstone cure. Father and son stayed at The Prairie House at 7th and Wabash, an earlier incarnation of the famous hotel. A sister of Mary Todd Lincoln, Frances Todd Wallace, backed up the story.
“I have never been able to discover who owned the mad-stone,” Ehrmann wrote. “It was a woman, so the story runs.” If true, Robert (the only child of Abraham and Mary Lincoln to survive to adulthood) would have been a young child or teenager. He lived to be 82.
Mrs. Taylor’s “Murphy madstone” was probably just one of three such stones in Terre Haute that offered a rabies cure. Another was owned by Rev. Samuel K. Sparks, and Mary E. Piper’s “Piper madstone” was used until at least 1901.
Though her stone became nationally famous, Mrs. Taylor faced a healthy amount of skepticism. On March 6, 1867, the Weekly Express reprinted this clip from the Indianapolis Herald: “We understand that Mrs. Taylor, of Terre Haute, applied her mad stone to Mr. Pope, who died a few days since of hydrophobia. As it was not applied until after the disease manifested itself, it failed. We fancy, however, it would have failed anyhow.” Herald editor George C. Harding had inadvertently taken a swipe at Terre Haute, which was increasingly proud of Taylor’s madstone. The snub caused the editor of the Weekly Express, Charles Cruft, to retort:
We know it is wicked to do so, but we almost wish our friend Harding would receive a good dog bite, in order that his skepticism as to the efficacy of our madstone might be cured. Although he may have more faith in whisky, which is said to be an antidote for some poisons, we’ll bet the first train would convey him in the direction of Mrs. Taylor’s residence.
A mad dog bit four children in Rush County, Indiana, in March 1889. Their parents brought them to Terre Haute to see Mrs. Taylor. The Montreal Herald in Canada picked up the story. “The Terre Haute madstone has just completed the most thorough test ever given it. . . [Mrs. Taylor] remembers that it was handed down to her from her Kentucky ancestors. . . Physicians and scientifically inclined citizens have overrun her home here since the mad dog scare began in this state, and there is hardly a day that a patient is not brought to her.” A few days afterwards, two Warren County farmers came, “each being apprehensive that some of the saliva of a hog got under the skin of their fingers.”
In 1887, the madstone even ranked among Terre Haute’s “sources of pride.” While singing the praises of a local masonic lodge, the Saturday Evening Mail wrote: “[The lodge] deserves to rank with the Polytechnic, Normal, artesian well, Rose Orphan Home, madstone and Trotting Association.” On April 23, the newspaper added: “Someone has written the old, old story about the Georgia stone. The Terre Haute charmer’s turn will come along soon.”
Though papers reported other Hoosier madstones, like the “Bundy madstone” in New Castle (which stuck to a severely infected woman’s arm for 180 hours in 1903), Terre Haute’s fame spread to faraway Louisiana and Minnesota. But Mrs. Taylor’s cure sometimes disappointed. During the “dog days” of summer (an abbreviation of the “mad dog days” when a higher number of rabies cases usually occurred), the Minneapolis Journalran this story in 1906:
Terre Haute, Ind., August 18 — William Painter, a farmer, died of hydrophobia from a cat bite, and in a moment of consciousness before the final convulsion, caused his attendants to tie him in the bed for fear he would do someone harm in his struggles. The death convulsion was so strong that he tore the bed in pieces, but no one was hurt.
He was bitten June 21 by a cat which had been bitten by a dog eight days before. He called the cat to him and as it sprang at his throat he caught it and was bitten in the thumb. He had the Terre Haute madstone applied, and as it did not adhere he felt that he was not infected with the virus.
A boy who lived east of Bloomington suffered a similar fate in 1890. Bitten by a dog while working in Greene County, 19-year-old Malcolm Lambkins went to Terre Haute to have the madstone applied to his leg, but it didn’t adhere. Though the wound healed, a short time later “the boy took sick, and when he attempted to take a drink of water he went into convulsions. He grew steadily worse and wanted to fight those about him, showing almost inhuman power.” Lambkin died on July 6. “An experienced physician states that he never witnessed death come in such terrible agony.”
Skeptics and scientists, of course, eventually established that saliva is what carries the rabies virus, and that if bitten through clothing, one was far less likely to be infected than if bitten directly on the skin. Also, not all animals thought to be rabid actually were. The mental relief of receiving the “cure” from the likes of Mrs. Taylor probably helped the healing of non-rabid wounds and infections by calming the mind, thereby boosting the immune system. (What the green stuff was that came out of the madstones, I have no idea.) Though mention has been made of bite-victims having recourse to madstones as late as the 1940s, they practically drop out of the newspapers around 1910.
One last appearance of the madstone in the annals of Hoosier journalism deserves mention. Scientists were justifiably proud of the anti-rabies vaccine, grown in rabbits, that gradually all but wiped out the virus in North America. But in 1907, even the so-called “Pasteur treatment” hadn’t come to Indiana. Just as today we sometimes talk jokingly about “those barbaric Europeans” who enjoy their free medical care, in April 1907 an anonymous doctor wrote this remarkable passage in the monthly bulletin of the Indiana State Board of Health. His (or perhaps her) racism was hopefully tongue-in-cheek:
The Pasteur treatment is the only one for rabies. “Mad stones” are pure folly. Faith in such things does not belong to this century. If a person is bitten by a dog known to be mad we urge such to immediately go to take the Pasteur treatment at Chicago or Ann Arbor. Indiana has no Pasteur Institute, and this reminds us of the admirably equipped and well conducted institute in Mexico City. In the land of the “Greaser,” unlike enlightened and superior Indiana, any person bitten by a mad dog can have scientific treatment for the asking. It is to be hoped that the State having “the best school system” will some day catch up with “the Greasers” in respect to having a free public Pasteur Institute.