Hey, readers. Just a quick news flash. Here’s a list of new content added to Hoosier State Chronicles over the last few days.
Check out some colorful titles — like Wabash Scratches— and a hilarious and witty antebellum paper from Indianapolis, The Locomotive. A further decade of this comical weekly, one of the best papers ever published in the Hoosier State, is coming soon.
Additionally, we just added some early titles going back to 1807, when the sun was just rising on printing in Indiana Territory. A huge run of Greencastle’s Daily Banner, digitized at DePauw University, brings us up to 1968. Enjoy!
One of the earliest newspaper references to Hoosiers celebrating Ireland and its patron saint appeared on April 1, 1837, in the Vincennes Western Sun. On March 17, a “large company” got together at “Mr. Jewel’s Ball Room” in Vincennes. A writer (probably not the paper’s publisher Elihu Stout, who was notoriously pro-slavery and anti-immigrant), wrote that “The utmost harmony and good feeling prevailed; Irishmen, descendants of Irishmen, persons from different nations and all parties, united to do honor to the Illustrious Bishop and Saint of the Emerald Isle.”
A list of toasts drunk in Ireland’s honor took up about half of the front page of the Western Sun that April 1. One toast reads touchingly: to “Ireland, the Land of Love and Beauty.”
In the spirit of republicanism, Patrick Doran, who had immigrated from Ireland to Boston in 1799 at age fifteen and moved to Vincennes in 1836, just a year before he served as toastmaster at Jewel’s Ball Room, offered a tribute to “The human family. No distinction on account of clime or soil.”
Though anti-Catholic feeling in America was strong, hostility was less in Vincennes, an old French town and the cradle of Catholicism in Indiana. The Vincennes group toasted Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell, father of Catholic Emancipation, which restored civil rights to Catholics in Britain and Ireland. “May his efforts to throw off the galling yoke of Britain be so crowned with success, that the sight of an English hireling may be as rare as that of the Snake or Toad in our favored land.”
For all their occasional hypocrisy regarding slavery in the U.S. itself, early Indiana papers almost always took the side of oppressed nations, especially if they were fighting against Great Britain. Ireland’s long struggle for independence, accomplished only in 1921, was one of the major subjects in American newspapers in the 1800s. Hoosier papers, such as the Indiana State Sentinel and the Evansville Daily Journal, enthusiastically supported the idealistic and underequipped Irish revolutionaries who launched rebellion after rebellion against Britain, including a major one in 1848.
When the Famine struck Ireland in the mid-1840s, and starvation and emigration halved its population, the U.S. began to teem with emigrants and exiled revolutionaries fleeing death and persecution in the Emerald Isle. Hoosier papers were naturally drawn into the hot political debates surrounding Ireland’s fate and the great Irish exodus to America.
Indiana was a top destination for the Irish in the 1830s and ’40s. One of the major engineering projects of the day, the construction of the Wabash & Erie Canal, which promised to link Evansville to Lake Erie, required an enormous amount of labor. Thousands of Irish workers dug miles of canal ditches through pestilential marshes and helped drain off ancient wetlands, drastically altering the Hoosier landscape. The Indiana Journal and other papers drew Irish workers here with advertisements of wages and cheap land.
Often paid in whiskey, Irish laborers frequently succumbed to alcoholism, yellow fever, and malaria along the disease-ridden canal. Scottish foremen called “jiggers” often dispensed whiskey in ladles from buckets — perhaps not an altogether bad health move, since whiskey, unlike water, was distilled and not so laden with bacteria. Its long-term effects, however, were of course deadly.
Irish laborers brought some Old World rivalries to America, leading to the little-known “Indiana Irish Wars” of the mid-1830s. Gangs that probably had their roots in longstanding disputes back in Ireland divided off into “Corkonians” and “Fardowns.” Fights erupted that threatened to destroy the canal. The Hoosier “Irish wars” took place mostly around Logansport and Lagro in northern Indiana.
Irish workers eventually saw the result of their backbreaking work abandoned after just a couple of decades, as railroads eclipsed the canal and turned it into a worthless ditch not long after the end of the Civil War.
In an 1890 lecture, Indiana State Geologist John Collett shared a fascinating anecdote from natural history that he had learned from the surveyor Perrin Kent. Kent helped lay out part of the Wabash & Erie Canal near Williamsport in Warren County in the 1830s. As he told Collett, during the heyday of canal construction he ran across some “Irishmen working in the swamp” along the Wabash River. The Irish had discovered the fossilized bones of a mastodon. The surveyor watched as they “extracted the marrow, which had changed to adipocere” — “grave wax” formed from fatty tissues — and used it as grease for their boots. Perhaps the Irish had been doing this for generations with bones found in the rural peat bogs of Ireland. (Before 1883, there used to be a cranberry marsh in Medina Township, Warren County, where settlers harvested cranberries before the swamp was drained. From 1957 to 1972, the Milburn Peat Company of Chicago harvested peat from what was left of the old cranberry bog.)
At a time when a major American political party, the “Know-Nothings,” thrived on anti-immigrant attitudes, some Hoosiers were openly against the Irish influx. Yet nativism was never as bad here as in the East Coast cities, where ethnic riots often broke out. (One of the worst was the bloody 1849 Astor Place Riot in New York City, sparked by a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.) Though the Know-Nothings were the most outspoken opponents of non-Anglo-Saxon immigration, the Whig Party, which disappeared from American politics during the 1860s, was often notoriously “nativist.”
Antebellum midwestern papers, frequently run by European political refugees, were huge supporters of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, which tried to topple the old monarchies. “Young Ireland” was a major revolutionary movement led in part by a man who later played a critical role in the American Civil War.
Thomas Francis Meagher, best known in the U.S. as the commander of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade (decimated at Antietam and Gettysburg), was one of the world’s most famous revolutionaries in 1848. Born in Waterford, Ireland, in 1823, Meagher came from the oppressed Catholic majority. Educated by Jesuits in England, where he learned to speak with an upperclass English accent that his supporters sometimes hated him for, Meagher almost entered the Austrian army but got involved in Irish politics during the dark days of the Famine. As one of the leaders of the failed 1848 rebellion, he was nearly sentenced to death by a judge, but received a mercy verdict and was deported for life to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), at that time a British penal colony at the far end of the world.
Papers in Indiana and Ohio avidly followed Meagher’s fate and were thrilled to report in early 1852 that he had escaped from Tasmania on an American whaling vessel and made a surprise appearance in New York City that May. On June 3, the Indiana Legislature gathered in a committee of “friends of Ireland” headed by James Henry Lane of Lawrenceburg. (Lane soon became the fiery U.S. Senator from Kansas and one of the major fighters in the guerrilla warfare that laid “Bleeding Kansas” waste from 1854 to 1861.) “Jim” Lane’s committee invited Meagher to Indiana and resolved to show solidarity with “the glorious cause for which he was branded and exiled as a felon.” A public letter from Hoosier legislators addressed to the Irish rebel in New York proclaimed “We love Ireland” and congratulates him on his “almost miraculous escape from the myrmidons of British oppression.”
Meagher came west in 1852, but didn’t make it to Indianapolis. He may have stopped in Evansville, since he was in Louisville on December 20 and left for St. Louis on the steamboat Pike the next day. Meagher made another trip to the Midwest in 1858. At 8 o’clock at night on February 19, he gave a speech at the Universalist Church in Terre Haute. His subject: “St. Patrick’s Day and National Anniversaries.” Admission to hear the famous Irish patriot was 25 cents. (The Universalist Church once sat at the corner of 4th & Ohio Streets near the old Vigo County Courthouse. ) Sadly, no transcript or any further mention of Meagher’s talk was published in Terre Haute papers.
Meagher became an American citizen and went on to become the editor of two anti-British newspapers in New York City: the weekly Irish News and (with fellow rebel John Mitchel, who supported the Confederacy) the Citizen. He went to Costa Rica just before the Civil War to explore the possibility of Irish immigration there. Though he had previously supported the South, in 1861 Meagher helped recruit the 69th New York Regiment, the core of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade, a fighting body made up mostly but not entirely of Irish volunteers. Under Brigadier General Meagher’s command, the Irish Brigade bore the brunt of fighting along Bloody Lane at Antietam and was almost entirely wiped out at Gettysburg. Today, a huge monument to Meagher and the Irish volunteers — most of whom were from New York but with many Hoosiers among them — stands next to the lookout tower on the Antietam Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland.
Meagher survived the war, went west as Territorial Governor of Montana, and drowned in the Missouri River near Fort Benton in 1867 when he fell off a steamboat.
One of the notable “Hoosier Irish” who served with distinction in the Civil War was Father William Corby (1833-1897), a Holy Cross priest from Notre Dame and an army chaplain attached to the Irish Brigade. Before the mostly Catholic Irish brigade went into battle on the second day of Gettysburg, Corby famously gave the unit absolution from their sins. Pictured here in 1862 with two other priests who served in the Union Army, Corby went on to become the president of the University of Notre Dame and wrote a bestselling memoir of his experiences in the war.
For all their occasional hostility to the Irish (who were frequently considered an “inferior race” in the nineteenth century), American papers often celebrated Irish wit and humor. In 1883, the Jasper Weekly Courier printed a tale about an elderly Irish woman who showed up at a railroad station just a few seconds too late. Trying to sprint down the platform to catch her train, “she of course came to a halt, when she began to abuse the unaccommodating engine, adding with a ‘nate’ brogue: ‘Faugh! The great black ugly lump! When she gets as old as me, she won’t run so quick!”
One more interesting story that made it into the papers is worth sharing. On St. Patrick’s “Eve”, 1892, sky watchers saw a strange event in several parts of the Midwest.
On March 18, the Indianapolis Journal reported the remarkable atmospheric occurrence. A white cross was hovering around the moon.
For two or three days, in parts of Illinois, the superstitious people have been brought almost to the verge of insanity by curious phenomenal displays that have found their way into the heavens without any apparent business there and without having, so it seems, been heralded by either the Weather Bureau or scientific gentlemen in general. The phenomena has assumed various forms and to the different classes of people who have been sightseers has spoken a various language.
During the past twenty-four hours the papers have contained dispatches from Bloomington and Springfield, Illinois, Fort Dodge, Iowa, and other cities, describing in hectic terms phantasmagoric spectacles seldom before seen except in “hyper-borean” regions. If these dispatches are to be believed, in some cases the empyreal display has been cut bias, in others diagonal, and at all times conveying a mundane idea that the sprites of the heavens, robed in regal costumes of variegated colors, were enjoying a ball masque on the “milky way.”
It remained for Luna, however, to confer her choicest favor upon Indianapolis and vicinity upon St. Patrick’s night. At 11:30 o’clock last night, when the moon was at her best, she appeared in the center of a perfectly formed and perfectly visible cross of milky whiteness. This wonderful display was visible for about thirty minutes, when it gradually merged into a sort of a hazy pale. Such a phenomenal display is attributed entirely to atmospheric conditions. Why the moon should appear in the center of a cross on St. Patrick’s day, however, is something that the atmosphere does not explain.
If the cross had been green, the “Sons of Erin” would have had extra cause to “jollify”:
Volunteers at a booth on Wabash Avenue in Terre Haute, Indiana, around 1922 support freeing Terre Haute native Eugene V. Debs from jail. Five-time Socialist candidate for the U.S. presidency, Debs was imprisoned by the Wilson administration during World War I for opposing the military draft. The sign reads “Ireland is Free — Why Not Debs? Help Bring Debs Home for Christmas.” (Martin Collection, Indiana Historical Society.)
Today, we drive over rivers and creeks in a few seconds and barely know their names. But before modern transportation severed so much of our connection to waterways, human contact with rivers practically defined life in water-rich Indiana.
One lost industry that had a brief “boom and bust” over most of the eastern U.S. a century ago was closely tied to the life of the rivers. If you’re keeping a list of industries (like steel and auto manufacturing) that have declined and even vanished from the Midwest, add one more: pearl button making.
Consumers today rarely give a thought to where buttons come from. How synthetic goods are made (i.e., the zippers, plastic buttons, and Velcro that partly replaced shell around 1950) may seem less “romantic” than the work of pearl fishermen hauling shiny treasures out of Midwestern streams in johnboats. Yet in spite of its nostalgic appeal, the pearl button industry also wreaked havoc on the environment and on workers in factories.
At the time of European settlement, midwestern rivers abounded in mussels. As many as 400 species probably lived in the Ohio Valley in 1800. The Mound Builder cultures that once occupied the American heartland found many ways to use mussels and left behind enormous refuse piles — what archaeologists call “middens” — in their towns, which almost always sat beside creeks and rivers. They were large towns, too. In the year 1200, Cahokia, across the Mississippi River from the future site of St. Louis, was bigger than medieval London.
Among Indiana’s early settlers, “diving” for pearls hidden in freshwater mussels dates back to at least 1846, when farmers at Winamac founded a small stockholders association to try to market shells taken from the Tippecanoe River. They sent a man to St. Louis and Cincinnati to ask about the value of freshwater pearls. Prices were low at the time and the “Pulaski County Pearl Diver Association” went bust.
Though a few button factories existed in Indiana before the Civil War — relying on shell, horn, and bone — the American freshwater pearl boom didn’t really gain momentum until 1900. In that year, a pearl frenzy erupted along the Black and White Rivers near Newport, Arkansas. Arkansas’ pearl boom had all the hallmarks of an old-time gold rush. A writer for the Indianapolis Journal reported in 1903:
Within the past three years more than $3,000,000 worth of pearls have been taken from the Mississippi Valley. . . The excitement spread from the land to the river steamboats. Their crews deserted them, and sometimes their captains, and the Black River was the scene of the wildest excitement. New towns were built and old ones were increased to the size of cities. Streets were laid out, banks and mercantile establishments were started, mortgages were lifted, money was plenty and times were prosperous. . . New York pearl dealers flocked there in great numbers.
The writer tells a story, perhaps exaggerated like much of his account, that an African American family who had lived in poverty made enough money pearling to build a large house and hire white servants. He also mentions that New York dealers were often ripped off by sellers masquerading Arkansas pearls as Asian.
Arkansas’ rivers were quickly “pearled out,” but the pearl boom spread and reached its peak around 1905-1910. Southwestern Indiana is almost as close to Arkansas as it is to Cincinnati. When the Southern boom died down, the hunt for pearls came north. The Jasper Weekly Courier reported in October 1903 that pearls had been found in the Wabash River at Maunie, Illinois, just south of New Harmony. “The river is a veritable bee hive and scores are at work securing mussel shells. The price of shells has risen from $4 to $15 a ton and an experienced man can secure a ton in a day. Farmers find it difficult to get farm hands.”
“Musselers” found an estimated $7000 worth of pearls in the Wabash in the first week of June 1909. Charles Williams, a “poor musseler,” found a “perfect specimen of the lustrous black pearl and has sold it for $1250. Black pearls are seldom found in freshwater shells.”
Vincennes experienced an explosion of musseling in 1905, as pearl hunters converged on the Wabash River’s shell banks. Eastern buyers came out to Indiana and frequently offered $500-$1000 for a pearl, which they polished into jewelry in cities like New York. A thousand dollars was a lot amount of money at a time when factory workers typically made about $8.00 a week. But with several hundred people eagerly scouring the riverbanks, the best pearls were quickly snatched up. For about a decade afterwards, “mussel men” and their families focused on providing shells for button manufacturers.
Interestingly, the shell craze caused a squatters’ village to spring up in Vincennes. A shanty town called Pearl City, made up of shacks and houseboats, sat along the river from 1907 to 1936, when as part of a WPA deal, its residents were resettled in Sunset Court, Vincennes’ first public housing.
At Logansport on the Wabash, patients from the Northern Indiana Insane Hospital spent part of the summer of 1908 hunting for pearl-bearing mussels. “One old man has been lucky, finding several pearls valued at $200 each. Local jewelers have tried to buy them but the old man hoards them like a miser does his gold. He keeps them in a bottle, and his chief delight is to hold the bottle so that he can see his prizes as the sun strikes the gems.” In and around Indianapolis, hunters discovered pearls in Fall Creek and the White River, especially around Waverly, southwest of the city.
Though every fisherman sought to find a high-value pearl and make a tiny fortune, the boom’s more prosaic side — button-making — eventually won out. From the 1890s to the 1940s, hundreds of small factories across the Midwest turned out glossy “mother-of-pearl” buttons. The industry especially flourished along a stretch of the Mississippi near Muscatine, Iowa, called the “button capital of the world.” Muscatine’s button industry was founded by John Boepple, a master craftsman from Hamburg, Germany, who immigrated to Iowa around 1887. Muscatine’s factories turned out a staggering 1.5 billion buttons in 1905 alone. About 10,000 workers were employed by button factories in the Midwestern states.
John Boepple lived to see the industry’s impact on rivers like the Mississippi. In 1910, the industrialist turned conservationist began work at a biological station established by Congress at Fairport, Iowa, to help repopulate mussels by reseeding riverbeds. Congress’ role was simply to preserve the industry, not to save decimated species. In 1912, the embattled mussels had their revenge: Boepple cut his foot on a shell and died of a resulting infection.
Although Iowa dominated the American button industry, numerous tiny factories popped up in small Indiana towns, including Mishawaka, Lawrenceburg, Leavenworth, Madison, and Shoals. (Shoals was named for its founder, Frederick Shulz, not for the mussel shoals on the White River.) Taylor Z. Richey, writing from Cannelton, Indiana, described how the work was done along the Ohio River in 1904. Many factories did not create the actual buttons, merely the “blanks” that were shipped out to Iowa.
Working in the button industry was far from quaint and actually proved a hazardous job. Exposure to hydrochloric acid and poor ventilation took a big toll on workers. Author Jeffrey Copeland notes that. there were more cases of pneumonia, typhus and gangrene among button factory laborers than in any other industry. Children as young as eight worked sixty-hour weeks carrying buckets of shells and acid to soften the material up. Eye injuries and loss of fingers often occurred as workers “stamped” the buttons out of shells or operated lathes. Even before the industry reached its turn-of-the-century heyday, gory accidents (such as this one, reported in the Jasper Weekly Courier in 1874) made it into the newspapers:
A French girl, sixteen years old, was caught by her long hair in a revolving shaft at a button factory in Kankakee, Ill., the other day, and the left side of her head was completely scalped. A severe concussion of the brain was also sustained. Her condition was considered critical.
Partly under the leadership of a young activist named Pearl McGill, labor unions in Iowa battled it out with factory owners, culminating in Muscatine’s “Button War” of 1911, a fight that involved arson and the killing of police. In Vincennes in 1903, however, the usual pattern of Progressive-era labor politics seemed to go the other way around. The Indianapolis Journal reported that Eugene Aubrey, owner of a pearl-button factory at Vincennes and allegedly a member of the Socialist Party, fired worker Charles Higginbottom for serving in the militia during Evansville’s bloody July 1903 race riot, when many African Americans were gunned down. The Journal went on to accuse Aubrey of being a secret anarchist.
In his semi-fictional Tales of Leavenworth, Rush Warren Carter described a small-town Indiana button factory in those years. A boy named Palmer Dotson quits school at 16 and gets a job working under superintendent “Badeye” Williams. (Factory workers often lost eyes.) “Cutting buttons was not a business that developed one’s mind or elevated his thoughts,” Carter wrote. “The cutting process was a dull routine to a background of everything but enlightened conversation. Talk about your ladies’ sewing circles. When it came to gossip, [women] were not in the same league with the men in the button factory, who chewed and rechewed every real or imagined bit of gossip until it had been ground to a fine pulp.” Dotson died of tuberculosis at 21. A co-worker decided that opening a saloon would be preferable to stamping buttons.
Although Iowa’s factories were still running in 1946 (the year actor Ronald Reagan chose Muscatine’s Pearl Queen), exhaustion of shell banks all over the Midwest was killing the industry fast. Japanese innovations increased competition after World War II. Synthetic plastics — which were cheap and could withstand washing machines better than shell — were pioneered in the 1920s and eventually took over the industry in the mid-1950s. Instead of smelly buckets of shells, workers handled tubs of polyester syrup. Then, two snazzy new inventions, zippers and Velcro, even cut into the demand for buttons outright.
Indiana’s factories, which had been shipping blanks to Iowa for years, had all gone out of business by the end of World War II. The last independent buttonworks in the U.S., the Wilbur E. Boyd Factory at Meredosia on the Illinois River, closed in 1948. Iowa’s button industry hung on until the mid-1990s, when Chinese innovations in pearl cultivation finally caused it to collapse.
Well, gentle readers, if u r like me, u r probably annoyed @ the terrible vocab skills of the txt generation.
But W8 just a second. Txtspk isn’t new. It got 2 to the Hoosier St8 B4 U.
In one of the last issues of Indiana’s oldest newspaper, the Vincennes Western Sun, editor John Rice Jones excerpted a clever love poem addressed “To Miss Catherine Jay of Utica.”
Written by an unknown author around 1832 and previously printed in literary magazines back East, “KTJ of UTK” (for short) is probably the earliest example in a Hoosier newspaper of what we now call “text speak.”
Most of the poetry and fiction printed in antebellum Indiana papers was copied out of Eastern journals carried west by riverboat or stagecoach. Samuel Morse invented his own “abbreviated” form of communication around 1844, but the telegraph didn’t come into common use until the 1850s. Early trains often traveled at a speed that we would find maddeningly slow today — sometimes running at less than 20 mph, hardly faster than a horse at a gallop or a steamboat going downriver. (In fact, due to safety concerns over wandering children and livestock, trains were nearly even banned in Indiana before the Civil War.)
John Jones probably saw “Katie Jay of Uticay” in a copy of Dwight’s American Magazine,published in New York in February 1847. An even earlier “cousin” of this amazing poem was printed in the Utica Organ in upstate New York, the Columbia (Penn.) Spy, and Atkinson’s Casket, a popular Philadelphia literary journal,as far back as 1832.
The original “KTJ,” in turn, might have been inspired by two incredible British “text-speak” dirges published in The New Monthly Magazine in London in 1828. Katie Jay’s trans-Atlantic cousins were no less than the unfortunate “Miss LNG of Q” (Ellen Gee of Kew, blinded by a “B” sting in the “I”) and “MLE K of UL” (Emily Kay of Ewell, burned to death while putting “:” [coal on] a kitchen fire grate.) Sad nymphs and “SX” (Essex) maids, these. Hark, friends, gather round and listen 2 their f8, and please 4C: 1 day U 2 shall cease 2B an N.TT!
A 2010 article in the New Yorker mistakenly identifies the anonymous poet who wrote “Katie Jay” as Charles Carroll Bombaugh. In fact, Bombaugh, a medical examiner who died in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1906, only anthologized this clever piece, which came out in his 1867 book Gleanings for the Curious from the Harvest-Fields of Literature. (The popular anthology of literary witticism was republished in 1890.)
On September 22, 1849, “KTJ” appeared on the front page of the Vincennes Western Sun. Like this poem, most of what was printed in the Vincennes paper over the years wasn’t local news or literature, and rarely featured much writing by Hoosier wags. In fact, most of the paper in the late 1840s was taken up with news from Europe, the East Coast, Texas and Mexico.
KTJ shows up next to the latest news from the packet “Europa,” just docked at Halifax, Nova Scotia: Louis Kossuth’s Hungarian Revolution is still being fought. Kossuth’s revolution against the Austrians eventually failed. A few years later, in the winter of 1852 (“cold as cold can B?”), the defeated Hungarian patriot sailed over “the Atlantic C” and toured Indiana, coming on the steamboat Wisconsin from Cincinnati. Kossuth was hailed as a hero of democracy in the Indiana State Sentinel and the Terre-Haute Journal, among other papers. A small town in Washington County in southern Indiana was named after him. Alas, “Kossuth, Indiana” has now almost vanished. We mourn its DK.
With news sometimes traveling west at a great time-lag, people were always eager for entertainment in the meantime. Sometimes printers like Elihu Stout and John Jones had no news to print, so they regaled readers with whatever they could find. And unlike the news, poetry — even when written in “text speak” — can occasionally be timeless.
Hoosier State Chronicles is currently collating issues of the Western Sun from 1837 to 1849 for possible inclusion online later this year. Here’s some other entertaining excerpts from the Vincennes paper in those days. (And if you’re in Vincennes, you can visit a reconstructed version of Elihu Stout’s print shop, originally built in 1808, at Vincennes State Historic Site, the location of the old territorial capitol.)
An “eccentric” Sullivan County resident — the Hermit of the Wabash, journalists were calling him — had just survived a winter flood on the river. A late-January thaw sent at least two feet of ice water into the hut he called home. Unable to get to higher ground, the 74-year-old recluse passed two frigid days and nights without heat or food, cooped up under his roof, waiting for the flood to recede. The man was “greatly prostrated by this terrible experience.” Doctors were treating him for exposure.
Many readers around Sullivan and Merom knew this “hermit,” or at least of him. He read and wrote poetry, looked like Tolstoy or John Muir, and lived in a remote rustic shack, like his near-contemporary Henry David Thoreau.
Ruth Eno Durham, a Graysville historian of half a century ago, who probably met the hermit when she was a girl, wrote in 1959: “He was a naturalist, a philosopher, a man of culture and refinement living the life of a mussel man, fisherman and outdoorsman.”
Sullivan County historian Tom Frew even believes the “Hermit of the Wabash” is at the center of one of the great photographic mysteries of the Civil War era. Frew may be right. While identifying the “quiet philosopher” as the mystery man of 1859 is uncertain, he was undoubtedly nearby when that iconic image was made, during one of the meteoric events that led up to the war.
How did this ex-Confederate, nature lover, and happy recluse get to a remote corner of the Hoosier State?
Back in 1885, as Ruth Durham recalled, a “small boat with a lone occupant” came up the Wabash and landed at Merom, next to some men out fishing the river for mussels. Midwestern rivers then were full of these creatures. The meat provided food, while their glistening shells were shipped to thriving button factories in Cincinnati. Several small Indiana river towns prospered in the button industry in those days. Mussel harvesting was not banned until 1991.
The lone stranger announced himself. He was “Captain Roland Smythe,” a pseudonym. “He went up the ferry road,” Durham writes, “got some supplies and rowed on up the river.” Easing into the mouth of Turman’s Creek where it flows into the Wabash, the strange boatman met Ruth’s father-in-law, Dr. John L. Durham, “who was standing there and owned the land.”
Smythe and the doctor became friends right away. Durham let him build a two-room hut, christened “Solitude,” on the property he owned with his wife, Mary Mann Durham. The mysterious newcomer lived there for more than twenty years. “Solitude” sat on a high bank of the Wabash, a spot less prone to flooding — though in 1904, his luck ran out.
George Bicknell, a minor Hoosier poet from Sullivan, went out to meet the hermit at Turman’s Creek one summer. His article in Craftsman magazine (September 1909) describes the visit.
Bicknell and others reported that the fascinating hermit was intensely religious, though (like John Muir) unconventionally so. A graduate of the University of Virginia, Smythe was “able to express his thought brilliantly [and] has often been urged to write for publication, but he always refuses . . . [He] says always he prefers to live his song rather than sing it.”
Like Thoreau, who “traveled a great deal in Concord,” discovering the multitude of life in a small place, Captain Smythe was not always solitary. “Hundreds of people visit him every year,” Bicknell wrote. “Many unusual and curious questions are asked him . . . His understanding and knowledge of the classics is unusual. He probably has not seen a set of Shakespeare in forty years, yet there are whole passages from any of the plays which he can give you word for word . . . “
Hundreds of visitors came to “Solitude” to see how he lived the so-called “simple” life. Eventually, the hermit’s own children came. Around 1900, a daughter who lived back East “followed his trail” out to Indiana. Two years after the flood, a 1906 article in the Hutsonville Herald claims:
this daughter, a member of the wealthy inner social circles of New York, found him cooking a meal on his broken-down stove. There was a pathetic scene. She sat on the river banks pleading his return to ‘civilization’ . . . It was then he declared that the ‘wilderness of houses’ and the cramped life held nothing out to him. ‘I will stay near to nature and live with her,’ he declared.
The true identity of “Captain Roland Smythe” was probably not known to anyone in Sullivan County then. He was born Robert Alexander Caskie in Richmond, Virginia, in 1830. The Hutsonville Herald writer mistakenly thought he came from an aristocratic Old Virginia family, “blue bloods . . . whose forefathers dwelt in mansions on the James.” Caskie’s father, in fact, was an immigrant from Ayrshire, Scotland.
The future hermit was educated at the University of Virginia, one of the greatest southern universities during the period. On December 20, 1859, he married Amanda Gregory, daughter of a former Virginia governor, John Munford Gregory. When the Civil War broke out, Caskie went on to serve as captain of Caskie’s Rangers, a mounted company in the 10th Virginia Cavalry. He fought in many of the major battles of the war, including the last one, at Appomattox, where he was mustered out, having been promoted to colonel in February 1865.
A broken man at war’s end, Robert Caskie went back to his family’s tobacco business. But with the South in ruins, he eventually took his family west, becoming one of the biggest tobacco merchants in Missouri. In the late 1870s, the Caskie family was living at Rocheport, on the Missouri River, just west of Columbia.
Bankrupted by a lawsuit back in Virginia, around 1884 the desperate tobacco dealer abandoned his family. On the verge of being driven into poverty, he seems to have chosen it on his own terms. It was then that he rowed up the Wabash, seeking (it seems) a remote place to hide from creditors and his family alike. Durham thought he was too proud to live on his wife’s money.
Robert Caskie had become “Captain Roland Smythe.”
Whatever else his visitors knew about his life, it was an event he had witnessed back in 1859, just a few weeks before he married the daughter of the ex-governor of Virginia, that really stuck in their minds.
In October of that year, the radical abolitionist John Brown tried to spark and arm a massive slave revolt by raiding the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry on the Potomac. Brown’s raid failed catastrophically, inducing anxiety among Virginians. Considered the greatest “terrorist” of his time, the much-hated Brown was scheduled to be hanged on December 2.
To increase security while Brown languished in a Charlestown prison a few miles from Harpers Ferry, Virginia governor Henry Wise had organized several militia companies. One formed in Richmond was known as the “Richmond Greys.” Robert Alexander Caskie appears in their roll book and, as he told the poet George Bicknell, he went to Charlestown that November.
Stopping at the jail where John Brown was being held, Caskie managed to strike up a conversation and friendship with the condemned abolitionist. The 29-year-old Caskie even got permission from Brown’s guard to bring him the newspapers. He also claims that it was he who finally convinced Brown to send a telegram to Philadelphia for his wife.
On December 2, 1859, Caskie watched as Brown stepped up to the gallows, his body on the way to “mouldering in the grave,” as the famous enemy of slavery was memorialized in a Civil War song. Many years later, Caskie described what he saw to George Bicknell:
The wagon was driven through the line and up close to the gallows. John Brown jumped to the ground and skipped up the steps to the platform as though he were a mere boy.
The gallows was unusually high, giving a view of a landscape unsurpassed for its beauty and grandeur. The sun shone with all its brightness, the grass was still green.
It is possible, even likely, that Robert A. Caskie appears in two of the most famous images taken at the time of that event. These are two ambrotypes — a “relative” of the daguerreotype — that languished in obscurity until 1911. Historians generally agree they depict the Richmond Greys and were made in Charlestown just before Brown’s execution. The first one, known as “RG #1,” has become one of the iconic images of the Civil War era. (It was featured in Ken Burns’ famous documentary and book.)
Robert A. Caskie, the “Hermit of the Wabash,” might be the man with the mustache and goatee standing in the middle of “RG#1.” Comparing this to the few other images we have of him, including in old age, the faces are similar.
“RG #1” is a famously contentious image. At least three of the men depicted here — including the one now thought to be Caskie — have been “forensically” examined and identified as John Wilkes Booth. The other two men stand in the left corner.
Lincoln’s assassin, in fact, saw John Brown’s hanging. It is thought that Booth was leaving a theater in Richmond when the Richmond Greys marched by, and the 21-year-old Shakespearean actor bought a uniform from them. Booth definitely witnessed Brown’s last moments.
Booth, too, has a surprising connection to Indiana. His father, the English actor Junius Brutus Booth, fell ill and died on a riverboat on the Ohio River across from southern Indiana in 1852, while en route from New Orleans to Cincinnati, probably after drinking river water.
Under pressure from his children, and “after he became too old to stand the rigors of the river,” Robert Caskie finally left the Wabash Valley around 1910.
In June 1931, a writer for the Sullivan Union remembered that after he left “Solitude,” “Captain Smythe” lived with Ed Salee’s family in Sullivan, then moved off to Indianapolis with the Salee family. One of Caskie’s sons eventually came out to Indianapolis from New York or Philadelphia. “This was the last that was ever heard of the old hermit of the Wabash by the Salees or anybody in this community.”
But the hermit’s adventure was not done. In 1922, aged 90, he applied for a passport and traveled to France and Switzerland, where he lived with a daughter.
Aged 98, Col. Robert Caskie died of heatstroke in Philadelphia in August 1928 and was buried there. In later years, “The Hermit” was reburied at Richmond’s historic Hollywood Cemetery, near many of the honored Confederate dead.