A few weeks ago, we ran a post on how peach stones, chestnuts, and coconut shells got enlisted into World War I. In 1917, the U.S. government began a campaign to gather fruit pits and other agricultural waste that could be used in manufacturing charcoal filters for army gas masks — a life-saving device partly invented by Hoosier chemical engineer James Bert Garner.
The “war to end all wars,” of course, failed to do so. Twenty years later, America was on the verge of an even worse conflict. And in 1942, the familiar specter of junk rallies and war-bond drives returned to American newspapers.
Across the U.S., papers advertised the army and navy’s dire need for rubber, scrap iron, and “anything made of metal.” Most of the ads were nationally syndicated, and no one local newspaper can take credit for these darkly comic illustrations of ordinary domestic items turned into deadly weapons.
Like a scene from Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, old radiators, lawn-mowers and worn-out tires were turned into instruments of fighting and killing, from rifles and shells to grim-looking gas masks and hand grenades.
The government’s scrap conservation campaign broke down the math. This ad comes from Dale in Spencer County, Indiana, just down the road from Lincoln’s boyhood home and the small town of Santa Claus.
Drawn by an illustrator for the Conservation Division of the War Production Board, the illustrations were taken out and paid for by the American Industries Salvage Committee. Business at local scrap yards was booming in 1942. The ads stated that scrap material would be purchased at government-controlled prices.
In what was actually one of America’s first recycling programs, the call went out for refrigerators, garbage pails, broken garden tools, lengths of pipe, burlap bags, manila bags, copper wires, zinc, lead, tin, and any kind of old rubber. Rusty scrap metal, the committee reminded Americans, was “actually refined steel, with most impurities removed — and can be quickly melted with new metal in the form of pig iron to produce highest quality steel for our war machines.” In 1942, the U.S. armed forces — just months after Pearl Harbor — needed an additional six million tons of scrap steel for weapons production.
The government also encouraged “good Americans” to give up something else: Sunday country drives and “joy-riding.” Unnecessary shopping trips to town and failure to use public transportation sapped gasoline at a time when Nazi submarines were torpedoing hundreds of oil tankers off the Atlantic Coast. Unnecessary driving and fast driving also added to the rubber shortage by wearing down tires. So did driving with the wrong tire pressure, as a Phillips 66 ad informed the patriotic public.
If only that conservation effort could have carried over into peace time. . . no matter how restless the joy-riding doggies got:
Since farmers were likely to have plenty of scrap metal hanging around their property, the salvage committee’s ads tended to target rural areas and small towns. Dale, Indiana, was one, but the illustrations appeared nationwide.
Beneath the dark humor of seeing a Japanese soldier knocked on the head with grandma’s laundry iron or her kitchen teapot, some of these cartoons were fairly racist. Though cartoonists are usually allowed to take liberties to provoke discussion, artists at all times –especially in war time — have sometimes helped destroy innocent lives.
The hysteria that targeted German Americans during World War I — when Indiana and many other states went so far as to criminalize teaching German to children — rarely occurred during World War II, though about 11,000 German nationals were detained. The same can’t be said of the fate of Japanese Americans, over 100,000 of whom were herded up and imprisoned in detention camps out West.
Yet as always, some Americans rose above hysteria and fear. In 1942, Quaker-led Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, became one of the few U.S. schools to allow Japanese Americans to continue their education during the war. The decision of Earlham’s President William Cullen Dennis, who cooperated with the Japanese American Student Relocation Council to admit six students from the newly-militarized West Coast, was controversial.
(Kokomo Tribune, September 30, 1942.)
In September 1942, the local branch of the Junior Order of American Mechanics, a youth group, sent Earlham’s president a resolution protesting the students’ presence on campus. The OAM was originally an anti-Catholic and nativist fraternal group organized in Philadelphia in 1844 to resist the hiring of “cheap foreign labor” (i.e., Irish). Richmond’s Junior OAM captured a lot of local sentiment and tried to encourage other “patriotic and fraternal orders” in town to follow suit. Richmond Mayor John Britten was forced to advise the FBI of the “hostile attitude of the community toward the students.”
(Rushville Republican, September 30, 1942.)
Dennis stood by his decision, citing that the move was in accordance with the school’s Quaker religious principles and “the ideals for which we are fighting.” Yet he refused to denounce the Federal government’s original decision to move them off the West Coast. The Japanese pupils — along with about 1,900 others now scattered across the Midwest and East — were kept under FBI surveillance.
Earlham wasn’t alone. A total of eight Indiana schools, all but one of them religious, admitted displaced Japanese Americans. These were DePauw, Valparaiso, Hanover, Franklin, Manchester, St. Mary’s (Notre Dame), Indiana Technical College, and Earlham. The Indianapolis-based Disciples of Christ also led a campaign critical of the West Coast interment camps and issued a resolution condemning the incarceration of 100,000 Americans without fair trial, calling it a mockery of American principles. That church was active in helping resettled families find jobs and housing across the Midwest.
(Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command in San Francisco, issued orders forbidding Japanese American students at Oregon State University from using the library after 8:00 p.m. Corvallis Gazette-Times, April 3, 1942.)
(Corvallis Gazette-Times, April 2, 1942.)
Edward T. Uyesugi was one of the students who came to Earlham in 1942. Born in 1922 and raised in Portland, Oregon, he was one of the ten students forced to leave Willamette University in Salem after the Federal “evacuation” of April 1942. In Richmond, Uyesugi studied biology. He also met Paoli native Ruth Farlow, who was studying Latin, English and journalism. Ruth, a Quaker, wrote for the Richmond Palladium (currently being digitized by Hoosier State Chronicles.) The couple went on to get married in Washington State in 1946.
Farlow had gotten her first teaching job in Oregon, but was fired after one semester for her marriage to a Japanese American. (“Interracial marriage” was frowned on in every state and was still illegal in many.) The Uyesugis eventually came back to Indiana, raising three children in Ruth’s native Orange County, where he worked as an eye doctor and she taught journalism at Paoli High School. In 1999, Ruth Uyesugi was inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame. She’s also the author of a 1977 autobiographical novel, Don’t Cry, Chiisai, Don’t Cry, a war-time love story set in Indiana and Oregon.
(Ruth Farlow, seated center, and Edward Uyesugi, right, both served on the editorial staff of the Earlham Post in 1944. Uyesugi wrote a sports column and also played on the football team.)
In 1942, Hoosier readers may have had their first encounter with a rising star in the world of illustration — Theodor Seuss Geisel, a third-generation German American originally from Springfield, Massachusetts. Geisel studied at Dartmouth and Oxford before joining the staff of the humor magazine Judge in New York City in the 1920s. His first published cartoon came out in the Saturday Evening Post in July 1927. Surviving the lean times of the Great Depression by drawing ads and logos for companies like General Electric, Standard Oil, and the Narragansett Brewing Company, Geisel got his first major national exposure during a Standard Oil campaign to market motor boat lubricants.
Nearly expelled from Dartmouth as an undergrad for drinking gin during Prohibition, the quirky illustrator had been banned from publishing cartoons in the college’s writing magazine. He got around it by signing himself “Dr. Seuss,” his middle name. (The name is actually pronounced “Soiss,” but the illustrator gave in to the American pronunciation.)
By 1942, Dr. Seuss — a fervent, scathing opponent of isolationists and pacifists who wanted to keep America out of World War II — was busy trying to lubricate public opinion instead of motor boats. Though frequently mistaken as a Jew because of his name and his appearance, Dr. Seuss was a German Lutheran.
(An anti-isolationist cartoon published in 1941, before America went to war against Germany, Italy and Japan.)
In the wake of American entry into the war — and before he was ever at work on The Grinch and The Cat in the Hat — Dr. Seuss drew cartoons for the U.S. Treasury Department as part of a war-bond drive. Roundly criticized since the 1940s, his caricatures of Japanese with buck teeth, pig noses and insect bodies came out in many American newspapers, including the tiny Dale News. Though Dr. Seuss deserves credit for apologizing for these cartoons after the war, the dehumanization of Asians may have influenced the U.S. decision to drop nuclear bombs on Japan in 1945, an event that was less likely to befall a Western European nation.
While “Dr. Seuss” also depicted Hitler with a pig snout and animal body, Geisel’s 1942 cartoon of Japanese Americans receiving TNT and awaiting orders from Japan put him squarely in the tradition of fearing immigrants as “enemy aliens” — the long list of newcomers accused of undermining American safety and values. In the century before World War II, American periodicals were full of this material, some of it drawn by reformers like German American immigrant Thomas Nast. Only the characters changed — from Catholics, Jews, and Chinese to Germans, Japanese and Muslims.
(“Waiting for the Signal from Home,” Dr. Seuss, 1942.)
The “Tokio Kid” series, commissioned by the Douglass Aircraft Company and subsidized by the War Commissions Board, joined in on the recycling campaign. Posters showing the Japanese Emperor thrilled by Americans’ waste of items like scrap metal were little different from equally demonic depictions of the German Kaiser during World War I, but both episodes played off ethnic and racial prejudice. (Reform politics and bogus science were as guilty as everyday racism here. During World War I, “progressive” advocates of Prohibition had made identical charges against German American beer-lovers — for unpatriotically wasting grain. Dr. Seuss’ own father, brew master at the family-owned Highland Brewery in Springfield, Massachusetts, was driven out of his job when Prohibition shut the place down in 1919.)
As for social reform, that would have to wait for peacetime. It’s not clear who exactly cartoonist Nate Collier was satirizing when this illustration came out in the Dale News in February 1942, three months after Pearl Harbor. But we think we can guess.
Hoosier State Chronicles has just uploaded over 3,500 issues of The Jewish Post, a historic weekly (now biweekly) published Indianapolis since 1933. Here’s a bit of the paper’s history — and of Jewish journalism in the Midwest.
While the center of American Jewish culture has always been identified as New York, the Ohio Valley saw the birth of one of the first Jewish-run periodicals in the U.S. This was Cincinnati’s The Israelite.
Founded in July 1854, and today printed under the title The American Israelite, this paper is the oldest surviving Jewish news organ in the country. After the London Jewish Chronicle, begun in 1841, it is the second oldest in the world. Cincinnati’s The Israelite was the brain child of pioneer Austrian rabbi Dr. Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900), who was also one of the founders of Hebrew Union College, the oldest Jewish seminary in the Americas. During World War II, HUC attracted one of the great Jewish theologians and Civil Rights leaders, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who called the Midwest home for a few years while serving on the school’s faculty.
Before 1900, small towns in the Midwest and South were often home to much larger Jewish communities than today. Even seemingly far-flung rural places like Woodville, Mississippi; Muskogee, Oklahoma; and Harlan, Kentucky, had sizable Jewish populations. With the plantation economy of the South closely tied to the shipment of products up and down the rivers between New Orleans and the Midwest, Jewish merchants settled all over the Mississippi and Ohio valleys. Though most Jews later left for opportunities in cities, the Institute of Southern Jewish Life has documented the fascinating history of Jews in small-town America.
Some settled in Indiana. One of the first European Jews to come here was Louis (Ludwig) Dembitz, an immigrant from Prussian Poland who practiced law in the thriving river town of Madison, Indiana, around 1850. When the great Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth visited Madison in 1852, Dembitz translated his speech (given in German). He later edited a German-language newspaper in Louisville, the Beobachter am Ohio. Louis Dembitz was also the uncle of Louis D. Brandeis, the first Jew to serve on the Supreme Court. Brandeis, who died in 1941, changed his middle name from David to Dembitz to honor him. In 1855, the judge’s parents were married at a now-defunct synagogue in Madison, Indiana.
Even tiny towns like Ligonier in Noble County occasionally had small Jewish populations early on in their history. One of the first Jews in the Wabash Valley was the Vincennes trader Samuel Judah (1798-1869). Descended from a family of Spanish Jews who moved to Canada and New York, Judah bought land in Terre Haute in the 1820s and went into politics. In 1840-41, he served as Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives.
Before Chicago grew into a huge metropolis after the Civil War and before trains eclipsed river traffic, life in the Midwest was largely focused on the Ohio Valley. Indianapolis’ Jewish Post, in fact, began in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1930.
Expanded and printed in several different state editions, this paper was created by long-time owner and editor Gabriel Murrel Cohen (1908-2007). Born in Louisville, Cohen earned a Bachelor’s at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1930 — the same year he went home to Kentucky to start The Jewish Post at age 22. Though Cohen moved his editorial offices moved to Indianapolis in 1935, he kept a printing office in Louisville into the 1940s and often carried ads for businesses in “Falls City.”
Advertised as “A Journal for Indiana Jewry,” in fact for years this was really a bi-state paper.
The year 1933 was a momentous one for beginning a Jewish newspaper in the Midwest. The state had only recently been freed up from the grip of the powerful Ku Klux Klan, which dominated Hoosier politics until about 1927. In a battle spearheaded by newspapers like the Indianapolis Times — which urged Hoosiers to remember that “Indiana is not Russia” — the Klan had just fallen from power when the first issue of The Jewish Post came out. A decade earlier, the KKK’s mouthpiece, The Fiery Cross, was printed in the Century Building, under the editorship of Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson — a professional anti-Semite, anti-Catholic, racist, and one of the most powerful men in America. A mainstream organization in the Twenties, the KKK touted “100% Americanism,” Protestantism, anti-immigrant attitudes, and female purity, as well as the federal prohibition of alcohol.
Franklin Roosevelt repealed Prohibition in 1933, the year The Jewish Post was first printed under the editorship of Leonard Rothschild. In late 1935, Gabriel Cohen’s Spokesman Company bought Rothschild out. Originally based at 505 West Washington Street, the editorial offices briefly moved to the East Side by 1936, when Cohen was based at 2101 East Washington Street in a building that later housed the dingy California Nite Club. Cohen and his staff were back downtown in 1937, operating in the Majestic Building and Meridian Life Building.
While the new 4-page paper carried local news of Jewish interest from Indiana, Kentucky and the U.S., during the 1930s and 1940s its front pages focused on the rise of Nazism in Germany and the plight of European Jews.
Yet The Jewish Post didn’t only announce the perils of anti-Semitism overseas and at home. The paper also affirmed Jewish identity in Indianapolis and helped Hoosiers get to know themselves and their neighbors better.
A regular feature in early issues of The Jewish Post was a series of biographies of prominent — and promising — Indiana Jews. The paper typically ran these profiles ran every week. One focused on Ed Rose, a 20-year-old staff writer on the Indiana Daily Student at IU-Bloomington, in July 1937.
In 1937, Gabriel Cohen also serialized “A History of the Jews of Indianapolis” by Harry Dale, a story that begins in 1856, when fourteen men began looking for a site for a Jewish cemetery. Split between several local congregations, these officially separate burial grounds are known colloquially as “Kelly Street” and located just off South Meridian in a part of the Old Southside that was once heavily German, with some Hungarian, Polish, Russian and Greek households among them.
Gabriel Cohen’s Jewish Post also gave attention to the development of Zionism, the effort to set up a homeland for Jews. After World War II, that place turned out to be Israel, but Zionists once considered spots as far away as Saskatchewan and South America, as well.
Over the years, The Jewish Post took up the cause of interfaith unity. In its early days, it also covered the concern loss of Jewish identity in the face not just of the Holocaust, but of Americanization. Cohen’s paper ran occasional articles that document both the evolution of American Jewish identity and the struggle of Jews to stay true to their historic roots.
One interesting example came with the extremely rare production of a Yiddish play in Indianapolis. In March 1934, Maurice Schwartz, father of the “Golden Age of Yiddish Theater,” performed on stage at English’s on Monument Circle downtown. Schwartz was a Ukrainian-born actor raised on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In 1918, he founded the Yiddish Art Theatre At English’s Theater, Schwartz played a lead role in the Yoshe Kalb, which told the story of a Hasidic mystic. Before Schwartz’s death in 1960, he went on to work with a struggling young Jewish actor named Leonard Nimoy, who came from a Ukrainian Jewish family in Boston spoke Yiddish fluently. The man who played Star Trek’s Mr. Spock remembered Schwartz as his “theatrical father.”
Indianapolis didn’t have the only Jewish newspaper in the Midwest in those years. An even earlier paper, Chicago’s The Sentinel, dated back to 1911. In 1921, Milwaukee saw the birth of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle (digitized on Newspapers.com). The Ohio Jewish Chronicle began in Columbus in 1922, followed by the Detroit Jewish News in 1942 and the St. Louis Jewish Light in 1947.
In 1948, Gabriel Cohen expanded his paper nationally. In addition to the original Indiana edition, he ran a special Missouri edition from 1948 until 1992. Along with its Indiana edition, the National Jewish Post & Opinion is still in print today.
Based on West 86th Street in Indianapolis, the newspaper is now a biweekly. In addition to its longstanding commitment to interfaith dialogue, The Jewish Post & Opinion defines its mission as “To support Israel and to fight anti-Semitism. To heal and repair the world (tikkun olam). To protect, promote, and preserve time-honored Jewish values such as ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
Banned Books Week is here. We thought we’d take a look at a few volumes of “insidious poison” the Indiana State Council of Defense asked to be withdrawn from Hoosier library shelves in 1918, during the height of America’s involvement in World War I. Hoosier State Chroniclesneither endorses nor criticizes these books, many of which are hard to find and might even have been destroyed. Some aren’t as interesting as the lives of their fascinating and controversial authors. But we do support your right to read and discuss them — if you ever happen to find a copy.
We focus on three books. A “behind the scenes” look at some of these titles reveal fascinating back stories.
State and county defense councils emerged after America’s late entry into the war against Germany in 1917. Indiana’s defense council was organized on May 19.
When it comes to freedom of speech, these groups had a sketchy record. Though much of what they did was simply ordinary work to contribute to the war effort — arranging food drives, relief for wounded soldiers, the sale of Liberty Loans, and urging Americans to conserve grain — the councils had a dark underbelly. The conservation of grain, for example, was an underhand way to enforce contentious “dry” laws, since corn and wheat were used in alcohol production — and alcohol was being labeled “German” and “foreign.” Under the influence of women’s and church groups, Indiana ushered in statewide Prohibition in 1917, three years before the national ban on booze, and at the same time that insidious rumors about spies and terrorists were lurking in the press. It’s an overlooked fact that the Prohibition movement was often tied at the hip to nativism, and that “unpatriotic” German beer-lovers were accused of wasting grain to undermine the war effort.
In many states, notably Iowa and Nebraska but also in Indiana, defense councils and local “Liberty Leagues” stood behind bans on the German language, an interdict that in some states forbade the speaking of any language other than English. In 1919, Indiana made it a criminal offense to teach German to children in elementary schools — largely out of concern that militaristic foreign propaganda and love of the “old country” was being spread by German-language textbooks and pamphlets (which were allegedly being burned in Indianapolis.) In many American schools, German classes weren’t offered again until the 1920s and the subject never recovered its pre-war popularity. World War I also virtually exterminated the once-flourishing German-language press in the U.S.
Much American news coverage drew on allegations from the British press, including illustrations and tabloid journalism. The British had exploited and exaggerated the very real human suffering of the 1914 “Rape of Belgium” for political ends and to encourage the U.S. to enter on the British side. Soon Hoosiers were reading about the sadistic sexual perversions of German commanders and soldiers, including accusations that the Kaiser’s “book of instructions” to officers authorized the rape and mutilation of children and the elderly. Many of these events did occur, though reports weren’t rigorously fact-checked. Yet American feminist writer Susan Brownmiller argues persuasively against the attempt to redeem German honor by downplaying the amount of rape during the war.
Defense councils typically consisted of ten or fifteen men and one woman, though “Woman’s Sections” were established in many states and counties. Indiana’s State Council of Defense in Indianapolis was headed by Senator Charles W. Fairbanks, who had been Theodore Roosevelt’s vice-president. Other male members of the committee included Irish-born former Indianapolis mayor Thomas Taggart (known as a Progressive); H.R. Kurrie, president of the Monon Railroad; former IU football coach and U.S. Representative Evans Woolen; and the famous Will Hays, granddaddy of film censorship in America. Among the officers of the Woman’s Section of the State Council was Anne Studebaker Carlisle of South Bend — daughter of Clement Studebaker of carriage- and auto-manufacturing fame — and Mrs. Samuel L. Ralston, wife of the future governor of Indiana, who also happened to be a Klan favorite in the 1920s.
(The much-misunderstood Will H. Hays, from Sullivan, Indiana, served on the State Council of Defense during World War I. Hays was chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1918 to 1921, then served as U.S. Postmaster General, when he became known for his opposition to sending pornography by mail. In 1934, he instituted the restrictive Hays Code to regulate the U.S. film industry, but the Hoosier native is also credited with helping the movie business get on its feet and provide truly quality films. Time Magazine, September 13, 1926.)
The Indiana State Council of Defense was definitely interested in what Hoosiers were reading and took a strong interest in “education.” In hindsight, its patriotism was part of an undisguised government program to promote optimism and a single view of the war. In this sense, it was propaganda in the true meaning of the word, which comes from the Latin for “to spread” information — not necessarily the unbiased kind.
The Report of the Woman’s Section, published after the war was over in 1919, demonstrates the interest the Indiana council took in promoting pro-war perspectives and how it went about making sure the government’s view came out on top. The primary target: pacifists and the “apathetic,” a word typically spelled “slacker” in war-hungry American newspapers like the Lake County Times.
The fiercest opposition to American involvement in World War I hadn’t come from German-Americans or “hyphenated” Americans of any stripe, but from isolationists and Socialists. Among the most outspoken critics was Indiana native son Eugene V. Debs, who went to prison for protesting the draft, and Wisconsin Senator Robert M. LaFollette. In the debate over intervention vs. isolation, graphic newspaper illustrations served not only to vilify German militarists — who may have richly deserved such treatment — but also the American labor movement, which criticized the war as a distraction from problems at home. Socialists and pacifists were labeled enemies and “slackers.”
Thus it comes as no surprise that a number of the books and pamphlets on the 1918 Indiana banned books list weren’t written by German militarists, but by American and British labor activists.
One of these books was a pamphlet called Morocco and Armageddon, penned by British pacifist and anti-slavery crusader E.D. Morel.
Anti-slavery? In 1917? Morel’s work combating illegal slave trading in the Congo Free State — Belgium’s huge African colony — linked him to British consul Roger Casement. Their investigations into the atrocities of Belgian King Leopold’s Congo, which shocked the world, figures into the background of Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece Heart of Darkness (1899). Morel’s investigations into greed and murder were supported by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain, among many others. The equally anti-imperialist Roger Casement was later executed by the British during World War I under allegations of being a German spy after he helped spark the 1916 Easter Rising of Irish Republicans in Dublin. Casement’s fate was virtually sealed when the British government published excerpts from his diary that suggested he was a homosexual.
Labor leader Morel’s opposition to World War I, which he considered a distraction from the atrocities of colonialism — including Belgium’s, some of the worst — earned him a spot on the Indiana banned books list just about a year after Casement’s execution. Morel was also severely critical of the harsh Treaty of Versailles, which many argue was an extension of the demonization of Germany and paved the way for the Second World War.
Another major name on the list is the great anthropologist Franz Boas. Born in Germany, Boas came to the U.S. and Canada in the 1880s to study the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest and the Arctic North. His studies of linguistics and culture made him one of the fathers of modern anthropology and folklore studies. Boas later taught at Columbia University. Having famously insisted that the origins of racial inequality are social, not biological, he later clashed with Adolf Hitler. The German-American anthropologist, who died in New York City in 1942, helped many German and Austrian scientists escape from the Nazis.
Boas had a different view of World War I though. His pamphlet “Nationalism and Europe,” printed by the Germanistic Society of Chicago in 1916 — spelled “Germanatic” in the Hammond, Indiana, newspaper — runs to fifteen pages. While he starts with a dispassionate criticism of Slavic nationalism — which threatened to break up the German domination of central Europe and was one of the main causes of the war — Boas rips into American reasons for getting involved, even specifically criticizing American hypocrisy when it came to “making the world safe for democracy.” After mentioning the sinking of the USS Maine and the famously yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst that had propelled the U.S. into war against Spain back in 1898, Boas comments:
One of the more disturbing figures to show up on the Indiana list was wrongly identified as “Edward Emerson.” In fact, this is the controversial and little-known Edwin Emerson, Jr. (1869-1959). No relation to the American philosopher Ralph Waldo, Edwin Emerson led a strange, complex life, much of it overseas.
Before the Civil War, Emerson’s father had written for Harper’s Magazine and worked with Noah Webster of dictionary fame. During the war, Emerson, Sr., went to Europe as a secret envoy for Abraham Lincoln, where he tried to prevent England and France from recognizing the Confederacy. Close to leaders like Otto von Bismarck and William Gladstone, “agent” Emerson was living in Dresden, Germany in 1869, when his son was born there. Edwin, Jr., seems to have grown up entirely in Germany, but later came to the United States. He graduated from Harvard in 1891, afterwards writing for the Boston Post and New York Evening Post and Sun as a foreign correspondent.
During the Spanish-American War — the war Franz Boas criticized for being an example of “How Americans Reason” — Emerson served in the Rough Riders with Theodore Roosevelt. Due to his native fluency in German, however, he posed as a German newspaper correspondent in Puerto Rico. Actually an American spy, Emerson acquired a critical map and helped spearhead the invasion of the Spanish island. Colonel Emerson also served as Teddy Roosevelt’s regimental clerk in Cuba. He then spent some time as a liaison in the Venezuelan army.
After the war, he went to Korea as a war correspondent and was imprisoned by the Japanese during the Russo-Japanese War. Then in 1906, in the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake, Emerson got married in San Francisco — in the house of Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson (an Indianapolis native). His new bride had actually declined his offer of marriage. But he didn’t get her telegram. . . so she married him anyway.
Emerson was one of just a handful of American journalists to report on the German side of the struggle during World War I, at a time when he wrote for the Chicago Daily News and other major papers. In “The Destruction of Louvain,” the pro-German reporter downplayed the horrors of the Rape of Belgium. As early as 1915, the New York Timeshad run an article on a speech Emerson was said to have given in Berlin. The German press quoted him as saying that under similar circumstances, American soldiers would have committed the same outrages on civilians as German troops did at Louvain. Understandably, this view did not win Emerson friends in America. His pamphlet explaining his purportedly eyewitness perspective on the Belgian atrocities was banned in Indiana.
Just after the November 1918 armistice, the news correspondent was in Guatemala, where that country’s president accused him of being a German spy. In the early 1920’s, he also got expelled from Austria and Switzerland as an undesirable alien and subversive.
Unfortunately, Edwin Emerson Jr.’s, politics soon took a turn for the worse. By the early 1930’s, this friend of Germany had become one of the most outspoken advocates of Nazism. In 1933 and 1934, on East 92nd Street in New York City, he helped found the Society of American Friends of Germany. This group quickly merged with the Chicago-born Friends of the New Germany (Bund der Freunden des Neuen Deutschland), an organization of American Nazis also known as FONG. The Friends later became the German American Bund, founded in Buffalo, which under police guard paraded through the streets of New York in 1937. A pro-Aryan organization, forty percent of their membership was allegedly Irish.
The Dresden-born newspaperman, who now edited the first pro-Nazi newspaper in America — Amerikas Deutsches Post — met with the German Führer himself in February 1934. The monthly paper had an English-language supplement, American Observer. The German American Bund also published a bilingual weekly, Deutscher Weckruf und Beobachter (Wake-Up Call and Observer.) In 1937, that paper became a youth magazine, but stopped publishing after Pearl Harbor.
The homegrown National Socialist groups that Emerson supported held multiple rallies at Madison Square Garden, events estimated to have drawn crowds of up to 50,000. Just like during the First World War, individuals who opposed entry into the Second had complicated reasons that often strayed far from mere pacifism. The controversial and probably anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh, “fallen hero,” was among them. Whether he deserved it or not, Lindbergh’s career was destroyed.
An author of books on Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Halley’s Comet and the Gutenberg Bible, Edwin Emerson, Jr., died in 1959 in San Francisco, California. He was buried at Golden Gate National Cemetery — under a Rough Rider’s tombstone.
The Lusitania disaster seems impossibly remote to some, but the great maritime tragedy occurred just a hundred years ago — within the living memory of our oldest citizens.
Photography was unable to capture the sinking itself. Torpedoed by a German submarine eleven miles off the south coast of Ireland on a beautiful May afternoon in 1915, the ship went to the bottom in just fifteen minutes, with the loss of 1,200 lives. Many still believe the ship’s unusually fast demise was caused by contraband explosives it carried in its hold, en route from the U.S. to Britain. If true, the Germans would still be guilty of a war crime, having fired the torpedo that ignited the illegal cargo, though the behavior of the British government, smuggling weapons on a passenger liner, would be hard to excuse.
While the meticulous, body-by-body photographic record of the drowned victims is stashed away in the Cunard Line Archives in Liverpool, hundreds of the dead were never recovered at all. Others remained unidentified. A series of stark photos documented their burial in a mass grave in the town of Cobh (formerly called Queenstown) on Ireland’s south coast. Remarkably few American newspapers ever reprinted these somber photographs, which show a pile of old-fashioned “pincher coffins,” the kind that was beginning to go out of style in favor of modern, less “haunted-looking” caskets.
An exception was the Lake County Times in Hammond, Indiana, which published one of the gloomy images on May 25, 1915, almost three weeks after the sinking.
(Old Church Cemetery, Cobh, County Cork, Ireland, where 169 bodies from the Lusitania were buried.)
One of the anonymous victims who might lie in the Irish earth — but who probably went to the bottom of the sea — was a Hoosier man sailing aboard the doomed vessel.
Elbridge Blish Thompson was a promising 32-year-old sales manager from Seymour, Indiana, traveling to Holland with his wife Maude. Though Maude survived and went on to have a remarkable, unusual life, Thompson drowned and his body was never officially recovered.
Born in southern Indiana in 1882, Thompson came from a family of prominent millers who ran the Blish Milling Company, one of the main businesses in Seymour. Educated in Illinois and at the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Thompson went on to study at Yale, then metallurgy at the Sheffield Scientific School in New Haven. Popular at Yale, he defended his home state by saying “A man from Indiana can do no wrong.” In 1904, he married Maude Robinson of Long Branch, New Jersey. Thompson’s work as a metallurgist took the couple out to Breckenridge, Colorado, but after a few years, they came back to Seymour, where he took charge of the Blish Milling Company and the Seymour Water Company. It was the flour milling business that eventually led him to embark on a fateful trip to Holland in May 1915.
In 1914, a strange instance of what the Indianapolis News called “kismet” (fate) led Thompson to disguise one of his cars in a strange costume — as a German U-boat. The automobile was a blue National roadster built at the National Motor Vehicle Company in Indianapolis, a company headed by Arthur C. Newby, one of the founders of the Indianapolis 500. Three days after the Lusitania was torpedoed by a real U-boat, the News carried an almost eerie story about the “mimic submarine” that Thompson once drove through a parade in Seymour:
Mr. Thompson is of an adventurous disposition and prolific with original ideas. He was impressed with the work of submarines in the European war, and decided to imitate one in decorating this auto for the parade. His submarine attracted much attention, and he was complimented for his originality. When he started for Europe with his wife on the Lusitania May 1, his friends warned him he might learn what a real submarine could accomplish, but he ridiculed the idea of danger. Now that he has felt the effects of a submarine’s torpedo, his friends are saying it was a “case of fate.”
The News incorrectly reported that Blish Thompson had been saved. On the morning of May 15, he and Maude rose at 4:30 to watch the sunrise. That afternoon, they were in the first class dining room when the torpedo struck, signaled by a thud, then followed by a huge explosion that was either a coal bunker or a cache of illegal ammunition going off, the alleged contraband being smuggled to the Western Front which had led the Germans to target the ship to begin with. On deck, Blish gave his lifebelt to a woman. Unable to get into lifeboats as the ship lurched almost perpendicular, the Thompsons were swept down the deck and sucked into the water. Then the couple’s grasp was torn apart by the suction of the plunging vessel.
While a memorial service was held for Thompson in Seymour on June 18, his body never turned up. The stone monument in Seymour’s Riverview Cemetery was erected over an empty grave.
A more interesting fate than “Blish” Thompson’s is that of his wife. By the end of World War I, Maude Thompson had remarried, becoming one of that fascinating bunch of Americans who joined the European aristocracy. For years, Seymour — a humble Hoosier farm town — had a direct connection to France’s old nobility.
Widowed by the Lusitania disaster, Maude Thompson went back to Europe to volunteer with the Red Cross in France. On the boat with her this time, she brought not her husband, but Blish Thompson’s two automobiles — the National roadster he had disguised as a “mimic submarine” for the parade through Seymour and a National touring car. Maude donated these Indianapolis-built vehicles to the French cause. The re-outfitted roadster served as a scout car on the Western Front. The touring car was given to the Red Cross. During World War I, Maude met and fell in love with an ace French fighter pilot, Count Jean de Gennes (pronounced “Zhen.”) Although she was twelve years his senior, the two were married in Paris in November 1917.
(Count Jean de Gennes, second husband of Maude Thompson, served in the French air force and transatlantic air mail service. His son was born in Seymour, Indiana.)
After the Allied victory over the Germans, the new Countess de Gennes moved to her husband’s spectacular Loire Valley estate, the historic Château de Longue Plaine, located 30 miles south of Tours in western France. It was a fairy-tale twist to a marriage due in part to the deadly sinking of the Lusitania. Their son, named after his father, was born in 1919 while his mother was on a visit back home to Seymour, where she served on the board of the Blish Milling Company. The young Indiana-born count would later serve during World War II as a pilot in the French Resistance, also flying in night-time bombing raids over Germany with the R.A.F.’s Bomber Command.
Maude’s husband was often away from home. During the 1920s, Count de Gennes was one of the great pioneer airmail pilots, navigating the dangerous South American and North African routes between France, Casablanca, and Buenos Aires. One of his colleagues at the Compagnie Aéropostale was the great French pilot and novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince and several great early non-fiction classics of flight. Like Saint-Exupéry, who vanished into the Mediterranean during World War II, Count Jean de Gennes — member of the French Legion d’Honneur — died in a plane crash off the coast of Morocco in 1929.
Six years before the count’s death, an unnamed reporter from the Indianapolis News paid a visit to the de Gennes family at their sprawling chateau near the Loire.
As the Hoosier reporter described it, Maude — “a former Indiana woman” — had refurbished much of the old 17th-century castle, which had been revamped in the early 1800s but originally dated back to the Middle Ages. Maude installed its first electric lights, a central heating system to replace “big hungry-mouthed fireplaces,” and put in a power plant out back. She also brought over bits of the Hoosier State with her, incorporated into the house or stowed away.
It was a delightful experience to live in this charming old place in the midst of American furniture — for the complete contents of the Seymour home had been transported to France. . . While it may seem like carrying coals to Newcastle, to take our furniture to a country famous a thousand years for its beautiful cabinet work, the old Indiana bureaus and tables and other pieces fitted admirably into the delightful old French setting. . .
Baby Jean lives in a suite of his own that was all paneled and cupboarded with Indiana wood. Even his furniture was built from Indiana lumber.
Much of this wood from Jackson County is probably still there today.
The reporter also found. . . Indiana newspapers:
(Château de Longue Plaine, where Maude Thompson lived into the 1940s.)
(Hoosier-born French pilot Count Jean de Gennes served as a bombardier in the “Groupe Guyenne,” a segment of the R.A.F.’s Bomber Command that flew out of Tunisia and Britain, carrying out the controversial night-time raids over German cities that killed thousands of civilians. Half of the squadron itself died in action.)
Though she could easily have found refuge in the U.S., the Countess de Gennes stayed in France during the Nazi occupation of her adopted country. In 1946, she moved to New York City with her son, who was working for Air France. Maude lived out her remaining days in Queens. She died on May 17, 1951. According to her last wishes, she was buried in France.