Mermaids, Giant Turtles, and Wild Men…Oh My!

EDITOR’S NOTE: While the Indiana Historical Bureau does not research folklore and cryptozoology, in the course of doing historical research in newspapers about other topics, we sometimes come across odd stories like we have collected here. We thought some people would find these strange accounts from historical records interesting.

A cryptid is defined as “An animal whose existence or survival is disputed or unsubstantiated.” The most famous cryptids include Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster, the Pacific Northwest’s Bigfoot, and the Chupacabra of Central and North America. These mysterious animals tend to inhabit mysterious places; deep, dark lakes, impenetrable forests, and wide open desserts. It’s a bit surprising, then, that there is such a long and rich history of Hoosier cryptids. From Ohio River “mud mermaids” in southern Indiana to a Michigan City “wild child” up north, historic newspapers are riddled with reports of unexplained (and mostly unconfirmed) creatures in the wilds of Indiana.

Some of the most commonly reported sightings fall into the category of humanoid creatures. The most widely known of these is Bigfoot and while they’re most often associated with the Pacific Northwest, there have been some sightings here in the Hoosier State. Stories of Bigfoot have their roots in the legends of Native Americans and predate the arrival of Europeans to the continent. These stories existed long before there was one single term to describe all large, hairy, humanoid creatures, making it difficult to suss out reports of early sightings in newspapers. Reports of “wild men,” are probably the predecessors to modern Bigfoot sightings. Here, we will examine four of these reports which span over a century.

The Adams Sentinel, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 30 Dec 1839, pg 1. Accessed Newspapers.com.

In late 1839, a Pennsylvania newspaper picked up the story of a “Wild Child” sighting in Michigan City, Indiana. About four feet tall and covered in light brown hair, the child apparently was a very fast runner and swimmer and very fond of water. The report theorizes that the “creature” may have been the child of immigrants who wandered too far from camp and, left to his own devices, grew wild and (apparently) very hairy. The report concludes by declaring “It would be nothing but an act of Humanity on the part of our young men to turn out and help to capture it.”

 

 

 

The Weekly Republican, Plymouth Indiana. June 14, 1860, p1. Accessed Newspapers.com

Twenty-one years later, in 1860, the young men of Carroll County had
turned out to help capture another “Wild Child.” This article from The Weekly Republican in Plymouth, Indiana reports that a search party of 300 has formed to help look for a male child between the ages of 7 and 10 who had been sighted several times. Since this is the only account of the sightings found in newspapers and there are no reports indicating that this child had an unusual amount of hair, it’s quite possible that this was nothing but a lost child rather than a small Bigfoot. Even the newspaper expresses doubts, saying “we think we smell a rat.”

The Daily Reporter, Boonville IN, Aug 16, 1937, p.2. Accessed Newspapers.com.

 

It was suggested that the Boonville monster was actually a giant sloth, or Megatherium, pictured here.

In 1937, an animal alternately described as a “monster hairy ape,” a “giant sloth,” a “cross between an ape and a sloth,” and simply a “monster” was reported in Boonville, Indiana. In some articles, the beast was described as harmless but in one article, it was said that the beast “mauled a police dog so bad it had to be shot.” Community members banded together to search for the beast, mothers kept their children inside, and traps with raw meat in them were laid with hopes of luring the creature in. All was for naught as on August 19 newspapers announced that the search was being “temporarily abandoned” and no mentions of resuming search was found in the following months. One article, written about a month later, points out that the rumors began to spread just as blackberry season started and suggests that “Boonville folk” spread the tale to keep people away from their blackberry patches.

Linton Daily Citizen, Linton, IN July 18, 1949, pg 3. Accessed Newspapers.com.

Twelve years later, there was a rash of sightings of a large, hairy, humanoid animal around Thorntown, in Boone County. The papers
reported nearly 30 and claim the town was so terrorized that residents weren’t venturing out at night. An article ran on June 22, 1949 in the Lafayette Journal and Courier reporting that the “Thorntown Gorilla,” as it was being called, was nothing more than a hoax planned by members of the Sportsmen and Wild Life club. The mystery apparently persisted because on July 17, the Richmond Palladium headline read “Safari Seeks ‘gorilla’ at Thorntown.” This “safari” consisted of four posses, including State Conservation officers and nearly 30 Thorntown residents. What they found wasn’t a gorilla. Nor was it a hoax. What they found was much more tragic; a woman described as “deranged” and “mentally ill.”

Big Foot-like creatures aren’t the only kind of humanoids in the cryptozoology field. Mermaids also fit into the subdivision. It may seem unlikely for a land locked state like Indiana to have produced mermaid stories, but in late 1894 Ohio newspapers reported that a pair of “mud mermaids” had taken up residence on a sand bar in the Ohio River near Vevay, Indiana. The Cincinnati Enquirer gave a very detailed description of the rather monstrous sounding creature:

Artist rendering from the description given of the Mud Mermaids, from “Weird Indiana: Your Travel Guide to Indiana’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets.”

“The beast is about five feet in length…Its (sic) general color is yellowish. The body between the four legs resembles that of a human being. Back of the hind legs it tapers to a point…The extremities resemble hands and are webbed and furnished with sharp claws…it is devoid of hair…Its (sic) ears are sharp-pointed and stand up like those of a dog…”

While newspapers report that sightings of the duo had started four year earlier, no newspaper reports can be found recounting earlier sightings and the mermaid craze ends as quickly as it began, with the first report in September and the last just under two months later in November.

The Telegraph, Logansport, IN, August 11, 1838 pg 1. Indiana State Library microfilm.

Of course, humanoid creatures aren’t the only kind of cryptid that has been reported to dwell in Indiana. Eye witness reports of a lake monster have been coming out of Lake Manitou, near present day Rochester, for many years. In an 1838 article, the Logansport Telegraph described a “well known tradition of the Indians respecting the Monster in the ‘Devil’s Lake.'” Witnesses estimated the monster “measured sixty feet” and described the Lake Manitou monster as having a head about three feet across with the contour of a cow’s head, a tapering neck, and being “dingy” colored with large bright yellow spots. Below is a depiction of the terror of Manitou Lake, published August 11, 1838 in the Logansport Telegraph.

Welcome to Churubusco sign, still taken from youtube.com video “Churubusco, Indiana”

Perhaps the most famous Indiana cryptid, definitely the one most thoroughly covered by newspapers, is a giant turtle called the “Beast of Busco” which was reported to live in a 10 acre lake near Churubusco, Indiana. Also called Oscar, the turtle’s shell was said to be as big around as a dining room table. Gale Harris, the owner of the lake Oscar called home, first saw the beast a year after purchasing the farmland the lake sat on, 1948. In early March 1949 the Columbia City Commercial Mail demanded a hunt for the reptile, running headlines like “Five Hundred Pound Turtle Would Make Lots of Good Turtle Soup.” The residents of the small town turned into turtle hunters; they proposed building a turtle house in the middle of town to display him in if they caught him. They tried everything to get the turtle out of the lake including using a crane, bringing in divers, draining most of the water from the lake, and using a female turtle to lure it out. They even offered a $1,800 reward for the capture of the beast, all to no avail. Eventually, it was concluded that the Beast of Busco either never existed or escaped to another lake. Dubbed “Turtle Town USA,” Churubusco still celebrates its famous reptilian resident with the annual Churubusco Turtle Days festival. 

These are just a few of the many unexplainable creatures that have been sighted in Indiana. So, the next time you’re hiking in the woods or swimming in the Ohio River, keep your eyes open. You never know what you might find.

Norman Norell: Dean of American Fashion

Norman Norell with models wearing Traina-Norell designs from his spring/summer 1949 collection. Image courtesy of New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archives.

During his 50 year career, Norman Norell crafted beautiful costumes, worked under war-time limitations, resisted pressure to substitute quality for quantity, and worked to bring the NYC fashion houses on Seventh Avenue on par with those of Paris. During his time in the industry, Norell managed to escape the pomp and circumstance of New York City and is remembered for leading a simple, “moral” life in the often cutthroat world of high-class fashion design.

Norman Norell was born Norman David Levinson on April 20, 1900 in Noblesville, Indiana. His father, Harry, owned and operated a men’s clothing store in the town and this is undoubtedly where he developed an eye for fashion. Harry soon opened a men’s hat store in Indianapolis, and in 1905 moved the family to the city once the business experienced success.  Norman completed high school in Indianapolis then moved to New York to begin his fashion education at Parsons Institute. At 19, he began studying at the Pratt Institute, where he studied drawing and fashion illustration. It was here that he combined the first syllable of his first name with the “l” sound of the beginning of his last name and adopted the name Norell.

Gloria Swanson in “Zaza.” Norman Norell designed the costumes for Swanson in this 1939 silent film. Photo courtesy of “Glorious Gloria Swanson.”

His early years in the fashion industry were spent designing costumes. He designed for a variety of projects, including silent film, burlesque, vaudeville, and nightclub acts. Norell costumed Rudolph Valentino in The Sainted Devil and Gloria Swanson in Zaza, but soon shifted his focus to women’s apparel. In 1928 he began a 12 year stint working for Hattie Carnegie. While a “fierce perfectionist . . . brilliant in her own way,” her process was considered fairly unoriginal – she bought pieces from Parisian couturiers, pulled them apart in New York, and turned them into more affordable clothes for her American clientele. Original or not, working with Carnegie gave Norell invaluable experience by visiting the Paris fashion houses and allowed him to fully understand the construction of women’s clothing. After a falling out with Carnegie over his designs for the Broadway production Lady in the Dark, Norell left and joined forces with Anthony Triana to form Triana-Norell in 1941.

Although he was a salaried employee of Triana, Norell was the designer of the company and as such was making waves in the fashion world. Bonwit Teller said of the new fashion house in the October 1941 edition of VOGUE, “The House of Traina-Norell comes on the season like an electrical storm. Its designer, young Mr. Norell, creates a collection so alive that everyone’s talking.” Just two months after that article ran, the United States’ entry into World War II changed nearly every industry in America, including fashion.

Cover of January 1942 edition of VOGUE. This, their first issue after US entry into WWII, addressed the changes fashion experienced due to the war. Image: Mason, Meghann, “The impact of World War II on women’s fashion in the United States and Britain” master’s thesis, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 2011.

Up until this point in the 20th century, women’s clothing styles changed at a faster pace than ever before. Silhouettes changed entirely about every 10 years, much more quickly than in previous eras. War time restrictions stopped this fast progress in its tracks. On March 8, 1942 the War Production Board issued limitation order number 85, or L-85, which set rules for the production of women’s clothing. Manufactures were banned from making blouses with hoods, blouses with more than one pocket, coats with epaulets, coats with sleeve circumference larger than 16 ½ inches, and reversible skirts. All of these measures reduced the use of material used for clothing production. Hems, which for the previous years had been widening from the sleek, narrow skirts of the 1920s, were reduced from 81 inches to 78 inches. These restrictions challenged American fashion designers, one which Norman Norell met.

Norman Norell design “Subway” from the 1942 Traina-Norell collection. This piece is an example of Norell’s war time work, with the simple neck and sleek, waist-less design he helped popularize. Image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Drawing inspiration from his favorite era of fashion, the 1920s, Norell introduced the chemise dress, or shirt dress in 1942. This design featured a simple round neckline, a departure from the “fussy” necklines of the time. The simplicity of this trend worked well within the restrictions imposed by L-85 and chemise dresses, along with a fur-trimmed trench coat, became the staple of the Traina-Norell label.

World War II cut American designers off from their long time inspirational lifeline of the Paris fashion houses. Until this point, American designers took their lead almost exclusively from Paris (recall Hattie Carnegie’s method of deconstructing Parisian pieces previously discussed). In 1942, Coty, Inc. introduced the Coty American Fashion Critic’s Awards to address this issue by promoting original American fashion design during the war. Fashion editor Bernadine Morris later wrote, “What Norman Norell had accomplished in the first collection was to give American fashion – producers and wearers alike – a freedom from dependence on foreign sources of inspiration. The American industry felt it could set its own directions, its own styles.”

Norell never compromised on quality; oftentimes, a single suit jacket would take a week to stitch. This quality came with a price tag, though. One article said, “Women purchasing a Traina-Norell garment were buying, at great cost, an American-made status symbol that would likely remain in their closets for decades.” The prices for a Traina-Norell piece ranged from $500 for a simple jersey dress to upwards of $4,000 for an evening gown.

The Traina-Norell brand continued to set trends throughout it’s nearly twenty year existence. Oftentimes, competitors would copy his designs and sell them for much less. This was so common that the year before he introduced his revolutionary wool culottes suit, he offered the pattern to any manufacturer who wanted it in order to prevent the manufacture of inferior versions of the design. One of his signature evening looks, the “mermaid dress” would not look out-of-place at a gala today. Other signature designs of Norell included the 1961 wide-flaring skirt, impeccably designed coats, the evening jumpsuit, and sweater topped dresses.

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In 1960, Anthony Traina retired and Norell began his solo carter with the Norell fashion house. Although the name of the brand had changed, the reputation for high quality, long-lasting clothing stayed the same. During his career, Norell won the Coty award three times and was inducted into the Coty Hall of Fame. When the Coty Awards were discontinued in 1985, Coty’s parent company said it was because they had achieved their goal of bringing American fashion houses to the same level of those in Paris, and there’s little doubt that Norell played a big role in that.

Former First Lady, Michelle Obama, wearing a Norman Norell dress in 2010.

Norman Norell became known as the dean of American Fashion and was active in the industry up until his death on October 25, 1972, just before a retrospective exhibit of his work was to open at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City was to open. Even today, Norell pieces are highly sought after and sell for high prices in vintage clothing shops. In December 2010, former First Lady Michelle Obama wore a vintage Norell dress at a White House Christmas party, one of the few times a first lady has worn a vintage piece at an official White House event.

View over 200 Traina-Norell and Norell pieces on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.

Irene Ray: Alleged “Witch” of Rochester

Irene Ray. Courtesy of the Indiana Album: Joan Hostetler Collection.

In the spring of 1692, a small village in Massachusetts was swept with a hysteria that started after a group of young girls accused several local women of participating in witchcraft and forging pacts with the devil. That hysteria, of course, would lead to the infamous Salem witch trials and in the following months, approximately 150 people would face witchcraft accusations; over 20 of those would be found guilty and put to the gallows.

The Republic, Columbus, Indiana, May 12, 1938, accessed Newspapers.com

Two hundred and forty-six years later, newspapers across the country would once again run headlines including words like “witch”, “hex”, and “spells” and yet another woman’s life would be ruined due to false accusations of witchcraft.

On May 11, 1938, Irene Ray and her husband Charles were driven from the town of Rochester, Indiana due to allegations that Irene was a practitioner of witchcraft and had hexed several town folk. It was alleged that her hexes had caused personal property damage, serious illness, and even death. Irene and Charles had moved to the town six years prior to this unfortunate episode along with their daughter, Iloe, and their cat (a strange fact that many of the newspaper stories were sure to include). What could have happened in the intervening years that would cause the townspeople to call for her removal?

When the Ray family moved to Rochester, they settled in a shack on the outskirts of town. One article in the Logansport Tribune even claims that the couple were forced from the nearby town of Plymouth, Indiana before finding themselves in rather dire circumstances in Rochester. Soon, they applied for and were given “relief” or welfare support. They were placed in a house on Audubon Street, where their neighbors soon came to resent them. They were seen as outsiders who were living off of the tax money of the citizens of Rochester who, although themselves poor, did not apply for relief.

Georgia Conrad, “victim” of Irene Ray, The Tennessean, June 19, 1938, accessed, Newspaper.com.

It may be that Irene herself started the rumors of witchcraft as a way to scare people away from her, relieving the family from taunts and other attacks. No matter how the rumors started, though, soon they spread like wildfire. At first, the townsfolk merely murmured about the witch but after the sudden illness of Georgia Knight Conrad, those murmurs became shouts. Irene had been trying to purchase some antiques from Georgia and had made several visits to her house to pressure the 24-year-old into selling them. On one of these visits, it is said that Irene slipped into Georgia’s bedroom and plucked some hairs from her brush. When leaving, Irene pronounced, “You’ll be sorry soon!” That evening, Georgia fell into a faint and was soon diagnosed as having a “leaking heart valve.” It wasn’t long before the family connected the dots.

Another alleged victim of Mrs. Ray was Chief of Police Clay Sheets. After the chief oversaw the removal of Irene’s granddaughter from her home due to charges against the “morals of the household,” newspapers reported that “dancing with rage, Irene screamed: ‘You are just a tool of that Knight Woman and you will be sorry, too!’” A few days later, Chief Sheets died of what appeared to be a heart attack.

In addition to human hearts, she was accused of hexing one man’s crops. Mrs. Ray made a habit of taking a shortcut through a field owned by Mr. “Friday” Castle, who didn’t appreciate the alleged witch trespassing on his property. When he confronted her she “ran her eyes back and forth over the patch until they had covered every inch of it. Then she . . . said ‘It won’t make a bit of difference now whether anybody walks on it or not.’” According to Castle, no potatoes sprouted that spring.

Other accusations included Mrs. Ray inducing insomnia, nervous indigestion, fires, floods, and more. The alleged methods of hexing ranged from using voodoo dolls to taking hairs of the victim, intertwining them with hairs from her cat, placing them in vinegar and burying them. It was also said that she consulted a more powerful witch from Plymouth when the hex she wanted to perform was above her ability. This consultant would “chew a dime into somewhat the shape of a nail to drive it into a dead tree, by blows of the horny heel of his palm . . . the victim would surely drop dead as soon as the magician had time to say three times: ‘Black Jack of baccarat, hominy domini, corpse.’”

The allegations against Irene Ray mounted and police were increasingly pressured to charge her with witchcraft. Fortunately, unlike Salem Massachusetts in 1692, Indiana had no laws against witchcraft. The state did have vagrancy laws, in essence making it illegal to be homeless. Irene was charged with vagrancy and arrested, only to be released when she promised the new Chief of Police that she and her family would leave town.

Irene Ray press release, May 12, 1938. Courtesy of the Indiana Album: Joan Hostetler Collection.

Although Irene denied the accusations against her, saying “The whole thing is wrong. I can’t do anything like that,” she and her husband Charles moved from the town and settled near Manitou Lake. The story of a “witch” being driven from town spread across the country and appeared in newspaper headlines from California to New York. Most were skeptical of the allegations and cast the whole affair in a grim light. In many of the articles, it is mentioned that Irene was of American Indian descent, although Irene admitted that even she wasn’t sure if this was accurate. The inclusion of this fact, along with that of her alleged consultant was African American, suggests that the incident was as much about race as it was about the financial situation of the family.

Logansport Pharos-Tribune, November 05, 1938, Accessed Newspaper.com.

Just six months later, Irene was hit by a car and died from the injuries. The accusations of witchcraft would outlive the alleged witch. In every article about the accident, her death takes a backseat to the story of her being forced out of Rochester as a witch. Later, when her daughter petitioned to have her stepfather declared of unsound mind (he had sustained a head injury in the accident which killed Irene) the headline focused on the fact that he was the widower of “Rochester’s Noted ‘Witch-Woman.’” It is safe to say now that Irene Ray was no witch, but rather a woman whose neighbors’ dislike and resentment ran so deep that they convinced themselves that she was at the root of their problems.

Mesmerism, Rappings, & Trance Speaking: Spiritualism in Indiana

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Indiana has been home to a lively Spiritualist community since the very early days of the religion. Although Spiritualism, in the broad sense of the term, has existed for thousands of years, Modern American Spiritualism began in the late 1840s in upstate New York with the Fox Sisters. Margaret and Catherine Fox first claimed to have direct communication with the spirit world in late March 1848. In the next two years they would tour much of the country demonstrating these communications, which came in the form of rappings or knockings, to thousands of Americans, inviting anyone to come test the claims for themselves.

Spiritualism was championed by many reformers and intellectuals of the day as a means to find “scientific ground on which to rest every real Christian doctrine.” Although Margaret and Catherine would confess in 1888 that they themselves were the source of the rappings, (they made the sounds by popping their toes) the movement had a life of its own at that point and the confessions were seen as ploys for attention and money by most dedicated spiritualists.

camp-chesterfield-circa-1890
Early attendants of Camp Chesterfield reclining near one of the many tents which made up the camp at the time. Circa 1890. Photo Courtesy of “Chesterfield Lives!”

In Anderson, Indiana, a group of free thinkers began to meet in the meeting hall of J.W. Westerfield in the 1880s. Westerfield organized a lecture series which included lecturers on mesmerism, phrenology, trance speaking, healing, clairvoyance, and spirit contact. Many of the attendants at these lectures soon became spiritualists and after attending a Spiritualist Camp meeting in Michigan, members of this group set themselves to the task of creating a Spiritualist camp in Indiana. In 1890, Westerfield became the president of the Indiana Association of Spiritualists and under his leadership founded a camp in Chesterfield. Beginning as a sort of tent city, more and more buildings and infrastructure were added to Camp Chesterfield over the years until it became almost a city unto itself. The grounds included cottages for many of the mediums of the camp as well as a grocery store, ice cream parlor, and a band stand.

chesterfield-cabin-with-ad
Camp Chesterfield cottage with a group of attendants lounging on the porch. Sign advertising a Materializing Medium hangs out front. Image courtesy of “Chesterfield Lives!”

Many spiritual happenings were reported at Camp Chesterfield. Between 1901 and 1908, the camp’s programs advertised mediums with a wide variety of abilities. These abilities included trumpet mediumship, slate writing, spirit photography, materializing mediumship, and precipitated spirit portraits. Examples of each of these forms of mediumship can be seen below.

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Camp Chesterfield faced many hardships throughout its history, including a mass arrest of 14 mediums in 1925 (the charges of false pretense were eventually thrown out), dwindling interest in Spiritualism, and the 1997 release of the expose The Psychic Mafia by former Chesterfield medium Lamar Keene. Through it all, Champ Chesterfield endured. In fact, it is still open and active today as one of the oldest continually active Spiritualism camps in America. In 2015 and 2016, the camp was listed as one of the top 10 most endangered historical sites in Indiana by Indiana Landmarks. The Friends of Camp Chesterfield Foundation is a non-profit working to restore, renew, preserve, and maintain historic Camp Chesterfield for future generations. To see the work being done by the Friends of Camp Chesterfield, join their Facebook page! Visit Camp Chesterfield’s website here to learn more about the work they are currently doing.

Dr. Harvey “Old Borax” Wiley and His Poison Squad

hwwiley-02
Harvey Washington Wiley, M.D. Image courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

For many people, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the early Pure Food movement is Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book The Jungle. However, Hoosier Harvey Wiley’s work in the field was already at its apex when Sinclair’s exposé was released. When Dr. Wiley started his career in the mid- to late-9th century, the production of processed foods in the US was on the rise due to the increasing number of urban dwellers unable to produce their own fresh food. With little to no federal regulation in this manufacturing, food adulteration was rampant. Dr. Wiley made it his mission prove the importance of food regulation. With the help of a group of men known as the Poison Squad, he did just that.

Harvey Washington Wiley was born on a small farmstead near Kent, Indiana on October 18, 1844. He attended Hanover College from 1863-1867, with the exception of a few months in 1864 when he served in Company I of 137th Indiana Volunteers during the Civil War. After graduating in 1867, Wiley moved to Indianapolis and began teaching at Butler University while earning his Ph.D. from the Medical College of Indiana. It was in 1874 that Dr. Wiley began his work as a chemist at Purdue University, where he developed an interest in adulterated food. Wiley argued that mass-produced food, as opposed to food produced locally in small quantities, contained harmful additives and preservatives and misled consumers about what they were actually eating. In the coming decades, Wiley would prove that this theory was correct and serve as one of the public faces of the pure food movement. As a 1917 advertisement in The (New York) Sun put it:

“Dr. Wiley it was who, at Washington, first roused the country to an appreciation of purity and wholesomeness in foods. He has been the one conspicuous figure in food betterment and food conservation in the present generation.”

In 1883, Wiley was appointed Chief Chemist of the Bureau of Chemistry, a division of the United States Department of Agriculture. While serving in this capacity, Wiley made the establishment of federal standards of food, beverages, and medication his priority. To this end, governmental testing of food, beverages, and ingredients began in 1902. The most famous of these tests were the “hygienic table trials,” better known by the name given to them by the media: “The Poison Squad.”

The Poison Squad
The “twelve young clerks, vigorous and voracious,” who made up the Poison Squad, sit six to a table. Image courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration Flickr page.

During these trials, “twelve young clerks, vigorous and voracious” were fed and boarded in the basement of the Agricultural Department building in Washington D.C. Before each meal the men would strip and be weighed, any alteration in their condition being noted. At any one time, six of the group would be fed wholesome, unadulterated food. The other six were fed food laced with commonly used additives such as borax and formaldehyde. Every two weeks, the two groups would be switched. While the position of poison squad member may sound like it would be a hard one to fill, volunteers were lining up to participate in the tests, even writing letters such as the following to Dr. Wiley:

Image courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration Flickr page.

The experiments commenced in November of 1902 and by Christmas, spirits among the Squad members were low. According to a Washington Post article from December 26,

“The borax diet is beginning to show its effect on Dr. Wiley’s government-fed boarders at the Bureau of Chemistry, and last night when the official weights were taken just before the Christmas dinner the six guests who are taking the chemical course showed a slight decrease in avoirdupois . . . To have lost flesh on Christmas Day, when probably everybody else in Washington gained more or less from feasting, was regarded by the boarders themselves as doubly significant.”

A look at the “unprinted and unofficial menu” from the Christmas meal, also printed in the Post, sheds some light on what may have given the boarders pause in their Christmas feasting.

Image courtesy of The Washington Post: Dec 26, 1902; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post pg. 2. 

Much of the information reported by the press during this time came from the members of the squad themselves, until “Old Borax” as Wiley came to be known, issued a gag-order in order to preserve the sanctity of the scientific studies happening. Despite the order, public interest had been peaked and tongues and pens wagged around the country. As one Columbia University scholar put it, “Supreme County justices could be heard jesting about the Squad in public, and even minstrel shows got in on the act.” There were even poems and songs written about the trials.

If ever you should visit the Smithsonian Institute,
Look out that Professor Wiley doesn’t make you a recruit.
He’s got a lot of fellows there that tell him how they feel,
They take a batch of poison every time they eat a meal.
For breakfast they get cyanide of liver, coffin shaped,
For dinner, undertaker’s pie, all trimmed with crepe;
For supper, arsenic fritters, fried in appetizing shade,
And late at night they get a prussic acid lemonade.

They may get over it, but they’ll never look the same.
That kind of a bill of fare would drive most men insane.
Next week he’ll give them moth balls,
a LA Newburgh, or else plain.
They may get over it, but they’ll never look the same.

-Lew Dockstade, “They’ll Never Look the Same”

At the close of the Borax trials in 1903, Wiley began cultivating relationships with some journalists, perhaps in hopes of turning the reports from jovial, and sometimes untrue, conjectures to something more closely resembling the serious work being done.

Along with borax and formaldehyde, the effects of salicylic acid, saccharin, sodium benzoate and copper salts were all studied during the Hygienic Table Trials. The reports generated during the Hygienic Table Trials and the media coverage that followed set the stage for the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the same year in which the trials were concluded. According to the FDA, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, also known as The Wiley Act, serves the purpose of “preventing the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors, and for regulating traffic therein.”

By requiring companies to clearly indicate what their products contained and setting standards for the labeling and packaging of food and drugs, the Act helped consumers make informed decisions about products that could affect their health. While controversies over additives and government regulations continue to this day, Dr. Harvey Wiley and his Poison Squad played a major role in making the food on our tables safe to eat.

Check out our historical marker and corresponding review report to learn
more about Wiley.                            marker picLearn about the history of public health in Indiana and Wiley’s contributions with our publication The Indiana Historian.