Flocks that Darken the Heavens: The Passenger Pigeon in Indiana

Julian Pender Hume, cover Extinct Birds, accessed Errol Fuller, The Passenger Pigeon, pg. 74.

One day in rural Monroe County, Indiana during the 1870s, 10-year-old Walter Rader witnessed an astonishing natural phenomenon: passenger pigeons had gathered at his family farm “by the millions.” As the birds descended on the farm, they blocked out “almost the entire visible area of sky.” He remembered that so many pigeons roosted in the trees surrounding the farm at night “that their weight would often break large limbs from the trees.” The crash rang so loudly he could hear it clearly inside his house.

John James Audubon’s painting of the male and female passenger pigeon, accessed Wikimedia. To see a 3D view of a passenger pigeon, visit the Smithsonian’s webpage.

Children in the 1870s became the last generation to witness such unbelievable flights of passenger pigeons. When the Indianapolis Star shared Rader’s memories in 1934, the passenger pigeon had been extinct already for twenty years, though it had reigned as North America’s most abundant bird since the 16th century. Passenger pigeons, once so numerous that they could disrupt natural landscapes, impact the nation’s economy, and shape American social life and cuisine, became a rarity by 1900. At their disappearance, some theorized that all the pigeons had drowned in the Gulf of Mexico, flew across the Pacific to Asia, or succumbed to some mysterious disease. What happened? How could a bird so populous that it darkened the sky be reduced to none in mere decades?

The passenger pigeon had a long history of striking awe in mere humans. Its large flocks astonished early European settlers and visitors. Ralphe Humor described the wild pigeons he saw in Virginia in 1615 as

beyond number or imagination, my selfe have seene three or four hours together flockes in the aire, so thicke that even they have shadowed the skie from us.

Portrait of John James Audubon by John Syme, White House Historical Association, accessed Wikimedia.

Even early ornithologists could not believe the amounts of passenger pigeons they witnessed. John James Audubon, one of the most prominent early North American naturalists, encountered such a large flight of passenger pigeons along the Ohio River in Kentucky that he was “struck with amazement.” He recalled the “air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow.” Despite the excrement, he decided to try to count all the pigeons that flew overhead, as any dedicated ornithologist would. He pulled out a pencil and paper and made a dot on the page for every flock that passed by. Audubon gave up after about twenty minutes, as the sky overhead was still inundated with pigeons. He counted 163 dots on the page. He later calculated that he saw well over one billion pigeons that day.

According to historian Joel Greenberg, “Nothing in the human record suggests that there was ever another bird like the passenger pigeon.” Estimations indicate three to five billion passenger pigeons inhabited North America from the 1500s through the early 1800s, constituting 25-40% of the continent’s total bird population. The passenger pigeon often traveled in huge flocks and left undeniable marks on the landscapes they inhabited. They formed roosts (resting sites) and nests for breeding in trees spread across miles. Their collective weight broke branches and sometimes toppled trees. When the pigeons finally left, it sometimes looked like tornado had swept across the land.

Passenger pigeon range, accessed birdwatchingdaily.com

The bird only lived in North America, generally east of the Rocky Mountains, between the Hudson Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Passenger Pigeons, always on the move in their search for enough food to feed their massive flocks, generally flew north in the spring and south in the fall. Indiana falls smack dab in the middle of the passenger pigeon’s range and migration path. William Hebert wrote one of the earliest extant records of the pigeon in Indiana. In 1823, while he visited Harmony, he saw “astonishing flights of pigeons” and millions congregated in the nearby woods. Since pigeons upon pigeons inhabited each tree, no guns were even necessary to hunt them. Parties of people went into the forest at night, armed with poles, and simply knocked armloads of pigeons off the trees.

During the 18th and 19th century, Americans put their lives on hold when pigeons came to town. The bewildering sight of pigeons upon pigeons as far as the eye could see attracted amazed onlookers. The influx of pigeons became a free, relatively easy source of food that required little skill to capture or kill. Since pigeons often traveled and nested in such high concentrations, it was almost impossible to miss shooting a bird (or two) with a rifle or capture huge numbers with a net. Naturalist Bénédict Henry Révoil witnessed pigeon fever strike Hartford, Kentucky in 1847. He attested that for three days “the population never laid aside their weapons. All—men and children—had a double barreled gun or rifle in their hands,” waiting for the right moment to shoot through the thick cloud of pigeons flying above them. “In the evening the conversation of everybody turned upon pigeons . . . For three days nothing was eaten but boiled, or broiled, or stewed, or baked pigeons.”

Drawing of a passenger pigeon shoot in Northern Louisiana by Smith Bennett, c. 1875, accessed Wikimedia.

Indiana newspapers often updated Hoosiers on the comings and goings of passenger pigeons in the state. In 1850, an enormous pigeon roost formed near Lafayette, Indiana. According to newspaper reports, four men went to the roost to hunt and returned to town with 598 pigeons. The Indiana State Sentinel encouraged others to head to the roost because “the pigeons are unusually fat and most excellent eating.” In 1854, another roost ten miles long by five miles wide near Brookville, Indiana attracted persons “coming many miles to enjoy the sport.” An Indiana Herald journalist reported that:

the roar of their wings on arriving and departing from the roost is tremendous and the flocks, during the flight, darken the heavens. The ground is covered to the depth of several inches with their manure. Thousands [of pigeons] are killed by casualties from breaking limbs of trees.

Yet, the Indiana American assured readers to come to the roost as “There are pigeons enough for all.”

Example of pigeon updates in the Marshall County Republican [Plymouth, Indiana], September 10, 1857, pg. 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
Pigeon flocks that blocked the sun and toppled trees supported many Americans’ belief that their nation supplied an endless bounty of natural resources. No matter man’s actions, there would always be an inexhaustible amount of pigeons. Though the concept sounds a bit irrational today, historian Jennifer Price notes in her book Flight Maps that 18th- and early 19th-century Americans would probably have to stretch their own imaginations to envision our landscape as it now exists, crisscrossed with highways, dotted with skyscrapers, and cleared for agriculture. Most European settlers came from nations that had been over-hunted for centuries, so the incredible amounts of game they encountered in America seemed impossible for humans to eradicate. Additionally, Price explains that the freedom to hunt (like shooting a pigeon) became a social, political, and ecological act unique to America. In many European nations, only the upper class who controlled most of the lands where game remained could hunt. She observes “To hunt meant so much more than mere utilitarian gain. To go hunting was to tap into the continent’s bounty, to supplement the table, to exercise your skill with a shotgun, perhaps to band together with neighbors after plowing.”

This strong hunting tradition Price describes still plays out in present day Hoosier culture. For example, during the 2016 election Hoosiers voted to include an amendment that protects the right to fish and hunt, subject to state wildlife regulations, in the state constitution. Joel Schumm, a clinical law professor at Indiana University, told the Indianapolis Star this protection reflects the fact that “hunting and fishing is deeply ingrained in our culture and our state.”

During the latter half of the 19th century, revolutionary transportation advancements put the purportedly inexhaustible pigeon population to the test. Roads, canals, and railroads connected the far corners of the country and created a national market. As the railroad expanded into rich game areas in the west, market hunters could capture or kill millions of pigeons at vast nesting sites in the North and ship them east for huge profits, instead of just selling a few at local markets.

Indiana State Sentinel [Indianapolis, Indiana], 8 May 1851, pg. 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
High class restaurants and trap shooters supplied much of the demand for all these pigeons. In the 1830s, the first fine dining establishments, as opposed to the more common tavern or eating house, appeared. Passenger pigeons became a delicacy wealthy Americans ate in rich sauces or alongside truffles, instead of baking them at home in pies. Trapshooting arrived in the United States from England in the 1830s and became a popular sport in the 1870s. Contestants shot at targets, namely live passenger pigeons, launched into the air from traps. Sportsmen’s associations across the country hosted events that required thousands of birds for contestants to shoot at.

Can you find pigeon or squab (a young pigeon) on the menu? Delmonico’s, New York City, April 18, 1899, accessed New York Public Library.

As trains began to ship thousands of pigeons across the nation daily to supply demand, Révoil predicted that the passenger pigeon was “threatened with destruction . . . if the world endure a century longer, I will wager that the amateur of ornithology will find no pigeons except in select Museums of Natural History” in 1847. The last large flocks of pigeons appeared in the 1870s. Throughout the 1880s, ornithologists and sportsmen reported smaller and smaller flocks, until they began to worry none were left.

At the turn of the 20th century, ornithologists and naturalists called for increased wild game protection. Many sportsmen began advocating for conservation, or wise use, of natural resources and tried to overturn the widespread assumption that America’s natural resources were unlimited. Sportsmen worried that without intervention, hunting as a leisure activity would disappear because no game would be left. In 1900, Congress signed the Lacey Act into law. Championed by sportsmen and naturalists alike, the law protected the preservation of wild birds by making it a federal crime to hunt game with the intent of selling it in another state.

Martha, the last passenger pigeon, accessed Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

However, it was too late for the passenger pigeon. During the 1910s, some ornithologists offered cash rewards to the individual that could bring them to a flock or nest of passenger pigeons, as a last ditch effort to save the species. All rewards went unfulfilled, since no passenger pigeons could be found. Historian Joel Greenberg recently found new evidence, further examined in his book A Feathered River Across the Sky, that the last verified passenger pigeon in the wild was shot here in Indiana, near Laurel on April 3, 1902. A young boy shot the bird and brought it to local taxidermist Charles K. Muchmore, who recognized it at once, and preserved it until ornithologist Amos Butler verified it was indeed a passenger pigeon. Unfortunately, a leaky roof destroyed the specimen around 1915. No more substantial evidence appeared in front of Butler, or any other ornithologist for that matter, of the passenger pigeon’s existence. Butler concluded in 1912 “The Passenger Pigeon is probably now extinct,” in the wild. The last captive passenger pigeon, Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914, marking the official extinction of the species.

National Association of Audubon Societies, c. 1920, accessed Errol Fuller, The Passenger Pigeon, pg. 50.

According to Iowa Representative John F. Lacey, creator of the Lacey Act, the extinction of the passenger pigeon spurred necessary support from the public, often from hunters and sportsmen, for broader wildlife protection. Though the passenger pigeon could not be saved, other animals in danger of a similar fate, like the American bison, the egret, and the trumpeter swan, survive to this day.

On April 3, 2017, 115 years after the last verified wild passenger pigeon was shot in Indiana, the Indiana Historical Bureau will unveil a state historic marker dedicated to passenger pigeon extinction. It will be located in Metamora, Indiana, five miles from where the last passenger pigeon was shot.

Check back on our Facebook page and website for more details on the marker dedication ceremony, open to the public.

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

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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.

Paul V. McNutt: The Man Who Would Be King

 

Indiana Govenor Paul V. McNutt, circa 1937. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Indiana Govenor Paul V. McNutt, circa 1937. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

To read part one on Wendell Willkie, click here.

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In addition to Wendell Willkie, another ambitious Hoosier almost won the U.S. presidency. Paul V. McNutt, Governor of Indiana from 1933-1937, set his sights on the presidency as early as the 1920s, when he was the state and national commander of the American Legion. His advocacy of human rights, particularly of Jews during his time as Governor and High Commissioner to the Philippines, put his moral arc far beyond some of his peers. In the 1940 presidential election, McNutt was also considered a “Dark Horse” candidate on the Democratic side if Franklin Roosevelt did not run for an unprecedented third term. McNutt’s progressive, internationalist political identity squared well with the New Deal Era and growing American involvement in World War II. Yet, his chance to become President never materialized.

Born on July 19, 1891 in Franklin, Indiana, McNutt was exposed to law and politics at a young age by his father, attorney John C. McNutt. After graduating from Martinsville High School in 1909, he attended Indiana University from 1909-1913, earning a BA in English. Willkie and McNutt both attended IU at the same time and held leadership roles, with McNutt the President of the Student Union and Willkie the President of the Democratic-aligning Jackson Club. Willkie even helped McNutt win his Student Union presidency and biographer I. George Blake notes that they were “very good friends.” After his time at IU, McNutt pursued a career in law, receiving a Bachelor of Laws from Harvard University in 1916.

Captain Paul V. McNutt during his years of service in World War I. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
Captain Paul V. McNutt during his years of service in World War I. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

McNutt joined the Indiana University law school faculty in 1917, but national service disrupted his teaching. The United States formally entered into World War I in April, 1917, and within a few months, McNutt registered for military service. He spent most of the war at bases in Texas, and while he “exuded pride in his contribution,” historian Dean J. Kotlowski noted that the war’s end dashed his chance to fight in Europe. McNutt returned to the IU Law School faculty in 1919, and by 1925, he was elected Dean.  Under his tenure, the Law School streamlined its administration, expanded enrollment, and oversaw the launch of the Indiana Law Journal. He held this position until he became Governor of Indiana.

Paul McNutt, as National Commander of the American Legion, receiving a commendation in Poland, 1929. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Paul McNutt, as National Commander of the American Legion, receiving a commendation in Poland, 1929. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

McNutt’s political ambitions came to a zenith during his tenure as State and National Commander of the American Legion, using its infrastructure to win the governorship. He was elected State Commander in 1926 and, during his tenure, membership dramatically increased from 18,336 to 25,505. He was then elected National Commander on October 11, 1928, where he expanded national membership, organized events, and offered advice on foreign policy and veteran’s affairs. McNutt’s outspoken views even ignited a public feud with President Herbert Hoover. In 1929, the Hoover Administration agreed to scrap two British Naval Ships and McNutt communicated his disagreement with a telegram published in the New York Times. McNutt believed it made America more open to attack if “naval parity with Britain” was lost. McNutt’s internationalist view of foreign policy, which would serve him well during the 1940s, clashed with the isolationist current of the 1920s.

His impressive resume and connections with the Legion ensured his election as Governor in 1932, the same year Franklin Delano Roosevelt first won the presidency. In his inaugural address on January 9, 1933, McNutt advocated for broad political reform, especially relief for those affected by the Great Depression. He called for investments in public education, infrastructure, care for the elderly and infirm, and a reorganization of government functions. The next day, McNutt gave another address to the General Assembly detailing his proposals, which included consolidation of government agencies, a personal income tax, tighter regulation of public utilities, the end of alcohol prohibition, and balancing the state budget.

Franklin_D_Roosevelt_in_Car
Paul V. McNutt and Franklin Roosevelt, circa 1932. Both men would be elected in November of that year to higher office; McNutt to the Indiana Governorship and Roosevelt to the Presidency. Image Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
Governor Paul V. McNutt and President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the 1936 Indiana State Fair. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.
Governor Paul V. McNutt and President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the 1936 Indiana State Fair. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

During his four years as Governor, Paul McNutt achieved many of his policy proposals. According to historian Linda C. Gugin, his signature achievement during his first year of office was the Executive Reorganization Act, passed by the General Assembly on February 3, 1933. It reorganized more than 100 separate divisions of government into eight departments, directly overseen by the Governor. He also advocated fiscal discipline. While bank runs ravaged the country’s financial health, McNutt argued against a bank holiday for the state, despite states like Michigan had already passed one. This move ensured more stability to the banking system in the state. He also kept his promise on Prohibition. According to the New York Times, the General Assembly repealed the state’s prohibition law on February 25, 1933 and Governor McNutt “recommended pardons for those convicted of liquor law violations other than public intoxication and driving while intoxicated.”

Governor Paul V. McNutt, circa 1935. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
Governor Paul V. McNutt, circa 1935. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

Perhaps most notably, Governor McNutt proved to be an early champion of human rights for European Jews during the rule of Adolf Hitler. He gave the keynote speech at a Chicago anti-Hitler meeting on March 27, 1933, showing his opposition to the German leader’s treatment of Jewish people in Germany.  In his address, as recorded by the New York Times, he stressed the need for combatting Germany’s injustice:

“… Are we to join with the traitors of brotherhood, or to enlist in the war of justice? What nation would deny its pioneers and a people who have made such contributions to culture? No government can long endure that fails to guarantee to its people the right to live as human beings. The present government of Germany thus writes its own destruction.”

Furthermore, he advocated for Americans ravaged by the Great Depression. In late 1934, McNutt gave a policy speech defending his state’s old age pension program and a national plan for old age pensions, which paralleled President Roosevelt’s Social Security proposal:

In any future program will be included three great objectives: the security of the home, the security of livelihood and the security of social insurance. Such a program would be a great step toward the goal of human happiness. The first duty of government is to protect the humanity which it serves.

Once the Social Security Act was passed in 1935, McNutt’s administration aligned Indiana’s policies with the national program through the “Unemployment Compensation Act, the Public Welfare Act, and the Child and Maternal Health Act.” Like Roosevelt, McNutt’s progressive policies highlighted his belief in “economic security for Americans at home as well as national security for America abroad.”

McNutt, as High Commissioner to the Philippines, visiting President Roosevelt in February 1938. Even then, his name was beginning to be mentioned as a candidate for President in 1940. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
McNutt, as High Commissioner to the Philippines, visiting President Roosevelt in February 1938. Even then, his name was beginning to be mentioned as a candidate for President in 1940. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

After his time as Governor, McNutt served as High Commissioner to the Philippine Islands from 1937-1939, and then again from 1945-47, becoming their first Ambassador the United States after they gained independence in 1946. Much like during his governorship, McNutt’s commitment to the protection of European Jews extended to his role as High Commissioner. McNutt denounced the horrific policy of Kristallnacht (a night in the fall of 1938 where Nazi soldiers attacked Jewish homes and destroyed their belongings) and ensured the escape of “1,200 German and Austrian Jews” to the Philippine Islands in 1938-39. These policies stood as an outlier for American policy during the 1930s; entering the United States was often difficult for Europeans fleeing fascism. Nevertheless, as acts of political conscience, these policies remain one of McNutt’s most enduring legacies.

A woman named Mrs. O'Gridley, hanging up a photograph of handsome Paul, circa 1939-1940. This image became synonymous with McNutt's presidential campaign literature. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A woman named Mrs. O’Gridley, hanging up a photograph of Paul McNutt, circa 1939-1940. This image became synonymous with McNutt’s presidential campaign literature. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

During his time as Commissioner, McNutt began being touted as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1940. Franklin Roosevelt, nearing the end of his second term as President, displayed ambivalence about a third term. This forced many within the Democratic Party to seek out a candidate, and McNutt received serious consideration. During his 1938 visit to the U.S., the Indiana Democratic Editorial Association, a meeting of 300 Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C., endorsed him for President.

Two major publications profiled McNutt’s presidential ambitions. Jack Alexander’s piece in Life magazine highlighted the Indiana Democratic Party’s use of “McNutt for President Clubs,” local organizations that campaigned for the former Governor, as integral to his electoral success. Alva Johnston’s piece in the Saturday Evening Post highlighted his prominence next to Roosevelt and saw his chances of election as fairly strong. If Roosevelt did not seek a third term, McNutt believed he had the political resources to win the Democratic nomination.

McNutt speaking before delegates of the 1940 Presidential Election. After Roosevelt decided to run for a third term, McNutt withdrew his consideration for the nomination. Image courtesy of Mrs. Roy Garrett Watson/I. George Blake.
McNutt speaking before delegates at the 1940 Democratic Convention. After Roosevelt decided to run for a third term, McNutt withdrew his consideration for the nomination. Image courtesy of Mrs. Roy Garrett Watson/I. George Blake.

However, when Roosevelt decided to run for a third term, McNutt dropped out of the race for the Democratic Nomination in the hopes that he would be considered for the Vice Presidency. When Henry Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture, became Roosevelt’s choice for the Vice Presidency, McNutt conceded again to the wishes of the President. With a nomination for the presidency or vice presidency out of his grasp, McNutt ended his ambitions for the White House and he never held another elected office. Later that year, his friend and political rival Wendell Willkie secured the Republican nomination, but would lose to Roosevelt in November.

McNutt serving as the Director of the War Manpower Commission, 1942. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
McNutt serving as the Chairman of the War Manpower Commission, 1942. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

After his unsuccessful presidential campaign, McNutt continued public service, serving as the Federal Security Agency Administrator (1939-41), the Director of the Office of Defense Health and Welfare Services (1942), and War Manpower Commission Chairman (1943-1945). In 1947, McNutt moved to New York City and began a law practice. He served his final governmental post, as a member of the China Advisory Committee for the Economic Cooperation Administration, in 1949. After years of failing health, McNutt died on March 24, 1955 in Manhattan.

Even though Paul V. McNutt never resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, his political life influenced the future of American politics. His commitment to human rights, political and social equality, and an internationalist view of foreign policy became the standard for the Democratic Party even to this day. To many during his time, he was seen as the heir apparent to Franklin Roosevelt. Alas, it never happened; circumstances and personal mistakes dashed his chances. McNutt’s story parallels that of Icarus, whose ambition brought his waxen wings too close to the sun, melting them, and he fell into the sea. Nevertheless, Paul V. McNutt remains one of Indiana’s most successful Governors and statesmen.

To learn more about Governor Paul V. McNutt, visit the Bureau’s marker page : http://www.in.gov/history/markers/165.htm.