Ben-Hur Races to the Top in Indy

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2016 movie poster, courtesy of Imdb.com.

The release of the new Ben-Hur movie this summer reminded us of the story’s Hoosier origins.  This latest production from Mark Burnett and Roma Downey is the fifth time that film producers have interpreted Crawfordsville native Lew Wallace’s best-selling novel for the screen. Many are familiar with the 11 Academy Award winning adaptation starring Charlton Heston in 1959 and most film buffs know that there were two earlier versions in 1907 and 1925.  The 1907 film prompted a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that protected copyrighted works from unauthorized motion picture adaptation.  The 1925 film arguably has a better chariot race than the 1959 movie. There was also a forgettable and regrettable Canadian mini-series reboot of Ben-Hur in 2010.

In a world of constant movie reboots, one ponders: if Lew Wallace were alive today and re-wrote Ben-Hur in a contemporary setting, would he have Ben-Hur racing in the Indianapolis 500?

What if we told you that Ben-Hur did, in fact, race at Indianapolis?  Of course, the race did not take place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; instead it took place in 1902 at English’s Theater during the BenHur stage play’s first visit to Indianapolis.

The stage race as explained and illustrated in pages of Scientific American. Image from General Lew Wallace Study and Museum website.

On November 13, 1902, the Indianapolis News reported “J.J. Brady is here in advance of ‘Ben-Hur,’” and “brings with him a corps of stage carpenters and mechanics, who have practically to reconstruct the stage . . . so that the play may be given properly.”  Although English’s stage was new, crews needed to rebuild it in order to accommodate the chariot race. Producing that scene called for eight live horses running at full gallop on treadmills, cycloramic scenery and, other apparatus.  All this equipment and animals imposed an estimated weight of over 50 tons on the stage, which required pouring a special cement foundation. The public was anxious to see the spectacle, even if it meant staking out a place in line many hours in advance.  The Indianapolis News reporter observed:

“A few individuals sat and shivered all night in the lobby of English’s waiting in patience and with an unwonted supply of cash in their pockets for the box office to open.  They were men who had been hired to buy seats for some of the performances of ‘Ben-Hur.’”

Ticket prices ranged from fifty cents to two dollars. Even at that rate, a day after the tickets went on sale, the English Theater reported “over $10,000 was taken in at the box office window” and representatives for the producers of the play (Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger) announced that the sales “beat all records for the play in advance sales.”  The Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur, a national benevolent society headquartered in Wallace’s hometown of Crawfordsville, nearly bought out one performance by itself.  The Tribe planned to run an excursion via train for its members from Crawfordsville to see the play.

Basill Gill as Messala (Left) and William Farnum as Ben-Hur (Right) in the 1902 Indianapolis production. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Ben-Hur and Messala face off in a promotional picture for the production. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.

However, a few members of the Hoosier public were dubious about purchasing tickets.  In particular, one woman was of the opinion that the play was to take two weeks to complete.  When the box office manager informed her that the entire play was presented every night, she remained quite suspicious that anyone “could put all that book into a one-night drama.”

Production managers sought to cast extras from Indianapolis’s denizens, advertising a salary of $4.25/week. That was enough to encourage a crowd of men, women, and children to stand outside in a late Indiana autumn for an hour and a half waiting for their opportunity at show business.  An assistant stage director eventually made an appearance and sorted through the crowd.  One “gray beard” was turned away because the assistant director believed him not to be “nimble afoot.”  The rejected man futilely protested to the assistant director and argued “he could get around faster than two-thirds of the younger fellows that had been accepted.”

With the extras cast, the production opened on Monday, November 25, 1902.  After witnessing opening night, an Indianapolis reporter wrote, “There [will] be critics who see nothing good in the American stage or in the works of American dramatist: if the American stage had done absolutely nothing worthy in its long career but this, had its fame to rest solely on this production of ‘Ben-Hur’ it has justified its existence.”

Mabel Bert in costume for theatrical production of Ben-Hur. Courtesy of the Digital Public Library of America.
Mabel Bert in costume as the mother of Ben-Hur. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The cast, as it appeared in Indianapolis, included William Farnum as Ben-Hur and Basil Gill as Messala.  Farnum’s performance was described as realizing the part to the fullest degree.  Among the other actors and actresses in the production, Mabel Bert’s portrayal as the mother of Hur is worth noting because she was the only cast member with a major role to be with the company continuously since the production opened on November 29, 1899 in New York City.  Mrs. Bert told a reporter,

“I have always been the mother of Ben-Hur – various Ben-Hurs, however, for Mr. Farnum is the third I have mothered on the stage…It does make me a trifle lonely sometimes to lose my stage children and stage friends that way.  But then, too, it affords a certain amount of variety that is interesting and keeps my work from becoming at all monotonous.”

Ellen Mortimer as Esther (Left) and William Farnum as Ben-Hur (Right) in the 1902 production. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Esther and Ben-Hur in a promotional photo for the production. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.

The public certainly found nothing monotonous about the play.  In fact, the production was originally slated to run for two weeks in Indianapolis, but four days after opening night the Indianapolis News reported that the high demand for tickets had prompted producers to extend the play for another week.  Box office receipts for the first two weeks alone were estimated in excess of $35,000.  That figure broke all box office records for Indianapolis and was the highest figure for all productions of Ben-Hur to that date.

The cover of the Souvenir Album of the 1902 Indianapolis production of Ben-Hur. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
The cover of the Souvenir Album of the 1902 Indianapolis production of Ben-Hur. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

The Indianapolis News attempted to describe the sales phenomenon in Indianapolis:

“‘Ben-Hur’ occupies a unique position on the native stage, since it appeals alike to habitual theater patrons and those who seldom find enjoyment in offerings of the stage.  While the elaborate scenic equipment and realistic chariot race command the admiration of the spectators, the rare beauty and force of ‘Ben-Hur’ as a drama give a lasting distinction to this most uplifting, inspiring and soul-stirring play.”

This description of the popularity of Ben-Hur, while no doubt true, neglects that a major reason for the large turnouts was because the author of Ben-Hur was a native Hoosier son.  Some Indiana cities, such as Covington, Franklin, and Noblesville, brought large numbers of their population and sold out individual performances.  In fact, Covington could not secure as many tickets as they had citizens who wanted to attend; the Indianapolis Sentinel reported that a small riot broke out as a result.

While various Indiana cities were hoping to witness the performance, Crawfordsville was no exception, as it was Ben-Hur’s birthplace.  A contingent of Athenians and Montgomery county residents had the theater to themselves for a performance on December 2.  Among those in attendance at that performance was James Buchanan Elmore, aka the Bard of Alamo.  After witnessing the arrest of the Hur family, Buchanan leaned over to a newspaper reporter and said, “Seems to me if I was bossing that show I would make the actors speak softer and not so rough, it don’t seem like Scripture voices.”

An example of the final scene from the theatrical version of Ben-Hur, which opened at the Grand Opera House, Seattle, on Oct. 9, 1905. Courtesy of the University of Washington.
An example of the final scene from the theatrical version of Ben-Hur, which opened at the Grand Opera House, Seattle, on Oct. 9, 1905. Courtesy of the University of Washington.

Although the December 2 performance hosted one Montgomery County literary celebrity, another one was conspicuously absent, that being General Lew Wallace, the author of Ben-Hur.  Wallace was recovering from an illness during the Crawfordsville excursion.  However, he was sufficiently recovered to attend a matinee with his son, daughter-in-law, and his two grandsons on December 12.  Wallace watched most of the play from a private box and tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible, lest he be called upon to deliver a speech.  Wallace and his party were invited behind the stage so that they could witness how some of the scenes were produced, especially the chariot race.  Wallace took special interest in watching the race and all of the mechanization that was involved.  While backstage, Wallace met the starring members of the cast and reportedly chatted for several minutes with the actor incarnating his literary creation.  Before returning to his box Wallace remarked to a stage manager that the production had reached a state of perfection. Ben-Hur ended its stay in Indianapolis the day after Wallace’s visit, before moving to Milwaukee for a two-week engagement.

Eleven years later, when Ben-Hur was making another visit to Indianapolis, Hector Fuller aptly noted in the Indianapolis Sunday Star,

“If Indiana had contributed nothing else, save this one play to the American stage it might be counted that the Hoosier state had done its part.  For ‘Ben-Hur’ is the dramatic marvel of the age.  It has held the stage now for fourteen years, and in that time over 10,000,000 people have seen it.”

Learn more about Lew Wallace, his father David Wallace, his stepmother Zerelda Wallace, and his mother Esther Test Wallace with other IHB historical resources.

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Stop by our exhibit in the Indiana State Library to see memorabilia from productions of Ben-Hur.

The Indelible Ross Lockridges

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Ross Lockridge Sr. and Jr. camping, photographed by three-year-old Ernest (son of Sr.) in the summer of 1942, image courtesy of Evansville.edu.

Ross Lockridge Sr. and Jr. left an indelible mark on Indiana history through traditional history publications and fictional depiction. However, the father and son have yet to be cemented in the annals of state history. We hope to contribute to that reversal.

The senior Lockridge was born in Miami County, Indiana in 1877 and went on to graduate from Indiana University in 1900. He married and returned to his north central Hoosier home. He became the principal of Peru High School, and later earned a law degree from IU in 1907. Not long after, he moved to Fort Wayne and worked as employment manager and welfare director at Wayne Knitting Mills. He also served three years as executive secretary of the Citizen League of Indiana, which lobbied for a new state constitution and advocated for women’s suffrage.

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Wayne Knitting Mills, 1910, courtesy of History Center Notes & Queries.

While in Fort Wayne, Lockridge Sr. helped organize the Allen County Fort Wayne Historical Society. During this time his reputation grew as a writer of pioneer Indiana history. According to Larry Lockridge, his grandfather, Ross Sr.,”developed his own brand of ‘Historic Site Recital,’ combing public speaking, drama, and local history.” Between 1937 and 1950, Lockridge Sr. served as a director of IU Foundation’s Hoosier Historic Memorial Activities Agency. Some of his published works include: George Rogers Clark (1927),  A. Lincoln (1930), LaSalle (1931), The Old Fauntleroy Home (1939), and Labyrinth (1941), Theodore F. Thieme (1942). His The Story of Indiana (1951) was primarily used as a text in Indiana at the junior high school level.

The historian also wrote about Johnny Appleseed, the Underground Railroad, and Indiana’s trails, rivers, and canals. Another extended work, which continues to aid transportation history researchers, is Historic Hoosier Roadside Sites, commissioned in 1938 by the Indiana State Highway Association. He worked tirelessly to mark the state’s landscape with monuments and markers, preserve records, and execute historical pageants. His clear and concise writing style has added to Hoosier’s knowledge of their past.

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The Vidette-Messenger (Valparaiso, IN), March, 23, 1936, courtesy of Newspapers.com.

According to Larry Lockridge, his grandfather “didn’t exactly whitewash history,” but he “certainly edited it. He attempted to bind people to their own local history through heroic narrative.” After the tragic drowning of Ross Sr.’s 5-year-old son, Bruce, in Fort Wayne, his dedication to historical work intensified. Larry contends:

“Preaching history as resurrection of the worthy dead was his idealistic, nonmetaphysical challenge to time and mortality, grounded in the tragedies of his own life and the pettiness of the contemporary scene.”

Ross Jr. assisted his father with historical projects, but according to Larry was “not his father’s puppet at such performances” and “never approached his father’s ease of performance and lack of self-consciousness.”

Ross Jr. was born in Bloomington, Indiana and moved to Fort Wayne. When he was 9-years-old the family returned to Bloomington and his literary dreams took root.

According to an Indiana Public Media article (IPM), Junior attended Indiana University, where he was known as “A+ Lockridge,” graduating with the highest GPA ever awarded by the school (4.33). Scarlet fever precluded his plan to join IU’s English Department, leaving him bedridden for eight months. He was later accepted as at doctoral student at Harvard University, where he began his famed novel.

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Raintree County cover, courtesy of Goodreads // Ross Lockridge Jr. signing copies of Raintree County in Indiana, courtesy of Altered Book Arts.

According to an Altered Books Arts article, he withdrew from his studies and taught at a nearby college, so he could focus on his literary magnum opus. The IPM article reports that he studied abroad in Europe in 1934, where he “first had the vision of writing a novel that would draw upon the would-be literary heritage of his maternal grandfather, a schoolteacher and poet who had lived in Indiana’s Henry County.” This evolved into the character of John Shawnessy, who after losing his wife went on to fight in the Civil War, attempted to write the Great American Novel, and ended up in the fictional Raintree County.

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Photo of a raintree planted in honor of Ross Jr. behind the Lockridge house, image courtesy Larry Lockridge, accessed IPM.

Although Johnny had his successes, the character flashed back in memory wondering about the country’s future. He is influenced by several cultural concepts, one of which is to find the legendary Rain Tree, supposedly planted somewhere in the Raintree County by the celebrated Johnny Appleseed, who is buried in Allen County. The tree Lockridge sought to feature is based on a real Golden Rain Tree, which blooms in the summer with subtle yellow flowers that drop like a raining of yellow pollen dust.

In addition to Allen County, Monroe County is represented in the book. Larry noted, “We have county fairs and patriotic programs and outdoor sex and footraces and weddings and temperance dramas and rough talk . . . all of this he picked up in the culture of Bloomington” (IPM). Ross Jr.’s wife, Vernice, did the final typing of the novel, an 18 month endeavor and, unlike many writers, her husband gave her full credit for her help in constructing the 1060-page novel.

Altered Books Arts summarizes the novel’s themes, stating:

“In the course of its thousand pages philosophy, religion, sex, and history all flow together in a narrative that spans 40 years, recollected in a single day. In some ways it is an Indiana Ulysses, though Lockridge said that whereas Joyce wished to make the simple obscured, he wished to make the obscure simple. When it came out Thomas Wolfe and Walt Whitman were frequently cited for comparison, but it seems closer to in technique and feeling to the panoramic narrative of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A.

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Ross Lockridge Jr. by river, image courtesy of Larry Lockridge, accessed IPM.

Ross Jr.’s labor of love was met with much anticipation from his publisher, Houghton Mifflin. However, in order to win MGM’s high-profile contest for best new literary work, an award of $150,000, he was pressured to revise and cut several sections from his masterpiece. His likely selection as Book of the Month club winner, meant that he had to make many more extensive cuts. He conceded reluctantly and worked tirelessly to trim it for publication. His publisher Dorothy Hillyer wrote “Ross was quite capable of fussing eighteen hours a day over that manuscript. He was in love with it, almost sexually.” (He ended up cutting out a 356-page dream sequence, which is retained at Bloomington’s Lilly Library).

These compromises, the killing of his darlings, so to speak, and the completion of his life’s work plunged him into a deep depression. Despite generally rave reviews about the novel and winning MGM’s literary award, Lockridge’s depression worsened and he returned to Bloomington. His son regarded this as a mistake, “not because of Bloomington’s particular atmosphere but because it felt to him as if he had come full circle. . . . It was the symmetry of fate that he was returning home to die.”

Larry noted that his father began exhibiting bizarre behavior, inspecting knives in the kitchen and opening and closing cupboards, claiming he was “looking for a way out.” Public backlash about the book’s sexuality and irreverence, especially by his Bloomington neighbors, made him doubt the quality of his work and worsened his fragile state. (According to IPM, the publication of his neighbor Alfred Kinsey‘s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male promoted Lockridge to quip “It seems Mr. Kinsey and I have succeeded in making Bloomington the sex center of the universe”).

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The cover of Mary Jane Ward’s autobiographical novel about her own struggles with mental illness, image courtesy of IPM.

Ross Jr.’s father hoped to combat his son’s malaise with recitation, the memorization of the Declaration of Independence, hearkening back to their old historical endeavors. Ross Jr. reluctantly entertained his mother’s Christian Science ministrations, but remained in a debilitated state. Ross Jr. was not alone in his distress; his cousin Mary Jane Ward suffered from mental illness, which she depicted in her successful autobiographical novel The Snake Pit.

Witnessing her husband’s ongoing suffering, Vernice convinced him to seek treatment at Indianapolis’s Methodist Hospital, where he underwent electroshock convulsive therapy and insulin-induced coma. Further distressed and embarrassed by the procedures, he gave staff the impression he had recovered and was released.

According to Larry, his father tried to write a second novel, a “thinly disguised autobiography, from Fort Wayne days to the present.” He had planned to begin the story with his young brother’s tragic death and,

“the tranquil Avenue of Elms, Creighton Avenue in Fort Wayne, whose backdrop was the Great War. It is in this city that his brother Bruce drowns, that his house catches fire, that there is a great strike at the mill, that he falls in love with Alicia Carpenter, that he decides to become a writer, and that through ‘the brutality of fate’ his personality is set by the age of ten.”

He was never able to finish a second novel. On March 6, 1948, the day after Raintree County was declared a number one best seller, Ross Lockridge, Jr. took his own life at age 33 in Bloomington. Unable to locate her husband, Vernice went out to their garage. There she discovered his limp body in the running car, a vacuum cleaner hose piping exhaust into the car. The death of the new literary star stunned the nation, attracting over 2,000 to his funeral and prompting an obituary on the front page of the New York Times.

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Movie poster, courtesy of Imdb.com.

In 1957, MGM produced a big screen depiction of Raintree County, featuring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Eva Marie Saint.

Weeks after the death, Vernice found a note written by her husband, stating “‘Dearest, Have gone for early morning walk to clear head. Love, Ross.” On the back side he wrote:

“The purpose of Raintree County is to present life in its many-sided variety with idealism triumphant. An irreverent character in a book does not mean an irreverent book. In any event it is an old and good rule that every reader is entitled to his own opinion of a book.”

Surviving the death of a second son, Ross Sr. passed away a few years later in 1952.

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Henry County plaque, courtesy of IU Press Typepad.

Learn more about the remarkable Lockridges with Larry Lockridge’s 1994 Shade of the Raintree: The Life and Death of Ross Lockridge, Jr., author of Rain Tree County.

Robert Ingersoll and Lew Wallace’s Legendary Train Ride

Robert Ingersoll (Left) and Lew Wallace (Right). Courtesy of the Library of Congress and Literary History Blog.
Robert Ingersoll (Left) and Lew Wallace (Right). Courtesy of the Library of Congress and American Literary Blog.

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) remains one of the most influential leaders and intellectuals in “The Golden Age of Freethought” in the United States from the 1870s to the 1910s. Its adherents advocated for skepticism, science, and the separation of church and state. Ingersoll, a Civil War veteran, parlayed his success as a lawyer into an influential career in Republican politics, social activism, and oratory. Ingersoll served as a counterpoint to rising participation and influence in government of religion in the United States, delivering speeches to sell-out crowds that decried religiosity and its public entanglements. Ingersoll was also an early champion of women’s rights, influencing such early feminists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and later ones such as Margaret Sanger.

Robert Ingersoll addressing an audience in New Rochelle, New York, May 30, 1894. Courtesy of the Council for Secular Humanism.
Robert Ingersoll addressing an audience in New Rochelle, New York, May 30, 1894. Courtesy of the Council for Secular Humanism.

He also spent considerable time and energy in Indiana, a state whose own religious diversity towards the late nineteenth century expanded, including German Lutherans to Catholics and other protestant denominations. From giving lectures throughout the state to influencing some of Indiana’s well-known historic figures, Ingersoll left a profound impact on the state and its development during the Gilded Age. As an example, Ingersoll delivered lectures at the illustrious English’s Opera House several times. The Indianapolis News wrote in 1899 that his lecture on “Superstition” was well attended and that “several people were shocked by the lecturer’s utterances, and left, some of them stopping in the lobby to ‘talk it over.’ The remainder seemed to enjoy the walk.”

General Lew Wallace, circa 1860s. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
General Lew Wallace, circa 1860s. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

To get a further sense of this influence, one particular story bears recalling, which involved a train ride with an old Civil War colleague. Lew Wallace, Indiana native, Civil War general, and the author of the novel Ben-Hur, cited Ingersoll as his influence in writing the Christian epic. As Wallace biographers Robert and Katharine Morsberger noted, Wallace “had written the story [Ben-Hur] partly to refute Robert G. Ingersoll’s agnosticism. . . .” The story surrounding this influence is near apocryphal to scholars of both Ingersoll and Wallace. However, Wallace intimated the story’s veracity in the preface to a selection from Ben-Hur entitled The First Christmas.

An example of a passenger rail car, circa 1870s. Image courtesy of Trainweb.org.
An example of a passenger rail car, circa 1870s. Image courtesy of Trainweb.org.

On September 19, 1876, both Wallace and Ingersoll supposedly shared a train ride to Indianapolis to attend a Civil War soldiers’ reunion (although one of Wallace’s accounts says it was a Republican convention); both men served the Union Army during the Civil War and fought at the battle of Shiloh. Wallace recounted the highlights of their conversation in his preface to The First Christmas:

[I] took a sleeper [car] from Crawfordsville the evening before the meeting. Moving slowly down the aisle of the car, talking with some friends, I passed the state-room. There was a knock on the door from the inside, and some one [sic] called my name. Upon answer, the door opened, and I saw Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll looking comfortable as might be considering the sultry weather.

General Wallace in his study, 1899. Courtesy of the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum.
General Wallace in his study, 1899. Courtesy of the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum.

Ingersoll invited Wallace to join him in conversation. Wallace accepted on the condition that he could dictate the subject. From there, Wallace asked Ingersoll if he believed in the afterlife, the divinity of Christ, and the existence of God, with the “Great Agnostic” answering in the resounding, “I don’t know, do you?” Then, Wallace asked Ingersoll to present his best case against the doctrines of Christianity, which Ingersoll did with such “a melody of argument, eloquence, wit, satire, audacity, irreverence, poetry, brilliant antitheses, and pungent excoriation [concerning] believers in God. . . .” Ingersoll’s views of both theological and biblical skepticism shook Wallace to the core, with the latter remarking that, “I was in a confusion of mind unlike dazement.”

The title page to the first edition of Ben-Hur, 1880. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.
The title page to the first edition of Ben-Hur, 1880. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.

Lew Wallace’s own theological confusion, what he called “absolute indifference,” seemed spurred into action by Ingersoll’s words: “. . . as I walked into the cool darkness, I was aroused for the first time in my life to the importance of religion.” Thus, Wallace began his own investigation into the doctrines and traditions of Christianity, culminating in the authorship of Ben-Hur and a “conviction amounting to absolute belief in God and the divinity of Christ.” This story found its way into newspapers as well, with reporters recounting the meeting in the Terre Haute Sunday Evening Mail and the Indianapolis News. According to Wallace’s accounts and its echoes in newspapers, his evening with Ingersoll led to a full conversion to Christianity and the writing of one of the most successful religious novels of the period.

Wallace’s conversation with Ingersoll spurring him on to a religious awakening is indeed a compelling story.  However, a recently uncovered letter from Ingersoll gives cause to question the tale’s veracity. In 1887, seven years after Ben-Hur‘s publication, Ingersoll responded to a correspondent, Joseph Vardamann, asking about his role in inspiring Wallace’s novel.  Ingersoll wrote that he was “never well acquainted with” Wallace and did “not remember ever to have had a conversation with him on the subject of religion.” Ingersoll stressed that the story of their meeting on the train appeared to him as “without the slightest foundation.”

Ingersoll's letter to Joseph Vardaman, as reproduced in an 1922 issue of the Truth Seeker. Courtesy of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
Ingersoll’s letter to Joseph Vardaman, as reproduced in a 1922 issue of the Truth Seeker. Courtesy of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

For Wallace’s part in creating Ben-Hur, we know from documentary evidence that he was already well-advanced in writing the novel before the time he claimed the interaction with Ingersoll took place.  In 1874, Wallace wrote in a letter to his half-sister, “I have just come out of the court room, and business is over for the day. Now, for home, and a Jewish boy whom I have got into terrible trouble, and must get out of it as best I can.”  This letter clearly alludes to some of Judah Ben-Hur’s trials, whether being charged with the assassination of Valerius Gratus, being enslaved in a Roman galley, or surviving the sea battle.

While Wallace’s recollections with the “Great Agnostic” may have been a fiction, the story’s enduring popularity among Wallace scholars nevertheless speaks to Ingersoll’s intellectual and rhetorical power. The story of their supposed train ride in 1876 continues to interest scholars and the general public, but whether the event actually happened may be lost to history.

The Lew Wallace statue at the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.
The Lew Wallace statue at the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.
The Robert Ingersoll statue in Glen Oak Park in Peoria, Illinois. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.
The Robert Ingersoll statue in Glen Oak Park in Peoria, Illinois. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.

The Shared Humanism of Clemens and Kurt Vonnegut

Clemens (Left) was the Vonnegut family patriarch and lifelong freethinker. Kurt, Jr. (Right) was the great-grandson who carried his humanist heritage into his writing. Images courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Archives and Collections/citelighter.com.
Clemens (Left) was the Vonnegut family patriarch and lifelong freethinker. Kurt, Jr. (Right) was the great-grandson who carried his humanist heritage into his writing. Images courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Archives and Collections/citelighter.com.

The German-American community in Indianapolis, largely a product of mid-nineteenth century immigration, had a strong heritage of freethought (open evaluation of religion based on the use of reason). In particular, Clemens Vonnegut, the patriach of the Vonnegut family and lifelong freethinker, openly displayed his religious dissent through writings and community activism. This, in turn, influenced his family and the literary style of his great-grandson, novelist Kurt Vonnegut, especially the younger man’s ideas concerning God, religion, science, and ethics. The junior Vonnegut’s own midwestern brand of freethought, in the form of what literature scholar Todd F. Davis called a “postmodern humanism,” displayed a deep sense of skepticism about the irrationalism of his time, while simultaneously championing an ethical responsibility to ourselves and each other devoid of supernatural influences. Yet, true to his form as a freethinker, Kurt forged his own humanist identity. [*]

The Vonnegut Hardware Store, circa 1878. Founded by Clemens Vonnegut, the store would be an Indianapolis stable for well over a century. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
The Vonnegut Hardware Company on Washington Street, circa 1878. Founded by Clemens Vonnegut, the store would be an Indianapolis stable for well over a century. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

Clemens Vonnegut was born November 20, 1824, in Münster, Westphalia. In his early years, he studied in German public schools and apprenticed as a mercantile clerk. As recorded in the Indianapolis Press, a young Vonnegut came to the United States in the early 1830s, on assignment from his employer, J. L. de Ball and Company, which sold specialty fabrics. His year in New York convinced the young Vonnegut that America would be his permanent home. He then traveled to Indianapolis with his friend Charles Volmer to start a new life.

The Socialer Turnverein, a social club co-founded by Vonnegut, was the home of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis. Image Courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Collections and Archives.
The Socialer Turnverein, a social club co-founded by Vonnegut, was the home of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis. Image Courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Archives and Collections.

He founded the Vonnegut Hardware Store in 1852, and was considered by the Indianapolis Star as “one of the city’s most respected citizens….” Like fellow Hoosier freethinker Hermann Lieber, he was a co-founder of the Socialer Turnverein and a forceful voice for public education. Clemens founded the German-English Independent School and served on its board for over 30 years. He also served as the first president of the Freethinker Society from 1870-1875, gave lectures to the society on occasion, and even translated the celebrated agnostic orator Robert Ingersoll’s Open Letter to the Clergy of Indianapolis into German for publication. His actions and beliefs heavily impacted the inception and growth of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis.

The German-English Indepdendent School, also co-founded by Vonnegut. He would work on multiple school boards for over thirty years.
The German-English Independent School, also co-founded by Vonnegut. He would work on multiple school boards for over thirty years. Image courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Archives and Collections.

After the end of the Freethinker Society in 1890, Clemens Vonnegut continued his activism more than any former member, mostly through writing. A Proposed Guide for Instruction of Morals, published in 1900, enunciated Vonnegut’s philosophy of freethought, both in theory and in practice. This treatise also displayed a rhetorical flourish that Kurt would later cite as an influence in his autobiographical work, Palm Sunday.  Echoing Ingersoll and Heinzen before him, Vonnegut declared that, “No religious creed has any real proofs. It rests simply on assertions.”

However, that does not mean that humanity cannot be moral. In fact, Vonnegut argued the opposite:

True virtue is its own reward, which is not enhanced but rather misled by belief. Belief deprives us of the joys of this world by teaching us that we must detest them, and instead of them we must hope for a heaven. Belief forms the germ for persecution of those who differ from us in their religious convictions.

A Proposed Guide for Instruction of Morals, 1900. Published in both German and English, this pamplet by Clemens Vonnegut argued for a moral and just society without the need of superstition or religious beliefs. Courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Collections and Archives.
A Proposed Guide for Instruction of Morals, 1900. Published in both German and English, this pamplet by Clemens Vonnegut argued for a moral and just society without the need of superstition or religious beliefs. Courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Collections and Archives.

Vonnegut saw morality as the wellspring of the “intrinsic quality of human character which ought to be nourished and cultivated early, continually, and carefully.” In subsequent pages, Vonnegut explained how such “cultivation” is achieved. Public education, family instruction, physical fitness, and social activities presented the means by which individuals perfected a moral life without the supernatural. Like Ingersoll, Vonnegut’s morality was clear, traditional, based in the family, and demonstrated a moral life without the need of God. While Clemens Vonnegut presented his philosophy clearly, the events surrounding his death were anything but.

Clemens Vonnegut’s death in 1906 created somewhat of a mystery for his family, and later his great-grandson. It was said that he died in the snow . . . or so the story goes. Kurt Vonnegut recalls this story in his autobiographical work, Palm Sunday. In the winter of 1906, Clemens Vonnegut supposedly went for a routine stroll. Having lost his way, he wandered the streets of Indianapolis for hours before he was found dead by the side of the road by a search party. This story bewildered Kurt, whose own freethought can be traced to his great-grandfather and his own extended family. However, as with many family stories, this one stretches the truth a little.

Clemens did not die by the side of the road, but was rather found unconscious. The Indianapolis News reported that C. W. Jones, a local construction worker, found the 82-year-old Vonnegut nearly five miles from the city on Crawfordsville Pike. He sustained injuries to his head and right shoulder, but doctors feared that exposure to the elements might be his biggest challenge. After fighting for his life for five days, Clemens Vonnegut succumbed to pneumonia on January 13, 1906. His obituary cited his charity and love for knowledge, his activities within the Socialer Turnverein and the Freethinker Society, and his 27-year service for a local school board. True to his iconoclastic nature, Vonnegut wrote his own eulogy back in the 1870s and asked for its recitation when he died. As recorded in the Indianapolis Star, he railed against the creeds of Christianity:

I do not believe in the atonement to the blood of Christ or in the sin of incredulity. I do not believe in a punishment in a future life. I believe neither in a personal God nor a personal devil, but I honor the ideal which man has created as the tenor of all virtues and perfections, and has named God.

Until the very end, Clemens believed in the power of humanity to throw off the shackles of religion and embrace the values of inquiry and human-based ethics.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in New York City, 1979. Photo by Marty Reichenthal. Courtesy of slopemedia.org.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in New York City, 1979. Photo by Marty Reichenthal. Courtesy of slopemedia.org.

Nearly a century later, famed author Kurt Vonnegut (born in 1922 in Indianapolis) wrote in Palm Sunday that his great-grandfather’s freethought was his own “ancestral religion” and that he was “pigheadedly proud” of the heretical nature of his family. Kurt Vonnegut, a future honorary president of the American Humanist Association, carried the torch of freethought for his grandfather, and in some respects, introduced his ideas to a new generation.

In many of his works, Kurt would openly criticize religion, spirituality, and faith, so much so that it even contributed to the end of his first marriage. Nevertheless, echoing his grandfather in a 1980 speech at the First Parish Unitarian Church, Vonnegut declared, “Doesn’t God give dignity to everybody? No—not in my opinion. Giving dignity, the sort of dignity that is of earthly use, anyway, is something that only people do. Or fail to do.”

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) would become Vonnegut's most well known novel. Its open understanding of the barbarity of war, coupled with many humanist themes, continues to enthrall readers. Courtesy of In These Times.
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) would become Vonnegut’s most well known novel. Its open understanding of the barbarity of war, coupled with many humanist themes, continues to enthrall readers. Courtesy of In These Times.

His most popular novel, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), displays Kurt’s intense abhorrence of war (influenced by his own WWII POW experience) and a belief in a common humanity. Specifically, “so it goes” is a phrase that Vonnegut peppered throughout the novel, often after horrible events or even banal ones. This phrase conveys that no matter how bad things get, no matter how high one can get, the world (and indeed the universe) goes on. As an example, this passage from the novel, describing the protagonist Billy Pilgrim’s memory of a sculpture of Jesus, is fairly apt:

A military surgeon would have admired the clinical fidelity of the artist’s rendition of all Christ’s wounds—the spear wound, the thorn wounds, the holes that were made by the iron spikes. Billy’s Christ died horribly. He was pitiful.

So it goes.

“So it goes” becomes the novel’s panacea; a way for the narrator to deal with the grim realities of war without the comfort of religious beliefs. In some respects, it can be seen as a mantra for humanism.

Kurt's son Mark reading his late father's remarks of Clowes Memorial Hall in April, 2007. This event capped Indianapolis's "Year of Vonnegut" ceremonies. The author had died just weeks before he was to deliver this address. Courtesy of USA Today.
Kurt’s son Mark reading his late father’s remarks at Clowes Memorial Hall in April, 2007. This event capped Indianapolis’s “Year of Vonnegut” ceremonies. The author had died just weeks before he was to deliver this address. Courtesy of USA Today.

Kurt Vonnegut’s humanism continued until the end of his life, as displayed by an address he meant to give on April 27, 2007 for Indianapolis’s “Year of Vonnegut” celebrations (he died on April 11; his son Mark gave the address in his stead). In this address, from the posthumous work Armageddon in Retrospect (2008), Kurt espoused his continued commitment to humanism. He wrote:

Am I religious? I practice a disorganized religion. I belong to an unholy disorder. We call ourselves “Our Lady of Perpetual Consternation.” We are as celibate as fifty percent of the heterosexual Roman Catholic clergy.

Actually—and when I hold up my right hand like this, it means I’m not kidding, that I give my Word of Honor that what I’m about to say is true. So actually, I am honorary President of the American Humanist Society, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that utterly functionless capacity. We Humanists behave as well as we can, without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an Afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

This emphasis on “community” squares nicely with Clemens’s own commitments to community, both with the Freethinker Society and with his advocacy of public education. Both Vonneguts believed that the values of sociality and comradery are essential to the flourishing of a community, and you can achieve that system without a supernatural element.

Clemens Vonnegut’s humanism carried through many generations of his family and left an indelible mark on Kurt Vonnegut. The two men’s rejection of religion and the supernatural reinforced their love for humanity, their desire for community, and their commitment to the truth, no matter how horrifying it may be. Kurt’s own success as a writer and social critic would have delighted Clemens, who participated in many of the same literary pursuits and civic activities decades before Kurt was born. As such, their two lives, separated by time, nevertheless became entwined by their ideals. Their humanist legacy reinforces the diversity of intellectual and moral philosophies that embody the American Midwest throughout the 19th, 20th, and early-21st centuries.

Both Vonneguts were proud to be from Indianapolis and the city proudly remembers them.

[*] Kurt Vonnegut’s humanism may also be described as “Modern Humanism,” or “Naturalistic Humanism, Scientific Humanism, Ethical Humanism, and Democratic Humanism, [is] defined by one of its leading proponents, Corliss Lamont, as “a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion.” Modern Humanism has a dual origin, both secular and religious, and these constitute its sub-categories” (Fred Edwords, “What is Humanism,” American Humanist Association, last updated 2008, accessed March 19, 2016, americanhumanist.org).

Sarah Bolton: “Hoosier Poetess” and Women’s Rights Advocate

Bolton Graphic
Black and white image of Sarah Bolton, image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

Women’s rights advocate, poet, and author of “Paddle Your Own Canoe” and “Indiana,” Sarah Tittle Barrett was born in Newport, Kentucky circa 1814. Commonly known as Sarah Bolton, she moved to Indiana as a young child, when much of the state was still unsettled. According to the Life and Poems of Sarah T. Bolton, while growing up on her family’s farm near Vernon, she was exposed to the pioneer experience, living in a log house and clearing the fields.

The Life and Poems of Sarah T. Bolton reports that she published her first poem in the Madison Banner when she was not yet fourteen and that she later wrote regularly for the papers of Madison and nearby Cincinnati. Bolton authored over 150 poems during her lifetime, many of which were featured in newspapers across the country. Her writings were included in numerous anthologies in the 1800s and 1900s, and several of the melodic verses were set to music, including Bolton’s “Indiana.”

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Musical score, 1912, image courtesy of Charlestown-Clark County Public Library, Indiana Memory Digital Collections.

In 1831, she married Indianapolis Gazette co-editor Nathaniel Bolton and the couple moved from Madison to Marion County, Indiana soon after. Between 1836 and 1845, they owned and operated a tavern, “Mt. Jackson,” on the National Road. In 1845, the Boltons sold their property to the State and it eventually became the site of the Indiana Hospital for the Insane, later renamed the Central State Hospital.* While in Indianapolis, Sarah’s poetry output continued to increase, and she wrote some of her most popular works there. She lived in the city for many years by the time she became involved in the women’s rights movement.

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Robert Dale Owen, ca. 1840s, image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Research Information System.

Bolton aided social reformer Robert Dale Owen in his fight for women’s rights of personal property in the 1850 State Constitutional Convention. Owen sought to add a provision to the new constitution that would allow women to retain control of their personal property after they entered into the contract of marriage. Bolton wrote letters to women across the state to build support for the movement, but Owen’s measure was voted down.

Bolton summarized her involvement in the effort to secure personal property rights for married women in a letter to William Wesley Woollen, stating:

“I was writing articles setting forth the grievances resulting from women’s status, as under the common law, and the necessity of reform and scattering these articles through the newspapers, over the state to make public opinion. At length the measure passed, but was reconsidered and voted down. Then we rallied the few women who were in favor of it and went to the Convention in a body to electioneer with the members. The measure was brought up and passed again, reconsidered the next day & again voted down. This, to the best of my recollection, was repeated five or six times before it was finally lost.”

In a July 6, 1851 letter to Bolton, Owen credited her efforts, stating “by dint of perseverance through many obstacles, you have so efficiently contributed to the good cause of the property rights of your sex.” Decades later Bolton reflected on her work, writing in 1882 “I am not a ‘woman’s rights woman’ in the common acceptation of the phrase. I have taken no part in the present crusade, but am proud of my action in that long ago battle for the property rights of my sisters.”

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Orphan’s Lament or, I’m Standing by your Grave Mother, ca. 1855, image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

In 1855, Bolton’s husband was confirmed as Consul to Geneva, Switzerland, and she spent the next three years dividing her time between Missouri and Europe. She spent her final years, 1871-1893, at her home “Beech Bank” in the community of Beech Grove, focusing on her family and writing. Bolton died August 4, 1893 and was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery. The legacy of the “Hoosier poetess” endures through her poetry, such as “Paddle Your Own Canoe,” which has been translated into several languages and sung around the world.

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Sarah T. Bolton, Paddle Your Own Canoe and Other Poems (1897), courtesy of Hathi Trust Digital Library.

Learn more about Sarah Bolton from the sources cited in this IHB report, and plan a visit to Bolton’s historical marker.

*IHB staff is currently conducting research for a Central State Hospital marker. Stay tuned to learn more!

Ambrose Bierce and 19th Century Freethought

See part one, Ambrose Bierce: The Evanescent Man, to learn about Ambrose Bierce’s early life in Indiana and how the Civil War influenced his literary work.

Ambrose Bierce (Left) had an intellectual kinship with the orator and freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll (Right). Courtesy of Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley and Indiana Memory.
Ambrose Bierce (Left) had an intellectual kinship with the orator and freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll (Right). Images courtesy of Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley and Indiana Memory.

While Bierce’s journalism and short stories garnered serious acclaim, his outspoken views on religion often made him notorious. Bierce’s own agnosticism aligned with another iconoclast of the period: Robert Green Ingersoll. Known as the “Great Agnostic,” Ingersoll was an Illinois politician and lawyer who had a lucrative career in oratory.  He gave sold-out speeches all across the country, including Indiana, that were critical of religion, Christianity, and superstition. While there is no evidence to suggest that he and Bierce met, their paths crossed numerous times in literary endeavors and their counter-cultural thinking became an indelible part of 19th century Freethought (broadly understood during the period as an open, reasoned evaluation of religion and spirituality).

Robert Green Ingersoll was one of the most well-known freethinkers of his era. His views on religion and spirituality often mirrored Bierce's ideas. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Robert Green Ingersoll was one of the best known freethinkers of his era. His views on religion and spirituality often mirrored Bierce’s ideas. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In his essay, “A Dead Lion,” Bierce defended the agnostic orator and responded to his critics. When Ingersoll died in 1899, religious and intellectual leaders all over the country paid their respects to the infidel, but they also continued their criticisms. One such scholar was Harry Thurston Peck, who argued that Ingersoll’s limitations as an intellect overshadowed his prowess as a public orator. Undercutting Peck’s opprobrium, Bierce defended Ingersoll with some clever barbs at religion. “If men can be good without religion, and scorning religion,” as Bierce wrote in the aforementioned essay, “then it is not religion that makes men good; and if religion does not do this it is of no practical value and one may well be without it as with it, so far as concern’s one’s relations with one’s fellow men.”

Of Ingersoll’s own wit, Bierce argued that it was, “keen, bright, and clean as an Arab’s scimitar.” While his pessimism may have rankled Ingersoll’s more utopian proclivities, Bierce’s essay does show a deep intellectual kinship between the two.

Literature scholar Harry Thurston Peck was a vocal critic of Robert Ingersoll. Bierce responded to Peck's criticism pf the Great Agnostic in his essay, "A Dead Lion." Courtesy of Google Books.
Literature scholar Harry Thurston Peck was a vocal critic of Robert Ingersoll. Bierce responded to Peck’s criticism of the Great Agnostic in his essay, “A Dead Lion.” Image courtesy of Internet Archive.

Another interesting connection between the two agnostics was their position on suicide. Both of them favored the practice based on what they described as ethical and reasonable conditions. In his 1894 essay, “Is Suicide a Sin?,” Ingersoll says unequivocally that “there are many cases of perfectly justifiable suicide—cases in which not to end life would be a mistake, sometimes almost a crime.”  Bierce’s essay, “The Right to Take Oneself Off,” echoes many of Ingersoll’s sentiments. In one passage, Bierce defends Ingersoll’s position:

It was Robert G. Ingersoll’s opinion that there is rather too little than too much suicide in the world—that people are so cowardly as to live on after endurance has ceased to be a virtue. This view is but a return to the wisdom of the ancients, in whose splendid civilization suicide had as honorable place as any other courageous, reasonable, and unselfish act.

Both Ingersoll and Bierce’s essays reflected a secular, humanistic view of ethics, one that divorces human actions and contexts from the religious beliefs of the past. In some respects, this put both men quite ahead of their time.

"A Dead Lion" (Right) displayed Bierce's respect for Robert Ingersoll's views. His essay on suicide , "The Right to Take Oneself Off, appeared in The Shadow of the Dial and Other Essays (Left). Courtesy of Internet Archive.
“A Dead Lion” (Right) displayed Bierce’s respect for Robert Ingersoll’s views. His essay on suicide , “The Right to Take Oneself Off,” appeared in The Shadow of the Dial and Other Essays (Left). Images courtesy of Internet Archive.

Bierce also held irreverent views on life after death. In an essay entitled “Not All Men Desire Immortality,” Bierce decries the spiritualism of his time, albeit with clever quips such as: “If we have among us one who can put over a blaze by looking at it, the matter may not have any visible bearing on the question of life after death, but it is of the liveliest interest to the Fire Department.” Bierce contemplated questions of the afterlife and spirituality as a skeptic, noting that they are “still as much a matter of faith as ever it was.” In other words, he had to see it to believe it.

Above all else, the lasting legacy of Ambrose Bierce’s free thought and connection to Ingersoll is arguably The Devil’s Dictionary, published in 1911. Originally released as The Cynic’s Word Book in 1906, The Devil’s Dictionary displays Bierce’s heretical nature in economical, but clever definitions. Some entries in his lexicon include, “Apostate: A leech who, having penetrated the shell of a turtle only to find that the creature has long been dead, deems it expedient to form a new attachment to a fresh turtle,” and, “Clergyman: A man who undertakes the management of our spiritual affairs as a method of bettering our temporal ones.” He would often include poems or short story fragments with his definitions, with funny pseudonyms like “Father Gassalasca Jape” and “Booley Fito.” Selected entries also appeared in newspapers throughout the country, and its controversial definitions even inspired critical lectures by clergymen. This work influenced journalist and fellow iconoclast H. L. Mencken, who wrote clever “definitions” in his own columns and newspapers.

The Devil's Dictionary, published in 1911, displays Bierce's wit and sardonic humor about life, society, and religion. Image courtesy of Internet Archive.
The Devil’s Dictionary, published in 1911, displays Bierce’s wit and sardonic humor about life, society, and religion. Image courtesy of Internet Archive.

Ambrose Bierce’s life and literary work speaks to an era of “lost souls,” men whose lives were shaped, or shattered, by the Civil War. Some veterans discovered interests in the spiritual, like Ben-Hur author and fellow Hoosier Lew Wallace. Others, like Bierce and Ingersoll, saw it as their life’s mission to destroy myths and comfortable illusions that crept through their society like a plague. Gifted with the power of prose, Bierce’s incisive and often tragically-hilarious writings showcase a man deeply in-synch with his own convictions. Bierce never believed in a personal immortality, but his writing’s enduring appeal has given him an immortality he may have never imagined.

 

Ambrose Bierce: The Evanescent Man

Ambrose Bierce by J.H.E. Partington. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
Ambrose Bierce by J.H.E. Partington. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

The history of American letters overflows with stories of eccentric characters, both from the pages and their authors. One particular author whose unique view of the world shaped his writings and his lifestyle was Hoosier Ambrose Bierce. Like Mark Twain, Bierce is usually associated with the San Francisco writing scene of the late-19th century. However, he spent many of his formative years in Indiana, learning about the newspaper business and ultimately enlisting in the Civil War. These early experiences not only shaped his incomparable writing style, but they influenced his distinctive views about life and religion.

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born June 24, 1842 in Horse Cave Creek, Ohio. Bierce’s early life, after he and his family moved to Indiana, remains shrouded in mystery. Some sources indicate that the Bierce family moved to Kosciusko County in 1846, but it is hard to verify. Bierce reportedly lived on the family’s settlement in Walnut Creek until he was 15, when he moved to Warsaw to work as a “printer’s devil” (an apprentice tasked with multiple duties) for the Republican newspaper, the Northern Indianan. Reportedly, Bierce also traveled to Kentucky in 1859-60, learning typography at the Kentucky Military Institute.

After returning from Kentucky, Bierce reportedly lived in Elkhart from 1860-1861. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Bierce enlisted in Company C of the Ninth Indiana Regiment in April 1861 and served as a private for three months. He was promoted to Sergeant in July 1861, when he reenlisted for a three year term. His upgrade in rank came as a result of his valor during the Battle of Laurel Hill on July 10, 1861. He was wounded at Kennesaw Mountain in 1864 and eventually opted not to reenlist, mustering out in January 1865 with the rank of First Lieutenant. Bierce’s intense and often painful experiences during his service in the Civil War inspired much of his literary work, particularly his short fiction and journalism.

Company A, 9th Indiana Infantry. Photograph by Matthew Brady. Courtesy of U .S. National Records and Archives Administration.
Company A, 9th Indiana Infantry. Photograph by Matthew Brady. Courtesy of U .S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Bierce began his journalism career in 1867, writing poems and essays for the Californian and Golden Era, under newspaper editor James T. Watkins. From 1868-1872, Bierce wrote a local column for the San Francisco News Letter called the “Town Crier.” One critic referred to his writing as “humor [that] borders as nearly upon the blasphemous and sacrilegious as that of Swift or Sterne.” Another review considered his early works, “The Haunted Valley” and “Broke,” as offbeat pieces that showed his “capacity, acute observation, and descriptive powers of very unusual simplicity, grace, and effectiveness.”

For the next three years, Bierce lived and worked in England, under the pseudonym “Dod Grile.” The origins of his unorthodox pen name came from an 1872 letter, written by a friend and early employer of Bierce in England named Tom Hood, who addressed Bierce as “Dear God Rile.” Bierce used an anagram of it, “Dod Grile,” as a pen name while in England. As biographer Roy Morris speculates, Bierce may have chosen this simple name as a way to attract readers, same as Samuel Clemens did with “Mark Twain.”

Bierce’s columns appeared in English and American newspapers. Bierce also published three collected humor works while in Great Britain; his most successful was Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, published in 1873. Prominent advertisements and reviews in This Week’s News and Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper solidified their modest success.

A lithograph of the devil from Cobwebs from an Empty Skull. Courtesy of Internet Archive.
A lithograph of the devil from Cobwebs from an Empty Skull. Courtesy of Internet Archive.

After his time in England, Bierce returned to California and began work at the Argonaut and the Wasp and established his successful column, “Prattle.”  This column gave Bierce a platform to express his views on politics, current events, literature, and history, often with a humorous slant. As an example, this short quip about a millionaire’s dining habits appeared in the March 13, 1886 issue of the Wasp:

There is a man in San Francisco—a millionaire who has revived a very ancient custom, I am told. This gentleman is rather fond of dining people at his house—mostly men. Between the courses, now and then during the meal, he introduces various uncouth monsters, whose antics are supposed to amuse and edify the guests. I am told they don’t. A friend of mine has asked me to complain of the infliction—which I willingly do, although it is not the simplest method of relief that my friend could have thought out. If he does not relish monsters with his dinner why does he not dine at home and ask to have the monsters sent over to him afterward, as a separate entertainment?

By 1898, Bierce renamed his column “War Topics” and wrote mostly of his early support and subsequent ambivalence regarding the Spanish-American War.

In 1887, he worked for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst at the San Francisco Examiner. Like in Britain, Bierce’s columns were nationally syndicated, in outlets like the Wichita Eagle, The Louisiana Democrat, and the Washington Herald. Even though Hearst gave Bierce nearly complete editorial freedom, a growing antagonism existed between them. This may have been due to Bierce’s disgust with some of Hearst’s other journalists, specifically after 1906. Bierce formally left the employ of Hearst in March of 1909 to focus on compiling his collected works and memoirs.

In 1891, he compiled many of his Civil War tales into Tales of Soldiers and Civilians.  The book included “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which Hoosier satirist Kurt Vonnegut called the “greatest American Short Story.”  The widely anthologized tale excellently displays Bierce’s style and grasp of the complexities of war.  Film maker Robert Enrico adapted the story into an Academy Award winning short film (1963), which Rod Serling subsequently used as a Twilight Zone episode.

In this excerpt from “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Bierce reflects on death in war:

Death is a dignitary who, when he comes announced, is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.

 Many reviewers praised the Tales of Soldiers and Civilians after its publication. A New York Tribune reviewer noted, Bierce’s stories are “elaborated pictures of what the American soldier actually experienced in the great war [Civil War].” New Orleans’ Daily Picayune called Bierce a “genius” and considered the anthology the “most noteworthy book of stories by an American writer published in ten years.”

Title page of Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. Courtesy of Internet Archive.
Title page of Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. Courtesy of Internet Archive.

It is somewhat fitting that an author known for his unexpected plot twists would have a surprise coda to his own life.  Bierce’s mysterious disappearance in 1914 proved to be as complicated as his early years in Indiana. After his last letters to family and friends in 1913, there is only one primary source (a letter to a friend) that suggests that he went to Mexico. The other indication that he was headed that way is in letters from the fall and winter of 1913, where he repeatedly describes his future trip to Mexico. His final letter to a family member, dated November 6, 1913, notes that “I shall not be here long enough to hear from you, and don’t know where I shall be next. Guess it doesn’t matter much.” However, a letter from December 26, 1913 to friend Blanche Partington places him in Chihuahua, Mexico but the last sentence of the letter leaves it more ambiguous: “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”

Based on the evidence of this last letter, Bierce possibly went to Mexico, but as investigator Joe Nickell notes, this supposed last letter attributed to Bierce, and preserved by his daughter, is probable at best. Therefore, it is more likely that he disappeared after 1914 and that the claim that he went to Mexico is plausible but not confirmed, based on his letters from late 1913. Bierce’s “death” was as elusive as the man himself.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and Other Stories by Ambrose Bierce is available at the Indiana Historical Bureau book shop.

Visit Part Two to learn about Bierce’s connection to 19th-century freethought.